Biography of Lorenzo de' Medici

Italian statesman and Renaissance patron of the arts

Engraving of Lorenzo de' Medici
Sketch of Lorenzo de' Medici (Image: Illustriertes Konversations Lexikon / Getty Images).

Lorenzo de’ Medici, (January 1, 1449 – April 8, 1492) was a Florentine politician and one of the most prominent patrons of arts and culture in Italy. During his reign as de facto leader of the Florentine Republic, he held together political alliances while sponsoring artists and encouraging the peak of the Italian Renaissance.

Fast Facts: Lorenzo de' Medici

  • Known For: Statesman and de facto leader of Florence whose reign coincided with a boom in the Italian Renaissance, thanks largely to his patronage of arts, culture, and philosophy.
  • Also Known As: Lorenzo the Magnificent
  • Born: January 1, 1449 in Florence, Republic of Florence (modern-day Italy)
  • Died: April 8, 1492 at Villa Medici at Careggi, Republic of Florence
  • Spouse: Clarice Orsini (m. 1469)
  • Children: Lucrezia Maria Romola (b. 1470), Piero (b. 1472), Maria Maddalena Romola (b. 1473), Giovanni (b. 1475), Luisa (b. 1477), Contessina Antonia Romola (b. 1478), Giuliano (b. 1479); also adopted nephew Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici (b. 1478)
  • Quote: “What I have dreamed in an hour is worth more than what you have done in four.” 

Medici Heir

Lorenzo was a son of the Medici family, who held political power in Florence but also held power by virtue of the Medici Bank, which was the most powerful and respected bank in all of Europe for many years. His grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, cemented the family’s role in Florentine politics, while also spending a great deal of his vast fortune on building up the city-state’s public projects and its arts and culture.

Lorenzo was one of five children born to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici and his wife, Lucrezia (nee Tournabuoni). Piero was at the center of Florence’s politics scene and was an art collector, while Lucrezia was a poet in her own right and befriended many philosophers and fellow poets of the era. Because Lorenzo was deemed the most promising of their five children, he was brought up from a young age with the expectation that he would be the next Medici ruler. He was tutored by some of the top thinkers of the day and accomplished some notable achievements—such as winning a jousting tournament—while still a youth. His closest associate was his brother, Giuliano, who was the handsome, charming “golden boy” to Lorenzo’s plainer, more serious self.

The Young Ruler

In 1469, when Lorenzo was twenty years old, his father died, leaving Lorenzo to inherit the work of ruling Florence. Technically, the Medici patriarchs did not rule the city-state directly, but instead were statesmen who “ruled” via threats, financial incentives, and marriage alliances. Lorenzo’s own marriage took place the same year he took over from his father; he married Clarice Orsini, the daughter of a nobleman from another Italian state. The couple went on to have ten children and one adopted son, seven of whom survived to adulthood, including two future popes (Giovanni, the future Leo X, and Giulio, who became Clement VII).

From the very beginning, Lorenzo de’ Medici was a major patron of the arts, even more so than others in the Medici dynasty, which always place a high value on the arts. Although Lorenzo himself rarely commissioned work, he often connected artists with other patrons and helped them get commissions. Lorenzo himself was also a poet. Some of his poetry—often concerned with the human condition as a combination of the bright and lovely alongside the melancholy and temporary—survives to this day.

Artists who enjoyed Lorenzo’s patronage included some of the most influential names of the Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti. In fact, Lorenzo and his family even opened their home to Michelangelo for three years while he lived and worked in Florence. Lorenzo also encouraged the development of humanism through the philosophers and scholars in his inner circle, who worked to reconcile the thought of Plato with Christian thought.

The Pazzi Conspiracy

Because of the Medici monopoly over Florentine life, other powerful families vacillated between alliance and enmity with the Medici. On April 26, 1478, one of those families came close to toppling the Medici reign. The Pazzi conspiracy involved other families, such as the Salviati clan, and was backed by Pope Sixtus IV in an attempt to overthrow the Medici.

On that day, Lorenzo was attacked, along with his brother and co-ruler Giuliano, in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Lorenzo was wounded but escaped with minor wounds, in part thanks to the assistance and defense of his friend, the poet Poliziano. Giuliano, however, was not as lucky: he suffered a violent death by stabbing. The response to the attack was swift and harsh, both on the part of the Medici and Florentines themselves. The conspirators were executed, and members of their families were also severely punished. Giuliano left behind an illegitimate son, Giulio, who was adopted and raised by Lorenzo and Clarice.

Since the conspirators acted with the blessing of the pope, he attempted to seize Medici assets and excommunicated all of Florence. When that failed to bring Lorenzo around, he tried allying with Naples and launched an invasion. Lorenzo and the citizens of Florence defended their city, but the war took its toll, as some of Florence’s allies failed to come to their aid. Eventually, Lorenzo personally traveled to Naples to forge a diplomatic solution. He also commissioned some of Florence’s best artists to travel to the Vatican and paint new murals in the Sistine Chapel, as a gesture of reconciliation with the pope.

Later Rule and Legacy

Although his support for culture would ensure his legacy was a positive one, Lorenzo de’ Medici made some unpopular political decisions too. When alum, a hard-to-find but important compound for making glass, textiles, and leather, was discovered in nearby Volterra, the citizens of that city asked Florence for help mining it. However, a dispute soon arose when the citizens of Volterra realized the real value of the resource and wanted it for their own city, rather than the Florentine bankers assisting them. A violent insurrection resulted, and the mercenaries Lorenzo sent to end it sacked the city, permanently marring Lorenzo’s reputation.

For the most part, though, Lorenzo attempted to rule peacefully; the cornerstone of his policy was to maintain a balance of power among the Italian city-states and to keep outside European powers out of the peninsula. He even maintained good trading ties with the Ottoman Empire.

Despite his efforts, the Medici coffers were drained by their spending and by bad loans their bank supported, so Lorenzo began trying to fill the gaps through misappropriations. He also brought the charismatic friar Savonarola to Florence, who preached about the destructive nature of secular art and philosophy, among other things. The sensationalist friar would, in a few years’ time, help salvage Florence from French invasion, but would also lead to the end of Medici rule.

Lorenzo de’ Medici died at the Villa Medici at Careggi, on April 8, 1492, reportedly dying peacefully after hearing the day’s Scripture readings. He was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo, alongside his brother Giuliano. Lorenzo left behind a Florence that would soon overthrow Medici rule—although his son and his nephew would eventually return the Medici to power—but he also left behind a rich and vast legacy of culture that came to define Florence’s place in history.

Sources

  • Kent, F.W. Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Art of Magnificence. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004.
  • “Lorenzo de’ Medici: Italian Statesman.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lorenzo-de-Medici.
  • Parks, Tim. Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.
  • Unger, Miles J. Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Simon & Schuster, 2009.