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Book Review 210: The Montefeltro Conspiracy

August 22, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE MONTEFELTRO CONSPIRACY: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded, by Marcello Simonetta. 251 pages, illustrated. Doubleday, $26

The Duke of Urbino almost got away with it. Renaissance lords were obsessed with reputation. Not with deserving it, just having it.

Federico da Montefeltro, despite the usual despicable behavior of an Italian statesman of his era (letting his troops rape and plunder, for example), had until recently a pretty high reputation. He was the best soldier of his time (not saying much), a notable patron of the arts, a scholar and, so he would have had everyone think, an honorable (as these things went in Italy) and loyal employee and ally.

Literary historian-detective Marcello Simonetta several times quotes Vergil: “Lifetimes are brief and not to be regained, for all mankind. But by their deeds to make their fame last: that is labor for the brave.”

It turns out that Montefeltro was a conspirator, a leading instigator in one of the most famous of Italian Renaissance plots, the Pazzi conspiracy, in which assassins killed Giuliano de' Medici and just missed getting his brother, Lorenzo.

Simonetta retells this typically convoluted story brilliantly and clearly, but the interest of the book is a ciphered letter which was found in a 500-year-old family archive. As it happens, Cicco Simonetta, chancellor of Milan, wrote a guide to ciphering, which Marcello Simonetta, a descendant, found and used to unlock Montefeltro's secrets.

As it happens, Cicco, an ally of the Medici, ended up getting his head chopped off as one result of Montefeltro's conspiracy. That a kinsman should expose the truth seems theatrical, but the 15th century in Italy was nothing if not theatrical – or so Shakespeare thought.

A coda to the historical story examines – for the first time, Simonetta says – the political allegories, now more readily understood, of some of the most famous quattrocento art works, especially Botticelli's “Primavera.”

It just goes to show that an appreciation for the finer things in life can go along with being a completely despicable human being.

 
 

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