Book Review: The Medicean Succession
Harvard University Press, 2014
Just like Julius Caesar 1500 years earlier, Florentine Duke Alessandro de Medici did not go gentle into that good night. When his cousin Lorenzino and an accomplice set upon him in 1537, the Duke fought fiercely before he was hacked to death. That assassination kicks off the action of Gregory Murry’s new book, The Medicean Succession, a shrewdly intelligent and rollingly entertaining history of the improbable rise and rule of the 17-year-old young man the Florentine senate picked to succeed the slain Alessandro: Cosimo dei Medici, a beautiful, wall-eyed, bookish offspring of a cadet branch of the family (in explaining why the senate didn’t just assume power itself, Murry smilingly – and rightly – points out that “the plebs of Florence seemingly always preferred the voracity of one lone tyrant to the grasping maws of forty-eight little ones”).
Although any sane young man would have been tempted to run in the other direction at the thought of taking the helm of a snakepit-city like sixteenth century Florence, Cosimo decide to accept “the offer of a lifetime” – and quickly demonstrates that the Florentine senate, expecting the boy to be a mere catspaw, had judged him wrong. He stepped into power like a man easing into his bath, and he immediately began exhibiting the marvelous Medici blend of inspiration and ruthless pragmatism. Even early on, Cosimo “knew very well how to strike a clement pose,” and he needed every scrap of such skill, since, as Murry points out, he was the ultimate dark horse candidate for sole rule:
Despite Cosimo’s success his monarchy reportedly weighed heavily on his subjects’ hearts. The list of complaints to which his situation left him vulnerable was long. In the first place, he was only seventeen years old at his ascension, and for many Florentines, the seat of government was no place for a boy. Second, he had little hereditary legitimacy, and for many Florentines, his actions exceeded the little sphere of authority that the senate had actually tried to concede him. And finally, he was a Medici, and for many Florentines the very name reeked of tyranny.
The genius of Murry’s study is the way it traces Cosimo’s steadily-evolving strategy of moving his rule from a purely secular character to something much closer to the quasi-divine “sacral” position of today’s Pope in Rome. Murry reminds us that the mechanisms of that kind of “providential” social role had been in place in Florence for a long time, despite its inherent perils:
Any Florentine seeking support for material providentialism had no need to cast about too far. The idea had an illustrious pedigree that essentially predated Christianity. Germans and Celts alike had blamed natural disaster on the gods and were quick to make their king their scapegoat in times of economic scarcity. The ideal had such legs that even in 1527 Cosimo’s contemporary King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden had noted that his population blamed him personally for the kingdom’s bad weather, exasperatedly remarking: “It is as if they did not realize that I am a human being, and no god.”
Cosimo ruled for almost thirty years; he made the city richer than at any point in its history, greatly enlarged its territories, bridled the always-raging Florentine propensity for internecine murder, and financed a wide array of writers and artists. His rule as a Renaissance prince fairly glitters with a striving kind of humanism, and it’s crowded with colorful characters, and on every page Murry does the subject proud in prose that’s a joy to read. Only very occasionally does he slip into the academese that you might otherwise think would fill a book like this. But no – Murry, a professor of history at Mount St. Mary’s Unversity, almost always remembers that the gaudy colors and brilliant intellects of Renaissance Italy demand expert storytelling (and have long evoked it in historians, from Jakob Burkhardt and John Addington Symonds to G. F. Young and Christopher Hibbert). True, he can sometimes come up with a line like “Cosimo’s experience suggests that successful propaganda sat on a rock of shared local axioms and cultural tropes,” but he far more often writes great lines like, “He may have arisen to save Christian virtue for Christian politics, but only because Machiavelli had left a shattered moral system begging for proof of its own utility.” And he’s always at least as interesting on the subject of the city culture surrounding the man as on the man himself:
If severe justice and mercy were two jousting aspects of the divine nature, the real proof of princely divinity was the ability to reconcile the two, since for early modern Florentines the resolution of these two contradictory attributes was a central, if not the most central, characteristic of God. Again and again, mercy had been reconciled on the cross since Christ’s sacrifice paid the due that humans could not effect themselves. Thus, Cosimo needed to show some similar sort of balancing act.
The Medicean Succession has a hundred pages of endnotes positively swimming in Italian; it’s an unassuming landmark study of a man who hasn’t had a full-dress biography in English in a century. But in a note appropriate to this open-handed patron of poets and historians, the main enjoyment in these pages is Murry’s self-evident pleasure in the telling of his tale.