By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
The cult of Brutus took its name from Marcus Junius Brutus, the most noble of the Romans to participate in the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. The cult emphasized the necessity of assassination, and its story in Florence was long and complex and linked with the literary fortunes of the great Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri.
In Florence, throughout most of the 15th century, Dante’s epic poem, Divine Comedy, had been intentionally neglected, or better, relegated to the dust heap. Dante himself was entangled in Florence’s late 13th and early 14th century civil war—between those who supported the Holy Roman Empire, known as the Ghibellines, and those who supported the papacy, the Guelfs. Dante and his family were Guelf supporters.
The Florentine Guelfs decisively defeated the Ghibellines at the Battle of Campaldino, which took place in 1289 and in which Dante took part. But almost immediately after their triumph, the Guelfs split into two parties.
The two parties were the Whites, who advocated for less papal interference in Florentine political affairs, and the Blacks, who argued for more. The Black Guelfs overcame the Whites politically in late 1301, and Dante, together with a host of other While Guelfs, was sent into exile.
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In the following years, Dante began his epic poem, Divine Comedy, which harshly lampoons many of his contemporary Florentine citizens and Pope Boniface VIII.
In Divine Comedy, Dante placed Brutus, Cassius—the other great traitor against Caesar—and Judas Iscariot in Satan’s three mouths, to be gnawed forever in the frozen pit of hell. This also indicated that Dante had developed a strongly pro-empire and, thus, antirepublican, worldview.
For the majority of the 15th century, Dante’s pro-tyranny stance was rejected by Florentine republicans. Early in the century, there were attempts by such luminaries as Leonardo Bruni to rehabilitate the famous Florentine.
However, Dante was not fully rehabilitated until the last quarter of the 15th century, when Cristoforo Landino, with the permission of, none other than, Lorenzo the Magnificent, produced a new edition of and commentary on the Divine Comedy. Sandro Botticelli even created a series of illustrations for Landino’s edition.
For Florentine republicans, however, support of Dante was equivalent to supporting Medici, and, in turn, akin to supporting tyranny over republicanism. Why else, republicans argued, would Dante have put the greatest republican tyrannicides in the pit of hell?
Vernacular Versus Language of the Papal Court
Of course, it was thornier than this. Like Lorenzo the Magnificent, Landino was an advocate of the Florentine vernacular language. Dante had, for all practical purposes, created that language, and therefore, he ought to be praised.
But Dante had also written a work titled De vulgari eloquentia (On the Common Tongue) in which he argued that the language of the papal court was the most elevated form of the vernacular—as opposed to the language he had created in the pages of his Divine Comedy.
The Question of Language
This to-and-fro led to a scholarly debate, called the questione della lingua (the question of language), in which the greatest minds of the day took part.
In the end, Dante was forgiven, and humanists from as far afield as Venice came to recognize that Dante’s tongue—the vernacular of Florence—was the one language in Italy most suited to written expression.
And yet, the Florentine republicans, however, held on to their skeptical views of Dante, and they began to focus on and to rehabilitate Marcus Junius Brutus—giving birth to the Cult of Brutus. It justified the use of assassination as a tool to bring about political change.
Thus, the lines were clearly drawn. To support Medici meant being strongly pro-empire, and automatically, to be an antirepublican. Politically, the same sentiment came to the fore. After 1534, Filippo Strozzi, once one of Clement VII’s most trusted confidents, openly declared his support for republicanism at Florence.
In addition, important and devout individuals, such as, Donato Giannotti, flew the same flag, and were joined by Ippolito and Lorenzino de’ Medici.
Ippolito de’ Medici
In 1534, and in the year following, Ippolito had been in frequent contact with Emperor Charles V. In their correspondence and personal meetings, Ippolito shared with the emperor that Alessandro de’ Medici had sunk into a life of debauchery and cruelty. They alleged that Alessandro carried on sexual liaisons with the wives of Florence’s most notable citizens, and he kept a permanent mistress (with whom he would have two children), even as he was engaged to be married to Charles’s own daughter.
Despite these claims, Charles V refused Ippolito’s request to intervene in Florentine affairs and to set about reforming its republican traditions.
Alessandro de’ Medici
Ippolito died in 1535 under strange circumstances after having developed a fever which lasted for eight days. Rumors at Florence suggested Alessandro de’ Medici had poisoned Ippolito while at Rome the scuttlebutt was that Pope Paul III had had him poisoned so that he might give the young Medici’s titles and benefices to one of his own nephews.
With this last impediment out of the picture, Alessandro became openly craven in his actions and activities. It opened him up to further criticism. And against this backdrop, the Cult of Brutus, supporting republican tyrannicides, took shape to become one of the motivations behind Alessandro de’ Medici’s assassination.
Common Questions about Florence’s Politics and the Cult of Brutus
Dante Alighieri was entangled in Florence’s late 13th and early 14th century civil war—between those who supported the Holy Roman Empire, known as the Ghibellines, and those who supported the papacy, the Guelfs. Dante and his family were Guelf supporters.
For Florentine republicans, support of Dante Alighieri was equivalent to supporting Medici, and, in turn, akin to supporting tyranny over republicanism.
The Florentine republicans began to focus on and to rehabilitate Marcus Junius Brutus—giving birth to the Cult of Brutus.