Medici, Lorenzo de'

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Lorenzo de' Medici

January 1, 1449
Florence, Italy
April 9, 1492
Florence, Italy


The Italian merchant prince Lorenzo de' Medici, called "il Magnifico" ("the Magnificent"), ruled both the Florentine state and a vast commercial empire. As a poet and a patron, or financial supporter, of poets, he stimulated the revival and splendor of Italian literature.

Lorenzo de' Medici was born in Florence, Italy, on January 1, 1449. He was the son of Piero the Gouty (1414–1469) and the grandson of Cosimo the Elder (1389–1464). His mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, was also an accomplished poet. Cosimo was aware of his son Piero's physical weakness and fearful that Piero would not long survive him. He therefore groomed his grandson Lorenzo to become a merchant and take over the family business. Lorenzo enjoyed the best education available, learning Greek, Latin, and philosophy (search for a general understanding of values and reality through speculative thinking). He received both a formal education, in rigorous sessions with teachers, and an informal one, in the company of humanists (scholars who promoted the human-centered literary and intellectual movement based on the revival of classical culture that started the Renaissance) and statesmen. While still a youth, he began to write poetry, usually about love. In 1469, on his father's advice, he married Clarice Orsini, a woman who belonged to one of the oldest, most powerful noble families of Rome.

Becomes ruler of Florence

Piero died on December 5, 1469, and two days later the twenty-year-old Lorenzo was asked by a delegation (committee) of eminent citizens to take control of the city-state of Florence. This he did, ruling as his father and grandfather had done, from behind the scenes and without holding any public office. In 1471 Lorenzo increased the prestige and stability of his family. He made an agreement with Pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484; reigned 1471–84), head of the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian religion based in Rome, Italy), by which the Medicis would continue to handle the finances of the papacy (office of the pope). The following year he won the hearts of all Florentines by saving the city from an imminent famine. When the bad harvest of that year threatened the population with disaster, it was Lorenzo who imported large amounts of grain.

Although it was always central to Medici policy to retain close ties with the Holy See (office of the pope), relations between Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus were not always friendly. The pope was displeased when Lorenzo's diplomacy (political negotiations) achieved an alliance between Florence, Venice, and Milan. As ruler of the Papal States (territory controlled by the pope), Sixtus thought that such a combination was more than a match for the armies of the church, which indeed they were. Sixtus felt his ambitions to expand the papal territory had been ruined and was uneasy about the safety of the territory already under the control of the church. His hostility grew when he learned that Lorenzo was trying to buy the town of Imola, which was strategically important to anyone who was trying to seize the surrounding territory. Consequently the pope approved a plot designed to rid Florence of both Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano (1479–1516). The chief conspirators were the Pazzi family, a rival banking house and bitter enemies of the Medicis. The plan was to assassinate the two brothers at a moment when their guard would be down, during the celebration of mass on Easter Sunday, April 26, 1478. (Mass is a Catholic worship service. Easter is the Christian celebration of the day when Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, rose from the dead after being crucified.) Giuliano was slain, but Lorenzo escaped with just wounds. The people of Florence rallied to the side of the Medicis and unleashed terrible revenge on the conspirators, most of whom did not survive the day. Among those killed was Francesco Salviato, archbishop (head of a church district) of Pisa.

The enraged pope excommunicated (expelled) Lorenzo from membership in the church and placed an interdict on the city. (An interdict is a papal order that removes the right of church sacraments, such as marriage and burial, from the citizens of a district.) In 1479, in the midst of unbearable tension, Sixtus and King Ferdinand I (1423–1494; ruled 1458–94) of Naples declared war on Florence. Lorenzo, knowing that the safety of his city and his dynasty were at stake, undertook the most hazardous adventure of his colorful career. Virtually placing his life in the hands of Ferdinand, Lorenzo went to Naples to meet with the king. Ferdinand was won over by Lorenzo's charm and his persuasive argument that it would not do for Italy to be divided or for Florence to be destroyed. Lorenzo returned to Florence with the gift of peace and was received with great joy. Sixtus was bitter but grudgingly made peace with Lorenzo in 1480. This was the last time that Lorenzo's control over Florence and its possessions would be challenged.

In the political arena Lorenzo appeared to have done everything possible to secure the future of his family line. His eldest son and heir, Piero (1471–1503), was trained by his father as a political leader and patron of the arts. In 1487 Piero was married to Alfonsina Orsini, an alliance that renewed the important tie with the family of Lorenzo's wife Clarice. Most important to Lorenzo's plans was a friendly relationship with Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492; reigned 1484–92). In 1486 Lorenzo negotiated peace in the Baron's War between the papacy and Ferdinand of Naples. He then arranged the marriage of his daughter Maddalena to the pope's nephew, Franceschetto Cibò. In 1488 Lorenzo's son Giovanni (1475–1521) was named a cardinal deacon of the church of Santa Maria in Dominica, at the unheard-of age of thirteen. Giovanni later became Pope Leo X (reigned 1513–21). Only in the management of the Medici bank, which suffered large losses in the 1480s and 1490s, can Lorenzo be said to have failed in providing for his heirs.

Council of Seventy

A new constitution in 1480 simplified the structure of Florentine government. The Signory, or executive branch, chose thirty citizens, who in turn selected forty more, all to serve for life on a new council. It was called the Council of Seventy. From that time forward all other branches, including the Signory, were responsible to the permanent Council of Seventy. Since the council was filled with Lorenzo's supporters, the effect of the constitutional change was to make his tyranny more obvious. Under this rule the prosperity of Florence grew, primarily in banking and commerce. Lorenzo contributed greatly to this prosperity through the peace that his diplomacy secured from 1480 until his death in 1492.

Patronizes Renaissance culture

The private fortune of the Medicis declined under Lorenzo's management, primarily because he tended to neglect personal business in favor of diplomatic and cultural concerns. It is not accidental that the last decade of his life coincided with the period of Florence's greatest artistic contributions to the Renaissance. Lorenzo commissioned works by painters Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), and Fra Filippo Lippi (1457–1504) to add beauty to the city. The humanist John Lascaris (c. 1445–c. 1535) and the poet Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494) traveled long distances at the request and the expense of Lorenzo in search of manuscripts to enlarge the Medici libraries. What could not be bought was copied, and Lorenzo permitted the scribes (those who copy texts) of other eager book collectors to copy from his manuscripts. When Poliziano and others scorned the new invention of printing from movable type (see Johannes Gutenberg entry), Lorenzo had the foresight to recognize its value and encourage its use. The famous Platonic Academy frequently met at Lorenzo's palace, where in lively philosophic discussions the ruler was the equal of humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494; see entry), painter and architect Michelangelo (1475–1564; see entry), and philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). The University of Pisa owes it revival to Lorenzo.

Lorenzo was also an important patron of sculpture, architecture, and music. He commissioned two bronze statues, probably Boy With Fish and David, from Andreas del Verrocchio (1435–1488) for his villa at Careggi. He also provided stimulus to public and ecclesiastic (religious) projects. Among them was a plan for neighborhood renewal in the quarter of San Giovanni. He financed Verocchio's work on the tombs of Piero and Diovanni de' Medici in San Lorenxo. He also commissioned the building of a monastery (house for monks, members of a religious order) for the Augustinian Observants (a religious order) at San Gallo, and sponsored a competition to design a cathedral facade (front wall). In music Lorenzo was influenced from an early age by Antonio Squarcialupi, who asked an important composer to set one of Lorenzo's verses to music. Lorenzo also brought Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac (1450–1517) to Florence, where he became musical tutor to the Medici children.

Revives Tuscan Italian

The many feats of patronage touched upon here, though significant, are secondary on the scale of Lorenzo's accomplishments. He made a major contribution to Italian poetry by writing verses in Tuscan Italian, the language spoken by natives of Tuscany. The Italian poet Dante (1265–1321), the first to write in Italian, had elevated Tuscan Italian to the status of a literary language. Then the humanists buried it under mounds of classical Latin. Although his friend Poliziano still favored Latin, Lorenzo composed Italian poems that compared favorably with other verse written in his time. He has been credited with restoring the Tuscan dialect (spoken form of a language) to its previous status. Lorenzo's canti carnascialeschi (carnival songs) are still read with pleasure.

Lorenzo was not known for his physical attractiveness, yet his dignity, charm, and wit came from his manner rather than his appearance. He had a reputation for immorality in both his personal life and business practices, but this did not prevent him from being loved and admired. Lorenzo died at his villa at Careggi on April 8, 1492, almost certainly of gout (painful inflammation of the joints). His doctor was accused of negligence and thrown into a well. Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517) wrote music performed at Lorenzo's funeral. A death mask (plaster mold made from the face of a dead person) of Lorenzo can still be seen.

For More Information


Ripley, Alexandra. The Time Returns. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.

Shulman, Sandra. The Florentine. New York, N.Y.: Morrow, 1973.

Web Sites

Medici Family, The. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

"Medici, Lorenzo de', 1492–1519—Italian merchant prince." [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

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