III. LORENZO THE MAGNIFICENT

He ruled now with a milder hand than in his youth. He had just entered the thirties, but men matured quickly in the hothouse of the Renaissance. He was not handsome: his large flat nose overhung his upper lip and then turned outward curiously; his complexion was dark; and his stern brow and heavy jaw belied the geniality of his spirit, the charm of his courtesy, the vivacity of his wit, the poetic sensitivity of his mind. Tall, broad-shouldered, and robust, he looked more like an athlete than a statesman; and indeed he was seldom surpassed in physical games. He carried himself with the moderate dignity indispensable to his station, but in private he made his many friends immediately forget his power and his wealth. Like his son Leo X he enjoyed the subtlest art and the simplest buffoons. He was a humorist with Pulci, a poet with Politian, a scholar with Landino, a philosopher with Ficino, a mystic with Pico, an esthete with Botticelli, a musician with Squarcialupi, a reveler with the gayest in festival time. “When my mind is disturbed with the tumults of public business,” he wrote to Ficino, “and my ears are stunned with the clamors of turbulent citizens, how could I support such contention unless I found relaxation in science?”—by which he meant the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms.4

His morals were not as exemplary as his mind. Like many of his contemporaries he did not allow his religious faith to hamper his enjoyment of life. He wrote devout hymns with apparent sincerity, but turned from them, without evident qualm, to poems celebrating licentious love. He seems rarely to have known remorse except for pleasures missed. Having reluctantly accepted, for political reasons, a wife whom he respected rather than loved, he amused himself with adultery after the fashion of the time. But it was accounted one of his distinctions that he had no illegitimate children. Debate is still warm as to his commercial morality. No one questions his liberality; it was as lavish as Cosimo’s. He never rested till he had repaid every gift with a greater gift; he financed a dozen religious undertakings, supported countless artists, scholars, and poets, and lent great sums to the state. After the Pazzi conspiracy he found that his public and private disbursements had left his firm unable to meet its obligations; whereupon a complaisant Council voted to pay his debts out of the state treasury (1480). It is not clear whether this was a fair return for services rendered and private funds spent for public purposes,5 or a plain embezzlement;6 the fact that the measure, though openly known, did no harm to Lorenzo’s popularity, suggests the more lenient interpretation. It was his liberality, as well as his wealth and his luxurious menage, that men had in mind when they called him Il Magnifico.

His cultural activities involved some neglect of the far-flung business of his firm. His agents took advantage of his preoccupation, and indulged in extravagance and chicanery. He rescued the family fortune by gradually withdrawing it from commerce and investing it in city realty and largescale agriculture; he took pleasure in personally supervising his farms and orchards, and was as familiar with fertilizer as with philosophy. Scientifically irrigated and manured, the lands near his villas at Careggi and Póggio a Caiano became models of agricultural economy.

The economic life of Florence prospered under his government.7 The rate of interest fell as low as five per cent, and commercial enterprise, readily financed, flourished until, toward the close of Lorenzo’s career, England became a troublesome competitor in the textile export trade. Even more conducive to prosperity was his policy of peace, and the balance of power that he maintained in Italy during the second decade of his rule. Florence joined with other Italian states in ejecting the Turks from Italy; this accomplished, Lorenzo induced Ferrante of Naples and Galeazzo Sforza of Milan to sign with Florence an alliance for mutual defense; when Pope Innocent VIII joined this league most of the minor states adhered to it too; Venice held aloof, but was persuaded to good behavior by fear of the allies; in this way, with some minor interruptions, the peace of Italy was maintained until Lorenzo’s death. Meanwhile he exerted all his tact and influence to protect weak states against the strong, to adjudicate and reconcile interstate interests and disputes, and to nip every casus belli in the bud.8 In that happy decade (1480–90) Florence reached the apogee of her glory in politics, literature, and art.

Domestically Lorenzo ruled through the Consiglio di Settanta. By the constitution of 1480 this Council of Seventy was composed of thirty members chosen by the Signory of that year, and forty others chosen by these thirty. Membership was for life, and vacancies were filled by co-optation. Under this arrangement the Signory and the gonfalonier had authority only as executive agents of the Council. Popular parlamenti and elections were dispensed with. Opposition was difficult, for Lorenzo employed spies to detect it, and had means of troubling his opponents financially. The old factions slept; crime hid its head; order prospered while liberty declined. “We have here,” wrote a contemporary, “no robberies, no nocturnal commotions, no assassinations. By night or by day every person may transact his affairs in perfect safety.”9 “If Florence was to have a tyrant,” said Guicciardini, “she could never have found a better or more delightful one.”10 The merchants preferred economic prosperity to political freedom; the proletariat was kept busy with extensive public works, and forgave dictatorship so long as Lorenzo supplied it with bread and games. Tournaments allured the rich, horse races thrilled the bourgeoisie, and pageants amused the populace.

It was the custom of the Florentines, in carnival days, to promenade the streets in gay or frightful masks, singing satiric or erotic songs, and to organize trionfi—parades of painted and garlanded floats representing mythological or historical characters or events. Lorenzo relished the custom, but distrusted its tendency to disorder; he resolved to bring it under control by lending it the approval and order of government; under his rule the pageants became the most popular feature of Florentine life. He engaged leading artists to design and paint the chariots, banners, and costumes; he and his friends composed lyrics to be sung from the carri; and these songs reflected the moral relaxation of carnival. The most famous of Lorenzo’s pageants was the “Triumph of Bacchus,” wherein a procession of floats carrying lovely maidens, and a cavalcade of richly garbed youths on prancing steeds, came over the Ponte Vecchio to the spacious square before the cathedral, while voices in polyphonic harmony, to the accompaniment of cymbals and lutes, sang a poem composed by Lorenzo himself, and hardly becoming a cathedral:

1. Quanto è bella giovinezza,
Che si fuge tutta via!
Chi vuol esser lieto sia!
Di doman non c’è certezza.

1. Fair is youth and void of sorrow,
But it hourly flies away.
Youths and maids, enjoy today;
Nought ye know about tomorrow.

2. This is Bacchus and the bright
Ariadne, lovers true!
They, in flying time’s despite,
Each with each finds pleasures new;

3. These, their nymphs, and all their
crew
Keep perpetual holiday.
Youths and maids, enjoy today;
Nought ye know about tomorrow……

14. Ladies and gay lovers young!
Long live Bacchus, live Desire!
Dance and play, let songs be sung;
Let sweet love your bosoms
fire.

15. In the future come what may
Youths and maids enjoy today;
Nought ye know about tomorrow.11

Such poems and pageants lend some pale color to the charge that Lorenzo corrupted Florentine youth. Probably it would have been “corrupt” without him; morals in Venice, Ferrara, and Milan were no better than in Florence; they were better in Florence under the Medici bankers than later in Rome under the Medici popes.

Lorenzo’s esthetic sensibilities were too keen for his morals. Poetry was one of his prime devotions, and his compositions rivaled the best of his time. While his only superior, Politian, still hesitated between Latin and Italian, Lorenzo’s verses restored to the vernacular the literary primacy that Dante had established and the humanists had overthrown. He preferred Petrarch’s sonnets to the love poetry of the Latin classics, though he could read these easily in the original; and more than once he himself composed a sonnet that might have graced Petrarch’s Canzoniere. But he did not take poetic love too seriously. He wrote with finer sincerity about the rural scenes that gave exercise to his limbs and peace to his mind; his best poems celebrate the woods and streams, trees and flowers, flocks and shepherds, of the countryside. Sometimes he wrote humorous pieces in terza rima that lifted the simple language of the peasantry into sprightly verse; sometimes he composed satirical farces Rabelaisianly free; then, again, a religious play for his children, and some hymns that catch here and there a note of honest piety. But his most characteristic poems were the Canti carnascialeschi— Carnival Songs—written to be sung in festival time and mood, and expressing the legitimacy of pleasure and the discourtesy of maidenly prudence. Nothing could better illustrate the morals and manners, the complexity and diversity of the Italian Renaissance than the picture of its most central character ruling a state, managing a fortune, jousting in tournament, writing excellent poetry, supporting artists and authors with discriminating patronage, mingling at ease with scholars and philosophers, peasants and buffoons, marching in pageants, singing bawdy songs, composing tender hymns, playing with mistresses, begetting a pope, and honored throughout Europe as the greatest and noblest Italian of his time.

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