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Mad at the Medicis

1.

When does it become justifiable to kill a political leader? Lorenzo de’ Medici, otherwise known as Il Magnifico, was the acknowledged if unofficial ruler of the city-state of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492. If he might be accused of being a tyrant, he was certainly not a monster. He could not be compared with his close ally, the debauched despot Galeazzo Maria Sforza, duke of Milan, who was assassinated in 1476. If his expansionist policies threatened the small independent towns around Florence, this was the norm for the time and no more than was expected of him. Lorenzo wrote fine poetry, maintained and built up the Medici family’s extraordinary art collection, and was a brilliant conversationalist and diplomat.

In April 1478 a rival Florentine family, the Pazzi, tried to assassinate Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano at Mass in the Florence Duomo. They got Giuliano but failed to kill Lorenzo and were themselves overwhelmed in the bloodbath of revenge that followed. History has given them a bad press. In his new book, April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medici, the highly respected historian of the Italian Renaissance Lauro Martines sets out to find justifications for the Pazzi. Though he draws no analogies with modern or other times, the larger issue of the morality of political assassination is inevitably made present to the reader.

Only twenty when he came to power, Lorenzo was the third Medici to dominate Florence. The regime began with his grandfather, Cosimo, in 1434 and was thus thirty-five years old when his father, Piero, died of gout in 1469. On the December evening after Piero’s death about seven hundred citizens met in the convent of Sant’Antonio and agreed that the “reputation and greatness” of the Medici family must be preserved. “By which they mean,” explained the ambassador of Ferrara to his lord, “that the secret things of this government will pass through Lorenzo’s hands as before through his father’s.”

About two years before this, Marco Parenti, a quiet opponent of the Medici, gave up trying to write a history of the period because of “the difficulty of knowing the truth when those who govern keep things secret.” The Florentines, it seems, often used the expression, “the secret things of our town.” Yet officially Florence was a republic with a written constitution dating back two hundred years. What was it that had to be kept secret and why? To grasp the motives behind the Pazzi’s attempt to eliminate the Medici, we have to look at a process that had been developing over many years.

The Florentine constitution worked, or was supposed to work, like this. The city was governed by a signoria comprising nine men, that is, eight priori, or magistrates, led by a gonfaloniere della giustizia, a sort of first minister. However, each signoria served only for two months and its members were not elected by popular vote but chosen by lot, their names being drawn from a series of bags prepared in such a way that there would be two priori from each quarter of the town, and that six of the eight would be from the more important guilds, in short the wealthier classes, and two from the minor guilds, the artisan classes. A certain limited representativeness was thus guaranteed.

Aided by two consultative committees, the sixteen gonfalonieri and the twelve buonomini, the signoria initiated all legislation, but this then had to be ratified by two larger councils, the consiglio del popolo and the consiglio del comune, each made up of about two hundred members and serving for four months. All these bodies and many others too were, like the government, elected by drawing lots from a range of bags, each with its hundreds of name tags of men from different quarters and guilds.

The inspiration behind such a constitution should already be clear. Everybody—or everybody considered eligible—would serve in government for a brief period, but nobody would dominate. The system did not allow for the existence of the professional politician or the political party. Indeed, political association of any kind was forbidden and political gatherings, whether in private or in public, were banned. Strictly speaking, insofar as it was not religious but political, the meeting of Medici supporters the night after Piero’s death was illegal.

What happened, then, when conflicting opinions led to impasse, when the government, for the most part elected from the patrician class, insisted on passing legislation that the two consigli with their wider representation insisted on rejecting? In a crisis, the signoria could summon a “parliament” (parlamento). That is, a bell was rung, inviting the city’s entire adult male population to gather in the Piazza della Signoria in the heart of the town; a proposal was then read out, usually recommending the formation of a balia, a legislative body wielding unlimited powers for a limited period; the balia would then resolve the impasse, and since its members were selected by the signoria, it would obviously do so in their favor.

But what if the parliament voted against the signoria‘s recommendations? Throughout the fifteenth century no parliament did so. For it was at the parliament that “the secret things of the town” came briefly and brutally into the open. The citizens arrived in the piazza to find it surrounded by armed men, often foreigners, always summoned there by the government of the day. A yes vote was guaranteed. Like many other republics and democracies before and since, fifteenth-century Florence was characterized by a fatal gap between rhetoric and reality: for “parliament” read “coup d’état.”

At once utopian and repressive, the constitution sought to eliminate the natural tendency to form groups for political purposes in the pessimistic belief that no group would ever act on behalf of the whole town, but would always be seeking to further the interests of a particular family or social category. Indeed, there is an obvious correlation between the republic’s setting up of a special police force—“the agents of the night”—to pursue homosexuals or young women who broke regulations on public modesty by wearing platform shoes, perhaps, or too many buttons, and its determination to stamp out political parties. This was a radically Christian society where everything was seen in terms of good and evil and the only respectable answer to evil was to repress, never accommodate. All the same, it proved hard to recruit the agents of the night from Florence itself, and this for the simple reason that in a fairly small town of 45,000 people no one wanted to become unpopular for harassing acquaintances. Evil or not, homosexuals abounded, girls were fatally attracted to anything that might enhance their charms, and political factions thrived, indeed they ran the show. In its very idealism, the constitution was ill-equipped to deal with reality.

Thus in the early decades of the fifteenth century, the two-monthly governments were largely guided in their decisions by the members of the traditionally powerful Albizzi family and their clients and friends. In the early 1430s the faction’s dominance was threatened by the rapidly accumulating wealth of the Medici bank and in particular Cosimo de’ Medici’s use of that wealth to acquire friends in every part of the society. Big money has a way of seeking to buy what cannot or should not be bought, be it a place in heaven or power in government. Cosimo wanted both and was charming and generous as well. At the same time the lively interest of humanist scholars in the history of the classical world was turning up a wealth of political figures who had been great leaders without the benefit of royal blood. A heady procession of new historical models was becoming available to men like Cosimo, models for whom the Florentine constitution was quite unsuited.

Military defeat and drastic tax hikes put the Albizzi faction on the defensive and precipitated a crisis. But since officially the city was not ruled by faction there was no legal way in which power could be transferred from one group to another. “Every case that came before the magistrates, even the least, was reduced to a contest between the parties,” Machiavelli tells us in his Florentine Histories, though officially no parties existed. Finally, Rinaldo Albizzi persuaded a favorable signoria to call a parliament, create a balia, accuse Co-simo of treason, and have him and his allies exiled. A year later, though, with Albizzi fortunes at a new low, the luck of the draw turned up a signoria favorable to Cosimo. He was recalled and promptly had all his enemies exiled.

This seesawing of political fortunes dependent on the selection of government by lot had an element of farce about it, grim farce for those on the losing side. Understandably, Cosimo set about making sure that he would not have to pack his bags again. Over the next thirty years, through a series of cautious experiments and ad hoc electoral measures he sought to subvert the republic in such a way that the electoral bags would never again throw up a signoria opposed to his interests. On the other hand, he never actually abolished the business of choosing the names of the government from electoral bags; nor did he seek to become the city’s official prince or dictator. In a fragmented Italy where, centuries before other Western nations, the idea of a divine right of kings had ceased to carry conviction, Cosimo was one of the first to understand that to hold power for any length of time one must appear not to hold it; or rather, all power must now seem to have the new legitimacy of popular consensus. It had become important for the Florentines, as it is important for us today, to imagine that they shared as equals in a process of collective self-government.

Cosimo would do everything he could to preserve that illusion. His reforms concentrated on the electoral lists that decided which names would be put in which bags for which appointments, and then in exploiting moments of military or economic crisis to claim special powers that allowed a small group of bureaucrats to select just a very few names (rather than hundreds) to be put in the bags for each government election. Meantime the city’s registers went on recording what was now a charade of a lottery as if nothing had changed.

Inevitably, there was popular resistance to this and new, often bewilderingly complicated, tricks had to be invented with a certain frequency. In one debate among members of the regime over whether they must give way to popular pressure and return to the real lottery system, Cosimo agreed that the concession seemed inevitable but was at a loss to understand how it might best be done while preserving the regime. In any event, he warned, “the greatest attention must be paid to the technical aspects.” Whenever, in a democracy, we see our nervous rulers obsessed with “the technical aspects” of the electoral process—in Florida in 2001, for example—then we know we are getting close to what Florentines called “the secret things of our town.”

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