Florence is a city of stories. Every expanse of cobblestones at every street corner and corridor, building and tower has a history. TF staff has often wondered about the Renaissance building that houses our office, Palazzo Mondragone, located between via de’ Banchi and via del Giglio, near piazza Santa Maria Novella. It is here, in our very own office space, where a remarkable story of love, lust and intrigue became Renaissance Florence’s most gossiped affair. Margreta Moss takes us back in time to tell it.
Digging through history in a city as old and as important as Florence will inevitably reveal myriad secrets and stories. Palazzo Mondragone is no exception. The building was once the site of an elicit affair between one of the most important noblemen in Florence and a strikingly beautiful teenaged runaway from Venice.
In the 1560s, the palazzo was built and owned by the Marquis of Mondragone, Don Fabio Arazola, a Spanish courtier at the Medici court and councilor and confidant to Francesco, son of Grand Duke Cosimo I. When Francesco asked for his help in seducing a beautiful, destitute young woman, Mondragone seized the opportunity to advance his career and arranged a tryst at his own home.
The girl was Bianca Cappello, a 15-year-old Venetian beauty who had fallen madly in love with Pietro Bonaventuri, a young Florentine clerk who led her to believe he was a wealthy banker. Blinded by his false promises of an affluent and cosmopolitan lifestyle in Florence, as well as by his good looks, Bianca Cappello eloped to Florence with Bonaventuri. However, soon after they were married the truth of his terrible financial circumstances emerged, and she found herself trapped in her father-in-law’ s house, doing domestic chores and menial tasks. She could not return to her family in Venice because the government would have arrested her for eloping.
One fateful day, Francesco, the son of the grand duke, noticed her as she was cleaning the house of her husband’s family in the San Marco area. Entranced by her beauty, he was determined to discover her identity. That is when he confided in Mondragone, who devise the plan to help the smitten future duke. Mondragone persuaded his wife to invite Bianca and her mother-in-law to tea; when the marquess took her mother-in-law on a tour of the palazzo, Bianca found herself alone with Francesco. She begged him to help her escape from her miserable marital situation, and he was more than eager to oblige, even though he was already married to Johanna of Austria.
He gave Bianca jewels and money and she soon became his mistress. Bianca’s husband was murdered several years later, and after Johanna also died, Francesco married Bianca in secret, making her the grand duchess of Florence. The two died within days of each other in October 1587, deaths long attributed to malaria, but recent analyses suggests that Francesco was poisoned (see news item TF 47).
After assisting the duke’s amorous desires, Mondragone expected his rise to political power to be swift. But his ambitions were thwarted when his king, Philip II of Spain, fell into a territorial dispute with Grand Duke Cosimo I. When Mondragone sided with his king, Cosimo I banished him into exile, and he was forced to leave Florence and his palace behind.
Nevertheless, his presence remains through the imposing building he made, whose refined architectural elegance survives despite alteration and deterioration over the centuries. It is now divided into private apartments and retail space belonging to the department chain, Oviesse. It also houses the press office of The Florentine. The massive Renaissance staircase still echoes the soft footsteps of a beautiful young woman from Venice who became the talk of the town, and eventually its grand duchess.