Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Lorenzo the Magnificent

The struggle in which Dante had played a leading part did not cease for many years after the poet had died in exile. The Florentines proved themselves so unable to rule their own city that they had to admit foreign control and bow before the Lords Paramount who came from Naples. The last of these died in 1328 and was succeeded by the Duke of Athens. This tyrant roused the old spirit of the people which had asserted its independence in former days. He was driven out of Florence on Saint Anne's Day, July 26th of 1343, and the anniversary of that brave fight for liberty was celebrated henceforth with loud rejoicing.

The Ciompi, or working-classes, rose in 1378 and demanded higher wages. They had been grievously oppressed by the nobles, and were encouraged by a general spirit of revolt which affected the peasantry of Europe. They were strong enough in Florence to set up a new government with one of their own rank as chief magistrate. But democracy did not enjoy a lengthy rule and the rich merchant-class came into power. Such families as the Albizzi and Medici were well able to buy the favour of the people.

There had been a tradition that the Florentine banking-house of Medici were on the popular side in those struggles which rent Florence. They were certainly born leaders and understood very thoroughly the nature of their turbulent fellow-citizens. They gained influence steadily during the sway of their rivals, the illustrious Albizzi. When Cosimo dei Medici had been banished, it was significant that the same convention of the people which recalled him should send Rinaldo degli Albizzi into exile.

Cosimo dei Medici rid himself of enemies by the unscrupulous method of his predecessors, driving outside the walls the followers of any party that opposed him. He had determined to control the Florentines so cleverly that they should not realize his tyranny. He was quite willing to spend the hoards of his ancestors on the adornment of the state he governed, and, among other things, he built the famous convent of St Mark. Fra Angelico, the painter-monk, was given the work of covering its white walls with the frescoes in which the monks delighted.

Cosimo gained thereby the reputation of liberality and gracious interest in the development of genius. The monk had devoted his time before this to the illuminations of manuscripts, and was delighted to work for the glory of God in such a way that all the convent might behold it. He wished for neither profit not praise for himself, but he knew that his beautiful vision would be inherited by his Church, and that they might inspire others of his brethren.

The Golden Age of Italian art was in its heyday under Cosimo dei Medici. Painters and architects had not been disturbed by the tumults that drew the rival factions from their daily labours. They had been constructing marvellous edifices in Florence even during the time when party feeling ran so high that it would have sacrificed the very existence of the city to its rancours. The noble Cathedral had begun to rise before Dante had been banished, but there was no belfry till 1334 when Giotto laid the foundation-stone of the Campanile, whence the bells would ring through many centuries. The artist had completed his masterpiece in 1387, two years before the birth of Cosimo. It was an incentive to patriotic Florentines to add to the noble buildings of their city. The Church of San Lorenzo owed its existence to the House of Medici, which appealed to the people by lavish appreciation of all genius.

Cosimo was a scholar and welcomed the learned Greeks who fled from Constantinople when that city was taken by the Turks in 1453. He founded a Platonic Academy in Florence so that his guests were able to discuss philosophy at leisure. He professed to find consolation for all the misfortunes of his life in the writings of the Greek Plato, and read them rather ostentatiously in hours of bereavement. He collected as many classical manuscripts as his agents could discover on their journeys throughout Europe, and had these translated for the benefit of scholars. He had been in the habit of conciliating Alfonso of Naples by a present of gold and jewels, but as soon as a copy of Livy, the Latin historian, came to his hand, he sent the priceless treasure to his ally, knowing that the Neapolitan prince had an enormous reverence for learning. Cosimo, in truth, never coveted such finds for his own private use, but was always generous in exhibiting them at public libraries. He bought works of art to encourage the ingenuity of Florentine craftsmen, and would pay a high price for any new design, because he liked to think that his benevolence added to the welfare of the city.

Cosimo protected the commercial interests of Florence, identifying them with his own. He knew that peace was essential to the foreign trade, and tried to keep on friendly terms with the neighbours whose hostility would have destroyed it. He lived with simplicity in private life, but he needed wealth to maintain his position as patron of art and the New Learning; nor did he grudge the money which was scattered profusely to provide the gorgeous spectacles, beloved by the unlearned. He knew that nothing would rob the Florentines so easily of their ancient love of liberty as the experience of sensuous delights, in which all southern races find some satisfaction. He entertained the guests of the Republic with magnificence, that they might be impressed by the security of his unlawful government.

Lorenzo, the grandson of Cosimo dei Medici, carried on his policy. It had been successful, for the Florentines of their own accord put themselves beneath the sway of a second tyrant.

"Poets of every kind, gentle and simple, with golden cithern and with rustic lute, came from every quarter to animate the suppers of the Magnifico; whosoever sang of arms, of love, of saints, of fools, was welcome, or he who, drinking and joking, kept the company amused. . . . And in order that the people might not be excluded from this new beatitude (a thing which was important to the Magnifico), he composed and set in order many mythological representations, triumphal cars, dances, and every kind of festal celebration, to solace and delight them; and thus he succeeded in banishing from their souls any recollection of their ancient greatness, in making them insensible to the ills of the country, in disfranchising and debasing them by means of temporal ease and intoxication of the senses."

Lorenzo the Magnificent was endowed with charms that were naturally potent with a beauty-loving people. He had been very carefully trained by the prudent Cosimo, so that he excelled in physical exercises and could also claim a place among the most intellectual in Florence. Although singularly ill-favoured, he had personal qualities which attracted men and women. He spared no pains to array himself with splendour whenever he appeared in public. At tournaments he wore a costume ornamented with gold and silver thread, and displayed the great Medicean diamond—Il Libro—on his shield, which bore the fleur-de-lis of France in token of the friendship between the Medici and that nation. The sound of drums and fifes heralded the approach of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and cheers acclaimed him victor when he left the field bearing the coveted silver helmet as a trophy.

Lorenzo worshipped a lady who had given him a bunch of violets as a token, according to the laws of chivalry. He wrote sonnets in honour of Lucrezia Donati, but he was not free to marry her, the great house of Medici looking higher than her family. The bride, chosen for the honour of mating with the ruler of Florence, was a Roman lady of such noble birth that it was not considered essential that she should bring a substantial dowry. Clarice Orsini was dazzled at her wedding-feast by the voluptuous splendour of the family which she entered.

The ceremony took place at Florence in 1469 and afforded an excuse for lavish hospitality. The bride received her own guests in the garden of the villa where she was to reign as mistress. Young married women surrounded her, admiring the costliness of her clothing and preening themselves in the rich attire which they had assumed for this great occasion. In an upper room of the villa the bridegroom's mother welcomed her own friends of mature years, and listened indulgently to the sounds of mirth that floated upward from the cloisters of the courtyard. Lorenzo sat there with the great Florentines who had assembled to honour his betrothal. The feast was served with solemnity at variance with the wit and laughter that were characteristic of the gallant company. The blare of trumpets heralded the arrival of dishes, which were generally simple. The stewards and carvers bowed low as they served the meats; their task was far from light since abundance was the rule of the house of Medici. No less than five thousand pounds of sweetmeats had been provided for the wedding, but it must be remembered that the banquets went on continuously for several days, and the humblest citizen could present himself at the hospitable boards of the bridegroom and his kinsfolk. The country-folk had sent the usual gifts, of fat hens and capons, and were greeted with a welcome as gracious as that bestowed on the guests whose offerings were rings or brocades or costly illuminated manuscripts.

After his marriage, Lorenzo was called upon to undertake a foreign mission. He travelled to Milan and there stood sponsor to the child of the reigning Duke, Galeazzo Sforza, in order to cement an alliance. He gave a gold collar, studded with diamonds, to the Duchess of Milan, and answered as became him when she was led to express the hope that he would be godfather to all her children! It was Lorenzo's duty to act as host when the Duke of Milan came to visit Florence. He was not dismayed by the long train of attendants which followed the Duke, for he knew that these richly-dressed warriors might be bribed to fight for his State if he conciliated their master. There were citizens in Florence, however, who shrank from the barbaric ostentation of their ally. They looked upon a fire which broke out in a church as a divine denunciation of the mystery play performed in honour of their guests, and were openly relieved to shut their gates upon the Duke of Milan and his proud forces.

Lorenzo betrayed no weakness when the town of Volterra revolted against Florence, which exercised the rights of a protector. He punished the inhabitants very cruelly, banishing all the leaders of the revolt and taking away the Volterran privilege of self-government. His enemies hinted that he behaved despotically in order to secure certain mineral rights in this territory, and held him responsible for the sack of Volterra, though he asserted that he had gone to offer help to such of the inhabitants as had lost everything.

But the war of the Pazzi conspiracy was the true test of the strength of Medicean government. It succeeded a time of high prosperity in Florence, when her ruler was honoured by the recognition of many foreign powers, and felt his position so secure that he might safely devote much leisure to the congenial study of poetry and philosophy.

Between the years 1474-8 Lorenzo had managed to incur the jealous hatred of Pope Sixtus IV, who was determined to become the greatest power in Christendom. This Pontiff skilfully detached Naples from her alliance with Florence and Milan by promising to be content with a nominal tribute of two white horses every year instead of the handsome annual sum she had usually exacted from this vassal. He congratulated himself especially on this stroke of policy, because he believed Venice to be too selfish as a commercial State to combine with her Italian neighbours and so form another Triple Alliance. He then proceeded to win over the Duke of Urbino, who had been the leader of the Florentine army. He also thwarted the ambition of Florentine trade by purchasing the tower of Imola from Milan. The Medici, coveting the bargain for their traffic with the East, were too indignant to advance the money which, as bankers to the Papacy, they should have supplied. They preferred to see their rivals, the great Roman banking-house of the Pazzi, accommodating the Pope, even though this might mean a fatal blow to their supremacy.

Lorenzo's hopes of a strong coalition against his foe were destroyed by the assassination of Sforza of Milan in 1474. The Duke was murdered in the church of St Stephen by three young nobles who had personal injuries to avenge and were also inspired by an ardent desire for republican liberty. The Pope exclaimed, when he heard the news, that the peace of Italy was banished by this act of lawlessness. Lorenzo, disapproving of all outbreaks against tyranny, promised to support the widowed Duchess of Milan. The control he exercised during her brief regime came to an end in 1479 with the usurpation of Ludovico, her Moorish brother-in-law.

Then Riario, the Pope's nephew, saw that the time was ripe for a conspiracy against the Medici which might deprive them of their power in Italy. He allied himself closely with Francesco dei Pazzi, who was anxious for the aggrandisement of his own family. His name had long been famous in Florence, every good citizen watching the ancient Carro dei Pazzi which was borne in procession at Easter-tide. The car was stored with fireworks set alight by means of the Colombina (Dove) bringing a spark struck from a stone fragment of Christ's tomb. The citizens could not forget the origin of the sacred flame, for they had all heard in youth the story of the return of a crusading member of the Pazzi house with that precious relic.

The two conspirators hoped to bring a foreign army against Florence and, therefore, gained the aid of Salviati, Archbishop of Pisa. The Pope bade them do as they wished, "provided that there be no killing." In reality, he was aware that a plot to assassinate both Lorenzo dei Medici and his brother, Giuliano, was on foot, but considered that it would degrade his holy office if he spoke of it.

It was necessary for their first plan that Lorenzo should be lured to Rome where the conspirators had assembled, but he refused an invitation to confer with the Pope about their differences and a new plan had to be substituted. Accordingly the nephew of Riario, Cardinal Raffaelle Sansoni, expressed a keen desire to view the treasures of the Medici household, and was welcomed as a guest by Florence. He attended mass in the Cathedral which was to be the scene of the assassination, since Lorenzo and his brother were certain to attend it. Two priests offered to perform the deed of sacrilege from which the original assassin recoiled. They hated Lorenzo for his treatment of Volterra, and drove him behind the gates of the new sacristy. Giuliano was slain at the very altar, his body being pierced with no less than nineteen wounds, but Lorenzo escaped to mourn the fate of the handsome noble brother who had been a model for Botticelli's famous "Primavera."

He heard the citizens cry, "Down with traitors! The Medici! The Medici!" and resolved to move them to a desperate vengeance on the Pazzi. The Archbishop of Pisa was hanged from the window of a palace, while a fellow-conspirator was hurled to the ground from the same building. This gruesome scene was painted to gratify the avengers of Giuliano.

Florence was enthusiastic in defence of her remaining tyrant. He was depicted by Botticelli in an attitude of triumph over the triple forces of anarchy, warfare and sedition. All the family of Pazzi were condemned as traitors. Their coat of arms was erased by Lorenzo's adherents wherever it was discovered.

Henceforth, Lorenzo exercised supreme control over his native city. He won Naples to a new alliance by a diplomatic visit that proved his skill in foreign negotiations. The gifts that came to him from strange lands were presented, in reality, to the master of the Florentine "republic." Egypt sent a lion and a giraffe, which were welcomed as wonders of the East even by those who did not appreciate the fact that they showed a desire to trade. It was easy soon to find new markets for the rich burghers whose class was in complete ascendancy over the ancient nobles.

Lorenzo was seized with mortal sickness in the early spring of 1492, and found no comfort in philosophy. He drank from a golden cup which was supposed to revive the dying when it held a draught, strangely concocted from precious pearls according to some Eastern fancy. But the sick man found nothing of avail in his hour of death except a visit from an honest monk he had seen many times in the cloisters of San Marco.

Savonarola came to the bedside of the magnificent pagan and demanded three things as the price of absolution. Lorenzo was to believe in the mercy of God, to restore all that he had wrongfully acquired, and to agree to popular government being restored to Florence. The third condition was too hard, for Lorenzo would not own himself a tyrant. He turned his face to the wall in bitterness of spirit, and the monk withdrew leaving him unshriven.

The sack of Volterra, and the murder of innocent kinsfolk of the Pazzi who had been involved in the great conspiracy haunted Lorenzo as he passed from life in the prime of manhood and glorious achievements. He would have mourned for the commerce of his city if he had known that in the same year of 1492 the discovery of America would be made, through which the Atlantic Ocean was to become the highway of commerce, reducing to sad inferiority the ports of the Mediterranean.