Maxson on Brown, 'Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici and the Crisis of Renaissance Italy'

Author: 
Alison Brown
Reviewer: 
Brian J. Maxson

Alison Brown. Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici and the Crisis of Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 350 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-48946-1; $96.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-108-80693-0.

Reviewed by Brian J. Maxson (East Tennessee State University) Published on H-Italy (November, 2020) Commissioned by Peter Sposato (Indiana University Kokomo)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55314

Alison Brown’s Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Crisis of Renaissance Italy offers the first full-length biography of a man usually dismissed as the incompetent and short-lived heir of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, called the Magnificent. It is a carefully, even admirably, researched book that will undoubtedly become the definitive study of this figure. The book fills a surprising historiographical gap and adds new complexity to a previously two-dimensional figure. This new complexity dispels old caricatures, even as it also upholds much previous scholarship on late fifteenth-century Florentine politics. 

Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici continues the lifetime of scholarship that Brown has published on late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Florence. Highlights include her magisterial biography of the important Florentine chancellor Bartolomeo Scala and an associated edition of most of Scala’s shorter works; two volumes collecting previously published chapters and articles, many of which remain the paradigmatic studies of their topic; an edition of Francesco Guicciardini’s Dialogue on the Government of Florence; and a recent study on the reception of Lucretius.[1] In the biography reviewed here readers will find the same kind of extensive archival research as in these previous books. 

Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici was the oldest son of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. He was groomed from birth to occupy and probably enhance the position of his father and family in Florence. Piero benefited from the best tutors while enjoying the sort of humanist education central to the social and cultural world of late fifteenth-century Florence. Like his father, Piero married into the Orsini family rather than following the more traditional path of making a marital match with a Florentine family. Lorenzo seems to have had a difficult time allowing his son opportunities to sink his teeth into practical political experiences. However, a few occasions of diplomacy or events closer to home arose where young Piero could try out power. In 1492 Lorenzo died, leaving twenty-year-old Piero in charge of the family fortunes. It was the same age that Lorenzo had been when his own father had died in 1469. Yet the outcomes for father and son were very different. For a number of reasons, Lorenzo survived his transition to power and established ever more direct control over the Florentine state. He became skilled at keeping Florence as a central diplomatic power. In that role, he worked to keep wide-scale hostilities from breaking out among the major Italian powers while also trying to keep powerful transalpine armies out of the Italian Peninsula. Lorenzo was successful because of his skill but also because of fortuitous timing and basic luck. After all, shortly before Lorenzo’s father had died the Angevins had tried and failed to retake southern Italy. The significant uprisings of 1466 that Lorenzo’s father had faced had failed. Lorenzo himself barely survived the Pazzi Conspiracy and the ensuing Pazzi War. Lorenzo died before the impending crises between the French, Naples, Milan, and the papacy could explode in the mid-1490s. His son, Piero, inherited his father’s position but none of his luck. 

The narrative in this book reveals a young man who neither approached nor was viewed as approaching politics with the interest of his father. He clearly enjoyed sports, hunting, and, as a youth, his studies. Yet, already in Lorenzo’s lifetime, loyal supporters wrote to urge Lorenzo to give Piero more political responsibility. After Lorenzo’s death, the narrative strongly suggests, other major players of the time, especially the pope, Naples, Milan, and France, tested the young man and his new hold over Florence. They found a person who could be prone to harsh words but rarely backed them up. Brown convincedly argues that the standard interpretation that Piero exchanged the balance of power politics conducted by his father with a new and foolhardy Florentine and Neapolitan alliance masks a more complicated situation. She reveals how his attempts at politics and diplomacy after assuming power in Florence failed, and then the complex reasons why, eventually, Piero did need to shift his alliance to Naples. This alliance, in turn, made him unable to appease the French, his allies, or his enemies, both at home and abroad. After reading Brown’s text, it is, frankly, hard to see how anyone put into that situation could have been successful. Consequently, Piero was exiled and spent several years perambulating the Italian Peninsula, looking for allies and avoiding people who wished to claim the bounty on his head. At some points he lacked support, at others he found it, but his efforts to return to Florence were not successful. He died as part of a retreating French army in 1503.

As Brown notes, this book is the first full-length biography of Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. That is a surprising situation given just how much scholarship has been published since the 1950s on virtually every other fifteenth-century Florentine topic, especially about the Medici and politics. Piero fell at the end of other studies, so he was too late for Nicolai Rubinstein’s The Government of Florence under the Medici (1966). He was a casualty of the Italian Wars but has always been viewed as at most secondary to major players in Italy and beyond the Alps. Immediately after Piero went into exile, Girolamo Savonarola rose to central prominence in the city, and Savonarola’s long shadow as possible harbinger of the Reformations and major mover behind the Grand Council made it hard to see Piero’s short period in power. In general, there are now countless studies on Lorenzo de’ Medici, Savonarola, Piero Soderini, the Medici’s return to Florence, and the subsequent duchy. But, by contrast, Guicciardini’s negative portrayal in his History of Italy (1561), where he describes Piero as an arrogant tyrant, has stood basically unchallenged for centuries. 

This surprising historiographical gap plays to the book’s strengths. With so little previous scholarship on Piero, Brown’s indefatigable archival work is able to permeate every page of this book. The first section on Piero’s childhood provides new and intimate details of Piero’s family life based on piecing together an impressive amount of disparate archival sources, much of which are unpublished. After Lorenzo de’ Medici died, the archival trails shift, but Brown uncovers the intricate complexity of the Florentine political situation with enviable detail. After Piero’s exile the trail shifts again; Piero’s own letter book ended, and men who die in exile rarely leave extensive documentation of their activities. Yet, from Piero’s own letters and even more so from passing references to or about Piero in the letters of others, Brown brings together a full portrait of how Piero hoped to return to Florence and who he hoped was going to help him. The book is truly archival work at its best. It might be possible that deep diving into the archives of places outside Florence might add a few more rumors or anecdotes, but it is hard to imagine a later study equaling, let alone surpassing, the book’s foundation on sources found in Florence. All of this research creates a monograph packed with new information about all periods and aspects of Piero’s life.

In the absence of an established historiographical context, the book uses Guicciardini’s description of Piero as a foil against which it plots a more complicated view of Piero. And the book does a good job adding complexity and three-dimensions to Guicciardini’s flat, negative caricature. Filling this historiographical gap adds new nuance to this story, even as the major points of the story seem to withhold scrutiny. Piero entered a probably impossible situation in 1492, and that situation was made worse because of his personality and unofficial status within Florence, which was by that time not really a republic but not a princely state either. The last few pages of the book suggest that Piero might have been more successful in the political situations and governments that developed during the sixteenth century, and thus it claims that he was a liminal figure of sorts between two different political worlds. But the book usually focuses much more on crafting a narrative of Piero’s life and Florentine political complexities than on providing these broader historiographical contexts or comparing Piero’s situations with his ancestors or descendants. Similarly, the book’s biographical approach lends itself to offering new details about a wide range of topics of interest to scholars. Specialists in literature, the history of childhood, the family, education, and other areas may find here anecdotes to add to their own studies or complexities to ponder. Yet these connections are usually left to the reader to make while the book returns to sophisticated descriptions of political machinations and networks. 

This is an impressive monograph that fills a surprising gap in the historiography. Its primary audience will be Florentine specialists, and for that audience it adds an enormous amount of detail about a man so often mentioned in passing but never really studied before. It fits and fills in the political narratives charted by Gene Brucker, Dale Kent, Nicolai Rubinstein, Donald Weinstein, Humfrey Butters, and others. It is archival sleuthing and research at its best. The book adds new nuance to this previously shadowy figure, and in doing so provides a stronger foundation for future studies on the politics of the Italian Peninsula, especially Florence, in the late Quattrocento.

Note

[1]. Brown’s publications are listed in full at Amy R. Bloch, Carolyn James, and Camilla Russell, eds., The Art and Language of Power in Renaissance Florence: Essays for Alison Brown (Toronto: CRRS, 2019), 429-37.

Citation: Brian J. Maxson. Review of Brown, Alison, Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici and the Crisis of Renaissance Italy. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55314

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