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1517: Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci, plotter

Add comment July 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1517, the Italian cardinal Alfonso Petrucci was put to death for a conspiracy to murder Pope Leo X.

Leo had been acclaimed pope in 1513 at a conclave noted for nearly electing the worst possible pontiff when cardinals hedging their first-ballot votes while they took the temperature of the room all happened to vote alike for the feeblest candidate on the expectation that nobody else was voting for that guy.

Chastened by the near-miss, the leading candidate Giovanni de’ Medici promptly cut a deal with his chief legitimate rival for St. Peter’s seat, Raffaele Riario.*

This arrangement boosted to St. Peter’s throne the first of four popes from the Medici, intriguingly done with the acquiescence of Riario, who was kin to one of the prime movers of the anti-Medici Pazzi Conspiracy from many years before. Both Giovanni de’ Medici and Raffaele Riario were too young to have played a part in those events, but the lingering familial animosity might well bear on what transpired in the papacy of Giovanni de’ Medici — or rather, as we shall know him henceforth, Pope Leo X.

Leo was an entirely worldly character, whose enthusiasm for the peninsular politics that shaped his native habitat would help lead a German cleric to nail 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg later this same year of 1517. “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Martin Luther demanded (thesis 86) of Leo’s increasingly shameless indulgences racket.

Acting more the Medici than the Vicar of Christ, Leo in 1516 deposed the tyrant of Florence’s neighbor and rival, Siena. The declining Sienese Republic was a prime target of Florence’s expansionist ambitions, and indeed it would be gobbled up in the mid-16th century by the Florence-based and Medici-led Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

In Leo’s time, his coup shattered Siena’s ruling Petrucci family** to the injury of one of Leo’s fellow churchmen, Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Italian). Alfonso now had cause to use his office for the agenda of his family and his city, and sought a countervailing anti-Medici arrangement with the condottiero Francesco Maria I della Rovere, whom Leo was even then fighting a war against.

The arrangement came to nothing and Leo assured Alfonso of safe conduct for his return to Rome. It was just a lot of scheming Italian oligarchs doing what they always did, some of them while wearing cassocks.

Except upon Alfonso’s return, Leo had the Petrucci cardinal and another cardinal friendly to him clapped in prison for an alleged plot to poison the pontiff.

Cossetted court cardinals suddenly found themselves accused papicides under the threat (and, for some, the reality) of torture. Hard-to-credit “confessions” duly ensued with Leo enlivening the spring and summer of 1517 with preposterous security theatrics.

On June 8 they assembled in Consistory, when the Pope burst out into complaints. He had evidence, he said, that two other Cardinals whom he had trusted had joined in the conspiracy against him; if they would but come forward and confess he would pardon them freely; if they refused to confess he would have them carried to prison and would treat them like the other [accused]. The Cardinals gazed on one another in alarm, and no one moved. The Pope asked them to speak, and each in turn denied … Leo X’s dramatic stroke was a failure; he could not succeed in his unworthy attempt to induce some unsuspected person to criminate himself. (Source)

It’s hardly past thinking that rival factions would poison off a pope, and there’s been some latter-day research suggesting that something really was afoot. For that matter, Leo’s actual death in 1521 has often been suspected of being aided by an apothecary’s philter.

But outside the dramatics, Leo scarcely handled his prisoners in 1517 as if he were much in genuine fear for his life.

Instead, the practical pontifex maximus used it as a shakedown opportunity against anyone who could be denounced a confederate of the hotheaded young Petrucci. The Genoese Cardinal Sauli, arrested together with his friend Petrucci, was forced to buy his liberty for 50,000 ducats; Cardinal Riario, Leo’s old opposite number from the 1513 conclave, was implicated by Petrucci and Sauli as knowing himself the prospective beneficiary of the plot, and Riario was forced to retire to Naples upon payment of an exit tariff of 150,000 ducats plus his Roman palace. (It remains papal property to this day as the Palazzo della Cancelleria.) Further downmarket, Cardinals Soderini and Adrian fled Rome in despair of discharging the 25,000-ducat fines affixed upon each of them.

Money, however, would not suffice for Cardinal Petrucci, the active center of whatever conspiracy existed. Petrucci probably did murmur something one could construct as treason against his Holy Father, if one regarded them in their ecclesiastical rather than their dynastic positions, and he evidently engaged the Pope’s surgeon Giovanni Battista da Vercelli as an instrument of the proposed assassination or at least made loose talk to that effect.

While the doctor, along with Petrucci’s private secretary, were hauled through the streets to a demonstrative gibbeting, Petrucci was strangled privately in his cell on July 16, 1517. It was done by a Moor out of consideration for the impropriety of a Christian slaying a father of the Holy Church.

Beyond the rent-seeking and the rival-eradicating, Leo leveraged the purported plot to appoint 31 new cardinals in July 1517, basically doubling the College of Cardinals at one stroke while stocking the ranks with men who could offer him political support or timely bribes.

* Riario’s legacy can still be seen around the Vatican to this day: he’s the guy who brought Michelangelo to Rome.

** Leo’s coup deposed one Petrucci and raised up a different, more compliant Petrucci.

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1548: Francesco Burlamacchi, Lucca republican

Add comment February 14th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Francesco Burlamacchi lost his head … for a united Italy?

A humanist patrician with a soft spot for Plutarch, Burlamacchi had orchestrated a bid to break away an independent federation of Tuscan cities — Florence, Pisa, and his own city of Lucca.

The dream of the Republic and liberty lived long after Rome’s legions had ceased to tromp. It’s just that said dream got reliably tromped over whenever it threatened to materialize in reality.

These prospectively-liberated cities existed with formal independence under the aegis of the allied Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — and were locally bullied by the Medici Duke Cosmo. That made two Caesars who would not be keen on fragmented city-states coalescing into Burlamacchi’s Republic of Tourist Hotspots; for good measure, Burlamacchi threw in some religious reform and anti-clericalism that would be sure to go down poorly with the church. (Lucca was notorious in the Vatican’s eyes as a center of heterodoxy.)

Against this likely formidable opposition, our plotter counterpoised an astonishing rolling-putsch plan.

His scheme was to march a militia, under cover of “training,” out to the environs of Pisa where he would appeal to the Pisans to throw off their Florentine shackles, then march the resulting larger troop to Florence and appeal to the Florentines to kick out the Medici. Revolution accomplished, the neighboring cities — Siena, Arezzo, Lucca itself — would naturally adhere to this new confederation.* He meant, he later told his judges, to “free all of Tuscany.”

Pretty ambitious. Or optimistic. Or … bonkers.

Once the impossible dream plot was betrayed from the inside, Duke Cosmo, as the most direct target of the intended march, wanted Burlamacchi delivered to his own hands for interrogation and punishment; the elders of Lucca could not do this without making an impolitic show of submission to their neighbor.** Charles V resolved the impasse by taking Burlamacchi to the imperial seat of northern Italy, Milan, and cutting his head off there.

During Italy’s 19th century risorgimento, the Italian writer Carlo Minutoli rediscovered Burlamacchi and popularized him as a forerunner of the new Italian nationalists. (Burlamacchi had long been forgotten as an embarrassment in the intervening centuries.)

Accordingly, with the (proto-)unification of Italy, Tuscan sculptor Ulisse Cambi was commissioned to produce a monumental statue of Francesco Burlamacchi. This would-be Aratus still keeps watch on Lucca’s Piazza San Michele.


(cc) image from alphaorionis. Note that, according to The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies (whose chapter “Fortune’s Fool” by Mary Hewlett was invaluable to this post), the historical Burlamacchi actually never carried a sword and hated bloodshed.

* The confederated city-states model was really big in the family. Burlamacchi’s teenage — at the time of the execution — son Michele later emigrated to Geneva, in the Swiss Confederation, and converted to Calvinism.

** Lucca was declining as a power at this time, and all the more insistent about jealously guarding a maximal appearance of sovereignty. The city-state’s major project in the 16th century was throwing up city-girding defensive walls meant to preserve her independence.

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1479: Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, sketched by Leonardo da Vinci

3 comments December 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1479, a fugitive of the previous year’s Pazzi Conspiracy — an ill-starred attempt by the Pazzi family to overthrow the Medici — was hanged in Florence.

Bernardo Baroncelli had actually struck the first blow on the Pazzi conspiracy’s big day, planting a dagger in the chest of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici in the theatrical setting of Florence’s Duomo, with the theatrical declaration, “Here, traitor!”

Must’ve been a sight to see. Giuliano wound up dead, but the rest didn’t work out so well.

Baroncelli, however, managed to evade the resulting paroxysm of civic vengeance and hightail it to Ottoman Istanbul, where he had some contacts.

Unfortunately for Bernardo, Florence had some contacts there, too. Ottoman relations with the various Italian city-states were actually quite strong, and Florence in particular enjoyed lucrative trade arrangements bringing its wool textiles to Bursa to exchange for silk.

So you can understand the effusion for Mehmet the Conqueror* (and the interest of said Mehmet the Conqueror) in this bit of Florentine diplomatic correspondence quoted in The Papacy and the Levant:

By letters of Bernardo Peruzzi we have learned with great pleasure how that most glorious prince [Mehmet] has seized Bernardo Bandini, most heinous parricide and traitor to his country, and declares himself willing to do with him whatever we may want — a decision certainly in keeping with the love and great favor he has always shown toward our Republic and our people as well as with the justice of his most serene Majesty … although as a result of the innumerable benefits done by his most glorious Majesty in the past for the Republic and our people, we owe him the greatest indebtedness and are the most faithful and obedient sons of his Majesty, nevertheless because of this last benefit it would be impossible to describe the extent to which our obligation to his most serene Majesty has grown.

A Florentine representative quickly sailed for the Ottoman capital to make the arrangements, and returned with the hated Bandini on Dec. 24. Five days later, he was hanged over the side of the Bargello.

Florentine native son Leonardo da Vinci sketched the hanging man (the sketch is now in the Musee Bonnat), diligently noting his clothing.

A tan colored skull-cap, a doublet of black serge, a black jerkin, lined and the collar covered with a black and red stippled velvet.
A blue coat lined with fur of fox’s breasts.
Black hose.
Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli.

In the video game Assassin’s Creed II, one of the missions (assigned by Giuliano’s surviving brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent) is to kill Bernardo Baroncelli … but not with trade relations and diplomacy.

* Conqueror of Istanbul/Constantinople, among other things.

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1501: Antonio Rinaldeschi, bad gambler

2 comments July 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1501,* the Italian city-state of Florence celebrated a “double feast”: that of St. Mary Magdalene, which marked a civic carnival every July 22; and, the hanging of sacrilegious gambler Antonio Rinaldeschi on the walls of the Bargello.

Eleven days prior, Rinaldeschi was having a bad run of wagering at The Fig Tree tavern.

Like Jesus is some people’s co-pilot, the Virgin Mary must have been Rinaldeschi’s card-counter — for, stalking out of the premises much the poorer, our doomed punter blasphemously uttered “words that are better kept silent” about her. Then, passing an image of Holy Mother at the piazza Santa Maria de Alberighi, he gathered up some nearby dung and flung it at the sacred pic.

This dry poo maybe should have just slid right off, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Write William Connell and Giles Constable in “Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence: The Case of Antonio Rinaldeschi” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 61 (1998), and the source of most of this entry’s narrative),

a portion of it, resembling a rosette (‘quasi pareva una rosetta secha’), stuck to the Virgin’s diadem, above the nape of her neck. The dirtied image drew much attention. The archbishop came to look. Candles and votive images were brought before the fresco, which quickly became an object of popular devotion.

Someone saw something and the trail led back to the ill-tempered cardsharp within days, who tried to stab himself to death when he realized what was about to go down. He copped to the crime pretty quickly (at least one source says it was so that he could be executed in preference to being lynched), and his corpse dangling out the Bargello window decorated the other Mary’s regularly-scheduled homage of parades and horse-races.

(And, now that it was no longer needed as evidence, the miraculous ordure was cleaned off the statue.)

Florence at the dawn of the 16th century was truly a place where religion could get you killed. This was the city that had elevated severe Dominican friar Savonarola to dictator and morals enforcer in the 1490s (Savonarola especially hated gambling), then overthrew and burned him in 1498.

Our authors think there’s some evidence that the first couple years of the 1500s were a period when the populist religious fanatics who once grooved on Savonarola’s violent party pooper act were back on the march as against, say, the more out-of-touch syphilitic reckless gambling blasphemer element that was now, post-Savonarola, enjoying free run of the town. Having one of the latter excrement-ize a Marian monument is the sort of thing that would have led the Florentine Fox News: naturally, he had to be made an example of.

To help you bear that example in mind, a nine-panel painting, “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi”, attributed to the hanged man’s contemporary Filippo Dolciati, can be seen in Firenze’s Stibbert Museum.

Madonna + manure, meanwhile, has its own art legacy … and the combination is still good for raising a ruckus to this day.


The Holy Virgin Mary, by Chris Ofili: a black Mary smeared with elephant dung.

* The primary sourcing on the chronology of the execution is sketchy enough that it’s possible Rinaldeschi was hanged on July 21, before midnight — rather than in the dark early hours of July 22.

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406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

4 comments August 23rd, 2009 dogboy

Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.

Possible etymological connection to the possibly proto-Slavic barbarian horde: hypothetical Slavic god Radegast lends his gnarly visage to a Czech beer — and maybe to a Tolkein character.

Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.

According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.

But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.

While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.

So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.

Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.

Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.

Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.

* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 1423, long after Stilicho was murdered.

** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.

† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.

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1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities

7 comments May 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1498, the Dominican friar who had once bent Florence to his austere will was hung in chains and burned.

Girolamo Savonarola preached standing-room-only, millenial sermons against worldly immorality, in the early 1490′s. By 1494, when peninsular politics chased a weak Medici scion from Florence, he had become its master.

He makes a complex character, with a streak of flawed greatness even his contemporary enemies recognized; his anti-Renaissance theology was severe but not dour, fired as it was by a genuine spiritual passion that spoke to real needs of his audience and a real crisis growing in the Church. And he did not disdain the revolutionary real-world implications of his faith.

Savonarola instituted Republican government with a touch of the Taliban — a vice squad of young hooligans to rough up rouged ladies and card-players;* a famous Bonfire of the Vanities in which Botticelli incinerated some of his own work — but also a populist economic touch.

For reasons both internal (the killjoy factor of busting up dice games wore out its welcome) and external (his French ally Charles VIII was driven from Italy, and Savonarola made a dire enemy of the corrupt Borgia pontiff Alexander VI), the priest’s grip on Florence weakened. In April 1498, he was arrested with two other clerics; all three were tortured into signing confessions, then executed in the Piazza della Signoria.

The doomed Savonarola anguished that he had not been strong enough to resist the tortures of the rack, and penned in contrition the Latin meditation Infelix ego:

Alas wretch that I am, destitute of all help, who have offended heaven and earth — where shall I go? Whither shall I turn myself? To whom shall I fly? Who will take pity on me? To heaven I dare not lift up my eyes, for I have deeply sinned against it; on earth I find no refuge, for I have been an offence to it…

Like Savonarola’s memory and teachings, it spread — often illicitly — in a Europe ready for religious reform. Infelix ego has been frequently set to devotional music, like this version by Orlande de Lassus:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Savonarola might have been in himself a dead end, an unsuccessful prophet quickly rolled back, but he nonetheless possesses a recognizable essence that distills both the Zeitgeist of his time and the immemorial hunger for simplicity and virtue that coexists with the equally human celebration of pleasure and beauty. He left complex legacies to both the Church and the city his reforms sought (and ultimately failed) to scourge.

In religion, his castigation of the vice and sin of the Church (a position of which he was an outstanding but hardly a lonely advocate) prefigured the coming Reformation. But Savonarola also never left off the most devout affiliation to Catholicism, nor sought institutional schism even when he had been excommunicated.** What to make of such a man? He is both depicted (at the base of a Martin Luther statue) at the Worms Reformation Monument, and proposed for present-day Catholic canonization.

So too his secular legacy — the theocrat who burned books and expelled the Medici and was reduced to ashes for his reactionary principles — merits a respectful recollection in Florence, even if few would actually want to live in his republic. He repelled Machiavelli, but perhaps fascinated him as well, a prince with a precisely backward grasp of his own power.

This stone marking the site of the execution stands at a crossroads of tourist traffic in a thicket of statuary, mostly nude and/or classically inspired, outside the entrance to one of Europe’s principle collections of Renaissance art.

One wonders what the old Dominican would have made of it.

Books about Savonarola’s Florence

* Savonarola also made sodomy punishable by death.

** Alexander VI tried first to get him (in Lyndon Johnson’s fragrant phrase) inside the tent pissing out by making him a cardinal, which Savonarola spurned.

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1478: Pazzi Conspiracy attempted … and suppressed

1 comment April 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1478, a coup d’etat against the Medici family in Florence was attempted during Easter mass — and by day’s end, its leading perpetrators had been hanged.

The Pazzi conspiracy implicates, even more than the municipal political rivalries of the Pazzi and Medici families, the peninsular geopolitics pitting Florence against the Pope, each side with its own constellations of allied lords and city-states.

The arrangement of players and their assorted interests is amply covered elsewhere; we shall suffice for this space to say that the Pazzi were a family of wealth and lineage (another death-sentenced Florentine, Dante, had dropped a couple of their ancestors into his infernal tableau), and proceed to the aftermath.

When one strikes a king, one must strike to kill. In this case, the co-ruling Medici brothers, Giuliano and Lorenzo were both attacked — but Lorenzo survived, and visited a terrible vengeance upon the assailants.

An enraged mob — the Pazzi had misjudged the city’s mood to begin with, and committing murder in church was ill-calculated to win sympathy — and a star chamber of Medici loyalists immediately began rounding up the numerous conspirators, many of whom were summarily hanged from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Along with a number of obscure foot soldiers and family retainers who suffered such indignities as being thrown from high windows onto cobblestones and torn apart by the mob, the most prominent victims this day were Francesco de Pazzi (the link is to his Italian wikipedia page) and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, a papal loyalist whose grievance against Florence for delaying his seat as archbishop of Pisa had done much to instigate the conspiracy.

They were far from the only victims: fugitives who had escaped the city were hunted for weeks and months thereafter, although Lorenzo “the Great” — who cuts the very model of the enlightened prince to posterity, rightly or not — was disposed in several cases to grant mercy to innocents against the dictates of political expediency.

However, the culpable after this day had every reason to fear. Perhaps the most affecting story is that of elderly Pazzi patriarch Jacopo de Pazzi (Italian again), caught in flight by Tuscan villagers whom he tried desperately (and unavailingly) to bribe for the privilege of suicide rather than a return to the fate of his kinsmen. Florentine communal pride celebrated popular participation in vengeance against the papal plot. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the executed conspirators hanging in their death throes on the very facade of the palace where they had in fact been put to death.

The Pazzi family wasn’t quite blotted out literally — later, it would even be restored to the city — but a comprehensive sentence of civic damnatio memoriae followed in the weeks after the immediate danger was checked. The family property was confiscated, its name and coat of arms banished, even the public festival its Crusader forebear had inspired was (unsuccessfully) renamed. For a time, merely to marry a Pazzi was to exclude oneself from public office.

Niccolo Machiavelli was a boy of eight at the time the Pazzi conspiracy was attempted. As a political theorist in later years, the event would liberally illustrate his writings. In Machiavelli’s Discourses (available free from Project Gutenberg), for instance, the Pazzi conspiracy is a lesson in the danger of conspiring against two princes at once, the risk inherent in having any great number of people aware of the plot, and the unpredictable small turns of fortune and minor slips in execution upon which a great matter may succeed or fail.

[I]n these grave undertakings, no one who is without such experience, however bold and resolute, is to be trusted.

The confusion of which I speak may either cause you to drop your weapon from your hand, or to use words which will have the same results. Quintianus being commanded by Lucilla, sister of Commodus, to slay him, lay in wait for him at the entrance of the amphitheatre, and rushing upon him with a drawn dagger, cried out, “The senate sends you this;” which words caused him to be seized before his blow descended. In like manner Messer Antonio of Volterra, who as we have elsewhere seen was told off to kill Lorenzo de’ Medici, exclaimed as he approached him, “Ah traitor!” and this exclamation proved the salvation of Lorenzo and the ruin of that conspiracy.

Machiavelli also renders his account of this day’s affair in his History of Florence, another Gutenberg freebie.

A detailed exploration of the event is available here.

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

5 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Famous,Florence,Guest Writers,Intellectuals,Italy,Nobility,Not Executed,Other Voices,Papal States,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,The Worm Turns

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