Marriages and Alliances: Scandal and Intrigue

In the Medieval and Early-Modern periods, families gained and lost influence by marrying other influential families. While the Medici first rose to prominence as bankers, their skill in establishing useful alliances through marriage helped them realize their ambitions.

Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder (1389-1464), the first family member to effectively rule Florence, gained important noble ties and military backing by marrying Contessina de’ Bardi. Later on, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, continued to improve the Medici’s social standing by marring Eleanor of Toledo, daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. Being related by marriage to a Spanish viceroy also helped ensure that the king of Spain, who was then also the Holy Roman Emperor, would respect Florentine autonomy.

Nevertheless, many of these couples had far from happy endings. With the apparent exception of Cosimo I, Medici men had at least as many mistresses as wives. Perhaps the most infamous situation was that of Francesco I (1541-1587), who publicly flaunted his mistress, Bianca Cappello, after her husband’s murder and married her immediately after the sudden death of his own wife, Joanna of Austria. Francesco and Bianca’s own unexpected deaths gave rise to additional rumors of assassination. Such rumors, true or not, were staples of the Medici court.

Several paintings in Stibbert’s collection illustrate the Medici’s international successes and personal failures in the realm of matrimony. From Dianora di Toledo, a Spanish noblewoman murdered by her husband Pietro di Medici, to Violante of Bavaria, a German noblewoman who became governor of Siena following her husband Ferdinando de’ Medici’s death from syphilis, the following exhibition demonstrates the highs and lows of the Medici’s marital diplomacy.

Oil on wood panel, 1571, 116 x 86 cm

Portrait of
Dianora di Toledo (1553-1576)

Francesco Brina (1540-1586)

Born as Leonora Álvarez de Toledo, Dianora came to Florence when her aunt Eleonora di Toledo (Leonor de Toledo) married Cosimo I de’ Medici to secure an alliance between Florence and Spain (then also ruling the Holy Roman Empire).
She married her cousin Pietro de’ Medici, son of Cosimo I and Eleonora, in 1571.
They had one son in 1573, but in 1576 Pietro, who traveled often and had affairs of his own, grew jealous and strangled her with a towel at the Villa di Cafaggiolo.
Her son died a month later.

Portrait of
Henry III
of France (1551-1589)

Area of François Clouet (1515- 1572)

  • Oil on wood panel
  • 1570-75 ca.
  • 40 x 35.5 cm

Henry III of Valois was the son of Catherine de’ Medici and Henry II of France, and ruled France from 1574 until he was murdered in 1589. His mother, who died few months before him, greatly influenced his decisions as monarch, most of which concerned the French Wars of Religion.

Portrait of
Henry IV
of France (1553-1610)

French School of the 17th Century

  • Oil on canvas
  • 1600-1610 ca.
  • 108 x 86 cm

Henry first married Margaret of Valois, sister of Chalres IX and daughter of Catherine de’ Medici, in an attempt to reconcile French Catholics and Protestants.
That wedding occasioned the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, in 1572. He ascended to the throne in 1589 and annulled that marriage in 1599 after his mistress died.
He subsequently married Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici and Joanna of Austria.
Following Henry’s assassination in 1610, Marie acted as regent for their son for the next seven years.

Portrait of
Paolo Giordano II Orsini (1591-1656)

Ottavio Leoni (1578-1630)

  • Oil on canvas
  • 1623

This relative of the Medici’s namesake and grandfather, Paolo Giordano I Orsini, married Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Cosimo I and Eleonora di Toledo.
Her sudden death in 1576, a week after the murder of Dianora di Toledo fed rumors that her husband had assassinated her.

Portrait of
Maria Maddalena
of Austria (1589-1631)

Florentine School

  • Oil on canvas
  • 1610 ca.
  • cm 217 x 123

Daughter of Charles II of Austria and wife of Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Maddalena provided an important link between the Medici and Habsburg families.
The subject of this painting was identified through a multi-step process. It is virtually identical, in terms of face and posture, to another sold at Sotheby’s in 2010. However, in that painting, she held a small image of Saint Mary Magdalene in her left hand, thus identifying that saint as her namesake.

Portrait of
Maria Maddalena
of Austria (1589-1631)

Florentine School of the 17th Century

  • Oil on canvas
  • 1615 ca.

Maria Maddalena’s status as sister of the queen of Spain, Margaret of Austria, also helped the Medici smooth relations with the Spanish Habsburgs following prominent marriages with French royalty.

Portrait of
Vittoria della Rovere (1622-1694)

Justus Sustermans (1597-1681)

  • Oil on canvas
  • 1650 ca.
  • cm 64 x 50

Daughter of Claudia de’ Medici and granddaughter of Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Vittoria della Rovere’s marriage to her cousin Ferdinando II illustrates the network of familiar relations the Medici were developing.
As daughter of the Duke of Urbino, she also helped maintain an important local alliance for Florence.

Oil on canvas, 1695 ca., cm 130 x 96 cm

Portrait of
Violante Beatrice
of Bavaria

Niccolò Cassana (1659-1713)

As daughter of the Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria, her marriage to Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici was a strategic alliance within the Holy Roman Empire.
In spite of a loveless and childless marriage that ended in her husband’s death to syphilis before ascending to the throne, her brother-in-law, Giangastone de’ Medici appointed her as governor of Siena until her death.