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Even the most influential and powerful of families get their start somehow, and for the de Medici it was with Giovanni di Bicci, founder of the family’s fortune. While later de Medici would get themselves elected to the papacy, father scores of children, lead armies, marry into royal families, throw wild parties in the Vatican and such, the first Giovanni was born into a middle-class, staid, and sober family. Having few choices, Giovanni – born in 1360 AD in Florence, where job prospects were limited to commerce or religion – went to work for his banker uncle Vieri. Showing an aptitude for “squeezing blood from turnips,” Giovanni progressed fairly quickly from apprentice, to clerk, to agent, to junior partner. In 1385 he was put in charge of the Rome branch of the bank.
When old Vieri retired in 1393, Giovanni took control of the whole operation. In 1397 he transferred his headquarters back to Florence, while keeping the lending operations in Rome, where at various times (and with various bribes) it served as the Pope’s bank. Soon he also established branches in other cities in Italy and abroad, becoming rich to such an extent that during the 1415 Council of Constance the de Medici monopolized Italy’s financial transactions. In the process, Giovanni – thanks to all that clerking when younger – devised standardized accounting procedures, diversification (farming and mining ventures), usurious interest rates, and the like.
Meanwhile, Giovanni’s influence increased exponentially. From 1402 onward he was repeatedly elected prior of the Arte del Cambio (the Italian bankers’ guild). And he was made general manager of the Apostolic Camera, the papal treasury, for a period … a lucrative appointment. Giovanni di Bicci de Medici died in February 1429, and was laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus commissioned from the great Donatello.
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