The Troubling End Of ‘Lorenzo The Magnificent’s’ Legacy

Written by Holly Berry

The city of Florence plays an integral role in Italy’s rich history; it is arguably the birthplace of renaissance art and the home of stunning architecture like the Duomo cathedral and Uffizi museum – yet this beautiful city has a surprisingly dark past. From assassination conspiracies to exiles, Florence has many skeletons in its closet, many of which surround the infamous Medici family.

The Pazzi Conspiracy

The Medici family were known for owning the largest bank in Europe, including the accounts for the Pope, and endorsing and encouraging the arts and architecture within their city. The Pazzi family, however, were an influential banking family that wished to overthrow the house of Medici. The Pazzi conspiracy, largely orchestrated by Francesco de’ Pazzi, plotted to have Lorenzo de’ Medici (the head of the Medici household who garnered the nickname ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’) and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici murdered during Mass at the Duomo Cathedral.

Statue of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Uffizi Gallery) (WikiMedia Commons)

14th and 15th century Italy was extremely religious, and it was custom for Florentines to attend Mass every Sunday to pay their thanks to God; the Pazzi also attended Mass weekly, so to have deliberately organised such an atrocity to take place within the holy building was a monumental sin. The assassination took place in the middle of Mass – it is believed that it took place during a solemn song, so the attendees had their heads bowed and eyes closed- and was partly successful, as Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered.

Lorenzo and the rest of the Medici family in attendance escaped to the cathedral’s sacristy and eventually made it out safely. Lorenzo had the conspirators hanged and the Medici expunged the Pazzi name within the city: all street names, buildings, and any sign bearing the Pazzi name was eradicated.

The remaining members of the house of Pazzi were exiled. Ironically, the conspiracy had the opposite effect to what the Pazzi had intended, and the horrific event actually ended up reinforcing Florence’s love and gratitude for the Medici family.

Pazzi conspiracy (WikiMedia Commons)

The Bonfire Of The Vanities

After the hard work undertaken by Lorenzo de Medici to ensure that art and creation flourished in Florence, Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola undid his legacy of creation during a period of time known as the ‘bonfire of the vanities’. Despite having originally been specifically assigned to Florence by Lorenzo, Savonarola ended up turning Florence against the Medici family and eventually organised their downfall in the late 15th century.

The friar had convinced the Florentines that excessive luxuries went against the word of God: to be devoted to the material world, he argued, meant that it would not be possible to focus on a spiritual relationship with God. He is said to have used the exaggerated investments of Lorenzo the Magnificent into artist’s funds as an example of this vanity. Getting those who followed him to collect all artwork, sculptures, instruments, tapestries, and any book not immediately relevant to Christianity, these items- known as ‘the vanities’ were burned in the square in front of the Piazza della Signoria. Even infamous artist Sandro Botticelli, ‘The Birth Of Venus’ being his most renowned work, was so consumed by Savonarola’s teachings that he reluctantly allowed some of his paintings to be burned.

Giacomo Brogi, ‘Piazza della Signoria, Florence,’ c. 1873–1881, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC. (WikiMedia Commons)

The Pope at this time grew to believe that Savonarola had taken his actions too far and, eventually, called for the friar’s execution upon labelling him a heretic. Savonarola was executed in the square of Piazza della Signoria, where his bonfires had taken place. The Piazza is just 4 minutes away from the Duomo, where the Pazzi conspiracy took place. 

Political cartoon by JM Staniforth (WikiMedia Commons)

Piero the Unfortunate

Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, inherited the role of Florence’s leadership after his father died. Despite the first few years of Piero ruling running relatively peacefully, the calm period ended when he refused to ally Florence with France’s King Charles VIII mission to establish his hereditary claims in Naples.

Charles was furious at Piero’s refusal, and mounted an attack on an area just outside of Tuscany; the King massacred the town, and Piero wished to mount a defence when Charles and his army travelled closer to the heart of Florence. The public objected to Piero’s call to form a defence, even Piero’s own cousins had pledged allegiance to King Charles VIII’s cause, and when Piero eventually conceded Medici-ruled land to Charles in an attempt to neutralise the situation, the citizens turned on the Medicis.

The family had to flee Florence, and hid in Venice as their homes and buildings were ransacked. They were eventually exiled by the new ruling leaders of Florence. Multiple times throughout his exile, Piero returned to the city in the hope of reinstating his family’s rule, but every time he was met with refusals and public outcry.

In 1503, 9 years after the King’s mission to Naples, Piero was drowned as he fled the aftermath of a battle between the Spanish and French that the French, whom he was allied with, had lost. A member of the Medici family did not lead Florence until 1512, when Giovanni de’ Medici forced the city to surrender and was nominated as Pope Leo X one year later. Due to his turbulent era as Florence’s ruler and the complete undoing of his father’s legacy in just a few years, Piero was dubbed ‘Piero the Unfortunate’.

Piero the Unfortunate, by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora. (WikiMedia Commons)

Renaissance era Florence has a troubled past that arguably overshadows even the incredible accomplishments the city made with furthering the arts, and highlights the temperamental nature of legacies, power, and family. From the rise of Lorenzo the Magnificent to the fall of Piero the Unfortunate, it is made abundantly clear that nothing lasts forever, and that one small decision can alter the future forever. 


‘The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici’ by Christopher Hibbert

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