The success of family dynasties….
Despite the modern day emergence of democracy and meritocracy, nepotism is still heavily at work across the globe. We have seen quite starkly throughout history how family elders have dispensed influence and position on relatives to maintain pedigree in order to perpetuate the success of the family and its descendants. Compounded by wealth, access to networks and a famous moniker there are significant barriers to failure. But I am also intrigued by family dynasties where it appears nature has endowed the insiders with an abundant seam of talent, bestowed a value or vocation which flows harmoniously through the generations enabling the family to leave a mark in history. Reality is, notable dynasties are likely built on an intertwining of many of these factors and I wonder what lessons that has for us today if we want to be impactful?
In this vein as an example, one eminently successful family dynasty I find absorbing are the Medici family where patronage had been bolstered by the not insignificant commercial and political nouse running through descendants. The Medici’s were a family with fingers in many ventures that influenced over many generations what we would now call Italian society as well as affecting the wider world in disparate ways. The family ruled Florence and at some point Tuscany in the period (mostly) between 1434–1737, much of it unofficially. The core success of the family came from commerce and banking which formed the basis of their political power. It allowed various members of the family to support the arts transforming Florence into the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’. The family provided four popes and married into royalty. Their art collection forms the core of what is held in the Uffizi in Florence and the novel banking practices they embedded are still utilised today.
The beginnings of the family are vague. It is thought as peasants they arrived in Florence in the 1200s. Medici is Italian for doctor so It is believed the family enrolled into the guild of doctors and apothecaries, basing themselves near the Old market in Florence. Giovanni di Bicci de Medici (1360–1429) was the first Medici of note. He started as a bank teller but able to marry above his social status, funded investments into wool, textiles and silk (although I have seen some state he inherited this trading business). It was success here that enabled the family to branch into banking creating the Medici bank in 1397. By 1410 Giovanni was the most wealthy person in Florence. It was through this role he was asked to join the ruling body of Florence. Using business skills the family diversified into trading spices, jewellery and fruit. Di Bicci had two sons — Cosimo (the elder) and Lorenzo, spawning the two notable branches of the Medici line.
Cosimo the elder governed Florence as an uncrowned ruler from 1434 and continued to consolidate the family influence. From the time of his father and for the next hundred years, the Medici banking dynasty became one of the largest banks in Europe expanding its financial activities at an extraordinary pace including the opening of branches across other countries. During this period of banking dominance, the Medici’s supported the ‘right people’ and took advantage of a number of banking innovations (mentioned below). Through supporting the Pope, the family became bankers to The Vatican which brought with it wealth and fame, extending their renown further afield than Florence. This allowed the Medici’s to cultivate their enjoyment of the arts though their ambitions caused friction with other noble families.
Lorenzo the Magnificent (grandson of Cosimo) was seen as the greatest of the Medici’s. A poet, skilled politician, writer and patron of the arts, he supported artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. After his early death in 1492 at the age of 43, the Medici family fortunes turned. Over expansion of the bank ended in failure and they were exiled from Florence after Lorenzo’s son Piero accepted an unfavourable peace treaty with France. With the help of Piero’s younger brother (a Cardinal at the time but a future Pope), the family were able to return to Florence in 1512 and regain their power. Unfortunately this line of the family did not hold onto Florence and with the assassination of Alessandro in 1537 (who was possibly of illegitimate birth), the line of power moved to the descendants of Lorenzo (Cosimo the elder’s brother).
Cosimo I (1519–1574) took control of Florence. He tried to unify more of Tuscany by undertaking wars against Pisa, Lucca and Sienna. Cosimo retired from politics after his wife and three sons died from Malaria. With his death, various descendants continued to rule into the 1700’s but eventually the decline of the family set in as future generations proved less talented and the Medici bank collapsed into a non entity. I’m unclear of what exactly happened to the Medici line. I have read that the family merged with others and left no male heir which is why the name has not continued.
So this is what we know about the Medici dynasty:
- Not thought to be nobles — the belief is they had humble beginnings
- They ruled over Florence for c300 years
- Significant patrons of the arts despite being serious bankers to the wealthy
- Spawned four popes. Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, Leon XI
- Created double entry book keeping — recording both debits and credits — keeping books in check. Utilising Letters of credit (agreements in which a buyer’s bank guarantees to pay back the seller’s bank once goods or services have been delivered) and introduced the concept of the holding company
- Piero’s daughter Catherine married King Henry II and became Queen of France
And so ended a dynasty truly encompassing nepotism, talent and a shared vocation leaving a mark on history.
All of us have family dynasties with chronicles of twists and turns but most of us fly through history unable to leave a deep enough presence for future generations to marvel at. Perhaps we think about what it takes to have an impact in too narrow a way. Perhaps it isn’t only about an individual and what they bring but also the people around and before them being critical to that success. (I know what we go on to do isn’t just about our family influence but even sub consciously it seems it should be significant). This particularly resonates as a child of immigrant parents. They doggedly instilled in me the value of education which I have passed on ensuring their child and my children following would be more impactful than they. I like to think my children will do the same for their offspring, so continuing the drive to achieve and cause change. Maybe the simple lesson from successful dynasties is If you determinedly develop and embed talent, values or vocation it could be your descendants that are the more accomplished and conceivably this is the long term vision we should be looking to live by.