Florence in the fifteenth Century was an important Italian City. It was state dominated by the powerful Medici Family. The Medicis, who had long influenced the regional politics, had begun as bankers, advanced to become the unofficial rulers of Florence.
Later on, by marriage alliances, they became connected to most of the Royal Houses in Europe. The chief amongst the many outstanding personalities that this extraordinary family produced is Lorenzo de Medici, better known as Lorenzo The Magnificent.
The grand-son of Cosimo de Medici The Older (died 1464) and the elder son of Piero de Medici The Gouty (he was afflicted with the gout), Lorenzo de Medici was born on 1 January, 1449, in Florence, Italy. Brought up in a highly cultured atmosphere, he imbibed some of the best values of the Renaissance and evolved into an intellectual, broad-minded individual.
He had great personal charm and a talent for bringing out the best in men, and he himself always actively participated in social tournaments, hunts, and carnivals.
He was also of a stalwart character, and upon his father's early death in 1469, he quite competently assumed charge of his Family's fortunes. He was only twenty and, together with his younger, much adored brother Giuliano, took control of Florence as well.
The Pazzi Conspiracy
The Medicis, owing to their great wealth and power, had always had to contend with ruthless enemies, and the two new rulers now became particularly targeted for their youth and gaiety. It was thought that it would be easy to get rid of them and thus put an end to the continuing Medici dominance of Florence.
Accordingly, a conspiracy was hatched, and on 26 April, 1478, the conspirators, which included members of the Pazzi Family and the Archbishop of Pisa and had the full backing of Pope Sixtus IV, attacked the Medici Brothers and their entourage during High Mass on Easter Sunday in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Giuliano de Medici was killed in this surprise attack, and Lorenzo was severely wounded. However, his followers rallied and summarily dealt with the assailants. Their attempt to capture Lorenzo was thwarted, and they were trapped inside one of the Cathedral's rooms. The coup thus failed ignominiously, and Lorenzo now extracted due vengeance.
The Archbishop and several other co-conspirators were hanged from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria. The entire Pazzi Family was tracked down and brutally assassinated, and all their property in Florence destroyed. Several other conspirators and their associates, whether guilty or not, were also killed by Medici supporters in the days that followed.
The Pope's nephew, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who was in no way involved, escaped the witch-hunt only due to Lorenzo's timely intervention; perhaps, having punished the main perpetrators, he now wished to defuse the situation. The Pope however was to show little gratitude for this.
The events of the Pazzi Conspiracy had shown Lorenzo in a favorable light. He had kept his head in even such trying circumstances, and he was to keep it still in the events that followed.
Driven to utmost fury by the collapse of the Conspiracy and the heightened public support for the Medicis, Pope Sixtus IV now drew up an ecclesiastical censure against Florence, withdrawing sacraments and the right to a Christian burial from all Florentine citizens. He also excommunicated Lorenzo.
This had little effect, and so, forming a military alliance with King Ferrantes of Naples, the Pope began planning an attack on Florence. The traditional Medici allies in Milan and Bologna were reluctant to help them fight the Pope, and a certain disaster seemed likely. It was averted only by Lorenzo's brilliant tact.
Switching effortlessly from avenger to peace-maker, he personally traveled to Naples to confer with the King and an understanding was achieved without resorting to war. From then on, Lorenzo became known as the Savior of Florence and became even more popular. He assumed the sole power in Florence and retained it until his own death in 1492.
Lorenzo, following the policy began by his grandfather Cosimo de Medici, managed to maintain a balance of power between the five chief Northern Italian states, forming defensive alliances and thus, keeping a check on invasions from foreign powers.
He was an enlightened but firm and undisputed ruler of Florence; opposition was tolerated to a certain extent, but not allowed to flourish. Most of his detractors anyway, faced with his magnanimity, seemed to have little heart for continued opposition. The only blot of the whole reign was his handling of his finances.
The Medici Bank, which formed the base of the Medici Power, had actually begun to be neglected since the time of Cosimo. Cosimo, becoming more and more involved in power politics, had little time left to devote to banking affairs and neglected too to groom his sons Piero and Giovanni to take his place.
Piero's sons Lorenzo and Giuliano, in their turn, received little instruction in the bank policies. Around this time, there was a general slump in European business that hit the volume of Medici bank transactions, already affected by family negligence, and several of the European branches of the bank closed down one after another.
Lorenzo now began to find himself in almost constant financial straits. This was a quite unaccustomed experience for a Medici and not one that he could get used to. Several times, to keep himself afloat, he resorted to embezzling Public Funds, and it was this that later undermined his rule.
The Medicis had always believed in living well and not even the altered financial circumstances could change that. Lorenzo actually surpassed his predecessors in grandeur.
His marriage to the high-born Clarice Orsini, which took place in the same year as his ascension, was brought about amidst great ceremony in the Church of San Lorenzo, and lavish banquets and feasting followed to celebrate the occasion.
The Medici tradition of art patronage was continued. There were political reasons behind this, of course, like facilitating alliances and commerce and enhancing national and personal prestige, but on the whole, he was a genuine art lover and had a considerable personal knowledge too about painting, poetry, and music.
He wrote some remarkable poetry of varied style and subject in his native Tuscan, and was one of the first to appreciate Classical Works. Unfailingly generous and considerate to the artists that he sponsored, even when he could scarcely afford it, he kept the Medici Palace and Gardens open to the talented ones.
Under him Florence saw an artistic revolution unparalleled in the rest of Europe and the emergence of such titans, as Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Andrea del Verrocchio.
It was also his interest in music composition that led to the development of the early Madrigal. Some of the musicians that he patronized such as the Organist Squarcialupi and the composer Heinrich Isaak became famous all over Europe and people flocked to Florence in order to hear them.
He also began what was to later become the Medici Library, collecting a vast number of learned and rare books, and making them available for the perusal of the general public. He encouraged the study of Classical Philosophy and supported Humanist Scholars like Pico della Mirandola and poets like Pulci and Poliziano.
He was aptly called 'Il Magnifico' or 'the Magnificent' by his contemporaries, but this term was not, as is often thought, coined for him, but was in fact, a general address for all important people not of aristocratic blood and therefore not eligible for the title 'Excellency'. In any case, it did justice to him.
The Coming of Savonarola
In 1485, Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican Friar from the Convent of San Marco, began swaying the Florentines with ringing declamations of a coming Apocalypse. Very soon, his oratory took on a seditious tone directed against the Florentine Ruler.
Quite ironically, it had been Lorenzo himself who had brought the fiery Savonarola from exile in Bologna to Florence and insisted on his remaining. He greatly respected him and even now, when he turned on him, he did not take any measures to muzzle him.
It was a mistake. Savonarola kept on haranguing and at last, when he openly accused Lorenzo of ruining the State and squandering public funds, he found public support.
Lorenzo had an eventful life and little rest. This, together with the public agitation that Savonarola was whipping up, contributed to the decline of his health and he became gravely ill. On the midnight between 8 and 9 April, 1492, after having had a brief, conciliatory meeting with Savonarola, he died at the Villa of Careggi.
He was only forty-three years of age. The Florentines, who had only recently been clamoring against him, now reacted with a massive display of public grief and the entire population attended his funeral. He was buried in the Medici Chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, where his brother Giuliano already rested.
He left behind a formidable legacy, and his second son Giovanni and his nephew Giulio (the illegitimate son of Giuliano), were later to become powerful popes, Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII respectively.
The Exile of the Medicis
Lorenzo's immediate successor, Piero, not only had to contend with the growing political unrest, but he was also unfortunately not of the same caliber as his father. Called Piero The Unlucky, he was a rather immoral youth, more given to squandering his patrimony than consolidating his rule.
He stood no chance against the anti-Mediceans, being inflamed once again by Savonarola, especially after the extent of his incompetence was revealed during the French invasion of 1494.
Under Piero Capponi, the Florentine Mob threw him and his brothers Giovanni and Giuliano out of the city and then proceeded, as Mobs will, to ransack and appropriate the treasures in Medici Palace.
Piero subsequently made several unsuccessful attempts to regain his position and finally died still in exile, getting drowned during the Battle of the Garigliano on the side of the French.
Savonarola assumed control of the newly formed First Republic, but his strictly austere policies soon proved unpopular with the Florentines, used to the cultural liberality of Lorenzo, and his disregard for Papal orders soon brought things to a head. Savonarola was toppled and accused of heresy, and finally burnt at the stake.
With Spanish help, nearly eighteen years later, the Medicis were reinstalled, and Lorenzo's youngest son Giuliano, also the Duke of Neumours, governed Florence on behalf of his older brother Giovanni. Giuliano died only four years later in 1516, and Piero's son Lorenzo II then became the new ruler.
He and his wife, Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, had one daughter Caterina, who later became famous as the Queen of France, but no male heir and so this ended the legitimate line of descent from Cosimo the Elder's side. Lorenzo's illegitimate nephew Giulio now took over, and ruled briefly until he ascended the Papacy as Pope Clement VII in 1523.
His illegitimate son Alessandro then became the Medici Head, but was assassinated in 1537, and with his death, the principal branch of the Medicis came to an end. The next ruling Medicis were from the family of Cosimo The Elder's brother Lorenzo, and they were to rule uninterruptedly for the next two centuries.
Many of them, especially Cosimo I, had outstanding personalities, but the golden glory of Lorenzo was never to be repeated. In fact, Francesco Guicciardini dated the decline of Renaissance civilization from his death in 1492.