5 Interesting Facts About the Medici Coat of Arms

Learn the history behind the Medici coat of arms

San Lorenzo church and Cappelle Medicee
San Lorenzo church and Cappelle Medicee. Maremagnum

The Medici have long been associated with balls.

Here’s what I mean: Their family emblem — five red balls and one blue on a gold shield — is prominently displayed on buildings all over Florence and Tuscany which have Medicean connections or which were financed with Medici money. Some examples of where you can see them outside of Florence are Piazza Grande in Montepulciano and Piazza del Campo in Siena.

In fact, the coat of arms was so widespread that one outraged contemporary of Cosimo il Vecchio declared, "He has emblazoned even the monks' privies with his balls."

To prepare you for your trip to Tuscany (or just to add some historical fodder to your next conversation in Italian), here are five cocktail party facts about the Medici coat of arms.

Five Facts About the Medici Coat of Arms

1.) One origin story for the coat of arms comes from a giant named Mugello.

The Medici family crest has long been the object of much historical speculation. The most romantic (and far-fetched) explanation of the origin of the palle is that the balls are actually dents in a shield, inflicted by the fearsome giant Mugello on one of Charlemagne's knights, Averardo (from whom, legend claims, the family were descended). The knight eventually vanquished the giant and, to mark his victory, Charlemagne permitted Averardo to use the image of the battered shield as his coat of arms.

2.) Other origin stories for the coat of arms represent pills and money.

Others say the balls had less exalted origins: that they were pawnbrokers' coins, or medicinal pills (or cupping glasses) that recalled the family's origins as doctors (medici) or apothecaries. Others say they are bezants, Byzantine coins, inspired by the arms of the Arte del Cambio (or the Guild of Moneychangers, the bankers' organization to which the Medici belonged).

I’ve also read that the balls are meant to represent gold bars, again representing their profession as bankers, as many frescoes and works of art in Florence depict gold bars as originally being formed as balls.

3.) If you were a supporter of the Medici family, you might be seen enthusiastically yelling “Palle! Palle! Palle!”

In times of danger, Medicean supporters were rallied with cries of Palle! Palle! Palle!, a reference to the balls (palle) on their armorial bearings.

4.) The number of balls on the shield changed over the years.

Originally there were 12 balls. In Cosimo dé Medici's time, it was seven, the ceiling of San Lorenzo's Sagrestia Vecchi has eight, Cosimo I's tomb in the Cappelle Medicee has five, and Ferdinando I's coat of arms in the Forte di Belvedere has six. The number six remained stable after 1465.

5.) The blue ball has the symbol of the kings of France on it - three golden lilies.

It’s said that Louis XI had a debt with the Medici family and in order to reduce his debts, he allowed the bank to use his symbol, giving the Medici bank more clout among the people.