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Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. Hidden in Plain Sight: Covert Criticism of the Medici in Renaissance Florence! From his natural goodness and inclination came infinite advan- tages, but through the necessity of tyranny some evils although they were restrained msdici limited as much as necessity permitted.

Ingannati fin dai tempi della scuola : Alberto Medici :

It is surprising how durable the “golden myth” of the Medici has proven, a myth in which the family is seen as just and benevolent rulers, enlightened patrons of learning and the arts, and the principal enablers of the great flowering of artistic and literary cre- ativity known as the Italian Renaissance.

As recent scholarship has shown, this myth is largely a creation of the Medici family itself, part of the family’s astute and far-sighted strategy of self-promotion in the face of competition for political and cultural influence in sixteenth century Italy. That this myth survives, unchallenged, even today among scholars of the period, is attested to by the introduction to a recent collection of essays on the cul- tural politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, in which the editor comments: In this volume, we will present evidence which points to another view of the Medici in Florence, in which their often ruthless pursuit ingannati power and their determination to use any means necessary to maintain this power led to a climate fundamentally inimi- cal to the free expression of critical sentiments.

Against the background of this political 1! Ashgate,xi. These writers and artists used this technique–called emphasis in classical rhetorical theo- ry–to express sentiments critical of Medici rule while maintaining a margin of safety not to say economic viability for themselves and their families, and also to assert their inher- ent self-worth in relation to patrons upon whom they depended for their livelihood.

We will suggest that this mode of discourse was actually more common in Renais- sance Europe than scholars perhaps have realized, and that it became especially inganhati as the century progressed, and the powers of Church and state became increasingly intent upon controlling and limiting all forms of critical discourse.

The Index of the Counter- Reformation is inyannati the most well-known of these attempts.

This mode of deliberately obscure discourse has been well studied in the religious writings of the era where it is called “nicodemismo”but it has inggannati relatively little attention in secular works of art and literature from the period. It is hoped that this study will foster further investiga- tion of this important phenomenon in Renaissance Europe. We will first briefly sketch the political and cultural climate in Florence during the first decades of the 16th century which made the intannati of this mode of discourse an important prerequisite for dealing with powerful xlberto figures, and will then proceed to an examination of its use by Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Vasari and others to encode criticism of the Medici rulers in works of alnerto directed to these same rulers.

In Chapter 1, we use classical rhetorical theory to show that Machiavelli’s Prince was not intended either as political science, or as advice for a prince, but rather as a very subtle, but nevertheless forceful, condemnation of the Italian princes of his day, the Medici in particular. After a close reading of Machiavelli’s text against this rhetorical background, we will consider several possible answers to the question of why Machiavel- li should choose to write such a text.

Our analysis will demonstrate that Machiavelli’s Prince, far from being a puzzling exception to the republican sentiments expressed in his other writings, an anomaly which has long troubled scholars, is instead thoroughly con- sistent with them, differing from them only in the covert means by which the author!

From this examination of the text against the back- ground of rhetorical theory, one of the perennially vexing questions in the interpretation of Machiavelli’s political thought–how to reconcile the apparently “princely” counsels of the Prince with the republican sentiments expressed in Machiavelli’s other writings–can finally be resolved. In Chapter 2, we continue the discussion of the practice of covert criticism in the Italian Renaissance through an examination of Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel in Flo- rence, and show that, far from being an encomiastic celebration of his Medici patrons, as often assumed, Michelangelo intended the Chapel as a covert criticism of Medici rule.

We achieve this through a close examination of the visual details of the monument itself, seen against the background of Michelangelo’s own writings and the contemporary Flo- rentine practice of appending critical texts to works of public sculpture as a way of eluci- dating their political meaning. Chapter 3 broadens the study of covert critique from specific artists and writers to include an entire compagnia in Renaissance Florence, the Compagnia della Cazzuola.

We will show how the bizarre entertainments enacted by the members of this association, de- scribed at length by Vasari, while on the surface presenting the appearance of harmless, if strange, dinner celebrations, in accord with the essentially carnivalesque nature of the company, actually conveyed, in a highly allusive and recondite way, criticism of the Medici regime, newly reestablished in the city after eighteen years of republican rule.


To do this, we examine the political meanings of the classical myths reenacted by its mem- bers, thus demonstrating that drama, as well as didactic prose and works of public sculp- ture, as in the cases of Machiavelli and Michelangelo, was also a means well-suited for the indirect communication of sentiments critical of the domination by the Medici family of these individuals’ native city, traditionally a free commune or city-state, whose myth of origins reached proudly back to ancient republican Rome.

We will show that the extreme and fanatical miserliness of the Compag- nia della Lesina, symbolized by their impresa, the lesina, or awl, served for these individ- uals as a symbol of the nature of Medici rule in Florence, characterized as it was by an obsessive concentration on the accumulation of personal power and prestige at the ex- pense of concern for the welfare of the commune as a whole. The impresa of the counter- part and rival of the Compagnia della Lesina, the Compagnia della Antilesina, a golden cornucopia, served in its turn as symbol of this group’s essential nature, characterized by a festive and generous munificentia, presented in pointed contrast to the fanatical and de- bilitating miserliness of the Compagnia della Lesina.

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We trace the origins of this latter group of buontemponi to the Rome of the Far- nese family and its Pope, Paul III, and show how their policy of festive generosity and public-spiritedness, expressed in their frequent use of the iconography of fertility and abundance, was intended as an allusive, but pointed rebuke of the deleterious effects of Medici and Imperial rule over Florence and her dominions just described, which found its symbolic expression in the miserly possessiveness of the spilorci of the Compagnia della Lesina.

To such a civic ethos, the enlightened rule of the Farnese in Rome, for whom food unlike the fanatical self-deprivation of the misers of the Compagnia della Lesina was a good to be consumed and shared in a spirit of mutual enjoyment and celebration, presents a striking contrast, and finds its own symbolic expression in the image of the golden cornucopia, pouring out its riches on the city of Rome.

Where the sharpened awls of the Compagnia della Lesina bore deeper and deeper into the midollo of the state, con- suming everything, the horns of plenty of their rivals and counterparts in the Compagnia della Antilesina provide a healing and nurturing balm to the city whose welfare is entrust- ed to their care.

Our investigation of these festive companies will thus serve to demonstrate, once again, as in the cases of Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Vasari, the power of highly symbolic and allusive means as a vehicle for the expression of popular discontent ingabnati the social and political status quo of Renaissance Italy.

Michelangelo was a staunch and life-long ad- herent of the republican cause, a fact sometimes overlooked by scholars in describing his dealings with his powerful patrons. Writing at the end of the s, Girolamo Savonarola eloquent- ly describes the atmosphere of fear and paranoia surrounding Lorenzo il Magnifico in chapter two of the second treatise of his Constitution and Government of Florence: Paola Barocchi and Renzo Ristori Florence: Sansoni,I, Unicopli, Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the Italian in this chapter are mine.

One scholar even goes so far as to describe Michelangelo as a kind of court artist, eager to serve his princely patrons, seeing him in this as typical of his times. For this citation, and a discussion of Michelangelo as an adherent of the republican cause, see Chapter 2. Such a view of Michelangelo, to one who studies his biography carefully, and the histori- cal medii in which his works were created, is, in our opinion, impossible to maintain.

Dear friends, I cannot think about this subject without tears. It makes me ashamed, for I too was born in this city, and I too belong to our time. And I see the people who once commanded most of Tuscany and even some of the neighboring peo ples, bullied today by the whims of one young man. Many noble minds and medicl of eminent seniority and wisdom wear today the ingannagi of servitude and hardly rec ognize their own condition. Nor, when they do see it, do they dare avenge them selves.

Writings on Freedom from Fifteenth-Century Florence, trans. Renee Neu Watkins Columbia, S. University of South Carolina Press, After the restoration of the Medici to power in Florence following the Sack of Prato in an event Machiavelli alberfo “an appalling spectacle of horrors”the arrogant and authoritarian Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino and Pope Leo’s nephew, ruled the city as if it were his private fief, surrounded by bodyguards and young dandies “as subservient as courtiers.

The more affable and less ambitious Giuliano the Pope’s brother was recalled to Rome and! Writings of Freedom from Fifteenth-Centu- ry Florence, ed. University of South Car- olina Press, Francesco Guicciardini notes that the sack of Prato procured lasting enmity for the Medici family among the citizens of Florence: Princeton University Press, Its Rise and Fall New York: Morrow, After the fall of the last Florentine republic, and Alessandro de’ Medici’s accession to power in the fall ofMedici rule over the city was seen as particularly hateful, due to the relentless persecution of the Florentine exiles, the disarming of the Florentine citizens, the melting down of the great bell of the campanile of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Vacca, symbol of Florence’s freedom, to make medals for Pope Leo, and the general harshness of Alessandro’s rule, as the historian Benedetto Varchi makes clear: In Florence at that time people lived in universal discontent, both because aberto the newness of that government, never before seen in that city, and also because of its violence, seeing that often, for the slightest offense, harm came to now this, now that, ingqnnati and also because of the evil behavior of the family of the Duke, and of those soldiers who stood guard, who were truly criminal; to which one might add that Duke Alessandro behaved most dishonorably toward women, and did not forebear, so that he might vent his lust, from sacred virgins, nor from any other woman, whatever her circumstances or social status.

The reference here to the newness of Medici rule in the city is intended to recall to the reader the classical tradition of the figure of the tyrant, whose rule is characterized by violence against ordinary citizens, the dishonoring of defenseless women, and by con- stant fear on the part of the tyrant himself, who must live surrounded by bodyguards ingannayi In the citations, the first number indicates the first or second volume of the Salani edition, the second, the number of the book, and the third, the number of the chapter.

Unless other- wise noted, all translations from the Italian are my own. In the classical tradition, this constant fearfulness of the tyrant prevents him from enjoying the love and esteem of the citizens which is granted to just and beneficent rulers. Varchi describes the jubilation which greeted news of the assassination of Alessandro on the night of January 6, by Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici “Lorenzino”: And so I say that one could scarcely believe neither how fast the news spread throughout all of Italy Duke Alessandro having been wounded and killed the night of Epiphany in his room by Albertoo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medicinor how many different things were said about it; indeed, most men, and especially the Flo rentines, and among these the exiles, exalted him [Lorenzino] to the skies with the highest praise, not merely considering him equal to, but placing him before Bru tus; and on this account many, and among these Benedetto Varchi [the author], more than anyone else, composed, both in Italian and in Latin, many poems both in celebration of the tyrannicide and of the new Tuscan Brutus by which names!


Varchi also reports that Francesco Maria Molza, although he had originally com- posed an oration condemning him, eventually wrote an epigram praising Lorenzino: Invisum ferro Laurens dum percutit hostem, Quod premeret patriae libera colla suae;! Here we observe at work a form of veiled critique, or covert allusion, by which the author is hinting at more than he can state explicitly. This hypothesis is confirmed by the final words of the book, in which the Roman historian Tacitus a master of the technique of covert allusion, whom albertk discuss at length in Chapter 1 is cited: We discuss in Chapter 1 the similar use of code words by Machiavelli in the Prince.

We also note below a particularly masterful use of this technique of covert critique by Varchi in his discussion of Cosimo’s extensive use of spies to monitor signs of possible discontent in his state. Once again, as in the reference to Tacitus just cited, mention is made to the truth which, with the assistance of time, overcomes all attempts to silence her.

While Lorenzo was striking the hated enemy with his sword, Because he was oppressing the free neck of his country, He said: Here Molza is referring to Lorenzino’s decapitation of the statues on the bas-reliefs of the Arch of Constantine and on the portico of the Basilica of San Paolo in in Rome, an event for which he became notorious in his time, provoking the oration of Molza mentioned above.

The personal device of Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici later Leo X was an ox-yoke under which appeared the motto Jugum enim meum soave est “My yoke is light”a deliberate evocation of the Biblical verse “take my yoke upon you, albefto my burden is easy, and my yoke is light. The Apologia is now in an English translation, with poems of Molza and a transla- tion of the apologia of Francesco Bibboni, the assassin who, under the direction of Cosi- mo, murdered Lorenzino in Venice on February 26, Mrdici for a Murder, trans.

Andrew Brown and J. Cited in Hibbert, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall New York, Princeton University Press,36ff. At that time Pope Clement was tormented by those medidi of the soul [the fear of losing what he had gained] because, having medkci desired, not only to return the house of Medici to Florence, but to make Alessandro her absolute prince, and hav ing to his eternal discredit obtained both of these desires, he never ceased to search for a way to guarantee the State to duke Alessandro; the which seemed to him, as indeed it was, very difficult to do, not only because that government, which he had set up in Florence, was completely new and violent towards the city, but also be cause of the nature of the citizens, who are naturally seditious and desirous of new governments; knowing this very well, he had no doubt that at the first opportunity which presented itself, they would use every means and every force to remove that yoke from themselves, which he with so much trouble and expense and blame to himself had placed on their necks.

Here we see reference to the historical commonplace of the seditiousness and rest- lessness of the Florentines most famously expressed by Dante in Book VI of the Inferno in the image of a feverish woman, tossing and turning on her bed which must be bridled and brought under control by strong government.

For the uprising, see Il tumulto de’ Ciompi: To celebrate the assassination of Alesssandro, a coin was minted in Florence de- picting on one side the image of Lorenzino copied from Roman coins depicting Ingannnati and on the ingannagi, the Phrygian hat of freedom flanked by the two daggers of the liberator.

In his speech as reported by Albeerto dini ablerto, Soderini urges that the Medici not be allowed to return to Florence, since they would surely set themselves up as tyrants: Nor should anyone delude himself that government by the Medici would be the same as it was before they were exiled, because the form and basis of things have changed: But now, having dwelt so many years outside of Florence, brought up in foreign ways, and for this reason out of touch with civic matters, remembering mdici exile and the harsh manner in which they had been treated, very reduced in means and distrusted by so many families; aware that most, indeed, almost the en tire city abhors tyranny, they would not share their counsels with any citizen; and forced by poverty and suspicion, they would arrogate everything to themselves, depending not on good will and love but force and arms, with the result that in a very short albeerto this city would become like Bologna at the time of the Ben tivoglio, or like Siena or Perugia.

For, although conditions were hard then and there was a tyranny al! One wonders what would have happened had the Florentines accepted the terms of the League; certainly, the horrors of Prato would have been avoided; as Guicciardini notes, all the leading citizens of Florence wanted an agreement, “accustomed by the ex- ample of their forefathers to often defend their liberty against iron with gold.

In any event, Soderini’s ingannatl in send- ing the Florentine ambassadors to the Spanish troops outside Prato led to the taking of that city and then to the Medici return to power in Florence. In the s, under the rule of Cosimo, references to the Medici as tyrants contin- ued unabated. Guicciardini and his fellow ottimati had hoped to be able to control the young Medici jedici and direct his power to their own ends, the return to an oligarchical form of albertoo in Florence; in this, they were severely disappointed: Now tell me who is going to restrain him when he wants to ride beyond them?

You can’t impose laws on a man who is your master. Sidney Alexander Prince- ton: Cellini Vita, trans. Cited in Hibbert Alherto military historian John Hale, discussing the construction of the Fortezza da Basso the cornerstone of which was laid on July 15,notes that for Florentines imbued with the nigannati of republicanism a tradition which survived, according to Hale, well into the 16th century the building of fortresses was a clear sign of the repression of a free people by a tyrant: