The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878


The Opponents of the Despots

In face of this centralized authority, all legal opposition within the borders of the State was futile. The elements needed for the restoration of a republic had been for ever destroyed, and the field prepared for violence and despotism. The nobles, destitute of political rights, even where they held feudal possessions, might call themselves Guelphs or Ghibellines at will, might dress up their bravos in padded hose and feathered caps or how else they pleased; thoughtful men like Machiavelli knew well enough that Milan and Naples were too 'corrupt' for a republic. Strange judgements fell on these two so-called parties, which now served only to give official sanction to personal and f family disputes.

An Italian prince, whom Agrippa of Nettesheim advised to put them down, replied that their quarrels brought him in more than 12,000 ducats a year in fines. And when in the year 1500, during the brief return of Lodovico il Moro to his States, the Guelphs of Tortona summoned a part of the neighbouring French army into the city, in order to make an end once for all of their opponents, the French certainly began by plundering and ruining the Ghibellines, but finished by doing the same to the Guelphs, till Tortona was utterly laid waste. In Romagna, the hotbed of every ferocious passion, these two names had long lost all political meaning. It was a sign of the political delusion of the people that they not seldom believed the Guelphs to be the natural allies of the French and the Ghibellines of the Spaniards. It is hard to see that those who tried to profit by this error got much by doing so. France, after all her interventions, had to abandon the peninsula at last, and what became of Spain, after she had destroyed Italy, is known to every reader.

But to return to the despots of the Renaissance. A pure and simple mind, we might think, would perhaps have argued that, since all power is derived from God, these princes, if they were loyally and honestly supported by all their subjects, must in time themselves improve and los e all traces of their violent origin. But from characters and imaginations inflamed by passion and ambition, reasoning of this kind could not be expected. Like bad physicians, they thought to cure the disease by removing the symptoms, and fancied that if the tyrant were put to death, freedom would follow of itself. Or else, without reflecting even to this extent, they sought only to give a vent to the universal hatred, or to take vengeance for some family misfortune or personal affront. Since the governments were absolute, and free from all legal restraints, the opposition chose its weapons with equal freedom. Boccaccio declares openly: 'Shall I call the tyrant king or prince, and obey him loyally as my lord? No, for he is the enemy of the commonwealth. Against him I may use arms, conspiracies, spies, ambushes and fraud; to do so is a sacred and necessary work. There is no more acceptable sacrifice than the blood of a tyrant.' We need not occupy ourselves with individual cases; Machiavelli, in a famous chapter of his 'Discorsi,' treats of the conspiracies of ancient and modern times from the days of the Greek tyrants downwards, and classifies them with cold-blooded indifference according to their various plans and results. We need make but two observations, first on the murders committed in church, and next on the influence of classical antiquity. So well was the tyrant guarded that it was almost impossible to lay hands upon him elsewhere than at solemn religious services; and on no other occasion was the whole family to be found assembled together. It was thus that the Fabrianese murdered (1435) the members of their ruling house, the Chiavelli, during high mass, the signal being given by the words of the Creed, 'Et incarnatus est.' At Milan the Duke Giovan Maria Visconti (1412) was assassinated at the entrance of the church of San Gottardo Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1476) in the church of Santo Stefano, and Lodovico il Moro only escaped (1484) the daggers of the adherents of the widowed Duchess Bona, through entering the church of Sant' Ambrogio by another door than that by which he was expected. There was no intentional impiety in the act; the assassins of Galeazzo did not fail to pray before the murder to the patron saint of the church, and to listen devoutly to the first mass. It was, however, one cause of the partial failure of the conspiracy of the Pazzi against Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici (1478), that the brigand Montesecco, who had bargained to commit the murder at a banquet, declined to undertake it in the Cathedral of Florence. Certain of the clergy 'who were familiar with the sacred place, and consequently had no fear' were induced to act in his stead.

As to the imitation of antiquity, the influence of which on moral, and more especially on political, questions we shall often refer to, the example was set by the rulers themselves, who, both in their conception of the State and in their personal conduct, took t he old Roman empire avowedly as their model. In like manner their opponents, when they set to work with a deliberate theory, took pattern by the ancient tyrannicides. It may be hard to prove that in the main point in forming the resolve itself they consciously followed a classical example; but the appeal to antiquity was no mere phrase. The most striking disclosures have been left us with respect to the murderers of Galeazzo Sforza, Lampugnani, Olgiati, and Visconti. Though all three had personal ends to serve, yet their enterprise may be partly ascribed to a more general reason. About this time Cola de' Montani, a humanist and professor of eloquence, had awakened among many of the young Milanese nobility a vague passion for glory and patriotic achievements, and had mentioned to Lampugnani and Olgiati his hope of delivering Milan. Suspicion was soon aroused against him: he was banished from the city, and his pupils were abandoned to the fanaticism he had excited. Some ten days before the deed they met together and took a solemn oath in the monastery of Sant' Ambrogio. 'Then,' says Olgiati, 'in a remote corner I raised my eyes before the picture of the patron saint, and implored his help for ourselves and for all h* people.' The heavenly protector of the city was called on to bless the undertaking, as was afterwards St. Stephen, in whose church it was fulfilled. Many of their comrades were now informed of the plot, nightly meetings were held in the house of Lampugnani, and the conspirators practiced for the murder with the sheaths of their daggers. The attempt was successful, but Lampugnani was killed on the spot by the attendants of the duke; the others were captured: Visconti was penitent, but Olgiati through all his tortures maintained that the deed was an acceptable offering to God, and exclaimed while the executioner was breaking his ribs, 'Courage, Girolamo! thou wilt long be remembered; death is bitter, but glory is eternal.'

But however idealistic the object and purpose of such conspiracies may appear, the manner in which they were conducted betrays the influence of that worst of all conspirators, Catiline, a man in whose thoughts freedom had no place whatever. The annals of Siena tell us expressly that the conspirators were students of Sallust, and the fact is indirectly confirmed by the confession of Olgiati. Elsewhere, too, we meet with the name of Catiline, and a more attractive pattern of the conspirator, apart from the end he followed, could hardly be discovered.

Among the Florentines, whenever they got rid of, or tried to get rid of, the Medici, tyrannicide was a practice universally accepted and approved. After the flight of the Medici in 1494, the bronze group of Donatello Judith with the dead Holofernes was taken from their collection and placed before the Palazzo della Signoria, on the spot where the 'David' of Michelangelo now stands, with the inscription, 'Exemplum salutis publicae cives posuere 1495. No example was more popular than that of the younger Brutus, who, in Dante, lies with Cassius and Judas Iscariot in the lowest pit of hell, because of his treason to the empire. Pietro Paolo Boscoli, whose plot against Giuliano, Giovanni, and Giulio Medici failed (1513), was an enthusiastic admirer of Brutus, and in order to follow his steps, only waited to find a Cassius. Such a partner he met with in Agostino Capponi. His last utterances in prison a striking evidence of the religious feeling of the time show with what an effort he rid his mind of these classical imaginations, in order to die like a Christian. A friend and the confessor both had to assure him that St. Thomas Aquinas condemned conspirators absolutely; but the confessor afterwards admitted to the same friend that St. Thomas drew a distinction and permitted conspiracies against a tyrant who bad forced himself on a people against their will.

After Lorenzino Medici had murdered the Duke Alessandro (1537), and then escaped, an apology for the deed appeared,8 which is probably his own work, and certainly composed in his interest, and in which he praises tyrannicide as an act of the highest merit; on the supposition that Alessandro was a legitimate Medici, and, therefore, related to him, if only distantly, he boldly compares himself with Timoleon, who slew his brother for his country's sake. Others, on the same occasion, made use of the comparison with Brutus, and that Michelangelo himself, even late in life, was not unfriendly to ideas of this kind, may be inferred from his bust of Brutus in the Bargello. He left it unfinished, like nearly all his works, but certainly not because the murder of Caesar was repugnant to his feeling, as the couplet beneath declares.

A popular radicalism in the form in which it is opposed to the monarchies of later times, is not to be found in the despotic States of the Renaissance. Each individual protested inwardly against despotism but was disposed to make tolerable or profitable terms with it rather than to combine with others for its destruction. Things must have been as bad as at Camerino, Fabriano, or Rimini, before the citizens united to destroy or expel the ruling house. They knew in most cases only too well that this would but mean a change of masters. The star of the Republics was certainly on the decline.