Noting Piero’s ill health, Cosimo had done his best to prepare Lorenzo for the tasks of power. The boy had learned Greek from Joannes Argyropoulos, philosophy from Ficino, and he had absorbed education unconsciously by hearing the conversation of statesmen, poets, artists, and humanists. He learned also the arts of war, and at nineteen, in a tournament displaying the sons of Florence’s leading families, he won the first prize “not by favor, but by his own valor.”2 On his armor, in that contest, was a French motto,Le temps revient, which might have been the theme of the Renaissance—“The [Golden] Age returns.” Meanwhile he had taken to writing sonnets in the style of Dante and Petrarch; and bound by fashion to write of love, he sought among the aristocracy some lady whom he might poetically desire. He chose Lucrezia Donati, and celebrated all her virtues except her regrettable chastity; for she seems never to have allowed more than the passions of the pen. Piero, thinking marriage a sure cure for romance, persuaded the youth to wed Clarice Orsini (1469), thus allying the Medici with one of the two most powerful families in Rome. On that occasion the entire city was feasted by the Medici for three successive days, and five thousand pounds of sweetmeats were consumed.
Cosimo had given the lad some practice in public affairs, and Piero, in power, widened the range of his responsibilities in finance and government. When Piero died Lorenzo found himself the richest man in Florence, perhaps in Italy. The management of his fortune and his business might have been a sufficient burden for his young shoulders, and the Republic had now a chance to reassert its authority. But the clients, debtors, friends, and appointees of the Medici were so numerous, and so anxious for the continuance of Medicean rule, that, two days after Piero’s death, a deputation of leading citizens waited upon Lorenzo at his home, and asked him to assume the guidance of the state. He was not hard to convince. The finances of the Medici firm were so entangled with those of the city that he feared ruin if the enemies or rivals of his house should capture political power. To quiet criticism of his youth, he appointed a council of experienced citizens to advise him on all matters of major concern. He consulted this council throughout his career, but he soon showed such good judgment that it rarely questioned his leadership. He offered his younger brother a generous share of power; but Giuliano loved music and poetry, jousts and love; he admired Lorenzo, and gladly resigned to him the cares and honors of government. Lorenzo ruled as Cosimo and Piero had ruled, remaining (till 1490) a private citizen, but recommending policies to a balia in which the supporters of his house had a secure majority. The balia, under the constitution, had absolute but only temporary power; under the Medici it became a permanent Council of Seventy.
The citizens acquiesced because prosperity continued. When Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, visited Florence in 1471, he was amazed at the signs of wealth in the city, and still more at the art that Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo had gathered in the Medici palace and gardens. Here already was a museum of statuary, vases, gems, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and architectural remains. Galeazzo averred that he had seen a greater number of fine paintings in this one collection than in all the rest of Italy; so far had Florence forged ahead in this characteristic art of the Renaissance. The Medici fortunes were further enhanced when (1471) Lorenzo led a delegation of Florentines to Rome to congratulate Sixtus IV on his elevation to the papacy; Sixtus responded by renewing the Medici management of the papal finances. Five years earlier Piero had obtained for his house the lucrative right to develop the papal mines near Civitavecchia, which produced the precious alum used in dyeing and finishing cloth.
Soon after his return from Rome Lorenzo met, not too successfully, his first major crisis. An alum mine in the district of Volterra—a part of the Florentine dominion—had been leased to private contractors probably connected with the Medici. When it proved extremely lucrative the citizens of Volterra claimed a share of the profits for their municipal revenue. The contractors protested, and appealed to the Florentine Signory; the Signory doubled the problem by decreeing that the profits should go to the general treasury of the whole Florentine state. Volterra denounced the decree, declared its independence, and put to death several citizens who opposed the secession. In the Council of Florence Tommaso Soderini recommended conciliatory measures; Lorenzo rejected them on the ground that they would encourage insurrection and secession elsewhere. His advice was taken, the revolt was suppressed by force, and the Florentine mercenaries, getting out of hand, sacked the rebellious city. Lorenzo hurried down to Volterra and labored to restore order and make amends, but the affair remained a blot on his record.
The Florentines readily forgave his severity to Volterra, and they applauded the energy with which, in 1472, he averted famine in the city by quickly securing heavy imports of grain. They were happy, too, when Lorenzo arranged a triple alliance with Venice and Milan to preserve the peace of northern Italy. Pope Sixtus was not so well pleased; the papacy could never be comfortable in its weak temporal power if a strong and united northern Italy bounded the Papal States on one side, and an extensive Kingdom of Naples hedged it in on the other. When Sixtus learned that Florence was trying to purchase the town and territory of Imola (between Bologna and Ravenna), he suspected Lorenzo of planning to extend Florentine territory to the Adriatic. Sixtus himself soon bought Imola as a necessary link in the chain of cities legally—seldom actually—subject to the popes. In this transaction he used the services and funds of the Pazzi banking firm, now the strongest rival of the Medici; he transferred from Lorenzo to the Pazzi the lucrative privilege of managing the papal revenues; and he appointed two enemies of the Medici—Girolamo Riario and Francesco Salviati—to be respectively governor of Imola and archbishop of Pisa, then a Florentine possession. Lorenzo reacted with an angry haste that Cosimo would have deplored: he took measures to ruin the Pazzi firm, and he ordered Pisa to exclude Salviati from its episcopal see. The Pope was so enraged that he gave his consent to a plot of the Pazzi, Riario, and Salviati to overthrow Lorenzo; he refused to sanction the assassination of the youth, but the conspirators did not consider such squeamishness an impediment. With remarkable indifference to religious propriety, they planned to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano at Mass in the cathedral on Easter Sunday (April 26, 1478), at the moment when the priest should elevate the Host. At the same time Salviati and others were to seize the Palazzo Vecchio and eject the Signory.
On the appointed day Lorenzo entered the cathedral unarmed and unguarded, as was his wont. Giuliano was delayed, but Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini, who had undertaken to murder him, went to his house, amused him with jests, and persuaded him to come to the church. There, as the priest raised the Host, Bandini stabbed Giuliano in the breast. Giuliano fell to the ground, and Francesco de’ Pazzi, leaping upon him, stabbed him repeatedly and with such fury that he severely cut his own leg. Meanwhile Antonio da Volterra and Stefano, a priest, attacked Lorenzo with their daggers. He protected himself with his arms, and received but a slight cut; friends surrounded him and led him into a sacristy, while his assailants fled from the hostile crowd. Giuliano was carried dead to the Medici palace.
While these ceremonies were taking place in the cathedral, Archbishop Salviati, Iacopo de’ Pazzi, and a hundred armed followers proceeded against the Palazzo Vecchio. They tried to rouse the populace to their aid by shouting Popolo! Libertà! But the people, in this crisis, rallied to the Medici with the cry, Vivano le palle!—“Long live the balls!”—the emblem of the Medici family. When Salviati entered the palace he was struck down by the gonfalonier Cesare Petrucci; Iacopo di Poggio, son of the humanist, was hanged from a palace window; and several other conspirators, who had climbed the stairs, were seized by the resolute priors and were thrown out of the windows to be finished by the stone pavement or the crowd. When Lorenzo appeared, now with a numerous escort, the joy of the people at his safety expressed itself in violent rage against all who were suspected of sharing in the conspiracy. Francesco de’ Pazzi, weak from loss of blood, was snatched from his bed and hanged beside the Archbishop, who gnawed at Francesco’s shoulder in his dying agony. The body of Iacopo de’ Pazzi, the old honored head of his family, was drawn naked through the streets and flung into the Arno. Lorenzo did what he could to mitigate the bloodthirst of the mob, and saved several men unjustly accused; but instincts stealthily latent even in civilized men could not forego this opportunity of safe expression in the anonymity of the crowd.
Sixtus IV, shocked by the hanging of an archbishop, excommunicated Lorenzo, the gonfalonier, and the magistrates of Florence, and suspended all religious services throughout the Florentine dominions. Some of the clergy protested against this interdict, and issued a document condemning the Pope in terms of unmeasured vituperation.3 At Sixtus’ suggestion Ferrante—King Ferdinand I—of Naples sent an envoy to Florence, urging the Signory and the citizens to deliver up Lorenzo to the Pope, or at least to banish him. Lorenzo advised the Signory to comply; instead it answered Ferdinand that Florence would suffer every extremity rather than betray its leader to his enemies. Sixtus and Ferrante now declared war upon Florence (1479). The King’s son Alfonso defeated the Florentine army near Poggibonsi, and ravaged the countryside.
Soon the people of Florence began to complain of the taxes levied to finance the campaign, and Lorenzo realized that no community will long sacrifice itself for an individual. He made a characteristic and unprecedented decision in this turning point of his career. Embarking at Pisa, he sailed to Naples, and asked to be taken to the King. Ferrante admired his courage; the two men were at war; Lorenzo had no safe-conduct, no weapons, no guard; only recently the condottiere Francesco Piccinino, invited to Naples as guest of the King, had been treacherously murdered at the royal command. Lorenzo frankly admitted the difficulties that Florence faced; but he pointed out how dangerous it would be to Naples that the papacy should be so strengthened by the dismemberment of the Florentine dominions as then to be able to press its old claim upon Naples as a papal and tributary fief. The Turks were advancing westward by land and sea; they might at any moment invade Italy, and attack Ferrante’s Adriatic provinces; it would not do, in that crisis, for Italy to be divided with internal hate and war. Ferrante did not commit himself, but he gave orders that Lorenzo should be detained as both a prisoner and an honored guest.
Lorenzo’s mission was made more difficult by the continued victories of Alfonso against the Florentine troops, and by the repeated request of Sixtus that Lorenzo should be sent to Rome as a papal prisoner. For three months the Florentine was kept in suspense, knowing that failure probably meant his death and an end to the independence of Florence. Meanwhile he made friends by his hospitality and generosity, his good manners and good cheer. Count Caraffa, minister of state, was won over, and supported his cause. Ferrante appreciated the culture and character of his prisoner; here, apparently, was a man of refinement and integrity; peace made with such a man would assure the friendship of Florence for Naples through at least Lorenzo’s life. He signed a treaty with him, gave him a splendid horse, and allowed him to take ship from Naples. When Florence learned that Lorenzo brought peace it gave him a grateful and tumultuous welcome. Sixtus raged, and wished to continue the war alone; but when Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, landed an army at Otranto (1480), and threatened to overrun Italy and capture the very citadel of Latin Christianity, Sixtus invited the Florentines to discuss terms. Their envoys made the due obeisances to the Pope; he scolded them properly, forgave them, persuaded them to equip fifteen galleys against the Turks, and made peace. From that time forward Lorenzo was the unchallenged lord of Tuscany.