Lorenzo de' Medici

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Lorenzo de' Medici

The Italian merchant prince Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492), called "il Magnifico," ruled both the Florentine state and a vast commercial empire. As a poet and a patron of poets, he stimulated the revival and splendor of Italian literature.

At a time when the major city-states of Italy were engaged in a fierce political and economic rivalry with one another, Lorenzo de' Medici managed to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of Florence. If he was the inferior of his Medici ancestors in financial acumen, he was their superior in artistic sensitivity and understanding, so that, during the latter half of the 15th century, when the despots of Italy strove consciously through lavish patronage of artists to enhance the prestige and stability of their houses, Lorenzo was acknowledged as the greatest Maecenas of his age.

Lorenzo de' Medici was born in Florence on Jan. 1, 1449. He was the son of Piero the Gouty and the grandson of Cosimo, Pater Patriae. Cosimo, aware of his son Piero's physical weakness and fearful that Piero would not long survive him, prudently groomed his grandson for the exercise of authority. Lorenzo enjoyed the best education available, learning Greek, Latin, and philosophy, both formally, in rigorous sessions with teachers, and informally, in the company of humanists and statesmen. While still a youth, he began to write sonnets and other poems, usually about love. In 1469, on the advice of his father, Piero, he married Clarice Orsini, thereby establishing a bond with one of the oldest, most powerful noble families of Rome.

Ruler of Florence

Piero died on Dec. 5, 1469, and 2 days later the 20-year-old Lorenzo was asked by a delegation of eminent citizens to take control of the state. This he did, ruling as his father and grandfather had done, from behind the scenes and without holding any public office.

Lorenzo enhanced the prestige and stability of his house when he came to an agreement with Pope Sixtus IV in 1471 by which the Medici would continue to handle the papal finances. And in 1472 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.

Pazzi Conspiracy and Aftermath

Although it was a maxim of Medici policy to retain close ties with the Holy See, relations between Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus were not always cordial. The Pontiff was very displeased when Lorenzo's diplomacy achieved an alliance between Florence, Venice, and Milan, for such a combination was more than a match for the armies of the Church. Sixtus felt thwarted in his ambitions to expand the papal territory and uneasy about the safety of what the Church already held. His hostility grew when he learned that Lorenzo was trying to buy the town of Imola, which was strategically important. Consequently the Pope agreed to a plot designed to rid Florence of both Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. The chief conspirators were the Pazzi family, a rival banking house and bitter enemies of the Medici. 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. Giuliano was slain, but Lorenzo escaped with wounds. The people of Florence rallied to the Medici standard and visited a terrible retribution on the hapless conspirators, most of whom did not survive the day. Among those killed was Francesco Salviato, Archbishop of Pisa.

The Pope, enraged, excommunicated Lorenzo and placed an interdict on the city. In 1479, in the midst of unbearable tension, Sixtus and King Ferrante (Ferdinand) 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. He went by sea to Naples, virtually placing his life in the hands of the King. Ferrante was won over by Lorenzo's charm and his persuasive argument that it would not do for Italy to be divided or Florence destroyed. Lorenzo returned to Florence with the gift of peace and was received with great joy. Sixtus was bitter but grudgingly bowed to necessity and in 1480 made peace. Lorenzo's control over Florence and its possessions would not be challenged again.

A new constitution in 1480 simplified the structure of Florentine government. The Signory, or executive branch, chose 30 citizens, who in turn selected 40 more, all to serve for life in a new council. Hence forward all other branches, including the Signory, were responsible to this permanent Council of Seventy. Since the council was filled with Lorenzo's adherents, the effect of the constitutional change was to make his tyranny more obvious. Under this rule the prosperity of Florence grew, primarily through banking and commerce. Not the least of Lorenzo's contributions to this prosperity was the peace which his diplomacy, from 1480 until his death, maintained between Florence and the rest of Italy.

Cultural Life

The private fortune of the Medici did not fare so well under Lorenzo's management as did the economy of Florence. This is attributable to the fact that he tended to neglect business, so preoccupied was he with 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. He paid with a lavish hand the painters Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Fra Filippo Lippi to add beauty to the city. The humanist John Lascaris and the poet Angelo Poliziano traveled great distances at the behest 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 of other eager book collectors to copy from his stores. When Poliziano and others scorned the new invention of printing from movable type, 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 quite the equal of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo, and Marsilio Ficino. The University of Pisa owes it revival to Lorenzo.

The prodigious feats of patronage touched upon here, as valuable as they are, are secondary in the scale of Lorenzo's accomplishments. It is not too much to say that Lorenzo, with his verses in the vernacular, elevated Tuscan Italian to the dignity and respect it had known in Dante's time, before the humanists buried it under mounds of classical Latin. Although his friend Poliziano still favored Latin, Lorenzo composed Italian poetry not inferior to anything written in his time. His canti carnascialeschi (carnival songs) are still read with pleasure.

Lorenzo was not an attractive man physically. He had a heavy face with a large flat nose and a swarthy complexion. He was tall and robust and given to athletic exertions. His dignity, charm, and wit lay in his manner rather than his appearance. Physical shortcomings and a reputation for personal and commercial immorality, however, did not prevent him from being loved and admired. He died on April 9, 1492, still a despot, but one whose hand had lain lightly on his subjects.

Further Reading

An old but elegantly written biography of Lorenzo is William Roscoe, Life of Lorenzo de' Medici (1851). See also Cecilia Ady, Lorenzo dei Medici and Renaissance Italy (1955), and the two penetrating studies by Ferdinand Schevill, The Medici (1949) and History of Florence (1936), also published in paperback (2 vols., 1963); the last is the best short history of Florence in English. A recent history of the Medici which includes a portrait of Lorenzo is Marcel Brion, The Medici: A Great Florentine Family (1969), a large-format book that is rich in color plates. □

Medici, Lorenzo de' (1449–1492)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Medici, Lorenzo de' (14491492)

Lorenzo il Magnifico, or Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruled the Italian city of Florence as a patron of artists, writers, and humanists. During his reign, the city saw a rebirth of the arts and scholarship that is known as the Renaissance.

The scion of a wealthy family of bankers, he was the grandson of Cosimo de' Medici, the first of the Medici to rule Florence. Lorenzo's father Piero de' Medici il Gottoso (the Gouty) was a collector of ancient works and contemporary art; his mother Lucrezi Tornabuoni was an amateur poet. His parents gave Lorenzo a thorough education in ancient Greek and Latin, and the classical authors. At the age of seventeen he married Clarice Orsini, a member of a wealthy and influential Roman family. On the death of Piero de' Medici in 1469, Lorenzo became head of the family and, with his brother Giuliano serving as his co ruler, the leading citizen of Florence.

One of Lorenzo's first achievements was to affirm the handling of the papal finances by the Medici bank. But the great wealth and influence of the Medici family were cause for grave alarm for Pope Sixtus IV, who sought to extend the papal territories northward to the frontier of Tuscany. Over the next few years, the pope formed an alliance with the Pazzi clan, rivals of the Medici. On April 26, 1478, a few of the Pazzi and their hangers-on attacked Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano, during Mass in the cathedral of Florence. Although Lorenzo escaped his would-be assassins, Giuliano was stabbed to death. The pope then excommunicated Lorenzo and put the city of Florence under an interdict, forbidding the Florentines to celebrate Mass.

At the pope's urging, King Ferdinand I of Naples then ordered an assault on Florence. In response, Lorenzo courageously sailed to Naples and negotiated directly with the king. Persuaded by his adversary's bold actions, Ferdinand made a truce with Florence, and both Naples and Florence were spared a costly war. Eventually the pope also ended hostilities, and Lorenzo emerged as the most influential ruler in northern Italy.

Lorenzo passed a new constitution for the city in 1480, establishing a council of seventy leading citizens who would govern the city for life. He brought the leading artists of Italy, including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Fra Filippo Lippi, Andrea del Verrochio, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti, as well as the scholars Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to his splendid court. He expanded his family's splendid library by sending agents through southern and eastern Europe in search of unknown ancient manuscripts, which became the foundation of Florence's famous Laurentian Library. As copies of these books traveled through Italy and Europe, they played a vital role in the spread of classical learning and humanism that was the foundation of the Renaissance.

Lorenzo staged great festivals, processions, and entertainments for the citizens of Florence. Early in his reign, he ensured the city's grain supply during a famine, an action that won over the population to enthusiastically support him. Nevertheless, he was careless with money, and his expensive tastes and desire for fine art and spectacle drained the treasuries of both his family and city. In addition, a backlash arrived with Girolamo Savonarola, a fiery Dominican monk who bitterly condemned the lavish and decadent tastes of the Florentines and conducted public burnings of art and books in the city's central square.

After the death of Lorenzo, the truce he had arranged among the city-states of northern Italy soon gave way. The peninsula again fell into violent squabbling and became prey to foreign rulers, including the king of France, who invaded Italy in 1494. His son Giovanni was elected Pope Leo X, and his nephew Giulio, the son of Giuliano, was Pope Clement VII.

See Also: Medici, Cosimo de'; Michelangelo Buonarroti; Pazzi Conspiracy

Medici, Lorenzo de

views updated May 21 2018

Medici, Lorenzo de' ( the Magnificent) (1449–92) Ruler of Florence, grandson of Cosimo de' Medici (the Elder). In 1469 he succeeded his father, Piero. His grip on power worried Pope Sixtus IV, who instigated a coup led by the rival Pazzi family. Lorenzo survived an assassination attempt and ruthlessly clamped down on his enemies. His patronage of Renaissance artists drained the Medici coffers, so Lorenzo gained control of public funds. A notable poet, he encouraged writers. Girolamo Savonarola attacked his autocratic rule.

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