At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Francesco I - Grand Duke of Tuscany

Florentine ruler at heart of Medici murder mystery


A portrait of Francesco I by Agnolo di Cosimo, the Florentine artist better known as Bronzino
A portrait of Francesco I by Agnolo di Cosimo,
the Florentine artist better known as Bronzino.
Francesco I, the Medici Grand Duke whose death at the age of 46 became the subject of a murder mystery still unsolved 430 years later, was born on this day in 1541 in Florence.

The second to be given the title Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco was the son of Cosimo I de' Medici, the first to hold the title, and Eleonor of Toledo.

Like his father, Francesco was often a despotic leader, but while Cosimo's purpose was to maintain Florence's independence, Francesco's loyalties were not so clear. He taxed his subjects heavily but diverted large sums to the empires of Austria and Spain.

He continued his father's patronage of the arts, supporting artists and building the Medici Theatre as well as founding the Accademia della Crusca and the Uffizi Gallery. He was also interested in chemistry and alchemy and spent many hours in his private laboratory.

It was his personal life that he is remembered for, beginning with an unhappy marriage to Joanna of Austria, youngest daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and Anne of Bohemia and Hungary.  Joanna was reportedly homesick for her native Austria, and Francesco was unfaithful from the start. Joanna died in 1578, at the age of 31.

Soon after Joanna's death, Francesco married his Venetian mistress, Bianca Cappello, who had already borne him a son, Antonio. Because of the quick remarriage following Joanna's sudden death, rumours spread that Francesco and Bianca had poisoned her, the atmosphere of suspicion not helped by reports that Francesco's younger brother Pietro had extricated himself from a similarly unhappy marriage by killing his wife.

Bianca Capello, as portrayed by the artist Allori
 Alessandro in a portrait now in the Pitti Palace
Francesco was besotted with Bianca, for whom he built and decorated the Villa di Pratolino in Vaglia, 12km north of Florence on the way to Bologna. But she not popular among Florentines.

They had no legitimate children, but after the death of Francesco's legitimate son Philip de' Medici, Antonio was proclaimed heir.

The two died 12 hours apart in October, 1587, at the Medici family villa in Poggio a Caiano.  The death certificates stated malaria as the cause, but it has been widely speculated since that the couple was poisoned, possibly by Francesco's brother, Ferdinando, who feared being excluded from the line of succession after Francesco announced Antonio as his heir.

Ferdinando had visited the couple at the villa shortly before they fell ill and when he heard of their plight returned immediately, taking charge of bulletins sent to the Holy See, which allegedly blamed his brother's illness on his poor eating habits and Bianca's on worry about her husband's condition.

Ferdinando also ordered the autopsies on the bodies, which led to the conclusion that malaria was to blame.

It was when the bodies were exhumed, two and a half centuries later in 1857, in order to be reburied in the basement of the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo that reports of unusually well preserved bodies gave rise to theories that they were poisoned with arsenic, which slows down the putrefaction process.

The bodies were exhumed again in 2005 by a team from the Universities of Florence and Pisa, following which the parasite plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria, was found in the skeletal remains of Francesco I, bolstering the credibility of the official documents.  Analysis of Francesco's facial hair detected low levels of arsenic, which seemed to rule out chronic exposure to the substance.

The Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, to which are attached the Medici family chapels
The Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, to which are
attached the Medici family chapels
When Bianca's remains were found in some broken terracotta jars buried under the crypt in the Church of Santa Maria a Bonistallo, near Francesco's villa, however, testing supported the theory of arsenic poisoning. The same findings were detected in organs from Francesco.

This suggested Francesco and Bianca were given small doses of arsenic for several days until it killed them, the doses too small and administered over a too short period of time to be detected in Francesco's facial hair.  The symptoms, such as fever, stomach-cramps and vomiting, could have been misinterpreted as an infection.

However, Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the Pathology Museum at the University of Pisa, said that it was much more likely that malaria was the cause of death.

Travel tip:

Bunelleschi's Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence is the site of two Medici Chapels, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. The Sagrestia Nuova, (New Sacristy), was designed by Michelangelo. The larger Cappella dei Principi, (Chapel of the Princes), though proposed in the 16th century, was not begun until the early 17th century.  The octagonal Cappella dei Principi, commissioned by Ferdinand I and notable for its 59m (194ft) dome, is the distinguishing feature of the Basilica when seen from a distance.

Look for hotels in Florence with Expedia and Hotels.com

The beautiful Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano
The beautiful Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano
Travel tip:

The Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano is one of the most famous Medici villas, located about 9km (six miles) south of Prato. Today it is a public building comprising the historic apartments where the Medici stayed and a museum. The villa is perhaps the best example of architecture commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent, in this case designed by Giuliano da Sangallo in around 1480.

Find the most popular hotels in Prato with TripAdvisor

More reading:


Cosimo de' Medici - the banker who founded the Medici dynasty

Gian Gastone - the last Medici to rule Florence

Why Cosimo II gave his support to Galileo

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