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.
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 on Lorenzo de' Medici
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.