Written by Marisa Garreffa
Lorenzo the Magnificent. This was the prophetic title given to Lorenzo de’ Medici, that became an accurate description of his character and the esteem in which he was held by all.
He was one of those brilliant (and irritating) people who was good at everything: an accomplished poet and lyre player, a brilliant statesman, an animal lover, a seducer of women, celebrated as a patron of the arts… the list of his accomplishments goes on. One gift he wasn’t born with, however, was an attractive appearance. Much has been written about his strange, flat nose and “sallow” features, but this was unimportant. He was a man of such charm and confidence that women and men alike were compelled by his spirit, making him successful in both his private and public life. There was one other thing that he was lacking entirely: a sense of smell. Of all the pleasures he enjoyed in life, perfumes and aromas were not included.
He was gifted as a young man, competitive and multi-skilled, with a strong streak of pride and vanity in his own abilities – he hated to lose. He studied with the best teachers and mentors, a community that included the famous poet Luigi Pulci and members of the Platonic Academy, who remained a strong influence throughout his life. He showed maturity and capability at a young age, being sent away by his father on diplomatic missions for the Medici when he was only 15 years old.
His father was grooming him for leadership, and a strategic marriage was included in that training. It was not the tradition of the time for families to look outside of Tuscany when seeking a bride, but Piero and Lorenzo were aware of the political advantages to be gained by creating an alliance with Rome through marriage. His mother Lucrezia was sent to Rome to inspect Clarice Orsini, of whom she reported to be an acceptable match, attractive enough. “We didn’t see her bosom – the women cover it here – but it gave the impression of being well formed.” Lorenzo thought that sounded fine, and said yes to the marriage.
A series of celebrations and banquets were launched, incredible festivities for which Lorenzo would become famous over his life. The Florentines were not happy that one of their favourites would be marrying a Roman, so he hosted a great tournament to appease them, which became the subject of a poem by Luigi Pulci, “La Giostra” di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Four months later, Clarice arrived in great fanfare for the wedding, presented on a magnificent horse with fifty knights. The long celebration featured no less than five elaborate banquets, and endless entertainments including orchestras and performances. It is estimated that guests consumed 150 veal, around 4000 chicken, duck, fish, and other game, washing it all down with around 300 barrels of wine – with each course being presented to a blast of trumpets. Lorenzo ensured that before a single banquet occured, food had been distributed throughout the city to ensure that none of the population went hungry while the wedding party feasted.
Quant’e bella giovinezza
Che si fugge tuttavia!
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia;
Di doman non c’e certezza.
How beautiful is youth, which is so soon over and gone,
let him who would be happy, sieze the moment,
for tomorrow will never come…
(poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici)
He was married for only six months when his father died. A delegation came to visit Lorenzo. They wanted him, with the assistance of his brother Giuliano, to take over from their father in leading the city. An exception would be made to the usual age requirement of 45 years old, as the greater concern was to avoid causing public unrest by ensuring a smooth transition of power with minimal disturbance to the governance of the city. Lorenzo became a leader at the tender age of 20, gaining the title given to Gonfalonier (men selected for office): “Magnifico Messere”, the Magnificent Lorenzo. His treasured youth was over.
His leadership was strong, though the challenges ahead of him were not easy. He inherited the Medici banks, along with the care of the city. He somewhat abandoned the banks, which suffered and eventually closed, while turning his attention towards political life and immersion in philosophy and the arts. Pope Sixtus was determined to expand the power of Rome and the Vatican, and Lorenzo made an enemy when he denied the Pope a loan which would have given him power over Romagna, a strategic location for Florence’s trade. Instead, the Pazzi family loaned the money to the Vatican, the start of a chain of events that would lead to murder.
He was known for an environmental instinct that was unknown in that time, accompanied by a deep love of animals. He had a precious relationship with his horse Morello, loved gardening and raising Cabalrian pigs at the Medici properties in Careggi, established farms in the Mugello, raising cow herds and breeding racehorses for the Palio. He bred silkworms, cultivated honey and fine cheeses, even experimenting with the early production of rice. His favourite was the villa at Poggio a Caiano, where he created a fattoria (Le Cascine), which he filled with white deer, peacocks, spanish purebred rabbits, and even accomodated a giraffe that was a gift from Mohammed ibn-Mahfuz. He spent as much time as possible out in the country, a balance and counterpoint to his city life as a busy statesman and leader.
Lorenzo led with a firm hand, shutting down rebellions in Volterra, and carefully managing tensions with Pisa. His challenges were not easy, but he lead Florence into a period of peace and stability, for which the people loved him. The Pope, aggravated and determined to overthrow him, threatened Florence and told them he would only stop if Lorenzo was evicted. But the Florentines were not interested in supporting the power of the Pope, and they loved Lorenzo, so the Pope was refused. He had underestimated the Florentine hatred of external powers interfering with their lives. Instead, the Pope quietly supported the Pazzi conspiracy, a plot to murder Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano while they were attending mass. It was a great tragedy for Lorenzo, while he survived his injuries, his brother Giuliano was killed; stabbed 19 times. Lorenzo took fierce revenge, hanging every single one of the co-conspirators. Historians estimate that up to seventy people were executed in the aftermath.
He adopted Giuliano’s son as his own, raising them alongside his many sons and daughters. Lorenzo and Clarice had 10 children, though two died as infants and another at age 11. It was just after their young daughter’s death that Clarice also died, succumbing to illness while Lorenzo was away. It was a huge loss for Lorenzo.
He continued writing poetry, and his lavish hospitality would continue throughout his life, taking advantage of the numerous annual festivals as well as visiting dignitaries to present “pageants, tournaments, masques, spectacles and parades, music festivals, revels, dances and amusements of every kind.” His support for the arts was legendary. While he did not directly commission as many artistic works as Medici before him, he was the strongest supporter of the Neo-Platonic ideal that through beauty man could elevate his soul, breaking with the tradition of seeing God as the artist and man as only able to copy. The Renaissance man was the creator himself, and in this time the concept of genius emerged, and Lorenzo did what he could to foster the genius in all those around him. While he didn’t have the funds to hire many artists himself, he organized commissions for them in other states, sending Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Filippino Lippi to Rome, Antonio Pollaiuolo to Milan, Giuliano di Maiano and Andrea del Verocchio to Naples, and recommending Leonardo da Vinci to a generous patron in Milan.
He was the patron of a school for artists lead by Francesco Urbino, the Accademia di San Marco, and he would visit to watch the young artists at work. Leonardo da Vinci studied there, and it was there that Lorenzo discovered Michelangelo, who he took into his own home and raised as his own, supporting him as a son and artist.
“Michelangelo always ate at Lorenzo’s table with the sons of the family, and Lorenzo always treated him with great respect.” Giorgio Vasari
He died in 1492 at only 43 years old, succumbing to a hereditary illness that had also taken his father. When his health failed, he knew that death was near, and was transported to Careggi. On April 5, lightening struck the Florence cathedral and one of the marble balls on its summit crashed to the ground. Lorenzo, sick in bed, wanted to know on which side the ball had fallen. When he was told, he replied, “I shall die, for that is the side nearest to my house.” His prophecy came true, and three days later he slipped into a coma and died. He was buried beside his brother, in the old sacristy of San Lorenzo. In 1559 he was moved to the new sacristy created by Michelangelo, where he still rests, beneath the statue of the Madonna.