The Montefeltro Conspiracy by Marcello Simonetta focuses the reader’s attention on one of the most written about conspiracies of Florentine history – the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, which sought to achieve the murder of both Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. In doing so, he seeks to definitively show, by virtue of a decoded letter, that Pope Sixtus IV was at the heart of this conspiracy.
He begins his story with the murder of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan in 1476, which he argues upset the balance of power in Italy and was the catalyst for the Pazzi Conspiracy. He writes extensively of his relative Cicco Simonetta who served both as secretary and advisor to the Sforza family for nearly 50 years and whose brief ‘tract’ Rules for Extracting Ciphered Letters Without a Sample, essentially a handbook for code-breaking, enabled him to decode a previously undiscovered letter written by Federico da Montefeltro, which is at the heart of the conspiracy,
He argues that Pope Sixtus IV was on an all out power grab for control of Florence and that Montefeltro, rather than being a close friend and ally of Lorenzo de’ Medici was rather conspiring with the Pope to remove the Medici family from power and install, in their place, the more malleable Pazzi family as the papal bankers.
He also draws the readers attention to what he calls the ‘Botticelli Code’ and the symbolism that Botticelli incorporated into his paintings in the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Sixtus IV.
The book is written in a quasi-academic style, in that Simonetta includes notes to his chapters, but these notes are not numbered nor identified in-text, which detracts from their ‘academic’ usefulness. There are extensive quotes throughout which, given the style of the book, would have benefited from clear attribution. There is a useful index.
There is no doubt that this is an interesting and enlightening read. The story he constructs around the relationship between Federico da Montefeltro and Pope Sixtus IV is intriguing and this is added by the core element of the book – the decoding of this key letter.
The characters of the book, including the conspirators, the murderers of both Giuliano de’ Medici and Galeazzo Maria Sforza), the spies and other leading figures, including Michelangelo and Botticelli, as well as Machiavelli and carefully written into the story and one gets a real sense of the true ruthlessness of power in Renaissance Italy.
Simonetta’s decision to write this book is stated as being ‘to fill in the blanks’ which have been left by previous discussions around the Pazzi Conspiracy as well as to ‘reconstruct as accurately as I could the behind-the-scenes historical truth about two consecutive plots in Italian Renaissance history…” He also raises his hypothesis that there is a connection between the Sistine Chapel and the Pazzi Conspiracy, which has not previously been explored.
If you enjoy a good read, have an interest in Italian Renaissance history, then this book is for you. Whether you agree with his conclusions about the role of Pope Sixtus IV, the significance of the decoded letter, or indeed whether the Sistine Chapel contains coded symbolism related to the Conspiracy will be for you to determine.
I am undecided but I found the book a worthwhile read and if nothing else, it has reignited my curiosity to certain characters who have not had my attention as they deserve. So, if reading is to enlighten, challenge and inform, then this book has done its job.
The Montefeltro Conspiracy – Marcello Simonetta (2008, Doubleday, New York)