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Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici
Synopses & Reviews
Magnifico is a vividly colorful portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, the uncrowned ruler of Florence during its golden age. A true "Renaissance man," Lorenzo dazzled contemporaries with his prodigious talents and magnetic personality. Known to history as Il Magnifico (the Magnificent), Lorenzo was not only the foremost patron of his day but also a renowned poet, equally adept at composing philosophical verses and obscene rhymes to be sung at Carnival. He befriended the greatest artists and writers of the time — Leonardo, Botticelli, Poliziano, and, especially, Michelangelo, whom he discovered as a young boy and invited to live at his palace — turning Florence into the cultural capital of Europe. He was the leading statesman of the age, the fulcrum of Italy, but also a cunning and ruthless political operative. Miles Unger's biography of this complex figure draws on primary research in Italian sources and on his intimate knowledge of Florence, where he lived for several years.
Lorenzo's grandfather Cosimo had converted the vast wealth of the family bank into political power, but from his earliest days Lorenzo's position was precarious. Bitter rivalries among the leading Florentine families and competition among the squabbling Italian states meant that Lorenzo's life was under constant threat. Those who plotted his death included a pope, a king, and a duke, but Lorenzo used his legendary charm and diplomatic skill — as well as occasional acts of violence — to navigate the murderous labyrinth of Italian politics. Against all odds he managed not only to survive but to preside over one of the great moments in the history of civilization.
Florence in the age of Lorenzo was a city of contrasts, of unparalleled artistic brilliance and unimaginable squalor in the city's crowded tenements; of both pagan excess and the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the Dominican preacher Savonarola. Florence gave birpth to both the otherworldly perfection of Botticelli's Primavera and the gritty realism of Machiavelli's The Prince. Nowhere was this world of contrasts more perfectly embodied than in the life and character of the man who ruled this most fascinating city.
"Although a well-mined biography topic, the Medici dynasty continues to fascinate, and critic Unger (The Watercolors of Winslow Homer) offers a smart, highly readable and abundantly researched book, making particularly good use of Medici family letters and earlier biographical sources such as Machiavelli's writings. Heir to a vast international banking empire and trading cartel with branches in Venice, London and Geneva, Lorenzo de' Medici (1449 — 1492) was born to rule. Naturally sociable and charismatic with a common touch, famous temper and cynical world view, the teenaged Lorenzo excelled in classics, riding, arms, archery and music. He pursued liaisons with both women and men, represented his sickly father, Piero, on an important diplomatic mission and thwarted his father's enemies during a legendary ambush. His accomplishments do not stop there: as Florence's de facto ruler, Lorenzo actively collaborated with the artist Botticelli, was a master tactician and diplomat, and survived a papal-sanctioned assassination attempt that claimed the life of his beloved brother. Renaissance Florence — where wealthy aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the poor on narrow city streets and whose art and intellectual life dazzled Europe — is itself an intriguing character, proving Unger's mastery over his facts. Illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In 1469, Lorenzo de' Medici succeeded his father, Piero "the Gouty," as head of Florence's most influential family. Lorenzo was barely 20, and Florence was ruled (rather messily) by a complex system of committees elected by the men of its commercial class, a mini-republic nestled precariously in a patchwork of kingdoms and duchies. In "Magnifico," Miles J. Unger explains how Lorenzo,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) while holding neither elective office nor aristocratic title, managed to establish and maintain control over Florentine society. Part of his strategy was to play to Florence's strength, which was certainly not military, as it had no army. Rather, he tied himself and his family to the city's reputation as the center of European art and culture. Thus we find the peculiar combination of traits that defined Lorenzo. This political boss saw himself as not only a patron of the arts but also a serious poet. Partly to protect the Medici family's far-flung banking enterprise and to ward off enemy armies, he fraternized with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Pico della Mirandola, among others. Still, an assortment of ill-wishers had murderous designs on his life. At the center of Unger's book is the attempt by Pope Sixtus IV and those around him to do away with Lorenzo and take control of the Florentine republic. Unger paints an unappetizing picture of Sixtus, whom he describes on his ascendancy to Peter's throne in 1471 as a "shrewd, toothless peasant with the pugnacious face of a snapping turtle." Sixtus lost no time lining the pockets of his relatives, naming two of his nephews as his first cardinals, followed not long afterward by his 16-year-old great-nephew. The conspiracy to assassinate Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano, was hatched by yet another of the pope's nephews, working with members of the Pazzi family, who were smarting from their displacement as one of Florence's leading clans. They were joined by Francesco Salviati, a member of a similarly resentful Florentine family, whom the pope had named archbishop of Pisa. The assassination attempt could hardly have been more dramatic, coming in Florence's renowned Duomo during Sunday Mass. But though Francesco de' Pazzi plunged his dagger repeatedly into Giuliano's body, two knife-wielding priests succeeded only in grazing Lorenzo's neck. The reaction of Lorenzo's supporters, who included the bulk of the Florentine population, was merciless: The assassins and their local backers were hunted down and butchered. The archbishop of Pisa was hanged in his clerical robes from an upper window of the Palazzo della Signoria in the center of the city to the cheers of the mob below. The irate Sixtus responded by excommunicating Lorenzo and enlisting the king of Naples (described by Unger as "a mercurial and violent man") in a war to get rid of him. The rest of "Magnifico" recounts how Lorenzo held on to power and outlived the pope by eight years before dying of natural causes in 1492, at age 43. Unger's book has all of the marks, both positive and negative, of a great-man approach to history. He provides a clear narrative and recounts epochal battles with flair, but this book is not the place to gain an understanding of Florentine society. Unger mentions, for example, various wives who were slaves but tells us nothing about the nature of slavery in Renaissance Florence. Marcello Simonetta's "The Montefeltro Conspiracy," while also focusing on the conspiracy against Lorenzo, differs not only in being written by a scholar using original archival sources, but also in its idiosyncratic perspective. Simonetta claims descent from Cicco Simonetta, the duke of Milan's right-hand man, who, following the duke's assassination in 1476, became regent for the duke's child heir. The book's title refers to Federico da Montefeltro, who was among the most prominent of the aristocrats ruling over small domains (in his case in central Italy) but whose real influence derived from their employment as military leaders by more powerful patrons. "The Montefeltro Conspiracy" is the result of the author's discovery in an Italian archive of a coded letter sent by Federico to Sixtus IV, urging the pope to push ahead in the conspiracy against Lorenzo. The author was able to decipher the letter thanks to a guidebook to codemaking written by his ancestor Cicco. This is a fascinating tale of historical detective work, although Simonetta's claim that his work has "radically changed the perception of a turning point in Italian history" is overdrawn. More interesting are his speculations regarding a different kind of battle, over the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. Here, as throughout his short book, Simonetta makes excellent use of reproductions of the art of the time. Sixtus, who commissioned the chapel's construction and for whom it is named, "had it obsessively decorated with the symbol of his family coat of arms." Following his death, Lorenzo persuaded (one might say bribed) the new pope to name Lorenzo's son Giovanni a cardinal, although the boy was only 13. By 38, Giovanni had become Pope Leo X and in turn made his cousin Giulio a cardinal. In 1523, Giulio — whose father had been murdered in the Duomo — became Pope Clement VII. Although Clement endured many crises, including the sack of Rome in 1527, he at least had the satisfaction of replacing Sixtus's designs on the Sistine Chapel's altar wall with Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, which Simonetta calls "a double-edged way of sending a late pope to hell." Lorenzo finally had his revenge. Reviewed by David I. Kertzer, who is provost of Brown University and author, most recently, of 'Amalia's Tale', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Miles J. Unger is an art historian and journalist. Formerly the managing editor of Art New England, he is currently a contributing writer to The New York Times. He is the author of The Watercolors of Winslow Homer and Magnifico: the Brilliant life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici.
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