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And away we go. Meet the star of this week’s show . . .
It takes only one.
That is one of the terrible lessons of history. To build up a community, a city, or an empire can take generations of concentrated effort by wise and prudent men. To wreck one takes about five minutes. All you need is the right fool in the right place at the right time.
For Florentines at the end of the 15th century, the right fool was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, sometimes known as Piero il Fatuo — the English cognate “fatuous” only partly captures the range of denotations at work there: vain, conceited, superficial. Piero was all those things and more, but men of his kind and rank rarely think of themselves as arrogant clowns — instead, they think of themselves as the other epithet eternally attached to Piero’s name: Sfortunato, “unlucky.”
Bad luck often is enough to destroy a man. Our lives are more fragile than we think. But short of an asteroid or an act-of-God disaster on the level of Pompeii, destroying a community usually takes work. Vladimir Lenin did not sleep in on weekends and then take a three-hour brunch — he was hard at work building the great dystopian nightmare that was 20th-century socialism. Adolf Hitler tried to figure out a way to give up sleep entirely — Europe wasn’t going to just murder itself. History’s worst monsters were driven. But laziness can do a lot, too, in the way the Colorado River can carve the Grand Canyon if you give it time enough. Laziness can be its own kind of neutron bomb, especially if that laziness is abetted by arrogance and stupidity.
Piero il Sfortunato brought all of those qualities to the table.
Piero represents a familiar type: the heir of a worn-out family, the waste of space who is born with everything a man could want except brains and character. Cosimo de’ Medici, his great-grandfather, represented the generation that really brought the family to power in Florence, converting the vast banking wealth piled up by his own father from a mere fortune into a power. He held a few public offices over the years, as was ordinary for a man of his station, but with no crown and no grand title he ruled Florence like a king, relying not on brute force (not usually) but on patronage, negotiation, and the careful management of the city’s factions and interest groups. He gave Florence its first public library and commissioned magnificent works of art and architecture, and made an art of turning other men’s ambitions to his will.
Cosimo’s son and successor lacked his father’s charm and suavity — his terrible gout made him irritable — but he only had five years to rule, and did not do a great deal of damage. His greatest offense against Florence in his short sick years may have been an unintended undermining of its republican manners: Because he often was confined to bed, he began conducting state business from his home, summoning the men of the city to his personal residence like the prince that he was but was obliged to pretend not to be. His son, Lorenzo, styled “the Magnificent,” stopped pretending almost entirely, and his home became the effective seat of government.
Lorenzo presided over Florence’s golden age. To borrow a phrase from Clarence Thomas, he was educated to be his grandfather’s son. He wasn’t especially handsome (his strapping brother, Giuliano, on the other hand, is said to have been the model for the war god in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars) but he had everything else going for him, including the best education that could be had. That education was supplemented by wide experience in public affairs from the time of his youth, with Lorenzo being deputized to help carry out certain diplomatic and commercial affairs. He was disciplined, intelligent, and discriminating, although not so much that he was above the fraudulent spectacles associated with politics in his time. Just before he took over for his father, he won a celebrated jousting competition in front of adoring Florentines; Niccolò Machiavelli, who observed the match, felt obliged to report that it was totally, completely, in no way rigged.
But Lorenzo also won victories when the outcome was far from certain, the most important of which was negotiating a lasting cooperative peace among the major Italian powers through a pact that just happened to endow Florence — and so Lorenzo himself — with the greatest share of real power. The creation of the Italic League was Renaissance realpolitik: Lorenzo was smart enough to understand that while none of the other Italian powers was strong enough to dominate Italy on its own, neither was Florence. But the threat of France gave the Italians a mutual enemy and a powerful motive for cooperation. It was l’arte dell’affare.
Peace and prosperity, and Michelangelo and Leonardo — not a bad legacy.
But the kid. The kid was an idiot.
Lorenzo is said to have remarked that of his three sons, one was good, one was clever, and one was a fool. The good one died young, the smart one became pope, and the idiot inherited his father’s role in Florence. Why? Lorenzo knew Piero was a fool, but also described him as a “fighter,” and Lorenzo thought of succession as binary: It was either the Medici or their enemies — who were, as far as Lorenzo was concerned, also the enemies of Florence. From the Medici point of view, Piero may have been an idiot, but he was their idiot. And that was enough.
Not only was Piero an idiot, but he was an insecure idiot: He was rich, but not as rich as some of his rivals and extended family, and being a rich man with a famous name was almost all he really had to offer, lacking as he did the intelligence and public-mindedness of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Living up to a father bearing the sobriquet “the Magnificent” would have been difficult for a better man than the fatuous and low-minded Sfortunato, but Piero was simply unfit for the position he held. Kenneth Bartlett describes a familiar enough set of details in his short history of the period:
It soon became apparent exactly how limited Piero was. His distrustful nature alienated him from a great many of his father’s supporters and even members of his own family. His princely arrogance — really a sign of his own fear and insecurity — further angered the old republican patrician families who saw the roots of a monarchy developing. Any advice that counseled accommodation with the old elite or wide cultivation of the less privileged citizens Piero interpreted as a threat. He saw conspiracies everywhere, which resulted in his closing his circle of advisers and officials to a small group dependent completely on him, restricting his administration to those who expected favors and honors. He raised personal servants and insignificant guildsmen to important positions.
Piero had been a brawler and a braggart in his youth, and, like many would-be tough guys, he turned out to be weak and easy to roll when faced with a fight that wasn’t fixed. (Piero won his jousting tournament, too.) When King Charles VIII of France decided to march across Italy to claim the throne of Naples, the powers of the Italic League, in the absence of Lorenzo’s leadership, began looking to cut deals, and some of them even welcomed the invasion for their own narrow reasons, believing that their own political ambitions could be advanced with the support of a foreign power.
Piero did not know what to do. King Charles asked (“asked”) for Florence’s support, and needed to march across Tuscany to reach his destination. Piero dithered and then declared neutrality. In response, King Charles invaded, beginning with a massacre of Florentine troops at Fivizzano. And so Piero decided to visit the French king in person and negotiate with him, man-to-man and prince-to-prince. He immediately knuckled under to every French demand — and these were both costly and humiliating demands — and then brought the news back to his people, who were infuriated and took to pelting him and his entourage with rocks. Piero had not only shown himself a coward, but he also had negotiated without proper authorization.
As King Charles prepared to march his army through the middle of the city — for no real military purpose, just to dramatize proud Florence’s powerlessness — Piero tried to put together a military response. But he already had lost the confidence of his people, and they would not fight for him.
Many of the people of Florence had turned instead to the great and fraudulent moral awakening led by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who entranced the people with fake but very exciting prophecies and denounced the Florentine political and intellectual leaders for their privilege. Savonarola went about systematically destroying the visual testimony to that morally offensive privilege in the city’s great public and private places. Lorenzo’s patronage and cultivation had endowed Florence with a truly magnificent patrimony of humanistic art, and woke Florentines soon were burning those treasures in the streets — paintings, tapestries, musical instruments, and, of course, any books that offended the prohibitory new sensibility were consumed in a “bonfire of the vanities.” Botticelli is said to have put a few of his own problematic paintings on the pyre.
Piero was run out of town, and Savonarola took his place, promising to bring moral leadership to the long-suffering people of Florence, just as soon as he was done destroying all the offensive art. And the long-suffering people of Florence, after being disappointed by the friar’s unfulfilled promise to perform miracles and irritated by his decision to close down the brothels, hanged Savonarola and burned what was left of him.
Poor Piero! Of course, he couldn’t help being an idiot. He might not even have been able to help being arrogant, a bully, and a coward. He was just born that way. And he didn’t make King Charles VIII invade Tuscany! He didn’t create Savonarola! He couldn’t help it if the other Italian powers wouldn’t come to his aid! What did they expect him to do? It wasn’t his fault! He was just unlucky. And he was treated very unfairly. (No doubt he thought so.) Piero tried to rally his declining supporters a couple of times, and his attempts were pathetic. So he did what he thought he had to do and allied himself with his erstwhile enemy, the French, offering to help them win Naples in exchange for their aid returning him to power in Florence. The French were routed at the Battle of Garigliano, and Piero — oh, Sfortunato! — drowned in the Garigliano River while running away.
Words About Words
An epithet is not an insult or a term of abuse. Often, though not always, an epithet is a term of praise. An epithet is a byname — something more than a nickname but less than a title — a kind of description that attaches itself to a name or becomes a substitute for it: Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero il Fatuo, Piero il Sfortunato, Piero the Gouty (Sfortunato’s grandfather), Alexander the Great, the Man of Steel, He Who Must Not Be Named, Richard the Lionheart, Gray-Eyed Athena, the Gray Lady, Vlad the Impaler, the Prince of Peace, the City that Never Sleeps, “the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.” A personal favorite is Idi Amin’s epithet train: “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”
Henry Fowler long ago noted that epithet was acquiring an “abusive imputation,” and he rightly interpreted that as euphemistic, employed by people who did not want to characterize ethnic or religious slurs as slurs. Euphemism is an enemy, a cunning one.
An epithet is distinct from a formal title, though we usually capitalize both. A title that a person holds in a unique and personal way, such as a royal title, is generally capitalized because the title is used as a proper noun itself, in place of a name, e.g. the Prince of Wales, the Patriarch of Antioch, the Duke of Normandy. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the mustelid collaborator is not identified in the text as Henry Stafford but as Buckingham, he being the Duke of Buckingham. Richard himself is Gloucester in the play, because he is the Duke of Gloucester. The president of the United States, in contrast, holds his position for a defined period of time, and the office is not attached to his person. But because our national manners have taken a turn toward ersatz monarchism and at times something very close to idolatrous deification of presidents, “President” on its own sometimes ends up being capitalized, especially in the prose of the worst of us. Nancy Pelosi, for example, wrote this over the weekend: “The questions that arise are: was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed.” Pelosi gets it all sorts of wrong here — president should not be capitalized, but was should be, and the questions should end in a question mark: The questions that arise are: Was the president briefed? And, if not, why not? And why was Congress not briefed?
President Trump, who produces a great deal of illiterate prose, is a random capitalizer. He defended himself on that score in a tweet, claiming that the media likes to “pour [sic] over my tweets looking for a mistake.” He meant pore.
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Home and Away
Joe Biden does not have a very promising field of potential vice presidents. (Not Vice Presidents.) And I wonder whether his insistence on choosing a woman makes him appear less creepy than he actually is or — incredibly enough — more creepy than he actually is. More in the New York Post.
Cancel culture and the newsrooms, an article by Megan Basham in World.
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Not everyone thinks Piero was a total tool. That is a conventional view, but it may not be entirely accurate. A very different account of Piero’s life can be found in Alison Brown’s Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Crisis of Renaissance Italy. Professor Brown of the University of London describes a Piero who is much more cultivated, intelligent, and engaged than he often is given credit for being. If you are inclined to dig into that question — and why wouldn’t you be? — Brown is a very engaging writer and one of the leading scholars of the period. And the world of the Medici and Savonarola is not very far from our own. When the great Tom Wolfe decided that journalism was no longer sufficient to tell the American story and turned his hand to fiction, the classic novel he produced was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola may have a new habit, but he’s the same old fraud.
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