On a sunny Sunday in April of 1478, assassins from the Pazzi family attacked Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano. Giuliano lay bleeding on the cathedral floor, and later bled to death. Lorenzo, however managed to get to safety—not a good thing for the Pazzi family. Up to this point the Pazzi clan had been considered one of the most noble and well-respected clans. They were financiers who “feared and resented the Medici’s swaggering new role as political bosses.
This failed assassination attempt doomed the Pazzi family. The Medici’s put forth swift and brutal revenge. Each of the Pazzi family who had taken part in the assassination attempt was either hanged or beheaded, and the bodies were hung from the windows of the governmental palace. As if this wasn’t punishment enough, the Pazzi’s were forced to change their surname. Every remnant of evidence that the Pazzi family had once been a well-respected clan was wiped out by the Medici’s.
It was Easter Sunday within the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Priest was just bringing the Mass to a close, when assassin’s attacked the de’Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, brutally stabbing them. Giuliano was stabbed a horrifying nineteen times, and the blood drained from his body right there on the cathedral floor.
Lorenzo, however, was stabbed only once in the neck, a cut that apparently missed any major arteries, and he fought his attackers with all his might until he got free and ran away to hide.
Of course there was chaos within the cathedral, and some brave soul ran to pull the bell pull to send out a distress call and summon other Florentines to help ward off the coup attack taking place within the cathedral walls. Shortly thereafter every church in Florence was also tolling their bells, call the men of Florence to “defend their Republic.”
Who were these Medici’s who had taken control of their government? It is believed that they were descendants of apothecaries—today’s pharmacists—and were relatively unknown in the 14th century. Giovanni Medici was the mastermind of the family and his business acumen and sheer boldness brought the Medici family from the shadows directly to the forefront of the political world in Florence. Giovanni was one of five sons. He lived with their mother, a poor widow woman. A wealthy cousin of Giovanni’s acquired a position for Giovanni as an employee of the Medici Bank in Rome, and it was not long before Giovanni, demonstrating his boldness and business prowess, moved straight to the top in the bank, actually displacing his own cousin.
Giovanni was a blatant risk taker, and began laundering money for Baldasarre Cossa, commonly known as a pirate. Giovanni even went so far as to put up the money to allow Cossa’s bid for the Papacy, and in 1410 Cossa was actually elected Pope John XXIII. Of course the former pirate felt obliged to reward his good friend Giovanni by making the Medici family the new Papal Bankers. Giovanni became known as “God’s Banker.”
This turned out to be quite a lucrative venture for both parties involved—the former pirate, and the former nobody who rose to such a high position. The Medici bank received a hefty ten percent of everything the Church brought in. At this time in history there was a rather unscrupulous debt collection service run by the church itself. If people didn’t pay, they were promptly excommunicated, a very powerful motivator. Soon the Medici family were the third wealthiest family in Florence, much to the dismay of the older, more established families who saw the Medici family as money-grubbing interlopers.
Giovanni Medici soon built an entire network of thugs and thieves who both demanded and rewarded unconditional loyalty. He set up the banks so the managers shared a stake in their bank, and even banned loans to Kings or Princes, as he felt they were absolutely the worst risks. He often advised his descendants to “Always keep out of the public eye—never show pride.” It would have been better for all involved if they had taken this advice to heart.
Giovanni’s son, Cosimo de Medici was trained from a very early age to take over the banking empire from his father. Cosimo was a dedicated learner, “studying classic texts, attending lectures and becoming one of the first generation of Humanists. Cosimo urged his father to turn the family’s wealth to civil patronage.” When Cosimo inherited the position of Capo from his father, the Albizzi family, another wealthy, powerful, family made up treason charges against him out of sheer jealously and Cosimo was actually sentenced to death for these false claims.
Luckily he bribed his way from prison and hid out for a while, later returning to Florence more powerful than ever. However, shortly after Cosimo returned, he was attacked in a dark alleyway and his attackers cut his face from ear to ear. He lived, but bore the scars known as “che brutta figura”, which translates into “revenge through humiliation.”6 Cosimo, much like his own father well understood how politics and power worked. His own advice to his heirs, which was much like his father’s advice to him was, “Do not seek power. Wait until they call you.”
Cosimo had two sons, Giovanni and Piero. Giovanni was certainly his father’s favorite, and was obviously being groomed to take over the family business while Piero was sickly, and stayed out of the public limelight because of his ill health. Piero devoted himself to learning, and became well-respected as a diplomat. In fact, King Louis XI had such a high opinion of Piero that he gave him the specially bestowed honor of “permitting Piero to stamp the lilies of France on one of the balls of the Medici arms—this one ball colored blue for that purpose.” When Piero’s brother Giovanni died unexpectedly, Cosimo began grooming his grandson, Lorenzo to take over because he felt Piero’s health was unstable and that he couldn’t handle the job.
Piero had two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo, at the tender age of seventeen was well known for his courage and boldness, “single-handedly foiling a Pitti family plot to assassinate his father Piero.” Lorenzo was indeed well educated in banking and diplomacy in order to follow in the family footsteps, but he apparently also had a lust for the other side of life; wine, women and song.
He married at nineteen and fathered seven children, two of them adopted. Lorenzo was a patron of the arts and promoted such artists as Bottcelli and Leonardo DeVinci, even going so far as to take a young Michelangelo into his own home and “raising him like a son.” Lorenzo’s trademark phrase was somewhat different from that of his father and grandfather: “He who wishes to be happy let him be so, for of tomorrow there is no knowing.”
Giuliano de Medici was Lorenzo’s younger brother, and shared Lorenzo’s passion for life. He fathered an illegitimate child in his youth, and when he was murdered on that fateful Easter Sunday Lorenzo later adopted that son. While Giuliano loved his older brother, there was also some natural resentment involved in their relationship.
As for the Pazzi family, consider this heritage: “During the First Crusade in 1088, as Christian soldiers scaled the walls of Jerusalem, a fighter named Pazzo Pazzi was the first man over the top. Pazzo was often known as “the madman.” As a reward for his courage, he was gifted three small stones from the Holy Sepulcher.” The Pazzi were an old Florentine family, and two of the family members were even named in “Divine Comedy,” by Dante. There were also boasts of having a knight in each generation. The Pazzi arms which reflected their long and noble history contained “crescents, battlement towers and twin dolphins on a blue field with nine crosses.” The arms represented Christian faith, generosity and freedom, and the Pazzi’s displayed it proudly.
Andrea de Pazzi entered into banking in the fourteenth century. He was a sharp businessman and quickly amassed a fortune. However, being one of the “grande” names in the area they were excluded by Florentine law from participating in their own government. Because of this law, Andrea decided to relinquish the status of “grande” and give his own sons the opportunity to hold public office.During a visit in 1443 by Pope Eugene IV to the Pazzi family, the Pope made a deposit of 4000 florin into the Pazzi bank, showing that there were “Papal accounts that could be pried away from Medici control.”
Andrea left three sons, Antonio, Piero and Jacopo, all of whom were well-educated in the banking trade and all of whom held a large fortune and extensive assets. Jacopo was the only son who would live long enough to “become enmeshed in the conspiracy to assassinate the Medici brothers.”Interestingly, however, Jacopo happened to also be a strong supporter of Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s father. Jacopo was known throughout for his great generosity to the poor, and although he began as an observer, he eventually allowed his nephew, Francesco, son of Antonio, to draw him into the assassination plot.
Francesco, Jacopo’s nephew was known as “diminutive, pale and driven,” but apparently he harbored great resentment for the Medici’s, in fact it soon became apparent to all that his hatred of the Medici’s had overtaken every aspect of his life, and even allowed him to conveniently forget that he was in fact related to the Medici through marriage. This urgency that Francesco displayed, along with his intense hatred for the Medici clan became the driving force for the assassination plot.
So, now we know about the Medici clan and the Pazzi clan. The other factor in this triangle were the Pope and his court. The conspiracy planned by the Pazzi actually had the blessing of the church because Pope Sisto IV “contemplated to demolish the dominion of Medici and for this purpose he sustained the groups led by Pazzi’s family which had replaced de Medici in the office of bankers.”
Francisco della Rovere was destined from his very childhood for the Franciscan order. On the death of Pope Paul II, he was elected pope and called Pope Sixtus IV. Unfortunately Pope Sixtus used his position as Pope to further his own family members by obtaining political appointments for them. When Lorenzo “refused Sixtus’ demand on the Medici bank for a loan of 40,000 ducats to purchase the town of Imola,” the conspiracy was set into motion. Sixtus wanted to acquire the town in order to give it to his nephew, Riario.
Girolamo Riario was the nephew of Sixtus and was one of the key plotters in the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers. Riario married the daughter of the Duke of Milan, and used this marriage to attempt to sabotage the relationship between the Duke and Lorenzo. “Riario fueled Francesco de Pazzi’s inner fire by intimating that the Pazzi family would play a large part in the next government of Florence, while coveting the future Dukedom of Florence for himself.”
Archbishop Francesco Salviati was born into one of Florence’s most active political families and was related by marriage to the Pazzi, Medici, Vettori, and other very powerful families. Salviati was a “flatterer, a gambler, and lusted for the power that could be attained through church favour.” He easily became a co-conspirator in the attempted assassinations.
Count Riario himself summoned Battista to meet with himself and the Archbishop Salviati. Salviati strongly persuaded the others to agree with him about wanting a “coup d’ tat in Florence, and Riario and Salviati then outlined what they considered to be Lorenzo’s evil intentions against each of them, telling Battista repeatedly that when the Pope died, Riario and his state would be in grave danger from Lorenzo. Riario and Salviati finally bluntly told Battista that the only thing to do was to “cut Lorenzo and Giuliano to pieces, to have troops ready in secret, and to go into Florence and do this thing.” Battista was reluctant, believing they were discussing something very big, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to become involved, but the other two were persuasive.
Although nobody knew at the time, there were literally hundreds of mercenary troops settled firmly within the borders of Tuscany, “poised to invade the city at a signal that never came.” It was Salviati and Francesco de Pazzi who masterminded the plot to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano. Riario, always working behind the scenes, remained in Rome. Interestingly enough, the plan was hardly a secret, and was fairly widely known. The Pope reportedly even stated that “I support it—as long as no one is killed.” Rather a silly statement when the plot is an assassination plot.
When Lorenzo escaped the assassination attempt, he locked himself in the sacristy. “A coordinated attempt to capture the Gonfaloniere and Signoria was thwarted when the archbishop and the head of the Salviati clan were trapped in a room whose doors had a hidden latch.” The assassination attempt had failed, and “enraged Florentines seized and killed the conspirators.” Jacopo Pazzi was tossed from a window, and if that weren’t enough to kill him, he was finished off by the angry mob, then dragged naked through the streets and eventually thrown in the river.
The entire Pazzi family were stripped of all their worldly possessions, and every “vestige of their name effaced.” Salviati, even though he was an archbishop was summarily hanged on the walls of the Pallazo. Lorenzo actually appealed to the crowd to show mercy, but to no avail, as many of the conspirators and even those only accused of being co-conspirators were killed. Lorenzo managed to save the nephew of Sixtus and two other relatives of the plotters, and the main conspirators were hunted down throughout Italy.
During the assassination plot, Marsilio Ficino, who was the son of Cosimo Medici’s physician, became important in his own right. In 1478, largely as a result of the war which resulted from the assassination plot, the plague broke out in the city of Florence. Ficino published a very different sort of work; a practical guide to the treatment of the plague, and was written in Tuscan to be readily accessible to his fellow citizens. This work went on to be translated into Latin and published “alongside Galen’s work on fevers, as a standard medical work. It is easy to forget that all Ficino’s works of profound contemplation and leisurely presentation were written against a backdrop of intense social and political disturbances.”
Another player in this era was Caterina Storza, an illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza who ended up married, at the age of fourteen, to Girolamo Riario, the nephew of Sixtus, and a primary player in the assassination attempt on the Medici family. Caterina came to be known as the “Machiavellian mother” in Machiavelli’s works. Eventually, after the assassination attempt, the tables were turned and Riario was murdered by a group of conspirators in his own home, just after lunch. The murderous group then took Caterina, her mother, her two half sisters, an illegitimate son of Girolamo’s and her six children, captive.
Although the aim of the assassination attempt was to get rid of the Medici family, and show Lorenzo in a bad light, the aftermath of the fateful Easter Sunday actually showed quite the opposite. Lorenzo had kept his head during the entire chaotic episode, and he would show time and time again as things progressed that he was intelligent and calm in the very worst of circumstances. When the conspiracy fell apart, Sixtus was furious and drew up “an ecclesiastical censure against Florence, withdrawing sacraments and the right to a Christian burial from all the citizens of Florence.”
He excommunicated Lorenzo all on his own, which actually had little effect, so he formed a military alliance with King Ferrantes of Naples and began planning an attack on Florence itself. The allies that had previously helped the Medici were not anxious to help the Medici fight the Pope, and even though it seemed there would be another disaster, Lorenzo’s “brilliant tact,” averted it. “Switching effortlessly from avenger to peace-maker, he personally traveled to Naples to confer with the King, and an understanding was achieved without resorting to war. From then on Lorenzo became known as the Savior of Florence.”
Lorenzo followed closely the policy which was begun by his grandfather Cosimo. He managed to “maintain a balance of power between the five chief Northern Italian states, forming defensive alliances and thus keeping a check on invasions from foreign powers.” The Medici Bank had been somewhat neglected since Cosimo’s time, as he had turned more and more to politics, and though Lorenzo did his best to turn this around, he found himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, in financial difficulties. To keep himself afloat, “he resorted to embezzling Public Funds, and it was this that later undermined his rule.”
Although we have all been led to believe that “history belongs to the victors,” it is still very sad to understand that every trace of the Pazzi family, one of Florence’s oldest and most respected families, was wiped out following the attempted coup. “The Pazzi coat of arms was torn off their buildings. A special governmental commission spent the next two years disentangling Pazzi assets with a view to confiscation. Anyone with the name of Pazzi was forced to change it. Women of the family were forbidden to marry in Florence, which was as good as not allowing them to wed at all. No portrait of any Pazzi adult is known to have survived.”
It is an entire piece of history completely destroyed as a result of one act. The aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy continued for many, many years after the event itself. As stated, Lorenzo became something of a hero, despite his embezzlement problems, and when he died at the young age of forty three, there was a “massive display of public grief and the entire population attended his funeral. He was buried in the Medici Chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, where his brother Giuliano already rested.” Lorenzo left behind quite a legacy however; his second son Giovanni and his nephew Giulio (the illegitimate son of Giuliano, who had been captured with Caterina after Giuliano’s death) were later to become very powerful popes, Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII.