- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003


By Lauro Martines

Oxford University Press, $26, 302 pages

The first sight on Florence’s skyline to greet the approaching visitor is Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome atop the cathedral there. The same visitor, once settled in the city with which its churches, palaces, sculpture and paintings from end to end, will sooner or later find himself inside the cathedral, or Duomo, admiring yet more great art and being shown the place on the floor where the Pazzi family’s agents attempted to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici and stabbed to death his younger brother, Giuliano on Sunday, April 22, 1478.

Then it will be back out into the sunshine, and more art. Florence when the conspirators struck was enjoying a period of artistic fruition under the patronage of the art-loving Lorenzo, a poet himself. Among the many, Botticelli had his studio and in three years time would paint his “Primavera.” The tourist usually hears little more about the Pazzi.

There are reasons beyond simple pleasure for such subordination of politics to art, and according to Lauro Martines, former professor of European history at the University of California, Los Angeles, we indulge it at our loss. Mr. Martines, who has written extensively on the Italian Renaissance, opines in the prologue to his “April Blood”:

“In the bulk of recent historical work on Renaissance Florence, politics has been much played down or even ignored, as if there were something so nasty and ignoble about it, or just plain gray, that the less said about it the better.

‘Base’ and ‘dirty’ it may have been, but never gray, and we push it aside at risk of missing the key point of departure for understanding the history of Italian Renaissance cities. Small, packed, observant, industrious, and sharply circumscribed by city walls (Venice by water), each of them was an area for politics: a space in which the power of the state was omnipresent.”

Further reason for the Pazzi story not being more frequently told lies in the adage that history belongs to the victors. Legal steps taken in the days following the attempted coup tried to wipe out every trace of one of Florence’s oldest and noblest families. The Pazzi coat of arms was torn off their buildings. A special governmental commission (Syndic) spent the next two years disentangling Pazzi assets with a view to confiscation. Anyone with the name Pazzi was forced to change it. Women of the family were forbidden to marry in Florence, which was as good as not allowing them to wed at all. No portrait of any Pazzi adult is known to have survived.

As if that were not enough, Angelo Poliziano, long a supporter of the Medici, wrote his influential “Memoir of the Conspiracy,” comparing it to that mounted by the ancient Roman Catilene. A competing account written by Alamanno Rinuccini, one of the many who continued to work for the Medici while quietly sympathizing with the Pazzi, did not see print until after World War II.

Mr. Martines says that he has been thinking about the Pazzi for 25 years, during which time he says it was not done for “real” historians to write about the subject. Too sensational. Sensational, or bloody, it certainly was if the 9-year-old Niccolo Machiavelli’s later recollection of the streets littered with body parts is to be believed.

Following the assault that fateful Sunday, Jacopo d’ Pazzi left the cathedral and rode over to the Signoria, headquarters of the government, expecting to be let in following its seizure by Cardinal Francisco Salviati, Archbishop of Pisa. But Salviati had failed to take the Signoria and already was a prisoner inside. By the end of the day, bodies had been thrown from the Signoria’s top windows and left to hang there, and 60 to 80 more hung at the Bargello (magistrate’s building).

Lorenzo’s and his supporter’s program of retribution was just beginning. It would play out for 10 years. Mr. Martines leads off his narrative at Forli in April, 1488, when Count Girolama Riario Lord of Imola and Forli, “was slashed to death in the government palace and his naked corpse thrown down into the central square, to be gaped at and violated …”

Riario was a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, that prelate being a key player in the drama. In the brewing of the conspiracy, Leo was tiring of the ambitions of the Medici in Florence and elsewhere. In 1478 he took away their monopoly on the Vatican’s supply of alum, gave it to the Pazzi and added insult to injury by auditing the Medici books. He also squelched Lorenzo’s resistance to the appointment of Salviati to the Pisa archbishopric.

Lorenzo, after some initial difficulties including the two-year Pazzi War with Rome, was able to turn the crisis to his advantage, becoming more powerful than ever in Florence and throughout the Italian peninsula. But the accumulated resentment over a decade of Medici vengefulness far and wide burst its floodgates following his death in 1492.

His son Piero soon was drawing criticism from other of Florence’s leading men. When he weakly surrendered the fortresses of Pisa and Sarzana to the advancing Charles VIII of France, that was it for him, and it wasn’t long before he fled the city.

Four days after Piero’s departure, the Pazzi were invited back with all their rights restored including the holding of high political office.

A principal consequence of the conspiracy and its aftermath was to push Florence one more step away from being a republic and toward tyranny. Traditionally, the city’s political balance had been maintained by the wealth of leading families, influential marriage ties and periodic spells of political office (elected members of the Signoria served only two months, so there was ample circulation).

With the rise of the Medici came erosion of republican institutions. Weapons in this game, often employed in combination, included sharp dealing in business, punitive tax assessments, fixing of whose names went into the purses at election time, and the coercing of what were supposed to be secret ballots. A victim of Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, had been the public leader and humanist Giannozzo Manetti, crushed by taxes after his favoring of Venice over Milan in Florence’s making of alliances.

The Pazzi, 25 years later, were not so easily bested. Their ancestor Pazzo Pazzi was the first Christian warrior over the wall of Jerusalem in 1088, and stones said to be brought back from that crusade were used in an Easter celebration each year in Florence. The Pazzi’s trouble with the Medici sprang from the enormous wealth accumulating from their banking and other pursuits under the guidance of Andrea de’ Pazzi, father of Jacopo who, with his three nephews, led the conspiracy.

Lorenzo, feeling threatened, was trying to squeeze the Pazzi out of public office, and they decided to oppose him. The Florentines were assiduous record keepers (22,000 letters addressed to Lorenzo alone survive), and Mr. Martines uses his pages on the Pazzi family to elaborate in some depth on the accounting methods, including compilation of tax returns, used at the time. He invites the reader to skip these pages if they are found arduous.

For several years hostilities between the two camps mounted behind a facade of appearances maintained, the Medici and Pazzi sharing meals until immediately before the Sunday climax in the cathedral. They were related too; one Pazzi spared afterward was Guglielmo de’ Pazzi, husband of Lorenzo’s sister Bianca and allowed to go into exile.

This is a story with a large cast. Mr. Martines provides genealogies of the Medici, Pazzi and della Rovere families and list of key players (personaggi). Incidental chapters tell something of Giannozzo Manetti, Alamanno Rinuccini, and Tommaso Soderini, the canny politician who positioned Lorenzo as Florence’s first citizen after the death of his father Piero. An odd chapter out, “Assaulting the Body: ‘Cannibalism,’” explores the appetite for capital punishment and savage blood-letting common at the time.

If the book’s overall organization gives it a somewhat lumpy quality, its reward is finely researched picture of Florentine life dominated by politics and business rather than by the arts. For tourist and scholar alike, it renders that city, at once so radiant and so grim, in a larger whole.

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