Florence, January 1502
You couldn’t call him tall; he was barely an inch bigger than her, and wiry in stature. His soot- black hair was cut unfashionably close to his head and his face, broad at the eyes, tapered via a thin nose to a sharp clean- shaven chin. The word weasel had come to mind when they first met. But strangely it hadn’t put her off. Marietta Corsini had known already that her future husband was clever (he had a job in government, and everyone knew men like that needed a wheelbarrow to carry their thoughts), and within a few minutes he had made her laugh. He had also made her blush, for there had been something in his bright- eyed concentration, his almost animal- quiver energy that seemed to be half undressing her. By the time they had said their goodbyes she was smitten, and six months of marriage has done nothing to change that.
He leaves for work each day at dawn. In the beginning she had hoped that her nest-ripe body might tempt him to linger a while. Florence is rife with stories of married men who use early risings as excuses to visit their mistresses, and he had come with a reputation for enjoying life. But even if that were the case, there’s nothing she can do about it, not least because wherever he is going, this husband of hers has already ‘gone’ from her long before he gets out of the door.
In fact, Niccolò Machiavelli doesn’t leave the warmth of his marriage bed for any other woman (he can do that easily enough on his way home), but because the day’s dispatches arrive at the Palazzo della Signoria early and it is his greatest pleasure as well as his duty to be among the first to read them.
His journey takes him down Via Guicciardini on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into a grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butchers’ shops. Through the open shutters he catches glimpses of the river, its surface a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs for his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist, Niccolò thinks, not without a certain admiration. Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country. How long ago was that business in the city of Fermo? Christmas, yes? He’d opened the dispatch himself: the Duke’s ‘loving’ nephew had invited his uncle to a seasonal dinner, then locked the doors and slaughtered him and his entire council, taking the title for himself. In the chancery, his staff was laying bets on how long till the next murderous dinner invitation, but Niccolò’s money is on the usurper. While the man may be a thug, he’s also a mercenary leader in Cesare Borgia’s army, which makes him a thug with powerful allies.
Across the bridge, he passes by the side of San Pier Scheraggio church, out into the open space of the Piazza della Signoria, dominated by the handsome crenellated palace of government. To the left of the main doors is a weathered eh, bronze statue; the figure of Judith, calm, concentrated, a raised sword in her right hand poised to slice through the neck of Holofernes, who sits painfully twisted at her feet. Niccolò gives her a silent salute. He knows men in government who find it unnerving to be greeted daily by the sight of a woman administering justice to a man, but they are missing the point. Donatello’s statue, plundered from the Medici palace and placed here eight years before, stands as a deliberate reminder to the republic of Florence that she would never again allow the dictatorship of a single family.
Alas, the gap between the ideal and reality in politics is enough to give most men vertigo. If Judith were to lift up her eyes now, she would be looking at the place in the piazza where they had burned the Dominican friar Savonarola, whose fanatical devotion to God’s laws had made him another kind of tyrant. Every time Niccolò passes a tavern where some idiot cook has burned a carcass on a spit, the sick-sweet smell of caramelised fat and flesh has him back inside the crowd, straining to see the stake over the shoulders of bigger men. He had never witnessed a public burning before—Florence has little fondness for such barbarity—and Savonarola had been garroted before the faggots were lit to stop his cries. The crowd too had been eerily silent. He’d forced himself to stay to the bitter end, watching the soldiers gather up every scrap of bone and ash and throw it into the river so nothing was left as a relic.
He’d known then that Florence had a challenge ahead of her, re- establishing a working republic after so much madness. And if he is confident in public – for that is his job – in private he has grave doubts.
He slips into the palazzo through a side entrance, exchanging a joke with a sleepy guard, before climbing a spiral staircase that takes him through the great central hall, up a further flight into the council rooms and offices above. His desk is in a small antechamber set off from the main salon, with its gilded wooden ceiling and patterned fleur- de- lis walls. The temperature is almost as cold inside as out. When the elected members gather there will be braziers and fires lit, but as a hired hand he has his own clay bottle and must send out for regular refills to stop his feet from turning to ice. He will do it later: once the seals on the day’s dispatches are broken he won’t feel the cold.
It is Niccolò’s business, as head of the second chancery and secretary to the Council of Ten for Liberty and Peace, to keep abreast of every shift and change in the political landscape of the country. For as long as he can remember, such things have fascinated him. He was barely thirteen years old when his father had placed a newly printed copy of Livy’s History of Rome in front of him, and like every first great love affair, it has coloured the way he sees the world ever since.
‘This is the most treasured possession this house now holds, you hear me?’ Such dry humour his father practised. ‘In a fire you had better look to yourself, for this will be the man I save first.’
He wonders sometimes what the great Livy would make of this modern Italy. In his own mind he sees the peninsula as a great ragged boot hanging off the Alps, the leather mottled and discoloured by the vicissitudes of history. In the north, for the second time in a decade, a French army is in occupation, ruling Milan and overshadowing a dozen smaller states close by. On the Adriatic coast, Venice is puffed up with her own wealth and battles with the Turks, while the wild lands of the south are under the control of the Spanish, with a few old French strongholds inside.
But it is what is happening in the middle that would have surely fascinated Livy the most.
The speed and ferocity of the rise of the Borgia family have taken everyone by surprise. Of course Rome has had unscrupulous popes before, men who quietly favoured the fortunes of their ‘nephews’ or ‘nieces’. But this, this is different. Here is a Pope, Alexander VI, who openly acknowledges and uses his illegitimate children as weapons to create a new dynastic power block; his eldest son Cesare, once a cardinal, marches at the head of a mercenary army conquering a line of city-states historically owned by the Church, while his daughter, Lucrezia, is the family’s prize marriage pawn.
Two of the day’s dispatches bring further news of the Borgia project. Lucrezia is now halfway across Italy with an entourage the size of a small army, en route to her third husband, the Duke elect of Ferrara. Meanwhile, the Pope and his son, on a lap of honour to celebrate their latest conquests, the state of Piombino and the island of Elba, are making an early departure by boat back to Rome. How long till they arrive? If the wind obliges, the water will carry them faster than any road in winter, though it’s not a journey that he himself would choose to make. At least the rest of Tuscany will breathe easily for a while; a soldier at sea cannot be a duke leading an army on land.
He is filleting the dispatches ready for the council morning briefing when he hears the sounds of the great bells from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore marking the starting hour of the day. His thoughts move briefly to the cathedral workshop where the Florentine sculptor Michelangelo has spent the last nine months chiselling into a block of flawed marble, commissioned by the state to produce a great statue of David to be placed on the façade of the cathedral. No one has been allowed near the work, but the leaked gossip talks more of its emerging size than its beauty. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough to shield the city from the Borgia Goliath.
As the last chimes die away, a series of contorted male shrieks rise up from somewhere nearby; a late coupling between the sheets or a few early knife thrusts into a belly? He smiles. Such are the sounds of his beloved city, the sounds indeed of the whole of Italy.
Extracted from In the Name of the Family, Ⓒ Sarah Dunant 2017
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