The Medici Family – The Leaders of Florence

“The Medici Family: The Leaders of Florence” is a series being presented over the course of the next few weeks. The notorious and prominent Medici family first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking. The dynasty left a lasting legacy that spanned across Italy and throughout the world, as the Medici’s produced four popes and married into many of Europe’s royal families. This series takes an in depth look into the lives of Florence’s most famous family, from the humble beginnings of founder Giovanni di Bicci and his tyrant son Cosimo, to the extraordinary life of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his outstanding professional relationship with Renaissance Master Leonardo da Vinci. This week and next, we will focus on the most illustrious Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Lorenzo the Magnificent: Politics and Patronage Part I of II – Politics

16th century portrait of the great Florentine leader by Girolamo Macchietti.

16th century portrait of the great Florentine leader by Girolamo Macchietti.

Lorenzo de Medici, born in 1449, was destined to a brief but intense life that would go down in the history of Florence, Italy and the world. “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” as he was called by the people of Florence, was a statesman, ruler and patron of the arts. He is, without doubt, the most important and significant member of the Medici family.

Lorenzo entered the public sphere following the death of his father in 1469 at the young age of 20, the same year he married Clarice Orsini. The couple would have ten children, many of whom would take on influential roles in Florence.

Upon entering politics, Lorenzo immediately had to face difficult situations, such as financial problems, conspiracies and strained political relations within Italy and beyond. Nevertheless, slowly the “balance of power” that Lorenzo maintained with Milan, Venice and Naples reinforced the Florentine position and wise economic measures improved the family finances.

Florence flourished under Lorenzo’s rule which drastically increased the wealth of the Medicis. Thus it was inevitable that rival Florentine families would harbor resentments over the family’s dominance. The most notable of these rival families was the Pazzi, who nearly brought Lorenzo’s reign to an end before it had barely begun.

On Easter Sunday, April 26, 1478, in an incident called the “Pazzi Conspiracy,” a group of Pazzi family members backed by the Archbishop of Pisa and his patron Pope Sixtus IV, attacked Lorenzo and his brother and co-ruler Giuliano in the Cathedral of Florence. Giuliano was killed but Lorenzo escaped with only a stab wound. Lorenzo brutally retaliated with such measures as the lynching of the Archbishop of Pisa and the death of the Pazzi family members who were directly involved.

In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and the punishment of Pope Sixtus IV’s supporters, the Medici and Florence suffered the wrath of the Vatican. The Papacy seized all the Medici assets Sixtus IV could find, ex-communicated Lorenzo and the entire government of Florence, and ultimately put the entire Florentine city-state under interdict. When these measures had little effect, Sixtus IV formed a military alliance with King Ferdinand I of Naples, whose son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, led an invasion of the Florentine Republic still ruled by Lorenzo.

Lorenzo rallied the citizens of Florence, yet with little support from the traditional Medici allies in Bologna and Milan, the war dragged on – only diplomacy by Lorenzo ultimately resolved the crisis.

In 1479, Lorenzo took a bold step and traveled secretly with a small party to Naples, placing himself recklessly at the hands of King Ferdinand I. Lorenzo argued to the king that warfare between Italian powers would increase the likelihood of a French invasion. Fearing an impending attack, Ferdinand agreed to sign a peace treaty with Lorenzo.

For the remaining 12 years of Lorenzo’s life, Florence remained stable and calm. He pursued a policy both of maintaining peace and a balance of power between the northern Italian states and of keeping the other major European states out of Italy. Lorenzo’s proudest achievement, as he wrote in 1489, was an event of which could only have occurred during the Renaissance papacy. Lorenzo persuaded Pope Innocent VIII to make his second son Giovanni a cardinal, who at the time was only thirteen years old. Giovanni would later become the first of the Medici popes.

Next week, we will look at Lorenzo’s patronage of the arts and his profound impact on the Renaissance.

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