Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Like most powerful men of his time, Lorenzo de' Medici’s love life followed the typical path: he married the woman who would bring not only wealth but power, yet his heart and his passion belonged, in truth, to another. In the case of Il Magnifico, his women were anything but typical.

The Orsini family possessed all the characteristics of prime in-law candidates, not only wealthy, they were members of the nobility of the papal court. Clarice, born c. 1453, was the daughter of the Lord of Monterotondo and Bracciano, Jacopo (Giacomo) Orsini and his wife and cousin, Maddalena Orsini.

Lucrezia Tornabuoni de Medici
Lucrezia Tornabuoni, wife to the sickly Piero de' Medici, was a formidable matriarch of great fortitude and influence. With the assistance of her brother, Giovanni Tornabuoni, the director of the Medici bank in Rome, Lurcrezia made a special visit—some have suggested she did so under the guise of a simple family visit—to Rome and used the occasion to further inspect the girl that had gone to the top of her list of possible spouses for her son Lorenzo, a young man with great promise and potential. His future mate could be no less. Lucrezia’s ‘inspection’ borders on intrusive by the standards of modern sensibilities, but were, in fact quite normal for the time.

The first letter sent back to her husband in Florence, bound there by his gout, Lucrezia wrote of Clarice:
Clarice Orsini
’She is fairly tall, and fair, and has a nice manner, though she is not as sweet as our girls. She is very modest and will soon learn our customs. Her face is round, but it does not displease me. We could not see her bosom as it is the custom here to wear it completely covered up, but it seems promising.’ She further reported of Clarice’s red hair and narrow hips.

As Lucrezia became more and more inclined toward the Orsini girl, Lorenzo made his own visit to Rome, where the two met in person. His approval confirmed the coupling and though marriage was agreed upon, negotiations of the marriage contract was a protracted affair spanning almost the full length of a year, long after the Medici had returned to Florence. Among other details, a dowry of 6,000 florins was agreed upon.

Lorenzo de' Medici married Clarice Orsini by proxy on 7 February 1469, much to the displeasure of the Florentines. Not only was Clarice a very religious and introverted woman—antithetical to the Humanist movement obsessing most Florentines of the time, especially Lorenzo himself—they felt Lorenzo’s choice of a woman of Rome was a condemnation of Florence’s own young women of noble standing. If the Medici were to take this major step—for the first time marrying into a class above their own—should it not be to one of their own?

To pacify the fiorentinos, Lorenzo arranged a grand festival to celebrate the betrothal and to share the good fortune of the family with the people. As his father was too ill to plan the event, Lorenzo took charge. A young, virile man, Lorenzo’s idea of a grand festival was a joust, an opulent affair, one to mirror the coming ostentation of Lorenzo’s unofficial ‘reign’ over Florence. In March of 1469, the Piazza Santa Croce was paved with sand and surrounded with seating stands for a large audience. Eighteen knights in full regalia paraded past the Queen of the Tournament, but none so magnificent as Lorenzo himself. And though he had been unseated by one of his opponents, Lorenzo took first prize. The people of Florence were appeased and Lorenzo was happy, even though the affair cost 2,000 more florins than the dowry he would receive.

While Lorenzo partied, Clarice set herself to becoming a Florentine…learning the ways of her new land, the customs, the dances. On the 4th of June, 1469, Clarice, resplendent in garb more appropriate to Florence styling, rode into the city on horseback, accompanied by Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano, as well as a retinue of fifty knights. The streets teemed with the people of the city, people of every rank and title, on every street, in every piazza. Windows and doorways were festooned with olive branches, a sign of joy, as the people welcomed Clarice to their fair city.

Basilica of San Lorenzo
In the grand Basilica of San Lorenzo, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and funded by Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo, the wedding ceremony took place. The reception (a word far too small for what followed) took place in the garden and courtyard of the Medici palazzo, lasted three days, and included no less than five banquets; 4,000 capons were consumed, as were 300 barrels of wine, and 17 tons of sweatmeats and sugared almonds. Copper goblets filled with wine surrounded Donatello’s David as along the streets allegorical floats, decorated with drapery and flowers, were paraded through the city. A battle was staged in the piazza in front of the palazzo and a play was performed in the garden.

And yet, for all this opulence and festivity, all this celebration, this was a marriage doomed for the start. Was it Lorenzo’s virility against Clarice’s piety? Such would seem the most reasonable answer, but it was not the truth. The truth was that Lorenzo was in love, had been since before he laid eyes on Clarice…to Lucrezia Donati.

While notions abound and debate as to whether their relationship was one of courtly love or true marital infidelity, Lorenzo’s devotion was not only intense, but lifelong, as evidenced by the many poems and verses written to her and about her.
Lucrezia Donati

The most prevalent theory of their meeting comes at the wedding of one of Lorenzo’s brigata, a close dear friend. There, it is said, Lucrezia wove a garland of flowers for Lorenzo and asked that he wear them in a joust, out of love for her, though by this time, she had been married to Niccolo Ardinghelli for three years. Not only did he wear it, the banner he carried held her image, one crafted by Verrocchio. Lucrezia was a great beauty, and a muse to many of the greatest artists of the age, including Sandro Botticelli. Letters abound, especially those written by his friends while Lorenzo was in Milan, telling him of Lucrezia’s activities in his absence. One such letter urged Lorenzo’s return, so that, in the absence of her husband as well, ‘sweet terrain (would remain) unplowed.’

The truth has died with them, all that remains are these letters and Lorenzo’s own words…words of a deep and abiding love.

What should the smitten godling do, now that 
He can no longer catch the comely nymph?
The more she is denied to him, the more
Desire inflames and stings his smitten heart.
The nymph’s already close to where my Arno
Receives Ombron, whose waves he joins with his;
Seeing the Arno cheers Ombrone so,
His ruined hopes begin to rise.

I’ve learned just how to please the one I loved,
And how to win her love, this woman who,
The more she’s loved, the more she is displeased.
Oh icy Boreas, freeze my current, turn
My coursing waters into solid ice,
That, petrified, I can attend the nymph.
And may the sun with shining golden shafts
Nevermore melt my hardened, crystal waves.

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