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Thursday, 28 December 2017

Piero the Unfortunate – Medici ruler

Ill-fated son of Lorenzo the Magnificent


Piero the Unfortunate's poor judgment  earned him his unenviable moniker
Piero the Unfortunate's poor judgment
earned him his unenviable moniker
Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, later dubbed Piero the Unfortunate or The Fatuous, died on this day in 1503, drowning in the Garigliano river, south of Rome, as he attempted to flee following a military defeat.

The eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero was handed power in Florence at the age of 21 following the death of his father.

He was a physically handsome young man who had been educated specifically so that he would be ready to succeed his father as head of the Medici family and de facto ruler of Florence.

Yet he turned out to be a feeble, ill-disciplined character who was not suited to leadership and who earned his unflattering soubriquet on account of his poor judgment in military and political matters, which ultimately led to the Medici family being exiled from Florence.

Piero took over as leader of Florence in 1492. Initially there was calm but the peace between the Italian states for which his father had worked tirelessly to achieve collapsed in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France led an army across the Alps with the intention to march on the Kingdom of Naples, claiming hereditary rights.

The young leader’s first bad decision had been to ally Florence with Naples rather than Milan, where his father had striven to maintain an even-handed relationship with both.

Ludovico Sforza, the former regent of Milan, was unimpressed, but at the same time saw an opportunity to re-assert his power in the city by scheming with Charles VIII to eject his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, and replace him as Duke.

Charles VIII of France
Charles VIII of France
In return he allowed Charles’s army, some 30,000 strong, to proceed unchallenged through his territories and arrive at the borders of Tuscany.  Piero’s decision to ally with Naples meant that Florence, by association, was France’s enemy

Piero at first attempted to mount some resistance, but at a time when the fanatical Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola was undermining the authority of the Medici court he struggled to garner support from the Florentine elites.

He then made the extraordinary decision to seek a deal with Charles, taking the lead from his father’s great act of diplomacy in 1479, when Lorenzo reached a settlement with Naples by making a personal visit to the King of Naples.

Piero persuaded Charles to give him an audience, yet returned home having given away several important Tuscan castles along with the ports of Pisa and Livorno.

His poor handling of the situation and failure to negotiate better terms led to an uproar in Florence, and the Medici family fled. The family palazzo was looted, the Republic of Florence was re-established and the Medici formally exiled.

A member of the Medici family would not rule Florence again until 1512, after Piero’s younger brother, Giovanni, was elected Pope Leo X.

Piero and his family at first fled to Venice. In 1503, as the French fought the Spanish over the Kingdom of Naples, he travelled south. The two armies engaged in the Battle of Garigliano, named after a major river between Naples and Rome, and after the French were routed Piero attempted to escape to the south but was drowned as he tried to cross the the Garigliano river.

French artist Henri Philippoteaux's depiction of a scene from the 1503 Battle of Garigliano
French artist Henri Philippoteaux's depiction of a scene from
the 1503 Battle of Garigliano
Travel tip:

The Garigliano river, which flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea near Marina di Minturno, south of Formia, marks the border between Lazio and Campania.  Its strategic position has led it to be the scene of several notable battles. In 915 a coalition of the papal army, the Byzantines, Franks, Lombards and Neapolitans defeated the Garigliano Arabs there and in 1503 came the fateful Battle of Garigliano after which Piero drowned and Medici power transferred to his brother, Giovanni.  During the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, the Liri and Gari-Garigliano rivers were key elements of a system of German defensive lines around which the battle of Monte Cassino took place in 1943-1944.

The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino
The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino
Travel tip:

Piero the Unfortunate’s body was buried in the cloister of Monte Cassino abbey, one of the most famous abbeys in the world, established in the sixth century when Saint Benedict chose its mountain location as a place to host him and his fellow monks as they travelled from the monastery at Subiaco, outside Rome. At a height of 520m (1,700ft) it is a landmark for travellers on the A1 motorway and the Rome-Naples railway. The abbey has been destroyed four times – by the Lombards in 577, the Saracens in 887, an earthquake in 1349 and by the ferocious Battle of Monte Cassino in the Second World War, when the Allies made the controversial decision to bombard the site, which they suspected was being used by the Germans to launch artillery attacks.  Fortunately, the Germans smuggled out most of the priceless books and artworks to a place of safety prior to the bombardment and the abbey was rebuilt after the war had ended.


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