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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

“April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici”, by Lauro Martines

320 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0195152951

On April 26th, 1478, in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy, there was an attempt made on the lives of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici; called the “Pazzi Conspiracy” after the rival Florentine family that sought to displace the de’ Medici family as rulers of Renaissance Florence, it involved Francesco Pazzi, Girolamo Riario and Francesco Salviati, the Archbishop of Pisa, all with the blessing of Pope Sixtus IV. Lorenzo was wounded but survived while Giuliano was killed; Lorenzo subsequently turned the event into a justification for both revenge and a consolidation of power unprecedented in the history of the Florentine city-state. April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici tells the story of the Pazzi Conspiracy, a narrative of sorts in which the assassination attempt serves as something of a magnetic center that binds the varied themes of the book, at times more strongly than at others; thus April Blood is not strictly a narrative history (although there are long sections which seem to be that), as the author, Lauro Martines, is no slave to chronology. His storyline frequently bends back on itself or meanders off into topical regions whose dates are simply unclear. The end result is a history, but also something closer to an anthropology of Florence's ruling class, with broadening to the rest of the Italian polities.

With this book, Lauro Martines hoped to balance the scales of history, which he saw as unfairly tilted to the pro-Medici side. Before launching into the actual assassination attempt, he paints a magnificently detailed picture of life in 15th Century Florence, including Florence’s political relationship with the other states of Italy and the Pope, the astounding history of the House of Medici, and even some folk tales that give insight into the Renaissance Florentine character. Too many histories attempt to view the past through the modern lens; Martines bends over backwards providing his context, and he does so exceedingly well, capturing the capricious nature of Florentine taxation in which the Medici (particularly under the leadership of Lorenzo) manipulated to their benefit and their foes’ sorrow. In the decades leading up to 1478, Florence was ostensibly a republic, but as Martines describes it, the Florentine Republic was a flawed one and, just like the Roman Republic, one already threatened by an addiction to violence. Martines also describes the Florentine fixation on assassination, state-sanctioned capital punishment, and even the desecration of a dead body as outgrowths of the Florentine character; through these descriptions we begin to see that the attempt to assassinate Lorenzo should not be surprising.

Weaving a complex web of storylines, Martines does not tell his tale in a straight chronological fashion, and his occasional stops and starts interfere with the flow of his narrative somewhat. This, of course, is the difficult task when providing an abundance of context; when painting the picture one must move all over the canvas rather than in a straight line. But this is a minor criticism; Martines tells a complex story about the Pazzi’s boiling frustration, the assassination attempt, and the de’ Medici’s horrible retribution, which Martines claims was so harsh as to unduly burden the Medici clan in the future. Martines does not tell a rousing tale, but rather one of melancholy resignation: he has an obvious affection for Florence of that period, and it is frustrating to see what became of it in the wake of the Pazzi’s attempt to axe Lorenzo. In seeking to balance the scales, which so many pro-Medici hacks (and the Medici themselves) insisted on tipping after the attempt, Martines does a valuable service. There are usually two sides to every story, and Lorenzo has had his side out there by itself for too long.

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