The history of the popes, from the close of the middle ages


SIXTUS IV. 1471-1484.


The Conspiracy of the Pazzi, 1478.


At the beginning of the year 1478 the tension between Rome and Florence was such as to render a catastrophe almost inevitable. Wherever the opportunity had occurred, Lorenzo de' Medici had thwarted the Pope; he had done everything in his power to prevent the consolidation of the temporal principality of the Pope and to foster the elements of weakness which existed in the States of the Church. His ambition and masterfulness had increased beyond all bounds: he would have been prepared to sacrifice even the precious blessing of ecclesiastical unity to carry out his own schemes. His confidential letter of the 1st February, 1477, to Baccio Ugolini shows that he would have contemplated a schism without shrinking. In this letter he says, in so many words: “For any one in my position, the division of power is advantageous, and, if it were possible without scandal, three or four Popes would be better than a single one”.

The downfall of the Medici, who had become the very soul of the anti-Papal agitation in Italy, appeared the only hope of security for the future. No one maintained this view with more warmth and eloquence than the Pope’s nephew, Girolamo Riario, who felt that, as long as that family governed Florence, his hold upon Imola must remain precarious. The weakness of Sixtus IV allowed to Girolamo an overweening influence in public affairs, and his ambition had become absolutely unbounded since his marriage with Caterina Sforza (May, 1472), a woman of a spirit kindred to his own. “I am not”, she said, “Duke Galeazzo’s daughter for nothing : I have his brains in my head”.

Lorenzo, more or less by his own fault, had made many enemies in Florence as well as in Rome. Eaten up with pride, he cared for no one and tolerated no rival. Even in games he would always be first. He interfered in everything, even in the private lives of the citizens, and in their marriages; nothing could be done without his consent. In the work of casting down the mighty and raising up those of low degree, he refused to act with that considera­tion and discretion which Cosmo had always been careful to observe. Among the old nobility, in particular, there was great dissatisfaction. It was an essential part of the policy of the Medici to prevent any family, even if allied or related to their own, from becoming too powerful or too rich. Lorenzo de' Medici carried out this principle to the utmost. The Pazzi soon perceived that he was planning their ruin. They saw themselves excluded from all honorable offices and influential positions in the Republic, and at last found their property also attacked. Grievances such as these drove them into the party of Lorenzo’s opponents, whose motto was, the Liberty of the Republic.

The enemies of the Medici soon formed themselves into two groups, one of which gathered round the Pazzi, and the other round Girolamo Riario. The hostility of the Pazzi towards the Medici was purely political, or, perhaps, social and political, in its character. With Sixtus IV and his right hand, Riario, its motives were chiefly ecclesiastical.

The indignation of the Florentine nobility against the purse-proud tyranny of the Medici was so deep and so wide-spread that, independently of Roman influence or co-operation, it must sooner or later have led to a catastrophe such as it had often already produced. The outbreak was hastened on by the alliance of the Pazzi with Girolamo, which had become closer since the purchase of Imola.

It is uncertain whether the idea of effecting a change in the form of government in Florence by violent means originated with the Pazzi or with Girolamo. However this may be, Francesco de' Pazzi, the Roman banker, was quite as active and as eager in the matter as Riario. Together they induced the Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati, who was living at the Roman Court, and very bitter against the Medici, to join them.

The first most important point was to discover what line the Pope would take in regard to their plan. There was no doubt that, in his present state of irritation, he would favor any attempt to bring about a change of government in Florence. But Girolamo Riario was also well aware that his uncle would not lend himself to any undertaking which could imperil the honor of the Papacy. They must aim at securing a free hand to carry out the revolution, without letting the Pope know how it was to be accomplished. He must be led to believe that the ill-will in Florence against the Medici was already so great that they could be easily overthrown in the usual manner, that is to say, by an insurrection without assassination. Giovan Batista da Montesecco, a vassal of Riario’s, was selected, after the blow had been struck, to march into Florence with an armed force, and follow up the advantage gained. He consented, but warned the conspirators that the business might not be so readily accomplished as they thought.

Montesecco had also another misgiving as to what the Pope would say to the plan. The answer given by Girolamo and Salviati is most significant. “Our Lord, the Pope”, they said, “will always do what we persuade him, and he is angry with Lorenzo, and earnestly desires this”. “Have you spoken to him of it?”. “Certainly”, was the reply, “and we will arrange that he shall also speak of it to you”.

This interview, at which Salviati and Girolamo alone were present, soon-took place. According to the later and thoroughly credible statement of Montesecco, the Pope from the first declared that he wished for a change of government in Florence, but without the death of any man.

“Holy Father”, replied Montesecco,these things can hardly be done without the death of Lorenzo and Giuliano, and, perhaps, of others also”.

The Pope answered : “On no condition will I have the death of any man: it is not our office to consent to the death of any, and, even if Lorenzo is a villain (villano), and has wronged us, I in no way desire his death; what I do desire is a change of government”.

Girolamo then said, “What is possible shall be done to avoid such a casualty, but if it should occur, will your Holiness forgive its authors?”.

“You are a brute”, rejoined Sixtus, “I tell you I do not desire the death of any man, but only a change in the government; and to you also, Giovan Battista, I say that I greatly wish that the govern­ment of Florence should be taken out of Lorenzo’s hands, for he is a villain and an evil man, and has no consideration for us, and if he were out of the way we should be able to arrange matters with the Republic according to our mind, and this would be a great advantage”.

“What your Holiness says is true”, said Riario and the Archbishop. “If, after a change of government in Florence, the State is at your disposal, your Holiness will be able to lay down the law for half of Italy, and everyone will have an interest in securing your friendship. Therefore, be content to let us do all that we can for the attainment of this end”.

 Here­upon Sixtus IV again spoke very decidedly, without any reserve or ambiguity. “I tell you”, he said, “I will not. Go and do as seems good to you, but no one’s life is to be taken”.  

At the close of the audience, he gave his consent to the employment of armed men. Salviati said, as he withdrew: “Holy Father, be content to let us steer this bark, we will guide her safely”. The Pope said, “I am content”. Sixtus IV could only understand that those present fell in with his views, and he gave his consent.

The Pope, who had grown up in the cloister, and was little acquainted with the world, evidently believed that the advance of the troops assembled on the frontiers of the Republic, to join the discontented Florentines, would make it possible to overpower and capture the Medici. The conspirators had other views. After repeated consultations, Girolamo and Salviati determined to act in opposition to the clearly expressed desire of the Pope. Preparations were at once commenced.

It is important to observe that Sixtus IV again sent a message through a Bishop to urge the confederates to consider the honor of the Holy See and of Girolamo himself. Had he known anything of the purpose of assas­sination, such an exhortation would have been absolutely meaningless. For, even if it succeeded, if both the Medici fell at once, and the Republic declared itself free, the honor of the Holy See would be compromised. Sixtus IV accordingly remained, as is perfectly clear from the whole of Montesecco’s deposition, under the impression that the plan was to take both the Medici prisoners: Lorenzo on his journey to or from Rome, Giuliano perhaps on his way from Piombino, and then to issue a Proclamation from the Republic. An unprejudiced critic cannot arrive at any other conclusion from the documents before us.

Circumstances had hitherto been unfavorable to the execution of the scheme. As, however, many had been initiated, it became necessary to act promptly, to avoid the risk of discovery. Francesco de' Pazzi had at last won over his brother Jacopo, the head of the family : among the other conspirators may be named, Bernardo di Bandini Baroncelli and Napoleone Franzesi Jacopo, son of the well-known Humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, two of the Salviati, and two clerics, Stefano of Bagnone, a dependent of Jacopo de' Pazzi, and Antonio Maffei of Volterra, who had been led to take part in the plot by grief at the misfortunes of his native city, whose ruin he attributed to Lorenzo. Francesco de' Pazzi and Bandini were to murder Giuliano, while Lorenzo was to be killed by Montesecco; Salviati was to seize the Signorial Palace, and Jacopo de' Pazzi to arouse the Florentines.

Just at this time, in the spring of 1478, the young Cardinal Rafaello Sansoni-Riario came to Florence, in consequence of an outbreak of the Plague at Pisa, and took up his abode at the Villa of the Pazzi. According to the original plan, the Medici were to be assassinated at a banquet; but, as Giuliano was prevented by indisposition from attending it, the murder was postponed. Cardinal Rafaello, who was but eighteen, had no suspicion of all that was going on, and held free and friendly intercourse with Lorenzo de' Medici. Lorenzo repeatedly urged him to visit his Palace and the Cathedral, and Rafaello Sansoni promised to do so on Sunday, the 26th April, 1478. The conspirators determined to take advantage of this favorable opportunity for carrying out their purpose.

Lorenzo had invited a brilliant company to dinner in honor of the Cardinal. Many Ambassadors and Knights, among them Jacopo de' Pazzi and Francesco Salviati, were invited. On the morning of the eventful day, the Cardinal, with a few companions, among whom were the Archbishop and Montesecco, went into the city. Giuliano de' Medici excused himself from the feast on the plea of ill-health, but promised to be present in the Cathedral. This caused a change of purpose, and the church, instead of the banqueting-hall, was selected as the scene of the murder. Montesecco, however, at the last moment refused to perpetrate the crime in the Cathedral, either because he shrank from shedding blood in a church, or, on maturer consideration, from the affair altogether. In his stead, the two clerics, Stefano and Maffei, undertook the deed.

The beginning of the second part of the High Mass was the signal of action for the conspirators. With the cry “Ah! traitor!” Bernardo di Bandini Baroncelli made a rush at Giuliano, and plunged his dagger in his side. Severely wounded as he was, he strove to defend himself, and, in doing so, pushed against Francesco de' Pazzi, from whom he received a thrust in the breast. After this he staggered about fifty paces further, and then fell to the ground, where Francesco de' Pazzi stabbed him repeatedly till life was extinct. Stefano and Maffei had meanwhile attacked Lorenzo, but only wounded him slightly. While his servants and some youths warded off further blows with their cloaks, he fled into the old sacristy, and its bronze door was fastened at once by Angelo Poliziano.

All this was the work of a moment. Very few persons could see exactly what took place. This, and the horror which paralyzed the senses of the immediate witnesses, accounts for the many variations in the details which have reached us. Those who were at a little distance did not know what was going on, and many thought that the dome of the Cathedral was about to fall in.

Salviati’s attempt to take possession of the Signorial Palace was equally a failure. Jacopo de' Pazzi’s cry of liberty met with no response, while the people rose on all sides to that of Palle (the balls in the armorial bearings of the Medici). The slaughter of the guilty at once began. Archbishop Salviati, his brother, and his nephew Jacopo Bracciolini, with Francesco de' Pazzi, were all hung up together from the window-bars of the Signorial Palace. Then the ropes were cut, so that the bodies fell amidst the crowd, where they were torn in pieces, and the severed heads and limbs borne in triumph through the streets. All who were supposed to be enemies of the Medici, whether guilty or innocent, were butchered. The two assassins who had fallen upon Lorenzo had their noses and ears cut off before they were killed.

Montesecco was seized on the 1st, and beheaded on the 4th, May. Neither his withdrawal at the last moment, nor the disclosures which he made in regard to the ramifications of the conspiracy, availed to mitigate his sentence. His statements are of. the greatest importance in their bearing on the question of the participation of Sixtus IV in the events of the 26th April. It is certain that he desired that the Medici should be overthrown by force. It is equally certain that he can have known nothing beforehand of the details of the attempted assassination, for these were only arranged in haste on the very morning of the deed, when it had been found necessary to abandon the plan of murdering the brothers at a banquet.

The further question, whether Sixtus IV approved of the murderous intention of the conspirators, must be answered in the negative. Had this been the case, Montesecco, whose interest it was to make the least of his own share in the crime, would scarcely have concealed the fact His depositions bear upon them the stamp of truth; they have sometimes been taken in their obvious sense, and sometimes arbitrarily interpreted. In face of such evidence, to con­tinue to make the Pope an abettor in the murder is worse now than it was 400 years ago.

It is, however, deeply to be regretted that a Pope should play any part in the history of a conspiracy. Lorenzo had given Sixtus IV good ground for a declaration of war; the principle of self-preservation demanded active measures for future security, and amongst them, the overthrow of this malignant enemy; but open warfare would certainly have been more worthy of a Pontiff than participation in a political plot, even had it involved no bloodshed.