Two Families of the Renaissance

Nov 23, 1999 - © Meg Greene Malvasi

During the Renaissance, Italy was not a nation but was composed of a number of small, independent city-states. These city-states were governed either by a single family or by a small number of wealthy families. This ruling elite had gained power and prestige not only through their military exploits but also through commerce, banking, and manufacture. The more affluent even commanded their own private armies. Families grew wealthier and more powerful by making strategic alliances with other prominent families--alliances often cemented through arranged marriages. Two of the most famous, or infamous, Renaissance ruling families were the Medici family of **Florence** and the Borgia family of Rome. The **Medici** came to power in 1434 when **Cosimo the Elder** (1398-1464), who at the time was the head of the largest bank in Europe, seized control of the government when it could no longer pay its debts. Cosimo then forced his political opponents into exile. His son, Piero (1416-1469), added to the family fortune and to his own political power through a series of brilliantly arranged marriages for his children. But it was Cosimo's grandson **Lorenzo** (1449-1492), known as "il Magnifico," the Magnificent, who did the most to extend his family's influence. Lorenzo embodied the ideal "Renaissance Man." He was not only skilled at politics, diplomacy, and war, but was a shrewd businessman, an accomplished athlete, a talented poet, and a generous patron of the arts. Lorenzo supported many of the most gifted artists and architects of the period, and commissioned them to grace Florence with some of the most beautiful paintings, sculptures, and buildings produced during the Renaissance. As a result, the city became the envy of Europe. Lorenzo's stature often placed him in harm's way . In 1478, for example, he narrowly escaped assassination while attending church with his brother. His enemies, the ambitious Pazzi family in league with Pope Sixtus IV, had hoped to do away with Lorenzo and seize control of Florence for themselves. The pope, who commanded his own troops, was so angry at the failed assassination attempt that he declared war on the Medici family. Lorenzo escaped and found his way to Naples. There he formed a military alliance with the ruler of Naples that enabled him to return to Florence in triumph.

Although perhaps less well-known and less powerful than the Medici, the Borgia family has an even more sinister reputation. They are remembered as much for their treachery as for their political accomplishments. The head of the family,
**Rodrigo Borgia** (1431-1503), became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, an office he held until his death in 1503. Alexander's chief goal seems to have been to carve out of the Papal States, territories in central Italy traditionally governed by the pope, a kingdom for his son Cesare (c. 1475-1507). Alexander fathered at least nine illegitimate children by several mistresses. But he was especially fond of his two most famous children, **Cesare** and **Lucrezia**. To finance his military expeditions and other ventures he had undertaken, Alexander sold divorces to the kings and princes of Europe and seized control of the estates of deceased bishops. Alexander's plans nearly succeeded. In command of his father's papal army, Cesare gained a reputation for ruthlessness that won him many enemies, who both hated and feared him. Father and son used every means to achieve victory, including not only war but murder, most commonly through the use of poison. Even members of their own family were not safe. In 1500, Cesare ordered the murder of the Duke of Biscegile, his sister Lucrezia's second husband. At the height of their power the Borgias were so feared that those invited to dine with them often took the precaution of making out their wills before attending. Although Alexander supposedly died from malaria in 1503 at the age of seventy-two, rumors circulate even now that he met his end after mistakenly eating a piece of poisoned fruit intended for one of his guests. By the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, both the Medici and the Borgia families were in trouble. When Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, the Medici were toppled from power in Florence. Two years later, in 1494, the family was exiled and their property taken over by the city of Venice. Cesare Borgia outlived his father by four years, but steadily lost influence. Beset on all sides by his enemies, foremost among them the new pope Julius II, Cesare fled Rome only to be captured in Naples and imprisoned in Spain. He escaped but was killed in battle in 1507, ending the Borgia's dream of establishing a family dynasty on Italian soil. The Renaissance world of Lorenzo de' Medici and Cesare Borgia may have been beautiful and elegant but it proved also to be dangerous and impossible for any one man or family to master. By the sixteenth century that world was already poised on on the threshold of the even more turbulent and destructive era to come.

But the family were also well known as patrons of the arts, and their support contributed greatly to the success of the Renaissance.
Their court attracted some of the era's most talented personalities, including Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael, as well as those whose paintings are featured in the exhibition.

Want To Know More? Visit the **The Medici**, or **The Medici** and **The Borgias**, part of the **"Renaissance Personalities"** site done by the Grade 8 Humanities Class of Riverdale Junior High School, Whitehorse, Yukon. To learn more about the magnificent art and architecture of Flornece visit **The Florence Art Guide**. Check Out At Your Library: The Renaissance by Andrew Langley (Grade 4+) and What Life Was Like: At The Rebirth of Genuis by Time-Life Books (Grade 7+). Something To Think About: The Medici and the Borgias were powerful and influential families of the Renaissance who through business, marriages, and a generosity to the arts established themselves as powerful and influential forces in their world. Can you think of other families throughout history who were similar to the Medici and the Borgias?
The copyright of the article Two Families of the Renaissance in **History For Children** is owned by Meg Greene Malvasi. Permission to republish Two Families of the Renaissance in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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The copyright of the article Two Families of the Renaissance in **History For Children** is owned by Meg Greene Malvasi. Permission to republish Two Families of the Renaissance in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.