For Florentines like Mona Niccolosa, the simple geometrical forms in green and white marble shared by San Salvatore and the Baptistry are further proof that both date to the early Roman Christians. The city’s first bishop, San Zanobi, brought Florence its first miracle – the sprouting elm tree was a sign of life triumphing over death, the central theme of Christian resurrection. From this column, Florentines could see all the main church sites of their civic religion – the baptistery where all Christians were initiated into the Church, the tower whose bells marking the hours for religious worship could be heard around the city, a Cathedral that was the biggest in the world and that a majority of the city’s believers could crowd in to at once for mass. These sites are all about Christians living together.

Mona Niccolosa’s darker memories crowd those same spaces. They are about Christians splitting apart in envy, greed, and violence. Her sons and the other conspirators planned to murder the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano in one of the holiest spaces in the city:  the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore as Mass was being celebrated on Sunday morning.  They chose the most holy moment of the mass, when the priest raised the host in a ritual of consecration, as the moment to raise their knives. They chose the most holy place – the altar rail where the brothers kneeled to receive the host. This was a place that the Pazzi brothers knew well:  every year as the priest raised the Easter host, a mechanical dove shot from above the altar along a wire to a cart loaded with fireworks which exploded in sparks and noise. For hundreds of years the ones in charge of this ritual unique to Florence had been none other than the Pazzi themselves – it was one of their special roles in the rituals of the city’s civic religion. The priest was in on the plot, a few bishops, and of course the Pope, Sixtus IV, too, though Mona Niccolosa likely didn’t know this. What she did know is that when the sparks finally cooled, it was her Pazzi sons who were dead.

Nicholas Terpstra


To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘Heart of the city’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further Reading

Heidi Chrétien, The Festival of San Giovanni: Imagery and Political Power in Renaissance Florence. Basel: Peter Lang, 1994.

Margaret Haines, Santa Maria del Fiore: The Cathedral and its Sculpture. Florence: Cadmo, 2001.

Megan Holmes, The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.