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Mad at the Medicis


Because of the extent of Medici power in the mid-fifteenth century, as the family bank reached its maximum wealth and Cosimo the height of his considerable manipulative powers, it has been suggested that the position of the citizen of Florence was much the same as that of the subjects of the surrounding principalities. This was not the case. Equally powerless, the Florentine was nevertheless mocked, or flattered, by the rhetoric of freedom and legality. He could not bow before his monarch in dignified fashion, saying “This is God’s will”; nor, alternatively, could he tell himself “This man is a usurper and I only bow down because brute force obliges me to.” The regular electoral process, the continuing existence of the consiglio del popolo and the consiglio del comune, fired the Florentine imagination with ideals of political freedom which remained forever frustrated. Hence a very special state of mind developed: a fizz of excited and idealistic political thought constantly frothing over the intransigent reality of protracted if veiled dictatorship. This special state of mind, the exhilaration and humiliation of a fake democracy, at once so relevant to the modern world and so difficult to pin down, is the real subject of April Blood and the key to understanding the Pazzi conspiracy.

Between Cosimo’s return to Florence in 1434 and his great-grandson Piero di Lorenzo’s flight from the city in 1494 there were three serious challenges to the Medici regime, each ending in a parliament in the Piazza della Signoria, the appointment of a balia with unlimited powers, and a new turn of the screw. In 1458 a challenge to Medici power was launched through legal institutions in line with the constitution. The regime survived, but at the high price of showing itself for what it was. Troops from Milan were marched into town to keep order during a parliament. The gloves were off.

In 1466, two years after Cosimo’s death, key members of his regime joined the opposition and were now determined to take control of the state from his ailing son, Piero, who was paralyzed by gout. Insofar as they used the city’s constitutional arrangements against him, they did so by manipulating them in much the way that they had manipulated them for his father. It is hard to gauge how much seriousness to ascribe to each man’s claims that he was acting for freedom and republicanism. Perhaps all they wanted was to redraw the electoral lists so as to guarantee a patrician oligarchy, since the older Florentine families had always loathed the Medici habit of bringing in “vile new men” who would be loyal to the ruling family in return. In any event, this crisis ended with both sides appealing to foreign powers for military aid, but whereas the opposition was divided and uncertain over the use of force, the bedridden Piero was surprisingly determined and efficient. The Medici won the day, the “conspirators” were exiled.

These two failures serve to explain why, in launching the third challenge to Medici power in 1478, the Pazzi family made no attempt at all to work through any public institutions. There was no point. With the Medici bank now in drastic decline, perhaps because of a general downturn in trade, perhaps because of Lorenzo’s incompetence, the Medici were no longer in a position to buy support with a constant flow of gifts; and so they tightened their stranglehold on the electoral machinery as the only way of staying in power. The point had now been reached where, in a simulacrum of legality bolstered by constant propaganda, a group of Medici initiates voted for one another to serve all the legislative bodies without any threat of interference. You could join the group, but only if you offered unconditional support to the still young and arrogant Lorenzo, who was behaving more and more like a hereditary prince.

In his excellent and erudite book Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy, Lauro Martines made it clear that he would not allow the traditional enthusiasm for Renaissance art to cloud his moral and political judgment. His considerable scholarship is always galvanized by an edge of personal engagement. So in April Blood he uses the melodrama of the attempt to assassinate Lorenzo in the Duomo in 1478 first in order to introduce a wider public to the subject of Florentine republicanism and then, more controversially, to defend those who were willing to pull out their knives rather than go on working with an authoritarian regime.

The events leading up to that bloody day make for an excellent narrative. The Pazzi family at the time consisted of an aging uncle, Jacopo, with no fewer than ten adult nephews associated in a complex web of international trading and banking activities remarkably similar to and frequently intertwined with those of the Medici. For the last thirty years the Medici had been indirectly responsible for promoting the Pazzi to positions of government, and Lorenzo’s sister Bianca had been married to one of the nephews, Guglielmo.

But in the late 1460s something went wrong and by the time the names of those eligible for the highest offices were reviewed in 1472, the Pazzi were clearly being discriminated against. In 1473, when Pope Sixtus IV tried to borrow from the Medici bank to buy the lordship of the town of Imola for his nephew, Girolamo Riario, Lorenzo refused, Imola being a possible object of Florentine expansionism. He warned the Pazzi bank to do likewise. The Pazzi, however, not only gave Sixtus the money but told him of Lorenzo’s warning. In 1474 the Pope retaliated by making Francesco Salviati, a close ally of the Pazzi, archbishop of Pisa, a town subject to Florence and eager to regain its independence. Offended, Lorenzo blocked Salviati’s entry into Pisa for more than a year.

Largely thanks to the Pazzi, Il Magnifico was now in open conflict with the Pope. Between 1474 and 1476 the Medici bank lost both its right to run the papal monopoly on the important trade in alum (a sulfate crucial for the textile industry) and its function as the Pope’s main banker. The Pazzi were given what the Medici lost. In 1477 Lorenzo hit back by interfering in a complex piece of inheritance legislation which effectively deprived one of the Pazzi nephews of a huge legacy. What is remarkable about the escalating quarrel, as Martines points out, is that the Pazzi should have been so bold as to take on the Medici regime, or so stupid as to commit political suicide in this way.

He finds an explanation in the character of Francesco de’ Pazzi. A small, choleric man, whose father reputedly died of drink and debauchery, Francesco was running the Pazzi bank in Rome and thus had the most to gain from the Pope’s favors while being poorly placed to observe Lorenzo’s real power. Perhaps prompted by the murder of the duke of Milan in 1476, Francesco had the idea of getting rid of the Medici and rapidly drew in Salviati, now in place as the archbishop of Pisa. He secured the services of Count Montesecco, a military commander for both the Pope and his nephew Girolamo Riario, now lord of Imola. The king of Naples approved the plot, and the Pope in person, knowing full well that the plan was to kill, gave his blessing “so long as no one is killed.” Back in Florence, the head of the Pazzi family, old uncle Jacopo, was not so easily persuaded, but as a notorious gambling man he eventually decided to join the conspiracy on the grounds that “Francesco has always been lucky.”

After various failed attempts to lure Lorenzo to Rome, the conspirators, nervous that their plot must soon be discovered, took advantage of the fact that the seventeen-year-old cardinal Raffaele Riario (nephew to the lord of Imola and great-nephew to the Pope, in short, nepotism incarnate) was visiting Florence. Armed men could be sent to the city as his escort. The Medici brothers had offered the cardinal lunch at their villa in Fiesole and they could be murdered there. But Giuliano didn’t turn up.

So the appointment with death would have to be at lunch a week later, after Sunday Mass, at Lorenzo’s palazzo where the juvenile cardinal was now invited to inspect Il Magnifico’s famous collection of cameos. On the day, however, it again appeared that Giuliano wouldn’t be eating with them. Desperate, the conspirators now agreed to do the deed at Mass, only minutes away. The change of plan was fatal. Count Montesecco, the most professional of the band and Lorenzo’s designated assassin, declared that he would not kill in church. His place was taken, ironically enough, by two priests. Meantime, an army of papal soldiers was within striking distance of the town and the bishop of Pisa with about thirty armed men from Perugia set off to take over the government building.

The conspiracy was both unnecessarily complicated and poorly prepared. The two priests failed to dispatch Lo-renzo. The archbishop failed to take over the government building, the Pa-lazzo della Signoria. The papal troops failed to show up and old Jacopo’s cries of “Liberty!” yelled from horseback failed to impress the Florentine crowd. All too soon the conspirators, the archbishop included, were being strung from the high windows of the government building, if they weren’t simply tossed into the piazza below. War broke out with Rome and Naples, Lorenzo was excommunicated, the Pazzi and their properties were pursued by the Medici for years, and the Medici regime eventually emerged much reinforced.

The story makes fascinating reading. But it is hard to imagine a chain of events more resistant to Martines’s desire to present the conspirators as noble republicans. The Pope and the king of Naples wanted to draw Florence away from Milan and into their sphere of influence. The Pazzi, in their determination to supplant the Medici bank in Rome, had reached a point where the only way back into Florentine politics was over Lorenzo’s grave. All the same, one contemporary commentator does come to Martines’s aid. The patrician Alamanno Rinuccini, an avid reader of classical history and a member of a rich family of bankers, with long experience in highest office under the Medici, to whom he dedicated various translations from the Greek, retired to his country villa in 1479 to write a Dialogue on Liberty in the classical style. In it he argued that in view of Medici tyranny the only thing an honest man could do was to withdraw from public life. Rinuccini spoke of the Pazzi as having undertaken “the just and honest task of liberating their country.” It has to be said, however, that Rinuccini had recently fallen out with Lorenzo and that his life savings were held in the Pazzi bank. Shortly after writing the dialogue, which he did not publish, he went back to Florence and served the Medici regime in a variety of public offices for many years.

Martines imagines the core of Rinuccini’s identity as being revealed in his dialogue on liberty while his public life was an unhappy charade, “helping to clean the face of a government which he condemned as criminal.” Similarly he identifies, rightly, a strong current of republican feeling running beneath the surface in Florence, but in thrall to Medici manipulations. Martines repeatedly insinuates that if only the Medici could have been eliminated, Florence would have enjoyed a freer, more productive, republican existence. It is on this point alone that one would wish to take issue with this intriguing book.

Every situation and character Martines presents to us in April Blood is of marvelous complexity: he writes of the learned Pope turned feverish nepotist, the hardened mercenary who will not kill in church, the lucid Lorenzo, who hates the Church’s nepotism and yet does everything he can to get his son made a cardinal; then we have the general picture of a religious age in love with transgression, of a republican citizenry avid for the trappings of hierarchy. It is as if every player in this story contained not one but, in differing degrees and according to the role destiny assigned them, all the contradictory impulses of the time, as if the Florentine constitution, with its obvious inadequacies, had been thought up precisely in order to be open to subversion.

In the end it is not hard to imagine Lorenzo the poet, deprived of power, becoming a most eloquent republican, and even easier to see Francesco de’ Pazzi in power as a dangerous tyrant. More generally, one has the constant suspicion that the people of fifteenth-century Florence, perhaps people in general, did not, do not, find it so difficult to be liberal and virtuous in private while having to toe an authoritarian line in public. This gave life an exciting tension, a sense of direction toward those brief and heady periods, as when after the departure of the Medici some real republican freedom was enjoyed. Fortunately neither the historian nor the reader is obliged to reach a verdict on either Francesco de’ Pazzi or Lorenzo il Magnifico. But it is a pleasure, and perhaps salutary, to reflect on possible analogies with the present time. Anachronistically, I imagine the Florentine patricians solving their problems by learning the trick of rotating apparently opposed but complicitous factions in power in response to the whims of a complacently enfranchised popolo anesthetized by mass media and consumer goods.

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