The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded
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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 Italy’s many city-states providing the grist for Machiavelli’s 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 Medici’s 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 period’s most colorful characters, relive its tumultuous politics, and discover that two famous paintings, including one in the Sistine Chapel, contain the Medici’s astounding revenge.
Federico da Montefeltro’s official condolences. The duke wrote that he had been informed, both by Lorenzo’s letter (which has been lost) and “through many other channels,” of the “horrendous and despicable attack” against Giuliano, for which he felt “deep displeasure and immense pain”: Nonetheless, things having happened in the way they did, through the divine grace and virtue of Your Magnificence and the extraordinary love and faith demonstrated by this magnificent people and by your friends,
destabilizing wars sucked up all the state funds. In his January 22 letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Gian Giacomo Simonetta reported that since Galeazzo’s death the Milanese duchy had already spent the mind-boggling sum of 1.6 million ducats on security and wars. Access to the ducal treasury, which contained over two million ducats, was a privilege of the duchess alone. Therefore, the governors were forced on a daily basis to borrow cash from moneylenders at a high interest rate, and in order to
troops. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, Giustini had been condemned to death in absentia and was therefore extremely hostile to Lorenzo. But now in Naples, as the pope’s envoy, he was sneaky enough to make an effort to hide his personal dislike for the Medici survivor. Lorenzo had no choice but to put up with Giustini. He knew that the pope was trying to crush him, and he could only hope that the king would see a political advantage in keeping him alive. On February 28, 1480, Lorenzo abruptly
significant frescoes of the Christ cycle. Just in front of the Punishment of Korah, the Charge contains two arches modeled after the Arch of Constantine, commemorating Sixtus as the builder of the chapel. The inscription that runs from the one to the other boldly states, appropriately for a self-celebrating pope: SOLOMON IS NO WISER THAN SIXTUS As wise as he claimed to be, Sixtus refused to pay Botticelli for his work. The painter seems to have left Rome by April 1482, before the outbreak of
provisions: Federico da Montefeltro to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Revere, May 4, 1482 (MAP XXXVIII 444; translated in Dennistoun, I, pp. 251–52). See Chambers, “Visit”: perhaps we can identify the “Pietro miniador” as Guidaleri, who came from Mantua in May 1482 to bring a map of the river Oglio and of the surrounding castles, which was commissioned by Federico for his war operations in defense of Ferrara (see Federico da Montefeltro and His Library, cat. 2). Federico’s reply to the sermon was: