Lorenzo il Magnifico

Lorenzo de’ Medici Italian merchant prince, called Lorenzo il Magnifico [the magnificent]. He thrived in 1464. His father, Piero de’ Medici, as head of the Medici family and as virtual ruler of Florence. One of the towering figures of the Italian Renaissance, he was a sharp politician, firm in purpose, yet pliant and tolerant, a patron of the arts, literature, and learning and a reputable scholar and poet. Without adopting any official title, he subtly managed to conduct the affairs of the Florentine state.

His lavish public entertainments contributed to his popularity, but, in combination with his mediocre success as a businessman, they helped to drain his funds. His growing control of the government alarmed Pope Sixtus IV, who helped to foment the Pazzi conspiracy (1478) against Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano de’ Medici. Giuliano was stabbed to death during Mass at the cathedral, but Lorenzo escaped with a wound, and the plot collapsed. Lorenzo retaliated against the Pazzi, and Sixtus excommunicated him and laid an interdict on Florence. An honorable peace was made not long afterward.

In 1480, in order to retrieve his huge financial losses, Lorenzo used his political power to gain control over the public funds of Florence. The city, however, flourished, and Lorenzo, who played an important role on the international scene, constantly worked to preserve general peace by establishing a balance of power among the Italian states. Through his credit with Pope Innocent VIII he obtained a cardinal’s hat for his son Giovanni (later Pope Leo X). In spite of the attacks of Girolamo Savonarola, Lorenzo allowed him to continue his preaching. Lorenzo spent huge sums to purchase Greek and Latin manuscripts and to have them copied, and he urged the use of Italian in literature. His brilliant literary circle included Poliziano, Ficino, Luigi Pulci, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. He was a patron of Sandro Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi, Andrea del Verrocchio, Michelangelo, and other famed artists. His own poetry—love lyrics, rustic poems, carnival songs, sonnets, and odes—shows a delicate feeling for nature. His son Piero de’ Medici succeeded him as head of the family but was expelled from Florence two years later. 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 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.

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