How passing fair is youth,
Forever fleeting away.
- Lorenzo de’ Medici
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 and founder of the banking dynasty, had imposed taxes on the rich to the benefit of the poor. The move had predictably made Giovanni de’ Medici popular on the street but detested in the halls of the aristocracy. Since then the Pazzi had watched the seemingly irrevocable rise of the House of Medici, through Cosimo (“The Wise”) and his son Piero, to Lorenzo. The young Lorenzo was a popular ruler, gifted and outgoing, able to handle himself in a joust, but also composed lyrical poetry and songs. In other words, he was just the man to make Pazzi blood boil.
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, although in truth the Pope played the Pazzi for a patsy. Sixtus IV was born Francesco della Rovere, into humble circumstances near Savona, in Liguria. He joined the Franciscan Order and ascended the ranks to become its head in 1464, and a cardinal three years later. He was elected pope in 1471, and promptly addressed himself to temporal problems by dispatching a fleet against the Turks at Smyrna, an assault which failed dismally. In addition to his public works - he is remembered as an energetic engineer of roads, bridges and aqueducts - Sixtus IV joined a long line of papal nepotists. He installed his relatives into key Church positions while scheming with them to expand the Papal States, but the now infamous Pazzi Conspiracy became his most notorious scheme.
The plot was hatched between the Pope’s nephew Girolamo Riario, and Francesco de’ Pazzi, then in self-imposed exile from Florence, after the two young men met in Rome. The plan approved by Sixtus was to overthrow the Medici and turn the prized Florentine republic into a papal fiefdom under Girolamo, effectively annexing it to the Papal States. The scheme was agreed to by Jacopo, head of the House of Pazzi. It appealed to the Pazzis on many counts, especially in humiliating the insufferable Medici, but for Sixtus it promised a massive boost to his coffers. Florence was a commercial dynamo, grown rich on the fabric trade, and banking. After decades under the Medici, among the most powerful banking families in Europe, Florence was literally stuffed with riches in gold and jewels, fabrics and furnishings, artworks and rare and treasured books.
To Sixtus, it was a fat plum ripe on the branch, but it was well fortified and defended. Through the Pazzi, with their long-standing grievances and aristocratic pretensions, he glimpsed a means to take the city-state from within, in a coup: the Pazzi were just the men to pluck the plum for him.
The plotters 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 leaping 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. Lorenzo had been also been attacked by Francesco’s accomplices, but here the murderous coup went awry. Although injured and bleeding from a serious stab-wound to the neck, Lorenzo managed to fend off his would-be assassins and escape with his supporters to safety.
By this time the Duomo was in uproar and confusion, with Giuliano lying dead, others including Francesco bleeding from wounds, and the gentlewomen of Florence weeping over their fallen menfolk while the fight raged on around them. The chaos soon spread to the streets and piazzas as the extent of the conspiracy became apparent.
As planned, an ally of the Pope and the Pazzi, Archbishop Salviati of Pisa, had tried to take control of the government, believing the two Medici brothers successfully murdered. But as word got out that Lorenzo had survived, the people turned upon Salviati and hanged him from a window of the Palace. The Pazzi clan then attempted to take control of the streets by force of arms, trying to rally the people to their cause with a cry of “Liberty!”, but they received scant support, and confronted by a throng of citizens loyal to the Medici and the republic, took flight.
In the bloodbath that followed, more than two hundred members of the Pazzi, Papal allies and others even conceivably connected with the plot, were killed, including Jacopo, head of the House of Pazzi, whose mutilated corpse was dragged through the streets. Francesco Pazzi, killer of Giuliano Medici, finished up at the end of a rope beside Archbishop Salviati. Other members of the Pazzi clan were beheaded. The man who stood to gain most from the coup, Sixtus IV, was the only conspirator to escape its collapse virtually unscathed. But instead of any penitence for the plot and the loss of life, and in spite of irrefutable evidence linking him with it, the pontiff went on the attack.
‘Infuriated by the failure of the plot, the Pope demanded that Lorenzo surrender and that the Florentine government answer before an ecclesiastical court... The sovereigns of Europe sided with the Medici; the Pope excommunicated the Florentine state; the Florentine clergy outlawed him in turn; the Pope declared war.’1
Hostilities failed to amount to much after the declaration, however, largely because the Pope had a much more pressing threat to deal with a Turkish incursion in southern Italy.
The Pazzi conspiracy did have an abiding effect on Rome in one respect however, through the murdered Giuliano de’ Medici. As was the custom with young nobles, he had been liberally sewing his wild oats, and a pretty young Florentine girl had borne him a son named Giulio. Grief-stricken over the death of his brother, Lorenzo was determined to locate the infant, illegitimate or not.
‘It was not a difficult task in a city of a hundred thousand people; nor had the girl been at pains to conceal the illustrious parentage of her child. She made no difficulties about passing her son over to the lord of Florence and Lorenzo brought up the child as his own.’2
Chastened and more vigilant after the failed plot, Lorenzo lived another decade and half, becoming a statesman and patron of the arts. ‘The lover of art and letters more than maintained the fame of his family - he increased it by his boundless liberality. Under his enlightened lead Florence became the mother of arts and the cultural capital of Italy, imitated but unsurpassed by other states. He set the pace, the other princes were compelled to compete; but he was the highest bidder for the services of scholars and artists and carried off the all the prizes for the glory of Florence and the greater glory of the Medici.’3
He became known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, his time followed by two Medici popes, Lorenzo’s own son Giovanni, who would become Leo X, and Giulio, the illegitimate son of Giuliano, who would become Pope Clement VII.
As for Sixtus IV, he lasted six years after the failed plot, built the Sistine Chapel which bears his name, became a patron of artists such as Botticelli - who among others painted frescoes for the Sistine walls - condemned the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, and even established a refuge for orphans. But it is for his attempted bloody coup against the Medici, and his Chapel, that he is most remembered.
1. Roeder, R. in Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, p63, Harper Torchbook, New York City, 1965
2. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, p254, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003
3. Roeder, R. op cit, p65
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