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The Grand Duchy of Tuscany of the Medici (16th-18th century)


The Tuscany is a popular tourist destination for art lovers. Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence every year attracts several million visitors who come to discover the works of Botticelli or Michelangelo. When we talk about the Medici, it is the patron Laurent the Magnificent who immediately comes to mind. Yet present-day Florence and Tuscany owe a great deal to grand dukes 16th-18th century. Far from being inglorious descendants of Cosimo the Elder and Laurent the Magnificent, they reigned over a duchy which had a special place in Europe. To be interested in this grand duchy is to be interested in the transition from a republic to the principate in modern times and in the construction of the modern state.

The accession to power of the Medici and the political and administrative creation of the Grand Duchy

The Medicean principate was built gradually in the 16th century. The Medici had already exercised power before but they had lost it in 1494 to the benefit of Savonarola (1494-1498). After the failure of the Soaparolian theocracy, the traditional oligarchies returned to power, but the institution of gonfalonier for life radically transformed the Republic and continued its evolution towards a greater concentration of power. But the capture of the city by the Spaniards puts an end to it. The Pope imposed the return of the Medici to Florence in 1512. The project was to restore the institutions as they were before Savonarola's accession to power in 1494. The circumstances lead to a rapid review of the project and the Medici gradually adopt attitudes princely more marked.

After a brief eclipse, the Medici returned definitively to Florence: Alexandre de Medici (1530-1537) became by imperial bull the “head” of the Florentine republic in 1530. Without suppressing the republican magistracies, the bull recognized moral authority in the prince without however, give it more power. It was not until the Ordinazioni of April 27, 1532 that an organic law defined the distribution of powers between the Prince and the magistrates. The idea is to create a mixed and tempered monarchy system based on the Serene Republic of Venice. The Prince is Duke of Florence as the Doge is in Venice. The Seigneury is abolished and replaced by the Magistrato Supremo made up of four senators and the duke while two high assemblies are created (the Council of the Two Hundred and the Council of the Forty-Eight). But we must not be mistaken, the Prince and his council constitute the keystone of the new regime. This is not without challenges. The assassination of Alexander by the courtier and cousin Lorenzo di Pier Francesco Medici shows it well. The result, however, was not as expected. Petrified by classical culture, the tyrannicide thought that his act would be enough to restore freedom. But the city was much more committed to the new regime than it appeared.


Placed under the tutelage of experienced men who brought him to power, Cosimo I de Médicis (1537-1574) quickly emancipated himself. He crushes the army of exiles and during his reign severely represses all disputes. He strengthened his authority thanks to the institutions bequeathed by his predecessor and set up an administration of devoted civil servants who allowed him to have the ascendancy over the republican remains (the Pratica Segreta). The bureaucracy, however, has another interest than that of increasing the power of the Prince: it allows to ensure the stability of power in cities where magistrates are constantly renewed. The Medicean monarchy becomes more and more authoritarian as the administration grows. However, this authoritarianism is not badly perceived because it is counterbalanced by a conservative and paternalistic policy. It does not seek to suppress the republican magistracies (although it reduces the role of the various assemblies) and offers to the large families important positions. In the 17th century, his successors continued this conservative policy and allowed the emergence of a nobility (the law which established the rules of the nobility, however, only dates from 1750).

After the conquest of Siena in 1555, the reunification of the States of Florence and Siena, formalized and ratified by Philip II of Spain in 1557, almost doubled the territory under Florentine domination. The counterpart of this union was the concession of certain former Sienese possessions (Elbe and Ortobello among others) to the Spanish king united under the name of the State of the Royal Presides. This territory administered by the Viceroyalty of Naples had considerable strategic and military importance and enabled Spain to monitor the new duchy, which was too quickly enlarged. The Medicean State is composed of a stato vecchio (Florence and its possessions including Pisa) and a stato nuovo (Siena and its territory) which retains a certain autonomy. In the provinces, Cosme is satisfied with a supervision through the intermediary of magistrates responsible for informing him and punishing abuses (Nove Conservatori della Giurisdizione e del Dominio di Firenze). The Medici give all their subjects the rights and duties of Florence. Their economic action covers the whole of the Grand Duchy (in particular in the agricultural sector). We can also note the development of Livorno wanted and supported by the Medici who granted the city at the end of the 16th and 17th centuries laws facilitating large trade in the Mediterranean, freedom of worship (Les Livornine) and favorable tax provisions. Livorno is the creation par excellence of the Grand Dukes in which they were able to express the glory of their family as well as the benefits and the rationality of their government. This Mediterranean ambition is complemented by the creation of the sacred and military Order of St. Stephen, pope and martyr with the approval that conducts military operations in the Mediterranean against the Ottomans and the Barbary pirates. Thus the structures of the Medicean State are being put in place, but it must still exist and resist multiple threats.

Exist and endure in an unstable peninsula

Cosimo I had great ambitions for his duchy as we have seen previously. He did everything he could to obtain a royal title, archduke and then grand duke. The diplomatic choices are made with the sole aim of achieving this objective and in particular towards the Habsburgs and the papacy who alone could legally confer this title on him. The benefits of such a title for the sustainability of the regime are important for the stability of the kingdom both inside and outside. It sanctioned the prestige and the rank of the new State in a fragmented Italy (and in particular made it possible to have a higher dignity than the Este). The veto of the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria shows that this new state is tolerated but not yet fully accepted. It was Pius V who granted him the title in 1569 and then crowned it in 1570. It was not until 1576 that the emperor accepted this title. Ferdinand (1587-1609) continued the policy of emancipation with regard to the Habsburgs initiated by Cosme I and tried to forge an alliance with France. He married Christine of Lorraine, niece of King Henry III of France and granddaughter of Queen of France Catherine de Medici. He supports Henry IV in his struggle for power and lends him money and gives him his niece Marie in marriage. His role is not negligible in the conversion of Henri IV. This diplomatic turnaround and the break with previous unilateralism aims to weaken Spain and reduce its influence in Tuscany. But when diplomatic problems start to escalate, this reversal proves unsuccessful. The Grand Duke turned away from it very quickly and renewed relations with the Habsburgs of Austria. His successors have a policy of neutrality which allows Tuscany to be relatively spared from the great conflicts of the 17th century. They do not join any camp. Better still, they are sometimes mediators for the Habsburgs. The Grand Dukes therefore help to maintain peace in their kingdom which was essential for their maintenance in power without succeeding in freeing themselves from Habsburg tutelage.

The political, bureaucratic and administrative structure is little modified and is not upset in the 17th century. The institutions are preserved and the limits to the Medicean power, very real, are not abolished. The curialization is reinforced as well as the liturgization of the ceremonies. The Medici consolidate the work of Cosimo I while having a more or less different practice of power. The reign of Ferdinand is essential in the stabilization of the regime which finds a point of political, social and territorial balance which will last until the end of the dynasty. Some historians point to the limited initiatives of Cosimo III (1670-1723) during part of his reign. At the same time, he set up a devout policy favoring the Jesuits and the inquisition that his successor Jean-Gaston de Médicis (1723-1737) would not pursue. It must be said that the main concern of the last Medici is the succession of the Grand Duchy. A project to restore the Republic after the death of the last Medici was even conceived by Cosimo III. This one does not succeed. The history of the duchy in the 17th century is tarnished by economic difficulties and demographic decline. This decline is linked to the shift towards the west of the world economy and the relegation to the background of the Mediterranean in favor of the Atlantic. However, the history of the Grand Duchy has not stood still and in recent years historians have taken a new interest in the Italian 17th century as a century in which certain important innovations emerge. In the sciences also, the Medici also distinguished themselves. In addition to the protection of Galileo and the well-known Torricelli, Ferdinand II (1621-1670) created with his brother Prince and Cardinal Leopold de Medici in 1657 the Accademia del Cimento, the first scientific academy which aims to promote new methods scientists. Although ephemeral (it only lasted ten years), she is the author of a book Saggi di naturali esperienze fatte nell Accademia del Cimento which was an important scientific textbook at the end of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus, although in decline, the Medici managed to maintain a singular place in Europe throughout the 17th century.

Create a territory, a culture and a history

Cosme I wishes to harmonize people's minds if not in fact the territory under his domination and ensure that the vanquished are an integral part of the new territory and actors of it and no longer only dominated. The Medicean fortresses had an important role in the control and formation of this territory. Alexander then Cosimo I built many fortresses and thus asserted their power in Tuscan space. However, these military achievements are there to inspire domination and awe, not buy-in. Other more subtle forms are used by the Grand Dukes to show the power of the new ruling family. The arts were used very early on by the Medici to assert their dominio over Tuscany, as Philippe Morel clearly demonstrated. From 1538, the garden of the Medici villa in Castello, staged by Tribolo, is a symbolic representation of the territory of the Grand Duchy: the land had been topographically arranged in a manner similar to that of the Tuscan territory. Statues and allegorical fountains completed the composition. In 1539, the parade designed for the wedding of Eleanor of Toledo and Cosimo I is another symbolic representation of the new state. The deities of cities, mountains and rivers follow one another and bow before the princely couple. These allegories also dot the Lordship Palace and the Grand Duke still serves as a link between these different representations. This iconographic theme, although subsequently abandoned, persisted throughout the reign of the Medici. To complete the symbolic creation of the Tuscan territory, the Grand Duke Ferdinand I (1587-1609) commissioned the Venetian Cristoforo Sorte to produce numerous maps of Tuscany to better understand the territory. Between 1589 and 1591, the realistic cartographer five detailed maps which are not exhibited for obvious military reasons and a more general map intended to be exhibited: the map precedes the territory. Scientific language supplants allegorical language. Gradually, the territory takes shape and becomes homogeneous despite its diversity. However, this is not enough and the Medici will focus on the promotion of a truly Tuscan culture.

The academies have a special place in this program: in 1540, Cosimo I founded theAccademia Fiorentina which aims to promote a vulgar Tuscan language and Florentine literature in which he places many men of his government. This academy contributes to the political project of the Grand Duke of creating the new state. It supports, for example, a work by Pier Francesco Giambullari (II Celio) published in 1546 which promotes the Etruscan origins of Tuscany. These origins are a way for the Medici to allow Tuscany to have a past as illustrious as those of the great European powers (for the kingdom of France, the Trojan origins played this role). The archaeological excavations carried out by the Grand Dukes reinforce the Medicean ercomania and contribute to the creation of the Tuscan territory. Pius V qualifies Cosimo I in a brief as Grand Duke of the province of Etruria. Cosme becomes the first Dux Magnus Hetruscus. Works like the From Etruria regionis by Guillaume Postel (1551) or the Etruria Regali by Thomas Dempster composed on the orders of Cosimo II de Medici (1609-1621) complete this construction. This composite set does not, however, create a true unified reference culture. The foundation ofAccademia della Crusca in 1583 aims to purify and define an Italian language. In 1612 it resulted in the publication of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca. This culture cannot however be detached from a history that the Medici will try to forge.

In the 16th century, Cosimo I and his first successors sought to reconcile and draw a continuity between the Florentine republic and the new regime. The redevelopment of the Lordship's Palace by Vasari is emblematic from this point of view: the communal palace gradually became a princely palace before the latter was relegated to the background. The transformation of Loggia des Lanzi in open-air museum contributes to depoliticize this place which was used for the assemblies of the people and the republican ceremonies. Cosimo I, like the other European rulers, commissioned a great historical account from Scipione Ammirato (Istorie Fiorentine) with the aim of affirming the links between the republic and the principate and thus exalting the freedom of its State and therefore its superiority in Italy. However, this policy of reconciling two partly competing and contradictory histories ceased from the beginning of the 17th century. The Grand Dukes no longer order historical narratives and practice significant censorship to avoid reminders of their common origin or of communal history. Only paintings and ceremonies henceforth contribute to the narrative legitimizing the power of sovereigns. But when the end of the dynasty is imminent, we witness a return of republican historiography, suggesting and hoping that a return to the Republic is possible. Despite their efforts, the Medici have failed to eradicate this memory. The historiographical policy of the Grand Dukes illustrates all the limits of cultural control and Medicean propaganda.

Promote novelty and its own glory

Cosimo I takes up the family tradition of patronage but in a new form. Artistic academies allow sovereigns to better supervise the arts while promoting a new freedom for artists who are no longer subject to economic constraints. The first artistic academy theAccademia e Compagnia dell'Arte del Disegno is a Medicean creation by the Duke and Vasari in 1563 which was modeled on theAccademia fiorentina already mentioned above. Its objective is education, the creation of works and the conservation of part of the works. This academy is presented by Vasari as the heiress of the Gardens of Saint Mark of Lawrence the Magnificent or it seems that, according to André Chastel in his book Art and humanism in Florence in the time of Lawrence the Magnificent, Studies on the Renaissance and Platonic humanism, this garden is in reality only an invention of Vasari to please Cosimo I.

The Grand Dukes help promote new artistic forms which then spread in Europe. The Medici court and its patronage were among the most brilliant in Europe. The Medici notably commissioned an equestrian statue of Cosimo I from John of Bologna. The statue was so successful that other similar equestrian statues were ordered from it and sent as a gift by the Grand Duke Ferdinand I to certain foreign sovereigns: the equestrian statue of Henri IV installed on the Place Dauphine and desired by Marie de Medici. and that of Philip III in Spain installed in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Marriage alliances also contributed to the spread of Florentine models. The queens of France Catherine and Marie de Médicis in particular contributed decisively to the construction of monuments inspired by Florentine constructions such as the Uffizi or the Pitti palace which can be found at the Tuileries, at the Hôtel de la Reine, at the Louvre waterfront gallery or at the Luxembourg Palace. This influence continues after them. In Versailles, the Grand Apartment was designed based on the model of the Planets Apartment in the Pitti Palace. However, the Medici can be blamed for having made Florence museum very early and for having frozen it in a state which has changed little since (to the delight of tourists). However, the innovation promoted by the Medici does not only affect the plastic and architectural arts. The Medici have contributed a lot to the development of new musical forms such as madrigals but they are above all at the origin of opera. Opera is a total art which delighted European courts. Each work required different choreographies, costumes, temporary sets and required a lot of work. Opera is the union of all the arts because it does not neglect the literary aspect of the work. The first performance of an opera, Euridice by Jacopo Peri, took place at the Pitti Palace on October 6, 1600. This work was commissioned on the occasion of the marriage of Marie de Médicis and Henri IV. This patronage was not disinterested: it enabled the Medici to strengthen their prestige in foreign courts.

“May the Medici sleep in peace in their tombs of marble and porphyry, they have done more for the glory of the world than had ever done before them and that neither princes, nor kings, nor emperors will ever do since. This quote from Alexandre Dumas shows that the Medici held a unique place in history and historiography from the 19th century. When Jean-Gaston de Médicis died, only one heiress Anna Maria Luisa de Médicis remained. Despite the wishes of the deceased, the latter could not accede to the throne and another family took power (the Habsbourg-Lorraine). When she died in 1743, she bequeathed all the works collected by her family throughout its history, specifying that this collection could not be divided, had to be visible to all and could not leave Florence. In 1765, the Uffizi Gallery opened its doors to the public.

Indicative bibliography

Most of the articles mentioned are available online. You just have to click on the title of the article (in red) to access it.

- BOUTIER Jean; LANDI Sandro, ROUCHON Olivier, Florence and Tuscany 14th-19th century. The dynamics of an Italian state, Rennes University Press, Rennes, 2004.

- ACTON Harold, The Last Medici, Macmillan, London, 1980.

- CALLARD Caroline, "The dreamed ancestors of the Medici" In: The story, N ° 370, December 2011, pp. 56-59.

- CAMEROTA Filippo, MARA Miniati, I Medici e le scienze. Strumenti e macchine nelle collezioni granducali, Giunti, Florence, 2008.

- CHAUVINEAU Hélène, “What to name means. ", Historical review, 1/2002 (n ° 621), p. 31-49.

- GUT Philippe, Italy from the Renaissance to Unity, Hachette, Paris, 2001.

- MAURO Cristofani, Sugli inizi dell 'Etruscheria'. In: Mixtures of the French School of Rome. antiquity, T. 90, No. 2. 1978. pp. 577-625.

- MERIEUX Véronique, “From the Republic to the Duchy. The ideological stakes of the representation of the Tuscan battles in the Salon des Cinq-Cents of the Palais de la Seigneurie (1505-1565) ”, In: Mediterranean Notebooks, No. 83, 2011, 101-109.

- MOREL Philippe, “The Medicean State in the 16th Century: From Allegory to Cartography. "In: Mixtures of the French School of Rome. Italy and Mediterranean, T. 105, No. 1. 1993. 93-131.

For more information on the institutions, you can also consult the Florence Archives website (in English or Italian but the Italian part is more complete).


Video: All about Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (September 2021).