Networks and the Rise of the Medici

So, here’s a fun thing. In 1993 John Padget and Cristopher Ansell explored the social network of the great Medici family. with specific attention to the rise of Cosimo de Medici in 15th century Florence.

The paper, published in the America Journal of Sociology, is intended as a historical case study in a theoretical contradiction of state building: that founders cannot be both judge and boss. That is, a regime’s legitimacy hinges on “the conviction that judges and rules are not motivated by self-interest. Yet, a founder doesn’t want to give up control of their “organized creation.”

Cosimo’s leadership led to three centuries of Medici rule in Florence, begging the question – how did that happen?

Drawing on the “thorough and impressive work” of many historians of Florence, Padget and Ansell carefully reconstructed a network of elite families in Florence. Their data set included 215 elite families – where “family” is more akin to clan than household, and their network accounted four nine different types of connections including kinship as well as political, economic, and personal ties.

After disproving may common arguments for the Medici’s rise to power – it turns out they were just as wealthy as the “oligarchs” they displaced – Padget and Ansell turn to the network for possible explanations.

Their finding are remarkable. Looking at the political turmoil of the day, Padget and Ansell make a bold claim: “Rather than parties being generated by social groups, we argue, both parties and social groups were induced conjointly by underlying networks.”

Their analysis of the network provides some interesting insights into that claim:

The Medici party was an extraordinarily centralized, and simple, “star” or “spoke” network system, with very few relations among Medici followers: the party consisted almost entirely of direct tied to the Medici family. One important consequence for central control was that Medici partisans were connected to other Medici partisans almost solely through the Medici themselves. In addition, Medici partisans were connected to the rest of the oligarchic elite only through the intermediation of the Medici family. Medici partisans in general possessed remarkably few intraelite network ties compared to oligarchs, they were structurally impoverished. In such an impoverished network context, it is easy to understand how a solo dependence on a powerful family would loom very large indeed. 

Meanwhile, the rival oligarch party was densely interconnect. But rather than leading to cohesive collective action, this caused conflict. “The oligarchs were composed of too many status equals, each with plausible network claims to leadership.” they explain.

These network structures had deep consequences for politics and power. Ultimately, along with the capable leadership of Cosimo, it was this structure which allowed for the Medici rise.

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