By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici was the first member of a family who would, in time, become not only the dynastic rulers of Florence, but also the richest in Europe. With Florence’s growing importance as a peninsular power, and as a center of international trade and commerce, his banking career soared new heights.
Banking Capital of Europe
Giovanni and his partner, Benedetto de’ Bardi, had reinvested many of their profits back into the Medici Bank. They also agreed that financial diversification was necessary. Thus, their bank’s main branch at Florence bought two wool processing shops. This allowed the partners to become members of the Wool Merchants’ guild, in addition to their membership in the Bankers’ Guild.
In order to extend their influence further, they also bought properties in Florence and in the Medici family’s ancestral Mugello—a mountainous Tuscan region to the North of Florence.
One of the questions historians struggle with is why, when Rome was the seat of so much power in the early Renaissance, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici decided to make Florence the home of the main branch of his bank?
The best answer, among many plausible ones, is that Florence, by roughly 1400, was becoming the banking capital of Europe. The Florentine Republican government was, as one might say today, more ‘business friendly’ than Rome.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Medici Bank at Rome
However, the Medici Bank at Rome remained incredibly important. This was so because Giovanni’s Roman branch of the bank became the papacy’s private, non-curial, investment institution.
Giovanni’s capital financed the papal election of the antipope John XXIII, who was, quite literally, a pirate; and it backed the election of Pope Martin V in 1417, at the Council of Constance, which brought an end to the papal schism and saw John XXIII deposed and imprisoned.
What is interesting is the fact that Giovanni was able to change his papal allegiances fluidly. It illustrated that he was politically savvy. He knew when to cut his losses, and when to go all in.
Giovanni’s Rise through Ranks of Governmental Power
In the early years of the 15th century, Giovanni had become one of the wealthiest man in Florence. Yet, he remained in quiet but constant contact with Florence’s working poor and Florence’s powerful guild networks. Furthermore, as men of his wealth did, he began to participate actively in the Florentine government.
Giovanni was elected to many important offices, and, despite his cautious temperament, careful use of language, and apparent disinterest in acquiring honors from the Florentine government, he rose through the ranks of governmental power.
Giovanni was first elected to the Signoria (Florence’s largest governing body) in 1402. Over the next two decades he served as Florentine emissary to Venice, as ambassador to the antipope John XXIII, governor of the Florentine-controlled city of Pistoia, a member of the ‘Dieci di Balìa’ (a ten-man wartime advisory commission), and gonfaloniere of justice—the most prestigious elected position in Florence.
And, as late as 1424, he was sent again as the Florentine emissary to Venice.
However, Giovanni’s steady rise was shadowed by nearly two decades of martial turmoil. The Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had been set on acquiring Florence for several years, but his campaigns against the Tuscan city were halted as a result of his death.
Florence then set out on an expedition of its own—taking the port city of Pisa in 1406—giving Florence direct access to the Mediterranean’s maritime trade routes and initiating a series of wars with Pisa that lasted over a century.
Following the wars with Pisa, Florence was threatened by the Kingdom of Naples—which had its eyes set on the trading center of Genoa. By yet another stroke of luck, the Florentines escaped what would have almost certainly been a defeat. The Neopolitan king, Ladsilao, died in 1414, bringing an end to hostilities.
Giovanni’s increasing esteem was reflected on a grander scale in Florence’s growing importance as a peninsular power, and as a center of international trade and commerce, which were frequently funded by Giovanni’s bank. He was methodically and quietly gathering power and adherents who looked to him, rather than to their native city, for protection and status.
Patronage of the Arts
Outside of his political and economic spheres of influence, Giovanni de’ Medici used his wealth in patronage of the arts, which one might argue he subsidized to expand his political and economic influence by influencing the public’s imagination.
However, history has left us few specifics regarding Giovanni’s thoughts concerned with that patronage or Renaissance art more broadly. We do know, however, that he was actively involved in supporting the sculptural innovations of Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, three artists who rivaled and eventually surpassed the output of ancient Rome not only in their representational abilities but also in their technical mastery of bronze-work and architectural design and implementation.
Giovanni seems to have had an uncanny ability to spot artistic talent, which he patronized—making artists his clients. The works of genius these patron-client relationships produced became monuments to Giovanni’s meticulous investment strategies, and his good taste. By extension, they also became symbols of Medici-funded Florentine greatness.
Common Questions about Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici’s Influences in Economic, Political, and Art Worlds
The Medici Bank at Rome remained incredibly important as Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici’s Roman branch of the bank became the papacy’s private, non-curial, investment institution.
The Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had been set on acquiring Florence for several years, but his campaigns against the Tuscan city were halted as a result of his death.
Outside of his political and economic spheres of influence, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici used his wealth in patronage of the arts. He seems to have had an uncanny ability to spot artistic talent, which he patronized—making artists his clients.