The Washington Post
Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decodedby Marcello Simonetta
The Italian Renaissance is remembered as much for intrigue as it is for art, with papal politics and infighting among Italy’s many city-states providing the grist for Machiavelli’s classic work on take/b>
A brutal murder, a nefarious plot, a coded letter. After five hundred years, the most notorious mystery of the Renaissance is finally solved.
The Italian Renaissance is remembered as much for intrigue as it is for art, with papal politics and infighting among Italy’s many city-states providing the grist for Machiavelli’s classic work on take-no-prisoners politics, The Prince. The attempted assassination of the Medici brothers in the Duomo in Florence in 1478 is one of the best-known examples of the machinations endemic to the age. While the assailants were the Medici’s rivals, the Pazzi family, questions have always lingered about who really orchestrated the attack, which has come to be known as the Pazzi Conspiracy.
More than five hundred years later, Marcello Simonetta, working in a private archive in Italy, stumbled upon a coded letter written by Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, to Pope Sixtus IV. Using a codebook written by his own ancestor to crack its secrets, Simonetta unearthed proof of an all-out power grab by the Pope for control of Florence. Montefeltro, long believed to be a close friend of Lorenzo de Medici, was in fact conspiring with the Pope to unseat the Medici and put the more malleable Pazzi in their place.
In The Montefeltro Conspiracy, Simonetta unravels this plot, showing not only how the plot came together but how its failure (only one of the Medici brothers, Giuliano, was killed; Lorenzo survived) changed the course of Italian and papal history for generations. In the course of his gripping narrative, we encounter the period’s most colorful characters, relive its tumultuous politics, and discover that two famous paintings, including one in the Sistine Chapel, contain the Medici’s astounding revenge.
The Washington Post
These books offer two different approaches to the regime of Lorenzo de Medici, de facto ruler of Florence in the late 1400s. Unger's Magnificois a popularly written yet scrupulous biography, while Simonetta's Montefeltro Conspiracyis new historical detection about a violent episode in Lorenzo's life. Unger (contributing writer, New York Times) uses contemporary narratives and current scholarship to detail the life of a man initiated into politics at 16 and who consolidated his power against rivals, the Pazzis, after they famously tried to kill him (and did assassinate his brother) in the Duomo in 1478. Thenceforth, Lorenzo strengthened his hold over Florence. Facing an alliance between Pope Sixtus VI and Ferrante, king of Naples, he gambled everything, traveled to Naples, and threw himself on Ferrante's mercy, splitting the alliance and forcing his rivals to come to terms. By the time of his death, he was rightly hailed as the most sagacious politician in Italy, architect of the balance of power among the five principal realms of the Italian peninsula. Unger's comments on Lorenzo's shaky management of the family bank and misuse of the Florentine treasury are sage though hardly original. He also conveys the value of Lorenzo's vernacular poetry and famous patronage of the arts and letters.
The work by Simonetta (Italian & medieval studies, Wesleyan Univ.) is a bird of another feather, more brightly plumed. In a previously closed archive, he unearthed a ciphered letter from Federigo de Montefeltro, the famed humanist and condotierre duke of Urbino, to Pope Sixtus, written shortly before the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. Drawing on a contemporary book on cipherswritten by his own ancestor, Simonetta broke the letter's code. In a stunning act of historical sleuthing (moving the topic into greater depth and focus than Lauro Martines's April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici), he has unearthed solid evidence linking Montefeltro and the pope directly to the conspirators in a plot to assassinate the Medicis and end their rule of Florence. Simonetta concludes with intriguing speculation on why Botticelli, though a Medici loyalist, accepted a commission from Sixtus to paint the interior walls of the Sistine chapel in Rome, and he speculates on the political significance of Botticelli's most famous paintings, The Birth of Venusand Primavera. Both books are warmly recommended for large public libraries, and academic collections will want Simonetta. [For Magnifico, see Prepub Alert, LJ1/08.]
David Keymer. Modesto
Booklist – Advanced Review
In Florence, on April 26, 1478, Lorenzo de Medici, soon to be dubbed "the Magnificent," and his brother, Giuliano, were set upon by assassins during Sunday mass. Giuliano died, but Lorenzo survived and became one of the most accomplished of Renaissance figures as a patron of the arts and a skillful leader of the Florentine Republic. The assassination attempt, generally called "the Pazzi conspiracy," was immediately blamed on a rival Florentine family, the Pazzi. Simonetta, a professor of Italian history and literature, has uncovered another layer of the plot. Aided by a recently decoded letter found in an archive in Urbino, Simonetta indicts Frederico de Montefeltro, the widely admired Duke of Urbino. Montefeltro, often referred to as "the Light of Italy," was a classics scholar, a humanist, and a supposed friend of the Medici family. He was also a tough, ruthless mercenary quite at home in the cutthroat milieu of fifteenth-century Italian politics. This is a tense, absorbing book that works well as a historical inquiry and a real-life detective story.
The work by Simonetta (Italian & medieval studies, Wesleyan Univ.) is a bird of another feather, more brightly plumed. In a previously closed archive, he unearthed a ciphered letter from Federigo de Montefeltro, the famed humanist and condotierre duke of Urbino, to Pope Sixtus, written shortly before the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. Drawing on a contemporary book on ciphers written by his own ancestor, Simonetta broke the letter's code. In a stunning act of historical sleuthing (moving the topic into greater depth and focus than Lauro Martines's April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici), he has unearthed solid evidence linking Montefeltro and the pope directly to the conspirators in a plot to assassinate the Medicis and end their rule of Florence. Simonetta concludes with intriguing speculation on why Botticelli, though a Medici loyalist, accepted a commission from Sixtus to paint the interior walls of the Sistine chapel in Rome, and he speculates on the political significance of Botticelli's most famous paintings, The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Both books are warmly recommended for large public libraries, and academic collections will want Simonetta.
Simonetta's "The Montefeltro Conspiracy" is a concise book, handsomely produced and clearly written, and it will appeal to history buffs, visitors to Italy, students of art, and more adventurous general readers.
Times Literary Supplement
Simonetta inhabits the time and place of his subject and examines the evidence in its original context. The book is beautifully structured [...] Vividly written and impressively researched, The Montefeltro Conspiracy is a real contribution to Italian history.
Marcello Simonetta's "The Montefeltro Conspiracy," while also focusing on the conspiracy against Lorenzo, differs not only in being written by a scholar using original archival sources, but also in its idiosyncratic perspective. Simonetta claims descent from Cicco Simonetta, the duke of Milan's right-hand man, who, following the duke's assassination in 1476, became regent for the duke's child heir. The book's title refers to Federico da Montefeltro, who was among the most prominent of the aristocrats ruling over small domains (in his case in central Italy) but whose real influence derived from their employment as military leaders by more powerful patrons. "The Montefeltro Conspiracy" is the result of the author's discovery in an Italian archive of a coded letter sent by Federico to Sixtus IV, urging the pope to push ahead in the conspiracy against Lorenzo. The author was able to decipher the letter thanks to a guidebook to codemaking written by his ancestor Cicco. This is a fascinating tale of historical detective work, although Simonetta's claim that his work has "radically changed the perception of a turning point in Italian history" is overdrawn. More interesting are his speculations regarding a different kind of battle, over the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. Here, as throughout his short book, Simonetta makes excellent use of reproductions of the art of the time. Sixtus, who commissioned the chapel's construction and for whom it is named, "had it obsessively decorated with the symbol of his family coat of arms." Following his death, Lorenzo persuaded (one might say bribed) the new pope to name Lorenzo's son Giovanni a cardinal, although the boy was only 13. By 38, Giovanni had become Pope Leo X and in turn made his cousin Giulio a cardinal. In 1523, Giuliowhose father had been murdered in the Duomobecame Pope Clement VII. Although Clement endured many crises, including the sack of Rome in 1527, he at least had the satisfaction of replacing Sixtus's designs on the Sistine Chapel's altar wall with Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, which Simonetta calls "a double-edged way of sending a late pope to hell." Lorenzo finally had his revenge.
Advance Praise for The Montefeltro Conspiracy
“Conspiracies, assassinations, Botticelli frescoes, a coded letter—Marcello Simonetta encapsulates both the glory and the violence of the Italian Renaissance in this remarkable book. He has also made a truly astonishing discovery of the kind that most writers can only dream about. The history of one of the most thrilling episodes in the history of the Renaissance will never be seen in the same way again.”
Ross King, author of New York Times bestseller Brunelleschi’s Dome
“The Montefeltro Conspiracy is narrative history at its best. Simonetta tells a terrific story that illuminates the dark side of the Renaissance. Readers will look at Piero della Francesco’s famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro with new eyes.”
Robert Hellenga, author of The Sixteen Pleasures
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Read an Excerpt
MILAN IS FOR MURDER
In the first half of the fifteenth century Milan was ruled by the Visconti, and only after 1450 by the Sforza. The Visconti had been the most aggressive enemies of Florence. In the heated Florentine pamphlets that were circulating during the early 1400s, attacks on Florence became synonymous with attacks on freedom and on the "Florentine way of life," while the Visconti were rightly portrayed as cruel tyrants. When the condottiere Francesco Sforza suddenly became Duke of Milan and struck the Peace of Lodi (1454), the golden age of the Renaissance started in earnest. Francesco offered military protection to his longtime friend Cosimo de' Medici in exchange for financial support. The solid alliance between Milan and the Medici formed an axis of relative stability within the restless Italian peninsula and enhanced patronage of the arts and letters, sparking an explosion of artistic creativity and humanistic culture.
Under the founder of the Sforza dynasty Milan maintained power and gained wealth and respect. But Francesco's son, Galeazzo Maria, inherited more of the capriciousness of the Visconti from his mother than he did the wisdom of the Sforza from his father. As court poet Antonio Cornazzano eloquently wrote in his Art of Ruling:
Oh how many times the good Duke Francesco
Reproached a son who is no longer
For his crude and violent acts.
"The soul of Duke Giovanni has landed upon you:
It is deep within your bowels!"
He yelled, and so his prophecy came to pass.
Learn from the foul acts of Duke Giovanni
Who fed his dogs with living men
For any other sport bored him.
He met his end in San Gottardo, in the sacred temple,
Slaughtered by his most faithful servants
And such is the fate of any cruel man.
A COLD AWAKENING
MILAN, DECEMBER 26, 1476
On the day they were going to kill him, Galeazzo Maria Sforza was due to appear at the High Mass for the feast of St. Stephen. It was the anniversary of the death of the first Christian martyr and the Duke of Milan wanted to celebrate the occasion with appropriate pomp. He tried on a decorative breastplate but thought it made him look too fat. Instead he chose a rich suit of crimson wool lined with sable. On his left leg he wore a dark red stocking and on the right, a white one. These were the Sforza colors. As he dressed his athletic, hairless body (he liked to be shaved in the ancient Roman manner) in his bedroom within the mighty walls of the Sforza castle, the flames in the large fireplace were still turning the Christmas log, il Ciocco, to ashes.
Bernardino Corio, who at the time was a cameriere di camera, or servant of the bedchamber, an eyewitness to and chronicler of these events, informs us that ever since a mysterious fire had burned a part of his bedroom earlier that month, the duke had become superstitious; he had had an instincto, or an inkling, that it was not a good idea for him to come to Milan (the duke spent much of his time away from the city, at one of his many countryside villas or on hunting expeditions). His fears had been reinforced by an incident that had occurred shortly after the fire. One day, while riding in the fields near the village of Abbiategrasso, he saw three crows flying slowly over his head. The duke had taken this to be a bad omen, and shot twice at the birds with his crossbow. Putting his hand firmly on the saddle, he had declared that he would not return to town.
He soon had changed his mind. For Galeazzo loved his choir and, with the feast day festivities approaching, he looked forward to the music that would be performed by his thirty northern European singers, whom he paid handsomely for their service. But upon returning to Milan a few days after seeing the three crows, he found himself surrounded by the resentful glares of the feudal lords and courtiers who had come to pay their respects: they were annoyed not to have been offered any of the usual money or gifts for Christmas.
The duke nonetheless had made his way to the castle. Under the red ceiling of the Camera delle Colombe, the duke gave a speech to his courtiers on the Sforza fortunes. Even if he were not a signore, a titled duke, he claimed, he would have known how to live magnificently. The thirty-two-year-old duke said he wished his father, Francesco, were still alive to see how well he and his brothers were doing. The Sforza dynasty, he boasted, would continue for centuries, blessed as it was with scores of male relatives, both legitimate and otherwise. He even applauded his illegitimate daughters, two of whom were by then betrothed to powerful lords.
Bearing plentiful offspring, in fact, was one of the ways in which power was consolidated in the Renaissance. Galeazzo's father, Francesco Sforza, was said to have fathered no less than thirty-five children, only ten of whom were legitimate. The "virtuous" Francesco, as NiccolÜ Machiavelli dubbed him in The Prince, had raised himself up from the hard life of a condottiere to the heights of the richest duchy in Italy. When Francesco died in 1466, his eldest son, Galeazzo, had inherited the power that the "prince by virtue" had so painstakingly acquired, but Galeazzo had not been very good at preserving either power or virtue. The new duke was reviled by most of his subjects for a whole host of sins. Unable to restrain his violent sexual appetites, he made the most attractive women of the duchy his prey, and occasionally even visited convents at night in order to terrorize, and possibly rape, nuns.
While celebrating the good fortunes of his family members, he did not refer specifically to his two younger brothers, Sforza Maria and Ludovico, who had been exiled to France. In June 1476, these two troublemakers had been involved in a foiled attempt to kill the duke and replace him. Indeed, Galeazzo's egomaniacal style had made many people unhappy--and not only members of his close family circle.
After delivering his speech in the Camera delle Colombe, the duke had been unusually quiet and did not pursue his usual leisure activities on Christmas day, such as a tennis game in the indoor court especially built for him or a hunting expedition with falconry. He also avoided his wife, Duchess Bona of Savoy, who slept in a separate room. That morning of the twenty-sixth of December, the duchess got up very late, for, according to Corio, she had had horrible nightmares. Since their marriage eight years before she had gained a lot of weight. By now Galeazzo had lost any interest in sharing his bed with her. He had satisfied his vigorous appetites elsewhere. He had spent most of his adult life restlessly wandering throughout the Italian peninsula, hunting not only women but also animals and boys, and sometimes playing soldier and visiting his allies, especially the affluent Florentines.
Galeazzo had first visited Florence in 1459, when he was fifteen. He was then the Count of Pavia and his father, Francesco, the Duke of Milan. Francesco, a strong ally of Cosimo de' Medici, wanted to pay homage to the Florentine banker and leader who had been a staunch financial supporter of his family fortunes. "All the ink in Tuscany," as Galeazzo wrote to his father in Milan, could not describe the opulence of the crowds cheering their guest loudly on the streets, framed by the harmony of the buildings--the outstanding Duomo or the austere Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government, with its characteristically threatening tower. "Florence is paradise on earth," he wrote in a daze of admiration.
Since then, the young Sforza had struggled to outshine his Medici allies in matters such as taste and fashion, in which they were universally considered arbiters and masters. Galeazzo, under the pretext of taking a religious vow, had returned to Florence most recently in 1471 with a retinue of two thousand people, spending two hundred thousand ducats and virtually depleting his treasury in the process. As Machiavelli later reported, Galeazzo's visit to Florence had taken place during the penitential season of Lent, in which the Church commands its faithful to refrain from eating meat. Instead, the members of Galeazzo's court fed irreverently on nothing but meat. In his portrait of a dandified Galeazzo, Florentine painter Piero Pollaiuolo captured the air of corruption that swept into town with the Milanese prince. Lorenzo de' Medici hung the work in his own bedroom, perhaps to remind himself of what he did not want to become. In this bust-length portrait, Galeazzo is shown in three-quarter view with a libidinous expression, wearing a sumptuous green robe decorated with lilies, and playing distractedly with his glove.
On his last day, Galeazzo was looking forward to the singing of the ducal choir. He was delighted at the thought of those beautiful boys with enchanting voices accompanied by extraordinary musicians. They had already been dispatched to the Church of Santo Stefano, and it was too late to recall them into the castle. While he was still wondering whether to attend High Mass, Galeazzo received a visit from Cicco Simonetta, who had served Francesco in a variety of capacities for nearly half a century and had been Galeazzo's first secretary, and thus his most trusted aide, for the past decade. A dark, heavily built man in his mid-sixties, Cicco cut an entirely different figure from that of the slender, fair Galeazzo. He tried to dissuade the duke from going to Mass. Along with the duke's other advisors, he begged Galeazzo not to walk, or even ride, on such a freezing day. The duke responded that people would wonder why he had come all the way into town without making an appearance at the church. He had made up his mind: he would go to Mass.
He called in his sons, Gian Galeazzo, age seven, and Hermes, six, and placed them on either side of the window, from which he could see the white wintry landscape. He embraced and kissed the boys for a long time, seemingly unwilling to part from them. A large courtly retinue, on horse and on foot, was waiting for Galeazzo in the wide castle courtyard, under the tall watchtowers. The duke walked out arm-in-arm with his favorite ambassador, Zaccaria Saggi from Mantua. Struck by the bitter cold, he then climbed onto his horse. And so did his entourage, riding with him in the snow. In the icy streets were a few people halfheartedly cheering the duke, who was surrounded by armored soldiers. The group passed through the piazza in front of the main cathedral.
Just a few steps ahead lay their destination. The façade of the "blessed church" of Santo Stefano was small but elegantly finished in Gothic style. The gates were just being opened. It had to be warmer inside. The duke dismounted nervously. The dignitaries and the ambassadors entered the church first, with Galeazzo between them. They were followed by his slow-witted brother Filippo, his youngest brother Ottaviano, and the ducal secretary Giovanni Simonetta, who was speaking softly with his brother Cicco's military advisor, Orfeo da Ricavo. The echo of the choir from the back was becoming louder. The bodyguards, in their gleaming armor, cleared a path in the crowd with their swords for the duke and the gentlemen who accompanied him. Galeazzo stepped into the main nave and stopped in the middle of the church, looking up at the flame of a light cotton ball hanging from the ceiling. It stood for the bonfire of the vanities:
Sic transit gloria mundi!
So does earthly glory pass!
As the duke made his way toward the altar, three men suddenly approached him. They were all dressed the same way, in bright red and white: the colors of Brutus, Caesar's assassin. "Make room!" they shouted, as if to clear the duke's path. One of them came closer, apparently to ask something of Galeazzo, who waved him off impatiently. The man let a knife slide from his sleeve into his left hand and stabbed upward into Galeazzo's abdomen. When Saggi, the Mantuan ambassador, tried to brush him away, the attacker hit again, this time plunging the knife deeply into the duke's chest.
"I am dead," whispered Galeazzo as he received another stab in the stomach. Then the other two men jumped up, making a further series of swift stabs: in the throat, on the head, on the wrist, and in the back. Galeazzo shrank back and almost fell on Orfeo da Ricavo's chest. Blood was pouring out of his upper body. Orfeo tried to support him but could not hold him. The duke fell to his knees and then collapsed on the floor. He exhaled. His crimson suit, once partly white, was now soaked in dark red blood.
The assassins tried to take flight. A tall Moor, Galeazzo's loyal servant, ran after one of them, who had rushed up the stairs into the women's section. The fugitive tripped on the women's voluminous dresses and fell. The Moor grabbed him and slew him, amid the gasps and cries of the terrified ladies. Other bodyguards caught and killed the second assassin on the spot, but the third one vanished into the fleeing crowd.
Such was the murder of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. Galeazzo's brief life and sudden death raise fascinating questions. Was he truly the gruesomely corrupt tyrant and sexual predator described by numerous witnesses and historians? And if he was, how did Cicco, who worked for him for a decade after Francesco's death in 1466, put up with him? Was he corrupt as well? Or would he have been able to steer the young prince, whom he had known since birth, toward better behavior and more effective rule? It is certain that both father and son attracted violent resentment, particularly from members of the old Milanese nobility, who perceived them as foreign usurpers.
Cicco was of humble origins. He was born in 1410 in Caccuri, a small fiefdom in southern Italy that came under the control of Francesco Sforza at the time of his first marriage, to Polissena Ruffo of Calabria. As a young man, Cicco studied civil and canon law in the nearby monastery of Rossano, a lively center of Catholic and Christian Orthodox culture, where he quickly mastered Latin and Greek. Around 1430, through his uncle, the Sforza agent Angelo Simonetta, the twenty-year-old Cicco entered the service of Francesco Sforza, then condottiere, or mercenary captain, as a member of his traveling chancellery.
A military career during the Renaissance was harsh, but potentially full of rewards for ambitious and skilled captains. Once they had demonstrated their strategic ability on the field, the condottieri could advertise their abilities to the highest bidders. Most of the major political powers in Italy had no drafted armies. These mercenaries were paid to fight, but also to keep out of trouble and to refrain from such misdemeanors as unleashing their troops against defenseless towns and villages. The most famous condottieri were in a good position to improve their lots considerably--as did Francesco Sforza--by becoming self-employed. When in March 1450, after months of besieging the city and starving the people of Milan, he was finally hailed duke, he chose Cicco Simonetta, his loyal aide for twenty years, as his chancellor.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
MARCELLO SIMONETTA, Ph. D., received his doctorate in Renaissance Studies from Yale and has taught at Wesleyan University. He has been featured on The History Channel, and in 2007 he curated an exhibition on Federico da Montefeltro’s library at the Morgan Library & Museum. He lives in New York.
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