Isabella de’ Medici: death at the hands of her husband for alleged adultery

Isabella Romola de’ Medici, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici and his first wife, Eleanor of Toledo, died on the 16th of July 1576. She was Duchess of Bracciano by marriage.   Born in Florence, the girl was raised with her brothers and sisters in the Palazzo Vecchio and later in the Palazzo Pitti, which was purchased by the Medici family in 1549 and became their chief residence.  In summers and springs, Isabella and her siblings also spent time at the Medici ancestral Villa di Castello.

Wedding portrait of 16-year-old Isabella de’ Medici by Alessandro Allori

Beautiful, charming, and very smart, Isabella was said to be the favorite child of her father, Cosimo.  Raised and educated in accordance with the traditions of Renaissance humanism, Isabella treasured her independence and didn’t want to lose it.   Following her mother’s death and despite Cosimo’s second union with his mistress, Camilla Martelli, Isabella acted as first lady of the Florentine sophisticated court for a time, and it was when she first showed her interest in politics.  To strengthen the ties of the Medici family with the Roman House of Orsini, Cosimo arranged for his daughter to marry Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano from 1560.

Paolo Giordano Orsini in a group painting by Giovanni Maria Butteri, 1575

The wedding of Isabella and Paolo took place on the 3rd of September 1558.  After her marriage, Isabella remained in her father’s household and continued to shine like the brightest sun of the Florentine court.  Her husband resided mostly in Rome and his castle at Bracciano rather than with his wife; he participated in the Battle of Lepanto of 1571.  Still, from time to time Isabella and Paolo spent days together, and their marriage was definitely consummated.  Having suffered several miscarriages, Isabella eventually birthed two children: her daughter Francesca Eleonora, called Nora by her loving mother, was born in 1571 and eventually married her cousin, Alessandro Sforza, while her son, Virginio, born in 1572, inherited his father’s dukedom.

Isabella’s life changed dramatically when her beloved father passed away in 1574.  Her brother, Francesco de’ Medici, who was a year older than her, succeeded Cosimo as Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Married to Joanna of Austria who was constantly homesick for her native Austria and unloved by her husband, Francesco brought his Venetian mistress, Bianca Cappello, to the society, and Bianca began trying to play the role of the Florence’s first lady.  Her brother’s behavior must have displeased Isabella immeasurably, but she could not change  it.

Nevertheless, Isabella still kept her independence.  While Cosimo was still alive, he was concerned that his son-in-law had a reputation as a spendthrift and a rake in Rome, so he kept his daughter’s dowry of 50,000 scudi dowry in Florence, which provided Isabella with autonomy to a substantial degree.  This was atypical back then: wives obeyed their husbands, and their dowry became part of their spouses’ wealth upon marriage.  Paolo, who was obviously not prone to alter his eccentric lifestyle, must have been unhappy with the lack of Isabella’s dowry in his hands.

Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo by Alessandro Allori, c 1571

Cosimo’s death finally delivered Isabella into her husband’s clutches.  She outlived her father only by 2 years and is widely believed to have been murdered in 1576 by her own husband, perhaps with the knowledge of her own brother, Francesco.  The complicity of her husband and brother cannot be proved, but they benefited from her death.  Why could Paolo want his wife dead?  Free-spirited and accustomed to shine in the society, Isabella attracted the attention of Paolo’s cousin Troilo Orsini, and the rumor about their illicit love affair circulated quickly in Florence.   Troilo’s task was to look after Isabella while Paolo tended to his military duties.  Moreover, Paolo and Francesco were certainly interested in obtaining Isabella’s dowry that was still unavailable to them as long as she was alive.  Did these things lead to her tragic death?

We will never know the truth, but the odd circumstances of Isabella’s demise speak volumes.  Suddenly, Troilo was accused of murdering someone and had to escape to France, while Isabella was ordered by her husband to join him on a hunting holiday in July 1576.  Just a few days after her arrival, Isabella was discovered dead at the Medici villa in Cerreto Guidi.  Francesco and Paolo declared that she had passed away while washing her hair, which sounded rather strange to all contemporaries.  Then the story began to circulate around the city like wildfire that Isabella had been strangled by Paolo, her own husband, in the presence of several servants.

What made Isabella’s death more suspicious was the horrible demise of her cousin, Leonora, who had passed way in a similar ‘accident’ mere days before Isabella’s own demise.  In 1571, Isabella’s brother and Cosimo’s youngest son with Eleanor of Toledo, Pietro de’ Medici, married his first cousin – Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo, more often known as ‘Leonora’ or ‘Dianora’.  Enraged by her adultery, Pietro supposedly strangled his wife with a dog leash at the Villa Medici at Cafaggiolo on the 10th of July 1576.  Pietro’s spouse was part of Isabella’s inner circle and was an active patron of the arts like Isabella, and they could have both taken lovers.

On the 29th of July, the ambassador from the Duchy of Ferrara wrote to Alfonso d’Este:

“I advise Your Excellency of the announcement of the death of Lady Isabella; of which I heard as soon as I arrived in Bologna, [and] has displeased as many as had the Lady Leonora’s; both ladies were strangled, one at Cafaggiolo and the other at Cerreto. Lady Leonora was strangled on Tuesday night; having danced until two o’clock, and having gone to bed, she was surprised by Lord Pietro [with] a dog leash at her throat, and after much struggle to save herself, finally expired. And the same Lord Pietro bears the sign, having two fingers of his hand injured by [them being] bitten by the lady. And if he had not called for help two wretches from Romagna, who claim to have been summoned there precisely for this purpose, he would perhaps have fared worse. The poor lady, as far as we can understand, made a very strong defence, as was seen by the bed, which was found all convulsed, and by the voices which were heard by the entire household. As soon as she died, she was placed in a coffin prepared there for this event, and taken to Florence in a litter at six o’clock in the morning, led by those from the villa, and accompanied with eight white tapers [carried] by six brothers and four priests; she was interred as if she were a commoner.” 

The Medici villa in Cerreto Guidi near Florence, where Isabella was murdered

While Cosimo de’ Medici was alive, the behavior of Isabella and Dianora was tolerated.  But Francesco, who nevertheless himself paraded his mistress in front of the Florentine ducal court, was far less willing to tolerate complains of their husbands.  Most historians believe that Paolo murdered Isabella, while Dianora was killed by Pietro.  At the same time, some say that Isabella – but not Dianora – died of some natural causes, and that many enemies of the Medici family spread horrendous rumors about her passing.  Most likely, both of the women were murdered.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville