Medicean “Stars” of Scientific Patronage


The Medici Granducal Archive (Mediceo del Principato)

For over two centuries, the Medici fam­ily ruled Tuscany as sovereign Grand Dukes. Their archival collection – called the Mediceo del Principato – has sur­vived virtually intact in the State Archive in Florence (Archivio di Stato di Firenze). It covers the chronological span of their rule: from the moment Cosimo I became Duke of Florence in 1537 to the death in 1743 of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, sister of Gian Gastone, the last of the Medici Grand Dukes. In other words, it begins with Michelangelo’s work on the Last Judgment and ends with the birth of Thomas Jefferson.

This collection includes 6,429 bound volumes containing some four million letters from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, recording ev­ery aspect of political, diplomatic, eco­nomic, artistic, scientific, military and medical culture not only at the Tuscan Court, but also throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. There is also among these letters precious news from the Afri­can and Asian continents as well as the Americas.

The correspondence of the Grandu­cal Medici concerns a great variety of subjects and features a rather impressive roster of prominent historical figures. Official letters from Holy Roman Em­peror Charles V, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Elizabeth I, Pope Paul III, Saint Charles Borromeo, Michelangelo and Galileo – just to name a few – are com­mon. News describing political and diplomatic machinations dealing with significant historical events – such as the English Reformation, Council of Trent, Battle of Lepanto, the rise of the Spanish Armada, the Wars of Religion in France, the Thirty-Years War and, in general, all Papal conclaves – is also quite rampant. However, the most extraordinary aspect of this collection remains the endless descriptions of everyday life in Early Modern Europe. There are continuous references to medical matters and phar­macological remedies; foodstuff and wine; festivals and banquets; plagues and famines; meteorological and astronomi­cal anomalies; alchemical breakthroughs, archaeological discoveries and techno­logical innovations; artistic patronage and musical productions; exotic animals and botanical marvels; religious upheav­als and prohibited books.

Apart from its immediate relevance to Medici family history, this archival cor­pus offers the most complete documen­tary record of any princely regime in this period. It can therefore support a depth and complexity of research that is pos­sible nowhere else, particularly regard­ing the habits, customs and concerns of princely government and court life. The Mediceo del Principato is also a prime ex­ample of an “organic archive” since it re­tains its original scheme of organization, reflecting the social and administrative structures that produced it.

Medici Grand Dukes as Patrons of Science

The vast correspondence in the Medi­ci Grand Ducal archives (1537-1743), comprising over 3 million letters, points to a heightened interest in all aspects of natural and applied sciences on the part of the Medici, including hydraulics; en­gineering; botany; anatomy (human and veterinary) and pharmacology; metallur­gy and mineralogy; cartography; meteo­rology; astrology and astronomy; math­ematics; optics; alchemy.

Medici patronage of scientific studies, scientists, and technology is predicated on one fundamental belief: the Grand Dukes, up until Cosimo III, considered scientific knowledge and mastery of tech­nology as means to strengthen and give luster to their political power. It is not surprising that much of scientific appli­cations initially involved warfare.

They were also seriously concerned with how scientific discoveries (and ap­plications) improved everyday existence, commerce, and communications.

The Medici supported Luca Ghini (botany), Vesalius (anatomy), Galileo (as­tronomy, math), Nicolas Steno (anatomy, geology), and Francesco Redi (medicine); universities (Pisa), teaching hospitals (Santa Maria Nuova in Florence), and academies (Accademia del Cimento in Florence); botanical gardens (Orto Bo­tanico in Pisa and Giardino dei Semplici in Florence); and scientific publications, both ancient and modern.

A number of members of this family were directly involved with alchemical ex­periments, including Grand Duke Fran­cesco, his step-brother Don Giovanni, and his son Don Antonio. Cosimo I was especially interested in obtaining secrets of glass making, sugar refining, and por­celain. Ferdinand began putting together a collection of scientific artifacts and instruments. Cosimo II, among other things, seemed partial to nautical engi­neering.

The pursuit for and study of exact sci­ences, most of which necessitated preci­sion instruments for proofs (compasses, time pieces, astrolabes, globes, armillary spheres) was made possible thanks to an initial investment in technology and craftsmanship (mostly warfare related) fos­tered by Cosimo. Certain scientific instru­ments could not have been made without such kind of technological industry.

Medici general tolerant attitude to­wards all religious backgrounds made Florence a clearinghouse for doctors and scientist in the known world, particularly of Jewish background.

Correspondence from Medici ambas­sador abroad point to a general curiosity of all scientific discoveries made in those countries. A number of engineers were sent abroad to learn about these innova­tions and to bring them back to Florence.

The Medici Archive Project

MAP is an innovative humanities re­search foundation that is currently constructing an analytical database and search engine to assist scholars working on Renaissance and Early Modern hu­manist disciplines and to introduce the documentary heritage of the Medici to a broader public. MAP’s chief focus is the collection of letters of the Medici Grand Dukes, called the Mediceo del Principato, housed at the State Archive in Florence, the Archivio di Stato di Fi­renze (ASF).

In 1993, MAP began operations with an initial grant from the National Endow­ment for the Humanities (NEH). In 2000, MAP launched its program of three-year post-doctoral fellowships, thanks to gen­erous support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Fondazione Monte dei Paschi dei Siena, Fondazione Compag­nia di San Paolo, De Roy Testamentary Foundation, and the National Endow­ment for the Humanities. Over twenty fellows have thus far participated in the program (many of whom now serve as university professors and museum cura­tors), carrying out independent research

and developing MAP’s database, which is now available on-line at This database currently comprises over thirteen-thousand biographical entries and some twenty-thousand unpublished document entries which are transcribed from the original text, contextualized in English, and tagged according to data­base research criteria. As of 2009, the An­drew W. Mellon Foundation has agreed to sponsor a new, state-of-the-art on-line interactive database, which will be opera­tive in the next years.

MAP is also involved in promoting scholarly conferences, exhibitions, a publication series of scholarly studies, and courses on paleography and archival studies, the latter sponsored by the Sam­uel H. Kress Foundation. MAP is also laying the foundation for a scholarly pro­gram whose aim is to study the history of women in Early Modern Europe as they are described in the Medici Granducal Archive (Mediceo del Principato).


In the relationship between science and patronage, how great has been the danger of restrictions imposed by patrons on the scientists’ freedom of research?

ALESSIO ASSONITIS: The danger has certainly been real, but not as much as one would think. During Renaissance, for instance, there was great freedom of research for scientists.

How has the relationship between science and patronage changed over the centuries?

ALESSIO ASSONITIS: It is difficult to answer this question. What I can say for sure is that today there is much more money invested in scientific projects than in the promotion of art and humanities. The reason of such a discrepancy is the commercial development of science.

Who are the new patrons today?

ALESSIO ASSONITIS: In the field of humanities, there are foundations in Italy (such as Monte dei Paschi di Siena Foundation) and in the US (Ford Foundation) that sponsor art and cultural projects and the restoration of architectural heritage. Many foundations also support research.

Interview by Laura Giacalone

Laura Giacalone is the Associate Editor of the Italian Journal.