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

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Magnifico is a vividly colorful portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, the uncrowned ruler of Florence during its golden age. A true "Renaissance man," Lorenzo dazzled contemporaries with his prodigious talents and magnetic personality. Known to history as Il Magnifico (the Magnificent), Lorenzo was not only the foremost patron of his day but also a renowned poet, equally adept at composing philosophical verses and obscene rhymes to be sung at Carnival. He befriended the greatest artists and writers of the time -- Leonardo, Botticelli, Poliziano, and, especially, Michelangelo, whom he discovered as a young boy and invited to live at his palace -- turning Florence into the cultural capital of Europe. He was the leading statesman of the age, the fulcrum of Italy, but also a cunning and ruthless political operative. Miles Unger's biography of this complex figure draws on primary research in Italian sources and on his intimate knowledge of Florence, where he lived for several years.

Lorenzo's grandfather Cosimo had converted the vast wealth of the family bank into political power, but from his earliest days Lorenzo's position was precarious. Bitter rivalries among the leading Florentine families and competition among the squabbling Italian states meant that Lorenzo's life was under constant threat. Those who plotted his death included a pope, a king, and a duke, but Lorenzo used his legendary charm and diplomatic skill -- as well as occasional acts of violence -- to navigate the murderous labyrinth of Italian politics. Against all odds he managed not only to survive but to preside over one of the great moments in the history of civilization.

Florence in the age of Lorenzo was a city of contrasts, of unparalleled artistic brilliance and unimaginable squalor in the city's crowded tenements; of both pagan excess and the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the Dominican preacher Savonarola. Florence gave birpth to both the otherworldly perfection of Botticelli's Primavera and the gritty realism of Machiavelli's The Prince. Nowhere was this world of contrasts more perfectly embodied than in the life and character of the man who ruled this most fascinating city.

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About the Author:

Miles J. Unger writes on art, books, and culture for The Economist. Formerly the managing editor of Art New England, he was a contributing writer to The New York Times. He is the author of Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World; The Watercolors of Winslow HomerMagnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ MediciMachiavelli: A Biography; and Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. Visit MilesJunger.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Magnifico

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 his contemporaries little suspected.

A more engaging portrait emerges in Piero’s private letters that reveal a conscientious man deeply attached to his family and continually fretting over their uncertain future. He was a loving and devoted husband to Lucrezia Tornabuoni, a descendant of one of Florence’s most ancient families, and their correspondence reveals an unusually close bond. “[E]very day seems a year until I return for your and my consolation,” wrote Lucrezia from Rome to Piero, while Piero confessed that he awaited her arrival “with infinite longing.”

Piero was also a devoted, if sometimes overbearing, father, particularly with his oldest son, who could not leave town without being pursued by letters filled with unsolicited advice and constructive criticism. Piero’s letters alternately exhibit pride in his son’s precocious ability and an almost neurotic need to interfere in the smallest details of his conduct. “You will have received my letter of the 4th,” he wrote to Lorenzo in Milan, “telling you what conduct to pursue, all of which remember; in a word, it is necessary now for you to be a man and not a boy; be so in words, deeds and manners.” For the most part Lorenzo took his father’s nagging in good humor, though occasionally his exasperation shows through, as when he responded to yet another request for information, “I wrote to you two days ago, and for this reason I have little to say.”

 

The leaders of the current revolt were all prominent figures of the reggimento who viewed Cosimo’s death as an opportunity to satisfy their own ambition. Those like Agnolo Acciaiuoli, who had suffered exile with Cosimo when he ran afoul of the then ruling Albizzi family and shared in his triumphant return in 1434, felt that after thirty years of loyal service to the Medici cause their time had come. “Piero was dismayed when he saw the number and quality of the citizens who were against him,” wrote Machiavelli some sixty years after the events in his Florentine Histories, “and after consulting with his friends, he decided that he too would make a list of his friends. And having given the care of this enterprise to some of his most trusted men, he found such variety and instability in the minds of the citizens that many of those listed as against him were also listed in his favor.”

Machiavelli’s account captures something of the confusion of those days as once trusted friends were suspected of secret treachery. Considering the formidable array of figures now agitating for change, a betting man might have thought twice before wagering a few soldi on the Medici cause. They included such prominent and respected citizens as Luca Pitti, who, at least in his own mind, was Cosimo’s logical successor; the gifted orator Niccolò Soderini; Agnolo Acciaiuoli, a scholar and a friend of Cosimo’s whose thoughtful views carried great weight with his fellow citizens; and Dietisalvi Neroni, a shrewd political operator who had been a fixture within the highest circles of the reggimento.

In secret nighttime meetings in the city’s sacred buildings—the Party of the Plain favoring the monastery La Crocetta, while their adversaries favored the equally pious La Pietà—men began to look to their own defense, each suspecting the other of plotting the overthrow of the constitutional government. In a typically Florentine mixture of the sacred and profane, fervent prayers to the Virgin were often followed by calls to riot and mayhem.

By most measures the Medici were ill prepared for the coming contest. Piero’s poor health had thrust Lorenzo into a position of responsibility at an age when his companions were still completing their studies or were apprenticed in the family business. He had already served as his father’s envoy on crucial diplomatic missions, including the wedding of a king’s son and an audience with the newly elected pope. A few weeks earlier he had returned from a trip abroad to introduce himself to Ferrante, King of Naples, “with whom I spoke,” he wrote his father, “and who offered me many fine compliments, which I wait to tell you in person.” The importance for the Medici of such contacts with the great lords of Europe is suggested by Piero’s hunger for news of the meeting. Lorenzo’s tutor and traveling companion, Gentile Becchi, wrote an enthusiastic report of Lorenzo’s performance before the king. Referring to this account, Piero confessed, “Three times I read this for my happiness and pleasure.” Consorting with royalty provided this family of bankers much-needed prestige, though such social climbing if too vigorously pursued could also arouse the jealousy of their peers who believed that they were thus being left behind.*

The looming crisis would demand of Lorenzo a set of skills different from those he had recently practiced in the courts of great lords. The retiring Piero needed Lorenzo to act as the public face of the regime, the charismatic center of an otherwise colorless bureaucracy. As preparations were made for the coming battle, it was often to Lorenzo, rather than the ailing Piero, that men turned to pledge their loyalty. Marco Parenti, a cloth merchant of moderate means whose memoirs provide an eyewitness account of the events of these months, tells how the countryside was armed in the days leading up to the August crisis. “Thus it was arranged,” he wrote,

that there were 2000 Bolognese horsemen loyal to the duke of Milan. These were secretly ordered to be held in readiness for Piero; the Serristori, lords with a great following in the Val d’Arno, arranged with Lorenzo, son of Piero, a great fishing expedition on the Arno and many great feasts where were gathered peasants and their l...

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