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Very good, but not quite as brilliant as its subject
on July 4, 2008
Sometimes, it seems to me that it would take a committee to produce an adequate biography of Lorenzo de' Medici. He was a many-sided jewel of a man, flashing his facets in so many directions that no single author could be the master of all of them. He was a sportsman, diplomat, political boss, essayist, poet, musician and connoisseur of all the arts. On the personal level he was a dutiful husband and loving father of a large family; he also had a reputation as man with a voracious appetite for extra-marital sex. Some 2,000 of his letters survive, along with more than 20,000 addressed to him by people from all over Europe: ambassadors, popes, princes, dukes, kings and their consorts, as well as friends and ordinary people from all walks of life. The sheer volume of material by and about Lorenzo is overwhelming.
Although Unger doesn't devote a lot of space to Lorenzo's personal life, he suggests/speculates that several of Il Magnifico's lovers were male, which could be true, but this is impossible to prove or disprove, and the author doesn't really make a case for his claim. One of the possible male lovers he mentions is the poet Luigi Pulci, who was many years older than Lorenzo, which in the sexual "etiquette" of that era would have made him the dominant partner. But given that he was a Medici client and Lorenzo's social inferior, it seems unlikely he could have played that role with Lorenzo. As for Lorenzo's friend Braccio Martelli-- he seems to have been vigorously heterosexual, and nothing Unger notes by or about him suggests a sexual interest in men, but who knows? Poet-scholar Angelo Poliziano is a definite maybe: he never married; there is some evidence he preferred men to women, and he was deeply, almost slavishly, devoted to Lorenzo.
Doing justice to such a complex and many-sided life in a single volume intended for the general reader would be a tall order for any writer, and I suspect that scholars of Renaissance history in general and the Medici in particular will look down their noses at this effort, although they'll no doubt envy Unger his lively writing style. A large majority of his sources are in English, thus ignoring much of the voluminous biography available in Italian. Furthermore, the author makes very little use of archival materials (only two such sources are cited, both available on-line).
Worst of all, for this reader at least, the book has no footnotes. Although there are some notes annoyingly appended to the bottom of some pages, and other notes hidden at the back but not indicated in the text, many sources for the facts (if they are indeed facts) presented are undocumented and may leave even the general reader wondering where the information came from. For example, on pages 216-217 the author mentions the birth dates of Lorenzo's children. Several of those dates differ from the dates given by other writers, so it would be interesting to know the source of Unger's information on this topic.
The decision not to use "real" footnotes-- the kind that appear as superscript numbers in the text--was the publisher's rather than the author's decision (according to the Comment added by the author to this post), and I think it was an unfortunate choice. Commercial publishers apparently feel that general readers will be so put off by footnote numbers in the text that they won't read the book; hence the use of notes that are NOT indicated in the text, so that when readers want to know the source for a statement, they have to flip to the back and see whether or not this particular item has a source given.
But despite these criticisms (which may not matter to most readers) this is a very well written and absorbing narrative. The books is full of penetrating insights into Lorenzo's personality and character. Unger is especially good at telling the various dramatic stories that punctuate Lorenzo's life. He emphasizes the political side of Lorenzo, however, perhaps to the detriment of the many other aspects of his life. I would have liked to have read more about Lorenzo's poetry and other literary works; seen more attention to his patronage of music and musicians, and perhaps read more about his complicated love-life, commented on by many of his contemporaries. But this would have made an already lengthy book too long for a single volume.
It's perhaps unfair to judge this work by the standards of scholarly biography, since it's not intended for an academic audience. As it stands, this is by far the best biography of Lorenzo de' Medici available today.