By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
As tempting as it might be to paint the Medici as the enemies of liberty, as antirepublican villains, such a portrait would be misleading. Like all of us, the Medici, as individuals and as a family were complex; possessed of both altruism and singular self-interest. Under their leadership and patronage, Florence, their native city, became the unparalleled jewel of Europe. It all began with the founder of the Medici Family: Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici.
Giovanni: Founder of the Medici Family
Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici was the first member of a dynasty who would, in time, become not only the hereditary rulers of Florence, but also the wealthiest in Europe.
There are references to the members of the Medici family being active in Florence as early as 1201, and interestingly, at the time of Giovanni’s birth in 1360, there were seven lines of the Medici family living in Florence and more broadly, in Tuscany. How then can Giovanni be referred to as the founder of his family?
Well, first we must dispense with our contemporary notions of ‘family’. In Medieval and early Renaissance Florence, the word family did include a husband, wife, and children, but it also entailed a good deal more.
When we scour various histories, chronicles, diaries and governmental documents written by Florentines in the 13th and early 14th centuries, we find that the diverse Medici were often in competition with one another. They tended toward radical politics.
Some were even brawlers and murderers. Numerous Medici were executed for such activities, and still more were sent into exile. Though a rambunctious and disunited group of individuals, they were, however, generally well-liked by Florence’s working poor.
Reviled by the Aristocracy
The Medici’s inability to unite and to manage their public presentation, combined with the support that some members had gained from Florence’s poor working class, meant that they were often reviled by the city’s respectable aristocracy.
In contrast, the Albizzi, the Strozzi and the Guicciardini families—to name only three—were similarly large, consisting of many different lineages, but they worked closely together to present a unified public image of civic-minded gravitas.
While competitiveness and squabbling between the various branches of these families was common, such issues were dealt with privately, behind gargantuan palace doors. Medici family troubles, on the other hand, were all too public.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Medici Bank
These facts, in large part, explain why Vieri de’ Medici sent his nephew Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici to apprentice at his family bank in Rome. That ancient city provided a new landscape—one that wasn’t biased against the Medici name.
Giovanni mastered the craft of banking, and he honed his political acumen in the crucible of international politics that engulfed the papal court, which remained in schismatic turmoil.
When Vieri retired in 1393, he placed the management of his bank and its numerous offices in Giovanni’s skilled hands; and when Vieri died in 1395, Giovanni became the head of the bank. In 1397, Giovanni returned to Florence from Rome, and founded the Medici Bank in his native city.
Two Main Partners
While it’s tempting to imagine Giovanni as a singular financial and political virtuoso, mirages of that sort aren’t helpful in the discipline of history. His banking empire couldn’t have operated without partners who were themselves already commercially successful.
At his bank’s inception, Giovanni had two main partners. The first, Benedetto de’ Bardi, remained in Rome, where he ran the branch of the Medici Bank that was tied directly with the Papal Court. The second was Gentile di Baldassare Buoni, a Pisan banker, who moved to Florence to join the new Medici enterprise.
All three partners contributed capital investments, which gave the Medici Bank the ability to begin making loans of its own. Giovanni supplied 5,500 florins, while Benedetto de’ Bardi and Gentile Buoni furnished 2,000 and 2,500 florins, respectively.
When we consider that the average salary for a bookkeeper in the Medici Bank was roughly 50 florins a year, we realize that Giovanni’s 5,500 florin investment equalled 110 years of a bookkeeper’s pay.
Changes in Partnership
However, within a few months, Buoni found himself unable to come up with the full 2,500 florins that he was contracted to deposit in the new bank.
Giovanni fired him; a decision that proved wise because Buoni had bluffed his way into the partnership. In fact, he proved himself to be a poor businessman and died in debtors’ prison in Florence in 1427.
Bardi, on the other hand, possessed a keen business mind, and Giovanni kept him on as a junior partner.
While Bardi’s initial capital investment remained at 2,000 florins, Giovanni increased his to 6,000, partially offsetting the funds that Buoni had failed to contribute.
Investment and Expansion
The two men began a program of investment and expansion. The Medici bank opened a successful branch in Venice, and its Roman branch opened additional banks in Naples and Gaeta. In theory, those southern Italian branches operated independently from the main bank at Florence, but, as Giovanni was the largest investor in them, he was considered a powerful silent partner.
Giovanni’s branch managers were required to provide capital investment to the branches they oversaw—1,000 florins was considered a minimum investment. Thereafter, they did not receive a traditional salary. Rather, they were paid 25% of the branch’s yearly profits. The remainder was divided between Giovanni and Bardi.
Common Questions about Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and the Medici Bank
Vieri de’ Medici sent his nephew Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici to apprentice at his family bank in Rome. In Florence, the Medici family were often reviled by the city’s respectable aristocracy. Rome provided a new landscape—one that wasn’t biased against the Medici name.
When Vieri de’ Medici retired in 1393, he placed the management of his bank and its numerous offices in Giovanni’s skilled hands; and when Vieri died in 1395, Giovanni became the head of the bank.
At his bank’s inception, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici had two main partners: Benedetto de’ Bardi and Gentile di Baldassare Buoni.