Showing posts with label Medici. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Medici. Show all posts

29 February 2024

Alessandro Striggio - composer and diplomat

Medici musician who invented the madrigal comedy

The score of Striggio's best known work was missing for 281 years
The score of Striggio's best known
work was missing for 281 years
The Renaissance composer Alessandro Striggio, famous as the inventor of the madrigal comedy, once thought to be the forerunner of opera, died on this day in 1592 in Mantua (Mantova), the town of his birth.

Although there is no accurate record of his age, it is thought he was born in 1536 or 1537, which would have put him in his mid-50s at the time of his death. 

Striggio spent much of his career in the employment of the Medici family in Florence, for whom he also served as a diplomat, undertaking visits to Munich, Vienna and London among other places on their behalf. 

He produced his best work while working for the Medici, composing madrigals, dramatic music, and intermedi - musical interludes - to be played between acts in theatrical performances.

Striggio’s best known composition is his Il cicalamento delle donne al bucato e la caccia (The gossip of the women at the laundry),  an innovative piece that combined music and words to tell a story, without acting. This was an example of what became known as the madrigal comedy, comprising a series of 15 humorous madrigals that together tell a story in words and music.

Perhaps his greatest achievements, though, were his choral works, including his motet Ecce beatam lucem, a feat of polyphony that included 40 independent voices, and his still more impressive Mass, Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, which also featured 40 different voice parts and a final movement for 60 voices, which is thought to be the only piece of 60-part counterpoint in the history of Western Music.

Cosimo I de' Medici sent Striggio on a diplomatic mission to Vienna
Cosimo I de' Medici sent Striggio on
a diplomatic mission to Vienna
Although Striggio was born into an aristocratic family in Mantua, there is only sparse knowledge of his early life there. He possibly moved to Florence in his late teens or early 20s. He started work for Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence, on 1 March 1559 as a musician, eventually to replace Francesco Corteccia as the principal musician to the Medici court.

In the 1560s, he visited Venice and produced two books of madrigals influenced by the musical styles he encountered there.

Music was central to the Medici’s use of Striggio in a diplomatic role. Cosimo I craved the title of Archduke or Grand Duke, which within the hierarchy of the Holy Roman Empire was a rank below Emperor but a notch above Duke and equivalent to a King.

He ordered Striggio to travel to Vienna in the winter of 1566-67, sending his principal musician on a perilous journey through the Brenner Pass in order to meet Emperor Maximilian II and present Cosimo’s case for the Medici to be granted a royal title.

Striggio’s grand opus, Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, was to be part of the presentation, underlining Cosimo’s commitment to the Catholic faith. Striggio was also charged with convincing Maximilian II that the Medici could support him both financially and militarily.

Unfortunately, Striggio reached Vienna only to find he needed to journey a further 140km (87 miles) north to Brno, where Maximilian had removed himself for the winter months. He presented the Emperor with a copy of the Mass, although he had too few musicians or singers with him in Brno for the piece to be performed.

The English composer Thomas Tallis is said to have been inspired by Striggio
The English composer Thomas Tallis is
said to have been inspired by Striggio
Instead, as Striggio continued his travels, it was performed in full before the courts of Munich and Paris, to great acclaim, before Vienna.  The Medici were granted the right to be headed by a Grand Duke two years later but it took almost 10 years for it to be given approval by the Emperor, although Cosimo I went by the title from 1569 until his death in 1574.

Striggio went on to visit England, having much respect for the work of musicians in the royal court there. He is said to have met Queen Elizabeth I and the composer Thomas Tallis, who had served in the courts of four monarchs - Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, as well as Elizabeth I - and is considered one of England’s greatest composers, particularly of choral music. His own 40-voice motet, Spem in alium, is thought to have been inspired by his meeting with Striggio.

Striggio returned to Florence, where he became friends with Vincenzo Galilei, the lutenist and composer whose son was the astronomer and scientist, Galileo Galilei.

During the 1580s, Striggio began an association with the Este court in Ferrara, which at the time was at the forefront of musical composition in Italy. In 1586, he moved back to his home city, Mantua, although he would continue to compose music for the Medici at least until 1589.

Although the idea of Striggio’s madrigal comedy being the forerunner of opera is no longer widely held, the composer has a connection with the roots of opera in that his son, also called Alessandro, wrote the libretto of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, one of the earliest works to fit the conventional definition of an opera.

As a footnote, the score of Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno was declared lost in 1726 but was rediscovered in 2007 by a musicologist from the University of California, Berkeley in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, where it had resided for most of the intervening years, unnoticed because it had reportedly been recorded in an inventory of manuscripts as being a four-part Mass by a composer called Strusco.

The Ducal Palace is one of many highlights of the atmospheric city of Striggio's home city
The Ducal Palace is one of many highlights of
the atmospheric city of Striggio's home city
Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the southeast of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. In the Renaissance heart of Mantua is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna. The church was originally built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to Mantua to see a precious relic, an ampoule containing what were believed to be drops of Christ’s blood mixed with earth. This was claimed to have been collected at the site of his crucifixion by a Roman soldier.  In nearby Piazze delle Erbe is the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, another masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Its elegant facade and interior are adorned with beautiful artwork and sculptures.  In the same square, the Torre dell’Orologio Astronomico - the Astronomical Clock Tower - displays lunar cycles as well as the time. Installed in 1473, the clock has failed twice but was restored in 1989.

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Palazzo Vecchio was at one time Cosimo I's home
Palazzo Vecchio was at
one time Cosimo I's home
Travel tip:

Florence’s imposing Palazzo Vecchio, formerly Palazzo della Signoria, a cubical building of four storeys made of solid rusticated stonework, crowned with projecting crenellated battlements and a clock tower rising to 94m (308ft), became home of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici moved his official seat from the Medici palazzo in via Larga in May 1540. When Cosimo later removed to Palazzo Pitti, he officially renamed his former palace the Palazzo Vecchio, the "Old Palace", although the adjacent town square, the Piazza della Signoria, still bears the original name. Cosimo commissioned the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari to build an above-ground walkway, the Vasari corridor, from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. Cosimo I also moved the seat of government to the Uffizi, which translated literally, simply means ‘offices’. Today, of course, the Uffizi, is known the world over for its collection of art treasures.

Book your stay in Florence with

More reading:

Gonzaga court violinist Salomone Rossi, the leading Jewish musician of the Renaissance

Cosimo II de' Medici, patron of Galileo

Claudio Monteverdi, the Baroque composer who wrote the first real opera

Also on this day

1792: The birth of composer Gioachino Rossini

(Picture credit: Palazzo Vecchio by Geobia via Wikimedia Commons)

(Paintings: Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, Bronzino, Art Gallery of New South Wales)


7 October 2023

Michelozzo - architect and sculptor

Designs became a template for Renaissance palaces

A detail from a Fra Angelico painting is taken to be a depiction of Michelozzo
A detail from a Fra Angelico painting is
taken to be a depiction of Michelozzo 
The influential Florentine architect and sculptor Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi died on this day in 1472 in his home city.

Known sometimes as Michelozzi but more usually Michelozzo, he is most famous for the palace in the centre of Florence he built on behalf of one of his principal employers, Cosimo de’ Medici, the head of the Medici banking dynasty, for which he developed original design features that became a template for architects not only of the Renaissance era but in later years too.

He was similarly innovative in his work on the ruined convent of San Marco in Florence, also on behalf of Cosimo, which he completely rebuilt.

Such was the influence of these two buildings on many projects during one of the busiest periods of architectural development in Italy’s history that the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, as it became known to reflect its ownership by the Riccardi family after 1659, came to be called ‘the first Renaissance palace’ and San Marco ‘the first Renaissance church’.

His other notable works in Florence include the renovation of the Basilica of della Santissima Annunziata and some additions to the Basilica di Santa Croce, while outside the city he built or renovated a number of villas for the Medici family, including the Castello di Caffagiolo at Barberino di Mugello, the Villa del Trebbio at Scarperia and the Villa Medici at Fiesole.

Michelozzo also worked outside Italy, in the Greek islands, and notably in what is now Croatia, primarily on the city walls of Dubrovnik and Ston.

In his early career, he was apprenticed to Lorenzo Ghiberti, the goldsmith and sculptor, and worked closely with the classical sculptor, Donatello. 

Michelozzo's Palazzo Medici Riccardi set the standard for Renaissance palaces
Michelozzo's Palazzo Medici Riccardi set the
standard for Renaissance palaces
Michelozzo was born in around 1396. His father, Bartolomeo di Gherardo Borgognone, was a tailor of French origin who lived and worked in the Santa Croce neighbourhood. The family moved to the San Giovanni quarter, the heart of the city, and later established a family home in Via Larga - now Via Camillo Cavour - which Michelozzo kept after his parents died.

His first employment, at the age of about 14, is thought to have been as a die-engraver for the Florentine mint. He became apprenticed to Ghiberti, who is best known as the creator of two of the three sets of sculpted brass doors of the Florence Baptistry, one of which - the east doors - was dubbed the Doors of Paradise by Michelangelo. 

He collaborated with Donatello on several projects, including the sacristy of Santa Trinita and an open-air pulpit at the cathedral in Prato. He was responsible for the architectural frames of a number of funerary monuments sculpted by Donatello.

Cosimo de’ Medici worked with Filippo Brunelleschi, another pioneer of Renaissance architecture and the architect of the enormous brick dome of the Florence Duomo, but is said to have found Michelozzo more receptive to his wishes than the more temperamental Brunelleschi.

Such was Michelozzo’s loyalty to Cosimo than when the latter was exiled to Venice in the 1430s as a result of political rivalries in Florence, Michelozzo went with him.

Soon after Cosimo’s exile ended, Michelozzo began the rebuilding of the ruined monastery of San Marco, where his elegant library became the model for subsequent libraries throughout 15th-century Italy. He directed the reconstruction of the large complex of church buildings at Santissima Annunziata and temporarily succeeded Brunelleschi as architect for the Duomo after the latter died in 1446.

He began work on the Palazzo Medici in 1444. The palace, a short distance from Michelozzo’s own home in Via Larga, is characterised by an elevation consisting of three storeys of decreasing height, divided by horizontal string courses, the lowest storey finished in rustic masonry, the uppermost in highly refined stonework, the middle one somewhere in between. 

The walled old city of Dubrovnik with Michelozzo's cylindrical Fort Bokar guarding over the western harbour area
The walled old city of Dubrovnik with Michelozzo's cylindrical
Fort Bokar guarding over the western harbour area
With influences of classical Roman architecture and some of the principles Michelozzo learned from Brunelleschi, Palazzo Medici came to be seen as one of the finest examples of early Renaissance architecture, and a template to which future architects referred.

In addition to the Medici villas, Michelozzo worked on the restoration of the Palazzo Vecchio - originally the Palazzo della Signoria - and undertook a number of projects abroad, including a guest house in Jerusalem for the use of Florentine pilgrims.

In 1461, at the age of 65, Michelozzo was invited by the government of what was then the Republic of Ragusa - an independent maritime trading republic with ties to Venice - to work on the city walls of Dubrovnik and Ston, now part of Croatia.  His cylindrical Fort Bokar, which defended the western gate of Dubrovnik, was hailed as a masterpiece. 

Michelozzo might have remained there longer, but a dispute over his ideas for rebuilding the Rector's palace - the seat of the republic's government - after an explosion left it badly damaged led him to cut short his stay and return to Florence. 

With his wife, Francesca, who was 20 to his 45 when they were married, Michelozzo had seven children, two of whom, Niccolò and Bernardo, were educated by the Medici and grew up to occupy important positions in Medici households.

After his death, Michelozzo was buried at the monastery of San Marco.

Part of the beautiful frescoes by Gozzoli in the Magi Chapel at Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Part of the beautiful frescoes by Gozzoli in
the Magi Chapel at Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Travel tip:

For all its architectural significance, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which can be found on Via Camillo Cavour about halfway between San Marco and Piazza della Repubblica, has a relatively modest appearance from the outside, which is probably as a result of the laws in existence at the time governing public displays of wealth. It was completed in 1484 and remained a Medici property until it was sold to the Riccardi family in 1659, after which it was renovated and the magnificent gallery frescoed with the Apotheosis of the Medici, by Luca Giordano, was added. The palace was sold to the Tuscan state in 1814. Since 1874, the palace has been the seat of the provincial government of Florence and has housed a museum since 1972. As well as the gallery, the palace is also noted for the Magi Chapel, which was frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli and also contains an altarpiece by Filippo Lippi. Two statues by Donatello - a David in the courtyard and a Judith and Holofernes in the garden - are other notable works.

Piazza San Marco in Florence with the facade of the church of San Marco, part of the convent complex
Piazza San Marco in Florence with the facade of
the church of San Marco, part of the convent complex
Travel tip:

The Museo Nazionale di San Marco, which houses the world’s most extensive collection of works by Fra Angelico, the early Renaissance painter and Dominican friar, is an art museum housed in the monumental section of the mediaeval Dominican convent of San Marco, situated in Piazza San Marco. Situated in the oldest part of the building, which was modernised by Michelozzo between 1436 and 1446, it has been a museum since 1869. It also houses works by Fra Bartolomeo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Alesso Baldovinetti and Jacopo Vignali. Michelozzo’s library, on the first floor, was the first of the Renaissance to be opened to the public, representing the humanist ideal of the Florentines. 

Also on this day:

304: The execution of Santa Giustina of Padua

1468: The death of condottiero Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta

1675: The birth of Venetian portraitist Rosalba Carriera

1972: The birth of celebrity cook Gabriele Corcos


28 January 2023

Francesco de’ Pazzi - banker

Medici rival at heart of Pazzi Conspiracy

The moment at which Giuliano de' Medici is killed, imagined by 19th century painter Stefano Ussi.
The moment at which Giuliano de' Medici is killed,
imagined by 19th century painter Stefano Ussi
The banker Francesco de’ Pazzi, a central figure in the Pazzi Conspiracy that sought to overthrow the Medici family as the rulers of Florence, was born on this day in 1444.

De’ Pazzi killed Giuliano de’ Medici, stabbing him to death during mass at the Florence Duomo as the conspirators attempted to seize control.

But Giuliano’s brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent, with whom he was joint ruler, escaped with only minor wounds.

Simultaneously, other conspirators rode into the Piazza della Signoria declaring themselves the liberators of the city. But the people of Florence were loyal to the Medicis and attacked them.

Within hours, despite Lorenzo appealing for calm, an angry mob determined to exact revenge had hunted down and killed more than 30 conspirators or suspected conspirators, including Francesco.

One of nine children born to Antonio de’ Pazzi and Nicolosa, daughter of Alessandro degli Alessandri, Francesco was an important figure in the Pazzi banking business, having been appointed papal treasurer.

Sandro Botticelli's portrait of the ill-fated Giuliano de' Medici
Sandro Botticelli's portrait of the
ill-fated Giuliano de' Medici

This in itself made for a tense relationship between the Medici and the Pazzi, even though they were actually related thanks to the marriage of Guglielmo de' Pazzi and Bianca de' Medici, Lorenzo’s elder sister.

The administration of the papal finances was a coveted prize for any banking family and Pope Sixtus IV’s decision to take responsibility away from the Medici Bank in favour of the Pazzi antagonised Lorenzo in particular.

Sixtus IV, from a poor bacground originally, was determined to enrich both his own Della Rovere family and their cousins, the Riario family. He had designs on the rich Florentine territories for the benefit of his nephews, including the nobleman Girolamo Riario, and also to finance the expensive works undertaken by him in Rome.

The rift between Rome and the Medicis occurred when Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, changed his mind about selling the town of Imola, which occupied a strategic position on the trade route between Florence and Venice, to Lorenzo de’ Medici in favour of a deal with Sixtus IV, provided that Sixtus agreed to the marriage of his daughter, Caterina Sforza, to Girolamo Riario.

Lorenzo, as Sforza’s banker, refused to finance the deal, not wishing to see an extension of the papal states, at which Sixtus turned to the Pazzis and handed the contract for the papal treasury to them.

There were suspicions that the Pazzi Conspiracy was actually conceived in Rome but the Pazzi had reasons of their own to turn against the Medici, not least the decision of Lorenzo to introduce a law that prevented a considerable sum of money flowing into the Pazzi coffers with the death of Giovanni Borromei, the very wealthy father in law of Giovanni de’ Pazzi, another of Francesco’s brothers.

Da Vinci's drawing of Bandini's hanging
Da Vinci's drawing of
Bandini's hanging
Borromei’s fortune should have passed to Beatrice Borromei, Giovanni de’ Pazzi’s wife. But Lorenzo changed the law so that daughters could not inherit in the absence of any brothers, and that in those circumstances any legacy would pass instead to male cousins.

A further source of friction between Lorenzo and the Pazzi was his appointment of Lorenzo's brother-in-law Rinaldo Orsini as Archbishop of Florence in succession to the late Pietro Riario in 1474. The candidates overlooked included Francesco Salviati, a relative of the Pazzi family and friend of Francesco.

Whatever its origins, it is generally accepted that the chief conspirators in the Pazzi Conspiracy were Girolamo Riario, Francesco de' Pazzi and Francesco Salviati, the trio who attacked Lorenzo and Giuliano in the Florence duomo, the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, on the morning of April 26, 1478.

Giuliano was assassinated by Francesco de' Pazzi together with Bernardo Bandini di Baroncelli, suffering a sword wound to the head as well as being stabbed 19 times.  Lorenzo was attacked by two of Jacopo Pazzi's men, but managed to escape.

Salviati then took a number of Jacopo Pazzi's men to the Piazza della Signoria hoping to be received by the Florentine populace as liberators. Instead, they were attacked. Along with Francesco de' Pazzi and several others, Salviati was hanged from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio.

More than 30 suspected conspirators were caught and killed within hours of the attack and over the course of the next eight months some 50 more were captured and executed, including Bandini dei Baroncelli, who had escaped to Constantinople but was arrested and returned, to be hanged from a window of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo while still dressed in Turkish clothing. 

Jacopo de' Pazzi, head of the family, escaped from Florence but was caught and brought back to be tortured and then hanged from the Palazzo della Signoria next to the decomposing corpse of Salviati. 

All other members of the Pazzi family were banished from Florence, and their lands and property confiscated. The family name was erased from public registers, while all buildings and streets carrying it were renamed. Anyone named Pazzi had to take a new name; anyone married to a Pazzi was barred from public office.

The Palazzo Vecchio guards  over Piazza della Signoria
The Palazzo Vecchio guards 
over Piazza della Signoria
Travel tip:

The Piazza della Signoria has been the focal point of the city of Florence since the 14th century. Overlooked by the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, it was the scene of the triumphant return of the Medici family in 1530, three and a half decades after they had been driven from the city by the supporters of the fanatical priest, Girolamo Savonarola. The controversial cleric's famous bonfires of the vanities were built in the middle of the square.  The piazza della Signoria contains several important sculptures and statues, including a copy of Michelangelo's David - the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia - Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus, Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Fontana del Nettuno and Benvenuto Cellini’s statue of Perseo holding Medusa's head.

The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is the  dominant feature of the Florence skyline
The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is the 
dominant feature of the Florence skyline
Travel tip:

The Florence duomo - the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - with its enormous dome by Filippo Brunelleschi and campanile by Giotto, is one of Italy's most recognisable and most photographed sights, towering above the city and the dominant feature of almost every cityscape. From groundbreaking to consecration, the project took 140 years to complete and involved a series of architects. Arnolfo di Cambio, who also designed the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio, was the original architect.  When he died in 1410, 14 years after the first stone was laid, he was succeeded by Giotto, who himself died in 1337, after which his assistant Andrea Pisano took up the project.  Pisano died in 1348, as the Black Death swept Europe, and a succession of architects followed, culminating in Brunelleschi, who won a competition to build the dome, which remains the largest brick-built dome ever constructed.

Also on this day:

1453: The birth of Renaissance beauty Simonetta Vespucci

1608: The birth of physiologist and physicist Giovanni Alfonso Borelli

1813: The birth of scientist Paolo Gorini

1969: The birth of world champion swimmer Giorgio Lamberti

1978: The birth of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon


27 September 2020

Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo de' Medici, painted between 1565 and 1569
Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo de'
Medici, painted between 1565 and 1569
Today is the date Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici dynasty, celebrated his birthday.

Cosimo and his twin brother, Damiano, were born to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri in April 1389, but Damiano survived for only a short time.

The twins were named after the saints Cosmas and Damian, whose feast day in those days was celebrated on 27 September. Cosimo later decided to celebrate his birthday on 27 September, his ‘name day’, rather than on the actual date of his birth.

Cosimo’s father, who was the founder of the Medici Bank, came from a wealthy family and after making even more money he married well, his wife coming from an ancient Florentine family. A supporter of the arts in Florence, Giovanni was one of the financial backers for the magnificent doors of the Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti, although they were not completed until after his death.

By the time his father died, Cosimo was 40 and had become a rich banker himself, which gave him great power. He had also become a patron of the arts, learning and architecture.

The Abizzi family, who ruled Florence, feared his power and also coveted his wealth so they had Cosimo arrested on the capital charge of having tried to raise himself up higher than others.

Brunelleschi's huge dome of Florence Cathedral, which Cosimo supported
Brunelleschi's huge dome of Florence
Cathedral, which Cosimo supported
But Cosimo was able to use his money to buy back his life and then later his freedom, before he went into exile for a year.

When he returned to Florence he became the de facto ruler of the city and banned the Abizzi family for ever. He became Europe’s richest banker and a great art patron, supporting Fra Angelico, Donatello, Ghiberti and many others.

He encouraged Filippo Brunelleschi to complete his great dome for Florence’s cathedral and ordered the construction of the Medici Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Croce.

He established the importance of the Medici family, who were to rule Florence for hundreds of years to come.

As he became older, Cosimo became badly affected by gout and he died in 1464 at the age of 75 at Careggi, where he had been born.

He was succeeded by his son Piero, who was to father Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the most famous and admired of the Medici.

The Florentines awarded Cosimo the title Pater Patriae - Father of the Fatherland - an honour once awarded to Cicero, and they had it carved upon his tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo in the city.

The Villa Medici at Careggi, outside Florence, where Cosimo's life began and ended
The Villa Medici at Careggi, outside Florence,
where Cosimo's life began and ended
Travel tip:

Cosimo was born and also died at the Villa Medici at Careggi in the hills above Florence, which is the oldest of the Medici villas. After his father died, Cosimo had it remodelled by Michelozzo, who designed a walled garden overlooked by the upper loggias of the villa. The property was bought by an Englishman, Francis Sloane, in 1848, who added exotic plants and palms to the gardens. The villa now belongs to Regione Toscane and is in the process of being restored.

Luigi Pampaloni's statue of
Bunelleschi in Piazza del Duomo
Travel tip:

Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral or Duomo of Florence, dominates the city with its enormous dome by Brunelleschi, which Cosimo had encouraged him to design. The largest dome of its time, it was built without scaffolding and given an inner shell to provide a platform for the timbers that support the outer shell. The architect died in 1446 before it was completed, but a statue of Brunelleschi was erected in Piazza del Duomo and he still looks up thoughtfully towards his greatest achievement, the dome that would forever define Florence and remains to this day the largest masonry dome in the world.

Also on this day:

1871: The birth of author and Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda

1966: The birth of singer-songwriter Jovanotti

1979: The death on Capri of singer and actress Gracie Fields


29 May 2020

Virginia de’ Medici – noblewoman

Duchess was driven mad by husband’s infidelity

Virginia de' Medici married into the House of Este, gaining wealth and power
Virginia de' Medici married into the House
of Este, gaining wealth and power
Virginia de’ Medici, who for a time ruled the duchy of Modena and Reggio, was born on this day in 1568 in Florence.

She protected the autonomy of the city of Modena while her husband was away, despite plots against her, and she was considered to have been a clever and far-sighted ruler.

Virginia was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and his mistress, Camilla Martelli.

Her paternal grandparents were Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and his wife Maria Salviati, who was the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her maternal grandparents were Antonio Martelli and Fiammetta Soderini, who were both members of important families in Florence.

In 1570, Cosimo I contracted a morganatic marriage with his mistress, Camilla, on the advice of Pope Pius V, which allowed him to legitimise his daughter.

Virginia lived with her parents at the Villa di Castello during the summer and in Pisa in the winter.

Cosimo I’s older children resented his second marriage and after his death in 1574 they imprisoned Camilla in a convent.

Cesare d'Este became Virginia's husband in an arranged marriage in 1586
Cesare d'Este became Virginia's husband in
an arranged marriage in 1586
Virginia’s older brothers negotiated a marriage for her with a member of the Sforza family and when she was 13 she was betrothed to Francesco Sforza, Count of Santa Fiora.

The marriage did not take place because Sforza chose an ecclesiastical career and eventually became a Cardinal.

They then arranged a marriage for her with a member of the Este family and in 1586 Virginia married Cesare d’Este, the grandson of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara and son of Alfonso, Marquess of Montecchio. 

A play was written and performed to celebrate this event in Florence and the poet, Torquato Tasso, who was living in Ferrara, dedicated a Cantata to the newly married couple.

When the couple arrived in Ferrara, they lived in the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which was given to them by Cardinal Luigi d’Este, Cesare’s uncle.  A year later, Cesare’s father died and Virginia became Marchioness Consort of Montecchio after her husband inherited the title.

After Duke Alfonso II died in 1597 without issue, Cesare became the head of the House of Este and Virginia became Duchess Consort of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio and was given a wealth of other titles to do with territories owned by the Este family, some of which were in France.

Their rule over Ferrara did not last long as Pope Clement VII decided not to recognise Cesare’s succession. The Duchy of Ferrara was officially abolished and returned to the Papal States and Cesare and his family had to move to Modena. In 1601 he was also stripped of all his domains and titles in France.

The church of San Vincenzo in Modena, where Virginia is buried
The church of San Vincenzo in
Modena, where Virginia is buried
Virginia bore ten children for Cesare and acted as regent for him while he was away in Reggio. She stopped the attempts of the Podestà and Judge of Modena to seize control in his absence.

But she began to have unpredictable fits of anger and was thought to have been driven mad by knowing that her husband was often unfaithful to her. Her Jesuit confessor claimed she was possessed by the devil and tried to exorcise her demons.

It was later thought her mental illness was caused by having been married against her will and that it was worsened by her husband’s infidelity.

After Virginia’s death in 1615 in Modena at the age of 46 there were rumours that she had been poisoned by her husband but this was never proved. She was buried in the Este family crypt in the church of San Vincenzo in Modena.

The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which was a gift to Virginia and Cesare from Cesare's uncle, Cardinal Luigi d'Este
The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which was a gift to
Virginia and Cesare from Cesare's uncle, Cardinal Luigi d'Este
Travel tip:

Virginia and Cesare’s first home together was the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. The palace, which is in Corso Ercole I d’Este, takes its name from the 8500 pointed diamond shaped stones that stud the façade, diamonds being an emblem of the Este family. It was designed by Biagio Rossetti and completed in 1503. The palace now houses the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Ferrara on its first floor, where you can also see the 16th century apartments inhabited by Virginia de’ Medici, three rooms that overlook Corso Biagio Rossetti. The art gallery is open from 10.00 to 17.30 Tuesday to Sunday.

The Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, which houses much of  the Este inheritance Cesare and Virginia took to Modena
The Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, which houses some of
the Este inheritance Cesare and Virginia took to Modena
Travel tip:

Modena is a city on the south side of the Po Valley in the Emilia-Romagna region, known for its car industry and for producing balsamic vinegar. Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena. When Cesare and Virginia had to relocate from Ferrara to Modena, they tried to take with them as much of the Este inheritance as possible, including cases full of rare and precious objects. These now form part of the Este family collection on display in the Gallerie Estensi, on the upper floor of the Palazzo dei Musei in Largo Porta Sant’Agostino in Modena. The galleries are open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday. 

Also on this day:

1926: The birth in Florence of UK television personality Katie Boyle

1931: The execution of anarchist Michele Schirru

2013: The death of actress and writer Franca Rame


31 August 2019

Isabella de’ Medici – noblewoman

Tuscan beauty killed by her husband

Isabella Romola de' Medici: a portrait painted by Alessandro Allori, at the Uffizi Gallery
Isabella Romola de' Medici: a portrait painted by
Alessandro Allori owned by the Uffizi Gallery
Isabella Romola de’ Medici, the daughter of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1542 in Florence.

She was said to have been beautiful, charming, educated and talented and was the favourite child of her father, Cosimo I de’ Medici.

But she died at the age of 33, believed to have been murdered by the husband her family had chosen for her to marry.

While Isabella was growing up she lived first in Palazzo Vecchio and later in Palazzo Pitti in Florence with her brothers and sisters. Her brother, Francesco, who was a year older than her, eventually succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Tuscany.

The Medici children were educated by tutors in classics, languages and the arts and Isabella particularly loved music.

When Isabella was 11 she was betrothed to 12-year-old Paolo Giordano Orsini, heir to the Duchy of Bracciano in Tuscany, because her father wanted to secure the southern border of Tuscany and his relationship with the Orsini family.

Five years later, when Isabella was 16, they were married at the Medici country estate, Villa di Castello.

The only known painting of Paolo Giordano Orsini, Isabella's husband
The only known painting of Paolo
Giordano Orsini, Isabella's husband
Cosimo decided to keep his daughter and her substantial dowry at home with him in Florence, while Paolo continued to live a lavish lifestyle in Rome. This gave Isabella greater freedom and control over her life than most women had at the time.

After the death of her mother, Eleonora di Toledo, Isabella took on her role of first lady of Florence, showing an aptitude for politics.

She suffered several miscarriages and was childless until her late 20s when she bore Paolo a daughter in 1571 and a son in 1572.

After Paolo’s cousin, Troilo Orsini, was charged with looking after Isabella while Paolo was away on military duties, rumours began to circulate about the nature of their relationship. Troilo fled to France after being accused of murder and Isabella was summoned by her husband to join him on a hunting holiday.

She was given no choice and had to leave Florence to be with him in July 1576. Within a few days of her arrival, Isabella was found dead at the Medici villa in Cerreto Guidi. The official version was that her death happened while she was washing her hair, but the story leaked out that she was strangled by her husband in the presence of several servants.

Her death occurred just a few days after her cousin, Leonora, had died in a similar ‘accident.’ She had been married to Cosimo’s son, Pietro, and so was also Isabella’s sister in law as well as a cousin. Leonora had been part of Isabella’s circle and had followed her example in sponsoring the arts and taking a lover.

Isabella's father, Cosimo I de' Medici, who arranged for her to marry Orsini
Isabella's father, Cosimo I de' Medici, who
arranged for her to marry Orsini
While Cosimo I de’ Medici had been alive their behaviour had been tolerated, but once Francesco became Grand Duke he was less willing to condone it, despite having a mistress himself, and felt he could not ignore the complaints of their husbands.

Most historians believe Paolo killed Isabella because she was having an affair with his cousin, Troilo, but another theory is that she died of natural causes but that enemies of the Medici family had spread rumours that she was murdered.

In order to keep in favour with the King of Spain, Francesco eventually had to admit the truth about Leonora’s death and exile his brother, Pietro.

The Palazzo Vecchio was
Isabella's home as a child
Travel tip:

Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, where Isabella lived as a child, was built in the 14th century as a government building in Piazza della Signoria, an L-shaped square in the centre of the city where important events and public meetings were held. Isabella’s father, Cosimo I, had the interior of Palazzo Vecchio redecorated and also adopted Palazzo Pitti as another residence for his family. He had a gallery over Ponte Vecchio built to enable them to move easily from one palace to another.

An 18th century depiction of the Medici villa at the Tuscan town of Cerreto Guidi, south of Florence
An 18th century depiction of the Medici villa at the
Tuscan town of Cerreto Guidi, south of Florence
Travel tip:

Isabella’s death occurred at a villa commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in Cerreto Guidi, a small town to the south of Florence. It was built around 1556 as a hunting residence and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other Medici villas. The design is attributed to Bernardo Buontalenti. The villa is in Via Ponti Medicei and now houses the Historical Museum of Hunting, which has a collection of hunting and shooting equipment dating from the 17th to the 19th century.

More reading:

An unsolved murder mystery: the death of Francesco I de' Medici

The shocking fate of Eleonora Garcia di Toledo

The banker who founded the Medici dynasty

Also on this day:

1834: The birth of Amilcare Ponchielli, opera composer

1900: The birth of Gino Lucetti, an anarchist who tried to kill Mussolini

1907: The birth of Altiero Spinelli, the man who invented the EU


7 February 2019

Vittoria delle Rovere – Grand Duchess of Tuscany

Bride who brought the treasures of Urbino to Florence

Vittoria della Rovere, a portrait by the Flemish painter Justus Sustermans, circa 1639
Vittoria della Rovere, a portrait by the Flemish
painter Justus Sustermans, circa 1639
Vittoria della Rovere, who became Grand Duchess of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1622 in the Ducal Palace of Urbino.

Her marriage to Ferdinando II de’ Medici was to bring a wealth of treasures to the Medici family, which can still be seen today in the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Vittoria was the only child of Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, the son of the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria. Her mother was Claudia de’ Medici, a sister of Cosimo II de’ Medici.

As a child it was expected that Vittoria would one day inherit the Duchy of Urbino, but Pope Urban VIII convinced Francesco Maria to leave it to the Papacy and the Duchy was eventually annexed to the Papal States.

Instead, at the age of nine, Vittoria received the Duchies of Rovere and Montefeltro and an art collection.

Vittoria had been betrothed to her Medici cousin, Ferdinando, since the age of one and was sent by her mother to be brought up at the Tuscan court.

Vittoria and her husband, Ferdinando II de' Medici,  also by Sustermans, probably painter in around 1660
Vittoria and her husband, Ferdinando II de' Medici,
also by Sustermans, probably painter in around 1660
The marriage was arranged by Ferdinando’s grandmother, Christina of Lorraine, who had been acting as joint regent of the Duchy with Ferdinando’s mother, Maria Maddalena of Austria. Even after Ferdinando II reached his majority in 1628, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina remained the power behind the throne until her death eight years later.

The wedding between Vittoria and Ferdinando took place in 1633, when she was just 11 years old. Her inheritance was included in her dowry which was offered to the Medici family and her art collection became the property of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

Vittoria was educated in a convent and the marriage was not consummated until six years later. Vittoria had two sons who both died soon after birth, but in 1642 gave birth to Cosimo de’ Medici, who was styled Grand Prince of Tuscany.

Shortly after the birth of Cosimo, Vittoria is said to have caught her husband in bed with a page and the couple became estranged.

It was not until 1659 that they were reconciled, after which Vittoria gave birth to their last child, Francesco Maria.

The Villa del Poggio Imperiale, as depicted by the 18th century Florentine printmaker Giuseppe Zocchi
The Villa del Poggio Imperiale, as depicted by the 18th
century Florentine printmaker Giuseppe Zocchi
Ferdinando II died in 1670 and was succeeded by his eldest son, who became Cosimo III.

Vittoria vied with her daughter-in-law, Marguerite Louise d’Orleans, for power, but Cosimo took his mother’s side and assigned to her the day-to-day administration of Tuscany. She was formally admitted into the Grand Duke’s Consulta or Privy Council.

Eventually Cosimo III and Marguerite agreed to separate on condition that Marguerite went to live at the Abbey Saint Pierre de Montmartre in Paris and Vittoria was made guardian of her three grandchildren.

In later life Vittoria spent time living in the Villa del Poggio Imperiale in Arcetri to the south of Florence, to which she transferred some of her art collection. She died at Pisa in 1694 at the age of 72 and was buried at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Her titles of Rovere and Montefeltro became extinct when her grandson, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, died in 1737 without an heir, ending the Medici line. Vittoria’s only granddaughter, Electress Palatine Anna Maria Luisa, who had married Elector Johann Wilhelm II, willed the contents of the Medici properties to the Tuscan state in 1743, ensuring Vittoria’s inheritance and the art works collected by the Medici for nearly three centuries remained in Florence.

The Ducal Palace at Urbino is thought to have been completed by the High Renaissance architect Donato Bramante
The Ducal Palace at Urbino is thought to have been completed
by the High Renaissance architect Donato Bramante
Travel tip:

Urbino, where Vittoria was born, is inland from the Adriatic resort of Pesaro, in the Marche region. It is a majestic city on a steep hill and was once a centre of learning and culture, known not just in Italy but also in its glory days throughout Europe. The Ducal Palace, a Renaissance building made famous by The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione, is one of the most important monuments in Italy and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.

The Palazzo Pitti in Florence, as seen from the Giardini Boboli behind the palace, was Vittoria's home
The Palazzo Pitti in Florence, as seen from the Giardini
Boboli behind the palace, was Vittoria's home
Travel tip:

Palazzo Pitti, where Vittoria lived as Grand Duchess of Tuscany, was originally built for the banker, Luca Pitti, in 1457 in the centre of Florence. He wanted to outshine the Medici family, but they later bought it from his bankrupt heirs and made it their main residence in 1550. Today visitors can look round the richly decorated rooms and see treasures from the Medici collections. The Palatine Gallery contains 16th and 17th century paintings, including works by Raphael. The Treasury, which was once known as the Silver Museum, displays Medici household treasures, such as silver tableware, stone vases and precious jewellery.

More reading:

Gian Gastone de' Medici - the last Medici to rule Florence

Why Cosimo II de' Medici sponsored and supported Galileo Galilei

The life of Claudia de' Medici, Vittoria's mother

Also on this day:

1497: Savonarola lights his Bonfire of the Vanities

1909: The birth of Amedeo Guillet, the last army office to lead a charge against the British

1941: The birth of '60s pop star Little Tony

(Picture credits: Ducal Palace by Zyance; Palazzo Pitti by Stefan Bauer via Wikimedia Commons)


29 November 2018

Agostino Chigi - banker and arts patron

Nobleman from Siena became one of Europe’s richest men

A Roman coin bearing the image of Agostino Chigi, who was one of the 16th century's richest bankers
A Roman coin bearing the image of Agostino Chigi,
who was one of the 16th century's richest bankers
The banker Agostino Chigi, who was a major sponsor of artists during the Renaissance, was born on this day in 1466 in Siena.

At its height, Chigi’s banking house in Rome was the biggest financial institution in Europe, employing up to 20,000 people, with branches throughout Italy and abroad, as far apart as London and Cairo.

Chigi invested a good deal of his wealth in supporting the arts, notably providing financial backing to almost all the main figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma (Giovanni Bazzi) and Raphael.

Perugino painted The Chigi Altarpiece, dated at around 1506-1507, which hangs in the Chigi family chapel in the church of Sant'Agostino in Siena. 

Chigi’s significant legacy to Rome was to have built a chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Pace, another - his mortuary chapel, the Chigi Chapel - in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and the superb suburban villa in Trastevere, on the banks of the Tiber, which since 1579 has been known as the Villa Farnesina. 

The altarpiece painted by Perugino for Agostino Chigi in Siena
The altarpiece painted by Perugino
for Agostino Chigi in Siena
Agostino Chigi was the son of the prominent Sienese banker Mariano Chigi, from an ancient and illustrious Tuscan family. He moved to Rome around 1487, taking with him a rich fund of capital.

He grew the wealth of his own bank by lending considerable sums to Pope Alexander VI and others, and by diversifying from regular banking practice by buying monopoly control of salt mining in the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples, as well as that of alum, a mineral used in the textile industry.

After the death of the Borgia pope Alexander VI and his short-lived Sienese successor Pius III Piccolomini, Chigi helped Pope Julius II, in return for which he became treasurer and notary of the Apostolic Camera.  Agostino even accompanied Julius in the field in his military campaigns and went to Venice on his behalf to buy Venetian support for the papal forces in the War of the League of Cambrai.

Work began on his magnificent palace in Trastevere in 1506. Chigi took the unusual step of commissioning an untried pupil of Bramante, Baldassare Peruzzi, to design and oversee the construction of the villa, although he may have been helped Giuliano da Sangallo, the favored architect of Lorenzo de' Medici.

Raphael's fresco The Triumph of Galatea. in the loggia at the Villa Farnesina
Raphael's fresco The Triumph of Galatea.
in the loggia at the Villa Farnesina
His design differed from that of the typical urban palazzo, which tended to be rectangular, with an enclosed courtyard. This villa, intended as an airy summer pavilion, had a U-shaped plan with a five-bay loggia between the arms, facing north, which was the main entrance.

The best known element of the sumptuous decorations are Raphael's frescoes on the ground floor, both in the loggia depicting the classical and secular myths of Cupid and Psyche, and in the east-facing loggia, depicting The Triumph of Galatea. 

This was a mythological scene from an intended series inspired by the Stanze per la giostra of the Florentine poet Angelo Poliziano. It shows the near-naked sea nymph Galatea on a shell-shaped chariot drawn by two dolphins, surrounded by other sea creatures.

It has been noted that Raphael’s Galatea bore similarities to the courtesan, Imperia Cognati, who was Agostino Chigi's lover and is said to have posed for Raphael on more than one occasion. The art historian and Raphael's near-contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, noted, however, that Raphael had said that Galatea was the product of his imagination, an idealised beauty.

It was at this villa that Chigi held sumptuous banquets. He was recognised as the richest man in Rome but was said to have affected a contempt of money by throwing silver dishes into the Tiber at the end of the parties, although it is thought his servants were on hand to collect them in nets draped under the windows.

The villa was called the Viridario in Chigi's time. It became the property of the Farnese family in 1577, more than a half-century after his death.

The Palazzo Chigi, the current official residence of Italian prime ministers, was bought by Fabio Chigi, related to Agostino as a descendent of his father’s brother, shortly after he became Pope Alexander VII in 1655.

The northern aspect of the Villa Farnesina, which was  Agostino Chigi's summer palace in Rome
The northern aspect of the Villa Farnesina, which was
Agostino Chigi's summer palace in Rome
Travel tip:

The Villa Farnesina can be found on Via della Lungara in the Trastevere district of Rome.  After the Farnese family, the villa belonged to the Bourbons of Naples and in 1861 to the Spanish Ambassador in Rome, Bermudez de Castro, Duke of Ripalta. Today, it is owned by the Italian State and accommodates the Accademia dei Lincei, a long-standing academy of sciences. The main rooms of the villa, including the Loggia, are open to visitors from 9am to 2pm on Monday to Saturday, and on every second Sunday of the month from 9am to 5pm. For more details, visit

The Palazzo Chigi in Rome was built originally for the  Aldobrandini family before passing to the Chigi family in 1659
The Palazzo Chigi in Rome was built originally for the
Aldobrandini family before passing to the Chigi family in 1659
Travel tip:

The 16th-century Palazzo Chigi, which overlooks the Piazza Colonna and the Via del Corso in Rome, was begun in 1562 by Giacomo della Porta and completed by Carlo Maderno in 1580 for the Aldobrandini family. It was in the ownership of the Chigi family, who had it remodelled by Felice della Greca and Giovan Battista Contini, from 1659 until the 19th century. It became the residence of the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Italy in 1878 before being bought by the Italian state in 1916, when it became the home of the Minister for Colonial Affairs. Later it was the official residence of the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and in 1961 became the official meeting place of Council of Ministers, whose president is the head of the Italian government - the prime minister - and can now use the palace as his official residence.

More reading:

Raphael: The precocious genius from Urbino

How the courtesan Imperia Cognati became a 16th century celebrity

Pope Alexander VI - the scheming Borgia pope

Also on this day:

1463: The birth of antiquities collector Andrea della Valle

1797: The birth of composer Donizetti

1850: The birth of Agostino Richelmy, the cardinal who fought with Garibaldi