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The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decodedby Marcello Simonetta
Synopses & Reviews
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 Italys many city-states providing the grist for Machiavellis 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 Medicis 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 periods most colorful characters, relive its tumultuous politics, and discover that two famous paintings, including one in the Sistine Chapel, contain the Medicis astounding revenge.
In 1469, Lorenzo de' Medici succeeded his father, Piero "the Gouty," as head of Florence's most influential family. Lorenzo was barely 20, and Florence was ruled (rather messily) by a complex system of committees elected by the men of its commercial class, a mini-republic nestled precariously in a patchwork of kingdoms and duchies. In "Magnifico," Miles J. Unger explains how Lorenzo,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) while holding neither elective office nor aristocratic title, managed to establish and maintain control over Florentine society. Part of his strategy was to play to Florence's strength, which was certainly not military, as it had no army. Rather, he tied himself and his family to the city's reputation as the center of European art and culture. Thus we find the peculiar combination of traits that defined Lorenzo. This political boss saw himself as not only a patron of the arts but also a serious poet. Partly to protect the Medici family's far-flung banking enterprise and to ward off enemy armies, he fraternized with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Pico della Mirandola, among others. Still, an assortment of ill-wishers had murderous designs on his life. At the center of Unger's book is the attempt by Pope Sixtus IV and those around him to do away with Lorenzo and take control of the Florentine republic. Unger paints an unappetizing picture of Sixtus, whom he describes on his ascendancy to Peter's throne in 1471 as a "shrewd, toothless peasant with the pugnacious face of a snapping turtle." Sixtus lost no time lining the pockets of his relatives, naming two of his nephews as his first cardinals, followed not long afterward by his 16-year-old great-nephew. The conspiracy to assassinate Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano, was hatched by yet another of the pope's nephews, working with members of the Pazzi family, who were smarting from their displacement as one of Florence's leading clans. They were joined by Francesco Salviati, a member of a similarly resentful Florentine family, whom the pope had named archbishop of Pisa. The assassination attempt could hardly have been more dramatic, coming in Florence's renowned Duomo during Sunday Mass. But though Francesco de' Pazzi plunged his dagger repeatedly into Giuliano's body, two knife-wielding priests succeeded only in grazing Lorenzo's neck. The reaction of Lorenzo's supporters, who included the bulk of the Florentine population, was merciless: The assassins and their local backers were hunted down and butchered. The archbishop of Pisa was hanged in his clerical robes from an upper window of the Palazzo della Signoria in the center of the city to the cheers of the mob below. The irate Sixtus responded by excommunicating Lorenzo and enlisting the king of Naples (described by Unger as "a mercurial and violent man") in a war to get rid of him. The rest of "Magnifico" recounts how Lorenzo held on to power and outlived the pope by eight years before dying of natural causes in 1492, at age 43. Unger's book has all of the marks, both positive and negative, of a great-man approach to history. He provides a clear narrative and recounts epochal battles with flair, but this book is not the place to gain an understanding of Florentine society. Unger mentions, for example, various wives who were slaves but tells us nothing about the nature of slavery in Renaissance Florence. 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, Giulio — whose father had been murdered in the Duomo — became 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. Reviewed by David I. Kertzer, who is provost of Brown University and author, most recently, of 'Amalia's Tale', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
Simonetta has a doctorate in Renaissance studies from Yale. He has spent much of his academic life on the work of his distant ancestor Cicco Simonetti. Using Cicco's writings, he has posited a new theory on the 1478 murder attempt on the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo survived and the assassins were caught and hanged. It was known that the rival Pazzi family was behind the attack. Simonetta has found new information in a coded letter that implicates Pope Sixtus IV in the plot. He notes that the academic community showed little interest in his findings but that the media was fascinated. Hence, he has written this book for a general audience. The writing is fluid and the story compelling. However, some of Simonetta's conclusions seem far-fetched and his obvious fondness for his ancestor may have caused him to be less than critical in his evaluation of the material. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The attempted assassination of the Medici brothers in the Duomo in Florence is one of the best-known events of the Renaissance. While the assailants were the Medicis' rivals, the Pazzi family, questions have always lingered about who orchestrated the attack. In THE MONTEFELTRO CONSPIRACY, Marcello Simonetta reveals a smoking gun: a coded letter that outlines the involvement of Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, and Pope Sixtus IV himself.
In 2001, Simonetta discovered the letter in a private archive and, using a book written by his own ancestor, Cicco Simonetta, to crack its code, he unearthed proof of an all-out power grab by the Pope for control of Florence, with Montefeltro as his enforcer and coconspirator. In THE MONTEFELTRO CONSPIRACY, Simonetta lays out this nefarious plot, and in the course of his gripping narrative, we encounter the period’s most colorful characters, relive its Machiavellian politics, and discover that two famous paintings contain the Medici's astounding revenge.
Illustrated throughout with art and letters, this masterful piece of historical detective work is sure to attract history buffs of every stripe.
About the Author
MARCELLO SIMONETTA, Ph. D., is assistant professor of Italian and medieval studies at Wesleyan University. He has been featured on The History Channel, and in 2007 he curated an exhibition on Montefeltro at the Morgan Library & Museum. He lives in New York City.
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