Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici

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9780743254342: Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici
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Portrays the Renaissance-era statesman as a powerful and intellectual patron to some of history's most creative minds, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, revealing the genius, violence, and influential adversaries that marked his life. 35,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Miles J. Unger is an art historian and journalist.  Formerly the managing editor of Art New England, he is currently a contributing writer to The New York Times.  He is the author of The Watercolors of Winslow Homer and Magnifico: the Brilliant life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I. The Road from Careggi

"[I]t is necessary now for you to be a man and not a boy; be so in words, deeds and manners."

-- Piero de' Medici to Lorenzo, May 11, 1465

Late on the morning of August 27, 1466, a small group of horsemen left the Medici villa at Careggi and turned onto the road to Florence. It was a journey of three miles from the villa to the city walls along a meandering path that descended through the hills that rise above Florence to the north. Dark cypresses and hedges of fragrant laurel lined the road, providing welcome shade in the summer heat. Through the trees the riders could catch from time to time a glimpse of the Arno River flashing silver in the sun.

On any other day this would have been a relaxing journey of an hour or so, the heavy August air encouraging a leisurely pace, the beauties of the Tuscan countryside inspiring laughter and conversation among the young men. "There is in my opinion no region more sweet or pleasing in Italy or in any other part of Europe than that wherein Florence is placed," wrote a Venetian visitor, "for Florence is situated in a plain surrounded on all sides by hills and mountains.... And the hills are fertile, cultivated, pleasant, all bearing beautiful and sumptuous palaces built at great expense and boasting all manner of fine features: gardens, woods, fountains, fish ponds, pools and much else besides, with views that resemble paintings."

But today, the mood was somber. The men peered nervously from side to side, fingering the pommels of their swords. Gnarled olive trees, ancient and silver-leaved, hugged terraces cut into the slopes, and parallel rows of vines glistening with purple grapes gave the hills a tidy geometry worthy of a fresco by Fra Angelico.

Taking the lead was a young man who rode with the easy grace of a born horseman. His appearance was distinctive, though not at first glance particularly attractive. Above an athletic frame, bony and long-limbed, was a rough-hewn face. His nose, which was flattened and turned to the side as if it had once been broken, gave him something of the look of a street brawler, and the prominent jaw that caused his lower lip to jut out pugnaciously did nothing to soften this impression. Beneath heavy brows peered black, piercing eyes more suggestive of animal cunning than refined intelligence. Dark hair, parted in the middle, hung down to his shoulders, providing a stern frame to the irregular features. Even a close friend, Niccolò Valori, was forced to admit that "nature had been a step-mother to him with regard to his personal appearance. [N]onetheless," continued Valori, "when it came to the inner man she truly acted as a kindly mother.... [A]lthough his face was not handsome it was full of such dignity as to command respect."*

This homely face belonged to Lorenzo, the seventeen-year-old son and heir of Piero de' Medici. Since the death of Lorenzo's grandfather Cosimo, two years earlier, Piero had taken over the far-flung Medici banking empire, a position that made him one of the richest men in Europe. But it was not wealth alone that made the Medici name famous throughout Europe. The Medici, though they possessed no titles, were regarded by those unfamiliar with the intricacies of local politics as kings in all but name of the independent Florentine Republic, which, though small compared with the great states of Europe, dazzled the civilized world through the brilliance of her art and the vitality of her intellectual life. Not many generations removed from their peasant origins, the Medici spent lavishly on beautifying their city in the expectation that at least some of its glamour would rub off on its first family.

It was Cosimo who had parlayed his apparently inexhaustible fortune into a position of unprecedented authority in the state. On his tombstone in the family church of San Lorenzo were the words Pater Patriae ("Father of His Country"), bestowed on him by a grateful public for his wise stewardship and generous patronage of the city's civic and religious institutions. Cosimo had dominated the councils of government through the force of his personality and his willingness to open his own coffers when the state was short of cash. Florentines, like modern-day Americans, had a healthy respect for money and seemed to feel that those who showed a talent for amassing it must possess other, less visible virtues. Cosimo rarely held high political office, happy to let others enjoy the pomp of life in the Palazzo della Signoria as long as important decisions were left in his hands.* For a time the gratitude Florentines felt toward Cosimo earned for his son Piero the allegiance of a majority of the citizens, and, until recent troubles, it had been generally assumed that this crucial position as the leading figure in the reggimento -- the regime that really ran Florence, whoever temporarily occupied the government palace -- would one day pass to the young man now guiding his small band along the road to Florence.

On this August morning, however, the fate of the Medici and their government seemed to teeter on a knife's edge. The ancient constitution of the republic, in which the governing of the state had been shared widely among the city's wealthy and middle-class citizens, had been undermined by this single family's rise to prominence. The heavy-handed tactics they used to win and to wield power had stirred up resentment as once proud families saw themselves reduced to little more than servants of the Medici court.

But now a group of rich and influential men saw an opportunity to strike back. The various factions that normally made Florentine politics a lively affair had been secretly arming themselves for months. Rumors of foreign armies on the march -- a different one for each side in the contest -- increased the general paranoia until it seemed as if the smallest incident might touch off a general conflagration.

On one side were the Medici loyalists, the Party of the Plain (named for the site of the Medici palace on low-lying land on the north bank of the Arno), who favored the current system, which they claimed had brought decades of peace and prosperity. On the other was the Party of the Hill, centered on Luca Pitti's palace on the high ground to the south, who pointed out that Medici ascendance had been purchased at the expense of the people's traditional liberty. The most visible figures in the rebellion were former members of Cosimo's inner circle whose democratic zeal, not much in evidence in recent years, was rekindled by the humiliating prospect of having to take orders from his son. Few of them, in fact, had sterling reformist credentials. Most had connived with Cosimo in his systematic undermining of republican institutions, but now they adopted as their own the slogan "Popolo e Libertà!" (the "People and Liberty!").

Discontent with the despotic tendencies of the government was not the only factor precipitating the current crisis. The perceived weakness of the fifty-year-old Piero contributed to a general sense that the regime was not only corrupt but, perhaps even worse, adrift. Even before Cosimo's death in 1464 the influential Agnolo Acciaiuoli, now one of the leaders of the Hill, complained that Cosimo and Piero had become "cold men, whom illness and old age have reduced to such cowardice that they avoid anything that might cause them trouble or worry." The citizens of Florence, said the uncharitable Niccolò Machiavelli some years later, "did not have much confidence in [Cosimo's] son Piero, for notwithstanding that he was a good man, nonetheless, they judged that...he was too infirm and new in the state."

Even many of Piero's supporters shared that gloomy assessment. From his youth, Piero (known to history as il Gottoso, the Gouty) had been plagued by the family ailment that rendered him for long periods a virtual prisoner in his own house. It was a disease that affected not only his body but his temper. The architect Filarete wrote in his biographical sketch of the Medici leader, "those who have [gout] are usually rather acid and sharp in their manner," but that while "few can bear its pains...[Piero] bears it with all the patience he can." Piero also lacked his father's common touch, the earthy humor that endeared Cosimo to the city's humbler elements. (Once when a petitioner, hoping to reform the sagging morals of the city, begged Cosimo to pass a law prohibiting priests from gambling, the practical Cosimo replied, "First stop them from using loaded dice." ) Piero, by contrast, was an aesthete and connoisseur who liked nothing better than to retire to his study, where he could gaze at his fine collection of antique busts, ancient manuscripts, and rare gemstones.

Citizens complained that policy was hatched in the privacy of the Medici palace on the Via Larga, rather than in open debate at the Palace of the Priors, as the sickly Piero was often forced to meet with his trusted lieutenants over dinner in his house or in his bedchamber. Such a reserved and quiet man was unlikely to appeal to the pragmatic merchants of Florence, who approached politics in much the same lively spirit as they entered the city's marketplaces, eager to buy and sell, to argue and cajole, to win an advantage if possible but in any case to strike deals and shake hands at the conclusion of a bargain hard driven but mutually beneficial. In both the Palace of the Priors and in the Mercato Vecchio (the Old Market in the heart of the city), relations of trust built on face-to-face encounters were more important than abstract ideology. Piero was an intensely private man in a world that valued above all the lively give-and-take of the street corner.

The best contemporary portrait of Piero is the fine marble bust by Mino da Fiesole.* The sculpture reveals a handsome man with the cropped hair of an ancient Roman patrician and alert, thoughtful eyes. But there is something in the pugnacious thrust of his chin, a feature passed down to his oldest son, that suggests an inner strength hi...

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