The Medici Family – The Leaders of Florence
“The Medici Family: The Leaders of Florence” is a series we are presenting 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 we continue with Lorenzo the Magnificent, examining his significant role in the Renaissance.
Lorenzo the Magnificent: Politics and Patronage Part II of II – Patronage
Lorenzo de Medici indeed enjoyed many political successes, yet his genius went further than this. Lorenzo the Magnificent continued his family’s traditional patronage of artists and was instrumental in making Florence the center of the Italian Renaissance. He opened his house and gardens to younger artists and helped spread their work not only in Florence, but throughout Italy and the world. First da Vinci and then Michelangelo, as well as many others such as Botticelli and Filippino Lippi turned to him for aid and protection.
Lorenzo’s court included artists including Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo Buonarroti, all of whom were paramount to the 15th century Renaissance. When Lorenzo could not commission works himself, he helped the artists secure commissions from other patrons. The great Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo and his family for five years, dining at the family table and participating in the discussions led by Marsilio Ficino, one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Renaissance.
One of Lorenzo’s most famous artist-patron relationships was that with Leonardo da Vinci, which began in 1481, when Leonardo approached Lorenzo for help. The Florentine leader referred him to his friend, the Duke of Milan, whose needs were more practical than artistic. This suited Leonardo perfectly, as he had surpassed the need for just a studio and was desperate to build marvelous inventions. Once in Milan, Leonardo could not resist a commission that soon became the most famous fresco in history, “The Last Supper.” Upon returning to Florence, Leonardo, under Lorenzo’s patronage, completed some of his finest works, including “Adoration of the Magi” and “San Gerolamo.”
Though he is most famous for his patronage of the arts, Lorenzo was an artist himself, writing poetry in his native Tuscan dialect. Many of his works celebrate life while acknowledging with melancholy the fragility and instability of the human condition.
A lover of philosophy and excellent prose, Lorenzo expanded his collection of books begun by his grandfather Cosimo and established the Medici Library. Lorenzo’s agents retrieved large numbers of classical works from the East and he employed a large workshop to copy his books and disseminate their content across Europe. The great leader supported the development of humanism through his circle of scholarly friends, which included philosophers Marsilio Ficino, Poliziano and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. They studied ancient scholars and attempted to merge the ideas of Plato with Christianity.
Apart from a personal interest, Lorenzo also used the Florentine scene of fine arts for his diplomatic efforts. An example of this is the commissions of Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Cosimo Rosselli to Rome in order to paint murals in the Sistine Chapel, a move which has been interpreted as finalizing the alliance between Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus IV.
In 1471, Lorenzo calculated that since 1434, his family had spent some 663,000 florins – approximately $460 million today – for charity, buildings and taxes. Lorenzo reflected on this later in his life, writing, “I do not regret this for though many would consider it better to have a part of that sum in their purse, I consider it to have been a great honor to our state, and I think the money was well-expended and I am well-pleased.”
Lorenzo died peacefully in the night between April 8 and 9, 1492 in the Villa of Careggi at the age of 43. He died at the dawn of “the age of exploration,” as Christopher Columbus would reach the New World only six months later. Florentines were so moved by Lorenzo’s premature death that the entire population attended his funeral. The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent left an immense void, not only in Florence, but throughout the world.