In The Pazzi Conspiracy, A Pope Ordered A Hit During An Easter Sunday Mass

In the history of the Catholic Church, popes haven't always followed their own rules. The Borgia family had orgies in the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI bought his way into the papacy. And dozens of popes were sexually active. As shocking as those stories might be, few sins rank as high as the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478.

In the 1470s, Pope Sixtus IV was part of a plot to murder the Medicis, Florence's most powerful family. The hitmen, including two priests, were ordered to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici during mass on Easter Sunday. Except the pope-backed Pazzi plot failed. Giuliano was murdered, but Lorenzo survived and instantly vowed revenge. He rounded up all the conspirators in Florence and executed them in grisly ways, and then he went to war with the Catholic Church.

Pope Sixtus IV made a huge miscalculation when he tried to unseat the Medici. The failed conspiracy started a massive war within the Catholic Church, with Lorenzo vowing not to rest until he avenged his brother's death. The history of the Pazzi plot is so intense that the conspiracy is featured in Assassin's Creed. 


  • The Assassination Took Place In Church On Easter Sunday
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Assassination Took Place In Church On Easter Sunday

    In 1478, Easter mass at Santa Maria del Fiore started just like any other year. All of Florence had gathered in the massive cathedral at the center of town, which was sometimes called the Duomo, after the massive dome on the cathedral that was still new. It was a stunning architectural achievement, the largest dome in the world when it was completed in 1436. The enormous bronze ball at the top had just been installed in 1472. 

    The two most powerful men in Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici and his younger brother Giuliano, were in the audience. In the middle of mass, assassins struck. They killed Giuliano but only managed to wound Lorenzo.

  • The Pope Was Involved In The Assassination For Political Reasons
    Photo: Pedro Berruguete / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Pope Was Involved In The Assassination For Political Reasons

    One of the men behind the Easter assassination attempt was Pope Sixtus IV. He became pope in 1471, and he made it his life goal to turn the papacy into a principality. That meant adding territory to the papal lands and clashing with his powerful neighbors, including the Medici in Florence.

    The Medici had gained their enormous wealth in part because of their relationship with the papacy. The Medici bank was the richest and most powerful bank in Europe. By the time Sixtus became pope, the Medici had been bankers to the papacy for decades. But Sixtus decided to change that. In 1476, he transferred the papal bank accounts to a rival Florentine family, the Pazzi. In part, Sixtus wanted to punish the Medici for not supporting his efforts to purchase the town of Imola – which the Medici wanted for themselves.

  • Pope Sixtus Worked With His Family Members To Carry Out The Plot
    Photo: Melozzo da Forlì / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pope Sixtus Worked With His Family Members To Carry Out The Plot

    The Pazzi plot was a family affair for Sixtus, who was known for his nepotism. In a fresco by Melozzo da Forli (pictured here), Sixtus is shown with his nephews, several of whom he made cardinals. Two of his close relatives were central in the Pazzi conspiracy: Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the son of Sixtus's neice, and Girolamo Riario, Sixtus's nephew. With the Medici out of the way, Sixtus would be able to expand the papal lands to the north and rid himself of a powerful rival ruler.

    There was only one problem: the Medici weren't as easy to kill as Sixtus had hoped. 

  • The Medici Were Rich And Powerful – But Also Vulnerable
    Photo: Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Medici Were Rich And Powerful – But Also Vulnerable

    Even in the modern era, the Medici are known for their wealth and their patronage of the arts. They controlled Florence during the Italian Renaissance, a rebirth of art and a period of intense innovation. The Medici funded many of the great artists of the era, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti, along with a number of important humanist scholars. So how did a family devoted to art and learning engender such hatred from the Pope and the Pazzi family?

    The Medici were rich and powerful, but their hold on Florence was shaky. They were not princes or dukes – in fact, in the 15th century, they didn't hold a title at all. Instead, they ruled the republic using rigged elections. In the 1460s, a revolt against Lorenzo's father nearly toppled the family's power. And rival families in Florence were a constant threat – including the Pazzi.

  • The Original Plan Wasn't To Kill The Brothers In A Church
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Original Plan Wasn't To Kill The Brothers In A Church

    The Pazzi wanted what the Medici already had – they wanted to be the de facto rulers of Europe's richest city. So they teamed up with Pope Sixtus IV to get rid of the Medici family permanently. In the 1470s, Lorenzo and Giuliano were still young, both in their 20s. Killing Lorenzo and Giuliano would clear the way for the Pazzi to take over in Florence, and Pope Sixtus would gain a new ally to his north. 

    Originally, the conspirators planned to kill the brothers at a luncheon. The Medici hosted a banquet after mass, and the murderers planned to strike after the meal. That is, they planned to until Giuliano announced he wouldn't attend the banquet. The Medici weren't making it easy to kill them; during mass it would have to be.

  • The Medici Retribution Was Swift And Severe
    Photo: Giuseppe Zocchi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Medici Retribution Was Swift And Severe

    After Lorenzo escaped with his life, he vowed revenge. To prove that the assassins had not killed him, Lorenzo appeared in the window of the Medici palace. The crowd began to chant "Palle! Palle! Palle!" – a direct translation would be "Balls! Balls! Balls!" The Medici supporters referred to the balls on the family's crest, which harkened back to the family's roots in medicine (they were said to be pills). 

    Lorenzo and his men stormed the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence's town hall, and immediately captured the conspirators. Some were thrown out of the highest windows of the palace. Supporters of the plot who managed to escape Florence were dragged back to the city to face their punishment.