A Thorough Exploration of a Truly Magnificent Life – A Review of Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de Medici by Miles J. Unger

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Several years ago, I stood in front of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and stared. The Duomo, as it’s called in the city, is a magnificent structure, crowned by a brick dome created by the architect Brunelleschi, its interior decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of the most famous Renaissance artists in history—most of whom were either born in Florence or came to the city in the hopes of advancing their careers. The marble facade, however, is an entirely different story: a mostly nineteenth-century confection combining green, red, and white marble that makes it look, more than anything, like it was made entirely of candy. Staring at it I couldn’t help but laugh at first, because it’s rather hard to take seriously any building with a facade coloured like a candy cane. This made me wonder what it must have looked like before the facade was put in place.

Fortunately, Florence has many examples of what the Duomo’s facade would have looked like before the candy cane treatment, and most of them are within relatively easy reach if one travels on foot from the Duomo. For example, there is the Basilica di San Lorenzo, once Florence’s cathedral before the Duomo was built. Its facade is plain brick, and though there were plans to give it a new facade based on designs by Michelangelo, those plans never really pushed through, and so the facade remains the same. However, if one looks past the unprepossessing exterior and steps inside, one finds an exquisitely elegant interior. Some of the decorations are obviously from later eras, but strip away the Rococo gilding and Baroque paint, and one sees the church’s beautiful Renaissance bones.

Aside from its artistic history, San Lorenzo is important for one other reason: it was the parish church of the Medici family, and sat at the heart of that part of the city they considered to be their home turf. And if there is one name that is synonymous with all the glories of not just Florence, but the Renaissance as a whole, then that name is most definitely “Medici”.

Much ink has been spilled about the Medicis, and much more will be spilled in the future, as historians continue to research the members of that family and rehash and reframe what’s already known about them. And why not? The Medicis are, in many ways, an excellent example of the classic “rags to riches” story, beginning as humble merchants before rising to the very pinnacle of European power, various members eventually wearing ducal, royal, or papal crowns. They were also famous as patrons of the best artistic and intellectual talent Italy had to offer, giving Florence a reputation for intellectualism and good taste.

But for all that the family itself is famous, and continues to be of interest to both historians and fictionists alike, only one member really stands out: the one everybody thinks of when one hears the name “Medici”. That person is Lorenzo de Medici, otherwise known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. And Miles J. Unger’s book, titled Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de Medici is an excellent biography of a singularly brilliant man.

Now, one might expect Unger to begin at the beginning: with Lorenzo’s birth. But that would be predictable, would it not? So instead, he starts with this picturesque image of the Tuscan countryside, on a fine summer day:

Late in the morning of August 27, 1466, a small group of horsemen left the Medici villa at Careggi and turned onto the road to Florence. It was a journey of three miles from the villa to the city walls along a meandering path that descended through the hills that rise above Florence to the north. Dark cypresses and hedges of fragrant laurel lined the road, providing welcome shade in the summer heat. Through the trees the riders could catch from time to time glimpses of the Arno River flashing silver in the sun.

A beautiful image, and one that has been so often portrayed in film and television that it has lured about as many travellers to Italy as the museums and the ruins. But the beauty masks a much harsher reality, for August 27, 1466, is the day that Lorenzo de’ Medici, who is leading the horsemen mentioned above, narrowly avoids being murdered by the enemies of his family, who expected to ambush him and his father, Piero, as they returned to Florence to quell an uprising. Historical records are vague, but from what Unger has managed to piece together, Lorenzo escapes, not through force of arms, but through his own intelligence and diplomatic skill. Unger opens the book with this particular event because it foreshadows who Lorenzo would become in later years:

The confrontation at Sant’Antonio may provide the first instance when Lorenzo was able to deflect knives using only his native wit, but it will not be the last. Time and again he showed a remarkable ability to talk his way out of tight situations. With his back to the wall, and his life hanging in the balance, Lorenzo was at his most convincing.

This, then, is a clear indicator of the direction Unger takes in his biography: to focus on Lorenzo’s role as one of the greatest statesmen and diplomats of his time, as well as the troubles he had in those roles, both within Florence and without. He also deals with Lorenzo’s personal life, particularly where it contrasted with his public life, as this quote shows:

[Lorenzo’s] sense of duty was constantly at war with his natural zest for life, his desire to live up to the expectations of those whose approbation he craved in conflict with his taste for sensual pleasures. In the end he pursued all things to the point of near exhaustion. … More psychologically perceptive than the political theorists who remained perplexed by Lorenzo’s irresponsible side is the playwright William Shakespeare, whose portrait of the young Prince Hal wasting his days in the tavern with Falstaff and Bardolph uncannily resembles Lorenzo and his friends at the baths of Macerato or Bagno a Morba.

Unger’s reference to Shakespeare’s work shows the kind of writing one might expect from the rest of the book. He has a remarkably lively tone, dry in some parts but otherwise very readable. There are a lot—and I do mean a lot—of footnotes; it’s hard to say concretely (in terms of page numbers) just how much, as I read this in ebook format, but Unger appears to use footnotes as a way of talking about something that has very little do with the book’s main content, but which the reader might find interesting anyway. In the footnotes he talks about nearly everything, from the realities of Florentine political power:

… At all times Florence was really an oligarchy in which power was held in few hands. Innovations instituted by the Medici systematised and rendered more efficient a form of government already in place. They also gave greater authority to a single man at the top. One aspect that drew the greatest contemporary comment and stirred up the most resentment was that the Medici reggimento had a less aristocratic, more populist flavour, even if the number of families wielding power remained the same. The greatest opposition to Medici rule continued to come from the old optimate families that were no longer close to the centre of power.

…to speculation on the manoeuvring of ordinary citizens:

One wonders if de’ Rossi [a Florentine businessman] slipped some coins into Bibbiena’s [one of Lorenzo’s secretaries] hands to arrange the meeting [with Lorenzo]; the narrator never tells us but that was often the way things worked in Florence.

…to details regarding where certain places might be found—or not found—in Florence today:

From the outside, the spot [where Lorenzo’s sculpture garden was located] looks remarkably similar today—a wall backed by cypress trees. The garden itself is now a commercial plant store.

Some readers might find these constant digressions irritating, but I, personally, find them entertaining. I’m one of those people who always enjoys that little bit of extra information that might otherwise have been edited out of a manuscript, so these footnotes were a pleasant inclusion. Unger’s narration also has something of a meandering quality to it: he tries to paint the picture—whether geographical, political, social, cultural, and/or psychological—for the reader, that they might better understand where Lorenzo stood at any given point in time, and to help said reader understand the whys and wherefores of the decisions that Lorenzo made. Again, these meanderings might irritate other readers, but he doesn’t let it get very out of hand and manages to bring the narration back to where it’s supposed to be: to Lorenzo, and to his life.

I’m also happy with Unger’s decision to focus on other aspects of Lorenzo’s life besides his status as an art patron. He does leave room for that, of course—an entire chapter, in fact—but the truth of the matter is that much of Lorenzo’s reputation with his contemporaries was just partially based on his art collection and artistic patronage. He was, above all, a savvy politician and diplomat, a shrewd player of the deadly politics that dominated Italy during his lifetime—a game he played without any military might of his own (Florence had no standing army of its own, and had to hire mercenaries if it needed one). He wasn’t without his flaws, of course, and he did make mistakes, but Lorenzo rose above those mistakes and those flaws, and in the end, stood triumphant. It wasn’t just because of his art collection or his wealth (which was dwindling anyway because he wasn’t much of a businessman) that Lorenzo came to be dubbed il Magnifico:

… In time he was simply called il Magnifico, the term of respect used to denote any person of wealth and rank, now clinging to him almost as a title and testifying to his unique claim on the loyalty of his people. His authority had been built over years of careful manoeuvring, but in the end it rested on his countrymen’s recognition that, in the phrase of one of his critics, Lorenzo was the greatest Florentine in history.

Overall, Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de Medici delivers on what its title promises: a biography that depicts Lorenzo as the brilliant man that he was, and the dangerous times he lived in that made his brilliance even more necessary to the survival of himself, his family, and his city. Though he doesn’t delve too deeply into Lorenzo’s role as an art patron, Unger does explain how that aspect of Lorenzo’s life played into the more important roles of politician and diplomat, and how Lorenzo could—and often did—used his reputation for excellent artistic taste to gain important political leverage both within and without Florence. Though Unger has a tendency to ramble, and though there might be more footnotes than are strictly necessary, the book is still a very fun and interesting read, showing the reader why Lorenzo deserves the title il Magnifico, and why he remains, even today, one of the greatest figures in Western history.

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