“Medici. Masters of Florence” and the life of a Renaissance family

Story of Lucrezia Tornabuoni choosing a bride for Lorenzo il Magnifico

Have you ever watched any episode of the series Medici. Masters of Florence? The first season of this American-Italian production was broadcasted in 2016. The series is inspired by the history of the Medici family and their rise to power during the fifteenth century. Initially, as I almost don’t watch TV at all, I’ve ignored the series completely but then many guests started to book my Medici tour under the influence of the series. Often, they asked me if the events presented in TV were historical facts. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint them more than once. This is how I’ve learned that the series is only freely inspired by what really happened in Florence and the plot is mostly a scriptwriters’ invention

Richard Madden
Richard Madden plays the role of Cosimo the Elder in the series. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

Invented history of the Medici family

Last week I watched the first season of Medici. I wanted to better understand how the history of Florence is presented in the series and if the authors managed to convey the spirit of fifteenth-century Italy. After having watched all the episodes, I have to say that it’s not a bad series in general, but definitely its reference to the Medici is a bit “creative”. The names of the protagonists of the series correctly match with the names of historical personalities truly existed: the members of the Medici family, Florentine artists, members of the Florentine oligarchy and of the patriciate. The problem is that what happens to these “historical” figures is pure imagination.

Pontormo, Portrait of Cosimo the Elder, 1519-1520, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

There really are many incongruences and half-truths in the series. It seems hilarious but the event that animates the entire first season, which is the assassination of Giovanni di Bicci, never happened! Giovanni, who established the Medici bank in 1397, died of natural death in 1429 at the age of 69, a truly advanced age as for that time. His son, Cosimo, reinforced Medici’s power in Florence and supported young artists interested in the revival of the Classical Antiquity, however he did not pay for the construction of the Florentine dome designed by Brunelleschi. Cosimo’s brother, Lorenzo di Giovanni, was a very important member of the family, however his assassination in the series is probably one of the most ridicule inventions of the authors. Paradoxically, it were Lorenzo’s descendants who ruled Tuscany for centuries, not Cosimo’s! They stepped in and took over the power after the death of Alessandro de’ Medici, the first Duke of Florence, in 1537. Cosimo I de’ Medici who created the Duchy of Tuscany, conquered Siena and Pisa during the mid-sixteenth century, was Lorenzo’s great-great-grandson. So, I really don’t understand why in the series Lorenzo dies childless. It just does not make any sense!
Medici are a TV series, and the authors needed to introduce action and suspense, this is why there are so many killings and ambushes. Giovanni di Bicci is killed, Rinaldo degli Albizzi and Lorenzo di Giovanni as well, even if in reality they all died of natural deaths.

Family and love during the Renaissance

However, the incongruencies regard also the mentality, behaviour and worldview of the TV characters, which do not reflect the mentality of a Renaissance man. In fact, to make the fiction more attractive for a contemporary spectator, the relationships between the protagonists reflect our modern idea of love and conjugal bond. There is a lot of jealousy and wives pretend fidelity from their husbands. They cry, they despair, sometimes they betray their husbands as well and kiss with other men. All very real and… contemporary! Did these relationships really look like that? Not at all!

Scheggia, Cassone Adimari
Lo Scheggia, so-called Cassone Adimari showing a wedding scene in fifteenth-century Florence, 1450 ca., Accademia Gallery, Florence.

During the fifteenth century any social relationship was strongly ritualized; friendship, love, marriage as well as paternal and maternal bonds. It means, that the emotions were expressed in a codified, rhetoric form. “There was no sincerity without form and not form without sincerity.”[1] Set of codified rules used to organize the interactions between the family members. It does not mean that people did not feel any emotions, but it means that they did express them very differently than we would do it today and that their expectations towards these relationships were very different as well.

Moreover, social utility was the basic value for any durable bond, such as friendship or marriage. Therefore, the aim of a marriage for every man was to obtain a social benefit from it. Women’s position was much weaker, and bride’s family had to gather a consistent dowry in order to attract the attention of a respectable groom. Often, women were obliged to marry men of inferior social condition, while men could often use the marriage to uplift their social status. That was the case of the painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, son of a Florentine artisan, who in 1480 married his first wife Costanza. Costanza’s dowry of 1000 florin[2] suggests, that Ghirlandaio married to a family from the Florentine patriciate and used this relationship to enter the circle of wealthy Florentine merchants and bankers, his potential clients. His marriage was part of his professional and social success in fifteenth-century Florence.

Not only money counted, however, when a bride was searched for. One of the most interesting documents regarding Medici’s family life, which allows us to enter their household and better understand their social and political ambitions, is the letter Lorenzo il Magnifico’s mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, sent to her husband, Piero de’ Medici, after having met Lorenzo’s future bride, Clarice Orsini. How did Lucrezia choose the wife for Lorenzo? Let us read few fragments of this letter:

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation from the Tornabuoni Chapel. Lucrezia Tornabuoni is the lady in blue at the right edge of the scene, 1485-1490, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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On Thursday morning, on the way to Saint Peter I met with Lady Maddalena Orsini, the Cardinal’s sister, who was there with her 15-, almost 16-years old daughter.  She was wearing a mantle, according to the Roman custom, and she seemed to me very beautiful, white and big. But as she was fully covered, I couldn’t see her as I wanted to. It happened yesterday that I went to pay a visit to Prelate Corsini, who stayed in his sister’s house. Then, […] his sister arrived with the girl. She was wearing a tight dress according to the Roman custom, and without the mantle: […]. She is, as I say, large enough, and white, and her manners are sweet. However, she is not as gentle as our girls. She is very humble, but she should be quickly taught our customs. Her hair is not blond, because there are no [blond hair] there, but it is reddish and she has a lot of hair. Her face tends to be a bit round, but it does not displease me, the neck is beautiful but a bit slim, or better, gentle.  I couldn’t see her breast, because here they walk all tied, but it shows good quality. […] Her hand is long and slim.


She is daughter of Sir Iacopo Corsini di Monte Rotondo, and her mother is sister to the Cardinal. She has two brothers, one of whom is a soldier and is held in high esteem by Sir Orsini, the other is a priest, a pope’s subdeacon. They possess a half of Monte Rotondo. The other half belongs to their uncle who has two sons and three daughters. Besides the half of Monte Rotondo they also possess three other castles, owned by her brothers.[3]” [ translation is mine]

From this letter we learn what did count in the choice of a bride. First of all, Lucrezia observed Clarice with attention and their first, short encounter was not enough for her to decide, if the girl was a proper candidate for her son. Then, the future mother-in-law examined Clarice to understand if she was healthy, this is why she wrote to Piero that the girl was big enough and had a lot of hair. The health was related to the girl’s fertility and to her ability to produce a male heir. This is why Lucrezia regretted she could not see Clarice’s breast even if it seemed of “good quality”.

Ideal of female beauty in Renaissance Florence

What I find truly interesting in this letter is that Lucrezia’s standards of female beauty corresponded to the poetic ideals of fourteenth-century Florentine poetry, which created an idealized image of female praised by the poets. Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarca’s Laura were always described as gentle, humble, honest women and their ideal beauty included blond hair and slim, slender figures. It seems that Lucrezia, women of culture who undoubtedly knew Dante and Petrarca’s writings, had this ideal in mind, when she started to seek for a bride for Lorenzo. As you can imagine, even today most of the girls on the streets of Rome do not correspond to this blond, angelic ideal. It is much easier to meet here Mediterranean beauties in type of Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani. Maybe this is why in Lucrezia’s letter we can read her scarce enthusiasm about Clarice. She was looking for Dante’s donna angelicata and she met a Mediterranean beauty.

Sandro Botticelli, Idealized portrait of a lady (maybe portrait of Simonetta Vespucci), ca. 1480, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. This portrait represents a perfect example of an idealized female beauty as conceived in Florence during the 15th century.

Marriage as social institution

To compensate her dark hair, Clarice could count on the support of her family’s wealth and social position. This aspect was of essential importance, therefore straight after having described her, Lucrezia describes the positions and properties of all the male members of her family, her father, her brothers and her uncles. The fact, that one of her uncles is a Cardinal and that the family possesses a whole hamlet of Monte Rotondo, was probably far more important than the colour of Clarice’s hair.

As you see, the decision about the marriage is taken by the respective families of the future weds. As Lucrezia recounts, Lorenzo saw Clarice during his stay in Rome, and he was supposed to share his opinion about her with his father. We do not know what his thoughts about the girl were. However, the final decision about the marriage was taken by Lorenzo and Clarice’s parents.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Clarice Orsini (?), ca. 1494, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Lorenzo married Clarice in 1469. They had seven children, one of whom, Giovanni de’ Medici became pope with the name Leo X. The aim of their relationship was accomplished, the Medici increased their importance and established new connections in Rome. The birth of the offspring guaranteed the continuation of the lineage and the further raise of Medici’s influence. The happiness of all the protagonists of the story did not depend on their personal or emotional fulfillment but rather on the success of the entire family.

It is not easy to understand the dynamics that ruled the Renaissance families. However, we ought to remember that in the world of ritualized emotions, expectations and social behaviours differed significantly from what we consider “normal” today. If the history may seem more boring than a TV series, it is definitely more complex. And this is why I find it fascinating!

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[1] R. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, New York 1980, p. 132.

[2] J. Cadogan, “An «Huomo di Chonto». Reconsidering the Social Status of Domenico Ghirlandaio and His Family”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, I, 2014, p. 34.

[3] Giovedì mattina, andando a San Piero, mi riscontrai in madonna Madalena Orsina, sorella del Cardinale, la quale avea seco suo figliuola, d’età d’anni 15 in 16. Era vestita alla romana, co ‘I lenzuolo; la quale mi parve in quello abito molta bella, bianca e grande: ma perche la fanciulla pure era coperta, non la potè’ veder a mio modo. Acadde ieri che andai a vicitare il prelato monsignor Horsino, il quale era in casa la prefata suo sorella, che entra in nella sua ; quando, […], vi sopragiunse la prefata suo sorella, colla detta fanciulla; la quale era in una gonna istretta alla romana, e sanza lenzuolo: […]. La quale, come dico, è di ricipiente grandezza, e bianca, et à si dolce maniera, non però si gentile come le nostre: ma è di gran modesta, e da ridulla presto a nostri costumi. Il capo non à biondo, perchè non se n’à di qua: pendono i suo capegli in rosso, e n’à assai. La faccia del viso pende un po’tondetta, ma non mi dispiace. La gola è isvelta confacientemente, ma mi pare un po’ sotiletta, o, a dir meglio, gentiletta. Il petto non potemo vedere, perchè usano ire tutte turate: ma mostra di buona qualità. […] La mano à lunga e isvelta. […] La fanciulla è figliuola, per padre, del signore Iacopo Horsino da Monte Ritondo, e, per madre, della sorella del Cardinale. À duo fratelli: l’uno fa fatti d’arme, ed è col signore Orso in buon istima: l’altro è prete sodiacano del Papa. Ànno la metà di Monte Ritondo: I’ altra metà è di loro zio, el quale a duo figliuoli maschi et tre femine. Ànno, oltre a questa metà di Monte Ritondo, tre altre castella, propio de’ fratelli di costei:[…]. Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Tre lettere di Lucrezia Tornabuoni a Piero de’ Medici ed altre lettere di vari concernenti al matrimonio di Lorenzo il Magnifico con Clarice Orsini, ed. by Cesare Guasti, Firenze, 1859, pp. 9-10.