[Review] The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

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In The Black Prince of Florence, a dramatic tale of assassination, spies and betrayal, the first retelling of Alessandro’s life in two-hundred years opens a window onto the opulent, cut-throat world of Renaissance Italy.

When I found a copy of Catherine Fletcher’s “The Black Prince of Florence” under the tree on Christmas morning, I have to admit that I may have squealed a bit. I’d wanted a copy of this book since I’d heard that it was coming out – my poor other half often has to put up with my quite frankly over zealous enthusiasm about the Italian Renaissance, so I’m sure he was probably prepared for my excitement over this book. The later Medici aren’t something I have read into all that much, so I was intrigued to get started on Fletcher’s book about Alessandro de’ Medici – I certainly was not disappointed.

From the very first page, I found myself immersed in the treacherous world of Renaissance Florence. What intrigued me the most was how still, even after the debacle that was the flight of the Medici during Savonarola’s time, there were still those within Florence who despised the family and believed them to be tyrants. Being accused of tyranny was certainly something that the Medici could not escape.

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Alessandro de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari

Fletcher’s work tells the story of Alessandro de’ Medici, an illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici. Alessandro was dark-skinned, likely the son of one of Lorenzo’s slaves or servants. But to start with, Alessandro was never meant to rise to the top of Florentine politics and become the city’s Duke – that was the role originally meant for his cousin, Ippolito. However, Pope Clement VII decided that Ippolito was better off in the Church and Alessandro should lead Florence.

It struck me throughout that there is a massive similarity between the relationship of Alessandro and Ippolito, and the Borgia siblings Cesare and Juan. It was also a similarity brought up by Fletcher throughout the book. Indeed, Cesare was originally a churchman who threw off his Crimson robes in order to become the soldier that his murdered brother had been. He had wanted to be a soldier from an early age and despised his role in the church – jealousy was rife between him and his brother, Juan, who was viciously murdered in 1497. Rumours began a year later in Venice, whispers that Cesare had been the one to murder his brother in order to gain the military standing that Juan had been given by their father, Pope Alexander VI. Although they were cousins, Alessandro and Ippolito’s relationship was chock full of jealousy in just the same way as Cesare and Juan’s had been. Ippolito even tried to follow Cesare’s footsteps and leave the college of Cardianals. But unlike Cesare, he failed.

Alessandro was ultimately assassinated by another of his cousins, Lorenzino de’ Medici, who lured Alessandro to his demise with a promise that he could sleep with Lorenzino’s sister. Lorenzino later stated that he had murdered his cousin for the state of the Republic and to end his cousin’s tyrannical rule. Alessandro’s body was found wrapped in a carpet – a sad end for a man who had ruled the Republic of Florence and whose name went alongside his great forefathers.

This book was an absolutely fantastic read. Fletcher’s research into Alessandro’s life and times is beyond first class, and her writing style made this biography so easy to read. I look forward to reading more from Catherine Fletcher – her work is an inspiration and one day I can only hope to be half the historian she is. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

The Pazzi Conspiracy

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Florence, by Georgio Vasari

On the 26th April 1478, as the host was raised within a crowded Santa Maria Del Fiore, carnage erupted. This moment was to be the finale of a conspiracy that had been concocted by the Pazzi family and their allies, in which the aim was to assassinate the two Medici brothers. But why did they want to kill them? The answer is mixed up in the politics of fifteenth century Florence along with what I can only describe as jealousy – although the Pazzi family were wealthy thanks to their work in the banking sector, they (and many others) watched as the Medici family scaled to the heights of Florentine politics through shrewd political machinations. In particular, Lorenzo De’ Medici had risen to the very top of the government and become the unofficial, defacto leader of Florence. As such, Lorenzo had power that many believed was becoming incredibly dangerous and absolute. Him and his family were obviously going to be the target for resentment, especially from a family such as the Pazzi who were old, well known nobility who had been shoved to the side thanks to a man they saw as an upstart.

It wasn’t just the Pazzi involved in the conspiracy, however. Lorenzo De’ Medici had gotten on the wrong side of the Pope one too many times – he had taken a dislike to the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviato, and had also taken umbridge to the fact that Girolamo Riario, Pope Sixtus’ nephew, had been given Imola in the aim of setting up a brand new papal state. It was all too close to home for Lorenzo, and his standing up against the Pope’s decisions ended up with the Pope backing the conspirators. It must be said, however, that Sixtus made the point of not endorsing murder outright. Instead he advised the conspirators to do whatever they had to do to remove Lorenzo from power. They took that as him condoning the assassination of the Medici brothers.

The original plan had been to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano, whilst the brother’s were visiting Rome. However the plan had to be rearranged when the two men decided against their visit to the Holy City. More plans were made, each of which were hampered by Giuliano De’ Medici falling ill – for example the second attempt was planned to happen during a lunch time meeting with the brothers at their villa in Fiesole, but with Giuliano unwell and unable to join them, they put the plans to bed.

Instead they planned to commit the double murder on 26th April 1478. It was to take place during Mass at the Santa Maria Del Fiore, during the elevation of the Host. There was only one problem – the man who had originally agreed to commit the murder, Federico Da Montefeltro, refused to commit murder upon holy ground. So two other priests were pulled in – they had no such qualms, and nor did the other conspirators. As the Host was raised, they attacked. Giuliano De’ Medici was stabbed multiple times by Bernardo Baroncelli and Francesco De’ Pazzi. And as the attack was happening to Giuliano, the attack began on Lorenzo. Except the conspirator standing behind the ruler of Florence made the mistake of reaching to steady himself on Lorenzo’s shoulder, thus alerting Lorenzo to what was about to happen. Lorenzo leapt away, his attackers knife thankfully only grazing his neck, and wrapped his cloak about his arm to act as a shield. In the chaos Poliziano, a close friend of the Medici family, rushed Lorenzo De’ Medici to safety within a room in the Sacristy.

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Giuliano De’ Medici by Sandro Boticelli

The conspirators had failed in their plan. Although Giuliano De’ Medici’s corpse lay upon the floor of the cathedral, they had failed to kill the leader of Florence and were now in significant danger. The reprisals started almost straight away. As the people fled the scene of bloodshed, Lorenzo and his allies went to the safety of the Medici palace. The city bells were rang and Jacopo De’ Pazzi rode into the main town square in an effort to stir up a revolution against the Medici. He failed miserably and was urged to flee the scene of the crime. Very quickly the conspirators were rounded up, some of them held as prisoners within the Palazzo Della Signoria. There, the bodies of both Bernardo Baroncelli, Francesco Salviati and Francesco De’ Pazzi were hung from the upper windows of the palace. Jacopo De’ Pazzi who had fled Florence after his failed attempt at riling up the popolo was caught and brought back – he was hung next to the corpse of Salviati.

The aftermath of Jacopo’s execution is particularly morbid. Although he was originally buried within the Pazzi crypt, many opposed the fact that this evil man was buried within consecrated ground. So he was moved outside the city. Except there, a group of children dug up his body and dragged it about the streets using the noose he had been hanged with. It’s a rather grim outcome, but one that sums up the popular feeling against the family who had caused such an uproar.

That Sunday in April of 1478 was an attack upon a family who, at the point, were well respected in Florence. That would change after Lorenzo’s death. But the murder of Giuliano De’ Medici was a tragedy, caused by the jealousy of a family who believed they were better than the Medici and who were looking for any excuse to get the Medici out of the way. The belief that the Medici family were going too far in the way of absolute power was something that would come back to haunt them just a few years down the line and, perhaps, it can be said that the attack by the Pazzi was the beginning of the end for the great Florentine family.

Further Reading

Lauro Martinez: April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici

Paul Strathern: The Medici: Godfather’s Of The Renaissance

Christopher Hibbert: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici

Christopher Hibbert: Florence: Biography Of A City.