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Book Review 310:April Blood

March 8, 2014 - Harry Eagar
APRIL BLOOD: Violence and the Plot against the Medici, by Lauro Martines. 302 pages, illustrated. Oxford paperback

It used to be said, during the ‘30s, that German fascism couldn’t be really dangerous because a nation that produced Bach and Beethoven could not be evil. Something similar seems to have infected historians, who have never -- until “April Blood” -- attempted a warts-and-all recitation of the Pazzi conspiracy.

At least so says Lauro Martines, and he apparently means all historians, not just those writing -- as he does so gracefully -- in English. Surely, the imputed thinking went, a man like Lorenzo Il Magnifico, who sponsored so much wonderful art and scholarship, could not also have been a murderous, corrupt, scheming, grasping machine boss like, say, Richard Daley.

The first response, for those enamored of late medieval and Renaissance Italy, should have been, Why not, everybody else was?

In Martines’ retelling, the pope, the king of Naples and various other grandees were plotting, in secret, to assist the Pazzis (whose name, sounded out in English as “patsies,” sounds so appropriate) in overthrowing the Medici.

Martines paints a Florence in relative decline, no longer the financial center of Europe, but still small and amazingly rich. But because small, vulnerable, with Lorenzo maneuvering among factions only with the assistance of the Sforza dukes of Milan.

The Medici were not paranoid; they were surrounded by enemies, not all of their own making. Moreover, the banker-industrialist-landowners were all mercantilists, convinced that if another banker waxed, they must wane.

Thus they probably felt entirely justified, when they could seize municipal power, to use that to destroy their rivals. Martines, in the interest of a galloping narrative, skimps on the economics, one of the few disappointments in this book. They did it by taxation, then proscription and exile; and like contemporary eldest sons of Turkish sultans, they felt obliged to destroy all the kin of their enemies.

The great genius of the Medici, in this version, was not art but the manipulation of local politics. The Pazzi, at least equal as bankers, were as bumpkins compared with the Medici in politics.

The narrative pivots on the April 1478 attack in the cathedral which killed Lorenzo’s brother but missed him. We are given the maneuvering beforehand, and the vengeance, both immediate and delayed, of Lorenzo.

Martines spends much effort on describing the brutality of the events. Next time you are in Florence, try to picture the Bargello festooned with hanged men dangling from the high windows and the putrid smell of heads left on poles for years. It may alter your views about art appreciation.

Martines spends a little time (in a short book) sketching the rises of the Medici and the Pazzi, but barely alludes to the aftermath. After Lorenzo died, it was just a few years before a French army trumped all the conspiracies of the Florentines, then was trumped itself by syphilis and Spanish threats. In the 16th century, the Medici came back, but by then it was a much different world.

 
 

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