How the Wealthy Medici Changed the World

Each Monday, this column turns a page in history to explore the discoveries, events and people that continue to affect the history being made today.

Like a medieval ATM, one family bankrolled the cultural movement that dragged Europe out of the Dark Ages and into modernity.

With their love for art, science and culture, the Medici of Florence catalyzed the Renaissance that began in the 14th century, making household names of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo in the process.

The revival of learning, rationality and the arts patronized by the Medici in Italy spread throughout Europe, sped along by the invention of the printing press, and forever transformed the Western world.

Big business meant extra dough for art

Europe in the 14th century was a downtrodden place, ravaged by war and a plague that killed nearly half its people. Florence was hard hit by the Black Death, but those who survived tended to be rich as well as newly critical of absolute faith in religion. The conditions were ideal for a cultural transformation, according to historians.

One of those wealthy families was the Medici, who made money first as merchants and then as de facto rulers and bankers of Florence. By the 1400s, the Medici was one of the richest and most powerful families in Europe.

The Medici were just as proficient in cultivating culture as they were at amassing their fortune, however.

At the time, artists survived only on advanced commissions and needed to be "adopted" under the patronage of one person or family for long periods of time to continue working. For their part, the Medici took on Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael and Brunelleschi, resulting in grand works of art ranging from the Sistine Chapel to the famous Duomo.

The art produced in Florence from the 14th to the 17th centuries, along with the monumental libraries collected by the Medici, made the city the undisputed beacon of culture during the Renaissance.

Medicis stoked the humanist flame

While the artists funded by the Medici discovered new techniques in painting with oils and perspective, many also dappled in science.

Da Vinci, in particular, studied just about everything as part of a general resurgence in the classic notions of science, philosophy and politics that had been lost for centuries. With the money he earned from tutoring the Medici children, Galileo Galilei also quietly mapped out the workings of the universe. Other scientists drawn to the center of Renaissance culture tinkered in Florentine workshops on cartography and tools for navigation.

This renewed interest in the scientific method, called humanism, radiated out from Florence to the rest of Europe quickly with the invention of the printing press in the second half of the 15th century.

By stoking the flames of humanist thought, casual discussions in the gardens of Medici-funded scientists and their contemporaries directly influenced the Protestant Reformation, the creation of new universities around the Western world and the age of exploration of the 16th century.