The government of the Medici having subdued all its avowed enemies in order to obtain for that family undivided authority, and distinguish them from other citizens in their relation to the rest, found it necessary to subdue those who secretly plotted against them.

This is how Machiavelli, in The History of Florence, begins the narrative of the Pazzi conspiracy.

The Pazzis rivaled the Medicis in wealth and power in Florence. The Pope, who was an enemy of the Medicis, favored them. Lorenzo, in 1466, was the head of the Medici clan. He was, as Machiavelli puts it, “young and flush with power”. Jacobo was the head of the Pazzis. He had a natural daughter – whose marriage to a Medici had been arranged by Lorenzo – and a number of nephews.

Lorenzo, who feared the power of the Pazzis, began against them a campaign of petty affronts. It is by such half measures, such trivial breaks in the normality of the everyday, that power crystalizes. Trotsky found this out very well in the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death. The crowd that wasn't there when he was to address them -- the newspaper article that didn't appear -- the supporter who was suddenly arrested by the police -- troubles with the phone. Kafka had a prophetic sense of this, which is why, next to The Prince, the best book on power and politics in the Western canon is The Trial.

Out of small injuries an idea arose among the Pazzi nephews: the idea was that their fortune would be better if Lorenzo was dead. The first instigator of the idea lived mostly in Rome, and communicated with such powers as were, for one reason or another, disposed to dislike the Medici. From that dislike, they projected a latent dislike of the Medici in Florence, an ambiant williness, on the street level, to see the Medici family ruined.

Jacobo wasn’t so sure.

The idea became a plan, nevertheless; the pope was attracted to it, various of the enemies of the Medici were attracted to it, and it took on money and dates, as plans like this have a tendency to. However, when the conspirators got together in Florence, they kept having the problem of bringing together Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano, in one spot for killing. If the brothers were separated, the Medici had the possibility of countering the Pazzi assassins.

“With this intention they appointed Sunday, the twenty-sixth of April, 1478, to give a great feast; and, resolving to assassinate them at table, the conspirators met on the Saturday evening to arrange all proceedings for the following day. In the morning it was intimated to Francesco that Giuliano would be absent; on which the conspirators again assembled and finding they could no longer defer the execution of their design, since it would be impossible among so many to preserve secrecy, they determined to complete it in the cathedral church of Santa Reparata, where the cardinal attending, the two brothers would be present as usual.”

So, the problem here becomes very specific: how to assassinate two guarded leaders in a church. The Pazzis, at the last moment, were deserted by the man they were counting on to lead the assassination squad, and so had to induce two priests to assail the Medicis. Machiavelli coolly comments: “for if firmness and resolution joined with experience in bloodshed be necessary upon any occasion, it is on such as these; and it often happens that those who are expert in arms, and have faced death in all forms on the field of battle, still fail in an affair like this.”

Indeed. The morning of the 26th, the conspirators get their game going: “The conspirators proceeded to Santa Reparata, where the cardinal and Lorenzo had already arrived. The church was crowded, and divine service commenced before Giuliano’s arrival. Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini, who were appointed to be his murderers, went to his house, and finding him, they, by earnest entreaties, prevailed upon him to accompany them. It is surprising that such intense hatred, and designs so full of horror as those of Francesco and Bernardo, could be so perfectly concealed; for while conducting him to the church, and after they had reached it, they amused him with jests and playful discourse.”

Machiavelli displays that rhetorical touch that makes him so enigmaticly fascinating. A more superstitious (i.e., religious, or American) writer would find the murderers behavior suprising on moral grounds, since after all, human behavior just comes down to good or evil. Machiavelli, however, is more interested in the concealment. The mask is psychologically difficult, so one does want to know how those who successfully mask their thoughts proceed. How do you create the psychological state that would allow you to do this? That is his concern. Instead of good and evil, we are dealing with the norm and its exceptions.

At a signal from the cardinal – the elevation of the host – the attack was mounted. The Pazzi successfully brought down Giuliano. However, the priests only wounded Lorenzo, who made it out of to another part of the church. Meanwhile, other conspirators (the Archbishop de’ Salviati and Jacopo di Poggio) went to the signory – the counsel that officially ruled Florence – thinking that they would destroy the Medici adherents and cow the others. It didn’t work out that way. The counsel and its guards attacked the archbishop and di Poggio’s men. Soon the body of the archibishop was hanging from a window of the signory.

Lorenzo, it turned out, was popular in Florence – Machiavelli makes several ironic comments about the people’s sense of liberty having been suitably put to sleep by the people’s sense of greed, which was fed well by the Medici prosperity. The Pazzis failed to stage a revolt, and so the conspirators each tried to escape as they could. Here’s what happened to Jacobo:

Jacopo de’ Pazzi was taken while crossing the mountains of Romagna, for the inhabitants of these parts having heard what had occurred, and seeing him in flight, attacked and brought him back to the city; nor could he, though he frequently endeavored, prevail with them to put him to death upon the road. Jacopo and Rinato were condemned within four days after the murder of Giuliano. And though so many deaths had been inflicted that the roads were covered with fragments of human bodies, not one excited a feeling of regret, except that of Rinato; for he was considered a wise and good man, and possessed none of the pride for which the rest of his family were notorious. As if to mark the event by some extraordinary circumstance, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, after having been buried in the tomb of his ancestors, was disinterred like an excommunicated person, and thrown into a hole at the outside of the city walls; from this grave he was taken, and with the halter in which he had been hanged, his body was dragged naked through the city, and, as if unfit for sepulture on earth, thrown by the populace into the Arno, whose waters were then very high. It was an awful instance of the instability of fortune, to see so wealthy a man, possessing the utmost earthly felicity, brought down to such a depth of misery, such utter ruin and extreme degradation. It is said he had vices, among which were gaming and profane swearing, to which he was very much addicted; but these seem more than balanced by his numerous charities, for he relieved many in distress, and bestowed much money for pious uses. It may also be recorded in his favor, that upon the Saturday preceding the death of Giuliano, in order that none might suffer from his misfortunes, he discharged all his debts; and whatever property he possessed belonging to others, either in his own house or his place of business, he was particularly careful to return to its owners.”

Machiavelli always tells the moral of his stories before he tells the stories. Our modern habit is to reverse that order. So I retain for last what Machiavelli told first:

“But after the … government became so entirely centred in the Medici, and they acquired so much authority, that discontented spirits were obliged either to suffer in silence, or, if desirous to destroy them, to attempt it in secrecy, and by clandestine means;; which plots rarely succeed and most commonly involve the ruin of those concerned in them, while they frequently contribute to the aggrandizement of those against whom they are directed. Thus the prince of a city attacked by a conspiracy, if not slain like the duke of Milan (which seldom happens), almost always attains to a greater degree of power, and very often has his good disposition perverted to evil. The proceedings of his enemies give him cause for fear; fear suggests the necessity of providing for his own safety, which involves the injury of others; and hence arise animosities, and not unfrequently his ruin. Thus these conspiracies quickly occasion the destruction of their contrivers, and, in time, inevitably injure their primary object.”

We have our own object in bringing up this old story. We see certain lessons from Machiavelli which apply to Iraq. We will draw them in another post.