PALLAS AND THE CENTAUR
Brief Summary of the Plot
'...historical fiction of seemingly effortless authenticity, and again the concentration is on thinkers and the wisdom passed on by the written word rather than the more usual travails of the artists.' Jeff Cotton, Fictional Cities
Following the Pazzi Conspiracy, there is a war between Florence and Rome. Now Florence has to suffer the way Volterra did and there is a sense of karmic retribution. Lorenzo sends his wife and children away to the country, under the care of his friend, Angelo Poliziano. He assigns Tommaso de’ Maffei the task of helping Ficino complete his translation of the works of Plato into Latin.
This is a dual narrative, written by Tommaso and also by Poliziano’s sister, Maria. In Maria’s narrative we hear about her brother’s childhood in his native Montepulciano, where Maria lives in a convent. On the Tuscan border, Montepulciano is in the path of the papal armies approaching Florence. The convent is sacked and Maria escapes to make her way to Florence and find the brother of whom she has no memory, since he left home when she was only a year old.
Tommaso has remained in Florence not only to help Ficino but also to look after Elena, who is pregnant. Elena expresses deep foreboding about Lorenzo’s arrangements for the family, for she senses something about Lorenzo’s wife that she fears Poliziano will not be able to cope with.
Within a few miles of Florence, Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice d’Orsini, begins a transformation. The meek, pale wife of Lorenzo, who bears him children and makes no complaint about his mistresses, begins to assert herself. Where she could never enjoy any kind of authority in the presence of her husband, in his absence it begins to exercise itself, at the cost of Poliziano. She repeatedly humiliates him and he sends desperate letters to Lorenzo asking for advice. Lorenzo, however, is fully occupied with the war and becomes irritated by this petty squabble.
But is it so petty? In the safe houses, first in Pistoia, then at Cafaggiolo, the war between Clarice and Poliziano reveals itself as a cosmic battle between opposing gods. Clarice is a medieval woman living with a renaissance man. Everything she detests about her husband’s philosophy she attacks in Poliziano. For her, the Rome-Florence conflict is personal: it is between her husband and her pope, between Platonic philosophy and the faith. She cannot destroy her husband, but she can destroy his best friend. Lorenzo has instructed Poliziano to tutor his sons in the new learning. Clarice wants them raised in the faith. What she has to do is get rid of Poliziano. Meanwhile she is pregnant with her eighth child.
Maria arrives in Florence during a great flood. Tommaso, going to check Poliziano’s house, finds her there. He takes her to live in his own house until he can contact Poliziano for advice.
Elena gives birth, attended by Maria, but her son is still-born.
When Clarice’s child is born (in Florence), Lorenzo has been unable to find a wetnurse for the boy and persuades Tommaso to let him take Elena. After the birth, Clarice suffers post-natal madness and, on her return to Cafaggiolo, makes Poliziano’s life impossible. She frightens the whole family and her eldest son retreats to his master’s bed as to his father’s. Clarice finds him there and accuses Poliziano of sodomy. He is cast from the house and goes into voluntary exile.
The troubles of Florence are deepening all the time and it seems the city is about to fall. In a desperate bid to save it, Lorenzo gives himself up to the enemy and travels to Naples to see the king, Rome’s chief ally.
In Florence, Lorenzo’s mother gathers the Medici women to her, including Elena Maffei and Maria Poliziana. She writes letters to all the wives of the rulers of Europe and with them contrives to bring peace.
Clarice is exorcised by Ficino, who finds himself in conversation with Juno, in deep fury at the infidelities of her husband, Zeus.
In exile, Poliziano finds he can live very well without Medici patronage and that he is valued for his talents, not his friends. At Mantua he is persuaded into taking holy orders so that he may enter the entourage of Cardinal Gonzaga. He has met and befriended the enigmatic young scholar, Pico della Mirandola, who tries to dissuade him, but Poliziano is adamant and goes through the rite. Even as he commits himself, however, he realises he is making a mistake. Commissioned to write a play about Orpheus, Poliziano makes it so controversial and offensive that he is bound to be thrown out of Mantua. In fact, he leaves of his own volition. He has no need of the patronage of Lorenzo, but he yearns for Lorenzo’s friendship. He must somehow get back to Florence.
After winning the war through diplomacy, Lorenzo returns to Florence in triumph, but he does not find reconciliation easy. It takes some time and much effort on the part of others to bring him back together with his wife and his friend. In his absence, Elena has died and Tommaso is reduced to a ghost.
And so we come to The Rebirth of Venus and the question, is there love after death?