Family matters

The Medici Archives

Elena Brizio
October 16, 2008

...Count Nicola of Pitigliano had sexually assaulted his own daughter-in-law, wife of the Count's son, Alessandro ... and the family of the woman were planning to go to Pitigliano and take her back home. Moreover, Count Nicola just had a son, after three daughters, by his Jewish lover and has made a great feast of it, which was a big blow to Alessandro and his mother ... (Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Mediceo del Principato 1872 - February 1560)



Federico Barbolani da Montauto, then governor of Siena, sent this letter to the Florentine court. At the time of the missive, Siena had been under Florentine control for five years, annexed in 1555 after a long and devastating war that left many scars on the urban and rural populations. The Sienese had been extremely recalcitrant in accepting Cosimo I de' Medici's rule. Exacerbating the situation, Spanish (pro-Florence) and French (pro-Siena) troops were stationed in and around the walls of Siena. Not surprisingly, the Duke wanted a daily update, particularly information about dissent or social unrest.


Barbolani da Montauto's charge to govern Siena was, thus, a challenging one. Yet as this passage indicates, one family in particular added to the governor's burdensome task.


Pitigliano is in the Maremma territory, on the southeastern borders of the ancient Sienese state, close to the former papal territories. The Orsini family had ruled over this town since the thirteenth century. Count Nicola, who also served as high officer in the Florentine army, was a notoriously treacherous and violent man.


The count had married Livia in 1533, and Alessandro was their son. Marriages, especially among the nobility, were usually for economic, social and political benefit, but there were unspoken rules of behavior. Although noblemen's relationships with servants or concubines were condoned, flaunting such a relationship, as the feast to celebrate his illegitimate son's birth would suggest Nicola did, was not. (Their wives, on the other hand, risked serious consequences should they be caught with their lovers).


Moreover, religious mores of the time precluded Nicola's relationship with a non-Christian. Nicola's lover was probably a former servant of the Orsini family, and most likely, she was a member of the vast Jewish community that populated Pitigliano in the sixteenth century.


As governor, Barbolani da Montauto was faced with two serious issues. He had to address Count Nicola's crime: if proven guilty in raping his daughter-in-law, the count could be condemned to death or to the galleys, according to a particularly severe law, issued in December 1558, against violent crimes, especially those of a sexual nature. He also had to address Nicola's defiance of religious mores although Nicola claimed publicly that she had renounced her faith and had become a Christian).


Still other laws affected this family. As son and husband, Alessandro had the burden of defending the honor of two women, his mother and his wife, but he was legally under his father's power.


During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, women and children were under the potestas (legally speaking, the authority) of their father (or their brother, if the father was dead); and married women were under the potestas of their husband.


The children, whether male or female, were under the potestas of the father until his death. In a custom that went back to ancient Roman law, sons and daughters were not free from the father's potestas not even when they became of age, usually at 25 years. It took a legal act, emancipatio, to make a child, even an adult child, legally and economically independent from its father.


For Alessandro's wife, the potestas was a benefit. Her family was planning to go to Pitigliano to rescue her, thus honoring their duty to protect and defend a family member.


As for Alessandro? We learn in a report from the Venetian ambassador, where Nicola is described as a despicable man, that Alessandro asked Cosimo I to help assassinate his father.


When Nicola learned of this plot and of Alessandro's intentions to take over Pitigliano, he immediately imprisoned his son.



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