Alchemy and a ducal mistress

Alchemy and a ducal mistress

Francesco de’ Medici, a prince of the Medici, eldest son and heir to Cosimo I, should have had been born with the golden apple of fortune clutched firmly in his hands. What went wrong? Why did he end his life loathed and feared by the people of Florence, amid

Thu 08 May 2014 12:00 AM

Francesco de’ Medici, a prince of the Medici, eldest son and heir to Cosimo I, should have had been born with the golden apple of fortune clutched firmly in his hands. What went wrong? Why did he end his life loathed and feared by the people of Florence, amid whispers he had been poisoned by his own brother?


Born on March 25, 1541, Francesco was welcomed into the world with great rejoicing, for up to that point the Medici had been distinctly short of legitimate heirs. He was raised and educated with the greatest of care, but, even so, in letters and documents of the day Francesco is universally described as melancholy, introverted and obsessed with alchemy. One letter Duke Cosimo wrote to Francesco expressed concern for his disrespect and ingratitude toward his mother. Other letters hint that Francesco believed his parents loved him less than they did his younger brothers and sister, the outgoing and gregarious Cardinal Giovanni, the stalwart Garzia with his hopes for a military career, and the glamorous Isabella, the ‘star of the house of Medici.’ All three came to tragic ends, and, in Isabella’s case particularly, Francesco’s vengeance played a sinister part.


Dark, brooding, ruthless and extravagant even as a young man, Francesco retired to laboratories in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Casino di San Marco and other palaces. Although it had little to do with ruling wisely, his work was not entirely impractical: among more esoteric alchemical experiments, he was the first European to successfully reproduce Chinese-style porcelain, called ‘Medici porcelain.’ His tiny golden studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio (dismantled after his death but since has been partially reconstructed—one has to imagine the cabinets and laboratory equipment that were probably crammed inside) gives an idea of how Francesco must have escaped into a secret world of his own. The cabinet paintings, which hid natural curiosities and alchemical minerals, also show Francesco’s obsession with alchemy.


One of the paintings in the studiolo, Il Laboratorio dell’Alchimista by Giovanni Stradano, shows a master alchemist seated, wearing his academic gown, cap and spectacles, surrounded by workmen who are doing the actual work of alchemy. In the lower right corner, wearing a plain doublet and hose, his sleeves rolled up as he stirs a concoction under the alchemist’s direction, is a workman clearly painted to represent Francesco de’ Medici. It may be how Francesco saw himself, in his secret heart.


In 1565, Francesco married Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s youngest daughter Joanna, in Florence called Giovanna of Austria. Connecting themselves by marriage, and ultimately by blood, with the imperial Habsburgs brought enormous prestige to the Medici. Unfortunately at more or less the same time—sources vary—Francesco met the woman he would be obsessed with just as he was obsessed with alchemy: Bianca Cappello.


A Venetian noblewoman who had disgraced herself by eloping with a handsome bank clerk, Bianca was more than happy to recoup some of her social standing by becoming Francesco’s mistress. When Giovanna of Austria died after twelve and a half sad and secluded years of marriage—somewhat mysteriously, with various stories told, including a fall while pregnant with her eighth child—Francesco was still infatuated enough to marry Bianca almost immediately, in secret. After a year had passed, he produced a lavish public wedding and had Bianca crowned grand duchess. The people of Florence were outraged, and Francesco’s younger brother Ferdinando, now a cardinal, hated Bianca Cappello as bitterly as everyone else did. Did this hatred ultimately extend itself to Francesco? No one knows for certain.


Around mid-October 1587, Francesco and Bianca died on the same day at the Medici villa in Poggio a Caiano. Ferdinando was present, and despite his holy orders, immediately took steps to claim the grand ducal crown for himself. Stories of poison swirled as Francesco was entombed at the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Bianca Cappello’s body was bundled off unceremoniously to some uncertain location, possibly the crypt in the church of Santa Maria a Bonistallo, near Poggio a Caiano. Grand duchess she may have been in life, thanks to Francesco’s obsession; in death she is lost in an unmarked grave.


As part of the Medici Project, many of the tombs of the Medici have recently been opened and their remains examined with modern biomedical techniques. The cause of Francesco’s death remains uncertain. The official report indicated he died of tertian fever (malaria). While tests run in the present day show in Francesco’s bone tissue the presence of the parasite that causes malaria, they also show toxic concentrations of arsenic, which may have been poison, may have been introduced as part of the embalming process, or may have accumulated in his system over Francesco’s years of alchemical experiments. These two findings need not be exclusive of each other: Francesco could well have suffered a severe case of malaria in the final weeks of his life and been poisoned as well.


Francesco de’ Medici, Prince and Grand Duke of Florence, had two obsessions: alchemy and Bianca Cappello. He hid himself away in his laboratories, spent money improvidently and, according to the Ferrarese ambassador, whiled away his life playing ‘like children together’ with his hated mistress. In the end, poison or no poison, the Florentines welcomed Ferdinando de’ Medici, released from his cardinal’s vows, as the new grand duke.

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