The cost of a bella figura

The Medici Archives

Lisa Kaborycha
January 10, 2008

Francesco de’ Medici at the imperial court in Vienna


In 1565, Cosimo I de’Medici sent his son Francesco across the Alps on a very important mission: to meet his 17-year-old bride, Johanna of Austria. This marriage was crucial to Cosimo’s dynastic strategy, lending the Medici family the patina of nobility it needed to enter the ranks of royalty. The daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Johanna, was a Habsburg of impeccable bloodline and was an ideal match for Francesco. The fact that Francesco already had a long-term liaison with the Venetian Bianca Capello did not matter to Cosimo; this marriage could make or break the Medici clan and details such as his son’s emotional attachments could not stand in the way.


When Francesco set out on his trip north he brought with him a retinue of courtiers and a vast supply of precious gifts for his new in-laws. What the Medici brought to this union was cash, and lots of it, as well as a refined artistic sensibility that made Florence a watchword for good taste throughout Europe. While back at home his father was turning Florence upside down to ready the city for the arrival of the imperial bride, Francesco’s every gesture was calculated to impress upon the Habsburgs and the world at large the grandeur of the Medici and the suitability of this match.

In a letter written from Vienna, dated November 1, 1565, Francesco writes to his father, describing the progress of his journey thus far. Fil-ling five tightly written pages, the letter is unusual. Unlike similar correspondence, which was meant to be shared at court, where it was often read aloud, this one has an indication beside the address: ‘Read this yourself and tell no one the news contained inside it.’


I already told you of the extraordinary treatment I received in Munich from that most excellent lord  from there I arrived in Wasserburgh, provided by His Excellency with fifty coaches and carriages. From there I got on a boat and for all the rest of the journey I received so many salutes of artillery and other greetings that not only was I satisfied, but I remain much obliged to these people.


In this private communication, Francesco proudly tells his father about the pomp with which he was received in Munich, the prancing horses and gaily decorated carriages, the hunts and parties arranged in his honor. Apparently having been forewarned about the exuberant toasts his Teutonic in-laws would offer, Francesco lets his father know he has been careful not to drink too much at these festivities.


Last Monday the 29th I reached this city , hoping to arrive unexpectedly, avoiding a great fuss, but I did not entirely succeed because His Serene Highness the Archduke , having set out early for the dock, waited over two hours for me with a great assembly of peoples and horsesI was conducted by His Highness to the Hofburg Palace where I was tenderly embraced by His Imperial Majesty , and without even unpacking my bags he wished me to eat with him and the Archduke. I was treated with infinite kindness by one and the other


When he arrives in Vienna, Francesco is given the finest chambers and honored by a late-night visit from the Emperor Maximilian II. The two remain together for over two hours, chatting about weapons (although in what language they conversed is anybody’s guess). At a certain point Francesco brings out several fine porphyry statues as gifts to the Emperor. A self-satisfied Francesco describes Maximilian’s enthusiasm and greedy handling of the works of art.  Taking advantage of the moment, Francesco asks if his bride’s arrival could be delayed several days so he can make a trip to Prague. Still delightedly fondling his presents, the emperor gives his consent.

Francesco has made a splash at court with the many fine gifts he has brought, including an exquisite emerald for his bride. His musicians have suffused the Hoffburg Palace with the strains of Italian melody, charming the Austrian audience. To his father, the young man gloats that they have made a much better impression here than their rivals, the Este of Ferrara. At High Mass, Francesco, the descendent of bankers, sits with his royal in-laws in the imperial box. Things are going according to plan and nothing can keep the Medici from succeeding now.


Or almost nothing. Francesco informs his father that his spending has been even more lavish than intended and he is running short of money. Despite the fine jewels, works of art, and musical entertainment that Francesco has brought with him, the whole project can be undermined by a hint of financial difficulty on the part of the Florentine family. No amount of graceful manners or refined taste can expiate the cardinal sin of being without cash. Next week the bridal party will be passing through Trent, the young man writes; please have funds waiting there, for ‘there would be huge shame if we lacked money,’ he urges Cosimo.


Cosimo must have succeeded in getting money to Francesco, for the wedding plans went off without a hitch. The young Habsburg princess arrived in Florence in December, accompanied in splendor by her bridegroom Francesco. Cosimo had seen to repaving streets, attaching temporary facades to buildings, commissioning new statues and other works of art and Florence glittered that day. Johanna and her family were duly impressed. Several years later the title of Grand Duke was conferred on Cosimo and his descendants. The Medici had made it: they had entered the ranks of ancient nobility and guaranteed their dominance in Tuscany. And all they needed to do it was panache, that and plenty of cold hard cash.



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