Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Lorenzo de Medici

Florence, Italy   Visited July 2011


For a change of pace this post goes back a-ways in time to consider one of the great figures of the fifteenth century – Lorenzo de Medici.  Also known in his time by the less than humble nickname ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’, this banker, statesman and patron of the arts was the quintessential ‘Renaissance Man’.  In fact, Lorenzo the Magnificent straddles the intersection of the Italian Renaissance, the dawn of the Age of Exploration and the Protestant Reformation in a remarkably unique way. 



By the time Lorenzo de Medici was born in January 1449, the Medici’s were already the dominant family in the Tuscan region of central Italy.  Under the Medici clan, Florence became one of the great cultural and economic centers in Europe, rivaling Rome for power and influence.  The Medici family dynasty had begun under Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo, who parlayed a banking fortune into political influence and governing control.  The Italian peninsula of the Middle Ages was divided into regional feudal states vying for economic power.  Under Cosimo ‘The Great’, Florence gained ascendency through trade, amassing great wealth in the process.  The Medici were essentially the personal bankers for the Pope, which gave them outsized influence in and beyond their region. 


Lorenzo’s father, Piero ‘the Gouty’, parlayed the family fortunes into an investment in the arts at just about the same time that a great renewal of interest in classical arts and literature was taking place.  This investment established Florence as a creative center for the emerging Renaissance that would eventually sweep across Europe.  Lorenzo was the gifted son of five children and took over primary control of the family concerns at age 20 upon the death of his father. 

Me and my daughter Kelsey overlooking Florence

Lorenzo had a long and eventful ride as head of the Medici empire.  As effective Lord over Florence, he ruled the city in his early years with strong arm.  These early years were also characterized by international political intrigue and civil war as Lorenzo sought to consolidate his power over other clans and expand his influence beyond his region.  The darkest period of Lorenzo’s career occurred in the 1480’s when a falling out with the Vatican led to his excommunication from the church and a siege of Florence by Papal forces.  Lorenzo was able to extract his city from the crisis through negotiation, which led to his return to the church and relative security for Florence.  The latter years of Lorenzo’s political career were a marked contrast to his aggressive youth, where he used his influence relationships to maintain stability and rebuild the economic prominence of the Florentine regime. 

Basilica of San Lorenzo

As remarkable as his political career was, it was through his patronage of the arts that he made his true mark.  As naturally adept in politics as his career displays, Lorenzo also had an artistic side.  He dabbled in painting but became somewhat known for his poetry.  His devotion to the contemplative arts led to his nickname ‘Lorenzo the Thoughtful’.  Lorenzo took personal interest in promoting the careers of Botticelli, Da Vinci, Donatello and numerous other artists – even having Michelangelo living with him for five years.  Lorenzo was primarily responsible for getting Michelangelo the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel.  He also used is resources to collect books and manuscripts which in time were collected in the Laurentian Library of the Church of San Lorenzo (designed by Michelangelo) which is one of the world’s great libraries not only for its architecture but for its collection of classical and early Christian literature.     It can fairly be said there is no Italian Renaissance without the intentional vision, underwriting and encouragement of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 

Painting by Ghirlandaio depicting the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis, (1485)
 at Santa Trinita Sassetti Chapel in  Florence. The Medici family
are prominent in the painting - Lorenzo to the far right.  

One of the more fascinating aspects of Lorenzo’s later years was his dealing with the Italian religious reformer Savonarola.  Even though the message of this self-proclaimed prophet attacked the types of autocratic rule that the Medici’s had developed into an art form, Lorenzo sought spiritual counsel from Savonarola throughout the latter part of his life.  Savonarola was with Lorenzo at the time of his death.  However, he fell out of favor with Lorenzo’s son and heir Piero (‘the Unfortunate’) and was eventually branded at heretic of the church and burned in the Florence Square. 
Savonarola preaching

Lorenzo died in Florence at the age of 43 on April 9, 1492, just four months prior to the date when Columbus set sail for his first voyage of exploration.  He was buried in a chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo (a different Lorenzo) designed by Michelangelo in Florence.  Both his tomb and that of his brother were carved by Michelangelo as well. 

Lorenzo's crypt in Basilica San Lorenzo.  Photos
are not allowed so this is a stock image.


Michelangelo's statue of Lorenzo 'the Thoughtful'
on his crypt
As we’ve seen, Lorenzo de Medici was at the center of the Renaissance.  His passing coincided with the beginning of the Age of Exploration that led to a radical redefinition of the political and economic landscape of Europe.  And his ties to the Reformation are also intriguing.  In addition to his association with the proto-reformer Savonarola, Lorenzo indirectly contributed to the emergence of Protestantism.  Through political intrigue, his son Giovanni was elevated to the papacy in 1513 and is generally considered to have been a disastrous and corrupt pope.  In his devotion to artistic splendor and extravagance, he pressed forward the grand design of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  However, being short of funds for the work he decreed the sale of indulgences by which people could buy themselves and others out of purgatory for a price paid to Rome.  It was this practice of purchasing salvation that so troubled a devote monk in Germany that he began a campaign to reform it.  The 95 Theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral by Martin Luther began as a protest and ended as the Reformation. 

View of the Medici Chapel from our hotel
in Florence

My encounter with Lorenzo’s tomb was somewhat unexpected.  On a trip to Florence with my daughter Kelsey, her friend, and my brother we stayed at a little hotel not too far from the Duomo.  Outside our window was a multi-story octagonal structure connected to a large but not particularly ornate Basilica.  It was somewhat underwhelming by Florentine standards.  On the second of two days of touring we decided to try to get in and see what was there.  We walked around the entire building until we finally found an entrance to what looked like a small museum.  Paying a small fee, we went in to check it out and were mildly impressed by some of the artifacts from the Medici family.   

Interior of the Medici Chapel

We were about to leave when I noticed a sign that pointed the direction to the ‘chapel’.  Out of curiosity, we followed the sign and found ourselves in the octagonal structure we’d seen outside our window.  Inside it was a breathtakingly magnificent chapel (the Chapel of the Princes) adorned with semi-precious stones inlaid in marble of various colors.  Full-scale statuary by Michelangelo and others fill every wall but the entrance and the altar area.  Reading about the chapel later it turns out that original plan was to buy or steal the Holy Sepulcher from Jerusalem and put it in the center of the floor, but that plan never worked.  Leaving this beautiful space, we discovered another small hallway that led unexpectedly to the ‘New Sacristy’.  It is here where Lorenzo and his brother Guiliano are buried in marble crypts designed and carved by Michelangelo.  It truly is a must see on any tour of Florence. 


In recent times there has been considerable talk about the ‘Medici Effect’ based on the popular business and leadership book, The Medici Effect by Frans Johanssen.  The book’s title derives from Lorenzo’s gift for creating an environment multi-disciplinary creativity for the flourishing of innovation in arts and sciences. 

Lorenzo (left) in virtual combat in the video game 'Assassin's Creed'. 
For a nice graphic depiction of Lorenzo's world check out this
short video from the game dealing with the Medici Cape

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