The Red BallsHistory
The Medici have long been associated with a load of balls. Their family emblem—a number of red balls 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. One outraged contemporary of Cosimo il Vecchio declared that "He has emblazoned even the monks' privies with his balls."
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.
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).
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. Whatever the origin of the Medici family emblem, it is interesting the note that the number of palle depicted in it varied. Originally there were 12; 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, six.
Photo: © 1996 Michael P. San Filippo licensed to About.com, Inc.