Renaissance Dissident

The Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478

The Art of Assassination

The Pazzi Conspiracy and the Frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli

For those interested in the history of Florence, Easter brings the anniversary of the Pazzi Conspiracy, a violent coup d’état intended to remove the Medici as overloads of Florence, and replace them with a more pro-Papal faction headed by the Pazzi family. Unsurprisingly, interest centres on the political motives behind the attempted coup, and the bloody events of Easter Sunday 1478. But what few people realise is that the behaviour of one of the Pazzi family on the day is directly connected to an iconic artwork in the Palazzo Medici (now the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi), and that connection can be made thanks to the famous inventory of the goods in the palazzo drawn up in December 1512, relating to the period immediately following the death of Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ in 1492. That inventory also tells us that what we see in the incredible richness of that artwork disguises the harsh truth of Florentine power politics, as demonstrated by the Pazzi Conspiracy.

The Palazzo Medici Florence and the arms of the Medici family. The Palazzo Pazzi Florence and the arms of the Pazzi family by Donatello.
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: Michelozzo di Bartolomeo. The Palazzo Medici (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi), after 1444-1450’s; the arms of the Medici in the courtyard of the palazzo; Giuliano da Maiano. The Palazzo Pazzi (Palazzo Pazzi Quaratesi), built 1458-69 (all three photos © Chris Dobson); Donatello the arms of the Pazzi family from the Palazzo Pazzi (formerly polychrome), photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

The plot was hatched between Francesco de’ Pazzi, who was head of the Pazzi bank in Rome, and Francesco Salviati, the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, and Archbishop of Pisa. The head of the family, Messer Jacopo de’ Pazzi, was apparently “colder than ice” at the prospect of it succeeding, but Francesco - his nephew - was sure that he could be persuaded. The motive was provided by the political aspirations of the Pazzi within a Florence controlled by the Medici, and the expansionist policy of the Pope and his family, intent on seizing the lordships of cities in the Romagna, a move being actively resisted by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Military backing for the coup was to be provided chiefly by a renowned mercenary commander, the condottiere Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (pictured below). The plot was sanctioned by the Pope himself at a personal audience with Francesco de’ Pazzi, Salviati, and another condottiere, Gian Battista da Montesecco (of whom more later), apparently with the immortal phrase “as long as there be no killing”, and although he apparently wished to distance himself from the use of violence, it would have been naïve to say the least, to believe that the coup could have been accomplished without bloodshed: in order for it to succeed, the troublesome Lorenzo de’ Medici and his handsome brother Giuliano would have to die.

After various delays and frustrations, the plotters struck in the Duomo in Florence during Mass on Easter Sunday, April 26th 1478, but they were only partially successful, as the two Medici brothers stayed in different parts of the cathedral during the service. Giulano was caught unawares by Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, who together managed to strike him nineteen times with their daggers as he fell to the floor. The attack was so frenzied that at one point Francesco missed Giuliano’s body and drove his dagger right through his own thigh. Lorenzo was luckier. Attacked by two priests inexpert in the use of weapons (Antonio Maffei and Stefano da Bagnone), and he was forewarned when Maffei grasped his shoulder to ready his blow, and Lorenzo only received a superficial wound to the neck as he turned, drew his sword and fought them off.

To coincide with the attack, Archbishop Salviati had arrived at the Palazzo della Signoria (the seat of government) with another accomplice, Jacopo di Poggio Bracciolini, and a group of armed Perugian mercenaries disguised as the Archbishop’s entourage. He was to deliver an ultimatum from the Pope to the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia, the standard-bearer of the Republic. The mercenaries were to kill anyone who resisted. Although the group were admitted to the Palazzo, they were broken up and forced to wait while the Gonfaloniere, Cesare Petrucci, finished his dinner. Only the increasingly-nervous Salviati was admitted to a reception room, while the Perugians were shut in nearby offices, and Bracciolini and some others were left in the corridor outside. When Petrucci finally emerged, and Salviati was at last able to deliver his message in a halting voice, Petrucci called out the guard, and when Salviati called for his men to strike, only Bracciolini was able to come to his aid. The Gonfaloniere first threw Bracciolini to the ground, and then set about Salviati with an iron cooking spit. He ordered that the great bell of the Palazzo be rung to sound the alarm, and while the Pazzi and their supporters still tried to raise a popular revolt against the Medici, they failed spectacularly. The people rose instead in support of the Medici, and Francesco de’ Pazzi - bleeding heavily from his self-inflicted wound - was dragged to the Palazzo della Signoria and hanged from a window, along with Archbishop Salviati and Bracciolini. Two of Salviati’s other companions were strangled and their bodies were also left hanging. The Perugian mercenaries were butchered inside the Palazzo, their heads and hands carried outside held aloft on the points of swords and spears. In an attempt to quell the violence, Lorenzo appeared at one of the upper windows of the Palazzo Medici, to show that he was alive, but despite his calls for restraint, the furious citizens seized and killed many supporters of the Pazzi faction, some of whom they hurled from the battlements of the Palazzo della Signoria, down into the piazza below. All the main conspirators were eventually caught and executed. The two priests who had tried to kill Lorenzo were castrated before they were hanged. Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the head of the family, was captured after fleeing the city. He was brought back to Florence, tortured, and later hanged from the window of the Palazzo della Signoria alongside the rotting remains of the others. After burial, his putrid corpse was disinterred by a mob of Florentines and dragged to the Palazzo Pazzi, where they used its decomposing head as a door-knocker, shouting that the master of the house wished to enter. The body was then thrown into the Arno. Further downstream, it was spotted by a gang of children, who managed to fish it out, strung it up in a willow tree, and then flogged it. When they tired of their game, they dumped the corpse back into the river.

Gian Battista da Montesecco was another mercenary involved in the plot. He had been supposed to kill Lorenzo, but found himself unable to murder a man he personally found amiable and charming. When taken, he revealed the entire plot under torture. He was then beheaded. Luckily for Florence, the military leadership of Federico da Montefeltro had been denied the conspirators when Federico rather conveniently broke his leg in an accident, falling through a wooden floor. The mercenary troops that had been held in readiness to enter the city on the deaths of the Medici did not intervene: the Pazzi Conspiracy had failed.

The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici Palace, Florence. The Convent of San Marco and the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence.
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: Benozzo Gozzoli The Journey of the Magi 1459-62, fresco, chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0); the Baroque façade of the Convent Church of San Marco, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 2.5); the Baptistery of San Giovanni, photo © Chris Dobson.

So what do these events have to do with the inventory I mentioned, and what of that artwork? The artwork in question is the magnificent series of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici family chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, started in 1459 and completed by 1462. The frescoes depict The Journey of the Magi, and they include superbly-detailed portraits of members of the Medici family and their household, their friends and allies, and important political figures of the time. There also seems to be an additional portrait of Lorenzo as the young Magus Caspar, and a second portrait of Giuliano. The frescoes have their origins in the Medici’s participation in the processions laid on every four years to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January the 6th. Cosimo de’ Medici (the Elder) was instrumental in supporting and promoting the ‘Company of the Magi’ that oversaw the events: he was their patron, he sat on their commission of ten ‘festaioli’, and he saw to it that a prominent member of the family always participated in the procession down the Via Larga from the convent of San Marco to the Baptistry of San Giovanni, passing directly beneath the windows of this very palazzo (and its nearby predecessor, the ‘casa vecchia’). In 1451 it was Cosimo himself who took part, and in 1459 it was his grandson, the 11-year old Lorenzo who participated. The figure of Caspar is thought to be a rendering of how Lorenzo was dressed for the procession.

Milanese Armour in Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, and the Brera Madonna, a painting which includes a portrait of Federico da Montefeltro Lorenzo de’ Medici as the young |Magus Caspar, and a panel of crimson and gold Italian brocade.
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: Various Masters, composite Milanese armour, comprehensively mid-15th century, photo © Copyright Glasgow Museums; Piero della Francesca The Brera Madonna detail of the portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, c.1472-74, photo The Yorck Project Gesellschaft für Bildarchivierung GmbH; Benozzo Gozzoli The Journey of the Magi, detail of the young Magus Caspar (Lorenzo) wearing a corazzina covered in white and gold damask over his gown; crimson and gold brocaded velvet similar to the fabric of the doublet worn by Caspar/Lorenzo, Italy, second half of the 15th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1946 (46.156.134), photo: MET (CC0 1.0).

These frescoes are also very realistic representations of actual clothes worn by the many characters depicted, which can be compared to descriptions in the inventory I mentioned above, and surviving examples of textiles from the period. Although they were created around 18 years before the Pazzi Conspiracy, they show that the Medici were already well aware of the risks of moving outside the safety of the walls of their palazzo: hidden beneath those sumptuous fabrics are armours of the finest steel. 15th century Italian armour was not the ponderous and ineffective stuff that people lumber about in on battlefields in the movies. Rather than blacksmiths, armour was made by highly-skilled and specialised craftsmen: Master Armourers, who were members of the Guild of Armourers and Swordsmiths (L’Arte dei Corazzai e Spadai). It was light (a whole field armour weighed only around 25kg), highly flexible, and the best - which could be a very expensive product - was carefully made to measure. After all, armour had to allow the warrior to fight with as little restriction to his movement as possible. It was also effective: swords and daggers wouldn’t touch it, and only the heaviest hand weapons (maces or axes), or a strike from a lance at the gallop had a chance of piercing it. It was even ‘proofed’ by being tested against the most powerful ballistic weapons of the day. The armour shown above left has marks all over it from where it has been shot at from close range with a crossbow (which it easily defeated). Over the years I have personally examined many pieces of armour which bore the marks of battle, which came from both weapons and missiles, and which the armour survived. In short, if armour was just heavy and ineffective, the warriors of the day would not have used it.

In the fresco on the south wall, the young Magus Caspar is wearing what at first sight appears to be a stunning silk gown of white and gold damask, trimmed with brown fur and decorated with rubies and emeralds, with long, hanging sleeves, and which reaches down to just above his knees. This in turn is worn over a doublet of crimson and gold silk velvet, which can be seen emerging at the neck and forearms (‘damask’ is a type of fabric with a pattern woven into it, made up of one or more colours). But if we look more carefully, we can see that those garments are not all he is wearing. The doublet is there, and the gown over it, but to an eye used to the construction of Italian armour, the pattern on the fabric above his waist suggests the presence of a third ‘garment’ worn over the other two: armour. Rising up from the side of his stomach we can make out a band of decoration which comes to a point over his breastbone, which conforms to the upper edge of the outer breastplate of an armour of the period (a piece called a ‘plackart’). At this time, as seen in the photos above, Italian body armour for war was made up of inner and outer cuirasses (corazze) which were constructed to slide over each other, to combine protection with flexibility. So far, perhaps the line of this decoration could just be a coincidence, but in addition, looking carefully at Caspar’s abdomen, we see a series of horizontal lines that also correspond exactly to the hooped articulated defence of an armour that protected the abdomen (a ‘fauld’), which was attached to the lower edge of the outer cuirass (also shown above). The bottom edge of it is concealed by the elaborate belt he wears. A fauld is shown even more clearly on the sky-blue garment that a figure identified as Giuliano de’ Medici wears in the fresco on the opposite wall, although it is impossible to tell if it is directly attached to a lighter cuirass which lacks a second, outer cuirass, as the head of a lynx sat behind this figure on his horse obscures the lower part of his torso. As this is not a battlefield armour, it is possible that the usual double arrangement of inner and outer cuirasses was deemed unnecessary.

Any remaining doubt that these ‘clothes’ are actually types of cuirass is dispelled if we look at an earlier painting of The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, now in the Uffizi. This panel painting was commissioned by Palla Strozzi for the church of Santa Trinita, and completed in 1423. In it, the young Magus Caspar is wearing a combination of garments that is almost identical to his counterpart in the Gozzoli frescoes. Here the line of what appears to be a plackart is even clearer, but – importantly - lower. Armour, like clothing, was subject to changing fashions, and in the course of the 15th century the plackart of the outer cuirass got progressively larger, covering more of the inner cuirass. The lower profile of what might be a plackart in the painting by Gentile da Fabriano is perfectly in keeping with the development of Italian armour in the 1420’s, and clearly is the plackart of a cuirass. So there can be no doubt that both the figures in the Gozzoli frescoes are also wearing steel cuirasses, mounted with faulds, and covered with rich fabrics. And they are not the only figures in the frescoes wearing body armour.

The Journey of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli: detail showing a figure believed to be Giuliano de’ Medici. The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: Benozzo Gozzoli The Journey of the Magi, detail of a figure thought to be Giuliano de’ Medici wearing a cuirass covered in pale blue silk over his doublet, photo: Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0); Gentile da Fabriano, The Adoration of the Magi, detail showing the young Magus Caspar (centre), photo: The Yorck Project Gesellschaft für Bildarchivierung GmbH (PD-Art (PD-old-70)).

More flexible cuirasses were made of smaller plates mounted within fabric covers. They were known as corazzine, literally ‘little cuirasses’, which might be better translated as ‘light cuirasses’, and we find various examples in the Medici inventory. In Lorenzo’s bedroom were:

“iii corazzine di raso di più ragioni e dommaschino. f.45.”
“3 light cuirasses of different sizes, covered with silk and damask.
[Valued at] 45 Florins.”

Silk velvet was another fabric often used to cover armour. In the room which had been the armoury of Lorenzo’s father Piero were:

“ii corazzine coperte una di velluto pagonazzo l’altra di velluto tané”
“2 light cuirasses, one covered with ‘peacock’ velvet
[a type of purple], the other with ‘tané’ [dark chestnut brown] velvet. [valued at] 20 Florins.”

Renaissance Italian silk velvets. The Journey of the magi by Benozzo Gozzoli and a piece of indigo velvet of the same sort see in the painting.
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: the sort of silk fabrics that were used to cover corazzine. Pagonazzo ‘peacock’ velvet with pomegranate pattern, Italy, 15th century, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund (1952.554), photo: The Cleveland Museum of Art (CC0 1.0); crimson velvet, probably Milan, c.1475-1525, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of The United Piece Dye Works, 1936 (36.90.1250), photo: MET (CC0 1.0); Benozzo Gozzoli The Journey of the Magi, detail of a figure wearing a corazzina covered with a green silk velvet over a doublet made of an indigo velvet as shown in the photo on the right, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0); ‘Alexandrine’ indigo velvet, Italy, 15th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1909 (09.50.1014). Photo: MET (CC0 1.0).
On the battlefield, the fabric covering of corazze and corazzine (and helmets) was simply a form of decoration to make them richer and more sumptuous than plain steel armour, but when it came to the sort of armour that we see worn in Gozzoli’s frescoes, the use of fabrics to cover it was clearly designed to disguise its presence. Some corazzine had much smaller lames (plates) inside them, making them even more flexible, and also making the protection over the abdomen less obviously like a fauld, as we see on the green corazzine worn by the young men on foot around the Magus Balthazar (see photo above). Wearing these corazzine over clothes made of the same fabric camouflages them pretty effectively when seen from a distance, but they were still obvious when you got close to the wearer. The green corazzina in the photo above, for example, has a gilt copper border running around the back of the neck, something which betrays the presence of the rigid steel plate that it was attached to, beneath the fabric cover. That sort of border would never have been attached to normal clothing. Rather, this was the sort of armour that bodyguards would have worn, maintaining a general impression of ‘civilian’ clothes in public, and so avoiding an overtly military display, but the fact that they were wearing body armour would have come as no surprise to other powerful Florentine families: their own bodyguards would have been expected to be both armed and armoured. But when it came to the political élite themselves, like the principal members of the Medici family, the ever-present risk of assassination meant that artisans went to great trouble to disguise armour even more effectively within clothes, to the poin where you wouldn’t even know if the person stood right in front of you was wearing armour. In a chest in the ‘Great Chamber’ of Lorenzo was:

“i farsetto di domino nostro pieno di maglie. f.6.”
“1 doublet of our lord
[Lorenzo] lined with mail. [Valued at] 6 Florins.”

Mail was flexible enough to be easily sewn into the lining of clothes, but was not as effective as plate steel, and sure enough, we find an example of that as well in Lorenzo’s bedroom. Along with two corazzine, was:

“ farsetto di lame milanesi belle”
“...a doublet lined with fine Milanese lames”

Note that this is a jacket called a ‘doublet’, and not a corazzina, so the intention was to make a piece of armour indistinguishable from normal ‘civilian’ clothing. Milan was the city where the finest Italian armour was made, and the inventory is specific when listing the place of manufacture of arms and armour, so where no city is specified, we may assume that the items mentioned were produced locally. Florence had its own community of highly-skilled armourers and weapon makers, but evidently, when it came to his own personal protection, Lorenzo had preferred to order the very highest-quality armour from Milan.

This use of armoured clothing explains Francesco de’ Pazzi’s behaviour on the morning of the attempted coup. Giuliano had decided not to go to mass in the cathedral, as he had injured his leg in an accident some days before, and it was still troubling him. The plotters had to make sure that the two brothers were disposed of together, and when Giuliano didn’t appear in the Duomo, Francesco had to go to the Palazzo Medici to see him personally, and persuade him to come to mass. As Giuliano limped down the street towards the cathedral, Francesco put his arm round him and gave him a friendly squeeze, joking that he was getting fat from being off his feet since the injury. What he was actually doing was making sure that Giuliano wore no armoured clothing. Perhaps because of the hurry to go out, or because of his injured leg, Giuliano had unwisely not worn any armour. Nor was he wearing a sword. You may have been surprised by the fact that Lorenzo was openly wearing a sword when he went to mass, and that may have been a privilege of his rank, but it was common practice for men to carry daggers for their own protection, and they were often so long that they were effectively swords, so the weapons carried by the assassins would also not have excited comment: the Duomo would have been full of men carrying weapons.

Francesco had been present when Giuliano left the family palazzo, so he may also have been certain that Giuliano was not wearing another item of armoured clothing: even hats could have steel armour hidden within them. In a small room on the ground floor of the Palazzo Medici was:

“Una beretta di piastre”
“A hat armoured with plates”

And the wound that was immediately fatal to Giuliano was a downward blow that practically split his skull in two: he was wearing no protection for his head. Lorenzo was another matter, however. Not knowing whether he was wearing armoured clothing of any kind may explain why Lorenzo’s inexpert attackers went for his neck. They may have been instructed to go first for areas that were obviously vulnerable, to avoid warning him with a blow that might be turned by hidden armour. As it turned out, the hand Maffei put on his shoulder gave him the warning he needed.

So far in this article I have given examples from the inventory of the sort of armoured clothing used by the Medici themselves, but it has to be said that these items form only a fraction of the arms and armour present in the Palazzo Medici in the late 15th century. Looking through the inventory, we find that that there were pieces of arms and armour in almost every room in the Palazzo: hundreds and hundreds of items. Many of these pieces were extremely costly, and when not listed as being stored in chests or cupboards, it seems likely that they were displayed like fine sculpture or paintings: works of art in their own right. Some items, like fine weapons, were no doubt acquired as ‘collector’s items’, and appreciated as such, while others, like specialised jousting armours and their associated paraphernalia were used by the Medici when they participated in the spectacular public jousts held in Piazza Santa Croce.

However, two rooms in the Palazzo are designated specifically as armouries, and in a large attic room beneath the roof, designated as the ‘upper armoury’ we find that in addition to the finer pieces stored there, the Medici had stockpiled multiple items of arms and armour of much lower quality, intended for use by foot soldiers: enough to equip a small private army. There were 30 green corazzine covered in a rough cloth made of linen, along with 69 matching pairs of shoulder defences (‘pauldrons’) covered with the same cloth. The total value of these 99 items was only 62 Florins, whereas the fine corazzine I mentioned above were valued at 10-15 Florins each. So these simple items were not intended to be used by family members. In the armoury were 144 pieces of mail armour of various different types, and also many plate steel pieces: 103 simple helmets; 111 pairs of vambraces (defences for the arms); 93 sets of full leg armour; and 80 pairs of greaves (armour for the lower leg). Allowing for combatants wearing varying amounts of armour, and perhaps some losses to the stocks in the armoury or pieces being stored in other locations (the numbers of corazzine and their pauldrons do not match), there seems to have been enough armour to equip around 150-200 men. Among the weapons stored in the armoury were 44 heavy crossbows used for firing from fixed positions, 37 heavy battlefield crossbows, and even 8 canon!

Whilst there is no doubt that this military equipment would have been used to equip supporters of the Medici faction in times of war, when they served as part of the citizen militia of the city (either on the battlefield, or when defending the city walls), in moments of crisis like the Pazzi Conspiracy, that same equipment would have been issued to those supporters to defend the Palazzo. And I’m sure that in the moment when Lorenzo appeared at a window to show he had survived the assassination attempt, that was exactly what was happening, and the Palazzo Medici would have been packed with their supporters, fully armed, and ready to resist any direct attack on the Palazzo.

And from other inventories, it is evident that the Medici were not alone in storing arms and armour in their home. So as bad as the Pazzi Conspiracy was, had the situation escalated, and the waiting mercenaries actually entered the city, there could have been a bloodbath, as potentially thousands of armed supporters of the different political factions fought each other in the streets. As it was, Florence got off lightly.

So in conclusion, as beautiful as the clothes in Gozzoli’s frescoes are, most people who see them are completely unaware that they are looking at a group of people who are not just dressed to impress, but also dressed to survive the brutal reality of 15th century Florentine power-politics.

Chris Dobson

The Cappella Medici is in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Via Cavour 3, Florence. Open daily 8.30AM - 7.00PM, closed Wednesdays. Admission Charge.

If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to support my work, then you might like to buy one of my Publications or click on the link below. Grazie!

© Chris Dobson 2022 | All rights reserved