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Pazzi chapel, Santa Croce Florence, stills stands, but after the Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici family, the Pazzis were banished and had to change their name. 		Source: adisa / Adobe Stock

The Pazzi Conspiracy: How A Florentine Family Failed And Was Banished


The Pazzi Conspiracy was a plot during the 15th century to overthrow the Medici family, who controlled Florence at the time. The conspirators, led by the Pazzi family, aimed to achieve their goal by assassinating Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, and his brother, Giuliano. Although Giuliano was killed, the conspirators only managed to wound Lorenzo. As a result, the Pazzi Conspiracy did not succeed. Moreover, the hope that the Florentines would join the revolt did not materialize. In fact, quite the opposite happened, as the city’s inhabitants strengthened their support for the Medicis. The Pazzis, on the other hand, lost many of its members, and those who survived were expelled from Florence.

The Pazzi coat of arms by Donatello hanging in the Pazzi Palace, Florence, where the Pazzi Conspiracy was plotted. (I, Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Pazzi coat of arms by Donatello hanging in the Pazzi Palace, Florence, where the Pazzi Conspiracy was plotted. (I, Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Pazzi Origins and the Pazzi Conspiracy Culmination

The Pazzi family, after whom the Pazzi Conspiracy is named, was a Florentine noble family that flourished during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. According to one story, the origin of the Pazzi family stretches all the way back to ancient Rome. It is said that during this period, the Pazzi arrived at the banks of the Arno River , settled there, and became amongst the earliest colonizers of Florence.

Another Pazzi origin story, one that is more colorful, connects this noble family with the First Crusade . This story revolves around an individual by the name of Pazzo di Ranieri, who was supposedly the leader of the Florentines during the First Crusade. Pazzo is alleged to have been the first crusader to plant the Christian banner on the walls of Jerusalem. Godfrey of Bouillon , a leader of the crusade, rewarded Pazzo by giving him some pieces of flint from the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb of Christ), as well as the right to wear the coat of arms of the House of Bouillon. The stones were brought back to Florence and remained in the custody of the Pazzi family. On Holy Saturday, the flint would be used to light the Easter fire, and the flame was carried from one house to another in Florence.

The credibility of this second origin story, however, has been questioned. For instance, doubt has been cast on whether the Florentines had indeed participated in the First Crusade. In addition, it has been pointed out that the Pazzi family received their coat of arms only in 1388 from the Duke of Bar.

Although the exploits of Pazzo di Ranieri have been questioned, another Pazzi, Jacopo (supposedly Pazzo’s son), seems to be an actual historical figure. According to the historical records, Jacopo Pazzi was the captain of the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Montaperti, fought on 4 September 1260. During the battle, Jacopo was treacherously betrayed by one Bocca degli Abati. In any event, by the 15th century, the Pazzi had become one of the leading noble families in Florence. They gained their power and wealth through banking, a powerful industry that was more or less invented in Florence.

Fragment of medieval fresco in Medici Riccardi Palace in Florence, Italy. (Inna Felker / Adobe Stock)

Fragment of medieval fresco in Medici Riccardi Palace in Florence, Italy. ( Inna Felker / Adobe Stock)

Florentine Nobility

Of course, there were other important noble families in Florence, the most famous, and powerful of which was the Medici family. The Medicis were originally from the Tuscan village of Cafaggiolo. During the 12th century, members of the family emigrated to Florence, where they gradually rose through the city’s hierarchy thanks to their increasingly successful banking and commercial ventures. Although the Medicis became one of the most influential houses in Florence, their influence declined by the late 14th century. During this time, one of its members, Salvestro de’ Medici, the standard bearer of Florence, was forced into exile.

This, however, was not the end of the Medici story , as one of Salvestro’s distant cousins, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, would become the progenitor of the Medici dynasty that ruled over Florence. Giovanni founded the Medici Bank during the 1390s. In time, the bank opened branches in Rome, Venice, and Naples, and was even given the responsibility of managing the finances of the Vatican. Needless to say, the Medici Bank was the primary source of the Medicis’ great wealth. After Giovanni’s death in 1429, his eldest son, Cosimo, continued the work that his father had started.

In addition to the accumulation of wealth, Cosimo also began to build up the political power of his family in Florence. The political rise of the Medicis was viewed negatively by some Florentines. In 1433, a number of Cosimo’s rivals succeeded in having him arrested and charged with plotting to attain a status higher than that of an ordinary Florentine. In Florence, which was a republic at the time, this was a crime that could carry the death penalty. Cosimo was imprisoned in a small dungeon. During this time, he quietly bribed enough members of the Signoria (the government of Florence) to reduce his sentence to banishment for five years. This is only a small instance of the power that the Medicis had at their disposal through their immense wealth.

After his sentence was reduced to banishment, Cosimo went first to Padua, and then to Venice. Cosimo brought the Medici Bank with him, and the Venetians warmly welcomed him and his family’s fortune. Back in Florence, the city’s economy was severely affected by the removal of the Medici Bank. When the Florentines realized this, they cancelled Cosimo’s banishment, and he returned to Florence in 1434.

Once he was back in Florence, Cosimo had his rivals banished, and made sure they did not return to the city. Although he was virtually in control of Florence, and the de facto ruler of the city, Cosimo did not behave like a despot. Instead, he is recorded to have been generous, bestowing gifts to churches and religious orders , and patronizing scholars and artists. These actions helped to build the prestige of the Medici family.

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, who survived the conspiracy, painted by Florentine painter Bronzino in 1555-1565. (Bronzino and workshop / Public domain)

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, who survived the conspiracy, painted by Florentine painter Bronzino in 1555-1565. (Bronzino and workshop / Public domain )

A Rivalry in Florence Becomes An Assassination Plot

By the time of the Pazzi Conspiracy, the Medici family was led by Lorenzo de’ Medici, known also as Lorenzo the Magnificent, the grandson of Cosimo. Lorenzo was born in January 1449 to Piero the Gouty and Lucrezia Tornabuoni. When his father died in 1469, Lorenzo became the ruler of Florence, a position he shared with his younger brother, Giuliano. Like their predecessors, Lorenzo and Giuliano were rulers in all but name. In addition to not adopting a title for themselves, Lorenzo and Giuliano spent generously on the city, which kept the Florentines satisfied with Medici rule. Still, the Medicis were not without enemies in Florence. The Pazzi family was one of their biggest enemies.

As mentioned earlier, the Pazzi family also gained their wealth through banking, and were therefore the natural rivals of the Medicis. By the time of the Pazzi Conspiracy, for instance, the Pazzi family had wrestled control of managing the finances of the Papacy from the Medicis. From a political point of view, the Pazzi family was alarmed by the dangerously absolute authority that the Medicis were wielding. This sentiment was shared by other Florentine families, who felt that the power held by the Medicis left them with scarcely any opportunity to assert their own authority.

Besides rivals within Florence, the Medicis also had enemies outside the city, arguably the most prominent of whom was Pope Sixtus IV himself. Pope Sixtus IV is probably best known for his construction of the Sistine Chapel. The Medicis angered Sixtus through their anti-papal rhetoric. Additionally, the Medicis actively opposed the extension of papal rule into Romagna, a region neighboring Tuscany, where the Republic of Florence is located.

In addition to Sixtus, his nephew, Girolamo Riario, and Francesco Salviati, also joined the conspirators. The latter was a relative, through marriage, of the Pazzi family, and was appointed as archbishop of Pisa in 1474. His appointment, however, had been opposed by the Medicis, which led to the archbishop bearing a grudge against them. When the Pazzi family plotted to overthrow the Medicis in 1478, Salviati became one of the three main conspirators. The other two were Riario and Francesco de’ Pazzi, the nephew of Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the head of the family at the time.

The three men put together a plan for the assassination of Lorenzo and his brother. Having done so, they approached Sixtus for his support. Although the pope did not openly sanction the Medici assassination plan he did express his desire to have them removed from power in Florence and was willing to work with those who replaced them. The plan had been hatched as early as the summer of 1477 but was delayed until the following year.

The hanging of Bernardo Baroncelli in Florence, 1479, by Leonardo da Vinci. (Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain)

The hanging of Bernardo Baroncelli in Florence, 1479, by Leonardo da Vinci. (Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain )

The Pazzi Conspiracy Unfolds

The Pazzi Conspiracy took place on 26 April 1478, Easter Sunday, during Mass at the Duomo of Florence (Florence Cathedral). Originally, the conspirators planned to assassinate the Medici brothers whilst they were in Rome for Easter. Lorenzo and Giuliano, however, did not travel to Rome for Easter that year, so the plan was changed. On 19 April 1478, the conspirators invited the brothers to lunch at a villa in the nearby town of Fiesole. As Giuliano fell ill, and was unable to attend, the plan was changed once more.

Although the conspirators decided to carry out their plan during Mass, this was in fact a last-minute decision. Initially, they were planning to kill the brothers after Mass, during the banquet at the Medici Palace, which the conspirators were invited to. When they learned that Giuliano would be absent from the banquet, however, they hastily changed their plans. According to conflicting sources, the assassins would strike either at the elevation of the host, or when the Mass was concluded.

In any event, at the appointed time, the conspirators sprang into action. Bernardo Baroncelli is recorded to have been the first to plunge his dagger into Giuliano’s chest. This was followed by Francesco de’ Pazzi. All in all, Giuliano was stabbed 19 times, before he was dealt the finishing blow by Francesco. As for Lorenzo, he was attacked by two of the conspirators. The dagger of the would-be assassin did not reach its target, only scraping Lorenzo’s neck. Lorenzo was able to defend himself by grabbing a short sword from someone nearby. Lorenzo managed to take refuge in the sacristy, before escaping from the scene.

In the meantime, Salviati led another group of conspirators to the Palazzo Vecchio, where he was to take control of the Signoria, whilst Jacopo de’ Pazzi was given the task of rousing the Florentines into rebellion. Both attempts ended in failure. Salviati was arrested by the standard bearer when he arrived at the Palazzo Vecchio and was soon hanged by a lynch mob. Jacopo failed to incite the Florentines to rebel as he, along with the other conspirators, underestimated their support for the Medicis. When he realized that the conspiracy had failed, Jacopo fled from Florence. Once his whereabouts were discovered, however, Jacopo was captured, and brought back to Florence.

French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence 17 November 1494 during the long aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy, by Francesco Granacci. (Francesco Granacci / Public domain)

French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence 17 November 1494 during the long aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy, by Francesco Granacci. (Francesco Granacci / Public domain )

The Long Aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy

Jacopo was interrogated, confessed, and hanged. This, however, was not the end of Jacopo’s punishment. Although Jacopo was interred in the Pazzi family crypt, not everyone was happy with this. Supporters of the Medicis in the countryside complained that Jacopo’s burial in holy ground was a bad omen for their crops. Therefore, a group of peasants exhumed Jacopo’s body, and had it reburied outside the city walls. Shortly after this, a group of children dug up Jacopo’s body, and dragged it through the streets of Florence by the hangman’s noose that was buried with it. Finally, they threw the body into the Arno River.

To conclude, it is clear that the Pazzi Conspiracy ended in failure. Although the conspirators managed to kill Giuliano, Lorenzo escaped from their daggers. Moreover, the conspirators were neither able to seize the Florentine government, nor did they succeed in inciting the population to rebel against the Medicis. Furthermore, the Pazzi Conspiracy served to strengthen the position of the Medicis in Florence. In addition to giving the Medicis an opportunity to get rid of their most dangerous enemies, the conspiracy also showed the support enjoyed by the Medicis amongst the inhabitants of Florence. On the foreign front, the Pazzi Conspiracy resulted in a two-year war between Florence and the Papacy. Although the Medicis suffered great losses during the war, they ultimately survived, and continued to rule Florence until their expulsion around the end of the 15th century.

Top image: Pazzi chapel, Santa Croce Florence, stills stands, but after the Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici family, the Pazzis were banished and had to change their name.  Source: adisa / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                         


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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