The Craziest Murder Plot of the Millennium

The 1478 Pazzi Conspiracy...

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

I spent this past week in Florence, immersed in the great art and history of one of the world’s most influential cities. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence was home to some of the greatest authors, artists, philosophers and poets of the past — everyone from Dante to da Vinci, Michelangelo to Machiavelli, and Giotto to Galileo once called the city their home.

Another name inseparable from the history of Florence is that of the Medici. It is a name many people know, but few know in-depth. For example, most are aware that the Medici were essentially the godfathers of the Renaissance — but how many could name a specific member of the Medici family?

While not as famous as the artists they employed, the Medici were no less impressive. Their rise to power, multiple exiles, and returns to power make their lives read like Hollywood blockbusters. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Pazzi conspiracy.

Instead of simply recounting what happened, however, we’ll tell the story firsthand. So step back into your time machine with me, and let’s begin…

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Michelangelo Presents Lorenzo de’ Medici his Faun Bust, Ottavio Vannini (1635)

The date is Sunday, August 26th, 1478. Church bells ring out across the city of Florence as crowds make their way to their respective local parishes. Those fortunate enough to reside in the center of the city get to attend mass in Santa Maria del Fiore, the city’s grand duomo.

Among the individuals making their way to the great cathedral for mass is Lorenzo de’ Medici, known to his contemporaries as il magnifico, “the magnificent.” And magnificent he is. The 29 year old Lorenzo is a poet, philosopher, musician, athlete, and swordsman. He’s also godfather to a countless number of Florentine children, as families throughout the city ask him to be godfather to their firstborn male child, and often bestow his name upon them as well. 

But most importantly, Lorenzo is head of the Medici bank, the most respected financial institution in all of Europe. The banking success of the Medici family allows them to sponsor artists like Donatello, da Vinci, and Botticelli, as well as finance the construction of Florence’s most awe-inspiring architecture. The Medici control the city of Florence, not with direct power, but through indirect influence. Lorenzo is not the head of the Florentine state, nor is he even on its ruling council — but he is without a doubt its de facto prince.

Giuliano (left) and Lorenzo the Magnificent (right)

Lorenzo comes to the end of his short walk from Palazzo Medici to Santa Maria del Fiore, where he briefly glances up to marvel at Brunelleschi’s dome before slipping into the cathedral with his entourage. As he does so, his brother Giuliano finally departs from Palazzo Medici, having been held up that morning by a bout of sciatica. 

Giuliano is accompanied down Via Larga by Bernardo Bandini and Francesco de’ Pazzi, a member of the Pazzi family. The Pazzi have just become bankers to the Pope, taking over the lucrative business from the Medici. While it was a massive loss of business for the latter, the family is still wealthy enough to not be impacted by it. The Medici Bank will do just fine, with or without the Pope. 

As Giuliano, Bernardo, and Francesco make their way towards the duomo, Giuliano suffers another brief flare up of sciatica. Francesco puts his arm around him in fraternal support, telling Giuliano to take his time. He teases him briefly with a quick pinch to the side, and while doing so notes to himself that Giuliano isn’t wearing any chainmail under his doublet. That knowledge will soon come in handy…

The stragglers make their way into the cathedral, where mass is just about to begin. Giuliano sees his brother up towards the front of the church, surrounded by his entourage. Interestingly enough, he’s also standing with two priests, one of whom is a private tutor to the Pazzi family. Giuliano decides there isn’t enough time to join Lorenzo before the service begins, but it’s no matter. He’ll remain in the back and then rendezvous with his brother afterwards.

The geometric marble floor of Florence Cathedral

Mass proceeds as normal up until its most sacred moment: the consecration of the host. This is the moment where Christ becomes physically present in the Eucharist, allowing the faithful to enter into union with Him through the taking of communion. The priest mutters a blessing in Latin and then raises up the host in consecration — and at this very moment, all hell breaks loose.

Bernardo Bandini furnishes a dagger, turns on Giuliano, and plunges it into the young Medici’s head, instantly splitting his skull. As Giuliano falls to the ground, Francesco de’ Pazzi takes out his own dagger and begins mercilessly hacking away at the young man: Francesco is so blinded by both rage and blood that at one point he misses his mark and plunges his dagger into his own thigh.

The Pazzi Conspiracy, Stefano Ussi (19th century)

At the front of the church, the two priests sitting behind Lorenzo also pull out their blades. One of them places a hand on Lorenzo’s shoulder to hold him in place while they stab, but the unwelcome touch causes Lorenzo to turn. As he does so, the fatal blow intended for his back ends up cutting across his neck, and Lorenzo jumps up in pain, shock, and confusion. Chaos erupts as the young man stumbles back and draws his sword, his entourage leaping from their seats to rush to the aid of their capofamiglia.

Lorenzo quickly makes for the sacristy, leaping over the altar and rushing to safety. Bandini, who has left Giuliano for dead, spots il magnifico on the move and sprints to cut him off. Francesco Nori, a friend of Lorenzo, advances to confront Bandini, but is swifty mowed down as Bandini runs him through with his sword. His sacrifice, however, buys Lorenzo just enough time: he and his entourage rush into the sacristy and slam the heavy bronze doors shut behind them: for the moment, they’re safe.

As the Medici clan catch their breath and clutch their weapons, their ears pick up on the chaos that erupts inside the cathedral. Momentarily delayed by shock, the congregation now reacts to the scene: screams, terror, and stampedes ensue as parishioners rush for the nearest exit, not knowing what’s happening. Their intuition, however, is correct: something quite diabolical has just transpired right before their eyes.

Back inside the sacristy, Medici loyalist Antonio Ridolfi comes up to Lorenzo and appears to kiss his wound: in reality, he begins to suck out the blood and spit it to the floor. In an era of poisoned daggers, one can never be too cautious. Lorenzo, slowly coming to himself after the rush of adrenaline, looks around at his companions: “Where’s Giuliano?” No one answers. 

Little do they know, this is only part one of the plot against them — just a half mile away, an archbishop is preparing to play his part at the head of an assembly of mercenaries.

Within twenty-four hours, more than thirty people will be dead. Who will count among the slain, and who will come out alive is still far from certain…

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