Ian Thomson

Mach the Knife

Despite Erica Benner’s best efforts, Machiavelli still emerges as a master of opportunism, cunning and deception

The business of banking (from the Italian word banco, meaning ‘counter’) was essentially Italian in origin. The Medici bank, founded in Florence in 1397, operated like a prototype mafia consortium: it rubbed out rivals and spread tentacles into what Niccolò Machiavelli called the alti luoghi (‘high places’) of local power interests. Undoubtedly, Medici money was at its most arrogant under the dictatorship of the merchant-poet Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose supremacy was dramatically challenged in the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. Amid a fury of dagger blows in Florence’s cathedral (of all places) Lorenzo narrowly escaped assassination by bravos in the pay of the rival Pazzi family. In retribution, 70 presumed conspirators were publicly torn alive from groin to neck. In mobster parlance, this was a ‘balancing of accounts’.

Machiavelli, born in Medicean Florence in 1469, was perhaps not quite the devious schemer of popular imagination. As a man of some political scruple he was appalled by the irreverence shown by the Pazzi plotters. The signal for the attack came just as the priest had raised the host at High Mass; Lorenzo managed to barricade himself behind the bronze sacristy doors, but his younger brother Giuliano died under knife thrusts. The murder in the cathedral served only to consolidate Lorenzo’s popularity as a Florentine strongman. Under torture, the ringleaders confessed allegiance to the slyly watchful Pope Sixtus IV, who favoured the Pazzi over the Medici as bankers to the Holy See.

In her new biography of Machiavelli, Erica Benner asks how the city that gave us Botticelli and Cellini could have been so appallingly violent. Certainly the Victorians who toured the Uffizi with copies of Walter Pater did not concern themselves much with the city’s blood-soaked past (preferring to bask in the romantic aura of Mr and Mrs Robert Browning). Yet, as Machiavelli knew too well, the intellectual energy of Renaissance Florence was not confined to painting and literature; quite as much money and thought went into the art of political ‘double-speak’ and ‘currying favour’ (Benner has a weakness for cliché) with bankers, popes and princeling-diplomats.

Written in the historic present (‘Niccolò ambles out to the piazza’, ‘Niccolò offers a modest bow’), the biography provides a colourful picture of Renaissance Florence in Machiavelli’s day.

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