- Giovanni Lanfredini: Uomo d'affari e diplomatico nell'Italia del Quattrocento
Specialists regard Giovanni Lanfredini (1437–90) as a secondary, if influential, figure in the public life of later fifteenth-century Italy. While this thorough biography of the Florentine banker, diplomat, and friend of Lorenzo de' Medici confirms, rather than gives grounds for revising, this impression, it was a task very well worth undertaking. Elisabetta Scarton, the accomplished editor of Lanfredini's Neapolitan correspondence published six years ago, here exploits well the copious documentation the Florentine left behind him, as well as the mass of contextual material Italian archives provide, to create the satisfactory biography in the round she set out to accomplish. The book begins with a very helpful account of the Lanfredini family —a small patrician lineage of no great age or distinction —in the Quattrocento, and then methodically takes its most famous son through his decade as the representative of the Medici bank in Venice in the 1470s. First imprisoned in and then expelled by that city after the fall of the Medici bank, back in Florence Giovanni worked hard to make his way, above all by drawing ever closer to Lorenzo de' Medici. From 1484 he served Florence and his Medici master as ambassador in Naples and then Rome, where he died in early 1490.
If Lanfredini was neither a particularly remarkable nor admirable man —as Scarton' s meticulous analysis permits one to infer (perhaps against her own intentions) —his letters alone make us want to know him better. Always an eloquent correspondent, at his best he can be trenchant and mordant. "The times are crying out for more than religion," he writes of a young acquaintance contemplating a monastic career (235): "Time is money," he observes to Lorenzo de' Medici on another occasion, so beating Benjamin Franklin to the gun by several centuries (126). Giovanni the letter writer had indeed the capacity to draw from Lorenzo, one of the greatest contemporary practitioners of the art, some of his better lines. "I feel myself come into some strange labyrinth," he confesses to Lanfredini not long after the Pazzi conspiracy (113). When Giovanni himself was prostrated with grief at the death of his teenage son Orsino (who had killed himself by an overzealous devotion to Venus, according to one contemporary), Lorenzo tells him to hold fast and trust "in God and your friends, who will never fail you" (310).
Many readers may be most interested in what Lanfredini' s life can tell us about the wider society in which he maneuvered. The fine detail one finds concerning his banking career in Venice, and the unhappy fortunes of the Medici bank —an analysis illuminated at every point by reference to his letters —adds up to a telling portrait of how a banker thought and calculated in the embattled atmosphere of the late Quattrocento. This account also reveals Lorenzo to have been better informed about, and somewhat more involved in, his family's commercial affairs than one had believed. Later, as Florentine orator, Giovanni continued to express his own mercantile impulses, to the disapproval of several of [End Page 872] his Laurentian colleagues. Whereas most scholars take for granted the minutiae of diplomatic life at the time, Scarton provides interesting detail on the formalities and quotidian routines of ambassadorial service in the Italian courts of the 1480s.
Giovanni was above all a quintessential "instrument" of Lorenzo (the latter's word, 315), at heart an apolitical man of shrewd intelligence who from around 1469 threw in his lot with Florence's dominant family for the sake of his own survival, not to say advancement, and to ensure the future of the Lanfredini, as he openly declared. Scarton, using their frank epistolary exchanges, gives an unusually precise account of how and why such an alliance developed, and shows too how the Laurentian circle of which Lanfredini was a part made its collective decisions, for all that Lorenzo...