It is impossible to conceive of the Italian Renaissance without the Medici. A fabulously wealthy family of merchants and politicians, their patronage of artists as great as Leonardo de Vinci, and the artistic and architectural expressiveness they encouraged, changed the face of Italy and the world. The mark they left on Florence remains to this day.
Ruling for decades, the Medici were infamous throughout Europe, but such dominance typically has its adversaries. The Pazzi family saw an opportunity to level the playing field during one particularly brutal Easter Sunday rivalry. But why did the Medici have to die?
The House of Medici
The finest Italian intellectuals were attracted by the quest for a fresh understanding of the cosmos and the possibilities of humanism and nature; all of this was distinguished by a move to a more philosophical style of thought. The ancient arts, drama, literature, and philosophy would serve as their instruments for exploring the world.
It was amongst this revolution in thought that the Medici family rose to prominence, their path pioneered by Giovanni de’ Bicci de’ Medici. Born in 1360 he rose to prominence as the first member of the clan to hold a position of social influence.
The Medici family originated from an agricultural region in France, named Mugello. Coming from a humble beginning Giovanni got his start when he received a large dowry, marrying into a much wealthier family than his own.
After establishing his empire by first making shrewd investments in textiles and silks, Giovanni formed The Medici Bank in Florence in 1397. He would expand his empire over the ensuing years to encompass Medici banks all throughout Europe, earning the respect and confidence of numerous powerful dynasties in the region.
Amassing a fortune and becoming one of the wealthiest men in both Italy and Europe, Giovanni was a very perceptive man. During these early years of a burgeoning Renaissance movement, the attention of the Italian states were shifting to the arts. Giovanni was aware of the expanding influence that the humanities and arts were having on culture.
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By commissioning pieces from numerous painters, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Donatello, he made a financial investment in the emerging cultural phenomenon. Giovanni had financially catapulted the Medici family name into European society. But his legacy of patronage to the arts could be argued was the founding pillar that insured the House of Medici’s dominance for the following three centuries.
The Dominance of the Medici Brothers
After the death of their father Piero in 1469, Giovanni de Bicci de’ Medici’s great-grandsons, brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, jointly ascended to power. It was thought that there would be no threat of competition between the two if the pair co-ruled.
The older brother Lorenzo was a poet and philosopher who was known for having a controlling demeanor. Similar to his great-grandfather, Lorenzo recognized how strategically harnessing culture would strengthen his position of sovereignty.
Giuliano, Lorenzo’s younger brother, and de facto assistant was likewise an artist, but he was more compassionate and sensitive. Although he lacked his brother’s aptitude for politics, his attractiveness led to his appointment as “the beautiful face of Medici.”
The brothers’ combination of qualities enabled them to successfully run Florence, known as the “cradle of the Renaissance.” They had the necessary advantages of coming from a high family standing, the right contacts, and most importantly, diplomatic savvy, which made their reign very prosperous.
The Pazzi and The Papacy: an Unholy Plot
Power battles between nations, regions , and affluent families were rife throughout the Renaissance period. The Pazzi family had been biting at the heels of the Medici family for years as they attempted to seize control. When the Medici family had a falling out with Pope Sixtus IV and the Papacy, the Pazzi family saw an opportunity.
Jacopo de’ Pazzi wrote to Sixtus IV pleading for his assistance in ousting the Medici family from power. In a statement, the pope made it abundantly apparent that because of his fidelity to the holy office, he was unable to condone murder.
However the Pope also had another message for the Pazzi. Privately, he expressed his view that the removal of the Medici sovereignty would greatly aid the Papacy in its mission. Furthermore, anyone who eliminated the reigning family would be received warmly by the Catholic Church.
The stage was set for bloody murder. Both Medici brothers were due to attend High Mass that was conducted on Easter Sunday at Florence’s Duomo in 1478. Rarely were the two leaders seen together in public, which made it the ideal time for the conniving Pazzi family to pounce.
Under the gaze of as many as 10,000 Florentine residents, Francesco de’ Pazzi suddenly leapt towards his brother-in-law Giuliano de’ Medici in a vicious frenzy, stabbing him 19 times. Giuliano fell to the floor, dead.
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Two of Jacopo de’ Pazzi’s men were also planning to assault Lorenzo de’ Medici at the same time. However, last-second cowardice by one of the assassins allowed Lorenzo to escape to the sacristy with only minor wounds.
A public execution played out on one of the holiest days in the church’s calendar on Italy’s largest stage, was aimed at destroying the Medici family. The intention was to demonstrate to the nation that the Pazzi family was unquestionably the most powerful family in Florence, and that the time of the Medici was over.
Many members of the Pazzi family and their allies poured the Palazzo della Signoria (the seat of the council of government), believing that the citizens of Florence could recognize them as their legitimate rulers. However, they were mistaken about the Florentines’ staunch loyalty.
Despite Lorenzo’s pleas for his people to refrain from resorting to self-inflicted violence, the citizens of Florence actively sought out anybody connected to the murderous plot. 39 conspirators were beheaded, murdered, or hanged on this bloody Easter Sunday.
Jacopo de’ Pazzi was able to escape the city but was eventually apprehended and brought back to Florence to face trial. He was tortured for his treachery before being disembowelled and hanged from one of the Palazzo della Signoria’s windows alongside his family member’s decaying corpses.
Lorenzo the Magnificent
Following their botched conspiracy, the Pazzi family was banished from Florence, their coat of arms was expunged from official records, and their estates and assets were seized. Any structure or roadway named after the Pazzi family was thereafter renamed.
Eighty persons were put to death for their involvement in the conspiracy between April 26, the day of the assassination, and October 20 of that same year. Those who stood against the Medici were eradicated from Florentian society.
One Medici remained. Lorenzo De’ Medici, showing tenacity and a willingness to stand up to those who attacked his family, won the support of the populace. However, a struggle between Lorenzo and the Papacy over the course of the following two years had a disastrous impact on the city.
After courageously visiting with King Ferdinand I of Naples, who had been siding with the Papacy Lorenzo managed to thwart his opinion. De’ Medici then declared peace in Florence leaving Sixtus IV stripped of his support for ousting the Medici and the church powerless.
The rest of Europe was so astounded by Lorenzo’s diplomacy in the Pazzi assassination conspiracy and the conflict with the church, that they bestowed upon him the moniker of “Lorenzo the Magnificent”. What was intended to be a coup against Florence’s most prominent family not only fell through, but it actually helped the House of Medici ascend to unparalleled tiers of influence.