Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743) ought to be one of the most famous and popular Florentines of all times, for it was she who turned Florence into a cultural mecca. With a stroke of her pen, she bequeathed the Medici’s jewels, pictures, sculptures, manuscripts and buildings to the city of Florence. Yet she has been overlooked and neglected for more than three centuries.
Anna Maria’s father, Grand Duke Cosimo III, was a weak and indolent ruler. Educated by a fanatic theologian, Cosimo became a gloomy, religious fanatic. He married the frivolous Margherita Luisa d’Orleans, who hated both her husband and Tuscany. From this unhappy union, three children were born: Ferdinando in 1663, Anna Maria Luisa in 1667 and Giangastone in 1671. Margherita had tried to induce a miscarriage when pregnant with Anna Maria, by riding horseback at breakneck speed. She returned to France in 1675.
As a child, Anna Maria spent much time with her uncle, Cardinal Leopold de’ Medici, who taught her to love literature, art and music. By the age of 16 she had developed into a witty, attractive girl who drew and painted, loved music and had mastered Latin and most of the modern European languages. She was her father’s favorite child, and he wanted to arrange a great marriage for her. But her parents’ reputations had spread through the courts of Europe, and because of this she was refused by the princes of Spain and Portugal, and by Louis XIV for the Dauphin of France. On June 5, 16
91 she married the widower Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine, and went to live in Duesseldorf. Anna Maria was a devoted wife and mourned her husband when he died in 1716. A year later, she returned to Florence, bringing back many paintings that she had acquired in Germany. She was welcomed joyously by Cosimo, who had not seen her for 27 years.
Since none of his children had produced an heir, Cosimo tried to resolve the problem of succession to the Tuscan domain before his death in 1723, but without success. In 1731, the matter seemed to be settled to the satisfaction of the major powers of Europe. Even Giangastone was pleased with the choice of Don Carlos, the second son of Elizabeth Farnese and King Phillip V of Spain. The situation then changed, and Don Carlos received the kingdom of Naples and Two Sicilies to rule instead. The state of Lorraine went to France, and the Duke of Lorraine, to compensate him for his loss, was given Tuscany.
Giangastone’s conduct, which had always been deplorable, continued to degenerate rapidly. He reinforced himself for his rare public appearances by drinking heavily and then often behaved in a slovenly manner. Anna Maria persuaded him to repent shortly before he died in July 1737. He confessed, was given communion and granted absolution by the pope.
Three months later, Anna Maria and the Duke of Lorraine signed a pact by which the paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, jewels and all other precious possessions of the Medici were to be conserved as possessions of the State, never to be taken from Tuscany. They were to be used for public enjoyment and to attract foreigner visitors. Most of the works of art in the Uffizi, almost everything in the Pitti Palace, much of what is in the Bargello, the Laurentian Library and the Medici Chapels in the church of San Lorenzo (including Michelangelo’s statues) are only part of Anna Maria’s legacy.
For centuries most Florentines, historians and tourists have overlooked the lady who is responsible for this city’s incredible artistic patrimony. The only reminders of her existence were a few meters of street leading to the Uffizi along the Arno and a portrait on the ground floor of the Uffizi. Then, in 1945, the then mayor of Florence Gaetano Pieraccini, a great admirer of Anna Maria, launched a contest for a statue of her. Raffaello Salimbeni won, but he did not complete the statue until 1971. It was temporarily placed at the foot of a back staircase in the Pitti Palace, awaiting a decision about its permanent location. Finally the statue was placed at the base of the campanile of San Lorenzo (which Anna Maria had commissioned) and unveiled on February 18, 1995, the 252nd anniversary of her death. While this sounds like a suitable position, the truth of the matter is that the market stalls in the street literally hide the statue. Nor do the bicycles chained to the fence surrounding it or the trash-bags littering the ground add to the attraction of the site. Despite protests from the sculptor’s widow and a petition of 1,000 signatures gathered by the Association of Tourist Guides, the statue has not been moved.
An exhibition dedicated to Anna Maria runs from until April 15, 2007 in the Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace, where she lived, and in the Villa Quiete, where she stayed during the hottest months of summer. Hopefully, after this exhibition Anna Maria will have won the recognition she deserves.