I believe the bloody Easter Sunday murder in a crowded Tuscany church was set in motion twenty-five years earlier, in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman empire. The loss of Byzantine middle men tripled the price Christians had to pay for a volcanic rock called alunite, used in tanning animal skins and fixing dyes into cloth. The resulting inflation threatened to blow up the entire European economy. So the Catholic church was over joyed when eight years later, a huge source of alunite was discovered in the Tolfa Mountains, just 50 miles north of Rome. Pope Pius II quickly annexed the mountainous region into his own Papal States, and immediately leased the mineral rights to the people who could pay him the most, the Vatican bankers, the House of Medici.
It was Cosimo de Medici who firmly established the family fortune by courting members of the 51 guilds who held the public political power in the Republic of Florence; The Guild of Wool, the Guild of Silk, The Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries, the Guild of Ferrirers and Skinners, Masters of Stone and Wood, etc. But behind the scenes Cosimo actually controlled the city by following a simple motto: “Envy is a plant you must not water.” As his biggest fan Niccolo Macchiavelli noted, “Never did he exceed the modest behavior of a citizen.” What others in Florence spent on personal luxury, guards and body armor, Cosimo de Medici spent on charity and bribes and gifts of public art by Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli. He depended on the loyalty of the guilds and masses to support and protect his family's massive fortune.
But when Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, became head of the family in 1469, the empire seemed in decline. In five short years Lorenzo's father Piero the gouty, had emptied the family coffers of the modern equivalent of $460 million. True, along with his younger brother Giuliano, Lorenzo still guided a sprawling financial empire, with bank branches in Rome, Florence, Pisa, London, Bourges and Constantinople. But Lorenzo was only twenty years old and not that interested in banking, He had already acquired the look of a man who smelled something unpleasant.
In 1471 a bank in the Medici client town of Volterra, about twenty miles south west of Florence, refused to invest in the Medici alunite mines. So in June of 1472 an army of Medici mercenaries laid siege to Volterra, murdering, raping and looting the town for three days. They were stopped before any permanent damage was done, and once the smoke had cleared, Lorenzo publicly apologized and paid “blood money” to the survivors. But behind the scenes the offending bank now reversed itself and invested in the Medici mines. And that was what mattered in Florence.
A more difficult problem developed in Rome when 57 year old Francesco della Rovere was elected Pope, also in 1471. The ambitious man adopted the name of Sixtus IV, and quickly began promoting his family members to positions of money and power. He made six of his nephew's cardinals, and in 1472, married one of them, Giovanni della Rovere, to the lovely and wealthy Giovanna da Montefeltro, of Urbano. Her dowry was the fortress town of Imola, about forty miles northeast of Florence, and Sixtus decided to match it with a title and local office for his nephew, asking his banker, Lorenzo de Medici, to loan him 40,000 Florintine ducats for the title.
Except Lorenzo was not so foolish as to willingly help the Pope extend his power into Florence's backyard. It was like asking him to pay for his own execution. After getting promises of support from the 32 other banking families in Florence, Lorenzo turned the Pope down. Then, unexpectedly - at least to Lorenzo - one of those bankers pulled a double cross; Jacopo Pazzi.
In Italian the word “pazzi” means madman, and it was said the family patriarch earned that title in 1099 by being one of the first soldiers over the walls in the capture of Jerusalem in the first Crusade. True or not we do know this 11th century lunatic brought back to Florence a stone from the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. For this feat of fidelity the family received their new surname and a title, and the right to provide the spark used to reignite the cities' flame every Easter Sunday. Some of the luster went out of the honor in the 12th century when laws blocked nobility from holding elective office, and the Pazzi were forced to renounce their title. They kept their land and money, and never stopped trying to get the title back. Which made it all the more insulting when Cosimo de Medici pushed through taxes on the wealthiest citizens of the Republic to help feed and cloth the poor. In response, the Pazzi took a self imposed exile from their city. Like all who see themselves as entitled, the Pazzi were offended when titles came with obligations.
The aging Jacopo Pazzi, head of family bank in the winter of 1472, was still sharp enough to seize an opportunity by the throat. He had finally returned to Florence after the death of Piero, but his hatred of the Medici had not abated. . So he had no compunction about betraying his promise to Lorenzo. And even though it went against his penny pinching nature, and it almost bankrupted his bank, he now granted Pope Sixtus the 40,000 ducats denied him by the House of Medici. The grateful Sixtus transferred all the Papal Curia accounts from the Medici to the Pazzi bank, reinvigorating Jacopo's fortune. Sixtus also granted the Pazzi a monopoly for refining the alunite clawed out of the Medici mines, cutting even further into Medici profits.
Lorenzo responded by supporting anyone willing to resist the Pope. When Sixtus sent an army under another of his nephew cardinals, Giuliano della Rovere, to force a Medici ally, Niccolo Vitelli, out of his stronghold in the village of Citta di Cadello, about 40 miles south east of Florence, Lorenzo began to assemble mercenaries to lift Guiliano's siege. The nephew was not a soldier, and Sixtus was forced to order Guiliano's army to return to Rome, for the time being.
And then there was the matter of religious appointments Sixtus chose a favorite Francesco Salviati,, as the new archbishop of Florence. But Lorenzo was not willing to have Papal spy in his own city, and signed an allegiance with Venice and Milan, making it clear Salviati's appointment would mean open war. Sixtus was again forced to back down. As a consolation prize, he named Salviati the Archbishop of Pisa, 40 miles west of Florence. But Pisa was also a Medici client city, and Lorenzo ordered the city gates locked against Salviati, preventing him from presiding over his new parish for almost a year. After contemplating these insults, and a dozen others real and imagined, Sixtus decided he needed to remove the Medici entirely. There is no record Sixtus ever actually ordered Lorenzo's or Giuliano's de Medici's muder. In fact he was on the record as saying he supported a plot - “as long as no one is killed.” But no one in Italy could have believed the Medici would be stopped, short of their deaths.
The conspiracy now passed to the younger, more active hands of Jacopo's nephew the priest Francesco Pazzi, and Jacopo's sons Andea and Poero Pazzi., and the young handsome Guflielmo Pazzi, who was also married to Bianca de' Medici, yet another peace offer the Pazzi had refused. Francesco's first plan was for the Pope to invite both of the Medici brothers to the Holy City for reconciliation talks. In Rome, isolated from friends and allies, both brothers would be murdered. At the same time in a coup d'etat, Pazzi conspirators back in Florence would seize the city hall, the Plaza del Vecioo, and execute any of the remaining Medici family who were still a threat. The plan failed because Lorenzo made the trip, but the younger intended victim, Giuliano Medici, excused himself because of illness.
But at the winter meetings in Rome, the 17 year old Raphael Riario (above), another of Sixtus' nephews, had engaged Lorenzo in a discussion about their shared passion for the arts. Although made a Cardinal the year before, Raphael was not yet ordained as a priest, and was tightly controlled by his mother Catherine, who rarely let him out of her sight. But this day, Raphael managed a private conversation with Lorenzo, and confided he had heard of the art collection the Medici kept hidden in their a villa in Fiesole, just outside of Florence. Raphael pointed out he would be in Florence in the spring, to deliver the Easter Mass in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (Church of Saint Mary of the Flowers). Could he impose on Lorenzo to show him the paintings? Charmed by the young man's innocence, and seeking to smooth things over with the boy's uncle, Lorenzo offered to not only to welcome Raphael into his home, but to throw him a banquet. In gratitude the boy spontaneously invited both Medici brothers to attend the Easter Mass as his personal guests.
And thus, almost by accident, the focus of the conspiracy shifted back to Florence, the Medici home court. And in the end, that would make all the difference.