Why was Lorenzo de Medici so important to the Renaissance? Lorenzo il Magnifico’s Rule over Florence


Why was Lorenzo de Medici so important to the Renaissance? Lorenzo il Magnifico’s Rule over Florence

Lorenzo il Magnifico’s rule over Florence was during a culturally and politically unique time in the republic. His time as the de facto ruler from 1469 to 1492 included an abundance of events that are tantamount to understanding his public image among the Florentines. Lorenzo had his share of bleak moments and political rivals, but he also had many moments of victory and accomplishment. By the end of his rule, he had a strong presence in Florentine politics and was an innovative leader that exhibited a distinctive personal style of leadership. 

Born into the Medici family, Lorenzo watched his grandfather and father run the republic and the Medici Bank throughout his childhood.

He drew lessons from those experiences and was ready to rule and make changes from a young age. After his father’s death, one of Lorenzo’s goals as the new ruler was to eliminate “the illusion fostered by his father and grandfather that the Medici were citizens like others, only with greater responsibilities (Najemy, 341).”

This goal shaped his “style of governance whose central feature was to make himself the indispensable point of reference for every public decision, election, and policy.”

Always in the public eye. Lorenzo became a strong leader and became commended by many Florentines. Labeled the “‘savior of his country’” with his praises continuing to this very day as he is the face of fifteenth-century Italy and the leader of one of Europe’s greatest cultural epochs.  

Although Lorenzo personified greatness for many, he also received resistance from many Florentines and political rivals throughout his life as not everyone found him to match the “reputation fashioned by poets” and writers of his time. Lorenzo’s résumé and relationships were far from perfect. As found later in the “private diaries” of Florentine citizens, Lorenzo was perceived as “a distant and unpopular figure for many.”

Florentines accused him of “preventing or forcing marriages against the wishes of families, of confiscating inheritances and manipulating the law courts to favor his friends and punish his enemies.”

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There were complaints ranging from his “private diplomacy” to the “lavishly expensive celebrations and state visits that more than once turned the city into a gigantic Medici theater.”

People branded him as a “tyrant” that tried to “become lord of the republic like Julius Caesar.”

After Lorenzo died in 1492, people from all classes were “not especially sad.” And some even rejoiced, hopeful that the republic would recover its liberty and that Florentines would enjoy a larger voice in government.

For some, Lorenzo’s death was welcomed as a means to escape his control of Florence. The two decades under Lorenzo contained crises whose “root cause was the precariousness” over his support.

Over time, a lack of civilian trust led to a weakening of the cooperation between Lorenzo and many elites (ottimati), the narrowing of his trusted circle, and overall tighter political controls – all of which resulted in revolutionary transformations for generations of Florentine politicians and citizens to come. 

Of the incidents that Lorenzo oversaw, the Volterra Massacre of 1472 stands out as a dark stain on his record.

Early on in Lorenzo’s rule, Volterra was an autonomous commune but had been under Florentine influence for some time. When alum, a good used in manufacturing, “was discovered on land owned by the commune of Volterra” in 1470, a long series of complications began.

In short, disputes between the Florentines and the Volterrans escalated. And two years later, in February 1472, angry Volterrans attacked. And killed two “leading Volterran Mediceans.” Beginning an insurrection and secession from Florence. The Volterrans readied a militia while Lorenzo organized an army for retaliation with the help of Milan, a nearby ally. 

Lorenzo’s forces of “Florentine and Milanese troops” advanced to Volterra in May of 1472 and quickly led to Volterra’s surrender. With the surrender, Volterra’s safety was explicitly assured “with guarantees from Lorenzo. And the Florentine government,” but just two days later,  Lorenzo’s army, without his approval, entered Volterra, massacred an unrecorded number of citizens, and sacked it. While some Florentines were as “distressed by the sack as they could possibly be,” others received the news “with great happiness.” However, the massacre is undoubtedly wrongdoing that “Lorenzo claimed to be saddened and disturbed by.”

Madonna of the Magnificat. Shows Lucrezia Tornabuoni as the Madonna. Surrounded by her children. With Lorenzo holding a pot of ink.

For Lorenzo’s image in Volterra and his rivals, the massacre was not forgotten. And the blame was placed on Lorenzo’s shoulders. 

Another one of Lorenzo’s predicaments was between his regime and the papacy.

In the 1470s, Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus IV butted heads over territory. For example, Sixtus sought to expand his influence over the “semi-autonomous towns and principalities of the papal states, many of which had agreements with Florence that kept them within a Florentine sphere of influence.” 

On an occasion that eventually spiraled out of Lorenzo’s control, Sixtus contested the Florentine purchase of the city, Imola. The pope argued that Imola was “within the papal states and threatened a series of spiritual and temporal penalties,” leading to the purchase of Imola by the papacy instead of the Florentines. Furthermore, the pope placed Lorenzo in a quandary by asking him to help finance the purchase, but Lorenzo understood the political ramifications if “he financed a papal acquisition against Florentine territorial interests.”

In addition to stating that he lacked such funds (whether true or not), Lorenzo asked the wealthy Pazzi family not to provide the pope with the funds, either. As one of the Medici’s rival families, the Pazzi not only financed Sixtus’s purchase but also revealed to him details of Lorenzo’s confidential request to worsen Lorenzo’s relationship with the pope. “The rift between Lorenzo and Sixtus had become irreparable over Imola” and a series of pushing and pulling for political nominations led to Sixtus, the Pazzi family, and others plotting the political end of the Medici family in what became known as the Pazzi conspiracy.

The Adoration of the Magi includes several generations of the Medici family and their retainers. Sixteen-year-old Lorenzo is to the left, with his horse, prior to his departure on a diplomatic mission to Milan.

Sixtus and the Pazzi family orchestrated an assassination attempt on the Medici that resulted in the death of Lorenzo’s co-ruler and brother, Giuliano; however, Lorenzo managed to survive and find safety.

With the word of the murder spreading, the Pazzi understood that without the aid of the Florentine citizens. Their attempt at overthrowing the Medici household would be unsuccessful. They tried to “rally the crowds with cries” in the hours after the assassination. But the groundworks for an insurrection had not become prepared.

Upon the revelation “that Lorenzo was alive. And that the conspirators had attempted to assault the government palace as well as the Medici brothers.”

The damage was irreversible for the Pazzi family.

“Medici armed guards and pro-Medici mobs” hunted down and executed many conspirators on that same day. Lorenzo had Pazzi property confiscated. Moreover, survivors of the family became forced to change names. And further executions and exiles in the following weeks meant the end of the Pazzi family in Florence. 

After the deaths of the failed conspirators, Pope Sixtus IV declared war, asserting “that his only purpose was to punish Lorenzo and liberate Florence from his tyranny.”

Naples joined forces with the pope against Florence, who was “largely alone in its war against Naples and the papacy.”

As the war raged on for months, Lorenzo and the Florentines eventually realized that the republic was essentially fighting to settle Lorenzo’s quarrel with Sixtus. 

Florence was losing the war, and Lorenzo knew that “the only solution was a separate deal with Naples.” Rather than the papacy. Lorenzo traveled to Naples and used his diplomatic skills to remove Naples as a threat. He arrived with the condition “that he would be welcomed and his personal safety guaranteed.”

However, it was still a risky move.

There was no way of fully guaranteeing Lorenzo’s personal safety in his travels. And there was even more concern that “in his absence, sentiment might turn against him” in Florence.

The drawn-out war was beginning to erode Lorenzo’s public image in Florence, and before he left Florence, he “[acknowledged] his dependence on the ottimati’s willingness to remain loyal to him” and put his trust in them to control the public sentiment while he was gone. While in Naples, friends wrote letters to Lorenzo “[warning] that there were discussions of political change” and “new arrangements.”

Eventually, after being held in Naples longer than expected, Lorenzo was able to ask Naples for the “complete restoration of Florentine territories” that they had lost in the war, “protection from papal aggression for Florentine allies, and cancellation of Sixtus’s demand that Lorenzo go to Rome and humble himself before the pope.”

Fortunately, Lorenzo returned to Florence before any movements for political change erupted. And even though Lorenzo left Naples without the guarantees of any of his requests. The situation worked out to Florence’s benefit. Naples soon became occupied with a more pressing issue, and through the works of unrelated third parties disrupting the conflict, Florence was able to “reoccupy most of their territory.”

Pope Sixtus IV, now “anxious for the support of all the Italian states against the Ottomans.” Moreover, eventually caved in and asked no more of Lorenzo.”

A posthumous portrait of Lorenzo by Giorgio Vasari (16th century)

Even though Lorenzo il Magnifico was born in the Medici family. However, he didn’t simply follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. Instead, he created a political landscape that was unique to his vision of Florence. Lorenzo put himself in the spotlight. Often excessively. To maintain a sense of dominance over the Florentines that he thought would best fit his style of governing.

Although his time as the ruler of Florence was not perfect. He sought to take matters into his own hands and use his skills to find solutions. Lorenzo’s escapade in Naples is a great example of his leadership. Due to his problems with the pope. Lorenzo realized he was putting all of Florence at risk for no great reason. He made it his mission, at the expense of his safety, to travel to Naples. And use his diplomacy to claw his way out of the mess he had put Florence in. He put what was best for Florence before himself, showing the Florentines the kind of leader, he was.

Written by Jiming Xu
Nobel Prize Winning Economist. Stanford Professor. Paul Romer. On Hyperinflation. Protecting Science
Hubble Space Telescope Director. Max Planck Institute for Astronomy Director. Dr. Steven Beckwith.

Why was Lorenzo de Medici so important to the Renaissance? Lorenzo il Magnifico’s Rule over Florence