Spilled Blood on the Holy Day: Florence, the Medicis, and the Tragedy of the Pazzi Conspiracy

Drawing of Lorenzo de’ Medici wounded during the Pazzi Conspiracy | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was a sunny day in Florence on that April 26th of 1478. A blooming of the arts was in full swing in the city that many great masters called home. The Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Guiliano, headed off to mass, as Lorenzo took this time as a respite from the political troubles that haunted him. The mass took place in a beautiful gilded room of the Duomo, white muslin walls and golden accents. There was a candle in the front, small but steady, with Jesus watching as usual. His glorious eyes observed all sins before him, eyes as calm as they must have been the day of his death. It is there, in front of the statue of Jesus, that Giuliano de’ Medici fell, blood spilling from his chest to the marbled floor of the cathedral. His assassination would solidify Medici domination over Florence and bring about the destruction of the respected Pazzi family.

Why was such a brilliant and young life snuffed out as violently as Giuliano’s? The murder of the 24-year-old golden boy had less to do with him and everything to do with his older brother Lorenzo and their much beloved and sometimes cursed family name, Medici. The Medici family were wealthy bankers in the city, or Republic, of Florence, and indeed it served as banker also to some parts of Italy, due to the efforts of the brothers’ grandfather Cosimo de’ Medici. Cosimo, who was exiled along with his family before returning to his homeland, was a brilliant banker and diplomat who made the family fortune grow exponentially in his time. In fact, Cosimo was such a genius at making money that the Medici Bank rose to the height of its brilliance under his tenure as patriarch. His death came as a shock and tremendous loss to the rest of his family, especially to his son Pietro, who unfortunately had not inherited his father’s genius for business nor his luck.1

Pietro, who was Giuliano and Lorenzo’s father, was gravely ill with gout, which is a form of severe arthritis, forcing him to do his duties from his bed, and this gave him the unfortunate nickname of Pietro the Gouty. When Cosimo died in 1464, the Medici Bank was in turmoil and Pietro was forced to call in all the loans his father had let go unpaid in order to save their bank. This led to tension between the Medici and those who were suddenly forced to repay their loans, and the forced repayments ended up bankrupting some of those families. The Florentine governing body, the Signoria, was made up of some of these families who had to repay these loans. All this stress, and Pietro’s chronic illness, culminated in Pietro’s death in 1469 when Lorenzo was a tender twenty years old. This left Lorenzo with a two-fold problem: he was young in a world where experience and time were vital, and the families of Florence were getting tired of Medici domination, especially after Pietro recalled the loans.2

No other family was so seething in their anger toward the Medici than the Pazzi family. The Pazzis were an ancient Florentine family. In fact, their founder, Pazzo Pazzi, was the first crusader to climb over the walls of Jerusalem. They were always trying to one-up the Medicis. True rivals in every sense of the word, they would compete in banking, in politics, in marriages, and even in art patronage. Around this time, there were three main Pazzi members: the patriarch Jacopo de’Pazzi and his two young nephews, Guglielmo and Francesco. Jacopo was an old and respected member of Florence, known in the city as being both ambitious and cunning while also disliking the fact that his main rival in the city, Lorenzo, was a mere boy. Both the Medici and Pazzi banks were employed by the Papacy, and the Pazzi had the very distinct privilege of having unlimited credit with their rival, the Medici Bank. Lorenzo was also given a position in the Signoria, the governing body of Florence, but even with all this power and wealth, Lorenzo was not someone who took his high social standing lightly. He sensed the ambition in the Pazzi and blocked both Pazzi brothers from gaining much political power, including access to the high office of Florence. Lorenzo’s inclusion in the Signoria, even at his young age, gave him access to the election votes for that high office, which he rigged against the Pazzi. In fact, Lorenzo was not very subtle when he did this obvious snub towards the brothers, sometimes mocking the two when someone he approved of won the election. This angered Jacopo who wished his nephews to enjoy the same power he did, thereby elevating their entire house. The Pazzi were only second to the Medici in terms of prestige and banking power; however, they were still second place. With the cunning and ambitious Jacopo at its head, along with his nephews Guglielmo and Francesco, the Pazzi family hatched a plan to rid Florence of the Medici and finally become the number one family in Florence.3

How to do such a monumental task of bringing about the end of Medici domination? First, the Pazzi family needed allies in their quest. They set their gazes onto Pope Sixtus IV, an ambitious pope whose nepotism was renown: six of the thirty-four cardinals he created were his nephews of some sort. Sixtus was an intellectual who wished more than anything to elevate members of his family into higher positions like he was. Lorenzo’s actions of installing close allies into positions of power and creating intercity marriages rubbed the Pope the wrong way, especially when some of these positions and marriages were ones he was trying to broker himself. Thus, when the Pazzi family went to Rome for Pope Sixtus’ blessing to assassinate both Medici brothers, Sixtus gave it with flourish. His first command was to stop papal banking with the Medici Bank, cutting off one major leg of Medici finances with this move. Along with this betrayal, Sixtus also commanded an audit of Medici accounts, and he named Francesco Salviati, a close friend of the Pazzis, to be the Archbishopric of Pisa. All three of these actions angered Lorenzo to a boiling point.4

It was at that point that Lorenzo de’ Medici would be targeted. Lorenzo’s main wishes: power, wealth, and a family name that would live on in history These wishes went directly against papal and Pazzi interests. His fame as a skilled diplomat, as a shrewd businessman, and as a great patron of the arts was a detriment to his enemies, as, however brightly Lorenzo shone, he cast shadows over their ambitions. Even as young as he was, Lorenzo was known as Il Magnifico (the magnificent) due to his skills and his almost total dominion over Florentine politics and wealth. As mentioned previously, Lorenzo, and by extension, his younger brother Giuliano, were eyesores for the Pazzi and for the Pope, because if it were not for the brothers, they could gain free reign over Florence.5

After the betrayal by the Pope and the Pazzi, Lorenzo was much warier of both parties but still did not expect what was about to occur. Unbeknownst to the Medici brothers, the conspirators of the Pazzi conspiracy met up secretly to plan the assassination of the two. At first, it was only Lorenzo who the conspirators wanted to kill, since he was the head of the family, and not the younger Giuliano; however, this was quickly rectified as Lorenzo’s passing would make Giuliano the patriarch, which would not fix the problem. It was decided that both brothers would be killed at the same time and place, so that their entourage would not be able to whisk one brother away upon hearing of the other’s murder. At first, the group sought to kill the two of them on an Easter trip to Rome. The Holy City would be the perfect place for the assassination, as it was under papal control; however, Lorenzo never arrived for his own murder. No matter, the conspirators decided that a dinner in Lorenzo’s villa near Florence would do just as well. An added bonus to this location was the fact that the main Pazzi villa was also close by; however, again they were foiled, this time by Giuliano who fell sick and did not attend. Now, feeling desperate and paranoid, the conspirators decided that during Sunday mass they would strike the two brothers down, ending the Medici spell and allowing papal and Pazzi domination over Florence once and for all.6

It was a beautiful Sunday, April the 26th, 1478. The mass had started, and clear voices were singing hymns while Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano stood a mere twenty feet apart, their eyes fixed on the altar. The signal for the assassination has never been confirmed by eyewitnesses, though Angelo Poliziano, a close friend and confidant of Lorenzo, said the signal was when the communion of the priest was over. What can be agreed by all eyewitnesses is that Bernardo Baroncelli was the first one to stab Giuliano, his action too quick for a startled Giuliano to defend himself. Giuliano was then besieged by Francesco de’ Pazzi who delivered upon the younger Medici’s body another eighteen stab wounds.7


Bust of Giuliano de’ Medici | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On the other side of the church, Lorenzo was speaking to his friends, unaware his brother was dying when two priests pulled knives from underneath their priestly robes and advanced towards Il Magnifico. Two armed priests against Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had not seen this coming. The assassination attempt would prove to be useless, however, as the first priest to stab Lorenzo missed his throat and instead grazed Lorenzo’s neck. By the time the assassins realized Lorenzo wasn’t dead, his friend Angelo Poliziano had grabbed Lorenzo and pulled him inside the bolted bronze doors of the church’s sacristy where part of the Medici entourage waited for help.8

Lorenzo raised his gaze and found his brother’s white shirt stained red like a crushed berry in the summertime. His heart sunk, falling deep in his chest, a strange ringing in his ears that sounded like Angelo begging him to move, to hurry. He turned his head; led out the door by well-meaning friends into the blinding sunlight outside.

While the Medici brothers were assaulted, worshippers left the Duomo in disarray. Confusion took hold of them while the other part of the Medici entourage left to arm themselves and return to save Lorenzo. Archbishop Salviati took advantage of this confusion to have a meeting with Florence’s figurehead ruler Cesare Petrucci, proclaiming that Salviati had a message for Petrucci from the Pope himself. He was trying to trick Petrucci into letting armed insurgents into the government building to make it easier to take over. This fictional message was supposedly how the Pope wanted the Medici brothers dead and if they were not dead to kill them. However, an orator Salviati was not and thus he was left stuttering and fumbling in front of Petrucci, who grew suspicious and detained the Archbishop. Jacopo, likewise taking advantage of the confusion and his mistaken trust in both Medici brothers’ deaths, led his troops to the government square in order to revolt against the remaining Medici entourage in order to finally be free of their rule. However, Salviati was detained and thus the governmental building could not be overtaken by his troops. Jacopo was left outside the building with his troops, a mob starting to form and questioning why he was calling for a revolt. Pazzi realized abruptly that the revolt was for naught when he caught word that while Giuliano was confirmed dead, their main target, Lorenzo de’ Medici was not only alive and well, but also calling for blood. Jacopo left Florence as fast as he could, leaving behind a mess that was quickly settled by Lorenzo.9

What is the pain of losing a sibling, especially one as golden and beloved to Lorenzo as his younger brother Giuliano? It was horrific, and as Lorenzo mourned Giuliano’s death, he was also planning retribution that would shock Florence. Archbishop Salviati, his brother Jacopo Salviati, Jacopo Bracciolini, a humanist captured with the archbishop, and Francesco de’ Pazzi were all put to death almost immediately after their capture and Giuliano’s assassination. All four men, plus another five that were not identified, were thrown from high windows and hung. It was an especially embarrassing death for the archbishop, a stinging insult that would later bring repercussions all the way from Rome. The bodies were left hanging until they were cut later that day and left to rot on the floor for the rest of the night. Guglielmo de’ Pazzi narrowly avoided his brother’s fate by begging ignorance of the assassination though it is highly probable he was also guilty. His marriage to one of Lorenzo’s sisters, Bianca de’ Medici, was a major reason as to why Guglielmo was not prosecuted as others of his family were. Instead of hanging his brother-in-law, Lorenzo banished both Guglielmo and Bianca from the city. Every single Pazzi brother and cousin was apprehended, save one, and either executed or banished.10

Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of Bernardo Baroncelli’s hanging corpse | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps most chillingly was the death and desecration of Jacopo de’ Pazzi. Jacopo had, by this point, fled Florence with his troops but was caught the day after the massacre by peasants who overpowered his troops. He was beaten by the peasants until he could barely walk and handed over to be taken back to Florence where he made a confession about his involvement in the conspiracy. He was quickly hung in the same place his nephew was hung but was allowed to be entombed in a way his late co-conspirators were not. However, three weeks after his burial, a group of boys dug up the decaying corpse and paraded it around the city, beating it with sticks, dumping it in a river. After a day or so, they fished the bloated corpse from the river, hanging it to dry on a nearby tree, before growing bored and letting it go free to the open sea. It is important to note that this all happened under the, not spoken, but certainly implied permission of Lorenzo.11

Lorenzo got his revenge in the end, with over eighty conspirators put to death. Key members such as Salviati and Francesco were captured and hung almost immediately. Worse still for the Pazzi family, old and proud ever since the Crusades, were erased from history under his orders. Members of the family were forced to rename themselves, anyone married to a Pazzi was banned from office, and the women from the family were forbidden to marry. All wealth accumulated by the Pazzi was stripped from them and redistributed to other families.12

Painting of Jacopo de’ Pazzi’s corpse by Odoardo Borrani
| Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is one conspirator whose fate has thus far been undisclosed, one of the main instigators, the Pope himself, Sixtus IV. Sixtus was furious after the failed plot, perhaps driven by the embarrassing murder of an archbishop he placed, perhaps because Lorenzo, the biggest thorn in his side was unharmed. Nonetheless, the Pope was enraged and thus punished Florence and Lorenzo by not allowing priests to give the mass and excommunicating the Medici family. Though this battle would not end until much later. 13

Lorenzo de’ Medici would lose his brother on that fateful April day, the golden other half of his soul. However, he would also gain something significant, a more fervent amount of support from his allies who now knew they needed more political power in order to prevent something like this from happening again. It also gave Lorenzo more personal power in the city as his actions and decisions during this time cemented his title of Il Magnifico.

 

  1. Christopher Hibbert, The House of Medici: its rise and fall (New York: Morrow, 1975), 364.
  2. Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 86.
  3. Kenneth Bartlett, Florence in the Age of the Medici and Savonarola, 1464-1498: A Short History with Documents, Passages: Key Moments in History (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2018), 200-201.
  4. Richard McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paull II (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 265.
  5.  Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Lorenzo de Medici.”
  6. Cornel Zwierlein and Beatrice de Graaf, “Security and Conspiracy in Modern History,” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 38, no. 1 (2013): 12-14.
  7. Angelo Poliziano, The Pazzi Conspiracy/Della Congiura dei Pazzi, ed. Benjamin Kohl, Ronald Witt and trans. Elizabeth B. Welles (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 312.
  8. Angelo Poliziano, The Pazzi Conspiracy/Della Congiura dei Pazzi, ed. Benjamin Kohl, Ronald Witt and trans. Elizabeth B. Welles (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 313.
  9. Mark Nepo, “Lorenzo and the Pazzi Conspiracy,” The Massachusetts Review, Inc 28, no. 1 (1987): 7-10.
  10. Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 200.
  11. Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 131.
  12. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, 2008, s.v. “Pazzi Conspiracy,” by Tom Streissguth.
  13. Richard McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paull II (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 300.

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21 Responses

  1. The first time I was ever introduced to the Pazzi Conspiracy was through the game Assassin’s Creed II, (one of my favorite games from my childhood and what first sparked my interest in history). From some of my research as well as reading into the events the game was based off, knew very little about the details regarding the Pazzi Conspiracy. I think one of the things I learned here is that Lorenzo de Medici himself wasn’t so squeaky clean as far as money and politics go.

    All around, this article was both amazing and informative. It took me back to the days of playing Assassin’s Creed II, and it was nice to finally study the Conspiracy more in depth. Considering “Pazzi” means “mad”, in Italian, it’s no surprise that this family trampled over everyone they could in their desperate quest for power.

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