Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page




The Tomb of Lorenzo De' Medici by T. A. T.

This is a scene that took place this spring in the Medicean chapel attached to the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. It was in itself a remarkable and memorable scene enough, but it was yet more important as regards certain interesting points of history on which it throws a very curious light, if it does not, as many persons will be inclined to think, settle them definitively.

The little square marble chapel itself, which no visitor to Florence will have forgotten, is admired as an architectural gem of Michael Angelo, and is yet more celebrated as the shrine of some of his finest works, especially the sitting statue of Lorenzo and the recumbent statues of Twilight and Dawn on the tomb of Lorenzo. These two grand figures, it will be remembered, repose on the arched canopy over the tomb in such a position that, if not retained in their places by some means adapted for that purpose, they would slide off the rounded arch by their own weight. Now, it had been lately observed that the statue of Twilight was moving, and it was very reasonably judged to be necessary that this should be looked to. The statue was therefore carefully raised, and it was discovered that when the tomb of Lorenzo had been opened to place in it the body of the murdered Alexander, his (putative) son, the metal stanchion or peg by means of which Michael Angelo had secured his statue in its place had been replaced by a wooden one. This, in the course of the centuries which have since elapsed had become decayed, and the statue might have fallen any day. This being the case, it was thought well to raise the other statue, that of the Dawn also. But that was found to be as secure in its place as the great artist had left it. But these superincumbent statues having been thus lifted from off the sepulchre, it was suggested that the opportunity should be taken to examine the contents of the tomb.

There were several reasons which rendered such an examination historically interesting and curious. A certain degree of doubt has been cast—mainly by Grimm—on the question whether the tomb be in fact that of Lorenzo, the father of Catherine de' Medici, the celebrated queen of France—whether it be not rather that of Giuliano, his uncle. For my part, I had always thought that there was little or no foundation for the doubt. The main features of the story of Alexander will probably be in the memory of the reader. The Florentine republic and liberty were destroyed in 1527 by the united forces of the traitor pope, the Medicean Clement VII., and Charles V., with the understanding that this Alexander should marry Margaret, the emperor's illegitimate daughter, and that Florence should become a dukedom to dower the young couple withal. Who and what this Alexander was has always been one of the puzzles of history. He was, tradition says, very swarthy, and was generally believed to be the son of a Moorish slave-mother. He was certainly illegitimate; and the question, Who was his father? was always a doubtful one, though he has generally been called the son of Lorenzo. I have elsewhere given at length reasons for believing rather that whispered bit of scandal of the time which declared the pope, Clement VII., to be his father. When Florence fell he became duke, and reigned over the unhappy city for seven years, in such sort that the murder of him in 1537 by his kinsman Lorenzino, traitorously and cowardly done as the deed was, was deemed the act of a patriot. The story of such a deed, done at midnight in a private chamber, and never made the subject of legal investigation, of course reaches subsequent generations enveloped in more or less of uncertainty. Now, it was likely enough that the careful examination of the remains in the tomb in question might throw light on sundry points of Alexander's story.

In the first place, the identity of the tomb is now fixed beyond the possibility of a doubt. It was known that the body of the murdered Alexander was placed in the tomb of his putative father, Lorenzo. If, therefore, the body of Alexander should be found in this sepulchre, the tomb is proved to have been that of Lorenzo. When the lid of the sarcophagus was raised, there accordingly were the two bodies visible—one dressed in white, the other in black. It has been assumed—and I think the assumption is abundantly justified, as will presently be seen—that the skeleton in black is that of Lorenzo, and the skeleton in white that of Alexander. The relative position of the bodies was very singular. The heads were at opposite ends of the sarcophagus, and the bodies were placed, not side by side, but each between the legs of the other. One of the bodies, that of Lorenzo, seemed when the lid of the sarcophagus was raised to be headless, but on examination the skull was found under the breast of the black tunic that covered the body. There can be little doubt that it became detached when the body was moved for the purpose of placing that of Alexander in the tomb. The white garment that clad the skeleton of Alexander was an embroidered shirt ornamented with lace: the legs were covered with white leggings. The skull of this skeleton had all the teeth perfect when the sarcophagus was opened; but should the curiosity of any future generation tempt the men of that day to peer into this receptacle of the dust of tyrants, the skull of the murdered Alexander will be found to be toothless. And all sorts of suppositions and theories may be based on this singular fact, and credited, until some antiquary of the period discovers in an ancient magazine published at the period of a former examination of the sepulchre this record, in which I am obliged to declare—with a blush for the decency of the Florentines—that the teeth were all stolen by persons who were permitted to be present at the opening of the tomb. A certain special historical interest is attached to those teeth of the murdered man. The story goes that when Lorenzino stabbed him as he slept on a bed in Lorenzino's own house, to which he had been inveigled in the hope of meeting there a certain lady, the wife of a Ginori of the time, Alexander started up, and, seizing the thumb of the murderer between his teeth, held him so firmly that he could not have escaped had not a bravo whom he had hired to aid him come to his assistance. These, then, were the teeth that held so well in the death-grip of their owner! Some Florentine historically-minded virtuoso (!) appreciated the significance of the fact, and stole them from the head some three centuries and a half after that last bite of theirs. There were several gaps in the range of teeth still remaining in the skull of Alexander, which has appeared strange to some who remember that he was only twenty-seven when he died. But I think that any medical man, taking into consideration; the manner of his death, would find nothing strange in the circumstance, but on the contrary a confirmation of the truth of the facts which the chroniclers of the time have preserved for us.

Perhaps, however, the most curious and interesting fact which the opening of this tomb has ascertained is that testified to by the hair still remaining on the skull which was that of Alexander. It is a black curly hair of a coarse quality, such as a man of mixed black blood may be supposed to have had. It is recorded that one of the wounds given by the bravo Scoronconcolo, whom Lorenzino had hired to assist him in the murder, and who ran up to complete the job when his master was disabled by being fast held by the teeth of Alexander, was a stab in the face. And of the truth of this tradition also the skull of the murdered man still affords evidence; for on the left-hand side of the face, a little below the socket of the eye, there is a mark in the bone beneath the cheek which must have been made by the point of the sword or dagger that inflicted the wound, and which shows that the bravo Scoronconcolo's thrust must have been a shrewd one.

It will readily be supposed that the scene at the opening of the sepulchre must have been a very impressive one. There, in that solemn chapel of white and black marble which the genius of Michael Angelo prepared for the repose of his sovereigns and patrons, with his lifelike and immortal presentations of the forms of the dead who have filled all story with their names, looking down on the deed with sad and solemn faces, who would not, while thus forcing the prison-house of the tomb to render up its terrible and long-concealed secrets, have been deeply sensible of a feeling of awe and reverence? Even putting aside all such sentiments as the contemplation of such a memento mori is usually found to inspire in most men, the purely scientific historical inquirer must have felt the importance of the occasion, and the great desirability of making the most in an historical point of view of so rare an opportunity. I am sorry to be obliged to record that the Florentines, so far as could be judged from their conduct and bearing, felt nothing of all this. No one who knows them as well as I do would have expected reverence from them under any possible or imaginable circumstances; but one might have expected such due care and decency of proceeding as would have sufficed to render the examination of the remains as historically instructive as possible, and to preserve the record for a future generation. But this was very far from being the case. A learned professor of anatomy indeed attended at the opening of the tomb, but instead of touching the remains himself, or utilizing his science by handling them as they ought to have been handled, he called a workman, and by him the bodies were torn out from their resting-place in fragments. The clothes were of course torn to pieces in the operation; the lace from the shirt of Alexander was permitted to be stolen; and the same fate, as has been stated, overtook his teeth. No sort of preparation had been made for any possible examination of the remains to any good purpose. They were laid out anyhow, as the phrase is, on a little marble bench in the chapel. Those who remember the place will not need to be told how perfect a sham any pretence of examination must have been under such circumstances. When this pretence had been gone through, the bones were cast back again into the marble sarcophagus by the workman, "like"—as one eye-witness of the scene describes it—"the bones of dogs." And when the same person looked into the sarcophagus after this tossing back had been effected, he saw a mere confused heap of the scattered bones of two skeletons undistinguishably mixed together. "I cannot help," writes the same eye-witness, "expressing my sense of the barbaric acts which I witnessed. Historic skeletons—the father of Catherine de' Medici, the son-in-law of Charles V.; Florentine nobles—one a duke of Florence, the other of Urbino—both bad enough fellows, no doubt, but could any Communists have acted worse? Besides, Communist mobs assert principles, and do these things in hot blood. But this most monstrous outrage was committed coolly by pure stupidity and the carelessness which cannot be moved by any consideration to take any trouble that can by any possibility be avoided. Had they turned up a quantity of the bones of animals to examine them, they could not have done worse." It is fair to add that some of the organs of the Florentine press stigmatized the proceedings upon this occasion as they deserved to be stigmatized.