Ferdinando I de’ Medici was born on the 30th of July 1549. He was the fifth son of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his first wife, Eleanor of Toledo. Ferdinando’s older brothers were: Francesco, Giovanni (died of malaria at the age of 18), Pietro (passed away in infancy), Garzia (died of malaria at the age of 15), and Antonio (passed away in infancy). Ferdinando also had another younger brother – Pietro, who survived into adulthood. Francesco was Duke Cosimo’s heir because of his seniority among the Medici male heirs.
Initially, Ferdinando was not expected to become the Grand Duke of Tuscany. His future could seem bleak to him: it was either a career in the church, or life on the allowance provided by his father as long as Cosimo was alive or then the allowance given him by his brother, Francesco, the next Grand Duke of Tuscany. It appears that Cosimo and Eleanor planned for Ferdinando to pursue an ecclesiastical career in the Roman Catholic Church because in 1562, in the same year when his mother and his two older brothers, Giovanni and Garcia, passed away of malaria, Ferdinando was made a Cardinal at the age of 14. Nonetheless, Ferdinando was never ordained into the priesthood, which later allowed him to return to worldly one and marry to beget heirs.
After the death of Cosimo de’ Medici on the 21st of April 1574, Francesco succeeded him as the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The state affairs were not new for him, for Cosimo suffered from gout in his last years and retired to one of the family villas, transferring the reins of the government to his eldest son. Upon his ascension, Francesco was already married to Joanna of Austria, the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and his wife, Anna of Bohemia and Hungary. The couple had no son, but already produced 5 daughters, 3 of whom died in infancy. After Cosimo’s death, Joanna had another daughter, Marie, who would become the Queen of France in the future, and a male heir, Filippo, whose birth was celebrated with pomp and splendor.
During all this time, Ferdinando lived in Rome, from time to time going to Florence to meet with his relatives. Francesco did not love Joanna and paraded his Venetian mistress in front of the ducal court – she was Bianca Cappello, who had abandoned her first husband to be with the Grand Duke (the man was later killed in the streets!). Ferdinando disapproved of his brother’s affair and sympathized with Joanna. At last, Joanna, always homesick in Florence that had never accepted her because of her Austrian birth and her arrogant bearing, fell down the stairs in the palace while being heavily pregnant. On the 10th of April 1578, Joanna birthed a premature son, and soon they both breathed their last. The rumor circulated about the possible complicity of her husband and his mistress in their deaths, and soon Ferdinando received a letter from his Florentine friends about it. We don’t know about Ferdinando’s emotions at the news of Joanna’s passing, but he must have been at least sad and very alarmed.
A few months after Joanna’s death, Francesco married his paramour in secrecy. In a year or so, their marriage was officially announced, much to the shock of the city’s populace and to Ferdinando’s utter dismay. Francesco had Bianca crowned Grand Duchess of Tuscany at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence on the 12th of June 1579. Moreover, Francesco also acknowledged their bastard son, Antonio, officially as his. Ferdinando is likely to have come to Florence to express his indignation to his brother regarding his bride, but to no avail. A tragedy struck soon: on the 29th of March 1582, the little Filippo, Francesco’s heir, suddenly died at the age of 4, which created even more rumors in the city in addition to the already existing horrendous gossip about the death of Grand Duchess Joanna.
Ferdinando followed the news from Florence. He was horrified or at least alarmed with Bianca’s possible complicity in the deaths of Joanna and Filippo. The modern medical investigation of Joanna’s remains shows that her demise had been caused by the difficult birth, and that she suffered from severe case of scoliosis and some other deformity. According to modern studies, little Filippo had hydrocephalus, or an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain: when his skull was opened, a glass of water came out. However, no one in the 16th century could know such things, and the behavior of Francesco and Bianca fueled the speculation that she was responsible for at least the boy’s death. Perhaps Ferdinando also believed that.
Regardless of anything, Bianca was Francesco’s wife from 1579 to 1587, but they did not have more children. Her position became secure after Francesco had legitimated their son and declared Antonio his heir apparent with the support of Philip II of Spain. Bianca was now mother of the heir to the ducal throne, and her position seemed cemented. This meant that if Francesco died, Bianca could become regent for her son, born in 1576, and, hence, rule for another 7-10 years. While in Rome, Ferdinando must have known everything, concerned about his own future.
In the eternal city, Ferdinando lived a quiet, but rich life. He founded the Villa Medici in Rome and purchased many precious artworks, which he later brought back to Florence with him. Among them there were the illustrious Medici lions: a pair of marble sculptures of lions, one of which was Roman made about the 2nd century AD, and the other a 16th-century pendant. Though a Cardinal, he was not a priest and did not have to live in celibacy, although it meant little in Rome, for even Popes were known to sire illegitimate children (Pope Paul III for example). Ferdinando’s life was more a secular one: he organized lavish feasts at his villa and could have affairs.
At the Villa Medici in Poggio a Caiano, both Francesco and Bianca passed away on the 19th and 20th of October 1587, respectively, under odd circumstances. The official cause of their demises was malaria, but the gossip spread that they were both poisoned on the orders of Ferdinando who, like the rest of the Florentines, loathed Bianca fiercely and hated the very idea of her son’s ascendancy to the ducal throne. Arriving in Florence from Rome, Ferdinando was a grief-stricken brother or played this role – we don’t know this. However, Ferdinando used the story of Bianca’s false pregnancy in 1576, claiming that Antonio was not Francesco and Bianca’s son, but a child of some servant girl. As the matter of Antonio’s possible accession was doubtful and frowned upon by the Florentines, Ferdinando repudiated his cardinalship and became the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the age of 38.
Ferdinando granted Antonio substantial property and instigated him to take the clerical habit of the Knights of Malta. That was a clever and crafty approach to the future of his possible rival: the clerical vows had to prevent the birth of any further legitimate heirs and rival claims to the ducal throne and the Medici wealth. At 18, Antonio joined the Knights of Malta, but he soon contracted syphilis, which nevertheless did not preclude him from siring three sons. They were legitimated by Pope Paul V and recognized by Grand Duke Cosimo II, Ferdinando’s eldest son. In about 2 years, Ferdinando married Christina of Lorraine, with whom he had 9 children – 8 of them survived into adulthood.
During Francesco’s reign Tuscany suffered from economic decline despite Francesco’s role in the creation of porcelain and stoneware manufactures. Burdened by Francesco’s despotic attitude to them and the heavy taxation the deceased duke had imposed upon them, the people welcomed the ascension of his younger brother. Ferdinando was Francesco’s opposite, being an intelligent and mild ruler who did not oppress his subjects and lowered taxes. Ferdinando ensured that Tuscany’s economy revived and expanded considerably. He was another Medici who earned substantial wealth through the Medici banks established across Europe. In this, Ferdinando was like his two ancestors – Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Giovanni’s son, Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder.
Although he was a Catholic, Ferdinando passed an edict of tolerance for Jews and heretics. He is also known for establishing the Medici Oriental Press (Typographia Medicea), which published many books in the Arabic script because he had a small dream about African empire that never came true. In 1608, Ferdinando organized and financed an expedition under the command of Captain Robert Thornton to northern Brazil, where he desired to create a colony. He also improved the Florentine harbor, stimulated irrigation projects, and strengthened the duchy’s fleet. His most illustrious cultural achievement was the introduction of opera to Europe, and for the wedding of his niece Marie de’ Medici, Francesco and Joanna’s daughter and Ferdinando’s niece, to King Henry IV of France in 1600, his court funded a lavish performance of Jacopo Peri’s opera ‘Euridice’.
In his international policy, Ferdinando’s main aim was to reestablish the independent status of Tuscany. During Francesco’s reign, the duchy had acted more like a vassal of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the new duke worked hard to eliminate the Spanish domination in Tuscany and supported Henry IV of France in his struggles against the Catholic League, later encouraging him to convert to Catholicism and persuading Pope Clement VIII to accept the conversion. Nevertheless, when the new French king did not appreciate the help from the Medici duke, Ferdinando’s relationship with him worsened. Ferdinando then supported Philip III of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in several campaigns, while keeping Tuscany independent. Ferdinando’s another achievement is that he obtained the formal investiture of Siena, which his father had subjugated and annexed.
Ferdinando ruled the duchy from 1587 to 1609. He died at the age of 59 in Florence, having been succeeded by his eldest son, Cosimo. By all accounts, Ferdinando was a popular ruler, and the people mourned for him. Did Ferdinando kill Francesco and Bianca? The graves of Francesco I and the other members of the Medici family were opened, their bodies exhumed, analyzed, and then placed back into the coffins. In 2006, toxicology experts from the University of Florence reported evidence of arsenic poisoning of Francesco and Bianca in a study published in the British Medical Journal. Yet, in 2010, the evidence of the parasite Plasmodium falciparum in Francesco’s remains was found, which causes malaria. As Bianca was buried in some unmarked grave at the behest of Ferdinando, her body cannot be examined. Whether they were poisoned with arsenic or not remains a mystery.
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Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville