Italian Art, History and Culture

Art and 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. Unsurprisingly, that interest centres on the political motives behind the attempted coup, and the violent events on Easter Sunday 1478. But what few people realize is that the behaviour of one of the protagonists on the day is 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 magnificence of the artwork disguises the harsh truth of Florentine power politics, as demonstrated by the Pazzi Conspiracy.
Palazzo Medici Florence Medici Coat of Arms Palazzo Pazzi Florence Pazzi plot
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 © Author); Donatello the arms of the Pazzi family from the Palazzo Pazzi (formerly polychrome), photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0).
The Pazzi Conspiracy was a plot to seize control of Florence in a violent coup. It 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 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 the renowned condottiere (mercenary commander) Federico da Montefeltro. The plot was sanctioned by the Pope, apparently with the immortal phrase "as long as there be no killing". There can have been no doubt though: in order for the coup to be successful, the troublesome Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother Giuliano would have to die.

After various delays and frustrations, the plotters struck in the Duomo in Florence during the service 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 completely 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), 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 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. The increasingly-nervous Salviati was first forced to wait for the Gonfaloniere to finish his lunch, and then when he was finally able to deliver his message, the Gonfaloniere attacked him with a cooking spit and then ordered that the great bell of the Palazzo be rung to sound the alarm. The Pazzi and their supporters still tried to raise a popular revolt against the Medici, but 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 companions were strangled and their bodies 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.  Despite Lorenzo's calls for restraint, the furious citizens seized and killed many supporters of the Pazzi faction. 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 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.

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 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 after the failure of the coup.

Benozzo Gozzoli Procession of the Magi Convent of San Marco Florence Baptistery of San Giovanni
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: Benozzo Gozzoli Journey of the Magi 1459-62. Fresco. Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0). Baroque façade of the convent church of San Marco, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 2.5). Baptistery of San Giovanni, photo © Author.
So what do these events have to do with the inventory I mentioned, and what of that artwork? The artwork 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 show the Journey of the Magi, and 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 (Jan 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). 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 Glasgow Lorenzo de' Medici Giuliano de' Medici
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: Various Masters, composite Milanese armour, comprehensively mid-15th century, photo © Copyright Glasgow Museums. Benozzo Gozzoli Journey of the Magi, detail of the young magus (Lorenzo) wearing a corazzina covered in white and gold damask over his gown, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0). Benozzo Gozzoli Journey of the Magi, detail of a figure thought to be Giuliano de' Medici wearing a corazzina covered in pale blue silk over his doublet, photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0).
These frescoes are also very realistic representations of actual clothes, as the inventory testifies, and 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. It was light (a whole filed armour weighed only around 25kg), highly flexible, and the best 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). The author has also seen and examined many examples of marks on armour which come from blows in battle, and which the armour survived. In short: if armour had been heavy and ineffective, the warriors of the day would not have used it.

Looking carefully at the torso of the figure of the young Magus Caspar, you can make out a line running up from the stomach to come to a point over the sternum, which conforms to the position of the outer breastplate of an armour (the ‘plackart’). In addition, looking at his abdomen, careful examination shows a series of horizontal lines betraying the presence of the hooped articulated 'fauld' of a cuirasse. The bottom edge of it is concealed by the elaborate belt Caspar wears. A fauld is shown even more clearly on the sky-blue garment that a figure identified as Giuliano wears in the fresco on the opposite wall. Lighter cuirasses covered with fabrics were known as ‘corazzine’ (‘little cuirasses’), and we find various examples in the Medici inventory. In Lorenzo's bedroom were:

"iii corazzine di raso di più ragioni e dommaschino"
"3 corazzine of different sizes, covered with silk and damask"

*Damask is a figured fabric with the design woven into it.

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 corazzine, one covered with 'peacock' velvet
[a type of purple], the other with ‘tané’ velvet [a type of dark chestnut brown]"

Renaissance Italian Fabric Venetian Renaissance Fabric Benozzo Gozzoli Journey of the Magi
Photos, left to right/top to bottom: the sort of fabrics that were used to cover corazzine. Italian, circa 1450, silk velvet with two-height cut piles and brocaded metallic threads; Venetian, circa 1480, two-pile silk velvet with pomegranate pattern and looped motifs. Both pieces are in the Los Angeles County Mueum of Art. Photos: Public Domain, made available by the LACMA. Benozzo Gozzoli Journey of the Magi, detail of a figure wearing a corazzina covered with what is probably a green silk velvet similar to the deep crimson example on the left. The actual armour finishes along the line of lobes at the bottom edge. The rear neck is trimmed with a gilt copper band. He wears the sort of hat that could also be armoured. Photo Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0).
Some corazzine had smaller lames (plates) inside them, making them more flexible, and 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. Wearing these corazzine over clothes made of the same fabric camouflages them fairly effectively, but they were still obvious when you got close to the wearer. But the risk of assassination meant that armour could be disguised even more effectively within clothes, to the point you wouldn't even know if the person stood in front of you was wearing it. In a chest in the ‘Great Chamber’ of Lorenzo was:

"i farsetto di domino nostro pieno di maglie"
"1 doublet of our lord
[Lorenzo] lined with mail"

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:

" uno farsetto di lame milanesi belle"
"...and a doublet lined with fine Milanese lames"

Milan was the city where the finest Italian armour was made. The inventory is specific when listing the place of manufacture of arms and armour, so where no city is specified, we may assume the items mentioned were produced locally: Florence had its own community of armourers and weapon makers.

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 the two brothers were disposed of together, and when Giuliano didn't arrive, Francesco had to go to the Palazzo Medici to see him 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, so the weapons carried by the assassins would not have excited comment.

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 level 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 as beautiful as the clothes in Gozzoli’s frescoes are, most viewers 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 realities of Florentine power-politics in the 15th century.

Chris Dobson

© Copyright Chris Dobson.

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

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