Medici family origins
One of the most frequent questions I receive as a tourist guide in Florence, is about the Medici coat of arms origins and meaning. Unfortunately, this is a question nobody can answer, but in this article I will tell you all I know and think about this argument. We don’t know much about the Medici family origins. They had some properties in Mugello (the countryside North of Florence Italy), so we assume they came from there. The city of Florence, in the late Middle Ages, offered many opportunities if you had some money and were willing to take your risks, and many families moved to Florence from the countryside. It was a sort of gold rush, if you consider that during the 13th century the town rose from a modest 30,000 to about 100,000 residents, becoming the largest city in Europe; but there is another theory: the Medici, as many other merchants in Florence, bought those properties with their profits just to diversify their investments. Go to the Medici family tree.
The Medici “brand”
The Medici coat of arms features red balls (palle) on a golden background. It’s spheres, not circles, because the Medici supporters, in times of political instability, used to show their appreciation for the family screaming “Palle! Palle! Palle!” (“Balls! Balls! Balls!”). The number of balls in the Medici symbol changed overtime, from a maximum of eleven, to a minimum of five, to remain stable at six after 1465. This is another mystery, nobody knows the reason for this change. One thing is for sure: the Medici were not a noble family when they became the most powerful family in Florence. I think the Medici family crest was more of a symbol for their company: a brand, easy to identify. Florentine merchants travelled to northern Europe to buy raw wool: one single trip could change your life, because profit was huge, but at the same time, it was very risky; months spent travelling on unsafe roads, in places where people spoke different languages and, let’s say it, was way less civilized. We can only imagine the sense of relief for the merchant, once he got to his destination, when he saw the Medici symbol, as well as any other Florentine bank symbol. Now if this theory is true, then we can maybe explain the number of balls in the crest as the number of branches of the Medici bank.
The balls on the Medici Crest
There is many theories on their meaning, here is a list:
- pharmaceutical pills: “medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”; maybe their ancestor was a doctor; this is probably a legend born in France when Caterina de Medici was the queen of France.
- gold bars: during the Middle Ages, gold was not cast in bars, but in balls. There’s evidence of this even in works of art and frescoes in Florence. Since the Medici were bankers, gold balls would have been a good symbol for their company. The problem being that the Medici coat of arms features red balls, not golden balls.
- bezants: Byzantine coins. This is the most credible theory, in my opinion; the “arte del cambio” (Bankers Guild) had the same symbol, only with reversed colors: golden balls on a red background.
- dents on a shield: this is a legend created after the Medici became Grand Dukes; they were not proud of their humble origins. According to the legend, Averardo de Medici was a knight who fought with a giant named Mugello. In exchange, Charlemagne allowed him to use the pounded shield as his coat of arms, and also gave him the property on the lands North of Florence, that were named after the giant, Mugello.
The blue ball on the Medici coat of arms
Since 1465, the top ball in the Medici coat of arms is blue, with three golden lilies. This is the symbol of the kings of France: were they connected? Two Queens of France were part of the Medici family, but this happened in the XVI century. The reason is much more practical: in 1465 the King of France, Louis XI, had a huge debt with the Medici Bank. In exchange for a reduction of the debt,
the King allowed Piero de Medici “the Gouty” and his descendants to use his symbol. What a hit for the Medici bank!!! How can you not trust this bank if the King of France is pledging for them? Recently, we had a temporary exhibition in Pitti Palace, named “Once in a lifetime”. The exhibition had on display many historical documents from the Florentine archives, and one of them is the royal document, sealed by the King of France, that allows the Medici family to use his personal heraldic emblem.