Mad at the Medicis

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 …

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