On Easter Sunday in 1478, the good burghers of Florence gathered in the Duomo, the splendid cathedral which sits at the heart of their equally splendid city, to celebrate the traditional High Mass marking the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from his tomb. Amid the hundreds crowding the pews that day were the young Medici brothers, Lorenzo, not yet thirty years of age and ruler of Florence, and his brother Giuliano.
Among the other worshippers in the Duomo was a priest named Francesco de’ Pazzi, who intended to lead the assassinations of the brothers in a coup d’etat to end Medici rule of the Florentine Republic. Before the sun set that day, the River Arno ran red with the blood of the dead.
Francesco’s family the Pazzi had grievances against the Medici going back generations, to when Giovanni de’ Medici, the great grandfather of Lorenzo and Giuliano, had imposed taxes on the rich to the benefit of the poor. The move had predictably made Giovanni popular on the street but detested in the halls of the aristocracy.
Although the Pazzi had long nursed the ambition of bringing down the Medici, it was via the scheming of a pope, Sixtus IV, that they almost achieved their aim. But the Pope played the Pazzi for a patsy, by hatching a plot with them with the goal of annexing the plum prize of Florence to the papal states, while exposing himself to no risk.
The conspirators led by Francesco de' Pazzi saw their first opportunity to strike at a banquet given by Lorenzo on 25 April 1478, at his villa in the hills of Fiesole just outside Florence, but because Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano was ill and unable to attend, the plan was postponed until the next day, Easter Sunday. Even then it was uncertain whether Giuliano would be able to attend, but being a red letter day in the Christian calendar, special arrangements were made to get him there.
Francesco de’ Pazzi took his place in the pew behind the two Medici brothers, and gripped the dagger concealed in his priestly garb. He had chosen the dramatic high-point in the Mass as his moment to strike, and when the officiating cardinal raised the Sacred Host high, the bells rang and the congregation all bowed their heads, he leapt forward and thrust his dagger into the unsuspecting Giuliano, following up the first strike with a furious assault until the young man lay mortally wounded on the marble floor of the cathedral, bleeding from twenty stab-wounds.
But all did not go according to plan for the plotters. Lorenzo escaped, and the attempted coup collapsed. The Pazzi were hunted down: the Medici triumphed again, and all the while the Pope in Rome seethed.