Historians with preconceived notions can easily manipulate the evidence of the life we have left behind. You can be made to look holy or wicked. This is concretely illustrated in the history and historiography of the Medici family. Let’s find out how.
Myths about the Medici
The Medici have been the subject of hundreds of scholarly monographs, thousands of journal articles, and historical novels. And, more recently, films, theatrical productions and television programs. Almost all of these works somehow fit into what historians call the “Medici Myth”. This myth takes two forms – white and black.
Fundamentally, the myths about the Medici differ in political views. Those who support the white myth argue that without the Medici princely rule in Florence, the Renaissance as we know it today would never have happened.
Proponents of the black myth, on the contrary, argue that the dominance of the Medici family in civil politics destroyed the Florentine Republic. The freest form of political association since the golden age of Athens.
White myth tends to focus on the beauty of material culture left to posterity under the influence of the Medici. Black myth tends to wonder what was lost as a result of Medici rule. And how could the Renaissance develop in a free society.
If one shares the myth of good Medici, the Medici family is almost flawless. They were the entrepreneurs who invented the modern banking system. Profits from their banking ventures were used to create the visual world of the Italian Renaissance.
Their personal tastes, transmitted through their network of patronage, have funded some of the world’s greatest artists, architects and intellectuals.
And their political acumen brought Florence, a city of about 45,000 people, international influence. This influence led to four members of the Medici family being elevated to the papacy. And therefore allowed them to help create the world of European politics.
The white myth also suggests that when Republican sentiment broke out in Florence. As often happened in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Medici clan was challenged and unfairly expelled from their hometown.
Thus the ungrateful Republicans were to blame for holding back Florence’s dominance. What could only be achieved under the leadership of the Medici.
If, on the contrary, the black myth seems more convincing, then the Medici were guilty. That they used their wealth and influence to buy power in Florence until they were eventually able to control it.
For example, after a period of political stagnation in the late 14th century, the Medici fought their way out of the thorny Tuscan hinterland and from cities as remote as Rome back to Florence. And upon their return, they immediately began to use the capital from their newly created family bank to force their way into power in the young Florentine Republic.
By the beginning of the 15th century, the head of the Medici family was again elected to public office. He carefully tried to appear as a civic-minded Republican. Behind the scenes, however, as the Medici bank made loans to Florentines from all walks of life, they created a network of patronage. Which was literally indebted to the Medici family.
When the old families of Florence realized that the Medici had succeeded in taking political control of their city through an economic revolution. The Medici were rightfully sent into exile. Only to return with vengeance, having expelled numerous Florentine republicans in hateful malice. A cycle that repeated many times.
Until, finally, the Medicis, thanks to their international connections with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, dropped their last claims. To be citizens among equals, seizing power and ushering in centuries of tyranny.
Florence could not throw off the yoke of Medici domination until the middle of the 18th century. When the Medici family, who had controlled Florence since 1434, found themselves without a male heir. Florence fell into the hands of foreigners, but fortunately, for the supporters of the black myth, they were not Medici.
So both sides of the Medici myth contain real historical truths. But their goal is not to understand the Medici and their connections to Florence in a holistic way. It’s about supporting a specific agenda. Thus, both myths do not take into account evidence that might otherwise disprove their subjective conclusions.
Almost always in both myths there is some truth. Those who support the white myth argue that without the rule of the Medici in Florence, the Renaissance would never have happened.
Proponents of the black myth, on the contrary, argue that the dominance of the family destroyed the Florentine Republic.
But objective history makes us look for some kind of middle ground. Florence is still visited annually by about 16 million tourists. Who come to see what this amazing family has built.