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.”


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.

This Issue

May 1, 2003