Machiavelli and the Pazzi Conspiracy Part 1

Pazzi medallionOne of the historical events that had an influence on the young Niccolo Machiavelli‘s political and social development was the attempted assassination of the heads of the ruling Medici family, in April 1478. That Easter Sunday evening, April 26, while Lorenzo Medici (“The Magnificent”) and his brother Giuliano, were attending a packed service in the cathedral, they were attacked by several would-be assassins.

Lorenzo would survive the attempt, wounded, and in response wreaked tremendous revenge on everyone involved in the conspiracy. His brother, Giuliano, was murdered.

The eight-year-old Machiavelli (a week shy of his ninth birthday) would have seen the men running through the streets, swords drawn; the bodies bleeding on the cobblestones; heard the screams, seen the dead hanging from the bridges. He would have learned about the story from family and neighbours. He would have seen for himself how the attempt changed the face of Florentine politics and brought down one its its great families – and how it soon pitted the city against the temporal and spiritual power of the pope and his allies.

What would a young child have made of it? Clearly the conspiracy had a great effect on contemporary Florentine politics. Biographers of Machiavelli seldom do more than mention the event, many merely in passing, and none explore in depth its potential effect on his later work. Yet it must have made a significant impression.

Machiavelli would, as he matured, ponder the events of that year, trying to make sense of them, both as a local event,and what they meant in general to his theory of conspiracies. He wrote about the conspiracy in depth in his Florentine Histories, Book VIII, and briefly in The Discourses, but it is not mentioned in The Prince, nor in The Art of War. He says, briefly:

Chief among the causes which led the Pazzi to conspire against the Medici, was the law passed by the latter depriving them of the inheritance of Giovanni Bonromei.
The Discourses 3, VI

He would carefully watch the actions of the troops and mercenary armies in the wars that followed, weighing their performance and behaviour under fire. It would help him define his attitudes towards mercenaries, alliances, militia and warfare in general. Not only would he write about these in his books, but he would put some of his ideas into practice when he was allowed to create and manage a Florentine militia.

The Pazzi conspiracy is a complex, confusing event that sprung from ancient enmities between the Medici and Pazzi families, a power struggle between the Medici and the pope over the papal finances and the office of cardinal of Florence, plus the efforts of a handful of opportunistic characters such as Francesco Salviati Riario (archbishop of Pisa), a professional assassin (Giovan Battista Montesecco), a mercenary with his own troops (Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew), city-state allies of the conspirators (the Republic of Siena, the Kingdom of Naples), an ambitious condottiere and soldier of fortune (the Duke of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro), members of the Della Rovere family, and a few others.

Although the conspiracy began in 1477, the rivalries are much older; some of them can be traced back to Dante’s time.

The assassination attempt was made in 1478, but the civil strife and political machinations that resulted were to continue long after the botched assassination. Florence would find itself embroiled in war with the pope and his allies, then with other Italian city states for more than a decade (the War of the Barons). Tensions both within Florence and in the city’s relations stormy with other states continued until Lorenzo’s death in 1492, then resumed when the French invaded in 1494, and another generation of war broke out.

The Medicis’ place as the city’s rulers was firmly cemented after the assassination attempt; the opposite of what the conspirators had been attempting to bring about. The Medici wielded that power openly and absolutely until  Lorenzo’s death. Yet the ruthless Lorenzo was also widely recognized as patron of the arts and culture, as a poet, playwright and a statesman.

When his son, Piero, took the municipal leadership after his father’s death, the city population was chafing under what many by then considered Medici despotism; they overthrew the family shortly after (replacing it with the theocratic republic under the friar Savonarola). That same mob had, only 14 years ago, swept through the streets to support the Medici and punish the Pazzi.

It’s difficult to define the conspiracy in simple terms for modern readers. It’s like trying to define a spider’s web by describing each separate, sticky strand, and hoping the reader can assemble the various descriptions into a web. There are much better writers than I who have written about the conspiracy, including:

Continued in Part 2

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