The Montefeltro Conspiracy
A Renaissance Mystery Decoded
By Marcello Simonetta
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385524681, 272pp.)
Publication Date: June 3, 2008
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A brutal murder, a nefarious plot, a coded letter. After five hundred years, the most notorious mystery of the Renaissance is finally solved.
The Italian Renaissance is remembered as much for intrigue as it is for art, with papal politics and infighting among Italy’s many city-states providing the grist for Machiavelli’s classic work on take-no-prisoners politics, The Prince. The attempted assassination of the Medici brothers in the Duomo in Florence in 1478 is one of the best-known examples of the machinations endemic to the age. While the assailants were the Medici’s rivals, the Pazzi family, questions have always lingered about who really orchestrated the attack, which has come to be known as the Pazzi Conspiracy.
More than five hundred years later, Marcello Simonetta, working in a private archive in Italy, stumbled upon a coded letter written by Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, to Pope Sixtus IV. Using a codebook written by his own ancestor to crack its secrets, Simonetta unearthed proof of an all-out power grab by the Pope for control of Florence. Montefeltro, long believed to be a close friend of Lorenzo de Medici, was in fact conspiring with the Pope to unseat the Medici and put the more malleable Pazzi in their place.
In The Montefeltro Conspiracy, Simonetta unravels this plot, showing not only how the plot came together but how its failure (only one of the Medici brothers, Giuliano, was killed; Lorenzo survived) changed the course of Italian and papal history for generations. In the course of his gripping narrative, we encounter the period’s most colorful characters, relive its tumultuous politics, and discover that two famous paintings, including one in the Sistine Chapel, contain the Medici’s astounding revenge.
MARCELLO SIMONETTA, Ph. D., received his doctorate in Renaissance Studies from Yale and has taught at Wesleyan University. He has been featured on The History Channel, and in 2007 he curated an exhibition on Federico da Montefeltro’s library at the Morgan Library & Museum. He lives in New York.
Reviews and Praise for The Montefeltro Conspiracy
Booklist – Advanced Review
In Florence, on April 26, 1478, Lorenzo de Medici, soon to be dubbed "the Magnificent," and his brother, Giuliano, were set upon by assassins during Sunday mass. Giuliano died, but Lorenzo survived and became one of the most accomplished of Renaissance figures as a patron of the arts and a skillful leader of the Florentine Republic. The assassination attempt, generally called "the Pazzi conspiracy," was immediately blamed on a rival Florentine family, the Pazzi. Simonetta, a professor of Italian history and literature, has uncovered another layer of the plot. Aided by a recently decoded letter found in an archive in Urbino, Simonetta indicts Frederico de Montefeltro, the widely admired Duke of Urbino. Montefeltro, often referred to as "the Light of Italy," was a classics scholar, a humanist, and a supposed friend of the Medici family. He was also a tough, ruthless mercenary quite at home in the cutthroat milieu of fifteenth-century Italian politics. This is a tense, absorbing book that works well as a historical inquiry and a real-life detective story.
The work by Simonetta (Italian & medieval studies, Wesleyan Univ.) is a bird of another feather, more brightly plumed. In a previously closed archive, he unearthed a ciphered letter from Federigo de Montefeltro, the famed humanist and condotierre duke of Urbino, to Pope Sixtus, written shortly before the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. Drawing on a contemporary book on ciphers written by his own ancestor, Simonetta broke the letter's code. In a stunning act of historical sleuthing (moving the topic into greater depth and focus than Lauro Martines's April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici), he has unearthed solid evidence linking Montefeltro and the pope directly to the conspirators in a plot to assassinate the Medicis and end their rule of Florence. Simonetta concludes with intriguing speculation on why Botticelli, though a Medici loyalist, accepted a commission from Sixtus to paint the interior walls of the Sistine chapel in Rome, and he speculates on the political significance of Botticelli's most famous paintings, The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Both books are warmly recommended for large public libraries, and academic collections will want Simonetta.
Simonetta's "The Montefeltro Conspiracy" is a concise book, handsomely produced and clearly written, and it will appeal to history buffs, visitors to Italy, students of art, and more adventurous general readers.
Times Literary Supplement
Simonetta inhabits the time and place of his subject and examines the evidence in its original context. The book is beautifully structured [...] Vividly written and impressively researched, The Montefeltro Conspiracy is a real contribution to Italian history.
Marcello Simonetta's "The Montefeltro Conspiracy," while also focusing on the conspiracy against Lorenzo, differs not only in being written by a scholar using original archival sources, but also in its idiosyncratic perspective. Simonetta claims descent from Cicco Simonetta, the duke of Milan's right-hand man, who, following the duke's assassination in 1476, became regent for the duke's child heir. The book's title refers to Federico da Montefeltro, who was among the most prominent of the aristocrats ruling over small domains (in his case in central Italy) but whose real influence derived from their employment as military leaders by more powerful patrons. "The Montefeltro Conspiracy" is the result of the author's discovery in an Italian archive of a coded letter sent by Federico to Sixtus IV, urging the pope to push ahead in the conspiracy against Lorenzo. The author was able to decipher the letter thanks to a guidebook to codemaking written by his ancestor Cicco. This is a fascinating tale of historical detective work, although Simonetta's claim that his work has "radically changed the perception of a turning point in Italian history" is overdrawn. More interesting are his speculations regarding a different kind of battle, over the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. Here, as throughout his short book, Simonetta makes excellent use of reproductions of the art of the time. Sixtus, who commissioned the chapel's construction and for whom it is named, "had it obsessively decorated with the symbol of his family coat of arms." Following his death, Lorenzo persuaded (one might say bribed) the new pope to name Lorenzo's son Giovanni a cardinal, although the boy was only 13. By 38, Giovanni had become Pope Leo X and in turn made his cousin Giulio a cardinal. In 1523, Giulio--whose father had been murdered in the Duomo--became Pope Clement VII. Although Clement endured many crises, including the sack of Rome in 1527, he at least had the satisfaction of replacing Sixtus's designs on the Sistine Chapel's altar wall with Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, which Simonetta calls "a double-edged way of sending a late pope to hell." Lorenzo finally had his revenge.
Advance Praise for The Montefeltro Conspiracy
“Conspiracies, assassinations, Botticelli frescoes, a coded letter—Marcello Simonetta encapsulates both the glory and the violence of the Italian Renaissance in this remarkable book. He has also made a truly astonishing discovery of the kind that most writers can only dream about. The history of one of the most thrilling episodes in the history of the Renaissance will never be seen in the same way again.”
--Ross King, author of New York Times bestseller Brunelleschi’s Dome
“The Montefeltro Conspiracy is narrative history at its best. Simonetta tells a terrific story that illuminates the dark side of the Renaissance. Readers will look at Piero della Francesco’s famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro with new eyes.”
--Robert Hellenga, author of The Sixteen Pleasures