Lorenzo the Magnificent by Agnolo Bronzino
On 21st March 1492, Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” de Medici was carried from his palace in Florence to his countryside villa at Careggi, not far from the city. The reason? His health was failing fast thanks to severe feverish gout, an inflammatory disease that was the bane of the Medici family. Lorenzo had been ruler of Florence for over twenty years and despite mistakes he made later in his reign was a much loved and respected man, and an incredibly able politician. Mistakes were of course made – he allowed the Medici bank to run itself almost to ruin (something that would be completely finished when his son Piero took over), stole from the Florentine Signoria coffers when money ran low and worse still, stole from a public fund set up to provide dowries for penniless girls so they could be married. He and his men made sure the covered up as much of the thievery as possible by burning evidence, but rumours still circulated. Despite this though, the years that he spent ruling Florence were, for the most part, peaceful years.
Two weeks after he was taken to Careggi, news was brought to his bedside. The two famous lions that were caged in the city had mauled each other to death during a frightening storm – this was seen as a particularly bad omen as the lion was the emblem of Florence – and that same night lightning struck the famous duomo built by Brunelleschi, sending marble crashing down onto the pavement. When Lorenzo heard of this he demanded to know which side the marble had fallen and was told it had fallen on the north west side. He then said to his attendants, “that is the side pointing to this house…this means I shall die.”
Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Florence
Lorenzo knew he was dying and so called his eldest son Piero to his side. Just as his father had done for him, and his fathers father before him; he passed on the secrets of the Medici family to his heir. He told his son to be unassuming in public and to remember the people of Florence although in time Piero would show just how little of this he had taken in. Once Piero had left it became evident to Poliziano, one of Lorenzo’s favourites, that the disease that affected his body was now affecting his internal organs and so Lorenzo summoned Girolamo Savonarola to his bedside to seek his blessing, and grant him absolution from his sins. It seems that the great humanist was going back to religion and superstition in his dying days. What happened next is the stuff of legend – it is said that when Savonarola came to Lorenzo’s bedside he demanded three things:
- He asked if Lorenzo repented of his sins and adhered to the true faith. Lorenzo said he did.
- He demanded that Lorenzo give up all of his wealth to which Lorenzo replied, “Father, I will do so or I will cause my heirs to do it if I cannot”
- He demanded that Lorenzo give the Florentine people back their liberty. Lorenzo did not reply and turned his face away.
And on 8th April 1492, Lorenzo de Medici died. It is said that the entire city mourned the death of their leader and attended his funeral at the church of San Lorenzo. His son, Piero de Medici took over the reigns of government when he was just twenty one years old. The differences between Piero and his father were huge – where Lorenzo had been an astute politician, Piero really had no idea. And Piero was more interested in women and hunting than in the affairs of state. More so, he was arrogant and had none of the charm that his father had. Like this, the signoria of Florence was likely to turn treacherous, they needed constant attention and gifts from their ruler and needed to be approached with tact. Piero had none of this and completely misjudged the situation from the get go.
Piero’s rule would last for just two years, and the constant mistakes that he made would earn him the nickname of Piero the Unfortunate.
Piero de Medici by Agnolo Bronzino
In 1494, the French King Charles VIII crossed the alps into Italy at the behest of Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza. Previously, Savonarola had prophesised the coming of a new Cyrus who would invade the country and bring it back to God, and it seemed that he was correct, Charles VIII would be that man. Charles wanted Naples, and Ludovico promised that to him (because he wanted rid of the new Neopolitan King Alfonso, a relation of his nephew’s wife and a man who it was said would exact revenge on Ludovico for his mistreatment of his nephew and wife). Ludovico welcomed Charles to Milan and after hearing nothing from Florence as to whether they would support Naples or France, Charles ordered his troops march into Tuscan territory. After Charles took towns and castles near to Florence, Piero made a decision – he rode out to the French camp where he was greeted coolly, he certainly was not greeted with the respect he thought he deserved, before agreeing to give the cities of Pisa and Livorno as well as promising Charles the use of the Palazzo Medici and 200,000 florins.
It was those promises which sealed Piero de Medici’s fate.
He returned to Florence two weeks later and when he arrived at the Piazza della Signoria, the door was slammed shut in his face. He waited uncertainly outside the Signoria as the massive bell rang (it was nicknamed “The Cow” due to the deep noise it made), and people from all over the city descended on the piazza. As Piero stood there wondering what was happening he was pelted with insults, stones and rubbish – eventually he decided the best thing would be for him to get away from the mob and hole himself up in his palazzo. And as he rode, the signoria were denouncing Piero and his family as traitors, saying that anyone who aided him would also be known thenceforth as traitors.
Now, both Piero and his brother Giovanni (later Pope Leo X) were holed up in the Palazzo Medici and had to come up with a plan so they could escape Florence. And in the early hours of 9th November 1494, Piero rode out of the city with his wife and children and they travelled to Venice. Giovanni stayed behind a little longer, going through the Medici belongings in the palazzo and it is said he carried gold, jewels and coins to the monastery of San Marco while disguised as a Dominican friar. Did this really happen? Indeed the monastery had been refurbished thanks to Cosimo De Medici but it was now under the control of Savonarola who disagreed with everything the Medici stood for – be that as it may, many of the friars may have stayed loyal to the Medici cause and helped Giovanni hide the treasure that he was able to rescue. Once he had finished, he too fled the city.
And on 10th November 1494 (518 years ago today!), the Florentine signoria officially banished Piero de Medici and his family, saying that they could never return. If they were to return, a price was put on both Piero and Giovanni’s heads. And just over 30 years previously, their grandfather Cosimo de Medici had predicted that within 50 years the city of Florence would be tired of Medici rule, and they would be banished. Indeed, the Medici did not return to Florence until 1512 when Cardinal Giovanni de Medici returned to Florence as its ruler.