The Pazzi Conspiracy

In April of 1478, a group of conspirators headed by members of the Pazzi family attempted to assassinate Lorenzo de' Medici. They succeeded in killing his younger brother, Giuliano, but the big fish got away. Thinking quickly and throwing every lever of power at his disposal, Lorenzo the Magnificent crushed the conspiracy, executed most of the conspirators, and transformed the incident into a stepping stone to even greater dominion over Florence. Because both his son, Giovanni, and his bastard nephew, Giulio, would wear the papal tiara in the early sixteenth century, and because his great-grandson, Alessandro, became the first in a line of Medici dukes of Tuscany, Lorenzo has achieved a retrospective legitimacy that he never enjoyed in his lifetime, and of course his reputation has also been burnished by the coincidence of his 'reign' with the High Renaissance. But his position in Florence in the 1470s was dubious at best. Although Medicean propaganda denounced the Pazzi conspiracy as an act of lèse-majesté - an offense against the sovereignty taking the form of an assault (or worse) on the person of the sovereign - the charge couldn't stick, because Lorenzo, however powerful, was not a sovereign. Indeed, he often held no office whatsoever in the years between his father's death in 1469 and his own in 1492. Thanks to arrangements made by his wily grandfather, Cosimo, Lorenzo was able to run Florence as what now looks like a Mafia operation only slightly less illegitimate than Al Capone's.

Florence was nominally a republic, governed by a body of Lord Priors that rotated every six months, chosen by lot from 'purses' containing the names of eligible citizens. Similarly chosen were members of the war-office council of Ten, the civil justice council of Eight, and the officials of the Monte, as the Florentine public debt was known. The underlying idea was clearly to give every man of substance the opportunity to participate in government. But reliance on lottery proved a very weak link in the Florentine constitution. Put very simply, the Medici controlled the government by 'scrutinizing' the names of eligible citizens - and rejecting those who were unreliable or opposed to the regime. Florentine administration thereby became, by the late 1430s, a puppet government under Medici control. The ultimate source of Medici power, however, was the grudging complicity of the Florentine patriciate, which had tired of the civil disturbances that plagued the republic throughout the previous century. The Pazzi, no less illustrious than the Medici - perhaps rather more illustrious, given their pretence to heroics in the First Crusade - might well have joined in this consent. Indeed, they appeared to do so. Bianca de' Medici, Lorenzo's sister, married Guglielmo de' Pazzi - and the marriage saved Guglielmo's life. His family's conspiracy was the condensation of growing disaffection with Medici hegemony, both at home and elsewhere in Italy.

Cosimo de' Medici preferred to work in the background, and would not have been happy with the sobriquet 'Magnificent,' but the extremely intelligent and superbly educated Lorenzo preferred to lead a very public life. He clearly saw himself as much more than the chief among equals that his grandfather had been. Indeed, his exaltation to a higher plane of life began with his betrothal to Clarice Orsini, the daughter of a cadet line of the august Roman family. This was unprecedented; hitherto, Florentines married other Florentines. Going 'abroad' for a wife was the sort of thing that a king or other hereditary ruler might do. Sure enough, Lorenzo married his eldest son, the untalented Piero II, to an even grander Orsini. But the clincher among Lorenzo's dynastic schemes was the marriage of his daughter, Maddalena, to the bastard son of Innocent VIII. The quid for this quo was a red hat for Lorenzo's son, Giovanni, who in 1513 would become Leo X. In the manner of monarchs everywhere, Lorenzo identified himself not with but as Florence.

Lauro Martines, the eminent historian of Renaissance Italy, has produced, in April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici (Oxford, 2003), an elegant case study that exploits the Pazzi Conspiracy to anatomize Florentine political life in its late medieval phase - which happens to be the Florence of the Renaissance. The regime of Lorenzo il Magnifico was pivotal in the transformation of a republic typical of late medieval Italy into a 'modern,' quasi-national duchy ruled by a hereditary dynasty. It is hard to say which kind of regime is less attractive to our way of thinking - the nominal republic hijacked by a godfatherish family or the autocracy of the sixteenth century, which, for all its faults, represents the earliest version of the contemporary nation-state. Professor Martines makes it very clear that Medicean corruption, far from ensuring an efficient government, provoked recurring uprisings and attempted coups. The Medicean regime was inherently unstable, and Florence would know little peace until higher powers put an end to the republic itself. Lorenzo would have been delighted by the outcome, but it was never in his power to bring it about.

The Pazzi Conspiracy throws a strong light on every aspect of Florentine politics, and Professor Martines is a proficient developer of the evidence, much of which remains in fifteenth-century folios. The overall portrait of upper-class Florence will surprise no one: the figures who people April Blood are colorful, hot-tempered, and fiercely clannish. They engage in conspicuous display not only for the sheer pleasure of doing so but also to signal their power. They have less trouble than we might reconciling lofty ideals with low-down expedients. One senses that they seized upon the newly-recovered classical patrimony because it gave shape and grandeur to their already strong oratorical inclinations. (Both the Pazzi and the Medici would make strenuous use of references to Catiline and Julius Caesar.) What makes April Blood important reading is its clear-eyed analysis of the political climate. The design of the Florentine Republic sought to counter the passions of its colorful, hot-tempered and clannish citizens. But it was too easily corrupted, and by fixing our view on the corruption at the heart of Medicean rule, Professor Martines exchanges our Romeo and Juliet understanding of Renaissance Italy with a that nastier world in which, for example, rich Florentines without strong Medicean connections could expect to see their fortunes evaporate beneath scorching taxation. 

Professor Martines examines the background of the Pazzi family in detail, so that we have a good sense of where the family's fortune came from, how it was distributed among sons and cousins, and how it led to rivalry with the Medici. He also evaluates the confession of one of the conspirators, which, not surprisingly, blames everyone else, even the Pope. The one chapter that I felt might have been shortened covers the meticulous auditing of the Pazzi wealth, all of which was confiscated by the state. The 'Pazzi War,' an expensive if inconclusive series of military encounters, makes livelier reading, if only because it came to an end when Lorenzo paid a surprise visit to Ferrante, King of Naples, and, buoyed by lavish gifts on all sides, charmed the Neapolitan Court into an alliance. The central chapters cover the plot itself, which ended up in the gruesome executions (by hanging, from high windows in the Palazzo Vecchio) of the principal conspirators, one of whom was the Archbishop of Pisa. A member of a prominent Florentine family, Francesco Salviati had secured the archbishopric over the objections of Lorenzo, who in turn was able to prevent the archbishop from occupying his see - one of the fatter seeds of the conspiracy. In what is not quite a tangent, Professor Martines has a look at the persistence of low-grade cannibalism in public executions. But the real subject of April Blood, from start to finish, is Don Lorenzo.

Professor Martines writes fluently, and the general reader will find April Blood engagingly informative. I'm afraid, though, that the book's most memorable passage, which sums up the conspiracy and its consequences in a single, eloquent paragraph, was written about five hundred years ago by the historian Francesco Guicciardini.

The [Pazzi] uprising ... so revived [Lorenzo's] name and fortunes that it may be said, most happy was that day for him! His brother Giuliano died, with whom he would have been forced to share his wealth, thus putting his great estate into question. His enemies were gloriously eliminated by the arms of government, and so too were the shadows and suspicions that he cast over Florence. The people took up arms for him ... and on that day, finally, they saw him as lord of the city. To guard [against attempts on] his life, he was granted the privilege of going about with as many armed servants as he chose. In effect, he all but made himself lord of state ... and the great and suspect power which he had exercised up to that point became much greater still, but now secure.

It is gracious of Professor Martines to insert this near-contemporary assessment at the climax of his book, when everything that he has already shared with the reader brings the impact of Guicciardini's passage home with a vengeance.


Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press

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