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.
Lorenzo was only twenty when Piero died. Given his age, he was reluctant to assume the various political and economic responsibilities, but in fact it was impossible for him not to do so. As he himself noted, it did not bode well for someone of wealth to evade his civic obligations. The same techniques that the Medicis had used to gain influence at the expense of others could equally be used against them; if they wished to maintain their position, they had to participate in the political arena. Not only had Lorenzo been trained by scholars, but also he had been sent upon several diplomatic missions before Piero’s death. At that time, modifications were made in the Florentine constitution which assured the continued primacy of the Medici party, both for Lorenzo and for those other oligarchs who had attached their ambitions to the Medici banner. Nevertheless, Florence remained officially a republic and Lorenzo ostensibly a private citizen.
During Lorenzo’s lifetime, the Medici banks continued to be influential throughout Europe, but less so than earlier. Lorenzo was not particularly interested in banking. Over time, the Medicis became relatively less powerful in banking matters as other cities and nations of Europe rose to positions of power. During Lorenzo’s era, his resources were occasionally put under pressure and he was accused of manipulating the economy of Florence to the benefit of the Medicis. Lorenzo could argue that his position, unofficial as it was, benefited all Florentines and that he deserved to be recompensed. Given the nature of Florentine politics, it was perhaps impossible to separate Lorenzo’s private needs from the republic’s welfare.
Other Italian city-states and European nations were accustomed to dealing with the head of the Medici family directly instead of through the official Florentine government. Lorenzo’s position of primacy was never officially avowed: He remained merely a citizen, although the most important citizen. While Lorenzo was the unquestioned leader of a banking and merchant oligarchy, he did not always enjoy absolute freedom to commit his city to a particular course of action, freedom such as the hereditary Dukes of Milan or the popes in Rome exercised.
The Medicis had a close relationship with the Kings of France: Louis XI had granted Piero the right to incorporate the three lilies of the French royal house of Valois onto the Medici arms. Lorenzo realized, however, that it was necessary to keep that large kingdom’s military might out of Italy. The peninsula was divided by various ministates and their rivalries. To the south lay the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples,...
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Ady, Cecilia M. Lorenzo dei Medici and Renaissance Italy. London: English Universities Press, 1955. There has been no major biography of Lorenzo in English in recent decades; Ady’s work is the most satisfactory substitute.
Hale, J. R. Florence and the Medici: The Pattern of Control. London: Thames & Hudson, 1977. This study of the Medicis traces the family from its earliest days through its decline in the eighteenth century. Hale places Lorenzo within the overall context of Florentine politics.
Hibbert, Christopher. The House of the Medici: Its Rise and Fall. New York: William Morrow, 1975. The author is a prominent narrative historian who has written many works on English and Italian subjects. A well-written survey of the Medicis.
Rowdon, Maurice. Lorenzo the Magnificent. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1974. This brief work traces the story of the Medicis through the fifteenth century to Lorenzo’s death in 1492. The author tells the tale adequately and is especially helpful on the broad economic issues affecting the Medicis. Includes many illustrations.
Williamson, Hugh Ross. Lorenzo the Magnificent. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974. This volume is similar to Rowdon’s work although somewhat more extensive. Like Rowdon, Williamson recites the history of Lorenzo and his family. Includes illustrations.