Merchant princes: 13th - 15th century AD

The Medici are the first princely dynasty to win their status not by warfare, marriage or inheritance but through commerce. They come to Florence in the 12th century from the nearby countryside. Their ancestral home is in the Mugello valley.

During the next two centuries the family, amassing a fortune through Banking and trade, begins also to play a prominent part in Florence's political life. As yet the Medici are merely one among several similarly influential families. Their special status derives from the activities in the early 15th century of Giovanni - known as Giovanni di Bicci.

Giovanni di Bicci increases the Medici wealth to unprecedented levels. He also uses it discreetly for political purposes in a manner which will be perfected by his son, Cosimo.

Cosimo de' Medici earns for himself the posthumous title pater patriae ('father of the fatherland'). It acknowledges his great contribution to the enhanced status of Florence. But it also contains, to modern ears, a hint of the method behind his power - with its echo of a mafia godfather. Cosimo never occupies an official position as head of state. He remains a private citizen, running affairs by a network of behind-the-scenes alliances which benefit his own faction and ruin his enemies.

Pater patriae: AD 1434-1464

From 1434 Cosimo de' Medici is unmistakably the most powerful man in Florence, even though his family's cause has suffered a severe setback in the previous year. In 1433 he is arrested by a rival faction. Bribes and well-placed friends save him from death. He is exiled for ten years, but from Venice he controls a Florentine party working for his return. It is only a year before they succeed. Cosimo is invited back, and his rivals are banished - more effectively - for life.

During a reign of 30 years, Cosimo uses his fortune to maintain absolute control over the internal affairs of Florence. Opponents find themselves squeezed to financial extinction.

Within the city this control is discreet. Outside, in relations with other powers, it is generally acknowledged that Cosimo is the ruler of Florence - by now a city state of considerable significance.

The expansion of Florentine control over the surrounding region accelerates before and during Cosimo's lifetime. Arezzo falls to a Florentine army in 1384. Pisa, a great prize, is taken in 1406. Livorno, of immense value as a seaport, is purchased in 1421.

These expansionist tendencies are mirrored by similar appetites in powerful neighbours to the north, Milan and Venice. Of the two Milan, at the turn of the century, is the more aggressive under the leadership of Gian galeazzo Visconti. In 1402 Gian galeazzo's sudden death saves Florence at the last moment from attack and probable capture by a Milanese army.

Four decades later, under Cosimo's leadership, Florence has her revenge. The Visconti are decisively defeated at Anghiari in 1440.

The defeat of the Milanese at Anghiari is soon followed by the end of the Visconti dynasty. The next ruler in Milan (from 1450) is a soldier of fortune, Francesco Sforza. Cosimo de' Medici now reverses the previous Florentine policy and makes an alliance with Milan (Sforza happens also to be a customer of the Medici bank). This is practical diplomacy between calculating statesmen. The encroachments of Venice are now seen by both rulers as the main threat in northern Italy.

Cosimo is interested in maintaining a balance of power between the Italian states, enabling commerce and the arts of peace to flourish in Florence. In this policy he is remarkably successful.

City of learning: 15th century AD

Florentine leadership in the arts is well established by the time of Cosimo's rise to power in 1434. His patronage brings much work to the city's painters, sculptors and architects. But he also greatly encourages another strand of the Renaissance in which Florence plays a major role - the scholarship of Humanism.

This city, in which Petrarch first inspires Boccaccio with a love of the classics in 1350, already has a clear distinction in this field. Cosimo, who develops a passion for scholarly studies, has a firm foundation to build upon.

Cosimo founds three libraries in Florence, the greatest of them being the collection of books and manuscripts now known as the Laurentian library (because it is housed next to the church of San Lorenzo). It is during these same years that Cosimo's friend, the humanist pope Nicholas v, establishes the Vatican library.

The interest of both men extends beyond the Roman theme of the early Renaissance. They are fascinated also by the ideals of ancient Greece, and in particular by the philosophy of Plato.

Reliable manuscripts of Plato first become available in the west during Cosimo's lifetime. They are brought from Constantinople by Greek Orthodox churchmen and by Byzantine scholars, whose city is now under increasing Threat from the turks. In 1439 Florence has first-hand experience of these eastern scholars. At Cosimo's invitation, a council of the church moves from Ferrara to Florence to continue a debate between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clerics on their long-standing Doctrinal differences.

The rival churches eventually fail to agree. But the interest of Cosimo and of Florence in Greek culture is increased by the encounter.

Towards the end of his life Cosimo conceives a personal ambition to read all the works of Plato. He commissions their translation into Latin by a Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino. In 1462 he establishes an informal Platonic Academy in Florence, with Ficino at its head.

Ficino's Latin translation of the complete works of Plato is published in Florence in 1484, too late for Cosimo himself. But with the texts now widely available, Plato gradually recovers the leading role in philosophy which has been held since the time of Aquinas by Aristotle.

Ficino also translates many of the works of Neo-platonism, including everything written by Plotinus. The result is an attempt, beginning in Florence but widely influential, to find a synthesis between Neo-platonism and Christianity; Plato is seen as a Christian before his time. The mystical elements of Neo-platonism become one of the major themes of Renaissance thought and art.

A famous result of this influence is the work of Sandro Botticelli, who has links with Ficino and the Platonic Academy.

Lorenzo the Magnificent: AD 1469-1492

Cosimo de' Medici dies in 1464. He is succeeded for five years by his son Piero, on whose death the leading citizens of Florence invite Piero's son Lorenzo, aged only twenty, to occupy the same informal position as ruler of the city. Lorenzo accepts what seems now almost a hereditary role. But he lacks his grandfather's skill either in running the family bank or in using his wealth to neutralize opposing factions.

The result, in 1478, is a conspiracy which nearly ends his rule.

A plot against Lorenzo and his younger brother Guiliano is hatched by a dangerous coalition. The conspirators include the Pazzi family (rival bankers), the archbishop of Pisa (a city restless under Florentine control) and a nephew of the pope, Sixtus IV. The pope has recently transferred the papal account from the Medici bank to the Pazzi and would prefer a more docile ruler in Florence.

The plot involves sacrilege and murder. The Medici brothers are to be struck down as they kneel before the altar during high mass in the cathedral in Florence. The signal for the assassination is to be the raising of the host.

In the event Giuliano is killed by one of the Pazzi clan, but Lorenzo escapes with a wound after fighting his way out of the cathedral. Florence remains loyal to the Medici. The conspirators are rounded up. By nightfall three of the Pazzi, together with the archbishop of Pisa in his ecclesiastical attire, are hanging from windows of Florence's government building, the Signoria.

But this is not the end of the crisis. The pope excommunicates Lorenzo de' Medici and persuades the king of Naples, Ferdinand I, to mount an expedition against Florence. During 1479 war drags painfully on, with losses of territory and the expense of maintaining a mercenary army in the field.

In December 1479 Lorenzo takes a step so bold that it would justify in itself the phrase by which history knows him - Lorenzo the Magnificent (in reality Il Magnifico is a title given quite commonly at the time to non-princely rulers of states). He travels secretly with a small party to Naples, placing himself recklessly in the king's power.

He argues to Ferdinand I that warfare between Italian powers increases the likelihood of a French invasion (the French claim upon naples). Ferdinand is by now weary of a campaign more in the pope's interest than his own. Lorenzo returns to Florence with a peace treaty.

For the remaining twelve years of Lorenzo's life, Florence is stable and calm. But his proudest achievement, he writes in 1489, is an event of that year which could only have happened during the Renaissance papacy. He persuades the pope (by now Innocent VIII) to make his second son Giovanni a cardinal. Giovanni is thirteen.

In the long run Lorenzo is proved right. This event is of great significance in the Medici story. Giovanni becomes the first of two Medici popes, as Leo x, and the link with Rome greatly benefits the family. But in the shorter term, almost immediately after Lorenzo's death in 1492, the family fortunes crumble.

Piero and the exile of the Medici: AD 1492-1494

Lorenzo's son Piero is twenty in 1492 when he succeeds, without opposition, to his father's position of leadership in Florence. Lorenzo's relative inattention to the family bank means that Piero is the first Medici to attempt to control Florence without an ample supply of funds. And he lacks his father's diplomatic skills. Early in his reign he shows signs of abandoning Lorenzo's equal-handed relationship with Naples and Milan, inclining instead to Naples.

Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, fears a shift in the balance of power. He invites the king of France to march through his territory and to claim the Angevin throne of naples. The approach of the French king, Charles VIII, proves a disaster for Florence.

Charles VIII crosses the Alps in September 1494 with a massive army of 30,000 men. They pass peacefully through the territory of Milan and no doubt expect to do the same through Florence's Tuscan lands. France's quarrel is only with Naples.

But Florence has been recently identified as an ally of Naples. Sensing a crisis, the young Piero de' Medici imitates his father's famous act of personal diplomacy (his Visit in 1479 to the king of Naples). Without informing the signoria, the official government of Florence, Piero makes his way to the camp of the French king.

In this encounter between two inexperienced young rulers, both in their early twenties, the Frenchman has the better of the bargain. Charles VIII emphasizes that all he wants is an assurance of Florence's good will, but adds that a convincing token of this would be the delivery into French hands of several key castles together with the ports of Pisa and Livorno. The records suggest that the French are astonished when Piero agrees.

So, when they hear of it, are the signoria in Florence. They protest that Piero has no authority to cede these Florentine possesssions, but it is too late. The French enter Florence and occupy Pisa (glad to be rid of the Florentine yoke) before moving on south.

When Piero returns to Florence, he is summoned to appear before the signoria. He makes the mistake of doing so with an armed guard. The city's bell is tolled to call the people to the piazza. A mob ransacks the Medici palace.

Piero and his two brothers escape from the city. It is nearly twenty years before his family returns. Meanwhile Florence has a leader in waiting of a very different kind. The Dominican friar Savonarola is on hand to transform worldly Florence into an austere city of God.

The Medici and Tuscany: AD 1512-1737

The fall of Savonarola, in 1498, does not bring the immediate return of the Medici. That is achieved some years later through the family's influence in Rome. In 1512 Giovanni de' Medici (of whose appointment as a boy cardinal his father Lorenzo was so proud) persuades the pope to restore the Medici to their position in Florence. They return with the help of a Spanish army.

In 1513 Giovanni himself becomes pope, as Leo X. His reign lasts eight years. After a brief intervening papacy of less than two years, another Medici - a cousin of Giovanni's - is elected as Clement VII. He reigns for eleven years, to 1534.

So for nineteen years out of twenty-one, during a time of turbulence and crisis in Italy, members of the Medici family occupy the papal throne and can benefit from the military support of Rome's allies - in particular Spain.

In 1527 republicans in Florence once more eject their Medici rulers. This final attempt to be rid of the family collapses in 1530 after an eleven-month siege of the city by a Spanish army. From now on there is no more pretence that this city state is a republic. In 1532 a new constitution establishes Alessandro de' Medici as the hereditary duke of Florence.

The murder of Alessandro in 1537 causes the leadership of the family to be transferred in that year to Cosimo, a member of a junior branch. With his emergence, the Medici family and the city of Florence begin to acquire a new identity.

In 1569 the pope creates Cosimo grand duke of Tuscany. During his reign the region, with Florence as its capital, incorporates the great prize of Siena (from 1557). The grand duchy of Tuscany now takes its place among the great dynasties of Europe. Two women, Catherine and Marie de Medici, play powerful roles on the European stage as queen consorts and regents of France.

The inheritance passes down peacefully within the ruling Medici family, to son or brother, until Gian Gastone dies without an heir in 1737. Thereafter the grand duchy becomes attached to the imperial house of Austria (by the treaty of Vienna in 1738).

Florence and Tuscany undergo upheavals during the Italy, followed by restoration of the grand duchy in the early 19th century. The mid-century brings the successful struggle to be free of Austrian rule and the establishment of the independent kingdom of Italy - of which Florence is the provisional capital, from 1865, until Rome is captured in 1870.