Venice Writing

The real Medici Murders

History is full of murders, most of them documented by people who weren’t there, and were often writing hundred years after the events they chronicle with such apparent confidence. History’s full of holes too, lacunae open to any number of ideas and theories. The assassination of Julius Caesar, the killings of the princes in the Tower of London, even, more recently, the shooting of John F. Kennedy still raise questions in people’s minds, and any number of conspiracies.

The slaying of Lorenzino de’ Medici, one of the lesser figures in the clan that was effectively the royal family of Florence and Tuscany, is rather different. Almost five centuries on we still have a first-hand account of how Lorenzino was hunted down in the dark streets of Venice in winter, cornered on the Ponte San Tomà in San Polo below and stabbed to death.

The Ponte San Tomà in San Polo, next to the Goldoni house where Lorenzino’s mistress once lived.

The man who wielded the knife was one Francesco Bibboni, a hired thug who, with an accomplice, had tracked Lorenzino for weeks in the city where the fugitive aristocrat was making a rather poor attempt to hide from his pursuers. Eleven years earlier, out of jealousy or a desire for republican government — which to believe is still a matter of debate — Lorenzino had stabbed to death his own cousin, Alessandro de’ Medici, the then Duke of Florence, after luring him to what Alessandro believed was an assignation with a married woman he lusted after.

Alessandro de’ Medici, briefly Duke of Florence

Bibboni was so proud of his efforts in Venice that he recorded them in a memoir that tells of his perilous journey to the city, hiding out with his mate while stalking Lorenzino, the killing itself and his desperate attempts to flee the Venetian militia who now had him in their sights with a view to torture then a hanging between the columns of the Piazzetta San Marco. Remarkably enough, the murdered Lorenzino left his own account of the murder of his cousin too, a rather self-serving apology which tries to paint himself as Brutus killing Caesar for the sake of the public good. He didn’t seem to appreciate what happened to Brutus in the end.

Today, you can read both in Apology for a Murder, translated by Andrew Brown with a foreword by Tim Parks, and compare Lorenzino’s high-minded excuses with the bar-room boasts of Bibboni about how, tooled up for slaughter, he tracked his prey through Venice during Carnival. For more background on the affair, and the thorny question of who ordered Lorenzino’s murder, turn to The Duke’s Assassin: Exile and Death of Lorenzino De’ Medici, a remarkable exercise in unravelling complex history by Stefano Dall’Aglio, associate professor at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari whose office isn’t far from the Ponte San Tomà where Lorenzino died.

Bibboni, one of the few in this story to die in bed at an advanced age, tells a colourful tale but omits one important fact: who set him on Lorenzino’s trail and paid for his murder? For a long time, it was assumed this was the work of Alessandro’s successor, Cosimo I de’ Medici, by way of revenge. In a remarkable case of historical detective work, Stefano Dall’Aglio uncovered Bibboni was actually following the orders of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Alessandro was his son-in-law, and so Charles arranged his demise by asking his ambassador in Venice to aid the assassins.

Fascinating as these two first-hand accounts are — Bibboni’s and the doomed Lorenzino’s — both evade the truth. Lorenzino’s killer never lets on who employed him. In his Apologia, Lorenzino never really explains in any convincing way why he had it in for his cousin.

Cellini’s Medusa in Florence, Paolo Villa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nor are these the only first-hand accounts from the time. One of Lorenzino’s chums was Benvenuto Cellini, sculptor, goldsmith, writer and a murderous violent maniac who made that terrifying bronze of Perseus holding aloft the severed head of Medusa which still sits in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Cellini, perhaps unsurprisingly, was for a while a member of Lorenzino’s circle. In his own memoirs he mentions how he was making his way out of Florence, doubtless fleeing trouble, on the night Lorenzino struck down his cousin, January the fifth, 1537.

We mounted and rode rapidly toward Rome; and when we had reached a certain gently rising ground – night had already fallen – looking in the direction of Florence, both of us with one breath exclaimed in the utmost astonishment: “O God of heaven! what is that great thing one sees there over Florence?” It resembled a huge beam of fire, which sparkled and gave out extraordinary lustre. I said to Felice: “Assuredly we shall hear tomorrow that something of vast importance has happened in Florence.”

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, translated by Arthur Machen

Portents of murder. Vengeful aristocrats. Violent artists famed for their equally violent creations. The bloody richness of Renaissance Italy. Just the kind of fascinating, fluid history I find compelling.

I know. For the sake of fiction, why not add a further variable?

What if another famous figure from the Renaissance was involved in these conspiracies, a name so illustrious his revelation as an accomplice to two notorious murders would produce headlines around the world?

In The Medici Murders that is the lure that has brought a famed British TV historian Marmaduke ‘Duke’ Godolphin to Venice. Where, it turns out, he’ll be found dead, a stiletto in his chest, beneath the Ponte San Tomà where Lorenzino de’ Medici died nearly five hundred years before.

There, extracted from real history, is a fictional hypothesis that proves the match that lights this tale.

Tomorrow let me move on from real history to the imagined and take you, sans spoilers, a little further into my approach when it came to twisting these ancient tragedies into a fictional narrative.