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The Pazzi family were old Tuscan nobles who had become Florentine bankers in the 14th century. The Pazzi are now most famous for involvement in the "Pazzi conspiracy" to assassinate Lorenzo de' Medici, that came to a head April 26, 1478. The Pazzi, who were lesser rivals of the Medici, were caught up in the conspiracy to replace the Medici as de facto rulers of Tuscany with Girolamo Riario, a nephew of Francesco della Rovere, who was reigning as Pope Sixtus IV. No petty jealousies were involved, but power politics, which was often ruthless in the Italian Renaissance.

The conspiracy

The Pazzi family were not the instigators. The Salviati, Papal bankers in Florence, were at the center of the Florentine conspirators. Sixtus was an enemy of the Medici. He had purchased the lordship of Imola, a stronghold on the border between papal and Tuscan territory that Lorenzo wanted for Florence. The purchase was financed by the Pazzi bank, even though Francesco dei Pazzi had promised Lorenzo they would not aid the pope. As a reward, Sixtus granted the Pazzi a monopoly at the alum mines at Tolfa— alum being an essential mordant in dyeing in the textile trade that was central to the Florentine economy— and he assigned to the Pazzi bank lucrative rights to manage papal revenues. Sixtus appointed his nephew Girolamo Riario as the new governor of Imola, and Francesco Salviati as archbishop of Pisa, a city that was a former commercial rival but now subject to Florence. Lorenzo ordered Pisa to exclude Salviati from his see.

Salviati and Francesco de' Pazzi put together a plan to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici. Riario himself remained in Rome. The plan was widely known: the pope was reported to have said "I support it— as long as no one is killed." In 2004, an encrypted letter in the archives of the Ubaldini family was discovered by Marcello Simonetta, a historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and decoded. It revealed that Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, a condottiere for the Papacy who was deeply embroiled in the conspiracy, promised to have 600 troops outside Florence, waiting for the moment.

On April 26, during High Mass at the Duomo, Giuliano de' Medici was stabbed by a gang that included a priest, and bled to death on the cathedral floor, while his brother Lorenzo escaped with a wound, locked safely in the sacristy by the humanist Poliziano. A coordinated attempt to capture the Gonfaloniere and Signoria was thwarted when the archbishop and the head of the Salviati clan were trapped in a room whose doors had a hidden latch. The coup d'etat failed. The enraged Florentines seized and killed the conspirators. Jacopo de' Pazzi was tossed from a window, finished off by the mob, and dragged naked through the streets and thrown into the Arno River. The Pazzi family were stripped of their possessions in Florence, every vestige of their name effaced. Salviati, though he was an archbishop, was hanged on the walls of the Palazzo della Signoria. Although Lorenzo appealed to the crowd not to exact summary justice, many of the conspirators, as well as many people accused of being conspirators, were also killed. Lorenzo did manage to save the nephew of Sixtus IV, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who was almost certainly an innocent dupe of the plotters, as well as two relatives of plotters. The main conspirators were hunted down all over Italy, but a wider retribution of Lorenzo, including hundreds of killings, is a myth.

In the actual aftermath of the so-called "Pazzi" conspiracy, the Della Rovere Pope placed Florence under interdict, forbidding mass and communion, for the execution of the Salviati archbishop. Sixtus enlisted the traditional papal military arm, the King of Naples, Ferrante, to attack Florence. With no help coming from Florence's traditional allies in Bologna and Milan, only skillful personal diplomacy by Lorenzo himself saved the day. He sailed to Naples and put himself in the hands of Ferrante, who held him captive for three months before releasing him with gifts. Lorenzo's courage and his Macchiavellian realpolitik showed Ferrante how the pope would turn against him if he were too successful in the north.

The Pazzi Chapel

On another level, perhaps the greater mark on history left by the Pazzi is the Pazzi Chapel built under the direction of Filippo Brunelleschi in a discreet cloister of the Franciscan preaching church, Santa Croce in Florence. After some early agreements, the chapel was begun in 1442. It is one of the incunabula of Renaissance architecture, severely restrained, made of the gray stone called pietra serena and white plaster, untrelieved by color. A hemispherical dome (completed after Brunelleschi's death following his plans) caps a cubical sacristy for the Franciscan church: within it the Pazzi family were permitted to bury their dead.

After the conspiracy, the Pazzi were rehabilitated and returned to Florence, producing one saint, the ecstatic Carmelite nun Saint Maria Magdalena de' Pazzi (1566-1607).

Pazzi in fiction

Rinaldo Pazzi is a modern-day Florentine police detective in the Hannibal movie of the Hannibal Lecter series.

Warning: Plot details follow.

He is murdered by Lecter by hanging him then disemboweling him.

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