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The Pazzi Conspiracy

On Easter Sunday, 26th April 1478, a partially successful assassination attempt changed the political fabric of Florence.  This year marks the 546th anniversary of that very conspiracy, but where did the argument begin, and what did it achieve apart from the execution of the conspirators?


In 1471, Francesco della Rovere was elected Pope Sixtus IV. He was intelligent, powerful, and one of the most nepotistic popes in history. The word ‘nepotismo’ comes from the Latin word ‘nepos’ meaning ‘nephew’, and Sixtus sought to elevate his (from the families Rovere and Riario) as soon as he was given the Throne of St. Peter.  All in all, he would make six nephews his cardinals and bishops, including Giuliano della Rovere (who would later become Pope Julius II), and Raffaele Riario (for whom the Palazzo della Cancelleria was constructed). For those not in the priesthood, he gave prominent positions across the peninsula: for example, Giovanni della Rovere was made Prefect of Rome and married into the Montefeltro family. 

But it was Sixtus’ plans for Girolamo Riario that caused the most problems. 


For Girolamo, Sixtus planned to buy Imola, a small commune positioned on the trade route between Florence and Venice. It had been ruled by various condottieri over the years, and was, at that time, in the hands of the Sforza Dukes of Milan. Lorenzo de’ Medici had arranged to buy the city from Galeazzo Sforza in 1473 for 100,000 florins. Instead, Galeazzo was convinced to sell it to the Pope for 40,000 ducats along with an agreement that Girolamo would marry his illegitimate daughter, Caterina. 

At the time, the Medici were the Papal Bankers and so the purchase was to be financed by them. Lorenzo declined. Sixtus replaced the Medici immediately with their main rivals, the Pazzi.  

Not long afterwards, Francesco Salviati – a relative of the Pazzi by marriage – was made the Archbishop of Pisa. He had originally wanted the Bishopric of Florence, but this position was given to Rinaldo Orsini, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s brother-in-law.  Filled with self-importance, Salviati arrived in Pisa to assume his place as archbishop but the Florentines contested his appointment as their consent had not been given.


Girolamo Riario, Francesco Pazzi, and Francesco Salviati were now allied against the Medici. Between them, a plan was formed to remove the brothers for good. 

The trio approached Pope Sixtus IV for his support. Sixtus is said to have discouraged bloodshed, while also making it clear that the Medici must be removed and giving the trio permission to do whatever they deemed necessary. 

Seeing the Pazzi had the Pope’s support, other players jumped on board, including Florentine nobility (who saw an opportunity to assert their own authority) and both Naples and Urbino (who would benefit from the Medici’s loss of strength in Florence). In 2004, a letter was decoded that proved Federico da Montefeltro had become embroiled in the conspiracy, committing 600 troops to its cause. 


A double assassination was planned. 

At first, the idea was to kill the brothers while they were in Rome for Easter. This was then changed, and Lorenzo and Giuliano were invited to lunch in a villa in nearby Fiesole with all conspirators in attendance. Giuliano, however, fell ill and lunch plans were put on hold. 

Next, there was an idea to poison the brothers at the banquet that was to follow Easter Mass at the Palazzo Medici. Word arrived that Giuliano would not be attending, however, and plans were again postponed as it was felt imperative that both brothers were assassinated together if victory was to be secured. The Pazzi believed if one brother was left alive, they would rally Florence and whatever pro-Medici allies they had to avenge the other. 

And so, a third plan was put into action. If they could not poison the brothers’ food, they would hack them to pieces. This first strike would occur when the host was elevated during High Mass. 


At the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, High Mass was about to begin, and Giuliano de’ Medici had not yet arrived. Francesco Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini dei Baroncelli went to seek him out. They convinced him to attend mass and on the steps of the duomo, Francesco hugged him. For all those watching, this appeared an act of comradery but, for Francesco, he was checking for armour beneath Giuliano’s clothes. 

As the host was raised, Baroncelli plunged his dagger into Giuliano. Francesco Nori attempted to intervene, to save the younger Medici, and was killed in the process. Between Baroncelli and Francesco Pazzi, Giuliano was stabbed nineteen times. In the frenzy, Francesco is said to have stabbed himself in the leg. 

Lorenzo suffered a shallow wound to the neck but avoided the dagger that would have delivered a fatal blow. He was pulled into the Sacristy of the Masses by the humanist poet, Agnolo Poliziano. A small group aided them, including Cavalcanti, Luigi Pulci who slammed the doors decorated by Luca della Robbia closed firmly behind them, and Bartolomeo della Stufa, who climbed the internal staircase to the Singer’s Gallery. Seeing Giuliano dead, he waited, hidden, until the coast was clear and they were able to escape. 

While Lorenzo was being hidden, Salviati, with an armed contingent, attempted to take control of the Palazzo della Signoria, and Jacopo Pazzi was attempting to rouse the Florentines into rebellion, calling ‘FREEDOM! FREEDOM!’. But both the Signoria and the Florentines were more loyal to the Medici than the Pazzi and their cohorts had realized. Instead of yells of ‘FREEDOM!’, the Florentines took to the streets calling ‘PALLE! PALLE!’ in reference to the balls on the Medici coat of arms. 


The conspirators, including Francesco Pazzi and Francesco Salviati, were killed and hanged from the wings of the Palazzo della Signoria. 

Jacopo Pazzi received the worst punishment: caught fleeing, he was tortured and hanged next to Salviati’s corpse.  Jacopo was initially buried at Santa Croce, but the Florentines took the body from its grave and dragged it through the streets, propping it up at the door of the Palazzo Pazzi where its head was used as a knocker. Later, the body was thrown into the Arno where children fished it out, hung it from a willow tree, and flogged it a while before throwing it back into the river. 

All living Pazzi family members were banished from Florence, their lands and property confiscated. Most changed their names. The Pazzi were barred from holding office, their name struck from public registers, and their coats of arms removed from buildings. Even Guglielmo, who had been married to Bianca de’ Medici in hopes to unite the two families, felt the consequences. He was first placed under house arrest, and then exiled from Florence, living out his life at Torre a Decima near Pontassieve.

In total, eighty people were executed, though Lorenzo spared Raffaele Riario, deeming the cardinal to be innocent. 

Baroncelli managed to escape as far as Constantinople. He was eventually returned by Sultan Mehmed II and, still in his Ottoman disguise, was hanged from a window in Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo on 29thDec 1497. 

The era saw the rise of pittura d’infamia – the paintings of infamy. After the assassination, Sandro Botticelli painted a fresco of the hanged conspirators on the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio where they remained as a reminder of the consequences of standing against the Medici. Though they were destroyed in 1494, when the Medici were expelled from Florence, the medals which commemorated the plot still fulfilled their purpose. 


The mass executions of the conspirators was not the end of the story. 

On 1st June 1478, Pope Sixtus IV excommunicated Lorenzo. A little under three weeks later, he placed the city under interdict, forbidding mass and communion in Florence. By July, Alfonzo of Aragon and Federico da Montefeltro had begun attacking territories belonging to the Republic. Florence was in danger. 

And so it was that Lorenzo de’ Medici made the most radical decision of the era. He set sail to Naples and placed himself at the mercy of Ferdinand I, King of Naples. Amazed that Lorenzo would put himself in such a dangerous position on behalf of his city, Ferdinand promised to intercede on his behalf with Sixtus. Though the actual intercession was unsuccessful, the Pope had no choice but to comply because of the peace that unified Naples and Florence. 

An attempt to destroy the Medici instead consolidated their power, and Lorenzo’s act of bravery not only strengthened Florence but began one of the most prosperous decades in Italian history. From that moment on, Lorenzo de’ Medici became il magnifico

The Magnificent. 

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