Introduction to our series Lorenzo de Medici and Florence’s Renaissance:
William Henry Oliphant Smeaton (1856 – 1914) was a Scottish historian. While the Renaissance began before Lorenzo de Medici’s time, his rule and his city served as a catalyst that took it to the next level. This is the story how that happened. And now, Oliphant Smeaton.
Time: 1449 - 1492
During the twelfth century several of the Italian cities—especially Florence and Venice--rose to great wealth and power. Venice, through her favorable situation, became preeminent in commerce, while Florence was coming to be the most important industrial center of Europe. In the thirteenth century Florence was the scene of continual strife between the Guelfs and Ghibellines, but she not only continued to develop in material prosperity, but also attained to intellectual activities whereby in the next century she gained a higher distinction. She took the foremost part in the Renaissance, and was the birthplace or the home of Dante, Boccaccio, and other leaders of the modern movement.
In the fifteenth century Florence reached a still loftier eminence under the Medici, a family celebrated for the statesmen which it produced and for its patronage of letters and art. Its most illustrious members were Cosmo (1389-1464) and his grandson Lorenzo, surnamed the "Magnificent." Lorenzo was born January 1, 1449, when the second great period of the Renaissance was nearing its close. That was the "period of arrangement and translation; the epoch of the formation of the great Italian libraries; the age when, in Florence around his grandfather Cosmo, in Rome around Pope Nicholas V, and in Naples around Alfonso the Magnanimous, coteries of the leading humanists were gathered, engaged in labors which have made posterity eternally their debtors."
Conjointly with his younger brother Giuliano, Lorenzo, on the death of his father Piero, in 1469, succeeded to the vast wealth and political power of the family. In 1478 the death of Giuliano left Lorenzo sole ruler of Florence.
To few men has either the power or the opportunity been given to influence their epoch, intellectually and politically, to a degree so marked as was the lot of Lorenzo de' Medici. One of the most marvelously many-sided of the many-sided men who adorned the Italy of the fifteenth century, he did more to place Florence in the forefront of the world's culture than any other citizen who claimed Val d'Arno as his birthplace. His influence was great because he was in sympathy so catholic with all the varied life of his age and circle. While during the one hour he would be found learnedly discussing the rival claims of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophers with Ficino and Landino, the next might witness him the foremost reveler in the Florentine carnival, crowned with flowers and with the winecup in his hand, gayly caroling the ballate he had composed for the occasion; while the third might behold him surrounded by the leading painters and sculptors of Tuscany, discoursing profoundly on the aims and mission of art. Truly a unique personality, at one and the same time the glorious creation and the splendid epitome of the spirit of the Renaissance!
When Lorenzo de' Medici consented to assume the "position" occupied by his father Piero and his grandfather Cosmo, he was not the raw youth his immature years would lead one to suppose. Although intellectual maturity is reached at an earlier age in the sunny South than in the fog-haunted lands of Northern Europe, Lorenzo had enjoyed a long apprenticeship before being called to undertake the duties devolving on him as the uncrowned king of Florence. From his thirteenth year he had been the companion and shared the counsels, first of his grandfather and father, and subsequently of his father alone. From the former especially he learned many important lessons in statecraft. The matter is open to question, however, if any advice had more far-reaching results or was laid more carefully to heart than this which is contained in more than one of Cosmo's letters: "Never stint your favors to the cause of learning, and cultivate sedulously the friendship of scholars and humanists." Toward such a course Lorenzo's inclinations, as well as his interests, pointed, and during his life Florence was the Athens not only of Italy but of Europe as a whole. Here, among many others, were to be found such "epoch-makers" as Poliziano, Ficino, and Landino, Pico della Mirandola, Leo Battista Alberti, Michelangelo, Luigi Pulci--men who glorified their age by crowning it with the nimbus of their genius.
The literary and artistic greatness of Florence was not due, however, to the comparative intellectual poverty of the other states in Italy. Florence was only primus inter pares--greatest among many that were great. When the fact is recalled that such contemporaries as Pomponius Laetus, Bartolommeo Sacchi, Molza, Alessandro Farnese (Paul III), Platina, Sabellicus at Rome; Pontanus, Sannazaro, and Porcello in Naples; and Pomponasso and Boiardo at Ferrara, were then at or nearing their prime, the position of Florence as the acknowledged centre of European culture was conceded by sense of right alone. Than this nothing proves more emphatically the strides learning had been making. It was no longer the prerogative of the few, but the privilege of the many. From the first, Lorenzo recognized what a strong card he held in the affection and respect of the Italian as well as of the Florentine humanists.
The great secret of Lorenzo's preëminence in European and Italian, as well as in Tuscan, politics lies in the fact that he was able to unite the sources of administrative, legislative, and judicial power in himself. All the public offices in Florence were held by his dependents, and so entirely was the state machinery controlled by him that we find such men as Louis XI and the emperor Maximilian, Alfonso of Naples, and Pope Innocent VIII recognizing his authority and appealing to him personally, in place of to the seigniory, to effect the ends they desired. Such power enabled him to avoid the risks his grandfather Cosmo had been compelled to run to maintain his authority. The Medicean faction was better in hand than in his grandfather's days, and Lorenzo, therefore, in playing the rôle of the peacemaker of Italy, at the time when he held the "balance of power" through his treaties with Milan, Naples, and Ferrara, could speak with a decision that carried weight when he found it necessary to threaten a restless "despot" with a political combination that might depose him.
Continued on Sunday, March 1st.
More information on Lorenzo and on Florence.