09 June 2009

St Zenobius and The Magic Ring

Scroll down to read the story of St Zenobius (pseudo-descendant of Queen Zenobia) and the Girolami family of Florence (reputed progeny of the fifth-century saint) -- or click on The Last of Zenobia's Line? .

Heavenly Honours

The Girolami family of merchants and bankers claimed the great honour of being directly descended from St Zenobius -- and they could prove it.

Unquestionably, they owned the ancient wooden house believed to have been St Zenobius' home (but whether it truly dated to anything as early as the fifth-century is quite another matter; you'll have to take it on faith). It was a near neighbour of their own 12th-c. Girolami tower (pictured in the previous post) and, to hammer the point home, this, too, was known as the Torre di San Zenobi. The fact that a wooden house had survived all the many destructive fires that had swept through the city over the centuries was proof positive of its sanctity.

Although the house was venerable, it wasn't so sacred that the bankers didn't make a profit on it. By 1591 (and probably much earlier), the casa di Santo Zanobi was earning a decent income for the Girolami. In that year, it was rented out to a silk throwster -- a woman who twisted or spun silk, and prepared it for weaving (a good business in 16th-century Florence).

Owning the saint's real estate reinforced the family's ties to the early Christian saint, but another link brought the Girolami even greater honour -- for they had in their possession the very ring worn by St Zenobius: a gold episcopal ring which they kept in a shell of silver [decorated] with the head of St Zenobius.

We first hear of this ring in 1409 when the banker and politician, Zanobi de' Girolami, inherited it from his father. When he died, he left it in turn to his eldest son, Francesco. It was this Francesco di Zanobi de' Girolami who lent the precious family relic -- perhaps grudgingly -- to Louis XI of France in 1482-83.

He had no choice. Lorenzo (aka 'the Magnificent') de Medici made him an offer he could not refuse.

The Medici Connection

According to the Memoirs of Louis XI's friend and biographer, Philippe de Commynes, even during the first two decades of his reign (r. 1461-83), the king suffered from endless ailments, including gout. Then, in March 1479, at the age of 56, he had the first of a series of strokes, after which his physical and mental health deteriorated dramatically. Even though he partially recovered, Louis (pictured right) continued to suffer from dizziness, ringing in the ears, hyper-sensitivity to cold, and a skin disease which he thought was leprosy.

Because Louis believed that only divine intervention could alleviate his suffering, he launched a relentless search for a miraculous cure. Commynes writes that he spent over 700,000 francs (a wow sum of money at any time) on religious offerings and on commissioning reliquaries for diverse saints. So notorious was his grasping at relics that it was still remembered in 1831:

The devotion to the Heavenly saints, of which he made such a parade, was on the miserable principle of some petty deputy in office who endeavours to hide or atone for the [swindles] of which he is conscious. With a poverty of spirit totally inconsistent with his shrewd worldly sagacity, he [exhausted] his physicians until they insulted as well as plundered him. In his extreme desire of life, he sent to Italy for supposed relics.*

Lorenzo De' Medici, Louis XI, and the Girolami Ring

To get the relics, Louis had to give gifts, including a golden shrine to hold the bones of San Bernardino who was interred in his Basilica at Aquila.** The diary of Lorenzo de' Medici notes that the king's agent passed through Florence on 19 February 1481 on his way to measure the saint's body. It had to fit, you see, or the saint might not rise to the bait. The king also gave gold chalices to St John Lateran in Rome -- whereupon the wilier Pope Sixtus IV sent him in return (but only on loan) the actual cloth used by St Peter when celebrating mass. When these didn't work their magic, Louis imported a Franciscan hermit from Calabria and had a hermitage built for him near his palace's chapel.

Alas, neither St Bernardino nor St Peter nor the hermit seemed to help.

So, in spring 1482, we hear that Louis XI expressed a keen interest in getting hold of St Zenobius' ring. He may have learned of the ring's existence from Commynes who was his ambassador to Florence in 1478. Since the saint was well known for raising the dead, healing a king should have been comparative child's play. Rather than directly contacting the Girolami about the loan of the ring, the king turned instead to Lorenzo de' Medici, whom he addressed in correspondence as 'my cousin' and 'my friend'. Lorenzo had helped along their long-distance friendship by giving Louis, who had a passion for dogs, a large guard dog for his bedroom.

Lorenzo was the perfect intermediary for he fostered a special devotion to St Zenobius. Here's the reason why.

"I am not the lord of Florence but a citizen of some authority"

Medici rule of Florence has aptly been described as "a mixture of wile, constitutional procedure, legal pretence and violence." With regular bouts of intimidation, vote buying, and horse trading added to the brew.

Needless to say, not everyone was happy with their rule -- especially not those families cut out of the government and other lucrative positions.

Although the Medici usually retained close ties with the Vatican, relations between Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus IV became strained. The Pope was angered when Lorenzo's diplomacy achieved an alliance between Florence, Venice, and Milan, for such a combination was more than a match for the armies of the Church. Sixtus had ambitions to expand the papal territory and now had reason to worry even about the safety of what the Church already held.

Consequently the Pope agreed to a plot designed to rid Florence of both Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. The chief conspirators were the Pazzi family, a rival banking house and bitter enemies of the Medici. The plan was to assassinate the two brothers at a moment when their guard would be down, during the celebration of Mass.

I like that touch, the Pope planning murder during Mass.

"Most Bloody Murder, Abominable Sacrilege and Infamous Treason"

So, on 26 April 1478, the Sunday before Ascension, Francesco de' Pazzi and a gang assaulted Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano while attending High Mass in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The attack took place "near the old sacristy toward the altar of St. Zenobius."

While Giuliano was killed instantly, Lorenzo -- wounded in the neck just below the ear --drew his sword and wrapped his cloak around his other arm as a makeshift shield. Fighting off his attackers, he raced toward the northern sacristy, pursued by the assassins, including two priests. He slammed the great bronze doors shut, locked them from the inside, and ended up, as it happens, directly below Giuliano da Maiano's brilliant wooden image of St. Zenobius (left).

As soon as the conspirators saw the Lorenzo had escaped they knew that the plot had failed and fled the cathedral. Surrounded now by Medici loyalists, Lorenzo was taken home to his palace.

An enraged mob immediately began rounding up the conspirators, many of whom were summarily hanged from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria (now Palazzo Vecchio).

The most prominent victims that day were Francesco de Pazzi and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, a papal loyalist whose grievance against Florence for delaying his seat as archbishop of Pisa had done much to instigate the conspiracy.

The Archbishop's men, trapped within the government palace which they had tried to seize, were taken to the tower and thrown out of windows, their bodies smashing onto the cobbles below. Their corpses were stripped of their clothes and hacked apart by the gathering crowds.

On the very same day, the star chamber of the "Eight" -- a government body responsible for investigating and prosecuting political crimes --convened and summoned Lorenzo to be their leader. In theory he was but one of several equal citizens. In fact, nothing would be done without his knowledge and approval, if not indeed his actual instigation. The ordinary rule of law was suspended -- there would be no trials.

Armed friends of the Medici broke open the doors of the Pazzi Palace and dragged a naked Francesco de' Pazzi to the Palazzo della Signoria where he was questioned along with Archbishop Salviati. Shortly thereafter, Francesco de' Pazzi, still naked and bleeding, was tossed out a tower window with a noose around his neck, his body left there on view. After making a full confession, Archbishop Salviati and his brother, Jacopo Salviati were also thrown from tower windows to strangle at the end of ropes for their crimes.

The Saint's chapel as a Medici shrine

People were "bewildered with terror", as a contemporary diarist wrote, but there is no doubt that the Pazzi Conspiracy, intended to destroy the power of the Medici, had the opposite effect.

Following the Conspiracy, the cult of St. Zenobius assumed special significance. The saint's image evoked vivid personal associations for Lorenzo, who accordingly promoted his cult and his chapel with a vengeance.

He was also directly and immediately involved in the commission and design of the Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies), the great hall of the Palazzo della Signori, the seat of the Florentine government. The central and dominant image in the hall is Ghirlandaio's St. Zenobius Enthroned, flanked by his saintly deacons -- deliberately modelled after the likeness of the three on the wooden panel in the sacristry of the Duomo, under which the wounded Lorenzo had sheltered.

Lorenzo may have intended its replication in the palace to honour Zenobius' role in saving him from the assassins. But, whatever his personal gratitude and devotion to St Zenobius, Lorenzo surely realized that the image worked as an endorsement of his own leadership of Florence. Its message was unmistakeable: divine favour and the city's patron saint had allowed his escape and thus approved Medici control over Florence.

So the cult of St Zenobius was rejuvenated -- and Louis XI was not far behind.

When he learnt of the Pazzi Conspiracy, the king dispatched Commynes to Florence in a show of support for Lorenzo. And, afterwards, the king acted as a mediator between the Florentines and Pope Sistus IV. For, as you would expect, feelings between city and Pope were more than ruffled. There were excommunications and armed clashes. But that's another story and I'm not going to digress.

Given their good relations, when Lorenzo received a letter in April of 1482 asking about "a ring that the king will do anything in order to have," he had every diplomatic reason to oblige the royal sufferer.

By May, the ring was on its way to Louis. But it was a pig in a poke. It didn't work.

Accept No Substitutes

On 9 July, the king wrote to Lorenzo saying that he had seen the relic -- but would his dear friend confirm that this was indeed the ring worn by St Zenobius. And also, please, tell me precisely what miracles had it worked; and if it had really healed anyone.

The king sniffed a trick ... and he was right.

Someone -- presumably Francesco de Girolami -- had made a copy of the saint's ring and sent this false relic with much fanfare to the French monarch.

One can well imagine the conversation that subsequently took place between Lorenzo and the fiddling Francesco.

So, when the king wrote again to Lorenzo (14 November), asking for the true ring, and dispatching an agent with an undisclosed sum of money, Lorenzo made firm arrangments to send the genuine article. In a letter of 10 December, he informed the king that Bernardo -- Francesco's eldest son -- would accompany St Zenobius' ring to France. As a kind of hostage, one might well suppose. But the king was now satisfied with his relic, and all was well. In May of 1483, we learn that the 13-year old Bernardo had become a favourite at the French court because of the saint's ring.

Alas Poor Louis

In the end, however, neither St Zenobius' ring, nor any of the other sacred relics or objects -- not even the fervent prayers of the Calabrian hermit -- could save the ailing king. He suffered a fourth stroke and died on 31 August 1483.

The ring was returned to Florence in a gold reliquary casket weighing fifteen pounds, which Francesco was reported to have melted down within the year. Bankers are like that, you know.

But the ring lived on. When Francesco died in 1511, it became the property of his son Jacopo. It then passed to Jacopo's brother Rafaello, who sent it to Mantua where it healed the epileptic son of Ferrante Gonzaga.

If so, this truly was a miracle as Rafaello died in 1532, one year before Gonzaga's first son was born.

Mirabile dictu.

For the little-known but well-documented story of St Zenobius' ring, I am indebted to Sally J. Cornelison, "A French King and a Magic Ring: The Girolami and a Relic of St Zenobiusin Renaissance Florence", Renaissance Quarterly (2002) 434-69.

* Sir Walter Scott, Introduction, Quentin Durward.

** The Basilica (left) was badly damaged in the April 2009 earthquake. The bank Montepaschi di Siena has pledged to finance its restoration.

Art Photographs

Top: Lorenzo Ghiberti, Shrine of St Zenobius (ca. 1432-42), detail of the dead child. Credit: KunstKopie.At

Middle: Giuliano da Maiano, wooden inlaid panel of St Zenobius (1463-68), new sacristry of the Duomo, Florence. Credit: www.digital-images.net

Lower: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Apotheosis of St Zenobius with his deacons, Eugene and Crescenrius (1482), Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies), Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Credit: Wikipedia

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