Lorenzo de’ Medici was born in Florence in 1449. His father, Piero, died at age fifty-three in 1469. Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo, building on the accomplishments of his father, Giovanni, had established himself as the most powerful individual in the Florentine Republic. Medici influence resulted in the wealth accumulated through banking activities. Financial abilities were joined to political talents and ambitions, which made them the most formidable nonroyal family in fifteenth century Europe.
The Medicis were not unique. By the 1400’s, there were other influential families in Florence whose wealth and power also came from banking and commerce. Although a republic, Florence was not a democracy; political rights came from membership in the various guilds which had evolved in the later Middle Ages. At the apex were a small number of Florentines, and it was this wealthy oligarchy which controlled the government. All offices were constitutionally open to all guild members, but through various techniques it was possible to manipulate the system. In Renaissance Florence, however, life was more than simply wealth and power for their own sakes. Civic responsibilities went together with political ambition; one was expected to provide public buildings, sponsor schools, or be a patron of the arts. Participation in politics was also expected, as the Medicis well understood, and other Florentine families matched them in wealth and ambition.
In addition to his banking and political responsibilities, Piero, Lorenzo’s father, was a patron of the sculptor Donatello and the painter Sandro Botticelli. Lorenzo’s mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, was a poet of note. Privately tutored, Lorenzo received a humanistic education through the Latin and Greek classics. Education was not merely intellectual: The body and spirit were equally important. He played the lyre, sang his own songs, and wrote his own verse. He rode well and was an accomplished athlete, and he enjoyed talking to both peasants and popes. Piero arranged for Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini, from an aristocratic Roman family; political and economic considerations were more important than love. Lorenzo was not handsome, with his dark complexion, irregular features, jutting chin, and misshapen nose which denied him a sense of smell. Yet he had a brilliant mind and a charismatic personality.