Lorenzino de’ Medici (1514 – 1548) was an Italian politician, writer and member of the Medici family. Lorenzino lost his father when he was 11-years-old. He was then raised by his mother at the Villa del Trebbio along with his younger brother Giuliano and his two sisters. In 1526, his mother decided to move to Venice with Giuliano to escape the arrival of the Landsknechts, mercenaries from the North. Their departure was timely because, only one year later, the Sack of Rome enormously weakened Pope Clement VII de’ Medici, and the Medici family were expelled from Florence.
In 1530 Lorenzino moved to Rome. Boys will be boys, and in 1534 he vandalized the heads of some of the ancient statues of the Arch of Constantine. Only through the intercession of his cousin Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici saved Lorenzino from the ire of the Pope, who had promised to condemn him to death. Still, after this virtually inexplicable action, Lorenzino was disgracefully expelled from Rome.
After leaving Rome, Lorenzino returned to Florence, where he soon established an unusually close relationship with his cousin Alessandro de’ Medici, who had become Duke of Florence in 1532. The two were partners, inseparable and noted for their outrageous escapades. However, in 1536, Alessandro sided against Lorenzino in a legal wrangling having to do with an inheritance. In the same year, Alessandro married Margaret of Parma, the daughter of the Emperor Charles V.
On a January evening in 1537, Lorenzino lured Alessandro to his apartment with the promise of a night of passion. When Alessandro fell asleep, Lorenzino along with his servant, murdered Alessandro with daggers.
The House of Medici, especially its gayer members, is one of my favorite subjects. The Medici family were a guiding social influence in Florence during most of the Renaissance. I became infatuated with Florence in my teens and I began a screenplay in head, with rogue generals, a malevolent giant, and fabulous inventors.
It is generally accepted that the Renaissance began in Florence sometime in the 14th century and ended in the 17th. It might have begun when the queer poet Petrarch (1304–1374) unearthed lost manuscripts and discovered that the ancient Greeks and Romans had endorsed a life with reliance on human reason, rather than of superstition. He decided this was something that could help revive.
By the 14th century, the Medici family was well established in Florence and about to get rich from the Medici Bank.
Many of the Medici were great supporters of humanism, the driving force behind the Renaissance, funding the search for ancient manuscripts, founding libraries and patronizing many great artists, including Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. The family bankrolled the invention of Piano and Opera and funded the construction of Saint Peter Basilica in Rome and Santa Maria del Fiore, the duomo in Florence.
Their wealth and shrewdness made them hereditary monarchs. Alessandro de’ Medici became the first Duke of Florence, and his son Cosimo I de’ Medici became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. Over time, there were four Medici Popes and two Medici Queens of France, Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610). The Medici reign in Italy ended in 1737 with the death of the last Grand Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici .
Gian was queer; nonetheless, his sister arranged for him to marry Anna Maria Francesca of Saxe-Lauenburg in 1697. She refused to move to Florence, insisting they live in Ploskovice Castle, her home in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic). They were both distressingly unattractive and despised one another. She spent her time with her horses, while he got drunk and got it on with the groomsman Giuliano Dami. He and Dami became longtime lovers and occasionally took off to Prague to attend the white party and go shopping. When it became clear that he was not going to produce an heir, Gian was called back to Florence by his father.
In 1723, Gian became Grand Duke, but that didn’t stop him from brooding, drinking and screwing men. He spent much of his time in bed, entertained by an entourage of rent boys known as the Ruspanti, named after the ruspi coins they were paid. The hot young men had sex with Gian and put on silly little skits while he bellowed dirty comments until he passed out.
Gian’s ancestor Ferdinando II, Grand Duke from 1621 to 1670, was more gallant. Despite loving men, he managed to produce heirs. One day, when his mother, Maria Maddalena of Austria, handed him a list of homosexuals and demanded their punishment, he added his name to the list. When he asked what she thought the punishment for homosexuals should be, she said they should be burned, so he tossed the paper into the fire and said: ”Voilà, your command has already been accomplished”.
The House of Medici was a family business. Because the Medici didn’t expand their influence beyond Europe, they faded as their wealth and political power diminished.
A true genius of populist politics, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was a Dominican friar who, in 1490, made his way to Florence. Just mid-level clergy and a political outsider, Savonarola stunned Europe by ripping Florence from the 60-year grip of the Medici family with an angry surge of populist strength that brought about his historic ”Bonfire of the Vanities”, where Savonarola collected and burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, musical instruments and books in Florence.
He used an apocalyptic message to stoke people’s fears with stereotypes: Ottoman Muslims were at Italy’s eastern borders, and from the west, the French invaded Florence and carried away the city’s wealth in a peace deal made in their favor. Savonarola concluded: ”We don’t win anymore!” The Renaissance was dissolving the old truths. The times called for strong leadership, Savonarola proclaimed.
Gutenberg’s printing press was just becoming common, and Savonarola harnessed its potential better than anyone. He delivered crazy rants to crowds of thousands, then printers spread his words to thousands more with the sure-to-sell transcripts. Every time, Savonarola answered questions by flooding the streets with cheap pamphlets (15th-century tweeting) that proclaimed proof that the elites were out of touch.
Savonarola’s most fervent believer was himself. God had appointed him the task of making Florence great again, and so whatever words he spoke had to be true just because he spoke them. His ego was his greatest strength. His sermons brought swarms of sensation-seekers, plus citizens who longed for a past re-imagined by the man’s reality-bending powers.
He replaced Florence’s byzantine tax code with a single flat tax on all property. He developed one of Europe’s earliest form of reduced-rate lending. But his demagoguery fueled the elites’ obsession to get rid of him.
Savonarola came to his kingship free from the usual debts owed to party patrons and by pandering to his base, making big promises on tax, infrastructure, immigration, trade policy and entitlement reforms. He thought he had the power, but he was at the mercy of his base.
Savonarola thought that his unruly, sometimes violent supporters made him invulnerable. The rest of the citizens, many who had supported Savonarola boisterous efforts to evict the Medici, remained frustrated at his incapacity to rein in his colossal ego when tact was demanded; bad-mouthing the pope has never been a good move. To keep his base happy, Savonarola made enemies of everyone else: on the left, those who rejected his public bonfires against liberal values; on the right, those who feared he would start a trade war with the rest of Europe.
Savonarola bought his base with false promises, saying:
I announce this good news to the city: that she will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been!
To citizens who were weary of being pushed around by forces beyond their control, Savonarola had preached the power to defy reality and his followers put their faith in his prophecies. But, he could not overturn the military advantages of the French army that invaded Italy, or cure people of the syphilis brought back from the New World, nor protect the Florence merchants as global trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
His angry base stopped turning out for his rallies. Savonarola’s political opponents planned for his removal. First, they had him excommunicated. And then, four years after his reign had begun, they had him executed.
The divisions he stoked could not heal themselves, and by 1512, the Medici were back in power.
Our current president has amplified the social tensions of our era; he did not create them. Even if he is defeated in 2020, or impeached before then, the divisions he has exposed are the real threat. Savonarola was publicly burnt at the stake in 1498, in the Piazza della Signoria, where art had once been destroyed at his command.