The English poet John Keats coined a term, “negative capability,” that aptly applies to the peculiarly Italian brand of genius we celebrate from cover to cover in this month’s special issue. This capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” perfectly encapsulates the Italian gift for accepting and embracing contradictory ideas and impulses—and nowhere is this national penchant for paradox more readily apparent than in the competing Italian affinities for hereditary rulers on the one hand and republican governments on the other. From the early days of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance and the Risorgimento, the populace of the peninsula seems to have vacillated between these extremes. Even in such city-states as Florence, where demotic ideas prevailed, republican principles often gave way to the more practical expedient of princely power, as the history of one Florentine monument, the Palazzo Pitti—the setting of this month’s fashion feature (see “Artful Elegance”)—eloquently illustrates.
This regal hilltop structure, whose massive stone facade presides over a vast piazza above the south bank of the Arno, began as the bourgeois bastion of a banker named Luca Pitti. In the mid-15th century, Pitti flourished financially under the patronage of his ally Cosimo de’ Medici, the implicit ruler of the republic. In 1458, as a testament to his status, Pitti commissioned the construction of a grand home near the Ponte Vecchio, most likely under the supervision of architect Luca Fancelli, a protégé of Filippo Brunelleschi. Yet this resplendent house, which emulated the stateliness of the Medici residence on the Via Larga, soon became a symbol of opposition to the family whose backing had enabled Pitti to build it. When Cosimo died in the summer of 1464, Pitti—long content to serve under the elder Medici—rejected the authority of his friend’s son Piero. Upon assuming control of his family’s finances, Piero abruptly recalled a number of large loans, rankling onetime supporters and providing Pitti with political ammunition. With the aid of other like-minded patricians, Pitti stirred up the republican ire he had formerly suppressed among the city’s merchants. His faction was nicknamed the Party of the Hill in deference to the site of his rising mansion, while the Medici, whose palace stood on the flatlands across the river, received support from a group that came to be known as the Party of the Plain.
Hostilities between the two camps increased over the first months of Piero’s ascendancy, and in 1466 the hilltop partisans entered into a secret agreement with the Duke of Ferrara to provide the necessary troops to stage a military coup. When the perennially infirm Piero retreated to his country villa of Careggi to convalesce, Pitti and his armed coconspirators prepared to ambush the newly established patriarch on his return route to the city. The insurgents planned to capture and execute Piero and his two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano, while the Ferrarese soldiers seized control of Florence. But a last-minute warning to the Medici from the benevolent lord of neighboring Bologna, Giovanni II Bentivoglio—as well as the quick thinking of Lorenzo—foiled the plot, and the ailing Piero, carried by servants, escaped along a road less traveled.
Piero’s unexpected arrival in Florence quickly dispelled republican resolve within the ranks of the Party of the Hill. Many of the most outspoken offenders later were banished, but the Medici’s most ardent antagonist was not among their number. When he heard the news of Piero’s triumphant welcome by the city’s leaders, Pitti pondered the quickly accruing negatives his own errant capabilities had reaped, and wading through these uncertainties and doubts, he resolved to reach after fact and reason. He hurried down from his hilltop perch to the plain, where—more subject than citizen—he swore to live or die in the service of Florence’s de facto dynasty. Although Piero reluctantly bestowed forgiveness, Pitti’s fortunes fell thereafter, and the defeated banker died six years later. His once-proud palace stood unfinished until, 77 years later, the property came into the possession of a descendant of Piero and a namesake of Pitti’s erstwhile patron. This 16th-century Medici not only transformed the former symbol of republican sentiment into one of Europe’s most richly appointed royal retreats, but as Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, lent gilt-edged security for nearly three centuries to his family’s once-unofficial reign.