Lucrezia Tornabuoni…In the Light, In the Shadows – Guest Post by Robin Maxwell

Robin Maxwell is the author of many works of historical fiction, including “The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn,” “Signora Da Vinci,” and “O, Juliet.”

The moment I decided to retell the literary masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet” as an historical novel (O, JULIET), I found myself looking for a period and place to set it in, and historical figures with whom I could anchor it in reality.  I’d just finished SIGNORA DA VINCI, which was set in late fifteenth century Florence and peopled with the most astonishing array of individuals — men and women who shaped the Renaissance and, thus the modern world.  One of those characters was Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, beloved daughter-in-law of Cosimo de’ Medici (the Godfather of the Italian Renaissance) and mother to Lorenzo “the Magnificent” de’ Medici (under whose patronage the Renaissance came into full flower).

Lucrezia was eighteen in 1444, the year she married Piero de’ Medici, and that made her the perfect age, in a perfect condition, to be best friends with “my” Juliet, herself eighteen and on the verge of her own arranged marriage.  Girls back then were allowed little freedom to “hang out” with their girlfriends.  Trips to confession, visits on the occasion of a marriage, or groups of women making pilgrimages to local holy men were the limit of their outings.

Lucrezia, who came form one of the oldest and most respected Florentine families, brought a touch of nobility to the already immensely wealthy and powerful Medici banking clan.  Not much is known about Lucrezia’s education, thought it must have been a private one (there were no schools for girls) — with various tutors in Greek, Latin, mathematics, religion and philosophy.  Judging from the astute, cultured and open-minded woman she became, she must have been a phenomenal  student.  At a time when women, even wealthy ones, were barely allowed to leave their homes, Lucrezia de’ Medici led a remarkably accomplished life.

First, of course, she was a wife and mother.  Deeply beloved by all, she raised four children to maturity, one of whom (Lorenzo) who became the greatest ruler of his day. Two of her grandsons became pope.  Addressed as “Your Magnificence,” she co-ruled Florence with her ailing husband, Piero (“The Gouty”), and later with Lorenzo.  She was a businesswoman, founding a thermal spa in the countryside and hospitals in four cities.  She was given the unusual right (for a woman) to distribute income from Medici properties to her favorite charities.  Lucrezia invested her own money in building projects, wielded authority over political positions, marital arrangements, and political alliances.  She was one of the most famous patrons of the arts in the fifteenth century, even adopting Andrea Botticelli as her own son (he lived in the Palazzo Medici).
Then there was her creative life.  Lucrezia was lauded in her own time for writing sonnets, hymns set to popular music, and several long narrative poems about female biblical figures.  She was widely believed to be deeply and conventionally pious, but my research for SIGNORA DA VINCI revealed Lucrezia to be a faithful supporter of her son Lorenzo and he presided as the most powerful patron of the “Florentine Platonic Academy.”  This secret society promulgated research and study of non-Catholic spiritual enlightenment, Hermeticism, Egyptian magic and alchemy — all considered heretic activities.

As I observed in SIGNORA DA VINCI, there was a “Shadow Renaissance” going on in Florence beneath the glossy surface of art and architecture that one normally associates with the period.  And living at the center of that world, as Lorenzo’s helpmate, Lucrezia de’ Medici has, to my mind, a “shadow” aspect as well.  Here is a quote from a clergyman in the Church of San Lorenzo, written to her son Lorenzo, weeks after Lucrezia’s death:

“…She advised the most important people as well as the magistrates concerning matters of grave importance.  And the most humble people were admitted to her presence and all of them left happy and content.  But you know all this better than I, as you did nothing without consulting her, as she did nothing without asking your opinion.”
There is no one woman of the period who shines as brightly as she.  Lucrezia de’ Medici is, indeed, the Godmother of the Renaissance.

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