Tuscany’s idyllic scenery suggests to the modern visitor a simple life of refinement and repose, far removed from the vulgar intrusions of urban existence. As writer Jack Smith observes in this month’s feature “Under the Tuscan Sundial”, the landscape had a similar appeal for the Medici and other ruling families who, from the 14th century to the 18th century, built palatial villas in the well-wooded region. “The wealthy always came to Tuscany for pleasure,” fashion magnate Salvatore Ferragamo tells Smith. “When they weren’t hunting, breeding horses, or making wine or olive oil, they simply enjoyed the scenery.” Yet these charming rural seats also serve to remind us that the noble hunters were all too often themselves the quarry.
Located north of Florence, Villa Medicea di Cafaggiolo (pictured) remains famous today as one of the favorite refuges of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who gathered there the greatest scholars and artists of 15th-century Italy to discuss the latest humanist ideas. One of these guests, the poet and teacher known as Poliziano, described his patron as “the laurel who sheltered the birds that sang in the Tuscan spring.” Indeed, it was as much for his love of the arts and humanities as for his political hegemony over Florence that Lorenzo earned the epithet “Il Magnifico.” Yet Cafaggiolo’s battlements, moat, and drawbridge made it more fortress than villa, and these amenities, rather than its lush surroundings, prompted a nervous Lorenzo to sequester his wife and children there in 1478.
That year was Lorenzo’s annus horribilis. Since his great-grandfather, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, established the Medici bank, the financial giant of its time, the family had risen among the ranks of Florence’s elite to dominate the republic. If Lorenzo lacked the banking acumen of his predecessors, he proved a masterful politician, allying himself with the formidable Sforza family of Milan and the Republic of Venice to protect Florence, a relatively small state, from two superpowers to the south, the Papacy and the Kingdom of Naples. But stability required more than military might. When Pope Sixtus IV, intent on purchasing the town of Imola on the Tuscan border for his nephew, applied to the Medici bank for the necessary funds, Lorenzo, who had hoped to buy this strategic citadel for Florence, stalled. The Curia, not to be deterred, turned to the Pazzi, a rival Florentine banking family, for the money and, securing it, made the Pazzi agents of the Papacy’s alum mines, a remunerative sinecure long held by the Medici. To prevent the papal noose from tightening further, Lorenzo blocked Francesco Salviati, another relative of Sixtus, from taking up his appointment as archbishop of Pisa. Lorenzo soon found himself in a standoff with the pope, who had the vast army of Naples behind him.
These sustained tensions finally exploded into bloodshed 532 years ago this month, on Sunday, April 26, in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. In accordance with the plan devised by Francesco de’ Pazzi and Salviati—and tacitly approved by the pope—at the moment the sanctuary bell rang to signal the Elevation of the Host, a bevy of assassins drew their daggers on Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano. The conspirators murdered the latter gruesomely, nearly splitting his skull and mutilating his body. However, Lorenzo, with the help of Poliziano and a handful of other loyal friends, escaped with only minor injuries behind the bronze doors of the sacristy. Salviati and his men, in the meantime, were apprehended in their efforts to seize the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government, and the coup d’état was thwarted.
Lorenzo, hunted by his enemies, now resumed the role of hunter, though not amid the bucolic splendors of Cafaggiolo. He would have to contend with Sixtus IV and King Ferrante of Naples in the conflict that followed, but he dealt coolly with the adversaries at hand. Those not killed in the melee were captured, castrated, and hanged. In the Palazzo della Signoria, a rope secured to a transom was placed around the neck of Francesco de’ Pazzi, whom guards then hurled from one of the high windows. Salviati followed in the same manner. Poliziano, who witnessed the executions from the square below, recalled that, as the two convulsed side by side at the end of their tethers, Salviati, as if enraged, sank his teeth into Pazzi’s naked flesh. Lorenzo allowed these grim trophies to remain for some time as a warning before finally cutting them loose.