Sunday, April 17, 2011


How passing fair is youth, 
Forever fleeting away.
                                       - Lorenzo de’ Medici

On Easter Sunday in 1478, the good burghers of Florence gathered in the Duomo, the splendid cathedral which sits at the heart of their equally splendid city, to celebrate the traditional High Mass marking the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from his tomb. Amid the hundreds crowding the pews that day were the young Medici brothers, Lorenzo, not yet thirty years of age and ruler of Florence, and his brother Giuliano. Among the other worshippers in the Duomo was a priest named Francesco de’ Pazzi, who intended to lead the assassinations of the brothers in a coup d’etat to end Medici rule of the Florentine Republic. Before the sun set that day, the River Arno ran red with the blood of the dead.
Francesco’s family the Pazzi had grievances against the Medici going back generations, to when Giovanni de’ Medici, the great grandfather of Lorenzo and Giuliano and founder of the banking dynasty, had imposed taxes on the rich to the benefit of the poor. The move had predictably made Giovanni de’ Medici popular on the street but detested in the halls of the aristocracy. Since then the Pazzi had watched the seemingly irrevocable rise of the House of Medici, through Cosimo  (“The Wise”) and his son Piero, to Lorenzo. The young Lorenzo was a popular ruler, gifted and outgoing, able to handle himself in a joust, but also composed lyrical poetry and songs. In other words, he was just the man to make Pazzi blood boil.
Although the Pazzi had long nursed the ambition of bringing down the Medici, it was via the scheming of a pope, Sixtus IV, that they almost achieved their aim, although in truth the Pope played the Pazzi for a patsy.  Sixtus IV was born Francesco della Rovere, into humble circumstances near Savona, in Liguria. He joined the Franciscan Order and ascended the ranks to become its head in 1464, and a cardinal three years later. He was elected pope in 1471, and promptly addressed himself to temporal problems by dispatching a fleet against the Turks at Smyrna, an assault which failed dismally. In addition to his public works - he is remembered as an energetic engineer of roads, bridges and aqueducts - Sixtus IV joined a long line of papal nepotists. He installed his relatives into key Church positions while scheming with them to expand the Papal States, but the now infamous Pazzi Conspiracy became his most notorious scheme. 
The plot was hatched between the Pope’s nephew Girolamo Riario, and Francesco de’ Pazzi, then in self-imposed exile from Florence, after the two young men met in Rome. The plan approved by Sixtus was to overthrow the Medici and turn the prized Florentine republic into a papal fiefdom under Girolamo, effectively annexing it to the Papal States. The scheme was agreed to by Jacopo, head of the House of Pazzi. It appealed to the Pazzis on many counts, especially in humiliating the insufferable Medici, but for Sixtus it promised a massive boost to his coffers. Florence was a commercial dynamo, grown rich on the fabric trade, and banking. After decades under the Medici, among the most powerful banking families in Europe, Florence was literally stuffed with riches in gold and jewels, fabrics and furnishings, artworks and rare and treasured books. 
To Sixtus, it was a fat plum ripe on the branch, but it was well fortified and defended. Through the Pazzi, with their long-standing grievances and aristocratic pretensions, he glimpsed a means to take the city-state from within, in a coup: the Pazzi were just the men to pluck the plum for him. 
The plotters saw their first opportunity to strike at a banquet given by Lorenzo on 25 April 1478, at his villa in the hills of Fiesole just outside Florence, but because Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano was ill and unable to attend, the plan was postponed until the next day, Easter Sunday. Even then it was uncertain whether Giuliano would be able to attend, but being a red letter day in the Christian calendar, special arrangements were made to get him there. 
Francesco de’ Pazzi took his place in the pew behind the two Medici brothers, and gripped the dagger concealed in his priestly garb. He had chosen the dramatic high-point in the Mass as his moment to strike, and when the officiating cardinal raised the Sacred Host high, the bells rang and the congregation all bowed their heads, he leaping forward and thrust his dagger into the unsuspecting Giuliano, following up the first strike with a furious assault until the young man lay mortally wounded on the marble floor of the cathedral, bleeding from twenty stab-wounds. Lorenzo had been also been attacked by Francesco’s accomplices, but here the murderous coup went awry. Although injured and bleeding from a serious stab-wound to the neck, Lorenzo managed to fend off his would-be assassins and escape with his supporters to safety. 
By this time the Duomo was in uproar and confusion, with Giuliano lying dead, others including Francesco bleeding from wounds, and the gentlewomen of Florence weeping over their fallen menfolk while the fight raged on around them. The chaos soon spread to the streets and piazzas as the extent of the conspiracy became apparent. 
As planned, an ally of the Pope and the Pazzi, Archbishop Salviati of Pisa, had tried to take control of the government, believing the two Medici brothers successfully murdered. But as word got out that Lorenzo had survived, the people turned upon Salviati and hanged him from a window of the Palace. The Pazzi clan then attempted to take control of the streets by force of arms, trying to rally the people to their cause with a cry of “Liberty!”, but they received scant support, and confronted by a throng of citizens loyal to the Medici and the republic, took flight. 
In the bloodbath that followed, more than two hundred members of the Pazzi, Papal allies and others even conceivably connected with the plot, were killed, including Jacopo, head of the House of Pazzi, whose mutilated corpse was dragged through the streets. Francesco Pazzi, killer of Giuliano Medici, finished up at the end of a rope beside Archbishop Salviati. Other members of the Pazzi clan were beheaded. The man who stood to gain most from the coup, Sixtus IV, was the only conspirator to escape its collapse virtually unscathed. But instead of any penitence for the plot and the loss of life, and in spite of irrefutable evidence linking him with it, the pontiff went on the attack.
‘Infuriated by the failure of the plot, the Pope demanded that Lorenzo surrender and that the Florentine government answer before an ecclesiastical court...  The sovereigns of Europe sided with the Medici; the Pope excommunicated the Florentine state; the Florentine clergy outlawed him in turn; the Pope declared war.’1

Hostilities failed to amount to much after the declaration, however, largely because the Pope had a much more pressing threat to deal with a Turkish incursion in southern Italy. 
The Pazzi conspiracy did have an abiding effect on Rome in one respect however, through the murdered Giuliano de’ Medici. As was the custom with young nobles, he had been liberally sewing his wild oats, and a pretty young Florentine girl had borne him a son named Giulio. Grief-stricken over the death of his brother, Lorenzo was determined to locate the infant, illegitimate or not. 
‘It was not a difficult task in a city of a hundred thousand people; nor had the girl been at pains to conceal the illustrious parentage of her child. She made no difficulties about passing her son over to the lord of Florence and Lorenzo brought up the child as his own.’2
Chastened and more vigilant after the failed plot, Lorenzo lived another decade and half, becoming a statesman and patron of the arts. ‘The lover of art and letters more than maintained the fame of his family - he increased it by his boundless liberality. Under his enlightened lead Florence became the mother of arts and the cultural capital of Italy, imitated but unsurpassed by other states. He set the pace, the other princes were compelled to compete; but he was the highest bidder for the services of scholars and artists and carried off the all the prizes for the glory of Florence and the greater glory of the Medici.’3
He became known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, his time followed by two Medici popes, Lorenzo’s own son Giovanni, who would become Leo X, and Giulio, the illegitimate son of Giuliano, who would become Pope Clement VII. 
As for Sixtus IV, he lasted six years after the failed plot, built the Sistine Chapel which bears his name, became a patron of artists such as Botticelli - who among others painted frescoes for the Sistine walls - condemned the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, and even established a refuge for orphans. But it is for his attempted bloody coup against the Medici, and his Chapel, that he is most remembered.

1. Roeder, R. in Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, p63, Harper Torchbook, New York City, 1965
2. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, p254, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003
3. Roeder, R. op cit, p65

How Bad Were the Borgias Really? 

from my book, Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Until very recently, despite the Left apparently being opposed in the main to nuclear power, a number of people left of centre, including some Greens, and environmental advocates such as Tim Flannery, had been in nodding acceptance mode of what they saw as the inevitable need for nuclear power to bridge the energy gap while the world moves to a lower carbon economy to mitigate against climate change.

Then a doyen of the Left, none less than the Guardian’s George Monbiot, came out in favour of nuclear power, not in spite of the disaster that has occurred at Fukushima - but because of it. That’s right, because of it.

On March 21, ten days after the quake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern Honshu, under the jokey Strangelovean heading of “How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power”, Monbiot wrote: “You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

“A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation...  Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

One cannot help but wonder whether he might regret having written that so quickly, as reports arrive about radiation thousands of times above permitted limits at the plant, of highly radioactive water pouring into the ocean, and of dire warnings of how long it might take to make the plant safe, with one suggesting that that crews might be working there - and presumably being irradiated - for up to a hundred years.

Is nuclear safe, clean and green? Or just very dangerous, very dirty and very expensive?

Whenever there is a nuclear accident, the “nuclear priesthood”, as Richard Broinowski has dubbed them, are instantly in position before the microphones to reassure the world of the overriding safety of nuclear power. We are always told it was a “crappy old plant”, and that the new super-dooper ones being hatched now will leak no radiation, and never ever fail. Yet were not the people living near Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima told precisely that about the plants built in decades past? That they were perfectly safe, and could never, ever fail? If it was a lie back then, as it must have been, why believe it when it is repeated now? 

This is of special concern to people living in Australia - and indeed anywhere in the southern hemisphere, given Indonesia’s plans for nuclear power

In a nation prone to the most powerful earthquakes and tsunamis, no matter where they consider “safe” to build, one would have thought that Jakarta’s plans would have alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power from Canberra to Pretoria and Santiago.

As the Fukushima crisis has deepened, lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott has found a newly attentive audience. Melbourne-born Dr Caldicott has lived much of her life in the US, warning the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

During the 1990s she had a weekly radio show in New York City, in which she tirelessly warned of the dangers posed by the Indian Point nuclear plant, just 50 kilometres from midtown Manhattan, and with 17 million people living within an 80 kilometre radius of it.

In the wake of Fukushima, Newsweek magazine revisited her concerns of a meltdown at Indian Point following an earthquake or terrorist attack, quoting her that the radiation deaths from such a catastrophe could eventually top half a million.

None of this addresses the even deeper problems of the nuclear industry, which include no known safe waste disposal - even if Dr Ziggy Switkowsky has suggested a large, “well-engineered” hole in the ground in central Australia. Instead there are leaky drums of high level waste scattered all around the world, dangerous waste that must be safely stored not just for decades, nor even centuries, but millennia. 

But yet we have experienced three major accidents in just over three decades, at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima.

The other seemingly insoluble problem for nuclear adherents is weapons proliferation from the plutonium produced by nuclear power reactors, and while George Monbiot might put his faith in signatures on “safeguards”, those signatures would have to be honoured for many, many, many generations to come. To believe that any such safeguards could be enforced over the span of time required, is pure science fantasy.

Nuclear power is touted as a fix to a problem, global warming, that could affect humanity for centuries to come. But it is a toxic, lethal, explosive “solution”, that could plague humanity for thousands of years. George Monbiot is foolish and reckless to suggest nuclear is a risk worth taking, especially when so much could be achieved by other means, including gas-fired stations replacing coal, and solar, wind and other renewables, if they were resourced with adequate funding. Post Fukushima, where the nuclear dream turned into a nightmare, that might now just happen.