Home / The Renaissance 1277 - 1603 / Florence in the Golden Age 1469 -1498

Florence in the Golden Age 1469 -1498

Lorenzo de’ Medici was far from handsome. His skin was sallow, his eyes had a short-sighted squint and his nose was flat and wide. His voice was high and thin. Like every man in his family, he had the gout. Yet there was grandeur in everything Lorenzo did. He loved art and books, music and poetry and women. He delighted in sports, hunting and galloping across the brown Tuscan hills. He dealt with ambassadors like a prince, his palace was the gathering-place for the great men of Italy and his city won renown for both its scholars and its carnivals. No wonder, then, that people called him Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Visitors to Lorenzo’s city found the streets jammed with people, and marveled at the splendid buildings. There were hundreds of shops and houses, dozens of churches and palaces. Even the bridges over the River Arno were lined with little stores and homes.

The busiest spot in all the bustling city was the Mercato Vecchio, or the Old Market. This was the gathering-place of shopkeepers, the men who were the smocks and fur caps that marked them as members of the lesser guilds. Here were the grocers with their little booths, the butchers, the fishmongers, the apothecaries and the barbers, who shaved their customers in the midst of the crowd. The most important businessmen met in another square, the Mercato Nuovo, or the New Market. It was not as noisy here and most of the men were dressed in the long dark gowns and bright hoods of the merchants. In the shops and under awnings, the guildsmen displayed the goods they sold to all of Europe — richly dyed wool and Silk, velvet, taffeta, damask, satin and cloth-of-gold.


Just off the New Market was the street of the grain-dealers and not far away was the Cantodi Vacchereccia, the street of the goldsmiths. The street of the hosiers displayed velvet stockings and feathered hats and lace. The Via Calimala was crowded with shouting apprentices, who wore the dress of common craftsmen, short cloaks and leather belts. The Piazza della Signoria, the great square before the palace of the signory, was the place for men of all kinds who liked to talk. Florence had fifty public squares and about 140 gardens and in good weather all of them were crowded. For many townsmen, the streets were outdoor living rooms. There the women met to gossip, their husbands traded stories, the young men sang the rowdy songs they loved and everyone played at dice and chess. Now and again they stopped to gape at a party of dandies and their girls who passed along the street. The elegant young men were wrapped in pink cloaks, their white stockings were fringed with silver lace, their fingers glittered with rings and they smelled of perfume. Their ladies wore billowy gowns embroidered and dotted with pearls. When they covered their finery with street-deals, they looked like bright-colored tents moving along the cobblestones.

There were other, less pretty sights along the streets of Florence. Ragged laboring men roamed the city in search of work. Beggars huddled in doorways and beside the steps of churches. There were dark side-streets, where workers spent their lives in toil that never seemed to end. There were poverty and plague, robbery and violence that began for no good reason and ended with death.

Side by side with the ugliness and cruelty were beauty and wisdom. Lorenzo poured out his money to bring artists and scholars to Florence. He persuaded the councillors to invest the city’s money in great projects and the merchants and bankers followed their example. Florence became Italy’s capital of scholarship and art — a place of splendid churches and great universities, of paintings and statues, of fine music and priceless collections of books.

In Lorenzo‘s time, Florence was also famous as the city of festivals. On holidays and during Carnival Week, processions of masked revelers and fantastic floats wound around the squares and along streets of brilliantly decorated palaces and shops. A central street was cleared for horse-racing. There were pageants, dancing and singing that went on through the night. Lorenzo wrote some of the songs, planned most of the pageants and paid many of the bills. At his command, the finest artists in Italy vied with each other in designing costumes, scenery and masks.

Nearly all of Italy’s artists worked in Florence at one time or another. Many of them were trained there and the Florentine way of art became the Renaissance way. From every town along the peninsula came youths of ten or twelve or fourteen who longed to study with the master artists of Florence. If a boy was lucky‚ he was accepted as an apprentice in the bottega or workshop of a master. At first, he was allowed only to grind the colors for the paints, to polish the panels on which the master painted and to practice the art of “correct drawing on tablets.” Later, he learned the complicated recipes for mixing colors. He was taught to paint the wall-paintings called “frescoes” – the colours were blended with wet plaster and had to be put on quickly before the mixture dried. After six or seven years, the apprentice was at last permitted to paint on one of his master’s projects. He might fill in a background of sky, or, if he showed particular promise, he might even be asked to paint the robes of a figure or the gilded feathers of an angel’s wing.


Painting was only a part of the training, however. The apprentice also had to learn to carve in wood and stone, to decorate velvet cloaks and carnival masks, to glaze pottery, to make the crests for helmets, to gild jewel boxes and to inlay furniture. An artist was a craftsman, almost a shopkeeper; he had to be ready to do any kind of work his patrons asked of him. Few artists were as fortunate as Luca della Robbie, who was able to specialize in just one sort of work. Luca made fine figures and decorations of pottery glazed in white and blue. He was so successful at it that he  kept his who1e family at work in his bottega.

The apprentice artist usually spent twelve years learning his craft. Then he left his master, was admitted to the artists’ guild and had the right to set up a bottega of his own. Some gifted young artists, however, did not need the long years of training. One of these was Leonardo, a youth who came to Florence from the little town of Vinci. He apprenticed himself to one of Lorenzo’s favorite artists, the great Verrocchio.

For Leonardo da Vinci, it was as easy to paint as to breathe. Before he had studied long, he was allowed to work on Verrocchio’s own paintings. When Verrocchio began to spend more time making statues, the wits said it was because his apprentice was too skillful at making pictures.


Leonardo was not satisfied with his painting. “I want to work miracles,” he said. By miracles, he meant paintings that showed the thoughts and feelings of men as well as what they looked like. Leonardo began to study people — friends who came to his studio to chat, strangers who passed him on the street, men and women, young and old. He studied the movement of their arms and legs, the ever-changing expressions on their faces. He also became fascinated by nature – the slopes and ridges of the hills, the flowing of water and the movement of wind through grass and trees. He learned to watch the light and shadows that in an instant could change the look of a face or a mountain.

Leonardo filled his notebooks — more than 5,000 pages with notes and drawings of the things he observed and invented. When he began to understand how “nature’s machines” worked, he tried to invent machines of his own. He designed drawbridges, mechanical diggers, a parachute and a life-jacket made of two layers of leather filled with air. He made several designs for flying machines, including one that was very like a modern helicopter.


Few people in Florence paid any attention to Leonardo’s inventions. He was a fine painter, they said, if you could get him to stick to work, but he was always off somewhere tinkering. Lorenzo was not even convinced of Leonardo’s talent as a painter. Leonardo was no scholar; his Latin was poor and his Greek was worse. Such a man, Lorenzo thought, could never be a truly great artist. Leonardo, for his part, thought that Lorenzo was too wrapped up in his old books. “Florence is too old-fashioned,” he said. “Lorenzo has taught the whole city to look backward.” When he grew tired of waiting for Lorenzo to give him projects to work on, Leonardo packed his painter’s tools and notebooks and moved to Milan.

Lorenzo was more generous with other artists. To help apprentices in their work, he planned a sculpture garden, a park filled with statues which the students could study and copy. It was in this garden that he came upon a youth called Michelangelo and admired a little statue the boy was carving. When he learned that Michelangelo was so poor that he might have to give up his lessons with his master, Lorenzo offered him a room in the Medici palace a place at his table and the money to go on with his work.

It was true, as Leonardo said, that Lorenzo loved the past. He had been educated by the humanists, he was himself a scholar, a poet and he was fascinated by the ideas of the ancient philosophers. Nothing pleased him more than spending a summer evening sprawled on a hillside, sipping wine and talking with the club of friends who called themselves the “Platonic Academy” — Luigi Pulci, half poet and half buffoon; Angelo Poliziano, a serious-minded professor of Latin; Pico della Mirandola, a gay young prince who had fallen in love with learning and gobbled knowledge as some men gobble food; and Sandro Botticelli, a painter who had also fallen in love with ideas and tried to “speak” them in his pictures, filling his paintings with nymphs and goddesses who stood for ideas of love or spring or evil or goodness.

The leader of the group was Marsilio Ficino, the boy to whom Cosimo had given a lifetime salary on the condition that he learn to read Greek. Marsilio had grown up. He had indeed learned his Greek and he had completed the huge task of translating Plato’s works into Latin. Now his translation was being read in every city in Europe. In 1471, a printing press with movable type, a German invention, had been set up in Florence. Books like Ficino’s that once had had to be copied slowly by hand, books that only the rich could afford to own, could now be printed in great numbers and at much less expense. Poliziano, the grave Latin scholar, had said that the printing press was a dreadful mistake. “Now the most stupid thoughts can in a minute be put into thousands of books and spread around the world,” he grumbled. Ficino and the other members of the Academy disagreed. They hurried to have their own works printed. Lorenzo, as usual, paid many of the bills and it pleased him to think how far the new books would carry the fame of Florence and its scholars.


Some of the city’s hard-headed merchants grumbled that Lorenzo thought too much about fame and magnificence and too little about business. He might call it a Golden Age, they said, but the truth was in their account books. Florence was not as prosperous as it had been in the days of Cosimo and Piero. The war with the pope had been costly. Now the city’s merchants were losing customers to the new traders of England and Flanders. It was no time for extravagance, yet Lorenzo went on spending. When his banks lost money, he saved the Medici fortune by borrowing gold from the state treasury. No one could say whether or not he paid back that money, but the government nearly went bankrupt and the good name of the Medici was lost.

The rumblings against Lorenzo were louder still in the dark streets where the laborers lived, haunted by poverty and sickness. Here Lorenzo’s power, not his extravagance, was the complaint. Since the Pazzi conspiracy, he had governed Florence with a much firmer hand and many people began to call him a tyrant and a dictator.

None of Lorenzo’s enemies was noisier than Savonarola, the fiery monk who preached in the great Duomo. Savonarola hated and called evil everything that Lorenzo loved — splendour, art, gaiety and ancient learning. In the new age of the Renaissance, Savonarola was a stranger, a man somehow left over from the Middle Ages. Like the medieval churchmen, he preached of sin and terrible punishment, of wars and plagues and untold suffering, of death and doom. He cried out to the people to drive away the villains who would bring the wrath of God on their cities — bad priests‚ selfish popes, greedy bankers and tyrants like Lorenzo de’ Medici. The frightened people listened, hypnotized by Savonarola’s flashing eyes and his voice that was like thunder.

Lorenzo tried to come to terms with Savonarola, but the monk sneered at his money and scorned his power. “Tell Lorenzo to do penance for his sins, for God will punish him and his,” he said. “Though I am a stranger here and he a citizen, I shall remain and he will go.”

In 1491, Lorenzo fell ill and Savonarola proclaimed that he would die in less than a year. At carnival time, Lorenzo lay on his bed, gasping at the pains that tore at his stomach and chest. Sounds of laughter and singing drifted in from the streets outside his palace and he remembered the carnival song he had written when he was young and all Florence cheered him as a hero:

Fair is youth and free of sorrow

Yet how soon its joys we bury.

Let who would be now be merry.

Sure is no one of tomorrow.

Lorenzo wondered what the future had in store for Florence and the Medici. He had two sons who would take his place when he was gone. He was sure that studious young Giovanni would do well. Lorenzo had chosen a career in the Church for Giovanni and had done his best to help him on his way. At thirteen, the boy had been made a cardinal by a pope who had a high regard for the Medici and their banks. The older son, Piero, was a problem; he was too proud. How would he treat the guildsmen and officials whose friendship kept the Medici in power? How would he meet the dangers that were certain to threaten Florence in the years to come?


For twelve years Lorenzo had given the city peace and a golden age. The cities of Italy lived always at the edge of war and in the shadow of powerful European kings who had long envied their riches. One day, Lorenzo knew, the foreigners’ greed would get the best of them and they would invade the peninsula. The Italian states would be easy prey, for despite Lorenzo’s pleas for peace, the other Italian rulers squabbled and fought each other and never tried to work together.


In early April, 1492, Lorenzo‘s illness grew much worse and the powdered pearls his doctor fed him made him even more sick. He called for a priest to give him the last blessing of the Church and asked for Savonarola because, he said, the outspoken monk was “the only honest friar he knew.”

Savonarola came and some Florentines said that he gave Lorenzo his blessing. Savonarola’s followers told another story. They said that before he would bless Lorenzo he made three demands: Lorenzo must repent his sins, he must give up the riches that the monk said were unjustly won and he must give Florence its old liberty by ending the power of the Medici. To the first two demands Lorenzo nodded his agreement. When he heard the third, however, he turned his head to the wall and Savonarola left him to die with his sins unforgiven.

It was said that lightning struck the Duomo on the day of Lorenzo’s death. Savonarola cried, “Behold, the sword of the Lord!” Everyone took it as a sign that the Medici were doomed.

Piero, the proud new head of the Medici family, did seem hounded by ill fortune. In 1492, he took his father’s place as the ruler of Florence. In 1494, King Charles VIII of France marched into Tuscany at the head of a great troop of soldiers, the first of the foreign invaders that Lorenzo had feared would come. King Charles did not intend to attack Florence; his goal was Naples. However, he was quite willing to accept anything the ruler of Florence cared to offer in the way of tokens of friendship. Piero, quaking at the sight of the army, gave the king the use of several Florentine fortresses and a ransom in gold.

The Florentines were outraged. The signory turned on Piero and the people stoned him in the streets. He and all the Medici were driven from the city, a mob attacked their palace and the priceless collections of books and art were stolen, scattered or destroyed. A few years later, Piero died in an attempt to regain the city he had lost.

Once again Florence proclaimed itself a republic of the people, but the new government was actually under the power of Savonarola. Repentance was the law of the land and by law all gambling and swearing, all rowdy songs, horse races and “vanities” were forbidden. Servants were encouraged to spy on their masters. Children were organized into “Bands of Hope,” a kind of junior police corps, which watched for gamblers and swore to help stamp out such sinful things as dancing, pageants, love poems and music schools.

Carnival Week was celebrated with the burning of the “vanities,” which included anything that Savonarola said was evil. The Bands of Hope roamed from house to house, searching out forbidden objects. Then they marched together to the square before the palace of the signory and threw the “vanities” onto a mammoth bonfire. Crackling in the flames, in the midst of plumes and pink cloaks and playing cards and carnival masks, were lutes and viols, books by Boccaccio and Petrarch and manuscripts of ancient poems and philosophy. As they burned, the clanging palace bells proclaimed the destruction of evil, while round and round the bonfire paraded the Bands of Hope and a mob of citizens, sobbing and singirig:

Never was so sweet a gladness

Joy so pure and strong . . .

Cry with me now, cry as I cry,

Madness, madness, holy madness.

All Florence seemed to have fallen under the spell of Savonarola. Botticelli stopped painting nymphs and tried to paint pictures that preached. Pico della Mirandola went to live in a monastery. Rich and poor alike shuddered at the thought of doom, swore to reform their ways, and the Renaissance city turned backwards, to the Middle Ages.


Then the spell began to fade. The Florentines wearied of repenting — despite their hymn-singing and reforms, business was worse than ever. The pope, annoyed at Savonarola’s insults and his politics, commanded the monk to stop preaching. Savonarola defied the pope’s order. He preached, he said, because it was God’s wish and he prayed to God to strike him dead in an instant if he was wrong.


Savonarola was not struck dead, but many Florentines grumbled that he ought to be put to a more difficult test. Then one of his most faithful followers agreed to meet a Franciscan monk in a trial by fire. If he walked through a fire and came out unharmed, his claims were true; if he burned, they were false. On the morning of the trial, all of Florence tried to jam into the square to watch. The fires were prepared, but until afternoon Savonarola and the Franciscan’s friends argued about the rules of the contest. After that, it rained and at sundown the signory decided that the trial should not be held at all.

The crowd surging out of the square was furious. Savonarola had cheated them, they said — perhaps he had always cheated them. They turned on his followers and street-fights broke out in every district of the city.

The signory, too, changed its mind about Savonarola. He was a troublemaker, they decided and they ordered their officers to arrest him. He was tortured, tried and condemned to die. Once again the Florentines filled the square, but this time Savonarola did not cheat them. His belief did not waver as he stood below the gallows. “The Lord,” he said, “has done as much for me.” Then he was hanged, his body and the gallows were burned and the ashes poured into the River Arno.

At last the Republic had its liberty. Florence once more became a city of the Renaissance. Dandies put on their finery again and merchants took their favorite books and paintings out of hiding. People sang the old songs, played games of dice along the streets and talked of carnivals. Leonardo returned from Milan. He and young Michelangelo were both hired to paint huge wall paintings in the council ball of the palace of the signory and soon the Florentine’s were boasting of the contest of artists and excitedly taking sides.

Nothing was as it once had been. The threat of war haunted the city. The foreigners had come once; they would come again. The merchants found the trade routes crowded with traders from other cities. The great contest of artists was never decided. Michelangelo was called to work on greater projects in Rome. Leonardo’s experiment with a new method for painting on plaster failed, his colors began to streak and he grew discouraged and spent his time working on a portrait of a merchant’s wife, Madonna Elisabetta. When that portrait — the “Mona Lisa,” as it came to be called was finished, Leonardo followed Michelangelo to Rome.

Many of the artists of Lorenzo’s day were finding new patrons and projects in Rome and in Venice, Ferrara, Urbino and even Paris. The Florentine ways of art were known, admired and copied in many cities now and Florence’s name would be remembered as long as anyone remembered the Renaissance and the work of the Florentine masters. In Florence itself, the Golden Age was over. Even if the Medici returned, as one day they would, that age could never come again.

Check Also


Italy and Germany Become Unified nations

On May 11, 1860 an almost incredible military campaign began with the landing of Guiseppe …

Translate »