Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent: the astounding life of the ‘delightful tyrant’ of Florence

Lorenzo de' Medici is known as Lorenzo the Magnificent for a reason. Born into the powerful banking family that controlled Florence, he was both a formidable political force and one of the Renaissance’s greatest figures. Historian Catherine Fletcher explores the life of the ‘delightful tyrant’, and how he became a ‘prince’ to be reckoned with

Bust of Lorenzo de' Medici

Among the Medici, the great banking family that counted popes among its clients and came to be de facto rulers (and later dukes) of Florence, one name tends to loom large over all others: Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Advertisement

Born on 1 January 1449 to Piero de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni, he would become one of greatest figures of the Renaissance – a masterful politician and diplomat. But he was also a renowned patron of the arts, who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo, and an accomplished poet in his own right. He would become an exemplar of the ‘merchant prince’ – though for all this, his rule and life were not without their challenges.

Lorenzo de’ Medici: facts about his life

Born: 1 January 1449

Died: 8 April 1492, aged 43

Parents: Piero the Gouty and Lucrezia Tornabuoni

Spouse: Clarice Orsini

Children: Ten, including Piero, who succeeded him as a ruler of Florence and earned the name ‘Piero the Unfortunate’; Giovanni, who would become Pope Leo X in 1513; and Giuliano, who was created Duke of Nemours in 1515. Lorenzo also brought up his murdered brother’s illegitimate son, Giulio, who would become Pope Clement VII in 1523

Remembered for: His skill as a politician and diplomat, being a banker to the papacy, and his enthusiastic patronage of the arts.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s early life

When Lorenzo de’ Medici was born in 1449, his family were enjoying an enviable position at the head of government in Florence. In the 15 years since he had returned from exile, his grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, had rebuilt their power by securing alliances with other city families through marriages like that of Lorenzo’s father to Lucrezia Tornabuoni. Following Cosimo’s death in 1464, the mantle of rulership fell to his son, Piero de’ Medici.

In the brief, five-year period of his rule, Piero commissioned a spectacular fresco series from Benozzo Gozzoli for the chapel of the family palazzo, showing the procession of the Magi. The image of the youngest king, Caspar, is sometimes said to represent Lorenzo, although a more obvious portrait of the boy, along with many other images of family members, appears elsewhere in the procession.

'The Journey of the Magi' by Benozzo Gozzoli, commissioned by Piero the Gouty for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It features his son Lorenzo, who would become known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, as one of the three kings
‘The Journey of the Magi’ by Benozzo Gozzoli, commissioned by Piero the Gouty for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It features his son Lorenzo, who would become known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, as one of the three kings (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Piero died in 1469, the 20-year-old Lorenzo was left to lead the city. He had been well prepared. He had the traditional training of a ‘Renaissance man’ in the humanities and arts, from tutors including the leading philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Lorenzo was a talented poet, and acquired the accomplishments expected of any young prince in hunting, jousting and hawking.

Lorenzo de’ Medici, banker and ruler of Florence

His marriage alliance was also a princely one. Lorenzo was the first of the Medici to marry out of Florence, to Clarice Orsini, a member of an important Roman baronial family. It was an indication that the family’s ambitions were no longer confined to just one city.

These alliances mattered, because the Medicis were increasingly dependent on their political power and the income they accrued from the Florentine state, both directly as officeholders and indirectly via patronage of contracts. The family bank was faltering. After the default of Edward IV of England in 1478, first its London and then its Bruges and Milan branches had foundered, their problems exacerbated by mismanagement. The problems spread; Lorenzo alienated his own relatives in the cadet branch [a junior line] of the family (descendants of Cosimo the Elder’s brother, another Lorenzo) by helping himself to money held for them in trust.

The Medici had tried to circumvent the usual structures of government, ruling by means of emergency committees packed with allies, and pre-selecting election candidates. But there was ample opposition to these tactics in the city, from both rival oligarchs and the lower classes. The Medici had also alienated Pope Sixtus IV.

The Pazzi Conspiracy

This would lead to the events of 26 April 1478. In what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, assassins succeeded in murdering Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano while the pair were attending mass in Florence’s cathedral.

The backdrop to the conspiracy was a row over the town of Imola, which enjoyed a strategic location on the road between Florence and the Adriatic ports. The Duke of Milan had agreed to sell it to Lorenzo, but he reneged on the agreement and decided to sell it to the Pope instead, part of a deal in which their daughter and nephew would marry. Lorenzo, who was still papal banker, refused to finance the purchase. Sixtus sacked the Medici Bank and looked to alternative lenders, including the Pazzi family.

A painting of the Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzo de' Medici was injured in the attempted assassination, which claimed the life of his brother
The Pazzi conspiracy: Lorenzo de’ Medici was injured in the attempted assassination, which claimed the life of his brother (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

While Lorenzo escaped the killers, there were hard political consequences. The Pazzi Conspiracy threatened to destabilise the entire Italian peninsula, which had been at an uneasy peace for the best part of two decades following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

As the Medici pursued the conspirators – including Francesco Salviati, archbishop of Pisa – the pope moved against the Medici. There was a real prospect of war, only avoided by an impressive piece of personal diplomacy in which Lorenzo effectively made himself a hostage of King Ferrante of Naples, persuaded the king into an alliance and, eventually, in March 1480, returned to Florence and to power.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s family

Lorenzo continued the pattern established by his own marriage with those of his children: his son Piero would wed Alfonsina Orsini of Naples; his daughter Maddalena married an illegitimate son of Sixtus’s successor, Pope Innocent VIII. In 1489 Lorenzo’s son Giovanni became a cardinal, establishing a family foothold in the Church. Giovanni was only 13, well below the age at which such a promotion was normally permitted, and the appointment is testament to Lorenzo’s success in rebuilding his influence.

Lorenzo’s letter to his son on his appointment gives an insight into his expectation that Giovanni should live modestly: “Your taste will be better shown in the acquisition of a few elegant remains of antiquity, or in the collecting of handsome books, and by your attendants being learned and well-bred rather than numerous.” And while the new cardinal should “aim at being a good ecclesiastic”, he should not find it difficult to “favour your family and your native place”, though of course he should always “prefer the interests of the Church”. Lorenzo did not know it, but that promotion would prove vital to securing the family’s position.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s influence on the Renaissance

The legacy that is most familiar today is one of patronage. Lorenzo’s Florence was the city of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, three years Lorenzo’s junior, who joined the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in the mid 1460s. When Botticelli was commissioned to paint an ‘Adoration of the Magi’ for the chapel of the del Lama family in Santa Maria Novella, he painted in the Medici as the three kings and two onlookers. In fact, it was Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano who patronised Botticelli more than Lorenzo, and after Giuliano’s assassination Botticelli painted a public mural of the traitors.

Late in Lorenzo’s life the young Michelangelo (born in 1475) joined the group of artists who met in the sculpture garden of the Palazzo Medici, where they were able to study Lorenzo’s collection of art and antiquities. Michelangelo produced his ‘Battle of the Centaurs’ and ‘Madonna of the Stairs’ during this time.

Lorenzo’s personal legacy also included his library, and the collection of country villas that now dotted the hillsides around Florence. It was at the villa in Careggi where he died on 8 April 1492, regretting that his library was still not finished. He might have been satisfied to know that it survives, more than 500 years on.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s death: why is he known as ‘Il Magnifico’?

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s death on 8 April 1492 is often seen as the end of an era: he was only 43 but was suffering from the hereditary gout that afflicted his family. He died two years before the outbreak of war and the exile of the Medici.

Some decades later, the great historian of Italy, Francesco Guicciardini, described his death as “a grievous stroke to his country”. Lorenzo’s “reputation, prudence and genius” had helped maintain a “long and secure peace” in Italy. “If Florence was to have a tyrant,” Guicciardini wrote, “she could never have found a better or more delightful one.”

A portion of Lorenzo’s legacy, however, lay in the future. Precisely because he was not an aristocrat, he became an important model in the 18th and 19th century for a new class of ‘merchant princes’. These men had made their money from trade and industry but were not titled lords.

Often looked down upon by the traditional ruling class, they could point to the role of their Medici forerunners as patrons of some of the west’s greatest artists. In the modern world, the Medici became a model for philanthropy – even if that meant overlooking some of the more dubious means by which they had acquired their wealth and their power.

Catherine Fletcher is a historian of Renaissance and early modern Europe. Her latest book is The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Bodley Head, 2020). You can also listen to her discuss the Medici in more detail in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

Advertisement

This content was published by HistoryExtra in 2021