The experience of the greatest of the Medici patrons shows how true creativity blooms.
At the age of 20, Lorenzo the Magnificent was the most powerful and wealthiest man in 15th century Europe. His father, Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, had recently died and left him the Medici bank along with the reins of the Florentine government.
But Lorenzo wasn’t exclusively interested in power, ruling, or even political intrigues. Growing up, Lorenzo was surrounded by administrators, bankers, and courtiers, but also by great poets such as Luigi Pulci and Agnolo Poliziano. From his father he inherited a taste for art; from his mother, a love of poetry and sonnets.
Lorenzo was the target of an assassination attempt and was even forced into exile at one point. He still managed to consistently support the arts by funding a number of aspiring artists, writers, musicians and architects. He had the privilege of introducing the world to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, among others.
By exploring Lorenzo’s patronage we can learn not just about generosity and sponsorship, but about how to inspire real creativity and talent.
Here are four ways, drawn from the experiences of Lorenzo, that you can get the best out of your ‘creatives’:
1. Look for creative thinking, not creative temperaments.
Lorenzo first observed Michelangelo work when he was a teenager. Michelangelo, along with other youths, was sculpting a copy of a statue of a faun. Lorenzo noticed Michelangelo’s skill, but saw that he was taking creative license by giving the faun a full set of teeth and a tongue. Lorenzo commented that an old faun shouldn’t have all its teeth, and departed. Michelangelo took the remark in stride and knocked out a few teeth from his faun’s head. Next time Lorenzo strolled through the class, he saw Michelangelo’s handiwork and decided to sponsor him.
Lorenzo not only witnessed Michelangelo’s craft, but his ability to be clever and malleable under pressure. Faced with Lorenzo’s rebuke, Michelangelo could very well have grown despondent and temperamental. Instead he took Lorenzo’s statement as a creative challenge and attacked it with verve.
Leaders should cultivate talent that works creatively within challenges and doesn’t sulk when confronted with difficulty or criticism.
2. Be creative yourself.
Lorenzo wasn’t the most successful of poets. Still, he wrote parodies, love songs, devotional poems, and essays about the beauty of Tuscany.
Lorenzo knew how hard creativity and true artistic expression can be. Because he tried his hand at the arts, he knew that writing good poetry or capturing a moment in time with paint was a monumental task. As such, Lorenzo respected the work of creative people and was eager to help them.
Leaders should attempt to engage in creative thinking themselves, the better to understand its headaches.
3. Always involve creatives.
Lorenzo didn’t simply give his artists money. He invited them into his house as guests. Michelangelo lived under Lorenzo’s roof for three years and rubbed shoulders with the great minds and artists of Europe. At meal times, those who came in first could sit near Lorenzo, regardless of rank or position within his family. Michelangelo not only learned about the history of sculpting and painting, but about statecraft, Latin, and religion.
Leaders shouldn’t treat creatives like outliers. They should bring them into the fold and involve them in day-to-day business and routine discussions. This type of involvement will force creatives to meet a wider variety of people and will help them develop new, bold ideas.
4. Protect your creatives and your creative atmosphere.
Lorenzo motivated Michelangelo to learn from the other artists in residence with him. Notably, Michelangelo studied under Bertoldo di Giovanni, an old pupil of Donatello. This irked Pietro Torrigiano, a sculptor three years Michelangelo’s senior, who also took instruction from Bertoldo. Pietro was jealous of Michelango’s rising star and his impressive talent.
The young boys worked side by side, but eventually their rivalry exploded into a fight. Pietro punched Michaelangelo, breaking his nose and leaving it permanently flattened. Lorenzo immediately banished Pietro from Italy. He couldn’t stomach violence in his creative sanctuary.
Leaders must work diligently to ensure the perseveration of a creative atmosphere. If jealousies, infighting, and internal debate run riot in an organization, creativity will be trapped. Talented people will be reluctant to speak out and express themselves lest they face blowback.
The patronage of the Medicis left a lasting impression on both the artistic and corporate worlds. Their example has inspired wealthy corporations across the globe to enrich their communities through artistic projects and new, bold architecture.
But the Medici family also taught us how to generate, fuel, and encourage creativity. Toward the end of his life, Lorenzo figured that his family spent 663,000 florins (about $460 million in today’s dollars) funding the arts, paying taxes, and constructing new buildings.
He writes, “I do not regret this for though many would consider it better to have a part of that sum in their purse, I consider it to have been a great honour to our state, and I think the money was well-expended and I am well-pleased.”
SAMUEL BACHARACH is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. @samuelbacharach