Ippolito - Il Cardinale
Francesco de' Guicciardini wrote of Piero de' Medici thus: "He was born of a foreign mother, whereby Florentine blood got mixed, and he acquired foreign manners and bearing, too haughty for our habits of life." The prince gave up most of his time to pleasure and amusement with the young nobles of his court, and encouraged the aims and ambitions of the self-seeking scions of his mother's family. At a single bound the immense personal popularity of Lorenzo, his father, disappeared. Florentines took the young ruler's measure, and he was found wanting.
The imprisonment and threatened execution of his cousins, Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, was a flagrant mistake. The three had quarrelled about Lorenzo il Magnifico's pretty daughter, Luigia, but it was a baseless rumour that she had been poisoned. Bad blood was made always in Florence by such romances and such interference.
In September 1494, Charles VIII. crossed the Alps, and, whilst Savonarola fanatically hailed his coming to Florence as "God's Captain of Chastisement," politicians of all parties looked to Piero to show a bold front and resist the French invader as commander-in-chief of a united Italian army.
Piero made no sign, but went on playing pallone in the Piazza Santa Croce. The enemy seized the Florentine fortresses of Sargana, Sarzanello and Pietra Santa. The news sobered the headstrong, self-indulgent prince for the moment, and then craven fear seized his undisciplined mind. In a panic he mounted his horse and, attended only by two officers of the city guard, he galloped off to King Charles' camp.
In the royal tent Piero fell upon his knees, craved forgiveness for Florence's opposition, and pleaded for generous terms for himself and his fellow-countrymen. Charles demanded the cession absolutely of the three fortresses, with the cities of Pisa and Livorno, and with them the "loan" of 200,000 gold florins! Piero's report was listened to in solemn silence by the Signoria, but when its tenor was conveyed to the concourse of citizens, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, cries of " Liberta!" "Liberta!" rent the air.
When Piero rode out of the Piazza, accompanied by an armed escort, he was met by an exasperated mob who assailed him with missiles and stones. The big bell, up in the Campanile, began to speak its ominous summons, and, in reply to faint cries of "Palle!" "Palle! " renewed shouts of "Liberta!" "Liberta!" proclaimed the abdication of the Medici.
A Parliament was convened and five ambassadors were appointed to treat with Charles and revoke Piero's surrender. One of them, speaking for the rest, denounced him as "No longer fit to rule the State" - it was Piero de' Capponi. The Signoria passed a sentence of expulsion upon Piero and his brothers, and placed a reward of two thousand gold florins upon his head, and five thousand more, if he and Giovanni, his Cardinal brother, were captured together.
Needless to say, before the decree was promulgated Piero and Giovanni flew precipitately through the Porta San Gallo, upon their way to Bologna, at the head of a few mercenaries, and with them went Piero's chancellor.
An enraged mob of citizens rushed pell-mell into the Via Larga, sacked the Palazzo Medici, and scattered the treasures which Piero and Lorenzo had gathered together. The streets were strewn with costly furniture, carpets and tapestry, and priceless works of art were either burnt or broken in pieces. It was not a question of looting but of destruction, and for eighteen years the building was a mark for obscenities and imprecations.
The French army marched through the humiliated city, and terror filled the hearts of the people. Charles occupied a portion of the palace, which the Signoria hastily put into some sort of order, borrowing or buying furniture and other articles for his use.
On their knees, an entirely new experience for the proud Florentines, the Signoria besought the Emperor's clemency. He took a high hand with them, demanding a huge indemnity and threatening to command his trumpets to sound for pillage. One man alone asserted his liberty, a man who throughout Piero's short government had voiced the public discontent - Piero de' Capponi - the most capable soldier Florence possessed. Boldly and alone he faced the Conqueror and denounced his demands. He tore in pieces the fatal document of Piero's capitulation, flung the pieces in Charles' face, and defied him, saying, "If you sound your trumpets we shall ring our bells!"
Charles was cowed, he signed a treaty of peace with honourable terms for Florence, and left the city, after a stormy scene with Savonarola. "Take heed," the latter said, "not to bring ruin on this city and upon thyself the curse of God!"