Florence is world famous for its beauty. As “the Cradle of the Renaissance”, it’s been home to some of the greatest artists in western history, working under the patronage of medieval Europe’s most powerful banking families. They’ve left us an enviable artistic and architectural legacy. Aside from the countless artworks—Michelangelo’s “David”, Botticelli’s “Venus”—in the city of Florence itself the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Ponte Vecchio all pay physical testimony to the power and prestige of this once unrivalled city state. But Florence’s preened façade can be deceptive, for beneath it lies an ugly, bloody history.
It’s Easter Sunday 1478, and Lorenzo de’ Medici is making the short journey from his family palace to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore—known today as the Duomo—to celebrate High Mass. Lorenzo is an immensely powerful man. Charming, charismatic, and fiercely intelligent, he’s the head of the Medici family, a dynasty that’s enjoyed a remarkable rise in power and influence since the early 15th century to become Europe’s leading bankers.
But the Medici are much more than just bankers. They finance kings and popes (and will go on to produce three popes of their own) and patronise some of history’s greatest artistic geniuses, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, and—the less famous of the Ninja Turtles—Raphael. Politically, they’re also the de facto ruler of Florence despite the fact that, at least on the surface, the city-state is a democratic republic governed by representatives from a number of powerful families.
Lorenzo isn’t walking alone; doing so would be unthinkable for a man of his standing. With him is his handsome brother, Giuliano, his friend Bernardo Baroncelli and his contemporary and political rival, Francesco de’ Pazzi. Francesco comes from another prestigious family. The Pazzi are bankers, rivals to the Medici, one of the big political families waiting in the wings for their opportunity to loosen the Medici’s iron grip on the city.
They’ve already struck the first blow, taking over as financers to Pope Sixtus IV who has no love lost for the Medici. In fact, he’s recently written to the Pazzi family and their allies the Salviati, telling them that the demise of the Medici would be most beneficial to the papacy and giving his backing to a plot to remove Lorenzo and Giuliano “so long as there be no killing.”
Giuliano is struggling to keep up with his brother, hobbling behind him and his entourage on account of a recent, painful bout of sciatica. Francesco hangs back to wait for him, and as he catches up Francesco playfully droops his arm around him, giving his torso a squeeze and mocking him gently about his limp. To anybody looking on this looks innocent enough: banter between a couple of young aristocrats on their way to church. The reality is far more sinister; Francesco is checking to make sure Giuliano isn’t wearing any armour beneath his opulent garments.
Leaving the thousands of cheering Florentines outside in the Italian sun, Lorenzo and his group process into the cool, dark interior of the church. Exhausted from the exertion of the walk, Giuliano hangs back by the door. Lorenzo meanwhile makes his way up towards the High Altar to stand beside two monks, who Giuliano recognises as tutors to the Pazzi family. Everyone stands in solemn reverence as the choir finish chanting, waiting for the service to begin in earnest.