Machiavelli A Renaissance Life Online - Joseph Markulin

Ercole d’Este was so filled with awe at the sound of his own name that he often choked with emotion when called upon to pronounce it. Not that he was an excessively vain man. Rather, it was an inordinate pride in his ancestry that caused him to treat his name with a respect bordering on veneration.

The Este family had ruled Ferrara for over two centuries, and for the most part, they had ruled it wisely, promoting the general welfare by developing industry and agriculture, building broad roads, and straightening streets. They had supported the fledgling university and had persuaded the eminent Greek scholar Guarino da Verona to come there and lecture. They had built a public park within the narrow confines of the city walls, a thing unheard of at the time. And, of course, most importantly, they had strengthened the city’s fortifications.

Ferrara was a small state but a rich one, and like all the other city-states of northern Italy, she was constantly at war. Political turbulence had become a way of life for the dozens of arrogant dukes who were incessantly attacking or being attacked, marching off to battle or waiting out sieges in their impregnable fortresses. Ferrara, by comparison, was at peace more often than many of the others. The Este, through the judicious use of marriage bonds and the skillful weaving of secret alliances, had brought calm and relative stability to the city.

Ercole (Hercules) d’Este managed his affairs well. He had to, for he literally owned the realm, and his prosperity, not to say survival, depended on it. He owned the land and all its bounty; he owned the grain and the vines; he owned the river and the fish in the river; he owned the mines, the mills, and the cattle; and last, he owned the people. He had complete authority to do anything he wished. His power was absolute. He could make laws or dissolve them. He could promote interests friendly to himself and his family, and he could kill his enemies with impunity. He reserved the right to impose taxes, to punish crimes, and to declare war. But as tyrants go, Ercole was one of the less abusive ones, and he retained the love and respect of his subjects.

Attached to the court of the Este family was an illustrious physician by the name of Savonarola. Although originally from Padua, Savonarola had secured his post in Ferrara on the basis of his reputation as a world-famous authority on the curative properties of spas and mineral waters. But more than that, he was a staunch proponent of the beneficial effects of alcohol, which he was always quick to prescribe for any illness. He maintained that it fortified the blood, revived the heart, dissipated superfluous body fluids, prevented fevers, and aided the digestion. If taken in sufficient quantities, it also cured colic, dropsy, paralysis, worms, and scurvy. It calmed toothaches, gave protection against the plague, and drove away wind. In alcohol, the physician Savonarola had found his panacea, and his prescriptions were eagerly received by the Este and their court. His position was secure, and he was much sought out as an eminent man of science. Upon retirement, his duties passed to his son, who faithfully executed, in every detail, the precepts and traditions of the father.

When Girolamo Savonarola was a boy, it was decided that he, too, like his father and his grandfather before him, would study medicine in order to assume his rightful post as third-generation court physician. But the boy was ill-suited to the role. From the way his father talked, young Girolamo had the distinct impression that the court physician had been engaged more as a tavern keeper than as a doctor. Medicine as practiced by the Savonarolas was as much a matter of dispensing cheer and goodwill as anything else.

Unlike his bibulous progenitors, Girolamo was a gloomy, introspective child. Physically, he was small, ugly, and clumsy. He was pale and withdrawn, and he cared little for the company of other children. He preferred to be alone, and the thing that seemed to give him the most pleasure in life was his lute. He would play for hours sad, plaintive melodies that he composed himself. And he would compose verses, too, and set them to music.

Although he showed no particular interest in the study of medicine, he mastered his lessons easily. And, while outwardly he appeared dazed and inattentive, it soon became clear to his teachers that he was possessed of a brilliant mind.