The History of Florence—Book VII

Chapter VI

The Pope, anxious to retain the territories of the Church in obedience, had caused Spoleto to be sacked for having, through internal factions, fallen into rebellion. Cittą di Castello being in the same state of contumacy, he besieged that place; and Niccolo Vitelli, its prince, being on intimate terms with Lorenzo de' Medici, obtained assistance from him, which, though inadequate, was quite enough to originate that enmity between Sixtus IV and the Medici afterward productive of such unhappy results. Nor would this have been so long in development had not the death of Frate Piero, Cardinal of St. Sixtus, taken place; who, after having traveled over Italy and visited Venice and Milan (under the pretence of doing honor to the marriage of Ercole, Marquis of Ferrara), went about sounding the minds of the princes, to learn how they were disposed toward the Florentines. But upon his return he died, not without suspicion of having been poisoned by the Venetians, who found they would have reason to fear Sixtus if he were allowed to avail himself of the talents and exertions of Frate Piero. Although of very low extraction, and meanly brought up within the walls of a convent, he had no sooner attained the distinction of the scarlet hat, than he exhibited such inordinate pride and ambition that the pontificate seemed too little for him, and he gave a feast in Rome which would have seemed extraordinary even for a king, the expense exceeding 20,000 florins. Deprived of this minister, the designs of Sixtus proceeded with less promptitude. The Florentines, the duke, and the Venetians having renewed their league, and allowed the Pope and the King to join them if they thought proper, the two latter also entered into a league, reserving an opening for the others if they were desirous to become parties to it. Italy was thus divided in two factions; for circumstances daily arose which occasioned ill-feeling between the two leagues; as occurred with respect to the island of Cyprus, to which Ferrando laid claim, and the Venetians occupied. Thus the Pope and the King became more closely united.

Federigo, Count of Urbino, was at this time one of the first generals of Italy; and had long served the Florentines. In order, if possible, to deprive the hostile league of their captain, the Pope advised, and the King requested him to pay a visit to them. To the surprise and displeasure of the Florentines, Federigo complied, for they thought the same fate awaited him as had befallen Niccolo Piccinino. However, the result was quite different; for he returned from Naples and Rome greatly honored, and with the appointment of general to their forces. They also endeavored to gain over to their interests the Lords of Romagna and the Siennese, that they might more easily injure the Florentines, who, becoming aware of these things, used their utmost endeavors to defend themselves against the ambition of their enemies; and having lost Federigo d' Urbino, they engaged Roberto da Rimino in his place, renewed the league with the Perugini and formed one with the Prince of Faenza. The Pope and the King assigned, as the reasons of their animosity against the Florentines, that they wished to withdraw them from the Venetian alliance, and associate them with their own league; for the Pope did not think the Church could maintain her reputation, nor the Count Girolamo retain the states of Romagna, while the Florentines and the Venetians remained united. The Florentines conjectured their design was to set them at enmity with the Venetians, not so much for the sake of gaining their friendship as to be able the more easily to injure them. Two years passed away in these jealousies and discontents before any disturbance broke out; but the first which occurred, and that but trivial, took place in Tuscany.

Braccio of Perugia, whom we have frequently mentioned as one of the most distinguished warriors of Italy, left two sons, Oddo and Carlo; the latter was of tender years; the former, as above related, was slain by the people of Val di Lamona; but Carlo, when he came to mature age, was by the Venetians, out of respect for the memory of his father, and the hopes they entertained from himself, received among the condottieri of their republic. The term of his engagement having expired, he did not design to renew it immediately, but resolved to try, if, by his own influence and his father's reputation, he could recover possession of Perugia. To this the Venetians willingly consented, for they usually extended their dominion by any changes that occurred in the neighboring States. Carlo consequently came into Tuscany, but found more difficulties in his attempt upon Perugia than he had anticipated, on account of its being allied with the Florentines; and desirous of doing something worthy of memory, he made war upon the Siennese, alleging them to be indebted to him for services performed by his father in the affairs of that republic, and attacked them with such impetuosity as to threaten the total overthrow of their dominion. The Siennese, ever ready to suspect the Florentines, persuaded themselves that this outrage had been committed with their cognizance, and made heavy complaints to the Pope and the King against them. They also sent ambassadors to Florence, to complain of the injuries they had suffered, and adroitly intimated that if Carlo had not been secretly supported he could not have made war upon them with such perfect security.

The Florentines denied all participation in the proceedings of Carlo, expressed their most earnest wish to do everything in their power to put a stop to them, and allowed the ambassadors to use whatever terms they pleased in the name of the signory, to command him to desist. Carlo complained that the Florentines, by their unwillingness to support him, had deprived themselves of a most valuable acquisition and him of great glory; for he could have insured them the possession of the whole territory in a short time, from the want of courage in the people, and the ineffectual provision they had made for their defence. He then withdrew to his engagement under the Venetians; but the Siennese, although delivered from such imminent peril by the Florentines, were still very indignant against them; considering themselves under no obligation to those who had delivered them from an evil to which they had first exposed them.

While the transactions between the King and the Pope were in progress, and those in Tuscany in the manner we have related, an event of greater importance occurred in Lombardy. Cola Montano, a learned and ambitious man, taught the Latin language to the youth of the principal families in Milan. Either out of hatred to the character and manners of the duke, or from some other cause, he constantly deprecated the condition of those who live under a bad prince; calling those glorious and happy who had the good-fortune to be born and live in a republic. He endeavored to show that the most celebrated men had been produced in republics, and not reared under princes; that the former cherish virtue, while the latter destroy it; the one deriving advantage from virtuous men, while the latter naturally fear them. The youths with whom he was most intimate were Giovanni Andrea Lampognano, Carlo Visconti, and Girolamo Olgiato. He frequently discussed with them the faults of their prince, and the wretched condition of those who were subject to him; and by constantly inculcating his principles, acquired such an ascendancy over their minds as to induce them to bind themselves by oath to effect the duke's destruction, as soon as they became old enough to attempt it. Their minds being fully occupied with this design, which grew with their years, the duke's conduct and their own private injuries served to hasten its execution.

Galeazzo was licentious and cruel, of both which vices he had given such repeated proofs that he became odious to all. Not content with corrupting the wives of the nobility, he also took pleasure in making it notorious; nor was he satisfied with murdering individuals unless he effected their deaths by some unusual cruelty. He was suspected of having destroyed his own mother; for, not considering himself prince while she was present, he conducted himself in such a manner as induced her to withdraw from his court, and, travelling toward Cremona, which she obtained as part of her marriage portion, she was seized with a sudden illness, and died upon the road; which made many think her son had caused her death. The duke had dishonored both Carlo and Girolamo in respect to their wives or other female relatives, and had refused to concede to Giovanni Andrea possession of the monastery of Miramondo, of which he had obtained a grant from the Pope for a near relative. These private injuries increased the young men's desire for vengeance, and the deliverance of their country from so many evils; trusting that whenever they should succeed in destroying the duke, many of the nobility and all the people would rise in their defence. Being resolved upon their undertaking, they were often together, which, on account of their long intimacy, did not excite any suspicion. They frequently discussed the subject; and in order to familiarize their minds with the deed itself, they practiced striking each other in the breast and in the side with the sheathed daggers intended to be used for the purpose. On considering the most suitable time and place, the castle seemed insecure; during the chase, uncertain and dangerous; while going about the city for his own amusement, difficult if not impracticable; and, at a banquet, of doubtful result. They, therefore, determined to kill him upon the occasion of some procession or public festivity when there would be no doubt of his presence, and where they might under various pretexts, assemble their friends. It was also resolved, that if one of their number were prevented from attending, on any account whatever, the rest should put him to death in the midst of their armed enemies.

It was now the close of the year 1476, near Christmas, and as it was customary for the duke to go upon St. Stephen's day, in great solemnity, to the church of that martyr, they considered this the most suitable opportunity for the execution of their design. Upon the morning of that day they ordered some of their most trusty friends and servants to arms, telling them they wished to go to the assistance of Giovanni Andrea, who, Contrary to the wish of some of his neighbors, intended to turn a water-course into his estate; but that before they went they wished to take leave of the Prince. They also assembled, under various pretences, other friends and relatives, trusting that when the deed was accomplished, everyone would join them in the completion of their enterprise. It was their intention, after the duke's death, to collect their followers together and proceed to those parts of the city where they imagined the plebeians would be most disposed to take arms against the duchess and the principal ministers of state, and they thought the people, on account of the famine which then prevailed, would easily be induced to follow them; for it was their design to give up the houses of Cecco Simonetta, Giovanni Botti, and Francesco Lucani, all leading men in the government, to be plundered, and by this means gain over the populace and restore liberty to the community. With these ideas, and with minds resolved upon their execution, Giovanni Andrea and all the rest were early at the church, and heard mass together; after which, he, turning to a statue of St. Ambrose, said, "O patron of our city! thou knowest our intention, and the end we would attain, by so many dangers; favor our enterprise, and prove, by protecting the oppressed, that tyranny is offensive to thee."

To the duke, on the other hand, when intending to go to the church, many omens occurred of his approaching death; for in the morning, having put on a cuirass, as was his frequent custom, he immediately took it off again, either because it inconvenienced him or that he did not like its appearance. He then wished to hear mass in the castle, and found that the priest who officiated in the chapel had gone to St. Stephen's, and had taken with him the sacred utensils. On this he desired the service to be performed by the Bishop of Como, who acquainted him with preventing circumstances. Thus, almost compelled, he determined to go to the church; but before his departure, caused his sons, Giovan Galeazzo and Ermes, to be brought to him, whom he embraced and kissed several times, seeming reluctant to part with them. He then left the castle, and, with the ambassadors of Ferrara and Mantua on either hand, proceeded to St. Stephen's. The conspirators, to avoid exciting suspicion, and to escape the cold, which was very severe, had withdrawn to an apartment of the arch-priest, who was a friend of theirs; but hearing the duke's approach, they came into the church, Giovanni Andrea and Girolamo placing themselves upon the right hand of the entrance, and Carlo on the left. Those who led the procession had already entered, and were followed by the duke, surrounded by such a multitude as is usual on similar occasions. The first attack was made by Giovanni Andrea and Girolamo, who, pretending to clear the way for the prince, came close to him, and grasping their daggers, which, being short and sharp, were concealed in the sleeves of their vests, struck at him. The first gave him two wounds, one in the belly, the other in the throat. Girolamo struck him in the throat and breast. Carlo Visconti, being nearer the door, and the duke having passed, could not wound him in front; but with two strokes, transpierced his shoulder and spine. These six wounds were inflicted so instantaneously that the duke had fallen before anyone was aware of what had happened, and he expired, having only once ejaculated the name of the Virgin, as if imploring her assistance.

A great tumult immediately ensued, several swords were drawn, and, as often happens in sudden emergencies, some fled from the church, and others ran toward the scene of tumult, both without any definite motive or knowledge of what had occurred. Those, however, who were nearest the duke and had seen him slain, recognizing the murderers, pursued them. Giovanni Andrea, endeavoring to make his way out of the church, proceeded among the women, who being numerous, and according to their custom, seated upon the ground, was prevented in his progress by their apparel, and being overtaken, he was killed by a Moor, one of the duke's footmen. Carlo was slain by those who were immediately around him. Girolamo Olgiato passed through the crowd, and got out of the church; but seeing his companions dead, and not knowing where else to go, he proceeded home, where his father and brothers refused to receive him; his mother only, having compassion on her son, recommended him to a priest, an old friend of the family, who, disguising him in his own apparel, led him to his house. Here he remained two days, not without hope that some disturbance might arise in Milan which would contribute to his safety. This not occurring, and apprehensive that his hiding-place would be discovered, he endeavored to escape in disguise, but being observed, he was given over to justice, and disclosed all the particulars of the conspiracy. Girolamo was twenty-three years of age, and exhibited no less composure at his death than resolution in his previous conduct, for being stripped of his apparel, and in the hands of the executioner, who stood by with the sword unsheathed, ready to deprive him of life, he repeated the following words, in the Latin tongue, in which he was well versed: "Mors acerba, fama perpetua, stabit vetus memoria facti."

The enterprise of these unfortunate young men was conducted with secrecy and executed with resolution: and they failed for want of the support of those whom they expected would rise in their defence. Let princes therefore learn to live, so as to render themselves beloved and respected by their subjects, that none may have hope of safety after having destroyed them; and let others see how vain is the expectation which induces them to trust so much to the multitude, as to believe, that even when discontented, they will either embrace or ward off their dangers. This event spread consternation all over Italy; but those which shortly afterward occurred in Florence caused much more alarm, and terminated a peace of twelve years' continuance, as will be shown in the following book; which, having commenced with blood and horror, will have a melancholy and tearful conclusion.