Sept. 26, 2023

Episode 32: Il Magnifico

Episode 32: Il Magnifico

This episode tackles the uneasy shift towards dynastic rule, casting light on Piero de Medici's humanist upbringing, his complex web of relationships, and the political discontent that simmered as he inherited power from his father, Cosimo.  But his early death from complications of gout transferred power to his young son, Lorenzo de Medici.  The second part of this episode hones in on the captivating figure of Lorenzo de Medici, nicknamed Il Magnifico - The Magnificent.  We'll chart the course of his remarkable life, from his early years under the watchful eyes of his family to his ascension to power at the tender age of 20.  We examine the influences that molded him into a statesman, merchant, and intellectual and shed light on his pivotal role in shaping the Renaissance.

Map of Florence from Paul Strathern's "The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance."
Map of Florence (

The History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy by Niccolo Machiavelli
The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
Florence and the Medici by J.R. Hale
The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern

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Intro Music: Hayden Symphony #39
Outro Music: Vivaldi Concerto for Mandolin and Strings in D


I Take History With My Coffee Podcast    
Episode 32
Title: Il Magnifico

“To see him at one time in his grave moments and at another in his gay, was to see in him two personalities joined as it were with invisible bonds.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, 1525

Welcome back to the I Take History With My Coffee podcast and thank you for continuing our exploration of the Early Modern period.

     Cosimo de Medici died in 1464.  He had been the de facto ruler of Florence for nearly thirty years.  

     His son Piero would inherit his wealth and position as head of the Medici bank.  Yet there was no guarantee that Piero would inherit his father’s power and influence as master of Florentine affairs.  Piero would be tacitly accepted as the ruler of Florence even if it wasn’t publicly expressed.  Underneath the trappings of Florentine republicanism, this was a shift towards dynastic rule.  Cosimo never acknowledged himself as the absolute ruler of the city.  Piero acknowledged his role as head of state but didn’t publicly demonstrate it.  His son, Lorenzo, would see it as his birthright and revel in it.  

     The Medici men seemed to all have been suffering from the same debilitating effects of gout.  Cosimo would be bedridden for weeks, a condition that grew worse in his last years.  Piero inherited it from his father, but much worse.  Piero’s gout resulted in painful and swollen joints and probably kidney disease, giving his complexion a deep yellow hue.  Most of his adult life was spent being carried about in a litter.  Contemporaries describe how, at times, he became completely paralyzed.  The disease was such an essential facet of Piero’s character that in a later period, he was nicknamed Il Gottoso - The Gouty.  The constant pain naturally led to irritability.  His son Lorenzo confided that he worried that his father’s temperament alienated his friends.  But Lorenzo would eventually suffer the same affliction as his father and grandfather.  

     Piero had a thorough humanist education as befitting the son of a Medici.  He collected manuscripts like his father, but also coins and cameos.  Whereas Cosimo focused on architecture, Piero’s interest was in the decorative arts.  He had relationships with many Italian painters and commissioned works from leading artists like Filippo Lippi, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Paolo Uccello.  Cosimo had arranged Piero’s marriage to Lucrezia Tornabuoni.  She was the daughter of the long-time manager of the Roman branch of the Medici bank.  She was an intelligent woman, a good mother, and deeply spiritual.  She played an active role in Piero’s patronage of artists and wrote her own poetry.  She had a formative influence on their eldest son, Lorenzo.  

Piero’s succession into his father’s position was not without detractors and challenges.  In the years preceding Cosimo's death, discontent festered among notable citizens in Florence, amplified by typical jealousies and grievances. Agnolo Acciaiuoli, a former humanist confidant of Cosimo, perceived Cosimo as timid in his old age, avoiding decisive actions. This perception held some truth, especially concerning the precariousness of the Medici Bank's financial state, burdened by unpaid debts. Agnolo deemed Piero unfit for succession.

Another dissenter was Diotisalvi Neroni, a trusted adviser aspiring to transform family wealth into power. Upon inheriting the Medici Bank, Piero sought Neroni's financial guidance. Neroni exaggerated the bank's precarious state, prompting Piero to initiate a sudden pullback of debts, impacting the bank's prosperity.  Conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean financially strained Florentine merchants during this period. Piero's debt call-ins drove local merchants to bankruptcy in Florence, turning public opinion against the Medici. 

Luca Pitti, a wealthy and striking figure, emerged as a prominent rival.  Pitti, known for extravagant spending and self-aggrandizement, built a grand palace on the south bank of the Arno, asserting his influence and visibility in the city. Florence became divided between the Pitti-backed Party of the Hill and the Medici-backed Party of the Plain.  Agnolo and Neroni aligned with Pitti, while Niccolo Soderini, an eloquent orator, became their advocate, rallying support to challenge the Medici's dominance.

Pitti advocated for a forceful overthrow of the Medici, but Soderini's idealism prevailed, emphasizing liberty and equality through peaceful means. The populace demanded political changes, resulting in a more democratic election system, moving back towards elections by lot. This transition worried merchants, fearing instability and potential ruin for trade. This backlash strengthened Piero de' Medici's influence, disappointing Soderini and prompting a more radical approach by the conspirators, including coordinating with external allies.  The events took an unforeseen momentum, setting the stage for a significant turning point in Florence's political landscape.

In 1466, Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan and friend of Cosimo de' Medici, passed away, succeeded by his young and volatile son, Galeazzo Maria Sforza.  Galeazzo's notorious behavior spread across the peninsula, including rumors of heinous acts of torture and rape within his castle. Fearing the precarious situation, Piero sent his teenage son Lorenzo to Naples to seek the support of King Ferdinand I, known as Ferrante. Lorenzo impressively charmed Ferrante with his youthful intellect and panache, gaining a crucial ally. However, in August, Piero was incapacitated by a severe gout attack at his villa in Careggi. During this vulnerable period, news arrived that the Duke of Ferrara had dispatched an army to capture and assassinate Piero and Lorenzo. 

Despite his ailment, Piero acted swiftly, demanding to be carried back to Florence. Forewarned by peasants, Lorenzo rode back to alert his father about an impending ambush. They altered their route and safely reached Florence. Back at the Palazzo Medici, Piero mobilized his supporters. Unexpectedly, news arrived that Galeazzo Sforza had sent 1,500 armed equestrians to confront Ferrara's forces, bolstering the Medici's position.

Piero's abrupt return to the Palazzo Medici surprised the conspirators. Agnola, Soderini, and Neroni fled to gather their supporters, leaving Pitti vulnerable in his unfinished palazzo. Anxious and feeling abandoned, Pitti raced to the Palazzo Medici seeking an audience with Piero.

Accounts of their meeting differ: in one version, Pitti emotionally begged for forgiveness, vowing unwavering support. Whether Piero knew the extent of Pitti's involvement in the plot remains unclear. Nonetheless, Piero displayed magnanimity.
Piero swiftly organized his armed guard and urged Galeazzo Sforza to send cavalry to Florence. Confusion and panic gripped the city, but the anticipated mass uprising failed to materialize, resulting in no arrest attempts on Piero. The armed bands supporting the conspirators lost morale and dispersed. Upon learning the actual state of affairs, Ferrara's army withdrew. 

The conspiracy's failure prompted Piero to mobilize the Medici political apparatus to reestablish stability. A pro-Medici Signoria was elected, and a sense of urgency prevailed. All eligible voters were summoned to the Piazza della Signoria, where 3,000 soldiers, a combination of city guards and armed Medici supporters, were assembled. Fearful of civil war and foreign invasion, the citizens accepted a return to the guild-based method of appointing Signoria members, shelving democratic reforms for two decades.

The city understood what the reinstatement of Medici rule meant, accepting it as necessary for stability, potentially persisting for many years. The leading conspirators faced a death sentence, but Piero intervened, commuting their punishment to exile.

Like his father, Piero had survived a crucial challenge to his authority.  He ensured the restoration of peace and stability but also enshrined Medici power within the institutions of the Florentine government.  As it turned out, though, he did not live long to enjoy the fruits of this labor.  In December 1469, after only five years in power, Piero de Medici succumbed to the disease that had afflicted him.  

Two days later, a delegation of Florentine citizens arrived at the Palazzo Medici to offer their condolences to the 20-year-old Lorenzo.  Then, according to Lorenzo’s account, they “encouraged me to take upon myself the care of the city and the state, as my father and grandfather had done.”  

A dynastic transition of power was, for the first time in Florence, publicly acknowledged and accepted.

Lorenzo de Medici has been given the title Il Magnifico, The Magnificent.  This was a common title used in correspondence and other documents for men of Lorenzo’s standing.  It was not until the 19th century that the moniker took on special meaning from the belief that somehow Lorenzo was singularly responsible for the Renaissance.  As we have seen, the Renaissance was already flourishing.  Instead of giving birth to the Renaissance, Lorenzo can be seen as its fullest embodiment, the natural by-product of the cultural changes begun by Petrarch.  He represented the complete synthesis of statesman, merchant, intellectual, and patron of the arts.  In him, humanism is not just a means of learning, but it becomes a way of living.

Lorenzo was born on January 1, 1449.  From a young age, he knew nothing except Medici power and influence.  He grew up in the newly built Palazzo Medici and was Cosimo’s favorite grandchild.  One story tells that one day, when an elderly Cosimo met with representatives from Lucca, Lorenzo wandered into the room carrying a stick.  He requested that his grandfather carve a flute, and Cosimo stopped the meeting and obliged the child.  When Lorenzo had left, the delegates complained to Cosimo about the interruption of such an important meeting.  In his usual fashion, the aged Cosimo answered them by saying, “Aren’t you too fathers and grandfathers?  You are lucky the boy didn’t ask me to play a few tunes on his new flute.  For if he had, I would certainly have gone on and done so.”

As to be expected, he was given the finest humanist education Medici money could afford.  It was from his tutor, the skilled Latinist Gentile Becchi, that he learned Latin, a love of the poetry of Ovid, and the rhetoric and civil values of Cicero.  His grandfather’s protege, Marsilio Ficino, embued Lorenzo with a love of the philosophy of Plato.  Beyond this formal education, Lorenzo attended the meetings of scholars instigated by Cosimo, known as the Platonic Academy.  He took part in many of the intellectual debates on these occasions.  He would listen to the great artists, writers, and thinkers entertained at the Palazzo Medici.  Beyond learning, Lorenzo also loved sports, hunting, and festivities.  

Unlike his grandfather and father, Lorenzo de Medici actively participated in intellectual discourse, and his mother, Lucrezia, taught him to tap into his creative side.  He wrote poetry expressing a wide range of moods and subjects.  Later on, he would write and sponsor the canti carnascialeschi or carnival songs.  These were songs performed as part of the festivities celebrating carnival season in Florence.  The quality of Lorenzo’s work was good enough to appear in anthologies of the period.  He was one of the rare men who could claim to be a literary figure, head of a bank, and head of state.  

Lorenzo had close relationships with both his mother and father, as well as his younger brother Giuliano.    He represented a generational shift.  Before this, the great families of Florence lived as extended clans.  Several related families lived in a single palazzo or a cluster of adjacent buildings that comprised whole neighborhoods.  The head of the family presided over what was a communal existence.  Clan identity was more important than individuality.  

This began to change by the time Lorenzo was born.  The Palazzo Medici was one of the first new residences to emphasize the nuclear family.  Gone were public spaces facing the street.  Instead, the palazzo turned inward around a private, inner courtyard.  The palazzo was a place where the family could retreat from public life.  The result was greater privacy and a tightening of the bonds between family members.  Parents became closer to their children and grandchildren.  Piero's relationship with his son Lorenzo stands out as particularly close and understanding, marking a departure from the traditional dynamics of the Medici family. This shift towards a more balanced and nurturing approach between father and son was a noteworthy development in the social history of the family.

In the earlier generations, such as that of Giovanni di Bicci and his son Cosimo, the father’s influence over the son was nearly absolute. Cosimo frequently made decisions that mirrored his father’s choice, indicating a robust paternal influence.  Contrastingly, when we examine Cosimo's relationship with his sons, we notice a departure from the traditional heavy-handed paternal control. Furthermore, Cosimo entrusted his sons with significant responsibilities, notably in commissioning painters, an important and expensive business.  This level of trust bore fruit in the form of Piero's capable and unassuming leadership. He was also willing to delegate substantial responsibilities to his young son Lorenzo, demonstrating remarkable trust and confidence in the younger generation.

Lorenzo de' Medici was a mere fifteen years of age when Piero took over after Cosimo’s death. Perhaps aware of his limited time, Piero recognized Lorenzo's potential for leadership. Lorenzo effectively became the public face of his father's authority, often representing him on various missions.

Surprisingly mature and competent for his age, Lorenzo took on essential tasks as a representative of the Republic of Florence. His initial assignment was to Milan for a royal wedding, and even though he was only a teenager, his father urged him to behave with a sense of responsibility and maturity beyond his years. This marked the beginning of Lorenzo's diplomatic ventures, acting not as a mere youth but as a capable man.

Piero's confidence in Lorenzo's abilities was justified, and soon, Lorenzo was entrusted with more missions to cities like Naples, Bologna, Ferrara, and Venice. By the age of seventeen, he had gained considerable diplomatic experience, culminating in a significant mission to Rome in 1466. Here, he faced the delicate task of securing the alum monopoly for the Medici Bank from Pope Paul II. These experiences marked the early development of Lorenzo's diplomatic and leadership skills.

Perhaps Lorenzo’s most significant flaw was his disinterest in the daily operations of the Medici bank.  While in Rome, he had been expected to learn the family business from his uncle, Giovanni Tornabuoni, the capable manager of the Rome branch.  But Lorenzo’s artistic intellect and flamboyant character made him unsuitable for the dry, meticulous, and cautious work of running a business.  His training lasted only a few weeks.  As we will see later, what appeared to be a minor shortcoming would prove to be a critical mistake.  

Whereas Lorenzo had considerable talents, we can judge by the many portraits that he was less impressive physically.  In this, he shared many Medici traits: sallow-skinned, heavy-lidded eyes, protruding lower lip, and a broad and squashed nose that made it impossible for him to have a sense of smell.    He was clumsy.  Tall, powerfully built, but ungainly.  His hands were long and delicate.  His voice was harsh, nasally, and unpleasing.  Yet he apparently was attractive to women.  

Lorenzo was a man of contradictions, which didn’t escape his contemporaries' notice.  His friend,  Angelo Poliziano, described a day in the company of Lorenzo in 1476:
“Yesterday, after leaving Florence we came as far as San Miniato al Tedesco, singing all the way and occasionally talking of holy things so as not to forget Lent…Lorenzo is brilliant and makes the whole company gay…When we reached San Miniato yesterday evening we began to read a little of St. Augustine; then the reading resolved itself into music and watching and giving directions to a well-known dancer who is here.  Lorenzo is just going to Mass.  I will finish another time.”

This is a telling description of Lorenzo the man, but it also reveals the spirit of an age in which Lorenzo the Magnificent is the leading light.

Of course, the affairs of Italy are such that even a person as intelligent and powerful as Lorenzo de Medici isn’t immune from the ambitions and jealousies of others who seek power for themselves.  The next episode examines the latest conspiracy to unseat the Medici family.  The Pazzi Conspiracy.

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