Thursday, July 24, 2014


"It is necessary now for you to be a man not a boy; be so in words, deeds and manners.
-Piero de' Medici to his son Lorenzo, May 11, 1465

Born in 1449, Lorenzo de' Medici was born to Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Piero de' Medici (aka Piero the Gouty). In truth, the greatest influence in his life, in addition to his educated and prolific mother, was his grandfather, Cosimo de Medici. Like his grandfather he practiced patronage of both the arts and learning, much in the very same manner. Yet he extended his boundaries, no doubt by the influence of his mother, and became a prolific poet himself. But first, he was naught but a child, a child of the most powerful family in Italy.

Detail from The Procession of the Magi
In a move of political brilliance quite uncharacteristic, Lorenzo's father, Piero, extended the customary three days between birth and baptism to position it to fall on the same day as the Feast of the Epiphany. With the stagecraft of a theatrical master, he brought the child's christening in perfect cohesion to tie the ritual to the day on the sacred calendar most associated with the family's power and prestige. For generations, the Medici had been associated with the celebrations dedicated to the Magi. Every few years, magnificent processions would fill the cobbled streets of a beautified Florence--processions paid for by Medici money--parades that would end at the Medicean convent of San Marco where a holy creche was housed. Even the more staid Cosimo participated, dressing the part of in a cloak of fur and gold brocade.

The metaphorical of the Magi to the Medicis was one easily accepted. The Magi were one of the few figures of prominence and power in the Bible who obtained their eternity in Heaven with little difficulty. So were the Medicis looked upon by the Florentines. And more then one piece of art brought that metaphorical symbolism to light. While a simple version by Benozzo Gozzoli graced the wall of Cosimo's private cell in the monastery of San Marco, the same artist would create a wondrous piece, a frescoe consuming an entire room in the Medici palazzo, begun in 1459 and finding its completion in 1461.
Here in The Procession of the Magi, the youngest of the Magi was given the likeness of Lorenzo, then eleven or twelve years old. He is at the head of a cortege (first panel on the left) which includes his grandfather Cosimo, his father Piero and his brother Giuliano. Detail of Lorenzo depicted above.

Joining this form of obeisance to the great family, Sandro Botticelli created, in 1475 (tempura on wood), his own, more personal version. In this work Botticelli turned the adoration of the magi into an apotheosis of the Medici and their entourage.
The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli includes several generations of the family and their retainers. 16 year-old Lorenzo is to the left, with his horse, prior to his departure on a diplomatic mission to Milan

As a young man, Lorenzo was enrolled in the Confraternity of the Magi, the religious brotherhood responsible for staging the magnificent processions.

From the beginning of his life, Lorenzo was born 'to the purple,' born into the wealth that the succeeding generations had amassed, to the business empire that had been forged. Such an auspicious beginning influenced not only how those around him viewed him, but of his own perception of self. Lorenzo's youth saw not only the dawning days of the Renaissance but a change of attitude towards wealth and riches, from them no longer being considered a vice but a virtue, and the Medici family had never been more virtuous then in the days of Lorenzo's childhood. His life was shaped not only by the luxury in which he lived, but also by the complex, contrasting layers of life in Florence. Differentiating it from other eras, this was not a time when the rich were sheltered from the poor; quite the opposite. Rich shops shared blocks with crowded tenements. On the streets, silk-clad shoulders rubbed against those of the poor wool-carders in soiled rags and wooden shoes. The astute youth that was Lorenzo knew the sharp contrast of his life to the squalid conditions endured by many of his neighbors. It was an early life lesson that was to greatly shape the magnificent man he was to become.

From his earliest days, Lorenzo was shuttled back and forth between the family's city estate to one of their many country retreats, much like many of the wealthy merchant and noble clans of the era. Closest to the city was the villa at Careggi (which would later prove to be one of the first sites of Lorenzo's sharp intelligence and unwavering courage). A day's ride north found the family either at the villa in Cafaggiolo or Trebbio. At Trebbio, Lorenzo found a passion in the hunt, a passion of such inspiration it would serve to produce some of the young man's best written poetry. His description of a sunrise comes from his work, The Partridge Hunt:

Villa del Trebbio
The wolf retreated to its wilderness.
The fox retreated to its den,
For there was now a chance it might be seen,
Now that the moon had come and gone again.
The busy peasant woman had already
Allowed the sheep and pigs to leave their pens.
Crystalline, chilly, and clear was the air;
The morning would be fair,
When I was roused by jingling bells and by 
The calling of the dogs and similar sounds.

While life was externally and materialistically idyllic, Lorenzo was also a product of the relationships in his life. His father Piero was a typical Florentine man of his age, stern and dutiful, any expressions of affection were influence by his belief that his role was to prepare Lorenzo for the momentous position he would inherit, the head of a political powerhouse and business empire. It was a heavy burden to realize at a young age, which Lorenzo would have had no choice in doing. His mother, while more outwardly affection, had heavy burdens of her own, including many children--some of whom passed young--the running of a large household, one at the center of the many facets of Florentine life, as well as some chronic physical ailments, including eczema, a condition she shared with her son Lorenzo. Yet throughout her life, Lucrezia Tornabuoni would be a calming influence on her son's life.

From the start, Cosimo and Piero knew what they had in the small boy that was Lorenzo...a child star, precocious and self-assured from an early age. And much like today, they used that fact to its full advantage. At the age of five, Lorenzo was dressed in the finest of French fashions and sent off to the main gate leading into the city to pay the first greetings to the visiting Duke of Anjou. With a lisp that charmed all who heard--both children and adults alike--he paid an obeisance more in keeping with a seasoned diplomat.

Even his illness they used to their advantage. In 1455, the six-year-old, while recuperating from an especially serious bout of eczema at the mineral springs in Mercato, the small Lorenzo was elected, "Lord of the Baths," a humorous affectation which involved presiding over parties and picnics and amusing to no end the varied assortment of gentlemen in attendance.

Two others played an affluential role in the young Lorenzo's life. He was devoted to his grandmother, Cosimo's wife Contessina di Bardi. She lived until 1473, surviving her husband by ten years. Amidst those who would use such a powerful young man...who would attach themselves to him for his power and not for the glory that was his is no wonder Lorenzo craved such a maternal figure, one who offered affection and unconditional love.

Born in Urbino, Gentile Becchi was chosen in 1454 by Piero de' Medici to tutor his two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano, yet his influence and his standing within the family came to be far more reaching. He would come to accompany various family members on ambassadorial missions as well as to negotiate marriage contracts. That Lorenzo would, much later, chose this same man to tutor his own children, is a testimonial to his regard for the man who would open Lorenzo's mind up to the works of Plato and Aristotle, works that would forever change this young child into the magnificent man he was to become.


Marie Antonia Parsons said...

I really enjoy your Medici series. If I had to choose between Borgia and Medici I would take the latter.
I wish it were possible to trace Medici family further back than Chiarissimo de' Medici, father of Averardo.

Donna Russo Morin said...

I do go back a little further, three generations actually, but the material is a bit scanty. However, it does detail how the Medici came to be in Florence. The series began in May of 2013; look for those posts.