Florence’s Transformation under Ferdinando de’ Medici


By William LandonNorthern Kentucky University

Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici was installed as the Duke of Tuscany on October 19, 1587—the same day his brother, Francesco de’ Medici, passed away. It is doubtful Ferdinando had ever seriously considered the possibility that he might be called upon to reenter the secular world as the Grand Duke of his native Florence, and of Tuscany.

Illustration of Ferdinando de’ Medici
Ferdinando de’ Medici probably didn’t even think about the probability of becoming the Grand Duke of Tuscany until the day his brother died. (Image: Rijksmuseum/Public domain)

Ferdinando: A ‘Churchman’

Ferdinando, who was elevated to the cardinalate at the age of 14, had sunk himself into understanding the inner workings of the ‘spiritual world’—a term that requires some qualification.

The Roman Church’s hierarchy mirrored that of the largest royal courts of Europe. It had its own bank and bankers, its own ambassadorial core, its own lawyers, its own courtly protocols; it was populated with well-born and keenly intelligent cardinals such as Ferdinando and, of course, it had its own monarch—the pope.

Most of the men in the upper echelons of the Church’s power structure had been elevated via agreements between their powerful families and the pontiff. Giovanni and Giulio de’ Medici were made cardinals in this fashion. Ferdinando was elevated similarly. Technically, they were all ‘churchmen’, but most would have been better suited to run secular governments.

As his ancestors before him had done, Ferdinando sank himself into the study of power, the art of negotiation, and the skill of persuasion. All of these he applied at Rome with articulate vigor. And, ironically, these attributes prepared him to lead Florence when Francesco died.

Ferdinando de’ Medici: Cardinal and Grand Duke of Tuscany

Portrait of Ferdinando de’ Medici
Ferdinando de’ Medici had to give up his cardinal office so he could marry. (Image: Uffizi/Public domain)

Ferdinando had never taken a priestly vow. Yes, it was entirely possible not to be a priest and still to be a cardinal. But contemporary reports suggest that Ferdinando was, in fact, a very decent human being, and one who believed and acted in accordance with the seriousness of his spiritual rank.

When Cardinal Ferdinando assumed the title Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1587, he kept both titles—cardinal and grand duke—for two years. In 1589, he gave up his cardinal’s office in exchange for the hand of Christine of Lorraine—his distant cousin and the granddaughter of Catherine de’ Medici. 

The long-serving queen of France sought to realign Florence’s international policy with France. This marriage was not only possible but quite easy, as Ferdinando had never taken a priestly vow of celibacy. Their marriage was long and without serious scandal, and, of greater dynastic importance, as it produced an heir who carried on the Medici dynasty.

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Economic and Academic Booms

Ferdinando’s fondness for his native city bore immediate fruit. Rather than seeking to expand his territorial holdings, he focused his efforts on alleviating the tax burdens that Cosimo and Francesco had levied on Florence’s business owners. This spawned an economic boom and a revitalization of Florence and Tuscany more broadly.

Ferdinando also set about undoing many of the despotic judicial reforms. With more liquidity and with greater freedom, the Florentines entered into a new period of prosperity and intellectual inquisitiveness.

For example, Ferdinando funded Florentine missions to the Amazon, seeking potential places for overseas colonies. And he funded the Professor’s Chair filled by Galileo Galilei at the University of Pisa, which was part of the Florentine state.

Perhaps most importantly of all, at least where the Medici family was concerned, Ferdinando returned his attention to the family bank. Under his guidance, the many branches of the bank that had been closed or had fallen into obscurity came roaring back to life.

And, through the connections with Catherine de’ Medici, the Medici bank became directly associated with the French monarchy—meaning that the French government became indebted to Florence and the Medici.

Transforming Florence’s Architectural Landscape

Ferdinando also commissioned massive public sculptures to decorate the city’s public squares, the finalization of the Vasari Corridor, as it is commonly known today, the gigantic murals in the Palazzo Vecchio commemorating the Medici’s contributions to Florentine history, and the erection of the Medici tomb at San Lorenzo (not to be confused with Michelangelo’s tomb that served as the resting place of earlier Medici lords).

Painting of 16th century Florence
Ferdinando de’ Medici’s actions ultimately led to an economic boom in Florence and also a change in the city’s skyline. (Image: Georg Braun; Frans Hogenberg/Public domain)

He transformed the city’s skyline and its artistic and architectural landscape on a scale that arguably had not been attempted since the first half of the 15th century. He reinvigorated Florentine civic pride—and he linked it with Medici rule.

Ferdinando also financed massive engineering works, which drained malarial swampland across Tuscany, creating newly arable land. And he ordered the construction of numerous canals and the widening of roads that would make the transport of Florentine goods to the Mediterranean ports of Pisa and Livorno much easier. 

Ferdinando’s investments, patronage, and business acumen had helped to produce a happy situation in Florence and Tuscany. All levels of society had become essentially linked to the Medici family and its prosperity. The city that had once been so vehemently republican had gleefully come, at long last, to welcome the Medici as its hereditary lord.

Common Questions about Florence’s Transformation under Ferdinando de’ Medici

Q: In what way was Ferdinando de’ Medici ready to lead Florence after his brother’s death?

Ferdinando de’ Medici started a journey into the spiritual world at the age of 14. Because of the structure of the church, he had started to learn the art of negotiation and persuasion. These skills came in handy when he had the opportunity to lead Florence.

Q: Why did Ferdinando de’ Medici give up his cardinal office?

Though Ferdinando de’ Medici was a cardinal, he hadn’t taken a priestly vow. He was a cardinal and the Grand Duke of Tuscany simultaneously for two years but he gave up his cardinal office in order to marry.

Q: How did Ferdinando de’ Medici affect Florence’s economy?

Ferdinando de’ Medici‘s economic policies greatly affected Florence in a positive manner. He focused on alleviating tax burdens, which helped spark an economic boom in Florence. He also focused on managing the Medici bank and undoing many despotic judicial reforms from the past.

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