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Medici Assassination Is Recalled in Song With Placido Domingo

The cover of the recording of "I Medici," by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The opera features Placido Domingo and Carlos Alvarez. Source: Deutche Grammophon via Bloomberg

Even the tumultuous banking events of today can’t beat the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478 when one family of Renaissance power brokers tried to murder the competition on a fine Easter Sunday in Florence.

As Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici walked into the cathedral, assassins sent by the Pazzi banking family attacked the brothers.

Giuliano died, stabbed 19 times. Lorenzo survived to become Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of Michelangelo and the inspiration of countless bores with too much money and a deep need to see their names chiseled in posterity on the walls of museums.

Now thanks to the ceaselessly curious Placido Domingo, there’s a recording of a forgotten opera about the Pazzi conspiracy: “I Medici” (Deutsche Grammophon).

The composer is Ruggero Leoncavallo, remembered only for his short opera about a homicidal clown, “I Pagliacci,” a work forever paired with Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” to fill out an evening.

What a strange career. A late bloomer and Wagner nut, Leoncavallo dreamed of composing an entire trilogy on Renaissance themes, but lost focus after striking gold with the clown when he was in his mid-thirties.

He did compose an engaging “La Boheme” in 1897 that deserves to be seen, but as we all know, so did Puccini and his was both a year earlier and a masterpiece.

Moody Horns

“I Medici” starts with moody horn music Siegfried would have adored as the brothers ride through the hills of Florence where Giuliano falls in love with the saintly Simonetta Cattanei and also her more carnal friend, Fioretta.

Leoncavallo didn’t do himself any favor writing the libretto. Simonetta, quaveringly intoned by soprano Daniela Dessi, dies absurdly early. Giuliano expires without the lengthy addios we would have enjoyed emanating from Domingo’s amazing throat.

The best music is in the ensembles. Baritone Carlos Alvarez and conductor Alberto Veronesi are particularly fine in the finale when a haughty Lorenzo affirms his control over the rabble. “I Medici” remains an interesting curiosity.

The History

“I Medici” brings to mind Marcello Simonetta’s lively chronicle of the assassination and its many participants: “The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded” (Doubleday). Historians have long assumed that Pope Sixtus IV supported the Pazzi plot -- even in the opera, the brothers chat about the Pope’s enmity. Simonetta proves his guilt and that of his henchman, the Duke of Urbino.

Sifting through a private family archive in Urbino, the lucky Simonetta found a ciphered letter which he decoded using a manual written by none other than an ancestor who actually knew the conspirators.

Even better, in Simonetta’s chronicle, Sixtus IV gets his comeuppance some 50 years later, right inside the Sistine Chapel he had built to the glory of God and himself.

Months after Giuliano’s death, his mistress Fioretta gave birth to a clever boy who became Pope Clement VII. Taking imaginative revenge on the Pope who helped murder his father, he expunged a huge fresco in the Sistine Chapel extolling Sixtus and commissioned Michelangelo to paint “The Last Judgment” right on top of it.

For my interview with Marcello Simonetta, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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