Lorenzo the Magnificent and the High Renaissance


By William LandonNorthern Kentucky University

In the decade following the Pazzi conspiracy, Lorenzo the Magnificent had managed to save Florence and Italy from political storms that might have brought about local and peninsular ruin. Under his leadership of the Medici family, Florence entered into the period that we know as the High Renaissance. He had elevated Medici status throughout Italy, and abroad.

Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent
Even Though Lorenzo wasn’t responsible for the High Renaissance, he certainly helped it thrive. (Image: Peter Paul Rubens/Public domain)

Lorenzo’s Management of the Family Bank

Lorenzo managed to do all of this as a citizen of Florence. He was never the city’s signore (its lord) or its prince. He was the government’s chief advisor, and even in that capacity, he was forced continually to manage the interests of his family and balance the appetites of Florence’s aristocracy. 

Without a doubt, however, the citizens of Florence—common and aristocratic—recognized that Lorenzo’s political acumen had brought Florence through a period of darkness in which it would likely have been lost without him.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the Medici bank suffered considerably during this period in Lorenzo’s life. He had no time for the management of the family bank and its many international branches, which he turned over to relatives and family friends. He was unable to take a personal interest in the bank as his father, Piero, and his grandfather Cosimo had done.

Swapping Wool with Silk

Due to this lack of oversight, which coincided with wars and turmoil in Italy, and with the emergence of truly national interests in Northern Europe, the Medici banks in both London and Bruges became insolvent. Added to this, the wars of the 1480s had destabilized a major source of Medici capital—the wool trade.

It had become hard for Florentines to acquire the raw wool necessary for the cloth and garments they produced. But, as the Florentines were, and remain, obstinate and industrious people, they sought new materials and markets for their goods. While wool and garment production continued to be part of Florence’s economy, silk became the new luxury product of choice—and it was sold and traded for excellent profit with the Ottoman Empire.

Like the Venetians, Lorenzo and the Florentines were happy to trade with the infidel, as long as there were profits to be made. As a result, Lorenzo and his family continued to possess considerable wealth.

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

Patron of the Arts

In the late 1480s, when Lorenzo had both the time and inclination to examine the family bank’s books, he found his family had spent over 600,000 florins on public building projects, patronage of the arts, contributions to the Florentine monte di pietà, and direct charity in Florence. The Medici’s contributions to the Florentine economy and its culture were astounding, but they had, together with mismanagement, undermined their bank’s viability. 

In the long run, however, Medici investments in Florence proved profitable in other ways. They formed a strong bond between the visual fabric of the city, its inhabitants, and the Medici, which persists until today. Lorenzo’s direct contributions to the Florentine Renaissance and its visual culture are few—his personal support for the arts in Florence was directed almost exclusively toward poetry, literature, and philosophy. He commissioned very few works of art.

Statue of Leonardo da Vinci
Lorenzo acted as a channel of communication between different artists, including Leonardo da Vinci. (Image: IPGG/Shutterstock)

But he acted as a connection between artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Domenico Ghirlandaio—and fellow citizens, and popes for that matter, who wished to commission paintings and sculptures in the new Florentine style.

For example, Lorenzo arranged for Botticelli to provide a number of sacred-themed frescoes for the walls of the newly constructed Sistine Chapel (named after Pope Sixtus IV) in the aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy—as visual evidence of the amity that the pope and Lorenzo had developed. The pope commissioned the frescoes. Lorenzo provided the artist.

Interest in the Written Word

Under Lorenzo’s headship, the Medici palace was a hub where Florentine artists made connections with both civic and religious patrons. He was indirectly responsible for a good deal of the decoration in many of Florence’s churches and palaces. But his interests tended toward the written word and the expansion of knowledge linked with the Platonic Academy at Florence. 

To that end, Lorenzo sent scholars on missions throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Their goal, as guided by Lorenzo, was to acquire ancient manuscripts. These manuscripts were added to the collections at the library at San Marco, which had been founded and patronized by Lorenzo’s grandfather. Lorenzo’s goals went beyond Cosimo’s in that he also set up shops dedicated to the production of books, which disseminated manuscript materials widely.

Leading Florence into the Period of High Renaissance

Lorenzo was, therefore, responsible for making Renaissance culture accessible to people beyond Florence. He helped to make the Florentine Renaissance a truly international phenomenon. Lorenzo had achieved a degree of eminence that none of his forbearers could have imagined. He was respected and esteemed as the savior of Florence and as a politician without parallel.

Lorenzo exemplified the ideals he inherited from his early education, and from the friendships he formed with scholars, philosophers, architects, and painters. But he did not directly affect Renaissance tastes and therefore its culture. So we are left to wonder just how far Lorenzo’s contributions to shaping the Renaissance actually went. Perhaps we might conclude that, while Lorenzo did not create High Renaissance culture in Florence, he did allow it to thrive.

Common Questions about Lorenzo the Magnificent and the High Renaissance

Q: Why did the Medici Bank suffer while Lorenzo was head of the family?

Though Lorenzo was a respected politician who helped Florence flourish into the period of the High Renaissance, his life was filled with war and turmoil leaving him no time to manage the Medici Bank.

Q: What did the Medici family do after the wool trade was destabilized because of war?

Because of the destabilization of the wool trade, Florentines sought out new materials, and even though wool was still part of the economy, silk became a new luxury product providing excellent profit to Lorenzo and his family.

Q: How did Lorenzo help Florentine artists?

Lorenzo was an important figure in connecting artists with patrons. Such connections helped the period of the High Renaissance thrive under his leadership.

Keep Reading
Cosimo de’ Medici’s Life as a Patron of the Arts
How Cosimo de’ Medici Benefited from Florence’s War in 1429
The Medici Party’s Fall and Rise to Power in Florence