Lorenzo de’ Medici: Balancing the ‘Otium’ and ‘Negotium’


By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University

In ancient Rome, there were said to be two parts of an individual’s life: the otium and the negotium, or, the ‘contemplative life’ and the ‘active life’. Lorenzo de’ Medici, the eldest son of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, according to Niccolò Machiavelli at least, knew how to balance both. Perhaps that’s what helped shape him into becoming and being remembered as Lorenzo the Magnificent.

An image of a coin with the face of Niccolò Machiavelli.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s vision of Lorenzo de’ Madici was one of a patron and lover of the arts—of all kinds. (Image: National Gallery of Art/Public domain)

Niccolò Machiavelli’s View

Lorenzo’s illustrious grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, doted on him and funded his humanist education. His father, Piero, on the other hand, ensured that Lorenzo was closely involved in the affairs of the state. With two opposite poles of his life striking a balance, Lorenzo was all set to raise the Medici to staggering heights.

Niccolò Machiavelli’s words, in conclusion of Florentine Histories, captures Lorenzo the Magnificent’s enigmatic spirit:

So that to consider him thus, in his life—both voluptuous and grave—one sees him to be two divergent persons—joined together in an almost impossible union.

Lorenzo: A Patron and Lover of the Arts

These words, despite their brevity, tell us a good deal about the Medici family’s most famous member. They also help us understand the Renaissance, as both an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, more deeply.

In the extract from Florentine Histories, the word ‘voluptuous’ is translated directly from Machiavelli’s ‘voluttuossa’. It, in its proper textual context, indicates that Lorenzo was dedicated to the pursuit of beauty and the stimulation of his senses.

Nevertheless, such a reading does not correlate with our hypersexualized society’s notions of pleasure and the pursuit thereof. Rather, in Machiavelli’s vision of him, we are to imagine that Lorenzo was a patron and lover of the arts—of all kinds.

Lorenzo was a skilled poet of vernacular (that is, Florentine) verse; a faithful husband; a kind and interested father who actively partook in the lives of his children, and who mingled with their friends.

He was also a man who engaged in physical activities—hawking, hunting and riding—a person who enjoyed eating and drinking; a loyal friend; a man whose company would have been delightful to keep.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Personal Gravitas and Political Seriousness

Conversely, Lorenzo was also serious—‘grave’, as Machiavelli put it—consumed by the constant worries that come with real power and responsibility.

Lorenzo had survived assassination attempts; he had become the virtual head of the Florentine state, the chairman of an internationally important banking family and the architect of a long-lasting Italian peace, which brought with it the flourishing of the Renaissance—in Florence—and across the peninsula.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of his personal gravitas and political seriousness is the fact that shortly after he died in 1492, Italy descended into war, and it became the battlefield of Europe for decades.

Lorenzo had almost single-handedly held Italy peacefully together, balancing the powers of Venice, Milan, Naples, and even Rome.

Renaissance Theme Personified

And yet, most notably, Lorenzo de’ Medici personified an essential Renaissance theme—the strains between the active and contemplative life.

It is worth remembering that it was the Renaissance humanists who had revived the texts, cultures and mentalities of the classical world.

After the proto-Renaissance genius Francesco Petrarch rediscovered the letters of Cicero, Italian (and more particularly Florentine) thinkers became infatuated with how the geniuses of the classical world led lives of public action, while simultaneously developing intensely introspective thought-lives.

The proto-Renaissance genius Francesco Petrarch rediscovered the letters of Cicero. (Image: Theklan/Public domain)

Otium and Negotium

Cicero’s correspondence with his dear friend Atticus illustrated perfectly how difficult it was for Cicero to find an equilibrium between his duties to the Roman republic, which threatened to become all-consuming, and his thought-life, which might tempt him away from his service to Rome.

Florentine humanists felt these tensions intimately. Hence, Machiavelli’s brief summary of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s personality illustrates that the Medici lord, too, struggled with these same anxieties.

Managing the Balance of Power

However, rather than feeling torn between republic and personal contemplation, Lorenzo was stretched between his obligations to the state and his love of the arts, family, friends, and the good things in life.

In addition, Lorenzo had to manage the balance of power, and, therefore, peace in Italy. It would have been all too easy for him to focus on the ‘voluptuous’, to the detriment of his position, or to focus entirely on the grave things he faced, to the detriment of everything else.

Lorenzo’s Otium and Negotium of Life

And yet, if Machiavelli is to be believed, and he should be, then Lorenzo is that rare example of a man who managed to balance the otium and negotium of life.

Debauchery or asceticism, or wild swerving between these two extremes, tended to define those Renaissance names we still recall. But Lorenzo de’ Medici, together with a handful of other Renaissance geniuses, managed those extremities, bringing them to bear when necessary and almost always balancing them expertly.

Unfortunately though, his tightrope walking skills came at the expense of Florence’s republican traditions. And those conflicts between Medici rule and Florentine republican sentiment were ever-present during his tenure.

Common Questions about Lorenzo de’ Medici

Q: How does Machiavelli want us to see Lorenzo?

In Machiavelli’s vision of him, we are to imagine that Lorenzo was a patron and lover of the arts of all kinds.

Q: What were the two parts of an ndividual’s life generally referred to as, in ancient Rome?

In early Rome, the two parts of an individual’s life were generally referred to as otium and negotium, ‘the contemplative life’ and ‘the active life’.

Q: What conflict did Lorenzo face?

Rather than feeling torn between republic and personal contemplation, Lorenzo was stretched between his obligations to the state and his love of the arts, family, friends and the good things in life.

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