Lorenzo de’ Medici’s rule over Florence is synonymous with the savvy political maneuvering of complicated places like Volterra and Naples, and the give-and-take scheming with corrupt figures like Pope Innocent VIII and Milan’s Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza. What he is remembered for, however, is his patronage of the arts, which hastened the cultural stimulation that dragged Europe out of the Dark Ages.
But does history recognize the impact of the real man? Behind closed doors, Medici’s approach to fatherhood and insatiable yearning for art and poetry ignited calculated political moves, transforming Florence into a haven of trade and a lion’s den of enemies who sought to destroy it all.
Lorenzo de’ Medici was Born for Greatness (Literally)
From the time of his baptism on January 6, 1449 in the shrine of San Giovanni, Lorenzo de’ Medici was introduced to politics. At the time, it was customary for a newborn to be baptized just three days after birth. Medici’s father, Piero, delayed the ceremony by five days so that the event fell on the Feast of the Epiphany and thus associated Lorenzo with the Magi (which symbolizes the Medici in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi) honoring the Christ child. Lorenzo was the first of the Medici clan born with the expectation of extending the legacy that his grandfather Cosimo had established. This is because when Cosimo took power decades earlier, the Medici name didn’t carry nearly as much weight as it did by the time of Lorenzo’s birth.
Also apparent from an early age was Medici’s curious mind. As a boy, his passions included hunting, horse racing, jousting, animal husbandry, and poetry. These pursuits reveal Medici’s personal side, as much of his poems (which today are taught as curriculum in Italian schools) express a yearning to chase leisurely activities instead of state affairs. It was this yearning, grown more intense by a political life that forced him away from his hobbies, that sparked the ever-growing list of Renaissance artists that he commissioned both for himself and as diplomatic offerings for contentious figures like Pope Sixtus IV (it was Medici who sent Botticelli to lend a hand in decorating the Sistine Chapel).
The People’s Banker
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Lorenzo de’ Medici first came to power at just 20 years old, when his father died on December 2, 1469. Not only did de facto control of Florence go straight to his hands, but the young statesman found himself at the helm of the Medici bank. This multinational conglomerate had locations in Rome, Milan, Pisa, Venice, Lyons, Avignon, Bruges, and London. Extravagant spending and a habit of extending lendees unlimited credit saw the bank’s steady decline under Lorenzo’s leadership. However, he was by no means without funds.
His role as the leader of Europe’s wealthiest bank provided him the financial leverage he needed to assert authority as Florence’s unofficial ruler. With Europe’s money and the most important city for trade, culture, and finance under Lorenzo’s direct control, his position threatened the rulers that neighbored him. This included King Ferrante of Naples, the Pazzi family and their rival bank, and, eventually, Pope Sixtus in Rome. In a time when undermined authority more often than not meant torture and death, Lorenzo’s enemies sought to disintegrate his power from the start. But he was not called “the Magnificent” for nothing. Much to the chagrin of his rivals, Medici beat many at their own game.
The Art in Politics
In Medicean Florence, art and culture served as propaganda. By providing studios and sculpture gardens to history’s most iconic artists (such as Botticelli and Michelangelo), Medici turned Florence into a haven where people felt free to turn creative passions into a living. His open reverence for philosophy and education also sparked his revival of the University of Pisa in 1473, a project that added his name to a public institution that would directly benefit the development of the people. The result? Pride became synonymous with the Florentine identity; the masses were content to live under Medici’s complete control.
But Medici propaganda couldn’t charm everyone. For enemies like Pope Sixtus IV and the notorious Pazzi family, goals to revive their reputations through cultural projects competed with Medici’s. Medici perceived Pope Sixtus’ attempts to return Rome to its former glory as competition. This is demonstrated through a disagreement on yielding His Holiness the trade-centric town of Imola, Florence’s neighbor under Medici influence. By directly standing in the way of the loan Sixtus needed to secure the city, Medici revealed his desire not to allow the fledgling Rome to eventually outshine Florence.
Medici’s passion for art also resulted in the competition for architectural greatness between his family chapel of San Lorenzo and that of the Pazzi family, Santa Croce. While Michelangelo would later design the grand Medici tombs at San Lorenzo, the Pazzi chapel was designed by Brunelleschi himself (the man behind Il Duomo), which historians contend must have irked the culturally-competitive Lorenzo.
Fatherhood as a Political Tactic
To further understand how Lorenzo de’ Medici, the man, ignited the world’s most significant cultural resurgence, one must become acquainted with Lorenzo de’ Medici the father. Like Piero before him, Lorenzo used his sons as chess pieces on a world map that he’d manipulate for decades after his death. To survive cutthroat times, the burden of legacy weighed the shoulders of Medici men. His son, known to history as Piero the Unfortunate, would never live up to his father’s image; Lorenzo’s harsh hand in educating him demonstrates this.
Florence under the rule of Lorenzo the Magnificent was an unstable, grudge-holding republic. Pope Sixtus’ involvement in the Pazzi Conspiracy, the Pazzi-orchestrated assassination attempt that killed Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano, stemmed from a simple business disagreement: Lorenzo’s refusal of Sixtus’ loan for Imola. The incident set the stage for the way Medici ruled Florence for years: with an iron fist influenced by the constant threat of enemies targeting not just his rule, but his life.
This is where his ambitions for his children became crucial. When his second son, Giovanni, and his nephew, Giulio, were only in their teens, Medici sent the two to the Vatican where he convinced Pope Innocent to elevate them to cardinals shortly after becoming ordained. Both Giovanni and Giulio would eventually become popes. Medici’s strategy succeeded; by securing authority in Rome, never again would the family have to fear the wrath of a scheming pope and rival Papal State neighbors.
Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Imprint Links Europe
Lorenzo the Magnificent’s influence extends beyond Florence’s borders. When Giovanni became Pope Leo X, he followed his father’s footsteps by elevating Raphael’s artistic career. The artist’s most significant patron, Pope Leo, commissioned Raphael to complete various tapestries and frescoes that adorn the Vatican. Raphael even adjusted The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, 1514, to depict Leo X’s face instead of Leo I’s.
Beyond Italy itself, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s direct descendants include Catherine and Marie de’ Medici, both queens of France who wielded significant political influence in their roles as regents and as queen mothers. Like her great-uncle Pope Leo X, Catherine de’ Medici emulated their patriarch by commissioning important architectural projects such as Paris’ Tuileries Gardens and the expansion of the Château de Chenonceau. Suffice it to say, Medici’s unfettered ambition ran in the family.
Lorenzo de’ Medici died at 43, on April 8, 1492. In a relatively short time, his contributions catapulted Europe into the modern era. Forever in history, the Medici name will conjure images of Il Duomo, Botticelli’s most significant works, and a lineage that bore queens, princes, and popes. Because of him, the Medici clan was never again associated with their humble merchant origins. It all began with one man, who earned the nickname “Magnificent.”
Unger, M. (2009). Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Simon & Schuster.