Romantic Castles and Palaces

The Riccardi Palace

Alexandre Dumas

THE Riccardi Palace was built by Cosmo the Elder, whom his country turned out twice as a beginning and ended by calling him its father.

Cosmo arrived at one of those happy epochs at which everything in a nation tends to expand at once, and a man of genius has every facility for being great. In fact, the brilliant era of the republic had arrived with him: the arts were making their appearance on every side. Brunelleschi was building his churches, Donatello was carving his statues and Orcagna his porticos, Masaccio was covering the walls with his frescoes, and finally public prosperity, keeping pace with the progress of the arts, rendered Tuscany, situated between Lombardy, the States of the Church and the Venetian Republic, not only the most powerful but also the happiest in Italy.

Cosmo was born to immense wealth which he had almost doubled, and without being anything more than a citizen he had acquired a strange influence. Being outside the government, he made no attacks upon it, but neither did he flatter it. If the government followed the right path it was sure of his praise; if it departed from the right way it did not escape his blame; and the praise or blame of Cosmo the Elder was of supreme importance, for his weight, his wealth and his clients gave to Cosmo the rank of a public man. He was not yet the head of the government, but he was already more than that; — he was its censor.

Thus we can understand what a tempest must be secretly brewing for such a man. Cosmo heard it muttering and saw it coming; but, entirely occupied with the vast works that concealed his great projects, he did not even turn his head towards the rising storm, but finished the chapel of St. Lorenzo, built the church of the Dominican convent of St. Mark, erected the monastery of St. Frediano, and, finally, laid the foundations of the beautiful Palace of the Via Larga, now called the Riccardi Palace. Only, when his enemies threatened him too openly, since the time for struggle had not yet arrived for him, he left Florence and went to Bugallo, the cradle of his race, to build the convents of Bosco and St. Francis; returned under the pretext of having a look at his novitiate chapel of the Fathers of the Holy Cross and of the Camandule Convent of the Angels; then again departed to press forward the work on his villas of Careggi, Caffaggio, Fiesole and Tribbio; and founded a hospital for poor pilgrims at Jerusalem. This being done, he returned to see in what condition the affairs of the republic were, and to look after his palace of the Via Larga.

And all these immense buildings arose from the ground at once, occupying a whole world of labourers, workmen and architects; and five million crowns were spent upon them without the luxurious citizen's appearing in the slightest degree impoverished by this constant and royal expenditure.

This was because Cosmo was, in fact, wealthier than many of the kings of the day, his father Giovanni had possessed nearly four millions in cash and eight or ten in paper, and by banking operations he had more than quintupled that sum. In various parts of Europe, he had sixteen active banking-houses either in his own name or in those of his agents. In Florence, everybody was in his debt, for his purse was open to all, and this generosity was in some people's eyes so clearly the result of calculation that it was asserted that it was his custom to advise war so as to force the ruined citizens to have recourse to him.

But it was a protracted struggle: Cosmo, driven from Florence, left as a proscribed man and returned a triumpher. Thenceforward Cosmo adopted that policy that his grandson Lorenzo followed afterwards: he devoted himself to his commerce, his exchanges and his monuments, leaving his vengeance to the care of his partisans who were then in power. The proscriptions were so long and the executions so numerous that one of his most intimate and faithful friends thought he ought to go and tell him that he was depopulating the city. Cosmo raised his eyes from an exchange calculation on which he was engaged, laid his hand on the shoulder of the messenger of mercy, gazed at him fixedly and said with an imperceptible smile: "I would rather depopulate than lose it." And then the inflexible arithmetician returned to his work.

Thus he grew old; rich and honoured, but struck by the hand of God within his own family. By his wife he had had several children, only one of whom survived him.

Therefore, broken down and impotent, when he had himself carried through the vast halls of his immense palace to inspect the sculptures, gilding, and frescoes, he sadly shook his head and said: "Alas! alas! this is a very large house for such a small family!"

In fact, he left, as sole heir to his name, his possessions, and his power, Pietro de'Medici, who, coming between Cosmo the Father of his Country and Lorenzo the Magnificent, obtained as his only surname that of Pietro the Gouty.

The refuge of the Greek savants driven from Constantinople, the cradle of the renaissance of the arts during the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Century, and now the seat of the meetings of the Delia Crusca Academy, the Riccardi Palace was successively occupied by Pietro the Gouty and by Lorenzo the Magnificent who retired thither after the Pazzi conspiracy as his grandfather had done after his exile. Lorenzo bequeathed the palace with his immense collection of precious stones, antique cameos, splendid armour and original manuscripts to his son Pietro who deserved the title not of Pietro the Gouty, but Pietro the Mad.

It was the latter who opened the gates of Florence to Charles VIII. and delivered to him the keys of Sarzane, Pietra-Santa, Pisa, Libra-Fatta, and Livorno, and who undertook to make the Republic pay him as a subsidy the sum of two hundred thousand florins.

Besides this, in his palace of Via Larga he offered a hospitality that the King of France was quite disposed to take even if it had not been offered. In fact, as everybody knows, Charles VIII. entered Florence as a conqueror and not as an ally, mounted on his battle-horse, with lance in rest and visor lowered: thus he traversed the whole city from the San Friano gate to Pietro's palace, the latter and his followers having been driven from the city by the Florentine lords the day before.

The Riccardi Palace was the scene of the discussion of the treaty concluded by Charles VIII. and Pietro in the name of the republic, — a treaty that the republic was unwilling to recognize. Matters went to extremes and the parties were on the verge of taking up arms, for the deputies having been introduced into this great hall in the presence of Charles VIII. who received them seated and without removing his hat, the royal secretary, standing beside the throne, began to read the conditions of this treaty article by article, and as each new article created fresh discussion, Charles VIII. impatiently exclaimed: "It shall be so, however, or I will have my trumpets sounded!" "Very well," replied Pietro Capponi, the Secretary of the Republic, snatching the parchment from the hands of the reader and tearing it to pieces, "very well. Sire, have your trumpets sounded and we will have our bells rung!"

That rejoinder saved Florence. The King of France believed that the Republic was as powerful as she was proud. Pietro Capponi had already dashed out of the room: Charles had him called back and then presented other conditions that were accepted.

Eleven days later, the King left Florence for Naples, letting his soldiers devastate treasures, galleries, collections and libraries.

The Riccardi Palace remained empty for eighteen years, while the exile of the Medicis lasted; at length, at the end of that period, they returned, brought back by the Spaniards, and notwithstanding this powerful aid, they reentered, said the capitulation, not as princes, but as simple citizens.

But at length the gigantic trunk had put forth such mighty branches that its sap began to dry up and the tree gradually to wither. In fact, when Lorenzo II. was dead and laid in his tomb that was sculptured by Michelangelo, only three bastards remained of all the race of Cosmo the Elder: Hippolyte, bastard of Julian II., a cardinal; Julio, bastard of Julio the Elder who had been assassinated by the Pazzi, who became Pope under the name of Clement VII.; and finally Alexander, Duke of Tuscany, bastard of Julian II., or Clement VII., it is not clear which. As they stayed all once for an instant in Florence, lodging on the same square, it received the mocking name of the Square of the Three Mules.

To the same degree that the Medicis of the elder branch had at first been held in honour, so it had become execrated and fallen into contempt at this period. Therefore the Florentines only awaited an opportunity to drive Alexander and Hippolyte out of Florence; but their uncle Clement VII. on the pontifical throne afforded them too potent a support for the last remnants of the republican party to dare to undertake anything against them.

The sack of Rome by the soldiers of the Constable of Bourbon, and the imprisonment of the Pope in the Castle of St. Angelo afforded the Florentines the opportunity they awaited. They immediately seized it, and the Medicis went into exile for the third time. Clement VII. who was a man of much resource, extricated himself from the affair by selling seven cardinals' hats, with the proceeds of which he paid part of his ransom, and by pledging five more as guarantee for the remainder. Then, as on account of this guarantee he was allowed a little more liberty, he took advantage of it to escape from Rome disguised as a valet, and gained Orvieto. The Florentines were therefore quite tranquil as to the future on seeing Charles the Fifth a conqueror and the Pope a fugitive.

Unfortunately, Charles the Fifth had been elected Emperor in 1519, and he needed to be crowned. Interest thus brought together those whom it had separated. Clement VII. undertook to crown Charles the Fifth; and the latter promised to capture Florence and to make it the dowry of his natural daughter, Margaret of Austria, who was affianced to Alexander.

The two promises were religiously kept. Charles the Fifth was crowned at Bologna, for in his new tenderness for the Pope he did not want to see the ravage done by his troops in the holy city; and after a terrible siege in which Florence was defended by Michelangelo and capitulated by Malatesta, July 30, 1531, Alexander made his solemn entry into the future capital of his duchy.

Alexander had almost all the vices of his epoch and very few of the virtues of his race. The son of a Moorish woman, he had inherited ardent passions. Constant in hatred and inconstant in love, he tried to have Pietro Strozzi assassinated and caused his cousin, Cardinal Hippolyte to be poisoned.

Therefore, there were numerous conspiracies against him during his reign of six years.

Pietro Strozzi placed an immense sum in the hands of a Dominican friar of Naples, who was said to have great influence with Charles the Fifth, to induce him to get Charles the Fifth to restore liberty to Florence. Jean Baptiste Cibo, Archbishop of Marseilles, tried to profit from Alexander's amour with his brother's wife, who was separated from her husband and lived in the Pazzi palace, by having him slain one day when he should come to see her in that palace; and since he knew that Alexander usually wore beneath his clothes a coat of mail so marvellously made that it was proof against sword and dagger, he had a chest, upon which the duke was accustomed to sit when he came to visit the marquise, filled with powder, and this was to be exploded. But this conspiracy was discovered, as well as all others that followed with one exception. In the latter case, success was due to the fact that there was only one conspirator who accomplished everything for himself. That conspirator was Lorenzo de'Medici, the eldest scion of that younger branch that sprang from the paternal trunk with Lorenzo, the next brother of Cosmo the Father of his country.

Lorenzo was born in Florence, March 25, 1514, of Pietro Francisco de'Medici, a double nephew of Lorenzo, Cosmo's brother, and Maria Soderini, a woman of exemplary goodness and recognized prudence.

Lorenzo lost his father early, and, as he was scarcely nine years of age, his first instruction was given under his mother's supervision. But as the child learned with great facility, this education was very soon ended, and he left this female tutelage for that of Philippe Strozzi, where his strange character developed. He was a strange medley of mockery, restlessness, desire, suspicion, impiety, humility and pride; whence it resulted that, unless he had motives to conceal, his most intimate friends never saw him twice in the same mood. He was one of those hermaphrodite beings that capricious Nature produces in her periods of dissolution.

It was in a house adjoining the Riccardi Palace that Lorenzo, aided by the Spadassin Scoronconcolo, poniarded Duke Alexander, the natural brother of Catherine de'Medici, first Duke of Florence and last descendant of Cosmo the Father of the Country, for Pope Clement Vn. had died in 1534 and Cardinal Hippolyte in 1535; and on his assassination a singular thing was noticed, namely the six-fold combination of the number six. Alexander was assassinated in the year 1536, at the age of twenty-six, on the 6th day of January, at six o'clock at night, with six wounds, after having reigned six years. The house in which he was assassinated was situated on the spot where the stables now stand.

The proverb of the evangelist: "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword" was applied to Lorenzo in its rigorous exactitude. Lorenzo, who had slain with the poignard, died by the poignard in Venice about the year 1557 without any one knowing for certain what hand struck the blow; it was only remembered that when Cosmo the First mounted the throne he swore not to leave the murder of Duke Alexander unpunished.

The murderer of Alexander was the last important event that happened in this beautiful palace. Abandoned by Cosmo I. in 1540, when he resolved to live in the Palazzo Vecchio, it was sold to the Riccardi family, whose name it has kept, although I believe it came again into the possession of the Medicis under the reign of Ferdinand II.

To-day the famous Delia Crusca Academy holds its sessions there: there they sift adverbs and shell participles, as our good and witty Charles Nodier says.

It is not so poetic, but it is more moral.

Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901.
The Riccardi Palace by Alexandre Dumas. Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.