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I've heard they represent the weighted balls used to measure goods, alluding to Florence's history as a commercial city and the Medici family's history as merchants and bankers. I've also heard that they were supposed to represent the resilience of the Medici family, because balls bounce up (although I realize that this explanation seems much less likely).

Does anyone know which of these explanations is more valid, or know of any alternate explanations?


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Welcome & +1 for nice question. – Felix Goldberg May 1 '13 at 21:36
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galilean_moons maybe here lies the answer you seek ;) – user3072 Oct 27 '13 at 18:13
up vote 8 down vote accepted

According to Niall Ferguson in The Ascent of Money, they aren't balls, but coins. (I listened to the audiobook so I can't provide a page citation.) I'm somewhat suspicious because the blazon for the arms is

"augmented coat of arms of the Medici, Or, five balls in orle gules, in chief a larger one of the arms of France (viz. Azure, three fleurs-de-lis or" Source. That source seems to have problems, so check wikipedia sidebar

Note that the first five or six google references refer to them as "balls"; although I'm not familiar with it, "balls" is apparently a legitimate synonym for "roundel", and perpetrate the notion that it is a mystery. None of these are particularly scholarly. The Rise and Fall of the Medici positively asserts that there is no relationship between the Medici arms and the symbol for pawnbrokers. Another myth is that they are pills, as a reference to the name of the family "Medici = Doctors". While "canting arms" are common, this doesn't explain why they are red. Furthermore several sources suggest that

(the story that these were medicinal pills was apparently invented at the court of France by people wanting to defame Queen Caterina dei Medici in the 16th century) Florence Art Guide and several other sources (hat tip to @Yannis Rizos who first pointed this out).

If they were intended to represent coins, the more logical charge would have been the bezant, which is a gold Roundel Of course the field is or, so the charge must be a color; making them red makes them torteu or "cakes". However, I think that is a clue.

The answer which seems most likely is in a footnote; the source it cites is behind a paywall, but this looks quite plausible.

According to one theory, the armorial bearings of the Medici are canting arms or armes parlantes, and the torteaux or red balls supposedly represent pills, because medici in Italian means "physicians." The historian G. F. Young regards this whole story as a fable.�The Medici, chap, iii, n. 2. He is probably right. A more plausible explanation is that the Medici adopted the roundels because they were the symbol of the banker's trade and of the guild to which they belonged. The coat of arms of the Florentine money-changers* guild, Arte del Cambio, was a red shield sown with bezants or gold roundels. The Medici used red roundels instead of gold ones. The pawnbrokers eventually adopted the gold roundels or balls as the sign of their trade, since those symbols were associated in the public mind with money lending and credit.�Raymond de Roover, 'The Three Golden Balls of the Pawnbrokers," Bulletin of the "Business Historical Society, XX (1946), 117-24. See esp. illustrations on p. 123.

Although the name means doctor, the family Medici rose to prominence due to their banking, and they are very tightly associated with banking. I think it is very plausible that their coat of arms is a reference to the money changer's guild.

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There's another theory that suggests the balls are actually pills, a nod to the Medicis' origins (Medici is the plural of medico, which means medical doctor). – Yannis May 21 '13 at 23:03
@YannisRizos - Did doctors give out pills that far back? I'd have figured they ground their own herbs. That sounds like it could be an anachronism. – T.E.D. May 23 '13 at 12:12
I am interested in the coats of arms sometimes imagined for the Kingdoms of Germany, Italy or Lombardy, and Arles or Burgundy within the Holy Roman Empire. – M.A. Golding Jul 23 at 19:08
To continue where cut off, the legend abut pawnbrokers balls being based on bezants in the arms of the banking guild is similar to a story that they were based on bezants in the arms of the Kingdom of Lombardy. The arms of the Lucchesi Palli family are red with three bezants. There is a legend the family was founded by a nephew of Desiderius, the last Lombard king, and use his arms, an secomd association of bezants with the imaginary arms of the kingdom Lombardy. – M.A. Golding Jul 23 at 19:35

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).

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