Florence caught with their breeches down and their arse in a bucket

Piero di Lorenzo de'Medici

After watching The Borgias 4th episode, Lucrezia’s Wedding, I was intrigued by the storyline of Niccolo Machiavelli and Piero de’Medici.  Recalling the scene of the two men meeting with Cardinal Della Rovere surrounded by Paolla Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” forcibly taken from the Bartolini family by Piero’s father, Lorenzo the Magnificent,  I started to research the son of ‘el Magnifico’ who was destined to take over the Medici empire.  Very little information was available but I was able to find more through the Medici Archive, The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior, by Paul Strathern, and The Medici, Vol. I by George Frederick Young.  While I have no idea where the plot in The Borgias will go with the Medici, albeit historically, the families are intertwined in their machinations.

Battle of San Romano

Piero d’Medici
February 15, 1472-December 28, 1503
The first born son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Clarice Orsini he received the finest education of the age from humanist scholars Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Poliziano.  Piero translated Plutarch’s works from Greek to Latin, eventually groomed to be the de facto ruler of the Florentine state, but he did not manage to equal his father’s political skills.  Sadly, the ambition of others did not extend to this man, and history has separated him from the infamous Medici family with the title ‘Piero the Unfortunate’.

Poliziano and Piero de' Medici, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, in the Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence.

Charles VIII

Taking over as leader of Florence in 1492 upon the death of his father, the fragile peace of the Italian states was thrown into turmoil when King Charles VIII of France crossed the Alps with an army in order to take the kingdom of Naples and claim his hereditary rights.  Piero chose to stay neutral, but this was not acceptable to the invading King.  Piero attempted to mount a resistance, but received little support from the Florentine elite who had fallen under the influence of the fundamental and fanatical Domican priest Girolamo Savonarola.

Charles VIII in Rome

When the invasion arrived in Tuscany, Piero went to the French and agreed to cede the territories of Sarzana, Pisa, Livorno and Pietrasanta to Charles until the conquest of Naples was complete.  Piero’s failure to negotiate better terms with the French led to an uprising in Florence.  The Republic invited Charles to the city, exiled the Medici, placed a 4,000 florins price on Piero’s head, confiscated his property and let the enraged Florentines sack the Medici Palace.  Generations of art, manuscripts, books and antiquities were scattered amongst the citizens unmindful of the contributions and support the Medici family had shared during their reign.

Contemporary diarist Luca Landucci commented “The Florentines had been caught with their breeches down and their arse in a bucket, while all around were laughing at them.”

Giovanni Popolano

Lorenzo Popolano

Deeper research revealed the real opposition to Piero’s rule of Florence did not come from the fanatical priest Savonarola, but from his own disloyal cousins, Giovanni and Lorenzo de’Medici.  Their relationship with Piero’s father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, had deteriorated due to economic reasons over his choice to retain their inheritance instead of simply administering it.  After ‘el Magnifico’s’ death the brothers sided with the Republic against their cousin, using Savonarola to create derision among the populace, and abandoned the Medici name in favor of Popolano.

Piero escaped to Bologna, then Venice, and later lived in Rome. He continually schemed with the Borgia, Ceseare and Pope Alexander VI, and the French, in order to claim control of Florence once again.  He did not trust the first invitation sent by Charles to return to Florence, but later joined the French army in the vain hope that Charles would re-conquer Florence for him on his return to France in 1495.  He organized unsuccessful attacks on the Republic in 1496, 1497, 1498 and in 1501-1502.  In 1503 he joined the army of Louis XII, but died after the French defeat on the Garigliano, drowning in the attempt to transport equipment to the mouth of the river.  He is buried in Montecassino.

Strangely, the above events were foretold in a dream of Michelangelo’s while he was residing at the Medici Palazzo.  Lorenzo the Magnificent, his patron and friend, and appeared to him in a dream on two occasions, ordering him to advise Piero that he would soon be thrown out of Florence and never again return.  Agonizing over delivering news of impending doom, the young artist traveled to the Villa Medici at Careggi to meet with his benefactor’s son.  Piero paid no heed to the warning, even insulting Michelangelo and questioning why the great Lorenzo would entrust such news to an artist and not his own flesh and blood.  Shortly after this interview, Michelangelo abandoned the Medici Palazzo and Florence traveling over the Apennines to Venice.  This tidbit of information comes from the “Three Worlds of Michelangelo,” by James H. Beck.

Portrait of a young man with medal of Cosimo il Vecchio, believed to be Piero de'Medici, Botticelli

As to the sacking of the Medici Palazzo and treasury, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, wrote to Leonardo da Vinci in 1502 asking him to inspect two vases placed for sale that once belonged to the Medici family.  He reported back that these were indeed from the Palazzo and carried the engraving of Lorenzo’s name in Roman letters at the base.   Unable to purchase at the time, the vases were sought fifty years later by Cosimo I and are now in the gem room of the Uffizi Gallery.

The statue of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Donatello had always stood in the garden of the Palazzo, but was set up in front of the Palazzo della Signoria by the Florentines and engraved with the following inscription:

“A warning to all who should think to tyrannize over Florence.”

The statue was moved in 1919 to the Palazzo Vecchio then replaced by a bronze copy in 1988 while the original was given a final place in the Sala dei Gigli inside the Palazzo Vecchio.

My thanks to @Opheliacat for her question as to what happened to the Medici treasure after the sack of the Palazzo.  I welcome any suggestions on The Borgia and its cast of historical characters, perhaps a post on the Medici cardinal that dared not to vote for Rodrigo Borgia at the conclave will be next.

“Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen.  And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us.”

Cardinal Giovanni di Lorenzo de’Medici, 1492

Commenting on the election of Rodrigo Borgia

If you like this post you might also be interested in “The Medici Treasury”



Filed under April

3 responses to “Florence caught with their breeches down and their arse in a bucket

  1. Great post! Just trying to imagine the splendor of sitting in a hall wrapped in the fullness of the Battle of San Romano stuns the mind into realizing the true beauty of some of histories famous settings. Thanks for all the great art!

  2. Super post!

    I find Beck’s interpretation of the dream fascinating. History hands us the description of the dream via Michelangelo’s biographer, Ascanio Condivi – who related that Michelangelo ascribed the dream to the musician “Il Cardiere” – it seems Beck is arguing that it was Michelangelo’s dream all along – I wonder what evidence he has to make such a statement. I must track down that book!

    Keep up the amazing work!

  3. And thanks for all of your help!

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