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.

The Medici were a ruthless, Machiavellian clan (Machiavelli, an inveterate republican, loathed them and was loathed by them in return). They already had a reputation in the 14th century for crudity, violence and ambition; they eliminated the crudity on their way to the top, while retaining the ambition and capacity for violence intact. Martines portrays this remarkable Florentine dynasty in their cruelty as well as their culture.

This alliance of violence and refinement was hardly unique to the Medici: it was endemic to the culture of the Italian Renaissance. Of the Medicis’ ally Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Martines asks rhetorically: ‘Might it be argued that a man . . . who spared no expense to hire some of the finest musicians of the age, in order to satisfy his love of music, could not possibly be a monster?’ The answer comes straightaway: ‘Not at all.’ Martines first addresses this apparent paradox more directly. Three of the Pazzi conspirators, he writes,

were executed in the castello before dawn on Thursday, 2 January 1477. Mounted on the so-called wheel, one of the most agonising of all the instruments of death, each was torn in half from groin to neck while still alive – not the sort of detail which historians like to ponder, though it says something about the morality of the age, about attitudes toward the body, justice and the sense of sin.

In a later chapter, he considers the Pazzi executions, and many others, as well as several instances of cannibalism, and concludes that in the Italian 15th century

the imagery of blood had a prominent place in the rituals of everyday life – in the spectacle of public executions, in the staged mutilation of criminals and the occasional sight of (or talk about) self-flagellants, and most especially in ubiquitous images of the bleeding Jesus Christ and martyred saints, as intoned in prayers or seen in the great splash of religious art.

(The gladiatorial combats and staged hunts that ancient Rome adopted from the Etruscans come to mind here.)

Although it is tightly focused on one political conspiracy, April Blood presents a synthesis of Martines’s studies over a long and distinguished career; it takes in Florentine social mores and concepts of law, and the importance of the arts to Renaissance manipulation of power – all of these themes explored in such earlier works as The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, Lawyers and Statecraft in Renaissance Florence and Power and Imagination. Long experience in the Florentine state archives gives Martines the confidence to bring out ideas that he calls ‘suggestive and provisional’ and to test them against a ready store of factual evidence. This willingness to suggest rather than declare is what lends April Blood its flair. Martines has always been a splendid writer, but here he writes with particular relish.

Italian city states, like the poleis of ancient Greece, seem to have been breeding grounds for competition, chicanery and treachery of every kind, as well as crucibles for great art and compelling ideas about human liberty. As Martines observes, humanism did not necessarily humanise the humanists, or the powerful magnates who sponsored their studies. Those handsome young men in velvet doublets and striped hose who strike coy, cocky poses in Renaissance paintings were quick with their knives and labile in their allegiances, close relatives of Romeo, Mercutio and – most of all – Tybalt. The blank, downcast gazes of the young women sculpted by Francesco Laurana and Verrocchio cannot entirely hide the arrogant curl of their lips. As she picks a wife from the Roman aristocracy for her 18-year-old son, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s mother notes that the designated bride, Clarice Orsini, is genuinely modest and hence does not carry herself with the upright bearing – or rather hauteur – of Lorenzo’s sisters. Not surprisingly in a society so conscious of physical beauty, surface was everything, from the face and figure of a prospective bride, to the gorgeous pageants staged on feast days, to the gruesome punishment of criminals and the empty flattery of sycophants, ambassadors and candidates.

April Blood recounts both (or, better, all) sides of the Pazzi Conspiracy with equal detachment, yet is written with passion. Martines communicates an unmistakable moral outrage at the Medicis’ abrogation of what most of his readers will take to be basic human rights. We have only to look at Michelangelo’s David, carved for the revived Florentine Republic in 1504, to know what it felt like to be rid of the Medici, and to appreciate the civic spirit their dynasty had subdued with its sinister charm.

Florentine civic spirit, like that of ancient Athens, was largely male; Florentine women exerted their influence through what academic historians like to call ‘family strategies’ – Martines more honestly describes this world as one of ‘social climbers’. Almost inevitably, marriage, the birth of children and those children’s eventual marriages marked the chief milestones in a woman’s life; and marriages, especially in the upper class, were arranged according to principles of social and economic bargaining that Martines explains in revealing detail. The most striking point of his discussion, however, is the way he connects it back to Lorenzo:

In casting his influence over the Florence of his day, the young Lorenzo de’ Medici turned himself into the city’s premier marriage broker: he became the godfather, so to speak, of its upper-class marriages. These family alliances were ventures in politics; men with status in public life were usually seeking more of the same; with the result, in Lorenzo’s case, that, after 1469, politics was to demand far more of his time and patronage than art or literary interests.

Here again Martines shows that he has absorbed a vast amount of recent scholarship, in this case on women, marriage and the family, but he has shifted the focus of these discussions, eliminated their commonplaces of thought and vocabulary, avoiding academic jargon. It is a subtle operation, and also one that is respectful of his peers: Martines’s ability to evaluate and apply their work almost redeems mountains of ponderous, hermetic prose on ‘the body’ and ‘family strategies’ by showing that it is possible to write about these things meaningfully and elegantly.

Like all the best historians, he makes no attempt to hide his passion for a good story, and April Blood revolves insistently around the individuals whose desires and hatreds went into the forging of the Pazzi Conspiracy. He punctuates his account with extended biographical profiles of three important players in the drama of 1478: Giannozzo Manetti, Tommaso Soderini and Alamanno Rinuccini, whose lives serve to illustrate the tangle of motives, personal, financial and political, that drove the Pazzi to rebel against the Medici. But the main protagonist of the story is always Lorenzo, the survivor of the Pazzi attack who turns that close encounter with death into the means of prevailing over it. The portrait that emerges is colder and harder than Lorenzo’s death mask.

If April Blood paints an accurate picture of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his sinister hold over Florence, why has Il Magnifico earned so luminous a reputation? In large part, of course, that reputation rests on the city’s sheer physical beauty; the Medici as a clan were particularly shrewd investors in the arts, especially after Cosimo procured the banishment of his chief rival in taste, Palla Strozzi, at the very beginning of his own career. Yet comparatively little of the beauty of Florence was of Lorenzo’s making: the city’s architectural personality was forged in the Middle Ages with the graceful Romanesque architecture of the Baptistry and San Miniato al Monte and the grandiose project for Florence Cathedral; these, and the Pantheon in Rome, are what inspired the style of Brunelleschi, by general agreement the first architect of the Renaissance. The chief building projects of the Medici – their palazzo on Via Larga, the church of San Lorenzo, the Dominican convent of San Marco – were all carried out under the patronage of Cosimo. Lorenzo himself lacked the money to pay for construction on this scale. The beauties of Florentine art, too, had already been expressed in the city’s medieval paintings, sculpture, goldsmithery and textiles, and were given new vitality under Cosimo’s patronage of such artists as Donatello and Fra Angelico. Verrocchio’s best work was executed for Florentine guildsmen and the Republic of Venice, not for the Medici lord. The best painters of Lorenzo’s day had to go to Rome to find work: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli and Cosimo Rosselli spent the early 1480s painting the walls of the Sistine Chapel for Lorenzo’s enemy Sixtus IV. Botticelli’s great painted allegories were made not for Lorenzo but for his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, whose sympathies lay as much with the Florentine Republic as with his cousin’s attempts to establish himself as a sovereign. The humanist movement in literature grew up with the Republic at the dawn of the 15th century; Lorenzo himself was a good poet who kept company with an even better one, the scholar Angelo Poliziano, but he would not pay for the services of the best musician of his era, Josquin Desprez, and settled instead for the less talented Heinrich Isaac.

Still, Lorenzo served as a convenient symbol for two subsequent Medici regimes, and that is why his reputation has survived in its present state. The first of these regimes was installed in 1512 by Lorenzo’s sons, Cardinal Giovanni (soon to be elected Pope Leo X) and Giuliano, and their cousin Cardinal Giulio, illegitimate son of the Giuliano slain by the Pazzi Conspiracy; Cardinal Giulio became Pope Clement VII in 1523 and thus retained the family’s hold on their native city. For these loyal relatives, Lorenzo the Magnificent was an obvious point of reference, and in obvious need of rehabilitation in Florence, Rome and the rest of the world.

Lorenzo’s second rehabilitation occurred in 1537, three years after the death of Clement VII and after another period of turmoil in Florentine government when the designated Medici heir proved incompetent. In a dazzling coup, a distant Medici cousin, aptly named Cosimo, assumed command of the city thanks to his training as a mercenary, and shortly revealed himself a brilliant administrator as well. By 1548, young Cosimo had obtained the title of Grand Duke from the Papacy, married a Spanish princess, and launched the Medici state as an out-and-out monarchy. Like old Cosimo before him, Grand Duke Cosimo secured his ascendancy by investing in the arts, and in this patronage the myth of Lorenzo the Magnificent once again became a central element. We can see its 17th-century expression in Giovanni da San Giovanni’s frescoes for the walls of the ground floor of the Pitti Palace (now part of the Museo degli Argenti), where Lorenzo, inter alia, welcomes the world’s philosophers to Florence and drinks with the Muses on Parnassus. Lorenzo’s magnificence has ever since been one with the magnificence of Florence.

Grand Duke Cosimo’s mother, Caterina Sforza, figured on the periphery of the Pazzi Conspiracy, and it is indicative of April Blood’s disciplined focus that Martines resists telling her story in full. Caterina’s husband, Girolamo Riario, was the last associate of the Conspiracy to be killed, in 1488: this is the murder that begins the book and prompts Martines to note that revenge is best eaten cold. Once Lorenzo had obtained that well-chilled revenge, he could afford to ignore the assassins’ pleas for clemency and Martines recounts how Caterina Sforza regained control of their fiefdom of Imola as Lorenzo looked on from Florence. The rest of Caterina’s astonishing story includes a series of young lovers (the last, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, the future Grand Duke Cosimo’s father) and a memorable impasse with Cesare Borgia, but they do not feature here. Renouncing such delectable material must have been difficult but it is an indication of the care with which April Blood has been structured. What Caterina Sforza does show, however, and forcefully, is that the strictures governing women’s behaviour were not quite as inflexible as they seem from Laurana’s sculpted ice maidens and the callous assessments of brides that Martines cites from the Medici archives.

April Blood resembles, and perhaps serves the same purpose as, the figure of Perfidy in the background of Agnolo Bronzino’s Allegory whose china-doll face masks a monster’s body, or those medieval sculptures which when viewed from the front show lovely young women in graceful gowns but from the sides and back reveal cloven hooves and writhing snakes. That physical beauty has no necessary relationship with moral rectitude has bothered thinkers at least since the time when Socrates and Plato turned against the brilliant cultural machine of ancient Athens and postulated a more perfect world in a transcendent realm of Idea. So, too, there are moments when the sky over Florence is so blue, the hills so green, the city so elegant, that the song Heinrich Isaac set for Lorenzo de’ Medici seems entirely true: ‘Florence, you are a paradise.’ Another Isaac tune, however, composed to accompany the Lenten procession known as the Carro dei Morti, reminded Florentines that paradise, for them as for Plato, was somewhere else, far away. Lorenzo de’ Medici’s most famous poem says it all: ‘Chi vuol esser lieto, sia/Di doman non v’è certezza.’ (‘Be happy if you can, there’s no certainty about tomorrow.’) Lorenzo’s genius was to reduce that uncertainty, making his hold over Florence seem so happy. It is our good fortune to endure his rule only in the realm of imagination; we can experience Florence in its full glory as a Platonic Idea rather than the sanguinary place it really was.