11 July 2017

Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo

The shocking fate of a Spanish noblewoman

Eleonora, as depicted by the 16th century portrait painter Alessandro Allori
Leonora, as depicted by the 16th century
portrait painter Alessandro Allori
The beautiful wife of Don Pietro de' Medici, Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo, was strangled to death with a dog lead on this day in 1576 in a villa near Barberino di Mugello in Tuscany.

The murder was carried out by her husband, Pietro, but he was never brought to justice. His brother, Francesco, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, gave out as the official line that his sister-in-law had died as a result of an accident.

Eleonora, who was more often referred to as Leonora, was born in Florence in 1553, the daughter of Garcia Alvarez di Toledo and Vittoria d’Ascanio Colonna. Her father and mother were living in Florence at the time because Garcia was in charge of the castles of Valdichiano.

When her mother died a few months later, the baby, Leonora, was left in the care of her aunt, Eleonora, the Duchess of Florence, and her husband, the Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, who raised her, preparing her for a life at the Medici court.

After the Duchess, Eleonora, died, her daughter, Isabella, took over the supervision of the young Leonora.

A marriage was arranged between Leonora and Cosimo’s son and Isabella’s brother, Pietro, with the approval of King Philip II of Spain.

Alessandro Allori's portrait of what is thought to be Pietro de' Medici
Alessandro Allori's portrait of what is thought
to be Pietro de' Medici
The couple were married at Palazzo Vecchio in 1571 and it was reported that Pietro had to be forced to consummate the union. Leonora later gave birth to a son, Cosimo, but the marriage was not a great success. This was also the case with her mentor and sister-in-law, Isabella, who had been married off for political reasons to Paolo Giordano Orsini.

Isabella chose not to live at her husband’s castle, or in Rome, where Orsini conducted his political and amorous affairs, but remained in Florence at her own villa, cultivating an artistic salon and discreetly taking lovers.

Leonora was part of Isabella’s circle and followed her example in sponsoring the arts and charities and also in taking lovers.

Under Cosimo I de' Medici such behaviour was tolerated as long as discretion was maintained. But when he died and was succeeded by his son, Francesco, things changed. Although he had a mistress himself, Francesco was less tolerant than his father. Crucially, he was less willing to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of Isabella and Leonora and to ignore the complaints of their husbands.

However, neither woman realised the danger posed to them by the new regime.

On 11 July 1576 Pietro sent a note to his brother, the Grand Duke Francesco, saying that Leonora had died as the result of an accident.

Isabella suffered the same fate as Leonora
Isabella suffered the same fate as Leonora
Francesco passed on the news that she had been found dead in bed, having apparently suffocated.

But, in fact, Leonora’s death at the age of 23 was not an accident. She had been strangled by her own husband.

Six days later, Isabella was also strangled by her husband at a remote villa in Cerreto Guidi in Tuscany.

Word soon got out in Florence that both women had been murdered in cold blood by their husbands.

The Spanish were outraged at the treatment of Leonora and eventually Francesco admitted the truth to Philip II of Spain, on whose favour his title depended.

Pietro was never brought to justice for Leonora’s murder, despite the protests of her brother, Pedro Alvarez de Toledo y Colonna. Pietro was eventually exiled by Francesco and died in 1604, heavily in debt because of his gambling.

The Villa Medicea di Caffagiolo, outside
the Tuscan town of Barberino di Mugello
Travel tip:

The Villa Medicea di Caffagiolo, where Leonora was strangled, is near the Tuscan town of Barberino di Mugello, 25 kilometres north of Florence. The villa was reconstructed following the designs of the Renaissance architect Michelozzo in the 1450s and became a meeting place for many Renaissance intellectuals. Pietro had summoned his wife to the villa and strangled her with a dog leash after letters from Leonora’s lover had fallen into the hands of the Grand Duke, Francesco.

Travel tip:

Cerreto Guidi, where Isabella was strangled in a remote villa, is about 30 kilometres west of Florence. The Grand Duke, Francesco, announced that his sister’s death was an accident. The 16th century Medici villa is in the centre of the village. It is claimed that the ghost of Isabella still roams the villa seeking peace. The legend attracts many visitors who want to see the bedroom where the murder took place.

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