The Pazzi Conspiracy

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Florence, by Georgio Vasari

On the 26th April 1478, as the host was raised within a crowded Santa Maria Del Fiore, carnage erupted. This moment was to be the finale of a conspiracy that had been concocted by the Pazzi family and their allies, in which the aim was to assassinate the two Medici brothers. But why did they want to kill them? The answer is mixed up in the politics of fifteenth century Florence along with what I can only describe as jealousy – although the Pazzi family were wealthy thanks to their work in the banking sector, they (and many others) watched as the Medici family scaled to the heights of Florentine politics through shrewd political machinations. In particular, Lorenzo De’ Medici had risen to the very top of the government and become the unofficial, defacto leader of Florence. As such, Lorenzo had power that many believed was becoming incredibly dangerous and absolute. Him and his family were obviously going to be the target for resentment, especially from a family such as the Pazzi who were old, well known nobility who had been shoved to the side thanks to a man they saw as an upstart.

It wasn’t just the Pazzi involved in the conspiracy, however. Lorenzo De’ Medici had gotten on the wrong side of the Pope one too many times – he had taken a dislike to the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviato, and had also taken umbridge to the fact that Girolamo Riario, Pope Sixtus’ nephew, had been given Imola in the aim of setting up a brand new papal state. It was all too close to home for Lorenzo, and his standing up against the Pope’s decisions ended up with the Pope backing the conspirators. It must be said, however, that Sixtus made the point of not endorsing murder outright. Instead he advised the conspirators to do whatever they had to do to remove Lorenzo from power. They took that as him condoning the assassination of the Medici brothers.

The original plan had been to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano, whilst the brother’s were visiting Rome. However the plan had to be rearranged when the two men decided against their visit to the Holy City. More plans were made, each of which were hampered by Giuliano De’ Medici falling ill – for example the second attempt was planned to happen during a lunch time meeting with the brothers at their villa in Fiesole, but with Giuliano unwell and unable to join them, they put the plans to bed.

Instead they planned to commit the double murder on 26th April 1478. It was to take place during Mass at the Santa Maria Del Fiore, during the elevation of the Host. There was only one problem – the man who had originally agreed to commit the murder, Federico Da Montefeltro, refused to commit murder upon holy ground. So two other priests were pulled in – they had no such qualms, and nor did the other conspirators. As the Host was raised, they attacked. Giuliano De’ Medici was stabbed multiple times by Bernardo Baroncelli and Francesco De’ Pazzi. And as the attack was happening to Giuliano, the attack began on Lorenzo. Except the conspirator standing behind the ruler of Florence made the mistake of reaching to steady himself on Lorenzo’s shoulder, thus alerting Lorenzo to what was about to happen. Lorenzo leapt away, his attackers knife thankfully only grazing his neck, and wrapped his cloak about his arm to act as a shield. In the chaos Poliziano, a close friend of the Medici family, rushed Lorenzo De’ Medici to safety within a room in the Sacristy.

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Giuliano De’ Medici by Sandro Boticelli

The conspirators had failed in their plan. Although Giuliano De’ Medici’s corpse lay upon the floor of the cathedral, they had failed to kill the leader of Florence and were now in significant danger. The reprisals started almost straight away. As the people fled the scene of bloodshed, Lorenzo and his allies went to the safety of the Medici palace. The city bells were rang and Jacopo De’ Pazzi rode into the main town square in an effort to stir up a revolution against the Medici. He failed miserably and was urged to flee the scene of the crime. Very quickly the conspirators were rounded up, some of them held as prisoners within the Palazzo Della Signoria. There, the bodies of both Bernardo Baroncelli, Francesco Salviati and Francesco De’ Pazzi were hung from the upper windows of the palace. Jacopo De’ Pazzi who had fled Florence after his failed attempt at riling up the popolo was caught and brought back – he was hung next to the corpse of Salviati.

The aftermath of Jacopo’s execution is particularly morbid. Although he was originally buried within the Pazzi crypt, many opposed the fact that this evil man was buried within consecrated ground. So he was moved outside the city. Except there, a group of children dug up his body and dragged it about the streets using the noose he had been hanged with. It’s a rather grim outcome, but one that sums up the popular feeling against the family who had caused such an uproar.

That Sunday in April of 1478 was an attack upon a family who, at the point, were well respected in Florence. That would change after Lorenzo’s death. But the murder of Giuliano De’ Medici was a tragedy, caused by the jealousy of a family who believed they were better than the Medici and who were looking for any excuse to get the Medici out of the way. The belief that the Medici family were going too far in the way of absolute power was something that would come back to haunt them just a few years down the line and, perhaps, it can be said that the attack by the Pazzi was the beginning of the end for the great Florentine family.

Further Reading

Lauro Martinez: April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici

Paul Strathern: The Medici: Godfather’s Of The Renaissance

Christopher Hibbert: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici

Christopher Hibbert: Florence: Biography Of A City.

Looking back: 7th February 1497 – The Bonfire of the Vanities

Today, in 1497: Girolamo Savonarola organised one of the most infamous moments in Renaissance history – the Bonfire of the Vanities. Here’s an old post I wrote on the subject…

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Savanarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Giralomo Savonarola is probably one of the most famous people from Renaissance Italy, next to the Borgia and Medici families. He is best known as the preacher who fundamentally ruled Florence with his sermons, and the man who was behind one of the greatest atrocities in Renaissance history: The Bonfire of the Vanities. As a man, Giralomo Savonarola is fascinating and I will be doing a piece on him and his life in more detail soon. Today however, I wanted to do a brief post on the Bonfire of the Vanities – an event in which the supporters of Savonarola piled up all manner of famous works of art, books and fine clothing…and burned the lot.

Painting of Savonarola’s execution, in the same spot where he had started the Bonfire of the Vanities

It was Lent, 1497. Giralomo Savonarola had already been ruling the city of Florence for many years, preaching to the people and almost brainwashing them into believing that their extravagant life’s were sinful. He regularly packed out the Santa Maria del Fiore, famous for it’s massive dome built and finished by Brunelleschi in 1469, where he delivered rousing sermons against the extravagant clothes and art that the Florentine people were famous for.

At the start of Lent Savonarola sent a band of innocents around the city to collect up what he called ‘vanities’. These innocents, known as the ‘blessed innocents’ were groups of children who up until then had walked around the city dressed in robes of purest white and singing the praises of God. They had previously been barred from a number of streets in the city when it became apparent that some Florentine’s didn’t actually support the friar. However this time they had armed guards with them and every vanity that they could get their hands on were piled into a huge pyramid in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria (as seen in the painting above of Savonarola’s eventual execution, but this will be covered in more detail in later posts).

At the very bottom of the pyramid were items such as wigs, false beards, pots of rouge that women used to redden their cheeks and perfumes. On top of that were books that Savonarola and his followers considered to be ‘Pagan’ – these were all important historical works from Greek philosophers, books of poems by Ovid and Petrarch, works by Cicero. Next came paintings, drawings and bust sculptures of subjects considered profane. Included among these were works by the famous Sandro Boticelli, who is said to have been a follower of Savonarola and abandoned his paintings to follow the friar. Next were musical instruments, sculptures and paintings of naked women. And right at the very top of the pyramid were sculptures of Greek Gods and mythical legends. This was then finalised by an effigy of Satan, reigning over these sinful items. It is said that this model of Satan was given the face of a Venetian man who had offered to buy the items for 22,000 florins. This can only hint at the worth of all the items together, and I can only imagine that such works of art were worth much, much more.

The Palazzo Veccio, Florence.

The bonfire was lit on Shrove Tuesday, 7th February. As the entire signoria assembled from the balcony of the Palazzo Veccio, flames began to lick up the pyramid which by now was now over sixty feet high, and the crowds surrounding the massive bonfire singing a Te Deum.

This event divided Florence even more than it already was. The people were turning against Savonarola, and Piero de Medici ended up leaving Florence and heading to Rome where he received the blessing of Pope Alexander VI to lead an army against the city. Yet even as the army approached, the majority of Florentine citizens did not want to return to Medici rule (they had been ousted from the City during the early part of Savonarola’s “rule”). Piero returned to Rome, not as the victor he envisaged.

Savonarola’s reign of religious tyranny (for want of a better word), would start to decline in June 1497 when Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull excommunicating him from the Roman Catholic church. Yet when Savonarola continued to preach in the Santa Maria del Fiore, the signoria tried to ban him from preaching and riots occasionally broke out.

His reign would not come to an end until 1498 when he was arrested and made to prove that he had a special relationship with God. When he failed he was jailed in the Bargello before being tortured and eventually executed. But that’s for a different post.

For now, all I can do is feel the huge loss of so many works of art lost to Savonarola’s flames. This really was a crime against the art that was created during the renaissance, and from my reading of Savonarola I have to wonder how anyone could condone doing something like that? A crime yes, but certainly a very interesting event in the history of both the fascinating man and the beautiful city of Florence.

Further reading

Donald Weinstein, Savanarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet.
Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire: Savanarola and Renaissance Italy
Paul Strathern, The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
Paul Strathern, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
Paul Strathern, Death In Florence: The Medici, Savanarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance.
Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies