Lorenzo il Magnifico admiring Michelangelo’s Faun, by Ottavio Vannini

Digging out an old faun’s tooth

THE RENAISSANCE was the golden age of European history where humanistic studies, engineering development, scientific inventions and artistic achievements all happened almost at once. It produced men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Niccolo Machiavelli who were equally competent as artists, civil engineers, scientists, diplomats, social commentators, poets and scholars.

Chief in that stellar group was Lorenzo the Magnificent, head of the Medici banking family and unofficial head of the government of Florence. He was also an enthusiastic patron of scholars, artists, architects and musicians. When Michelangelo was a boy, Lorenzo recognised his genius, and supported him financially for four years.

An incident that Lorenzo loved to relate was his first meeting with the 13-year-old artist then studying in a school Lorenzo founded. Here’s the account in The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert:

“It was while making a copy of one of these antiquities – the head of an old faun – that Michelangelo is said to have first come to Lorenzo’s notice. Although this was the first, Michelangelo succeeded in copying the faun so well that Lorenzo was amazed. Then, when he saw that Michelangelo had departed a little from the model and followed his own fancy in hollowing out a mouth for the faun and giving it a tongue and all its teeth, Lorenzo laughed and said, ‘But don’t you know old people never have all their teeth; there are always some missing.’

“As soon as Lorenzo had gone away, Michelangelo broke off one of the faun’s teeth and dug into the gum so that it looked as if the tooth had fallen out; and he waited anxiously for Lorenzo to come back. After he had seen the result of Michelangelo’s simplicity and skill, Lorenzo laughed at the incident more than once and used to tell it to his friends. He resolved that he would help and favour the young Michelangelo; and first he sent for his father, Lodovico, and asked whether he could have the boy, adding that he wanted to keep him as one of his own sons.

“Lodovico willingly agreed, and then Lorenzo arranged to have Michelangelo given a room of his own at the Palazzo Medici and looked after him as one of the Medici household.”

Beauty of the Tuscan landscape

Lorenzo was also a poet, although this aspect of him was little known. His writing was in his Tuscan vernacular, not scholarly Latin, and his subjects were of the earth, earthy. Christopher Hibbert wrote:

“He wrote devotional poems, as his mother had done, and blasphemous parodies which would have distressed her; he wrote hunting songs and love songs, exuberant canzoni a ballo, carefree burlesques and libidinous canti carnascialeschi, like the Song of the Fir Cone Sellers, celebrating the delights of sexual passion and physical love.

“Above all, his feeling for the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, and for the pleasures and hardships of the life of country people, is expressed with an extraordinarily vivid intensity.

“He writes of flocks of bleating sheep migrating to upland pastures, the lambs trotting in their mothers' steps, the shepherds carrying lambs just born and lame sheep on their shoulders; and of these flocks at night, enclosed by lines of poles and nets, with the shepherds snoring in the darkness after their meal of bread and milk; of cranes flying towards the setting sun, and falcons swooping down upon their prey; of olive groves beside the sea, their leaves turning now grey, now green as the breeze blows across the shore; of the sparks from a flint in dry autumn leaves lighting brushwood, of flames spreading to the forest trees, burning bushes and lairs from which terrified birds and animals flee in a clatter of wings and pounding hoofs; of winter scenes of tall firs, black against the snow, frozen leaves crackling underfoot; of the hunted deer making its last desperate leap; the patient ox struggling with its burden of stones; and the exhausted bird falling into the sea, frightened to settle on the mast of a ship; of the River Ombrone in flood, its yellow waters cascading down the mountainside, carrying trunks and boughs of old ilex trees and the planks of a peasant’s shed across the wide plain; and of the peasant's wife, her baby crying on her back, running with their cattle from the rising floods.”

Lorenzo believed strongly in learning and funded generously the Universities of Pisa and Florence. 

He died on April 8, 1492. He was only 43. In his last few years he suffered badly from gout, like Henry VIII of England and many other prominent men of the Renaissance. Gout, pain and premature dying were a small price to pay for the good food, good wine and other indulgences of life.

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