Lorenzo de’ Medici was born in Florence in 1449 to Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Piero de’ Medici. His grandfather Cosimo was the founder of the political power of the Medici and was also much interested in culture and education. Among other things he established a library in San Marco, which was to be at the disposal of anyone who needed it. At his death the library had 400 manuscripts and continued to grow. Lorenzo’s mother, Lucrezia, wrote religious poems and created a friendly atmosphere for her son and artist friends.
Lorenzo’s family, then, had a cultural tradition and interest in humanism that explains the care taken in his education. His first tutor was the humanist Gentile de’ Becchi from Urbino. This was a small city under the dukes of Montefeltro that came to represent the Renaissance city par excellence, as may be seen in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528). The learned dukes of Montefeltro had other ties with Florence in that the mercenary armies they led were hired by the Florentines on various occasions.
Lorenzo, then, was exposed to humanistic thought from the beginning, and his education continued when he attended the lessons of Cristoforo Landino (1424–98), Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) and others at the Studio Fiorentino. At the same time he participated in another tradition, that of the “brigate” that existed long before Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75), who mentions it in the Decameron. The “brigate” were made up of groups of young aristocrats who banded together to look for adventures and entertainment. Lorenzo’s father Piero, who was sickly, needed his son’s help and used him for embassies and other confidential matters from the time he was an adolescent. Probably during his jaunts with the “brigata,” he met Lucrezia Donati (1449-1501) and was in love with her for the rest of his life, or at least she became the one he loved in his love poems. As part of his youthful activities Lorenzo participated in a joust and was declared the winner. In 1469 he married Clarice Orsini (c.1453–88), a member of that powerful Roman family.
With the death of his father that year (Dec. 2, 1469) came the end of what may be called his “careless” years, for the most important citizens came to offer their condolences and at the same time asked him to take over the leadership of Florence and Tuscany. This was a ritual, of course, which had been already played for his father at Cosimo de’ Medici’s death in 1464. Be that as it may, he accepted reluctantly, as he said at the time and often thereafter, for the protection of his family and friends, as well as of Florence.
From then on we have individual highlights within a general policy whose aim was to strengthen his hold on power in Florence and protect the state through alliances that were to maintain a balance of power and also impede invasions of Tuscany by foreign powers. Events of a personal nature were the birth of his children, of whom three males were to have an historical role in the future: Piero, heir to his father, in 1471; Giovanni, the future pope Leo X, in 1475; and Giuliano, duke of Nemours, in 1479.
Throughout his life Lorenzo maintained a court of exceptional artists, poets, philosophers and men of letters and of science, which made of Florence a center of cultural activities. He befriended these and even defended the philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) who had incurred the displeasure of a pope and was accused of heresy. Lorenzo’s efforts and expenditures to beautify his city were incredible. Even more unbelievable is the fact that in the midst of all these occupations he participated in the creative activities of the members of his cultural coterie by being an estimable poet.
In 1472 Lorenzo reopened the University of Pisa, which had fallen on hard times. In that period he had to put an end to the rebellion of the city of Volterra in which he succeeded by means of the duke of Montefeltro’s mercenaries. Two years later, threatened by the designs of Pope Sixtus IV to aggrandize the papal state, Lorenzo concluded an alliance with Milan and Venice. As a result there was an attempt by the Pazzi family to assassinate Lorenzo, probably with the pope’s approval. On April 26, 1478, during the mass attended by Lorenzo the attempt was carried out. Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano was killed, but Lorenzo escaped with a slight wound by locking himself in the sacristy. The rebellion was put down with many casualties, but on June 1st the pope excommunicated Lorenzo, and on June 20th he issued an interdict against Florence. Then the pope, allied with the king of Naples, moved against Florence, which was not ready for war. Here came Lorenzo’s “finest hour” in defense of Florence. He dared to go alone to see the king of Naples putting his life in his hands. He succeeded in convincing the king to break the alliance with the pope. On his return to Florence he was received as the hero who had been ready to give his life in order to save his city.
Although there were other conspiracies and assassination attempts, none was successful. Among other cultural projects, in addition to the rebirth of the University of Pisa, there was the further strengthening of the Studio Fiorentino, where his friend Poliziano taught the Greco-Roman classics in accord with his humanistic thought. With the aid of Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano, he founded a great library that today bears his name (the Laurentian Library). As for guiding the state, Lorenzo had many other diplomatic successes and was able to maintain various alliances necessary for his balance-of-power policy.
Lorenzo’s political career was most successful in that he survived long enough to come to be regarded as the shrewdest statesman in Italy. He was seen as a sort of genius who was able to maintain a political balance among Italian states that was most beneficial. He did indeed watch over his family’s interests, although not so well on the economic side because of his enormous expenditures for artistic purposes.
To counter his statement that he became the political leader of Florence in order to protect his family’s interests first of all, there is the fact that he was capable of sacrifices to ensure the welfare of Florence. His personality and his achievements were such that his greatness was recognized even by those who, like Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), condemned the Medici as the usurpers of power who had put an end to the free republican government, for he was also seen as the one who had enriched Florence artistically in an incredible way.
Lorenzo died on April 8, 1492 while still young. His friends Poliziano and Pico were with him at the end, which has been described for us by Poliziano. Lorenzo il Magnifico was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in the Medici Chapel in a tomb sculpted by il Divino Michelangelo.
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