On April 24th, 1478 Giuliano de' Medici, brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was stabbed to death by Francesco de' Pazzi during high mass in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. His brother, Lorenzo, was also stabbed in the neck in what was an attempt at a double assassination sparked off by a new inheritance law. Lorenzo had been the primary target but a friend saw what was happening and threw himself in front of the intended victim. In doing so he was killed, but this gave time for Lorenzo to escape and barricade himself in with a young aide who was instructed to suck the wound, lest the knife had been poisoned.
An accomplice of the assassins galloped into the area shouting 'People and Liberty', the surrounding crowd replied with 'Ball!s', a reference to the six balls of the Medici house. Realising they lacked support the attackers fled towards the Santa Croce city gates, but the assassin and his accomplices were quickly arrested and hanged. The Archbishop of Pisa was thrown out of a window on a rope just after Francesco de' Pazzi, one of the main men in the conspiracy; he managed to turn and bite Francesco on the chest just prior to their dying. Others were lynched in the same way and when their bodies were finally lowered they were carved up into pieces. On top of this, any monks thought to be involved had their noses and ears cut off prior to hanging; the main hired assassin gave himself up, sign a confession and was beheaded.
It was made clear that the Pope would never forgive Lorenzo for the killing of an Archbishop, despite his participation in the planned assassinations. Even more than that, the Pope had supported the assassins so the failure of them to successfully kill Lorenzo meant only one thing, Florence would soon be at war.
The Tuscan reaction to the failure of the assassination was an interesting one. Though many Florentines were appalled at the treacherous act many others found it disgraceful for another reason; the conspiracy failed. The reasoning of the day was that if one was to develop such an elaborate plan, one ought to be efficient enough to carry it out successfully. This was simply the attitude of the day, of Leonardo's day.
While all of this excitement went on around him a young Leonardo da Vinci happily wandered the streets sketching the faces of alarmed and excited people. Just in his twenties, he was already successful and sought after by his patrons. He was also already gaining a strong reputation for being unreliable and having a restless curiosity, which stopped him getting down to work and dispersed his creative genius.
In the orgy of killing one man could not be located; he had managed to escape to Turkey where he considered himself safe from arrest, but the Signoria of Florence requested his extradition and the Sultan obliged. As a result, on December 29th, 1479, Bernado di Bandino Baroncelli and his wife were hung in a public ceremony. Leonardo drew this sketch of that event and in his typical mirror writing also added the following note:
"A tan-colored small cap. A doublet of black serge. A black jerkin, lined, and the collar covered with black and red-stippled velvet. A blue coat lined with fur of foxes breasts. Black hose, Bernado di Bandino Baroncelli."
The notes on the pen and ink drawing are obviously references for a painting, however there was no commission for this sketch and it is thought Leonardo may have been hard up and hoping to sell this later for a sum of forty florins; this never did eventuate.