Some Paradise

Ingrid Rowland

  • April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medici by Lauro Martines
    Cape, 302 pp, £17.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 224 06167 4

It is above all the city’s Renaissance art and architecture that draws visitors to Florence. Those calming vistas were no less precious in the 15th century when they were erected against the disorder that plagued the real Florence: the violent, chaotic city that Lauro Martines has brought to life in April Blood, a history of the conspiracy that very nearly took the life of the young Lorenzo de’ Medici before he had a chance to become the ‘Magnifico’ of legend. Martines describes his book as a work of political history, but April Blood is most compellingly political in that it tells the story of a polity, a city state, poised between the last days of a constitutional republic and the republic’s takeover by a dynasty of merchant bankers bent on becoming lords.

Two people assured that takeover over the course of three generations stretching across most of the 15th century: Cosimo de’ Medici, the wily banker who procured himself the ancient Roman title of Pater Patriae, even as he undermined the fatherland’s constitution and circumvented its laws; and his precocious grandson Lorenzo, whose charm, sustained by military force, created a legend of enlightened patronage that belied the parlous state of his finances and those of the city he aimed to rule. Still, the imposition of the Medicean dictatorship onto a free republic did not come easily. Cosimo would suffer exile in 1433, in the prime of his life; and Martines shows how damning this punishment could be, both socially and financially, to a Renaissance man (he also devotes several chilling discussions to Renaissance women and their ever narrowing sphere of independence). Lorenzo was nearly killed in 1478, at the age of 29, by the ambush that provides the anchor for Martines’s book. Yet in 1478, as had also been the case in 1434, a little rigging of local elections, a little diplomacy, some well-placed shock troops and an outrageous capacity to make cold assessments of human nature were enough to turn each man’s misfortune around and make him master of Florence, without benefit of constitution and with only the occasional benefit of elective office.

The failure of the Pazzi Conspiracy gave Lorenzo the perfect excuse to impose authoritarian rule over the remnants of the Florentine Republic. The Pazzi (the literal meaning of their name is ‘crazies’) were an old Florentine family that still nursed ideas of republican government, the system under which they had managed to amass their fortune and engage artists like Filippo Brunelleschi and Andrea Della Robbia to create their strange, sumptuous chapel next to the Franciscan church of Santa Croce. By 1478, three Pazzi patriarchs were encouraged by the unstable political situation in Florence to consider wresting the institutions of government from Medici hands: the old pilot of Medici ambitions, Cosimo, was dead, as was his son Piero, and the next generation, Lorenzo and Giuliano, were young and vulnerable. After secret negotiations with the Pope and the King of Naples, the Pazzi and their allies decided to kill Lorenzo and his brother during Mass in the city’s vast cathedral, a ceremony scheduled to be conducted by Pope Sixtus IV’s nephew Raffaele Riario, a cardinal. As Martines shows, churches were by no means off-limits as locations for murder: the slaying of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral might have passed almost without notice in Italy. Indeed, the Pazzi chose as their signal to act the moment when Cardinal Riario elevated the Host: that is, the precise instant when, according to the Catholic faith that the Pazzi shared with everyone else in the cathedral that day, the Holy Spirit entered the Host to transform it into the real body and blood of Jesus Christ.

As it turned out, the conspiracy succeeded only by half: the conspirators dispatched Giuliano on the spot, but Lorenzo was only wounded: he escaped into the sacristy, and summoned the troop of Milanese mercenaries he had stationed outside the city. As the Pazzi now discovered, Lorenzo may have been young, but he was as hardheaded a warrior as the mercenaries among whom he had grown up: the handsome brutes Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan and Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini. For the next ten years, Lorenzo would contrive savage revenge on his enemies, always in public, always in the most humiliating way possible. It took Il Magnifico a decade to complete the vendetta, but as Martines remarks, the dish of revenge is best eaten cold.

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