Florentines took both their religion and their politics seriously, above all because they always took them together. Just as there were factions fighting continually over the city’s political direction, so there were also religious factions that divided over how to honour Florence’s religious traditions and mission, and how to put both into practice in the here and now.
We find ourselves in the city in an uneasy time: it is April 1492 and Lorenzo de’Medici, the city’s unofficial but de facto ruler has just died. The aristocratic style he developed over the decades when he ran the city from behind the scenes impressed many, but alienated others. Some of the latter were powerful families that wanted a bigger share of the action. Others were merchants and artisans who wanted to return to a simpler communal politics, and a simpler religious life that puts help for the poor and widows ahead of paintings for altars and chapels.
Our guide the widow Niccolosa Alessandri Pazzi was old enough to be Lorenzo’s mother. Her sons Francesco, Giovanni, and Guglielmo Pazzi had tried to be his murderers in a bloody conspiracy in 1478 that drew in Medici enemies from the Pope in Rome to the King of Naples. All were fed up with a family of bankers that was acting more and more like barons. The Medici barely survived, and their brutal response included death for many, including Niccolosa’s sons.
Their vendetta, together with a tightening grip on power, would alienate more former friends and would help the rise of a religious reformer who was just emerging in Lorenzo de’Medici’s final years. The friar Savonarola preached that Florentines had to turn their backs on tyrants, on luxuries, and corruption. They had to repent and return to a simpler religion of piety, charity, devotion, and care for neighbours or God would punish them severely. The bolt of lightning that split the huge lantern at the top of the Cathedral dome when Lorenzo died seemed to many to be God’s exclamation point on Savonarola’s message. Mona Niccolosa isn’t sure about that, but she does believe that Florentines can do better – and that they have done better in the past. She doesn’t aim to preach at us – she takes us through some of the city’s most resonant spaces to show us what religion meant to Florentines at street level and in the day to day.
Mona Niccolosa’s tour takes us past both religious sites, and the palaces of wealthy and powerful Florentines, and in the process she muses on some of the tragedies that can develop when religion and politics mix.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘Politics, piety, and the Pazzi’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/niccolosa/nicc_intro/
Alison Brown, Medicean and Savonarolan Florence: The Interplay of Politics, Humanism, and Religion. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011.
Margaret C.E. King, Renaissance Women Patrons: Wives and Widows in Italy, c. 1300-1550. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Ann Crabb, The Strozzi of Florence: Widowhood and Family Solidarity in the Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Sharon Strocchia, “Theaters of Everyday Life” in R.J. Crum & J.T. Paoletti, Renaissance Florence: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006: 55-80.