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

The Expulsion of the Medici

Lorenzo the Magnificent by Agnolo Bronzino
On 21st March 1492, Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” de Medici was carried from his palace in Florence to his countryside villa at Careggi, not far from the city. The reason? His health was failing fast thanks to severe feverish gout, an inflammatory disease that was the bane of the Medici family. Lorenzo had been ruler of Florence for over twenty years and despite mistakes he made later in his reign was a much loved and respected man, and an incredibly able politician. Mistakes were of course made – he allowed the Medici bank to run itself almost to ruin (something that would be completely finished when his son Piero took over), stole from the Florentine Signoria coffers when money ran low and worse still, stole from a public fund set up to provide dowries for penniless girls so they could be married. He and his men made sure the covered up as much of the thievery as possible by burning evidence, but rumours still circulated. Despite this though, the years that he spent ruling Florence were, for the most part, peaceful years.
Two weeks after he was taken to Careggi, news was brought to his bedside. The two famous lions that were caged in the city had mauled each other to death during a frightening storm – this was seen as a particularly bad omen as the lion was the emblem of Florence – and that same night lightning struck the famous duomo built by Brunelleschi, sending marble crashing down onto the pavement. When Lorenzo heard of this he demanded to know which side the marble had fallen and was told it had fallen on the north west side. He then said to his attendants, “that is the side pointing to this house…this means I shall die.”
Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Florence

Lorenzo knew he was dying and so called his eldest son Piero to his side. Just as his father had done for him, and his fathers father before him; he passed on the secrets of the Medici family to his heir. He told his son to be unassuming in public and to remember the people of Florence although in time Piero would show just how little of this he had taken in. Once Piero had left it became evident to Poliziano, one of Lorenzo’s favourites, that the disease that affected his body was now affecting his internal organs and so Lorenzo summoned Girolamo Savonarola to his bedside to seek his blessing, and grant him absolution from his sins. It seems that the great humanist was going back to religion and superstition in his dying days. What happened next is the stuff of legend – it is said that when Savonarola came to Lorenzo’s bedside he demanded three things:

  • He asked if Lorenzo repented of his sins and adhered to the true faith. Lorenzo said he did.
  • He demanded that Lorenzo give up all of his wealth to which Lorenzo replied, “Father, I will do so or I will cause my heirs to do it if I cannot”
  • He demanded that Lorenzo give the Florentine people back their liberty. Lorenzo did not reply and turned his face away.
And on 8th April 1492, Lorenzo de Medici died. It is said that the entire city mourned the death of their leader and attended his funeral at the church of San Lorenzo. His son, Piero de Medici took over the reigns of government when he was just twenty one years old. The differences between Piero and his father were huge – where Lorenzo had been an astute politician, Piero really had no idea. And Piero was more interested in women and hunting than in the affairs of state. More so, he was arrogant and had none of the charm that his father had. Like this, the signoria of Florence was likely to turn treacherous, they needed constant attention and gifts from their ruler and needed to be approached with tact. Piero had none of this and completely misjudged the situation from the get go.
Piero’s rule would last for just two years, and the constant mistakes that he made would earn him the nickname of Piero the Unfortunate.
Piero de Medici by Agnolo Bronzino
In 1494, the French King Charles VIII crossed the alps into Italy at the behest of Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza. Previously, Savonarola had prophesised the coming of a new Cyrus who would invade the country and bring it back to God, and it seemed that he was correct, Charles VIII would be that man. Charles wanted Naples, and Ludovico promised that to him (because he wanted rid of the new Neopolitan King Alfonso, a relation of his nephew’s wife and a man who it was said would exact revenge on Ludovico for his mistreatment of his nephew and wife). Ludovico welcomed Charles to Milan and after hearing nothing from Florence as to whether they would support Naples or France, Charles ordered his troops march into Tuscan territory. After Charles took towns and castles near to Florence, Piero made a decision – he rode out to the French camp where he was greeted coolly, he certainly was not greeted with the respect he thought he deserved, before agreeing to give the cities of Pisa and Livorno as well as promising Charles the use of the Palazzo Medici and 200,000 florins. 
It was those promises which sealed Piero de Medici’s fate.
He returned to Florence two weeks later and when he arrived at the Piazza della Signoria, the door was slammed shut in his face. He waited uncertainly outside the Signoria as the massive bell rang (it was nicknamed “The Cow” due to the deep noise it made), and people from all over the city descended on the piazza. As Piero stood there wondering what was happening he was pelted with insults, stones and rubbish – eventually he decided the best thing would be for him to get away from the mob and hole himself up in his palazzo. And as he rode, the signoria were denouncing Piero and his family as traitors, saying that anyone who aided him would also be known thenceforth as traitors. 
Now, both Piero and his brother Giovanni (later Pope Leo X) were holed up in the Palazzo Medici and had to come up with a plan so they could escape Florence. And in the early hours of 9th November 1494, Piero rode out of the city with his wife and children and they travelled to Venice. Giovanni stayed behind a little longer, going through the Medici belongings in the palazzo and it is said he carried gold, jewels and coins to the monastery of San Marco while disguised as a Dominican friar. Did this really happen? Indeed the monastery had been refurbished thanks to Cosimo De Medici but it was now under the control of Savonarola who disagreed with everything the Medici stood for – be that as it may, many of the friars may have stayed loyal to the Medici cause and helped Giovanni hide the treasure that he was able to rescue. Once he had finished, he too fled the city. 
And on 10th November 1494 (518 years ago today!), the Florentine signoria officially banished Piero de Medici and his family, saying that they could never return. If they were to return, a price was put on both Piero and Giovanni’s heads. And just over 30 years previously, their grandfather Cosimo de Medici had predicted that within 50 years the city of Florence would be tired of Medici rule, and they would be banished. Indeed, the Medici did not return to Florence until 1512 when Cardinal Giovanni de Medici returned to Florence as its ruler.
Further Reading