The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medici
By Lauro Martines, Cape, £ 17.99

On a Sunday in April 1478, just before Mass, there was an attempt to murder the two heads of the Medici family in the cathedral of Florence. Lorenzo the Magnificent, the de facto head of the Florentine state, escaped with a minor injury but his brother Giuliano was brutally killed by the conspirators. It was a coup that failed and a bloodbath followed as reprisal. Historians of 15th century Florence have called the incident the Pazzi conspiracy as it was hatched by the Pazzi family, a rival of the Medicis.

Lauro Martines builds this book around this dramatic episode. But he sets the attempted coup against the background of the factionalism and the power play that informed Florentine politics in the 15th century. The internal history of Florence had wider ramifications as the Pazzi-Medici vendetta had the involvement of the Pope (Sixtus IV) and of the rulers of the neighbouring kingdoms of Naples and Urbino. The archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati, was a principal plotter in the anti-Medici conspiracy. The reconstruction of the bloodshed in the cathedral allows Martines entry into the political culture of Florence. Like Le Roy Ladurie’s study of a carnival in Romans, one episode becomes the key to understanding a society.

The failure of the Pazzi plot had profound consequences for the history of Florence and of Europe. It led to the consolidation of Medici power. Giuliano, who died in the cathedral on that fateful Sunday, had an illegitimate son, Giulio, who became Pope Clement VII. This was the pinnacle of Medici power in Italy and led to the overturning of the Florentine republic and the consolidation of a princely tyranny under the Medici aegis. It was Clement VII who refused Henry VIII of England a divorce which would enable him to marry Anne Boleyn. This set in motion the Reformation in England and hastened the Reformation in northern Europe.

The decision of the conspirators to kill Lorenzo in the cathedral and the public nature of the reprisals that followed (some of the conspirators were thrown from high windows and others were left to hang from windows overlooking the Piazza della Signoria) bear witness to punishment as spectacle. Punishment was intended to be exemplary and to be a show of power. The conspirators wanted to kill Lorenzo in as public a place as the cathedral, and that too during Mass on Sunday morning because they wanted to destroy Lorenzo’s public image and standing. Lorenzo’s position and overwhelming power required an act of public terror to dislodge him. Lorenzo, in his turn, displayed his power when he punished the conspirators.

Martines moves effortlessly from his detailed recreation of the Pazzi plot and its suppression, to the broader political and social trends that made such a plot and the bloody reprisals possible.

In the history of the Renaissance, art and culture almost invariably get privileged. Martines, to use the terms of one of his earlier books, shows how power and imagination co-existed in the period, how in fact the most sublime creativity was coterminous with the basest and bloodiest of politics. Martines reinstates politics and power of the state into the history of the Renaissance.

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