The Pazzi conspiracy, which resulted in the assassination of Guiliano de’ Medici and the attack on his elder brother Lorenzo at the same time, took place during High Mass in Florence’s Duomo on Sunday, April 26, 1478.
The classical scholar and poet Angelo Ambrogini, commonly known by his nickname Poliziano, was standing close to Lorenzo de’ Medici when the attack happened and helped rescue him from his assailants, two priests named Antonio Maffei and Stefano de Bagnone. Just months after the event Poliziano, who was part of the Medici household, published a commentary on the conspiracy, Pactianae Coniurationis Commentarium. It is likely that this account was the source for the assassination narrative portrayed in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Poliziano is the figure on the left side of the painting shown with his head turned to the viewer, Botticelli’s method of acknowledging the poet’s contribution to the work.
Two other members of the assassination team assigned to deal with Giuliano had earlier persuaded him to attend the Mass at the Duomo – he had not be inclined to do so as he was recovering from an illness. Both men, Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, were known to Giuliano and accompanied him on the way to the cathedral. As they did so, Francesco de’ Pazzi placed his arms around Giuliano suggesting that the “golden boy”, as he was known, had grown fat during his illness. In reality Francesco de’ Pazzi was checking if Giuliano was wearing armour under his clothes. He wasn’t.
So in Botticelli’s painting we see Giuliano being embraced by his assassin, seemingly in an act friendship, but in fact an act of betrayal akin to the kiss Judas gave to Jesus in Gethsemane.
Standing next to Francesco is Bernardo Baroncelli, his left hand gripping the concealed hilt of the sword used to cleave Giuliano’s skull. Baroncelli’s right hand appears to point towards the Virgin and Child. It’s an illusion. His hand is directed towards the two people next in line, the priest Antonio Maffei, and in front of him, Giuliano’s brother Lorenzeo. The figure immediately behind Baroncelli and to the left of Maffei is Stefano Bagnone, the other priest designated to assassinate Lorenzo. As it was, the priests failed in their mission and Baroncelli gave chase to Lorenzo to try and finish him off. The ‘Magnifico’ had been wounded in the neck but managed to reach safety and refuge behind the heavy doors of the sacristy which were then locked before Baroncelli could reach him.
A close inspection of Maffei sees his right arm raised and the hand pointing to his neck collar. The collar is shaped as a blade – signifying that in his attempt to end Lorenzo’s life with a cut to the throat, Maffei had put his own neck at risk. The collar now becomes a noose placed around Maffei’s neck. Both priests were captured, castrated and then hanged.
Lorenzo had first thwarted Maffei when his attacker had grabbed his shoulder in an attempt to turn him. In doing so Lorenzo managed to partly protect himself by wrapping his cloak around his arm as a shield. This is shown in the painting.
Giuliano was not so fortunate. He was killed in a ferocius assault carried out by Francesco de’ Pazzi and was stabbed 19 times, just four less than his nameake Julius Caesar when he was assassinated by senators disatisfied with his plans for power and kingship. So fierce was Francesco’s attack on Giulio that he actually stabbed his own leg in the process, which may explain the red colour of his hose.
Baroncelli escaped justice in the short term after he managed to make his way to Constantinople. However, he was recognised and brought back in chains to Florence by Antonio de Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo, and hanged on December 29, 1479. Present at the time of Baronelli’s execution was Leonardo da Vinci who made a drawing of the hanging man, noting his style of clothes and their colours. Part of this drawing is utilised in Botticelli’s painting, and was probably a late addition. Baronelli’s hanging head appears behind the head of Poliziano. Seen as a skull it serves as a reminder that it was Baronelli who cleaved the skull of Giuliano with his sword. The likeness of Poliziano to Giuliano, even the style and colour of their clothes, is also a pointer to the descriptive notes Leonardo made alongside his sketch. Observe also the reference to the rope, a vertical line which has been emphasised as part the column in the background.
The reference to the Leonardo sketch implies that Botticelli completed the painting after the date Baronelli was hanged. It may also suggest a line (the rope) had been drawn under the whole unfortunate episode and the completed painting itself was ready to hang and be put on display!
There are other Leonardo references to be found in Botticelli’s painting, but more on this in my next post.