For reasons of state: political executions, republicanism, and the Medici in Florence, 1480-1560
By Nicholas Scott Baker
Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 62 (2009)
Abstract: Prior to the late fifteenth century in Florence, the losers of political conflicts routinely faced exile as punishment for their perceived crimes. Following the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, however, such political criminals increasingly received death sentences rather than banishment. This article explores how the changing nature of punishment for political crimes in Renaissance Florence from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries can be read as a barometer of political change in the city. It examines the relationship between the growing number of political executions and the long transformation of Florence from a republic to a principality, with reference to the broader context of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy.
Introduction: On In 21 August 1497 the Florentine government executed five men, in haste and at night: Bernardo del Nero, Niccolo` Ridolfi, Lorenzo Tornabuoni, Giannozzo Pucci, and Bernardo Cambi. The apothecary and insatiable recorder of gossip Luca Landucci (1436–1516) wrote that “all Florence” was shocked by their deaths, and that the passage of Tornabuoni’s body by his shop on its way to burial occurred “not without my tears.” The five had received death sentences for plotting to restore Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1471–1503) to the city. Piero and his brothers, the heirs of Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449–92), had fled Florence in November 1494, following a coup that had ended their family’s domination of the republic. The expulsion of the Medici received broad approbation across the city: most of the family’s closest allies supported it. Landucci recalled that the selection of a new executive in December 1494, the first chosen without Medicean political controls in decades, was met “with sweet happiness, seeming a popular and more communal government.” So why did Landucci and the rest of city mourn the death of the conspirators? In particular, why did the apothecary claim that the denial of any appeal to the condemned “seemed too cruel to such men”? This article proposes that an explicitly political execution represented a novelty in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century. Prior to the 1470s, men convicted of crimes against the government and state, especially those who belonged to the upper echelons of the office-holding class (as Tornabuoni and his fellow conspirators did), received sentences of exile, fines and confiscation of property, and bans from political positions, but not death. The political executions in 1497 were the first such killings of members of the elite since 1481, when the last Pazzi conspirators were hanged. In the decades after the 1497 executions, capital punishment for political reasons occurred more frequently. This increasing cruelty, to borrow Landucci’s word, in Florentine public life from the late fifteenth century provides a way to map the changing political culture of the city as the 200-year-old republic slowly became a principality.