THE POPE's CONSPIRACY

a novel of the Renaissance by Lewis M. Weinstein

* The Pope’s Conspiracy … a new novel (draft in progress) by Lewis M. Weinstein … includes first scene

Posted by Lew Weinstein on November 24, 2009

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In the sequel to The Heretic, Benjamin and Esther Catalán, having escaped the Inquisition in Spain, seek to re-build their lives as Jews and printers in Florence, under the auspices and patronage of Lorenzo de Medici.

Their promising future is threatened, however, as a secret plot to murder Lorenzo begins to emerge, and it seems that the powerful Pope Sixtus is at the center of the conspiracy.

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MAJOR CHARACTERS

The Catalán family (fictional)

  • Benjamin Catalánconverso Jew, son of Gabriel and Pilar, printer
  • Esther Catalán … Benjamin’s wife, printer, Jewish scholar
  • Judah Catalán … son of Benjamin and Esther

The Medici family

  • Lorenzo de Medici … Il Magnifico, wealthiest and most powerful man in Florence
  • Giuliano de Medici … Lorenzo’s younger brother
  • Lucrezia de Medici … mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano, poet
  • Clarice de Medici … Lorenzo’s wife, from the powerful Orsini family of Rome

The Pope’s Conspirators

  • Pope Sixtus IV … formerly Francesco della Rovere
  • Count Girolamo Riario … the Pope’s nephew, Count of Imola
  • Archbishop Francesco Salviati … Archbishop of Pisa
  • Count Giovan Battista … a condottiere, Count of Montesecco
  • Francesco Pazzi … head of the Pazzi bank in Rome
  • Jacopo Pazzi … patriarch of the Pazzi family in Florence
  • Bernardo Bandini … a printer in Florence

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****** opening scene ******

Count Girolamo Riario rose well before dawn; he had not slept more than a few fitful minutes all night. He dressed in his best wool tunic and cape, despite his certainty that the Pope would no more notice what he wore than he pay attention to the attire of his lowliest servant.

Riario had asked for the audience, indeed pleaded for it, but now that the day had arrived, he struggled to stiffen his courage. He was so frightened he was unable to eat. Indeed, he could barely walk. He had to force himself to place one foot in front of the other, resembling an old man as he slowly traversed the short distance between his Rome lodgings and the Vatican palace.

Despite his acknowledged position as the favorite nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, Count Riario was always nervous in the Holy Father’s presence. The man’s power had no bounds; his festering ambition, combined with a quickness to anger, rendered him dangerously unpredictable. Riario’s fears were well founded; other nephews, once similarly favored, had suddenly become less so.

What Riario desperately sought, at the no longer young age of thirty-five, was his own secure position in the world. Sixtus had started him on a path to wealth and glory when he purchased the revenues of the town of Imola and installed Riario as count, where he received the lord’s share of revenues and taxes from his tenants, and his troops served the Pope as a buffer against the territorial ambitions of Florence and its leader Lorenzo de Medici. But Riario hungered for more. This was the morning he would risk everything to advance his goals.

Riario breathed deeply as he was shown into Sixtus’ inner sanctum. He was intimidated by the aura of papal power: richly brocaded draperies hung over paneled walls, dark paintings of earlier vicars of the church, heavy wooden furniture, Persian carpets. Two blazing fireplaces failed to dispel the chill in the room; nothing could dispel the chill within Riario.

Across the room, the old man seated on a soft chair near one of the fires sighed and swaddled his portly body more tightly into a fur-lined dressing gown. He did not rise to greet his visitor. He did, however, accurately observe his nephew’s uneasy demeanor.

“So, my dear Count,” Sixtus said, eschewing any preliminaries, “What news have you brought today?”

Riario stood before the Pope and spoke as he had planned. “Your Holiness, I am pleased to report that our relations with Ludovico Sforza are looking quite promising.”

“You’ve talked to Ludovico?” Sixtus was surprised and even impressed by Riario’s initiative.

Ludovico Sforza was a potential ally in the plan Riario was about to propose. The brother of the recently murdered duke of Milan, Ludovico clearly ached to take his brother’s place on the throne, but was for the moment blocked by the unexpectedly vigorous opposition of the widowed duchess. Riario had not in fact talked to Ludovico, although he had dispatched one spy after another to try to ascertain his intentions. He spoke with great care, well aware that Sixtus would hold him accountable should events prove his predictions wrong.

“I have received reports,” said Riario, “that Ludovico Sforza will soon seize the duchy.” He paused dramatically before delivering the more significant intelligence. “I have also learned that when Ludovico becomes the Duke of Milan, he will be far less supportive of Lorenzo de Medici than was his now deceased brother.”

Sixtus raised his eyebrows skeptically. He too had his spies; he knew that Ludovico Sforza had true loyalty only to himself, and also that Ludovico held great respect for Lorenzo de Medici’s wealth and culture, attitudes diligently cultivated by Lorenzo over many years. Count Riario, on the other hand, was inexperienced and gullible, and might be quick to report welcome news, even when his conclusions were not securely founded. So Sixtus didn’t believe Riario’s report about Ludovico, but for reasons he chose not to disclose, he did not confront his nephew on these points.

The overweight and elderly Pope rose awkwardly, rubbed his aching back, and walked creakily across the deep carpet to the window. He pulled back the curtain; peering out on the cold gray January morning, his eyes wandered past the domes and towers of Rome to the River Tiber and the hills barely visible in the distance. Closer to him, in the great piazza below, a handful of shivering guards watched indifferently as well bundled priests hurried on their mysterious missions. Vendors were preparing stalls for the day’s business, but it was too early for customers. Sixtus smiled at the peaceful panorama, fondly recalling the smells and sights of market days from his own bucolic youth.

“He never retreats,” the Pope said wearily, his back still to Riario.

Riario understood that Sixtus was speaking of Lorenzo de Medici, not Ludovico Sforza.

“He wrote to me just this week,” Sixtus said. “Be assured, Holy Father, he wrote, I hold your favor among the greatest of my treasures, and I have no desire to lose it for the sake of any other man.” The Pope turned from the window, his face contorted in anger. “The arrogance of the man! What lies pass so easily from his pen.”

It occurred to Riario that Lorenzo’s ability to obscure the truth with elegant phrases was no less refined than that of the Pope.

“Wherever we turn,” Sixtus continued, “we see Lorenzo’s ugly face with that broken nose, always smiling politely, always standing serenely and immovably in our path.”

“Lorenzo remains as powerful as ever, despite everything,” Riario mused, as if this observation had just occurred to him.

“What is to be done, dear nephew?” Sixtus asked.

Riario’s heart jumped. His long anticipated opportunity had arrived. Had he been a little more astute or a little less desperate, Riario might have understood that Sixtus, fully aware of his nephew’s needs and intentions, was shrewdly leading the discussion rather than being led. Unaware of these subtleties, Riario spoke as he had rehearsed many times in his mind.

“You know the answer, uncle,” Riario said. “The Medici must be removed from power. Others more friendly to your interests must replace them.”

Sixtus did his best to look skeptical. “Removed?” he asked. “The Medici family has held the reins of power in Florence for four decades. Plots by other great Florentine families to replace them, even attempts to assassinate them, have all been easily deflected, each failed blow cunningly turned to strengthen the Medici hold. What do you think is different now?”

Riario had prepared for exactly this question; he counted each point on his fingers.

“First,” he said, “with the former Duke of Milan dead and Ludovico’s allegiance uncertain, Lorenzo can no longer rely on military support from Milan as did his father and grandfather.”

Riario paused; Sixtus nodded.

“Second,” Riario continued, “King Ferrante in Naples has ambitions in Tuscany which Lorenzo is blocking. Perhaps King Ferrante could be persuaded to join an alliance against the Medici.”

Riario raised three fingers. “Finally, there is serious unrest in Florence. Lorenzo has taken too much power to himself. He’s squeezing the other families too hard. A sense of revolt is in the air.”

Sixtus said nothing. No one would ever be able to claim it was His Holiness who had initiated what he fully expected his nephew to propose. The Pope had patiently manipulated his nephew’s fears and ambitions for months, bringing him to this point. He was in no hurry now.

As he waited, Sixtus reflected on the course of his strained relationship with Lorenzo de Medici. He had begun his papal reign with friendship towards the young Lorenzo, exchanging gifts and favors after Lorenzo had dutifully traveled to Rome to attend his coronation, but the situation between them had soon deteriorated. The tension began when Lorenzo asked Sixtus to make his brother Giuliano a cardinal; Sixtus had suggested he would, then delayed, then declined, appointing his own nephew instead. There had been other instances where cooperation between Sixtus and Lorenzo might have been possible and beneficial, but where arrogance and obstinacy, sometimes Lorenzo’s, sometimes his own, had prevented accommodation.

The final break came when Sixtus, constantly seeking to expand the reach of the papal states over which he exercised secular rule, approached the Medici bank for funds to purchase rights to the revenue flows of the city of Imola. Lorenzo, wary of the Pope’s power approaching too close to Florence, refused. Lorenzo then added insult by putting pressure on the rival Pazzi bank to also refuse the requested loan. The Pazzi, however, not only offered the loan on favorable terms, but also informed Sixtus of Lorenzo’s efforts to dissuade them from making it.

The furious Sixtus had swiftly punished Lorenzo by switching the all of the lucrative Church accounts from the Medici to the Pazzi bank, but neither his ambitions nor his craving for revenge were even close to satisfied. As other conflicts followed, Sixtus concluded that his pressing aspirations for greater power were unattainable so long as Lorenzo held the reins of government in Florence. Whatever the issue, Sixtus felt, Lorenzo would use his widespread influence and wealth to thwart the Pope’s objectives. It was time for a more profound and permanent change.

Sixtus’ patience was rewarded when Riario finally spoke the fateful words. “Perhaps,” Riario said, “the Pazzi family, whom you have recompensed so bountifully here in Rome, would be more considerate of your interests in Florence.”

Sixtus seemed to ponder his nephew’s suggestion as if it were a completely novel idea. He pursed his lips; he moved his hands fitfully. Riario experienced a dizzying sensation as he visualized his future pivoting precariously in the Pope’s unfathomable mind.

“Yes,” Sixtus said softly, as if speaking to himself, “perhaps the Pazzi.”

Sixtus had bowed his head as he spoke, so Riario never saw the cunning look of satisfaction flash through the Pope’s eyes. Sixtus again waited; Riario tried to remain silent until the Pope said more, but he was unequal to the task.

“I know Francesco Pazzi quite well,” Riario said. “It would be a good time to approach him. He’s furious that Lorenzo kept him from receiving the inheritance from his father-in-law’s will.”

There was another long pause before Sixtus raised his head to face Riario directly. Again speaking barely above a whisper, he uttered the words that took him across the parapet from coquette to conspirator.

“You may sound him out,” Sixtus said, “but with great discretion. You must avoid discussing anything too specific.” Sixtus nodded, just once, then looked away. Count Riario’s papal audience was concluded.

Leaving the papal chambers, Riario could hardly contain himself. He had succeeded beyond his highest expectations. He had been authorized to put his plan in motion. He would manipulate the Pope to destroy Lorenzo de Medici. Then he would climb over Lorenzo’s body to establish his own wealth and glory.

He had no idea that he was the one being manipulated, that he was but one actor in the Pope’s conspiracy.

******

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