Stefano Dall'Aglio. The Duke's Assassin: Exile and Death of Lorenzino de' Medici. Translated by Donald Weinstein. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 320 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-18978-0.
Reviewed by Diego Pirillo (University of California, Berkeley)
Published on H-Italy (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Matt Vester
The crisis of republican ideals in Medici Florence has been explored by generations of Renaissance historians since Jacob Burckhardt described the last moments of the anti-Medicean conspirator Pietro Paolo Boscoli, who, before being executed on February 23, 1513, begged the humanist Luca della Robbia to get Brutus out of his head, so he could die as a Christian. The transition from Republic to Principato is now reappraised in the recent study by Stefano Dall’Aglio, The Duke’s Assassin: Exile and Death of Lorenzino de’ Medici (translated into English by Donald Weinstein from the Italian version published by Olschki in 2011), which focuses on the death of the first duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici, assassinated by the “Tuscan Brutus” Lorenzo di Piero Francesco de’ Medici on the night of January 6-7, 1537. On the basis of abundant new material gathered in both Italian and Spanish archives, Dall’Aglio reevaluates the event and its larger European implications, confirming Marc Bloch’s adage that holds “while the past cannot be changed, knowledge of it is continually evolving” (p. xiv).
The book is divided into two main sections. In the first section (“The Eleven-Year Exile”), Dall’Aglio offers a fresh perspective on Lorenzino’s biography, with significant new information that updates and expands even the recent entry by Elisabetta Stumpo published in 2009 in the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. Of the many previously unstudied documents brought to light by the author, Lorenzino’s letters deserve special attention. Through his discovery of these letters, Dall’Aglio was able to follow closely Lorenzino’s movements throughout Italy, France, and the Ottoman Empire during his fugitive years between the death of Alessandro de’ Medici in January 1537 and his own death in February 1548. Particularly interesting is Dall’Aglio’s revelation of the diplomatic motives behind Lorenzino’s several trips outside of Italy, including Constantinople, where he arrived in April 1537 and met Suleiman the Magnificent several times in private colloquies. While the trip was in part taken to flee and find refuge, it was also part of a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Florentine exiles that intended to create “a common front between the exiles and Suleiman with the blessing of Francis I,” in order to unite against Charles V and Cosimo I (p. 40). In the first section of The Duke’s Assassin, Dall’Aglio also considers the writing of the Apologia, a work that has been throughly studied because of its connection to the traditions of civic humanism and its contribution to the sixteenth-century debate on tyrannicide. While most scholars believe that the Apologia was composed in France, where Lorenzino found refuge between the fall of 1537 and the end of 1544, Dall’Aglio demonstrates that the first draft of the text was in fact completed in the early weeks of 1537, probably in Mirandola, where he was in January of that year, and immediately became a weapon in the “war of words” between the Medici and the Florentine republican exiles.
The second section of the book (“Anatomy of a Murder”) focuses instead on Lorenzino’s death, exploring the connections between Medici Florence, the Florentine republican exiles, and European politics. One of the most important and innovative aspects of The Duke’s Assassin is undoubtedly the illustration of Charles V’s prominent role in Florentine and Italian politics. Charles V’s involvement in sixteenth-century Italian affairs is far from unfamiliar, but Dall’Aglio succeeds in bringing to light the relationship between Florence and the empire in new ways that significantly complicate the traditional understanding of Lorenzino’s death. Contrary to what scholars have believed, Dall’Aglio demonstrates that Cosimo I, duke of Florence, and his numerous agents in Venice played an entirely passive role in the homicide of Lorenzino, and points out that the order that decreed his death “did not come from Florence but from Augsburg,” and it bore the signature not of Cosimo I but of Emperor Charles V (p. 194). Indeed, the turning point in the life of Lorenzino was the victory of Charles V over the Schmalkadic League in April 1547. The new balance of power that emerged in Europe ultimately weakened the position of Lorenzino and of the other Florentine exiles in Venice, many of whom fled to France feeling the lagoon was no longer a safe refuge. In this respect, Dall’Aglio contributes to a better understanding of the “Emperor’s Italy” and on the multiple connections between Charles V and the Italian elite—recently explored by Elena Bonora (Aspettando l'imperatore: Principi italiani tra il papa e Carlo V )—which is also crucial for understanding the complex relationship between the Italian wars and the religious crisis of sixteenth-century Italy. In pointing out the alliance between Charles V and the Medici, Dall’Aglio further confirms, on the basis of new archival material, that Lorenzino found support in Rome, where in January 1546 he met Paul III, the great opponent of both Cosimo and the emperor, and while in Venice he enjoyed the friendship of the papal nuncio Giovanni Della Casa.
Based on intensive archival research, conducted in Italy and Spain, The Duke’s Assassin not only reappraises the death of Alessandro de’ Medici and the biography of Lorenzino but also offers a fresh examination of the transition between Republic and Principato, expanding the “Florence-centered perspective” of previous scholarship and examining the intricate connections between Italian and European affairs. As the copious archival material discovered by Dall’Aglio is a primary strength of the book, it is certainly a pity that the documentary appendix (which in the original Olschki edition occupies more than 110 pages) is not included in this English translation. The reader of The Duke’s Assassin is forced to turn to the Italian edition of the work to access the correspondence between Lorenzino and the leaders of the anti-Medicean exiles Filippo and Roberto Strozzi as well as the letters between Charles V and his ambassadors in Italy, Diego and Juan Hurtado de Mendoza. Moreover, while the introduction claims that at the heart of the book “is not only the affair of Lorenzino but also the problem of the misrepresentations disseminated by Florentine propaganda mechanisms in the era of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici” (p. xiii), more attention could have been dedicated to contrasting archival documents with the long historiographical tradition (that stretches back from Francesco Guicciardini and Benedetto Varchi to their nineteenth-century positivist colleagues) that over centuries distorted the figure of Lorenzino. Finally, given the importance that European diplomacy played in the affair, a closer dialogue with “new diplomatic history,” especially with those scholars who have worked extensively on the relationship between Renaissance diplomacy and the history of information and communication (from Filippo de Vivo to Isabella Lazzarini), would have been beneficial and further strengthened the arguments of the book. But these are only minor shortcomings for a thoroughly researched book that offers a fresh perspective on a crucial moment of sixteenth-century Florentine history, and it will constitute important reading for historians of Renaissance Italy and any scholar working on early modern Europe.
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Diego Pirillo. Review of Dall'Aglio, Stefano, The Duke's Assassin: Exile and Death of Lorenzino de' Medici.
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