Lorenzo's galley slaves

I'm always intrigued by the untold stories of the people who don't get into the history books, the ones who get sideswiped by the major players.

One of the major players of Renaissance Italy was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence later known as The Magnificent. In 1478, he had a rough year.

He survived the Pazzi conspiracy, when his enemies tried to assassinate him in the Cathedral on Easter Sunday. They only wounded Lorenzo, though they did kill his brother. Those conspirators who were caught in Florence were hanged out of hand. This, however, brought down the wrath of Pope Sixtus IV, ostensibly because one of the hanged conspirators was the Archbishop of Pisa. Even though the archbishop’s guilt was indisputable, Sixtus said, he should have been given a trial in an ecclesiastical court. What really annoyed the pope was that the conspiracy had failed, since his nephew was the one who had organized it in the first place. 

In order to make life even harder for Lorenzo, Sixtus entered a military alliance with Ferdinand I, the king of Naples. Ferdinand was more than willing ally himself with the pope in order to help himself to some Florentine territory.

Lorenzo found himself in a difficult position. All his potential allies were busy fighting elsewhere. So he set sail for Naples, placing his life in Ferdinand’s hands. This was an enormous risk, since Ferdinand was the sort of ruler who liked to keep his enemies close at hand—either embalmed or in cages.

Lorenzo’s gamble paid off. He arrived with an enormous train of attendants and the sort of lavish display of wealth that was expected of a ruler who wanted to be taken seriously. That, combined with charm and diplomacy, won Lorenzo a treaty with Ferdinand, and he returned home in safety.

What actually intrigues me about this little episode is something Lorenzo did while he was in Naples. He bought the freedom of a hundred galley slaves and gave each of them 10 florins and a suit of clothes made of red silk. Flamboyant gestures like this were useful to win hearts and minds in Renaissance Italy.

But Lorenzo and Ferdinand and the incredibly twisted politics of Renaissance Italy are for some other writer to deal with. My interest is piqued by those galley slaves.

They were either prisoners of war or condemned criminals. All of a sudden, instead of being chained to a bench and an oar, they were free. Not only that, they had about a year’s wages in hand and a new suit of clothes. Red silk was no doubt a bit impractical for men who’d been down in the galleys and were probably pretty filthy, but it could be sold for something more useful.

What do you suppose went through their minds when all of a sudden they had a future? The day before, all they could look forward to was a short life and a brutal death, either dying under the lash in their place on the bench or drowning in their chains if the ship were attacked and sunk. 

Did they feel relief? Gratitude? Or, if they had resigned themselves to their fate, were they terrified by the new possibilities before them?

What were their stories? Was one a man unjustly condemned who longed for vengeance? Was one a long-lost son whose return throws his family into chaos? Was one a foreigner who finds himself stranded in the land of his enemies?

There are a hundred stories there. Are you intrigued too?


Well. Thanks, Lil. I already

Well. Thanks, Lil. I already had about a dozen stories started in my head -- now you have given me at least a hundred more ideas. It's getting like a big walk-in closet up there with too many shoes. I also got stuck on a pope named "Sixtus the Fourth". Who does that, names himself a number, followed by another number? What was wrong with Jim or Arlo or Steve? I do like most the idea of the son returning to his family and throwing it into chaos. Intriguing. You're good, you're very very good...

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