The Pazzi Conspiracy

The attempt to assassinate Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici

The insidious plot that ended with one of the bloodiest events of Florentine history started when Lorenzo de’ Medici, the young ruler-in-all-but-name of Florence, rubbed the pope the wrong way.

For various political reasons, Lorenzo declined to loan Sixtus IV the money that would help set the pope’s bastard son, Cardinal Girolamo Riario, up with his own principality.

Annoyed, Sixtus turned to one of the Medici’s main banking rivals for the loan, the ancient Pazzi family, whose Rome bank was headed by the young Francesco de’ Pazzi—a man with his eye on ousting the Medici and setting his own family in power in Florence.

A while later, Lorenzo and Sixtus butted heads again when Lorenzo refused to acknolwedge the pope’s semi-legal appointment of Francesco Salviati as archbishop of Pisa. It wasn’t long before Cardinal Riario (and through him, his “uncle” the pope), Archbishop Salviati, and Francesco de’ Pazzi had joined together to bring down the young Medici.

The Pazzi Conspiracy was hatched.

The conspirators

For military support they turned to the condottiere (mercenary leader) Montesecco, a gruff and straightforward soldier who was at first unswayed, warning the conspirators “Beware of what you do. Florence is a big affair.” Montesecco eventually relented[md]but would help only if the pope himself condoned the act.

Sixtus was, of course, secretly delighted, but had to make a good show of staying holy.

“I do not wish the death of anyone on any account, since it does not accord with our office to consent to such a thing. Lorenzo is a villain...but we do not on any account desire his death.”

This was anything but the truth, and Sixtus further dissembeled with, “Go, and do what you wish, provided there be no killing.”

Now they just needed to ensure the backing of the Pazzi family patriarch in Florence, old Jacopo de’ Pazzi. Jacopo wasn’t too thrilled with the idea and didn’t think too highly of Francesco and Salviati’s chances for success.

“They are going to break their necks,” he warned Montesecco. But the pope’s veiled approval eventually won Jacopo over.

The conspiracy unfolds

After several false starts they decided to assassinate Lorenzo and his popular younger brother Giuliano during High Mass in the Cathedral, with the assistance of a ruffian who was in deep financial debt to the Pazzi, Bernardo Baroncelli.

Montesecco, who had been having many doubts to being with, was appalled with the choice of setting, and voted himself out, declaring he would not “add sacrilege to murder.” To take his place, the conspirators enlisted a pair of devious priests.

The date was set for Sunday, April 26, 1478 and the signal for the murder would be the ringing of the sanctuary bells when the priest raised the host.

Planning the attack

On Sunday, Lorenzo arrived early at the Duomo as expected to hobnob, but Giuliano was nowhere to be seen.

Archbishop Salviati, meanwhile, had gathered troops, who were disguised as his retinue, and was waiting near what is now called the Palazzo Vecchio, ready to storm it and seize control the minute he heard the Cathedral bells.

Francesco de’ Pazzi and Baroncelli hurried to Giuliano’s house, where they found him bedridden, nursing an injured leg. They eventually convinced him to come to Mass, and as they walked Francesco poked at Giuliano’s belly, joking that his convalescence had fattened him up—and discovering to his joy that Giuliano had no armor on under his clothes.

With these two behind Giuliano and the treacherous priests stationed behind Lorenzo in the Duomo, everything was in place.

The host was raised, the bells rang, and daggers plunged.

Death in the cathedral

One of the villainous priests grabbed Lorenzo’s arm before he stabbed, and in turning around to see what was the matter, Lorenzo managed literally to save his neck—the blade only grazed it.

He quickly drew his sword, slashed back at the surprised priests, and vaulted over the old altar railing to make a mad dash for the New Sacristy.

In the meantime, Baroncelli cried out “Take that, traitor!” and brought his dagger down so hard on Giuliano’s head that the skull was reportedly nearly split in two. Francesco de’ Pazzi then fell upon Giuliano like a madman, plunging his dagger with such fury and abandon that at one point he stabbed himself in the thigh.

Within minutes, Giuliano’s corpse lay in a pool of blood, ripped open by 19 gaping wounds. Baroncelli, in the meantime, had leaped over the body and was hot on the tail of Lorenzo. Lorenzo, however, made it into the sacristy with some friends and slammed the doors in Baroncelli’s face.

Lorenzo's revenge

Across town, Salviati and his troops stormed the Palazzo Vecchio only to find themselves trapped in rooms that had recently been fitted with hidden locks.

As word of the murders quickly spread, Medici supporters burst into the Palazzo Vecchio, slew the troops locked inside, and went hunting for conspirators.

Francesco de’ Pazzi and Archbishop Salviati were stripped naked and hung from a window of the Palazzo Vecchio. Poliziano reports that Salviati’s eyes bulged and he lashed out spastically, sinking his teeth into Francesco de’ Pazzi’s naked body.

The priests who bungled Lorenzo’s murder were dragged out of hiding, castrated, then hanged.

Montesecco was captured and gave a full soldier’s report on the conspiracy before being decapitated in the Bargello.

Baroncelli escaped all the way to Constantinople before being recognized and extradited to Florence, where he, too, was swiftly seperated from his head.

Poor old Jacopo de’ Pazzi made it only a little ways out of the city before he was caught. He was returned to town, tortured, stripped naked, and hung next to Salviati’s putrefying corpse out one of the Palazzo Vecchio’s windows.

Jacopo was then buried in Santa Croce, but his evil spirit was blamed for some bad weather, so they dug him up and threw him in a ditch. Later, the rotting corpse was dragged through the streets and propped up against the door of the Pazzi’s palace, where people came by to use the head as a door knocker.

The deteriorating carcass was eventually thrown into the Arno, but some boys fished it out, hung it from a tree, and thrashed it some more for good measure before throwing what was left of Jacopo de’ Pazzi back into the river.



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This article was last updated in October 1996, excerpted from Frommer's Tuscany & Umbria, by Reid Bramblett, and reprinted here with permission All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2010 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.