Lorenzo de’ Medici was born on January 1, 1449, in Florence, an independent Italian city-state republic famous then as now for its artistic and intellectual achievements during what scholars call the Italian Renaissance. After 1434, his grandfather Cosimo had established the Medici family’s dominant position within the oligarchic group which governed this republic, and from birth Lorenzo was destined to assume Cosimo’s role.
This was made clear at Lorenzo’s baptism on January 6, 1449, which was attended not only by so celebrated a figure as the archbishop of Florence, Antoninus (later to be canonized), but by official representatives of several important governmental bodies. His parents, Piero de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni (herself from an ancient and powerful Florentine family), brought up Lorenzo conventionally enough, no doubt to avoid arousing envy in the minds of their peers, many of whom were suspicious of Medici political intentions.
Like other patrician children, Lorenzo had his own resident tutor, the priest Gentile Becchi, who reported when his charge was only five how splendidly his humanist studies were progressing–a theme he was to repeat as the young Lorenzo worked his way through the masterpieces of Latin literature and history during the 1450s. From an early age, Lorenzo showed exceptional ability and promise, as even one of his severest contemporary critics, Alamanno Rinuccini, was to admit.
As boys together, Rinuccini writes, he had seen in Lorenzo: an intelligence so pliable and versatile that, in boyish things, whatever he set his mind to he learned and mastered better than did others, dancing, bowmanship, singing, riding, playing games, performing on musical instruments and many other things. Indeed, as early as 14 or 15, Lorenzo began to write poetry in the Italian vernacular which would still command the respect of literary critics even were its author not the famous public figure, Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Although these early verses were in a sense exercises, which inevitably adopted the themes and reworked the poetic techniques of such masters as Francesco Petrarca and Dante Alighieri, Lorenzo was a serious writer who throughout his life produced poetry of increasing independence and virtuosity, tinkering with it almost obsessively. (Most of his poetry is very hard to date as a result of this constant reworking).
Some of Lorenzo’s early verse was set to music, and contemporary correspondence make it clear that music-making, dining and courtship, amidst parties at elegant villas in the country, was a major activity of his youthful company of intimates, which included his brother-in-law Bernardo Rucellai, friends such as Braccio Martelli and the major vernacular poet, Luigi Pulci. It was Pulci who wrote in 1465 that Lorenzo’s “genius is quicker than anybody else’s. ”
Lorenzo’s precocious brilliance as an adolescent was also manifested in the rapidity with which he learned the ropes of interstate diplomacy and the political management within Florence. He has sometimes been depicted by later historians as a Renaissance playboy with intellectual leanings, at least until his father’s death in 1469, but nothing is further from the truth. Certainly after his grandfather Cosimo’s death in August 1464, Lorenzo’s participation in public affairs is increasingly evident.
Since the health of Piero de’ Medici was poor, the Medici family seems to have been intent on grooming Lorenzo to replace his father, as Piero had just replaced Cosimo. Piero de’ Medici began quite early to send his son on quasi-diplomatic missions, as when in the late spring of 1465 the adolescent Lorenzo visited the Sforza duchy of Milan for the wedding of Ippolita Sforza and Alfonso of Aragon, accompanied by fatherly advice to be “alert, a man and not a boy, and make every effort to be both careful and clever in learning how to undertake even greater tasks, for this outing can show the world what you can do. Early in the next year, Lorenzo visited the court of the Kingdom of Naples, enjoying a papal audience in Rome on the way. Elected to the Council of One Hundred Within Florence, Lorenzo began to assume political office, usually by special dispensation because of his extreme youth; so in December 1466 he was elected to the important Council of One Hundred, “notwithstanding his being under age” as the relevant law commented.
More informally, he was learning in the 1460s to cultivate political allies and clients–amici (“friends”) as contemporary sources describe them–just as his Medici relations had always done, offering in return for the allegiance of these dependents all sorts of favors, ranging from political office to tax deductions and suitable marriage partners. His first surviving letter, written on November 18, 1460, when he was 11 years old, is addressed to a rural official on behalf of a humble friend involved in litigation.
From about 1466 onward, we also find Lorenzo active in several religious confraternities, in which devout laymen met to pray and sing religious songs but also (according to contemporary criticisms) to discuss politics, form factions, and even to plot dissension. If there was indeed a wide and genuine streak of religious fervor in Lorenzo’s complicated makeup that would have attracted him to the lay confraternities, there is no doubt that he also found in them a further means of cultivating friends, especially among the youth of Florence, and of watching his family’s potential enemies.
Lorenzo’s formidable mother was almost as much responsible as was his father for setting Lorenzo a good example of how to influence and control events by the cultivation of clients and friends. When she died, many years later in 1482, Lorenzo wrote that Lucrezia had long been “an instrument who relieved me of many burdens. . . . The sole refuge in my many troubles. ” In the summer of 1466, Lorenzo learned how burdensome his political life was likely to be, when some former allies of the Medici, led by such men as Dietisalvi Neroni and Luca Pitti, had moved to oust his father from his preeminent if unofficial position in Florence.
In these troubled events, the young Lorenzo played some part in outmaneuvering his family’s enemies, whose final defeat was marked by a public assembly of citizens in support of the Medici regime on September 2, to whicha foreign embassador reported–“Piero sent about 3000 armed men on to the piazza, with his son Lorenzo himself on horseback and armed to the teeth. ” Threats to his own personal safety were to crop up again in the next year, indeed throughout his life, and it is no wonder that Lorenzo himself looked back on his youth as a difficult and dangerous one.
Meanwhile his family continued to prepare him for leadership, arranging a great armed joust in Piazza Santa Croce on February 7, 1469, which, inevitably, Lorenzo won, despite his own later admission that he was too young for his martial blows to have been very hard. The whole affair cost the huge sum of 10,000 florins, money well spent in keeping Lorenzo on the center stage of all Italy. In June of the same year, Lorenzo was married, amid extraordinary splendor and expense, to Clarice Orsini, from a celebrated Roman noble family.
Lorenzo, with what a Milanese observer at this time described as his “most supple intellect,” was now more than ready to take his place upon Piero’s death, which occurred on December 2, 1469. Several years later, Lorenzo wrote that he had been reluctant to do so. Even so, he had spent the weeks in which his father lay dying in preparation for the invitation extended him to by hundreds of Medici supporters, to become the leader of the Medici and therefore of Florence. Lorenzo’s Government Begins Most contemporaries said that Lorenzo’s ascendancy began well, praising his maturity and sure political instincts.
The Milanese ambassador reported in July 1470 that Lorenzo, like his grandfather, wanted to govern “as much as possible by constitutional methods,” and this adherence to the constitutional letter of the law remained typical of his regime, necessarily so in a city where many people were still wedded to their traditional republican ideology. Nonetheless, it was just as characteristic of Lorenzo to seek to reform or to tinker with the constitution in a way which assured and if possible increased his personal authority, and that of his allies.
Lorenzo’s managing to have passed egislation in July 1471 that set up a bala, a pro-Medicean special council with considerable authority, was an early and notable victory, one achieved against swelling internal opposition to his rule. Among his family’s friends, elder statesmen such as Tommaso Soderini supported the young man while also determined to make his regime a more genuinely oligarchic one than recent Medici pretensions had allowed. Other people were critical of his extreme youth, while still others disapproved of his pro-Milanese foreign policy.
His own elder cousin, Pierfrancesco, was said to have been jealous of Lorenzo’s preeminence, and to have worked secretly against his authority during this period, which in other respects was fraught with tension. Already, Lorenzo’s problems with the great family banking house had begun. Unable personally to supervise its many branches, inside and outside of Italy, as his grandfather had managed to do, and unprepared by his humanist education for the job, Lorenzo had to rely on managers, several of whom did not serve him well, and to adopt policies at times dictated more by political than by commercial imperatives.
In fact, judging from his correspondence, Lorenzo put more time and energy into the bank than scholars have thought, in the end to no avail as it was to continue to decline throughout his ascendancy, and was virtually bankrupt by 1494. Lorenzo was perennially short of liquid capital, despite his family’s extensive country estates, mercantile traditions, and reputation for wealth and its magnificent expression, a fact which explains contemporary charges, not all of them illfounded, that he made personal use of state funds.
His own investment in the alum industry of Volterra, a hill town southwest of Florence, may in part explain Lorenzo’s advocating a punitive expedition against the city, in revolt against Florence in February 1472. On its surrender after a siege, Volterra was subject to a ruthless sack which, while Lorenzo did not personally authorize it, has left his reputation blemished in some historians’ eyes. Throughout the 1470s, Lorenzo’s gradual assertion of authority in Florence and in Italy was achieved by more than just constitutional or, occasionally, forceful means.
He worked assiduously to perfect the informal and extraconstitutional methods of control practiced by his Medici ancestors, becoming within Florence what contemporaries called a big shot, eventually the “boss of the shop”. increasingly, Lorenzo intervened in marriage agreements between prominent families–thereby winning grateful friends and forbidding matches which might have created powerful enemiesand otherwise acted as an arbiter in legal or personal disputes, often among the peasantry.
For his clients came from all social groups, just as the extensive correspondence he maintained knew no frontiers of social class and few of geography. Some letters written to Lorenzo still exist, and his comparatively numerous surviving answers to them, brilliantly expressed, corroborate the contemporary historian Francesco Guicciardini’s judgment that “the letters dictated by him are quite as clever as anyone could wish. ” In his correspondence, Lorenzo’s emerging skills and reputation as a diplomatist on the Italian scene are in evidence, as well as his command of patron-client networks.
By the late 1470s, to aid him in this often confidential work and to handle the scores of personal petitioners who always followed him, Lorenzo came to rely increasingly upon a group of agents, personal secretaries, and aides such as Niccol Michelozzi, Agostino Cegia, and Francesco nicknamed “the goldsmith,” and Florentine bureaucrats with firm Medicean allegiances such as Bartolommeo Scala, Antonio Miniati, and Giovanni Guidi; the last two became so closely identified with the private interests of Florence’s ruling family that in 1494, on the downfall of Lorenzo’s son Piero, they were hunted down savagely by angry citizens.
His Patronage of the Arts and Learning In this first decade of his leadership, Lorenzo’s activities as a patron of the arts and of learning began decisively. To the family collection of antiquities–classical medals, jewels, and vases– Lorenzo added expensive and celebrated pieces of his own. He also continued to build up the excellent Medici private library, especially acquiring Greek manuscripts. Lorenzo supervised with an awesome eye for detail the reestablishment of the University of Pisa, from 1472 onward, interfering in every aspect of the enterprise from the appointment of faculty to questions of student discipline.
He began to turn his attention to architectural patronage, starting modestly by contributing to the rebuilding of the convent of Le Murate in Florence in 1471-72 and continuing to fund his family’s patronage of its neighborhood church of San Lorenzo. In 1474, he acquired a rural estate on a beautiful site at Poggio a Caiano near Pistoia, and seems already to have been planning the great villa, a prototype of the advanced Renaissance style that he in fact began to construct, with his architect Giuliano da San Gallo, a decade later.
The chorus of contemporary praise of Lorenzo as a new Maecenas began at this time, when he was also busy writing poetry, enjoying discussions with the neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, and coming to appreciate the friendship and learning of Angelo Poliziano, one of the greatest philologists of his day. Lorenzo sincerely loved learning and learned men, and had a decided and original taste in the visual arts. But he also saw that his reputation as a patron and practitioner of the arts consolidated his authority in Florence, and beyond.
This authority was never more seriously challenged than in April 1478, when members of the Pazzi family, a powerful and ancient Florentine clan of bankers, plotted with several confederates to overthrow the Medici. There had been subterranean rivalry between the two families, although it is also possible that the Pazzi had motives that were not merely self-interested. In any event, in an attack on the two Medici brothers at mass in the cathedral, Lorenzo escaped with an injury, only to find that his younger brother, Giuliano, had been murdered.
In the aftermath, the Pazzi failed to rally popular support, and most of the culprits and their associates suffered cruel deaths at the hands of the Florentines. The truth of a current adage had been proved: “He who sides with the Medici always prospers, who, on the contrary, takes the part of the Pazzi, is destroyed. ” However, in the subsequent Pazzi War, 1478-80 (in which Florence was pitted against the papacy and the Kingdom of (Naples), things went badly for the Florentines until Lorenzo managed to negotiate a peace settlement by courageously traveling lone to Naples, where he was at the mercy of his enemies.
His return to Florence on March 15, 1480, was a triumph, on which he shrewdly capitalized by almost immediately pushing through constitutional reforms: first a new bala and then the creation of a Council of Seventy which, in Nicolai Rubinstein’s words, became “the supreme agency of control and, through its committees, the principal organ for all important decisions. Even a Medici supporter, such as their erstwhile spy the chronicler Benedetto Dei, thought that the Seventy stood for a “tyrannical sort of government” rather than a “civil one. ” Though some scholars would deny that Lorenzo was ever a tyrant, certainly his grip on Florentine politics, while never completely secure, became firmer and more open in this last period of his short life. As a member of another new government body, the Seventeen Reformers, he took a much more direct role in political decision-making than had been his custom.
For understandable reasons, too, after the Pazzi conspiracy he went everywhere with an armed bodyguard, and in other ways lived a more princely life, traveling extensively between the great country villas he was building in the later 1480s at Poggio, Agnano and Spedaletto. At the same time, he began to put into effect plans for a radical urban renewal in his own quarter of Florence, including a palace for himself which, had it been built, would have been the wonder of Italy.
Lorenzo interfered more and more in the artistic patronage of other Florentines, exercising an almost supervisory role over many major projects, and sending Florentine artists hither and thither to foreign patrons in a game of cultural diplomacy. On the diplomatic stage proper, Lorenzo was a very powerful influence for peace on the turbulent Italian peninsula in the 1480s, while managing to secure his own borders with the capture of Sarzana in the summer of 1487.
Even in his own lifetime, Lorenzo was attaining an almost mythological status as “our earthly God,” as Pierantonio Buondelmonti described him. If, according to another contemporary source, he had been in the 1470s “the first citizen of his republic,” he was “more than lord of this regime” by the next decade, in the words of a non-Florentine observer. Lorenzo died on April 8, 1492, after years of indifferent health, the succession passing smoothly to his eldest son Piero. Gout and related complaints were hereditary in his family, but it is also possible that he suffered from renal tuberculosis.
His slow death, bravely endured with Christian stoicism, was not free of the controversy that marked his life and his subsequent image. The doctor who had failed to save Lorenzo was himself found dead in a well next morning, and all Italy rang with rumors that he had been killed and his patient poisoned. His childhood friend Rinuccini wrote that an obsessively jealous tyrant, who had robbed Florence of its republican liberty, had died. Another citizen said that Florence had lost “a true and living god. “