We mentioned previously what a patron was – this was a sponsor of an artist to develop their skills and create works of art.
One of the most famous ‘Patrons of the Arts’ was a man named Lorenzo de Medici.
This was not a modest man!! He also went by the nickname Lorenzo the Magnificent
In the 15th Century (1400 – 1499) Florence was a bustling, noisy city. It was the centre of the Renaissance in Europe! Much of this was because of the Medici. The Medici ruled Florence for most of the century. Lorenzo became ruler of Florence in 1469 at the age of 21. He loved art, books, music and poetry. As a patron of the arts Lorenzo collected many ancient manuscripts and had his own library. He established the Platonic Academy- A group of scholars who discussed ancient Greek and Roman writings.
Lorenzo was a personal friend to many artists such as Botticelli, Verrochio and Leonardo Da Vinci. Lorenzo opened a school of sculpture where one of his pupils was called Michelangelo. He treated Michelangelo like a son, often having him stay in his house. Michelangelo and other artists flourished under Lorenzo and is therefore the reason why Florence was booming in the Renaissance!
Medici’s Ruthless Ambition
The Medici didn’t start out as the most powerful family in Italy. Other families were just as rich, and just as ambitious. But no one knew more about getting ahead – and staying ahead – than the Medici.
They clawed their way to the top, sometimes through bribery, corruption and violence. Those who stood in their way could end up humiliated – or dead. And the Medici exploited a network of “friends of friends” – hangers on who would do anything to stay close to the family.
For the Medici, this network of amici degli amici – the magic words in Renaissance Italy – was the key to fame, fortune and survival.
The power of the Medici stretched all the way to Rome, where even the papacy was something to be bought and sold.
They were the Godfathers of the Renaissance.
The Medici created a lucrative partnership with another medieval power, the Catholic Church. In what had to be one of the most ingenious enterprises of all time, the Medici bank collected 10% of your earnings for the Church. If you couldn’t pay, you faced excommunication – a one-way ticket to hell.
The Pope himself had a massive overdraft, and the Medici bank became the most profitable business in Europe. By 1434, half the bank’s revenue came from the Rome “branch”, which was in fact little more than a mobile bank that followed the Pope around the world.
Papal connections gave the Medici bank immense power, soon everyone wanted an account with the Pope’s personal bank. On one occasion the nomination of a new bishop was “delayed”, until his father – a Cardinal – had repaid their debts to the Medici bank.
And the Medici kept ahead of their banking rivals because of the invention of limited liability. Giovanni di Bicci had set up a franchise system, where regional branch managers shared a stake in the business. Giovanni also banned loans to princes and kings, who were notoriously bad investments.
Consequentially, the Medici business remained in the black while its competitors lost fortunes.
We imagine owing them money was a little like dealing with Fat Tony!
Losing Face! (Literally)
In many societies there is nothing more humiliating than to receive abrutta figura – a loss of face in society.
The fear of public humiliation informs every choice, every argument, every decision – in 15th century Italy.
During the Medici’s feud with the Albizzi in the 1430s, rumors were spread by a poet called Filelfo, a ‘friend’ of the Albizzi family. Filelfo claimed Cosimo was a traitor and a cheat. Filelfo’s words were instrumental in turning the government against the leader of the Medici. When Cosimo returned to power, Filelfo was terrified, but unlike his friends he was allowed to escape with his life.
But one day, down a dark alley, a different kind of justice caught up with him. Filelfo was attacked by a group of men, armed with a blade. When they had finished with him, Filelfo had a fresh wound, stretching right across his face, from ear to ear – a loss of face indeed.
A Family at War
The Medici weren’t the only famous family of the Italian Renaisssance.
Their fame stemmed as much from their longevity as from their achievements. Their rivals burned just as bright – they just didn’t last as long.
The Albizzi were one of the oldest families in Florence and led the republican government for two generations. By 1427, they were the most powerful family in the city, and far richer than the Medici. They had been the patrons of genius and cultural icons, but the family was more interested in waging war than sustaining commercial viability. By 1430, their military policy had cost the Florentine taxpayer a fortune and much of their support. Pragmatic pacifists marshaled around Cosimo de’Medici.
Maso degli Albizzi, patriach of his family, had two sons, Luca and Rinaldo. From a young age, Luca was friends with Cosimo de’Medici. They shared a passion for classical learning and good conversation. During the 1420s, Luca declared his public allegiance to the Medici family, even marrying Cosimo’s cousin. For his hot-headed brother Rinaldo, this was a humiliation too far. The bitter family rivalry had just got personal.
Rinaldo’s impatience got the better of him. Eager to flush Cosimo out of Florence, he allowed the head of the Medici family to stay alive, gathering support whilst in exile. And Rinaldo’s rash decision to besiege the Palazzo Vecchio when he didn’t get his way allowed Cosimo to return triumphant. The Albizzi were banished, never to return to power in Florence.
Like the Albizzi, the Pazzi were an older, nobler lineage than the Medici. They could trace their ancestry back to Pazzino de’Pazzi, the first knight to scale the wall of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. The Pazzi were also wealthy bankers, and enjoyed good commercial terms with their Medici rivals. They even sealed these friendly relations through inter-marriage.
But Lorenzo de’Medici, wary of Pazzi ambition, kept his rivals out of government office during the 1470s. When a greedy nephew of Pope Sixtus IV approached the younger Pazzi with a plan to seize Medici land, they found the chance for power in Florence irresistible. The ambitious sons of Jacopo de’Pazzi led an audacious plot against the Medici.
The plot failed. Executed at the hands of furious Florentines, the name of Pazzi was erased from the city, their homes looted and destroyed. One conspirator was hunted down in the streets of Constantinople, and handed over by the Ottoman Emperor. Even he knew that Lorenzo de’Medici was not to be messed with.
Perhaps by coincidence, the Italian noun for a hot-headed fool is pazzo – and some have suggested that the Italian-American slang, patsy, meaning a scapegoat or stooge, is derived from the unfortunate Pazzi assassins.
Their name has become a byword for murder and incest, making the Borgia the most notorious family in Renaissance Italy. They were not friends of the Medici.
Rodrigo Borgia, the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, had at least two illegitimate children. His sociopath son, Cesare, was born just a year after Giovanni de’Medici, in 1476. Cesare was made a cardinal in 1493 and his presence in Rome under the rule of his father made the city off-limits to the Medici cousins.
Cesare marched through Rome with weapons barely hidden under his silk robes, taking pot-shots at prisoners and murdering close relations. Rumored to have committed incest with his beautiful sister, Lucrezia, he stabbed her lover to death at the feet of the Pope, and strangled her second husband, who was only 18-years-old. After his father’s death, Cesare was exiled to Spain, where he died in 1507. Lucrezia went on to patronize some of the greatest talents of the High Renaissance, including the poet Ariosto, and the artist Titian.
Che brutta figura! – humiliation as revenge.
Lorenzo Orders the Hit!
In medieval Italy, life was cheap.
The most infamous Renaissance murder was the assault on Giuliano and Lorenzo de’Medici. Giuliano was murdered in Florence Cathedral, in front of an audience of 10,000, on Easter Sunday. The Pazzi family believed a public assassination would proclaim their undisputed power over Florence, and strike fear into the friends of the Medici. Giuliano’s assassins stabbed with such frenzy that one wounded himself in the leg by mistake. But the man assigned to kill Lorenzo hesitated a fraction too long and Lorenzo escaped with a minor neck wound.
Lorenzo survived and the Pazzi were doomed. Strung up by the people of Florence, they were flung from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio and left to swing in the hot Tuscan sun. Stripped and beaten, their naked bodies the ultimate brutte figure, the dying Archbishop of Florence famously sank his teeth into the thigh of Francesco de’Pazzi, his co-conspirator. Another’s decomposing corpse was ripped from its grave and dragged through the streets of Florence, even propped against the doors of the Pazzi Palace – the fetid head used as a door knocker.
So there you go, Lorenzo de Medici was a key figure to the Renaissance in Florence, but NOT A MAN TO BE MESSED WITH!
For more on the Renaissance, keep it here at The Áed!