The Pazzi Conspiracy


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.


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.

The Pazzi Conspiracy

Giuliano de Medici by Sandro Botticelli
On 26th April 1478 the ruler of Florence Lorenzo de Medici made his way through his city to the grand Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – more commonly known as The Duomo thanks to the great dome that topped the imposing structure. Lorenzo de Medici, known to almost everyone as Il Magnifico, ruled the city of Florence but not as a king; rather he insisted that he be called a simple citizen of Florence. Despite this though he was involved in the politics of the city, and nothing happened without his say so. Lorenzo himself really did live up to the name of Il Magnifico; he had taken over the reigns of power from his father Piero in 1470 and was a great patron of the arts – so much so that he ended up taking artists under his wing including Leonardo Da Vinci and the brilliant Michelangelo. He also made sure that the city was alive with parties and festivals. Topping this off, Lorenzo himself was an excellent poet, musician and swordsman with a love of philosophy and women – he wasn’t exactly the best looking of men, but according to many of his biographers there was something about him that made him attractive to men and women alike. 
Bust of Lorenzo de Medici by Verroccio
The reason for his trip to the Duomo that day was the Easter Sunday service, and hundreds of Florentine citizens also flocked to the great cathedral including possibly a very young Niccolo Machiavelli and his family. Little were these people to know that they were about to watch one of the greatest conspiracies in Florentine history unfold before their very eyes.
Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano had tried to make his excuses to not attend the service that day. He blamed ill health, and really his excuses should have held some sway as he suffered from a particularly nasty form of sciatica. But two of his friends, Francesco de Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini had insisted he come along and had even gone as far as helping him get out of the house and helping him to walk to the Duomo. What Giuliano did not know was that Francesco and Bernardo had done this deliberately – they had been planning this for months. And the younger Medici should have stayed in bed that day.
What was about to unfold would go down i history as the Pazzi conspiracy. The Pazzi family had long been living under the thumb of the Medici, both were ancient families and both were banking families but the Pazzi had begun to believe that it was about time the Medici were ousted from power, that their own family deserved some of the glory. The plot had originally been hatched in Rome, after Pope Sixtus had asked Lorenzo de Medici for a loan of 40,000 ducats so he could buy the city of Imola for his nephew Girolamo Riaro. Lorenzo had refused – it was a large sum of money that really his failing bank couldn’t afford (Lorenzo hadn’t really given much interest to the Medici bank) but not only that, he had hoped to buy Imola for Florence. Lending the Pope the money so it could fall into the hands of papal supporters wasn’t exactly what Lorenzo had in mind. Pope Sixtus was furious, and so went to the Medici’s rival bank for the funds. The Pazzi bank immediately granted the Pope his money, Sixtus gave Imola to his nephew and the Pazzi now had control of the Curia accounts. Relations between the Pope and the Medici grew even more strained when the Pope tried to oust Niccolo Vitelli from the town of Citta di Castello – this little town had been brought for Florence by Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo and when Lorenzo raised a small army to help Vitelli, the Pope was seriously offended. War was barely averted. Lorenzo then offended the Pope even more by refusing to allow the Papal choice of archbishop for Florence into the city, and by starting an alliance between Florence, Venice and Milan which the Pope thought was aimed at himself. By the time 1477 rolled around there were a number of men in Rome who wanted to see the end of the Medici in Florence – Girolamo Riaro was one of them, Francesco Salviati (the archbishop who hadn’t been allowed into Florence) and Francesco de Pazzi who believed it was time the Pazzi took power. 
Francesco de Pazzi then took the ideas for the coup d’etat to his relative, Jacopo de Pazzi of Florence. Jacopo was an old man and incredibly tight fisted when it came to money, but when Francesco approached him he said that the whole idea wouldn’t work. He was also reluctant to show his support because one of his nephews was Lorenzo de Medici’s brother in law. To convince Jacopo, Francesco decided to garner military support. And when Jacopo recruited a well known condottiero, Gian Battista de Montesecco, to the cause it seems all was on track. Unfortunately as this condottiero was also in the employ of the Pope, he said he couldn’t do anything without papal support. Francesco convinced the man he was working for the good of the papacy and the condottiero agreed to help as long as they had the pope’s blessing. This was duly given by the Pope:
“I do not wish the death of anyone on any account since it does not accord with our office to consent with such a thing. Though Lorenzo is a villain, and behaves ill towards us, yet we do not on any account desire his death, but only a change in the government.”
Despite the fact that the Pope had said he did not desire any blood shed, the men left the audience convinced that Sixtus would consent to the murder of the Medici if they deemed murder necessary. Montesecco then rode to the Romagna to raise his troops before heading to Florence to speak with Jacopo. When Montesecco told Jacopo of the Pope’s consent his mood towards the whole thing changed, and he agreed to help. The plot was then hatched. To start with, it was decided that they would invite Lorenzo to Rome and kill him and his brother there. But when Lorenzo headed to Rome, his brother wasn’t with him due to his ill health. The plot was postponed.
It was then decided that the assassination would happen in Florence. Cardinal Raphael Riario had asked Lorenzo if he might be able to see the famous Medici treasures he had heard so much about, even going as far as to say he would be in Florence the following Sunday – he would combine his visit to the Palazzo Medici with High Mass at the Cathedral. When Lorenzo agreed and began plans to throw his distinguished guest a sumptuous banquet, plans for the murders began to take shape. It was decided that the time and the place would be during Mass at the Santa Maria del Fiore, as the brothers would be together at such an occasion. Monstesecco began to get cold feet and said his conscience would not allow him to kill the men in a place where God could see him, so instead the conspirators brought in two anti-Medici priests who were more than happy to help. They agreed on a signal, as the bell rang to signal the elevation of the Host they would strike. It would provide the best opportunity as everyone would be busy praying, they could dispatch their victims and get out quickly.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, it didn’t go quite to plan.
As Giuliano was accompanied to the Cathedral by Francesco and Bernardo, Francesco hugged Giuliano in a friendly manner (a cover to frisk for weapons), and they continued on amicably. As they reached their destination, Giuliano took his place by the door of the Cathedral (he was too late to take his place at the front) and Lorenzo was already in place by the altar. Mass begins and the congregation falls silent and as the priest raises the host and the bell rings, all hell breaks lose in the cathedral. By the door, Bernardo Baroncellui had shouted “TAKE THAT, TRAITOR!” and stabbed Giuliano hard in the head. Francesco de Pazzi had then stabbed Giuliano over and over in a frenzy, and managed to stab himself in his leg as he was doing so. Giuliano fell to his knees as Francesco kept stabbing him, before he fell down dead with nineteen stab wounds. By the altar, the two priests who had been brought in at the last minute drew their daggers. One of them placed a hand on Lorenzo’s shoulder as if to steady himself (a bit of a silly move really) and as the priest moved to stab Lorenzo in the back, Lorenzo turned around. Realising what was happening he jumped back, the blade only lightly wounding his neck. He then drew his sword and used his cloak as a shield before escaping into the sacristy.
As all hell broke lose in the cathedral, and following Giuliano’s murder, many of the killers melted away into the crowds. Salviati had meanwhile managed to get an audience with the signoria, saying he had a message from the Pope. But the archbishop was nervous, and Petrucci (the gonfaloniere) called the guards after a couple of minutes having been made suspicious. Salviati then fled the Signoria, shouting that the time to strike had come. As in the Duomo, all hell broke lose in the Signoria but the massive bell began to ring , calling the citizens to the main square. Members of the Pazzi family tried to shout for support with their cries of “Liberta!” but when no support arrived, they filtered away. 
News of Giuliano’s murder had by now reached the Signoria. And in swift, decisive reprisals, the Signoria threw a rope around Salviati’s neck and chucked him out of one of the Signoria windows. They did the same to others who had tried to take over the Signoria. Francesco de Pazzi had escaped to the family home, but was dragged out still bleeding from his thigh and stripped naked. He too was hung from a window. The citizens of Florence raced to the Palazzo Medici and demanded to see Lorenzo, who stood at a window with a bandage around his neck. He begged the people to calm down, and not attack those who they merely suspected of murder. It was more important for them to help catch the real villains. The people took no notice though and rampaged through the streets, picking people at random who they wanted to have been involved and murdering them. 
Reprisals did however come to those who had been involved. Jacopo de Pazzi escaped but was brought back to Florence where he was tortured and hung out of one of the signoria windows. He was buried in the church of Santa Croce but not long afterwards he was removed from his tomb and dragged through the streets, his body was then thrown into the Arno, fished out and hung over a tree where children beat the body before throwing him back into the river. The two priests were found hiding, and were arrested. They were then castrated and hanged. Renato de Pazzi, although his part in the ordeal was never truly established was also hanged. Other members of the Pazzi family were sentenced to life imprisonment. Montesecco was the last to be caught – he was tortured and he gave his torturers a very detailed account of the whole conspiracy before he was beheaded. Baroncelli did manage to escape and made it to Constantinople before being recognised. He was brought back to Florence in chains and duly executed. 
As a lasting reminder of the conspiracy and what happened to those who had tried to murder the Medici, Lorenzo ordered an artistic representation be made of the whole ordeal. Sandro Boticelli was drafted in to create a huge mural which would show eight portraits of the leading conspirators. Those who had been caught would be painted with ropes around their necks, while Baroncelli (who at that point was still at large), was to be painted hung upside down hanging by his foot. And underneath each portrait, Boticelli would paint a short, mocking verse. Six months later, at the request of Pope Sixtus, the portrait of Salviati was obliterated. When Baroncelli was eventually caught and brought back to Florence, Leonardo Da Vinci was drafted in to repaint the mans portrait. Leonardo even did sketched of Baroncelli hanging in his famous notebooks. All Pazzi arms were also ordered to be removed from buildings and their property confiscated and no man who had married a Pazzi was ever again allowed to hold public office. The family had been completely and utterly disgraced, and the city of Florence would forever remember that the Pazzi family had been the ones who tried, and failed, to bring down the Medici family.
Drawing of Baroncelli by Leonardo Da Vinci
Further Reading