Lorenzo de’ Medici (January 1, 1449 – April 9, 1492) – called the Magnificent – is probably the most well-known member of the Medici family; he was the son of Piero de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni and the grandson of Cosimo the Elder.
He was a magnate, diplomat, politician, and patron of scholars, artists, and poets. He is well known for his contribution to the art world by sponsoring artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo. His life coincided with the mature phase of Italian Renaissance, and his death coincided with the end of the Golden Age of Florence.
He ruled Florence with his younger brother Giuliano (1453–78) from 1469 to 1478 and, after the latter’s assassination, was sole ruler from 1478 to 1492.
Lorenzo’s father, Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, was equally at the centre of Florentine life, chiefly as an art patron and collector, like his father Cosimo de’ Medici, who was one of the wealthiest men in Europe and the first member of the Medici family to combine running the Medici Bank with leading the Republic of Florence.
Lorenzo’s mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, was a writer of sonnets and a friend to poets and philosophers of the Medici Academy. She became her son’s advisor after the deaths of his father and uncle.
Legend says that in his early childhood, Lorenzo demonstrated unusual intelligence, good taste, curiosity and prodigious memory, all of which was accompanied by a healthy dose of wit, a trait held by many famous Florentines.
Lorenzo was considered the brightest of the five children of Piero and Lucrezia.
Cosimo the Elder was very fond of Lorenzo and ensured that he had the opportunity to study with the best teachers of the time. In particular, Lorenzo attended the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who had a big influence on many elements of Florentine culture. There Lorenzo learned to play the lyre and sing, and discovered a love for poetry and arts.
The young Lorenzo grew up watching his grandfather Cosimo, whom he always tried to surpass in wisdom and cunning.
Ascension to power
At the age of 16, Lorenzo entered politics and demonstrated excellent qualities in administering the family’s fortunes. Piero sent Lorenzo on many important diplomatic missions when he was still a youth, which included trips to Rome to meet the pope and other important religious and political figures.
In 1469 Piero organized a joust to celebrate Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini. In that same year, after the death of his father, Lorenzo assumed power over Florence, without any discord, at the mere age of twenty, along with his brother Giuliano
Recognizing his brother’s superior qualities, Giuliano immediately left to Lorenzo the tasks of government.
Lorenzo did not officially accept power, wanting to be considered a simple citizen of Florence while virtually centralizing into his own hands the power of the city and the state.
In the period between 1469 and 1472, he completely reformed state institutions, suppressed all rivalries existing between families and resolved all family problems to become the supreme arbiter in every question of dynasty. He also ensured a period of peace among the various Italian powers through his influence and important friendships.
By enacting minor changes to the communal constitution, he gained power without losing popular support: the municipal courts were preserved but, deprived of autonomy, became mere instruments in his hands.
Lorenzo, like his grandfather, father, and son, ruled Florence indirectly through surrogates in the city councils, threats, payoffs, and strategic marriages.Although Florence flourished under Lorenzo’s rule, he effectively reigned as a despot, and people had little political freedom. Rival Florentine families inevitably harboured resentment over the Medici’s dominance, and enemies of the Medici remained a factor in Florentine life long after Lorenzo’s passing.
The most notable of the rival families was the Pazzi, who nearly brought Lorenzo’s reign to an end immediately after it began.
The Pazzi Conspiracy
On Easter Sunday, 26 April 1478, in an incident called the Pazzi conspiracy, a group headed by Girolamo Riario, Francesco Pazzi, and Francesco Salviati, the Archbishop of Pisa, with the blessing of his patron Pope Sixtus IV, attacked Lorenzo and his brother and co-ruler Giuliano in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in an attempt to seize control of the Florentine government.
Giuliano was brutally stabbed to death, but Lorenzo escaped with only a minor wound to the shoulder, having been defended by the poet Politian. News of the conspiracy spread throughout Florence and was brutally put down by the populace through such measures as the lynching of the Archbishop of Pisa and the death of the Pazzi family members who were involved.
In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and the punishment of Pope Sixtus IV’s supporters, the Medici and Florence suffered from the wrath of the Holy See, which seized all the Medici assets Sixtus could find, excommunicated Lorenzo and the entire government of Florence, and ultimately put the entire Florentine city-state under interdict. When these moves had little effect, Sixtus formed a military alliance with King Ferdinand I of Naples, whose son, Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, led an invasion of the Florentine Republic, still ruled by Lorenzo.
Lorenzo rallied the citizens. However, with little support from the traditional Medici allies in Bologna and Milan (the latter being convulsed by power struggles among the Milanese ruling family, the Sforza), the war dragged on, and only diplomacy by Lorenzo, who personally traveled to Naples, resolved the crisis. Lorenzo emerged from the conflict with greatly increased prestige.
That success enabled Lorenzo to secure constitutional changes within the Florentine Republic’s government, which further enhanced his own power.
Thereafter, Lorenzo, like his grandfather Cosimo de’ Medici, pursued a policy of maintaining peace, balancing power between the northern Italian states, and keeping the other major European states such as France and the Holy Roman Empire’s Habsburg rulers out of Italy. Lorenzo maintained good relations with Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, as the Florentine maritime trade with the Ottomans was a major source of wealth for the Medici.
Lorenzo is remembered as The Magnificent for his political astuteness as well as his artistic skills. He was a writer, a poet and a great patron: in these capacities he did so much to beautify his beloved Florence. In his novel Inferno, Dan Brown sums up that Lorenzo was said to have had a superb eye.
Lorenzo was both ruler and scholar. A distinguished vernacular poet, he was also passionately interested in Classical antiquity and became the center of a humanist circle of poets, artists, and philosophers, which included Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, Botticelli, Bertoldo di Giovanni, and Michelangelo.
He enriched the collections of the Medici family with precious works of art and rare books. Lorenzo expanded the collection of books called Laurentian Library, today the heritage of the city of Florence. Lorenzo’s interest in antiquity is further underlined by the keenness with which he built up an expensive collection of antiquities, including sculptures, gems, cameos, vases, and large-scale marble sculptures.
He continued the Medici patronage of ecclesiastical institutions. Lorenzo enriched the family church of San Lorenzo, where the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici was completed by Verrocchio between 1469 and 1472.
Lorenzo’s influence on the patronage of others extended outside Florence’s borders.
He personified the model of the Renaissance prince.
He died on April 9, 1492, from an inherited disease that degenerated into an infection causing gangrene of the leg. At his bedside were Michelangelo Buonarroti and the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, who administered the last rites.
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This post was originally published in October 28, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on March 15, 2017.