Giovanni di Averardo, known as Bicci, de' Medici
Florence, 1360 – Florence, 20 February 1429
- Biographical information:
Son of Averardo, known as Bicci and of Giacoma degli Spini, Giovanni proved himself to be such an astute businessman that he ended up as one of the wealthiest bankers in Italy. He started out working alongside his uncle Vieri in the management of the bank, first as an apprentice, then as an agent and finally as junior partner. In 1385 he was in charge of the Roman branch of Vieri's bank, and he bought up part of it with the dowry of 1,500 florins brought by his wife Piccarda Bueri. When Vieri retired in 1393, Giovanni ran the family business on his own, increasing both capital and prestige through the shrewd choice of the minority shareholders. In 1397 he transferred the headquarters to Florence, close to Orsanmichele, while keeping the fulcrum of the financial activities in Rome, thus managing at various times to be selected as the Pope's banker. The Medici bank, with branches in Italy and abroad, became possibly the leading bank company in Europe, to the extent that during the Council of Constance (1415) it monopolised the financial transactions between the rest of Europe and Italy.
Giovanni di Bicci, therefore, concentrated his activity so as to lay the foundations of the Medici financial fortunes, which was a crucial premise for subsequent political primacy. He then began to get involved in political life only in the early fifteenth century, after he had consolidated his economic success. From 1402 on he was repeatedly elected Prior of the Arte del Cambio, the Bankers' Guild, (1402, 1408 and 1411). In 1403 he went to Bologna on a diplomatic mission. He was sent several times to Venice and Rome in the capacity of ambassador. In 1407 he was governor of Pistoia. In 1419 he was part of the Dieci di Balia. In 1421 he was nominated as gonfaloniere of justice. Like his predecessors, Giovanni was of democratic leanings akin to the anti-magnate party : he in fact sought the consensus of the lower brackets of society (the popolo minuto) and the lesser guilds opposing the overweening power of the oligarchic faction headed by Rinaldo degli Albizzi and Niccolò da Uzzano. In general, however, Giovanni tended to stay on the sidelines of the major and dangerous civic events, and accepted the public offices as personal honours without ever revealing ambitions to political power.
Giovanni was the first person in his family to promote and finance works of art and architectural enterprises. His house in Via Larga had frescoed walls, which was fairly rare in Florence at the time, and was adorned with items of furniture painted by Dello Delli (since lost). He was on the Committee convened to judge the competition for the second door of the Baptistery, which was assigned to Lorenzo Ghiberti (1401). In his capacity as gonfaloniere he took part in the decisions of the city government concerning the funding of the construction of the Spedale degli Innocenti, to a design by Filippo Brunelleschi. As soon as the plan came up for the reconstruction of the new church of San Lorenzo, just a stone's throw from the family houses in Via Larga, Giovanni played a major role in the funding of the enterprise, and commissioned from Filippo Brunelleschi the design of the Old Sacristy and of an adjacent chapel in the north transept of the new complex.
Giovanni also lent his protection to his customer and friend Baldassarre Cossa (or Coscia), who became the Antipope John XXIII and was then deposed by the Council of Constance in 1415. It was in fact Giovanni di Bicci who paid the ransom of 30,000 florins to have Cossa released from imprisonment in Nuremberg. When he died in Florence in 1419, Cossa indicated Giovanni and Niccolò da Uzzano among the executors of his will, instructing them to decide about the location and characteristics of his funeral monument: the tomb was in fact made by Donatello and Michelozzo and set up in the Baptistery.
When he died, Giovanni was laid in a sarcophagus made by Donatello with the help of his assistants, including Buggiano, Brunelleschi's adoptive son (c. 1429-1433). The tomb was positioned beneath the marble and porphyry table in the centre of the Old Sacristy, completed shortly before by Brunelleschi. The sumptuous funeral service held in the church cost the exorbitant figure of 3,000 florins. Just two years earlier in the denuncia del catasto, or tax return, of 1427, at the age of almost seventy Giovanni di Bicci had declared no less than 81,072 florins, making him the richest man in Florence after Palla Strozzi.
For some time Giovanni di Bicci had been the most prominent member of the family, the only one who was truly capable of deciding its destiny. With prudence, perseverance and far-sightedness he managed to build up around him both popularity and a good reputation, which together with his steadily accumulated wealth made up the precious inheritance which he left to his sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo. From him descended the two major branches of the Medici family, that of the 'Signori' who held sway in Florence during the fifteenth century, and that of the 'Grand Dukes' who governed Tuscany from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.
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