Captain Giulio Caccini was Master of Music and conductor of the palace orchestra, and when he had a favourable opportunity he confided to his master what he had seen—doubtless he considered himself well on towards the receipt of a reward for his mean services.
Francesco was furious: he might, as Sovereign, have his love passages with whom he willed—although be it said, truly, he had one and only one love, Bianca Cappello Buonaventuri—but he could not tolerate any amours between a princess of his house and a subaltern of his guard.
Captain Bernardino was ordered to be brought back to Florence immediately, and, after a stormy interview with the Grand Duke, he was consigned to the condemned-criminal dungeon of the Bargello.
The same night the prisoner's cell was entered by a Frate—a confessor, who acquainted him that he had been sentenced to death! Expostulation was vain, and his asseverations of innocence and promises of submission to the Grand Duke's will were rudely interrupted by the appearance of the headsman! Forced upon his knees, the unhappy young officer mumbled out his confession, and then the executioner, passing a stout cord about his throat, strangled him—struggling and crying out piteously for mercy!
When Antinorio was dead, Francesco was informed, and, sending for Eleanora, he told her what had become of her second lover, and warned her that a like fate might easily be hers if Don Piero was made acquainted with the intrigue—surely a fell prophecy of coming tragedy! Piero, too, was sent for to the palace, and again reprimanded for his evil life and for his cruel desertion of his charming young wife. He took his brother's words in an entirely wrong sense, abused him soundly for his interference, and left his presence in a violent passion.
At once he caused an intimation to be made to the Princess that he wished to see her about a matter which concerned them both intimately, and required her to meet him out at the Villa di Cafaggiuolo. It was the 20th of July, in the year 1576, that Eleanora received her husband's commands—just ten days after the brutal murder of her lover—during the course of which she gave way to uncontrolled grief. This summons she knew presaged dire consequences to herself, and she had no friend to seek for consolation and advice. The Grand Duke was out of the question, and Duchess Isabella d'Orsini, who had proved herself no friend of good omen, was in a plight very much like her own!
No, she had to fight the battle of her life and death alone, this girl of twenty-three. She replied that she was quite prepared to meet Piero, but she asked for a short delay. She spent it in weeping by the cradle of her little son, Cosimo, and arranging her worldly affairs—she was quite prepared for the worst.
Leaving Florence in the middle of a hot summer's day, the course to Cafaggiuolo was trying to her horses—one indeed fell and died on the way—an evil omen for poor Eleanora! As night was coming on she reached the villa, more dead than alive with fright, and accompanied only by two faithful ladies of her household. To their surprise the house appeared to be deserted: there were no lights in the windows, and no one seemed to be about.
The great doors were wide open, and with much trepidation the Princess mounted the marble steps. The door of every room also was open and the arras pulled aside, but nowhere could she see or hear her husband. Very uncanny everything felt, the silence was almost suffocating, and the darkness threw weird shadows athwart her and her companions.
At the entrance of the room, which she deemed to be Piero's—they had never cohabited there, or indeed anywhere, she knew not where he slept—Eleanora paused, affrighted. She had heard a rustle! she had seen something! it was a hand held beyond the arras!—and there was a poignard within its grasp!
E'er she could cry out or take a step backwards, a sudden, savage blow struck her breast—she fell!—stabbed to death! The hand was the hand of Piero de' Medici!
Eleanora was dead! Her life's blood crimsoned, in a gory stream, the marble lintel, and Piero gazed at the victim of his desertion, lust, and hate—he was mad!
Kneeling upon his knees in the hellish darkness, he tried to stanch that ruddy stream. Then he laved his hands in her hot blood and conveyed some to his raging lips! Reason presently asserted herself; and, throwing himself prostrate along the floor, he banged his head, thereupon calling out in a frenzy of remorse for mercy for his deed!
"God of Heaven," he pleaded, "judge between my wife and me—I vow that I will do penance for my deed, and never wed again."
The short summer's night early gave place to the dawn—not rosy that sad morning, but overcast—gloom was in everything. Piero was still praying by his dead wife's side when the tramp of footsteps upon the gravel outside the house fell upon his ears. Swiftly he ran and closed the entrance-doors, and then calling in a creature of his—a base-born medico—he ordered him to make, there and then, an autopsy of the corpse, and report according to his express instructions.
"Death from heart failure and the rupture of an artery," such ran the medical certificate of death! Miserable Eleanora di Piero de' Medici was buried ceremoniously in the family vault at San Lorenzo, and Piero made a full confession to his brother, the Grand Duke.
Francesco counselled him to leave Florence at once, and seek a temporary home at the Court of Madrid, where he might inform his kinsman by marriage—the King of Spain—of the truth about Eleanora's death. It was reported at the time that Piero gained possession of Eleanora's child, Cosimo, and took him away with him from Florence; but what became of the unfortunate little fellow no one ever knew—probably he went home to his mother in Paradise just to be out of the way!
Don Piero was appointed by King Philip to a command in the war with Portugal, but, whilst he distinguished himself by bravery and ability during the campaign, on his return to Madrid he began the evil life he had left behind in Florence. The religiously disposed courtiers were shocked and outraged by his enormities, and, at last, the King requested his unwelcome visitor to go back to Tuscany.
The Grand Duke very unwillingly allowed Piero to settle once more in Florence. His house in the Via Larga—it had been occupied by the scapegrace assassin, Lorenzino—again was a nursery of immorality, as well as the headquarters of the enemies of his brother. Piero became the ally of the scheming Cardinal Ferdinando, but his depraved and evil life was to the end given over to the basest uses of human nature, and he died miserably, as he well deserved, in 1604, having outlived his second wife—Beatrice, daughter of the Spanish Duke of Meneses—two years. Of legitimate offspring he left none, but there survived him eight natural children by two Spanish nuns in the grand ducal convent of the Santa Assunta delle Murate.
* * * * *
After the death of Maria, his eldest daughter, Duke Cosimo centred his paternal affection in his second daughter, Isabella Romola. She was born in 1542, just a year younger than his eldest son, Francesco Maria. Her Spanish name endeared her especially to the Duchess Eleanora, who built many "Castelli en Espana" for her child.
The young Princess was a bonnie, precocious little girl. At her christening it was said, greatly to his embarrassment, she kissed the ascetic bishop who held her at the font; this was taken as an omen of her success in the service of Prince Cupid! Brought up with her two sisters and her brothers, Francesco and Giovanni, she very early gave evidence of charming and peculiar talent.
Merry as a bird and playful as a kitten, the young girl was singing, singing the livelong day, and dancing with the utmost grace and freedom. She greatly astonished her parents by her musical gifts and by her talent as an improvvisatrice. She composed, when only ten years of age, some really excellent canzone and, more than this, she set them to her own tunes for the lute and pipe, and arranged a very graceful ballet.
At Court, Isabella was now known as "Bianca la Seconda," her attainments and her person recalling those of Bianca, "the tall daughter" of Piero and Lucrezia de' Medici. She had, as well, a remarkable taste for languages: she rivalled her sister Maria in Latin, which she wrote and spoke with ease. Spanish seemed to come to her naturally, greatly to the delight of her mother the Duchess, and French she acquired with similar success.
With her facile pen she could design and draw what she willed, with as great freedom as she applied to musical notation. Indeed, there seemed to be no art in which she could not distinguish herself, and she received encouragement from all the most famous artists of her father's Court. One of her panegyrists has written thus of Princess Isabella: "Suffice it to say, that she was esteemed by all—strangers as well as those about her—a perfect casket of virtue and knowledge. She was greatly beloved, not only by her parents, but by the whole of the people of Florence."
Added to her mental accomplishments, which developed with her physical growth, the Princess exhibited all the charm of a beautiful face and graceful figure, and, when she reached the ripe age,—for Florence,—of twelve, she was the most lovely and attractive young girl in Italy. Reports of her beauty and talent were current in all the Courts of Europe, and many princely fathers of eligible sons made inquiries about her fortune; whilst many an amorous young Prince found his way to Florence, to judge for himself of the charms of the fair young girl.
Duke Cosimo was not the man to give his comely daughter away at random: indeed he cherished the thought of keeping her in Florence and by his side, so courtly refusals of proffered hands, and hearts, and crowns, were dealt out to one and all the suitors. Pope Paul IV., who was on the best of terms with Duke Cosimo, and never forgot what he owed in his elevation to the Papal throne to his friend's influence, conceived a matrimonial project for youthful Isabella. At his Court was a young man of illustrious descent, good attainments, the heir to vast possessions, and a devoted adherent of the Holy See—Paolo Giordano d'Orsini.
The Orsini were split up into many branches, but the family was one of the most ancient and honourable in Rome. Signore Girolamo d'Orsini, father of Paolo Giordano, was lord of Bracciano and Anguillaria, and of the country around Civita Vecchia. When only twelve years old, he had been named by Pope Leo X. to the honorary command of a Papal regiment of cavalry. When still in his teens the youth served with distinction in France and in the Neapolitan war; and, on attaining his majority, he was sent with a detachment of troops to the assistance of the Emperor Charles V., in the devastating war against the Turks in Hungary.
Created General and Marquis by the Emperor, the young commander returned to Rome in 1537, and took up his position as the acknowledged head of his family. He married Francesca, daughter of Bosso Sforza, heiress of the Counts of Anguillaria. Three sons and a daughter were born to them.
Paolo Giordano, born 1539, was adopted by his maternal uncle, Carlo, Cardinal Sforza da Santa Fiora, and became a protege of Paul IV. Following his father's profession of arms, he saw military service in Spain, but was recalled to Rome by the death of both his parents. On succession to the family estates the Pope created the Lordship of Bracciano a Duchy, and sent a message to Duke Cosimo, commending the young soldier to his notice, and suggesting a matrimonial alliance with one of his daughters.
Cosimo looked with favour upon the Pope's proposition, and asked the young Duke to pay the Florentine Court a visit. The young people seemed made for one another: he was handsome, brave and rich, she was beautiful, talented, and lovable. Perhaps it was a case of love at first sight, anyhow they were betrothed in 1555, with the proviso that the nuptial knot should not be tied until Isabella had attained her sixteenth year.
In due course the marriage-contract was drawn up, signed and sealed, but it contained a condition which was as unnatural as it was impolitic. Duke Cosimo insisted that his dearly-beloved daughter should make his house her home for at least six months each year, and only pay occasional visits to her husband's palace in Rome! Duke Paolo, quite rightly, resented this questionable arrangement, and only agreed at last on pressure from the Pope.
Whatever made Cosimo take such a weird course no one can really say, although horrible rumours were indeed rife in Florence about the relations between father and child! It was, however, a fatal bar to all marital happiness, and led to the one and only possible denouement—tragedy. Certainly the Duke bestowed upon the young couple the splendid estate and villa of the Baroncelli, which had come into his hands, and which he enlarged and surrounded with a park. He added a munificent endowment and had the villa refurnished and redecorated throughout, according to his son-in-law's wishes.
The marriage was celebrated on 3rd September 1558 in the private chapel of the Pitti Palace,—a Saturday, always considered, in Florence, an unlucky day for a wedding,—a few months after that of Prince Alfonso d'Este's to Isabella's younger sister—Lucrezia. After a brief honeymoon spent at their villa the youthful bride and bridegroom separated—an ominous repetition of a fateful error. Truth to tell, Duke Paolo took an intense dislike to his father-in-law: he distrusted him both in relation to his affection for Isabella, and also with respect to his tyrannical character generally. Florence also and the Florentines were distasteful in their excesses of ill-living, cruelty, and chicanery—not that the Court of Rome was a Paradise, or the young man a St Anthony!
The Duke went back to Rome and resumed his ordinary life there, without bearing with him any of the wholesome leaven of matrimony—a husband in name, and little more. Duchess Isabella, a mere child, wanton and wilful more than most, was thus left the uncontrolled mistress of a princely establishment, with no marital check to regulate her conduct. Surely as unstable a condition, and as conducive to infidelity, as can well be imagined.
Before leaving his wife at Poggio Baroncelli, Duke Paolo appointed her household, and made every provision for her comfort. A cousin of his, Cavaliere Troilo d'Orsini, was placed in charge of the Duchess as Chamberlain, or quasi-guardian—another false step, and embarrassing for all parties. He was a handsome and accomplished man, avowedly unmarried, young and of a sympathetic disposition, and manifestly not at all the sort of person to place upon terms of such close relationship with the attractive young Duchess.
Under its fascinating Castellana the Baroncelli villa became a busy little Court, the scene of constant festivities, gossip, and intrigue. Her mother's Court at the Pitti was quite second in attractiveness. Duchess Eleanora if virtuous and conscientious, was rather dull and uninteresting. She cared much more for her Spanish connections than for her Florentine courtiers: much of her time she spent in the Cappella degli Spagnioli at Santa Maria Novella. What time she spared from her devotions she occupied in the establishment and patronage of the Accademia degli Elevati—"Souls," for the encouragement of poetry.
Duchess Isabella d'Orsini was hailed as "La Nuova Saffo" by those who gathered round her. She was by nature an arrant flirt—as most pretty women are—for she inherited her father's amorous disposition; and she was impulsive,—an added charm where beauty reigns,—worldly-minded, and dreadfully extravagant; moreover, she dressed to perfection.
The Duke of Bracciano paid rare visits to Florence, but the Duchess, in compliance with her marriage-contract, spent a portion of each year with her husband in Rome. These visits were not occasions of happiness and satisfaction. The two had scarcely any interests in common, and the infrequency of intercourse entailed unfamiliarity and embarrassment. The good-byes were never unwelcome on either side!
The Duke took up, once more, his military duties, following in the footsteps of his father as commander, in 1566, of a division of the Imperial army against the Turks. For his bravery at the battle of Lepanto, he was made Field-Marshal of the Emperor and a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. In other respects he had his consolations for his enforced separation from his wife—and Isabella, naturally, had hers too!
It was said that every man fell in love with her, and she, on her part, did not restrain her passion. There was no one to advise, no one to check, no one to help her to keep in the path of wifely fidelity. Reports of liaisons were made to the Duke by his Chamberlain from time to time, but these were couched in words which concealed his own part therein. He and the Duchess were accustomed to be much alone together. He was a musician and a linguist, a scholar and an artist like herself, and a most attractive companion. She helped him in his great literary work—Lezione della Lingua Toscana—perhaps the only serious occupation she ever undertook.
An intimacy, with such a similarity of tastes, ripened naturally into a romantic attachment—certainly quite in accord with the tenets of Platonic humanism, and perhaps something more! That Duke Paolo was conversant with the relations of his wife with his cousin was well known, but he made no complaint, and took no action to check them. Likely enough he had that "easy-going contempt of everything and everybody" which Niccolo Macchiavelli has stigmatised as the prevailing tone of Italian society.
Probably the sad deaths of Princess Maria and Duchess Lucrezia d'Este, and the tragic events in the Maremma of 1562, affected Isabella greatly, but they only tended to increase her husband's detestation for everything Florentine. No doubt he judged that Cosimo's hand slew both Maria and Garzia—might it not strike Isabella or himself! When a man, in an autocratic position such as that made by Cosimo I., yields to unguarded passion, reason and right alike are at a discount. Isabella's husband had taken the measure of her father—alas, that he was destined to follow his example!
For Isabella a new interest was created when, in 1564, Bianca Buonaventuri became "La cosa di Francesco,"—her brother. She, so to speak, clasped the lovely young Venetian to her bosom. She entered into the romance of the elopement, and of her brother's infatuation, with all her heart. Isabella de' Medici and Bianca Cappello-Buonaventuri became inseparable friends.
During Duchess Eleanora's life the gaieties and the follies of the court had been kept within something like bounds, but she had hardly been laid in her tomb within San Lorenzo than Duke Cosimo gave reins to his passions, and the Palazzo Pitti and the various Medicean villas became the scenes of unbridled lust and depravity. In 1564 the Duke deputed most of his sovereign power to his son Francesco, who became Regent and virtual ruler of Tuscany.
The grave scandals which distracted Florentine society began to raise up in the minds of the people violent antipathy for a Sovereign whose private example was so abominable, and whose discharge of public duties was so basely marked by turpitude. A revolution of a drastic description seemed to be inevitable, and, really, Cosimo had no other course than abdication.
The Florentine rendering and observance of Platonism favoured illicit connections between the sexes. The palaces of the nobles and of the wealthy merchants were nothing more or less than harems. The manners and traditions of the Orient took root, not only in Florence, but in all the other Italian States, and the normal strictness and restrictions of lawful married life had everywhere all but disappeared. Every household, not only of the noble but also of the middle class, had among its number a cicisbeo, or two or more,—"unofficial wives"—we may call them, possessed of almost equal rights and position as the lawful spouses.
* * * * *
The great event of the year 1562 was the marriage of Prince Francesco and the Archduchess Giovanna d'Austria. Quite certainly the Duke and Duchess of Bracciano were among the notable personages present at the nuptials. Indeed that year the Duke spent more of his time than usual in Florence, and was very busy buying and rebuilding the Villa Cerreto Guidi, and laying out the park and gardens—the former for the pursuit of deer-hunting, the latter by way of rivalry to Pratolino—Francesco and Bianca's plaisance.
The Grand Duchess Giovanna was something like her predecessor, Duchess Eleanora, a serious-minded sort of woman, with no pretensions to beauty or ability, not at all the sort of sovereign for that gay and dissolute court. The beau monde took themselves off to the Orte Oricellari—to pay their devotions to the lovely Venetian mistress of their Sovereign; and to Poggio Baroncelli—where Duchess Isabella reigned as queen of fashion and frivolity.
Cosimo and Cammilla de' Martelli—whom he married secretly and took away to his favourite Villa del Castello—lived in strict retreat, rarely came into Florence, and kept no sort of state. At the same time two sons of his were sources of keen anxiety.
Ferdinando, born 1549, was now wearing the Cardinal's red hat, which hapless young Garzia's hunting-knife had caused to fall from his brother Giovanni's head in the Maremma. Ambitious, jealous, but, perhaps, less depraved than his father, the Cardinal de' Medici made no secret of his dislike of his brother Francesco and his innamorata, Bianca Buonaventuri. He became a thorn in his father's and brother's sides on account of his extortionate and presumptuous demands. His young stepmother—only two years his senior—favoured his pretensions, and so brought trouble upon herself, as we shall see later on.
Piero, Cosimo's youngest legitimate son, was but a boy of fourteen when his father married his second wife. Of course she was far too young and inexperienced to be of any use in guiding his growth and tastes.
The Court was thus divided: the two parties were headed respectively by the Grand Duchess Giovanna, the titular Grand Duchess-dowager,—so to call Cammilla,—with the Cardinal de' Medici; and by Bianca Cappello di Pietro Buonaventuri and Duchess Isabella of Bracciano.
With respect to the latter coterie, its influence was vastly augmented by the assassination of Pietro Buonaventuri in 1572. Duchess Isabella gave her whole heart's support to the beauteous young widow. She wrote to her the most affectionate letters, in one of which, if not in more, she says she loves Bianca "more than sister," and bids her retain her position as "the loving helper of my brother."
Bianca heartily returned her "more than a sister's" affection, and she repeatedly spoke of Duchess Isabella in her letters to her cousins in Venice. "I had," she says, for example, on 17th July 1574, "the illustrious Domina Isabella to dine with me in my garden, and with her came my good friends her brother Don Piero and his young wife...." Beautiful, accomplished, and light-hearted, Isabella and Bianca were the dearest and most constant of companions. They lived apparently only for admiration and adulation, but the Duchess' position was infinitely more free and unconventional than that of the Venetian: the latter lived for one man's love alone—Francesco—Isabella dispensed her favours where she willed!
Duke Paolo grew suspicious of his wife's liberty of action. His protests, at first couched in deprecatory language, were met with girlish insouciance; but, when he began to complain arrogantly, Isabella replied with spirit and determination. His jealous reprimands were met by like charges and, truth to tell, there was not a pin to choose between the two.
The Grand Duke Cosimo before his death in 1574, and the Grand Duke Francesco, were alike irritated by Bracciano's cool, calculating conduct; and both upheld Isabella against her husband's ill-humour and harsh judgments. Duke Paolo, however, kept his own counsel, and by means of spies discovered that Troilo d'Orsini's monthly reports were at least open to doubt as to their truthfulness with respect to his wife's conduct in private. Matters, however, drifted—he was too intent upon his own affairs in Rome and elsewhere to disturb rudely the state of things at Poggio Baroncelli.
His suspicions at length were brusquely confirmed, and the uneasy peace of evil deeds was broken by portentous news from Florence. A courier in his pay arrived one evening, in July 1576, breathless, at the Bracciano Palace, with the intelligence that the trusty chamberlain had stabbed to the heart an attractive young page, Lelio Torello, attached to the household of the Grand Duke; and had, moreover, at once taken flight precipitately from the Villa!
Bracciano knew exactly what this purported—young Torello was a lover of his wife as well as Troilo d'Orsini! Without a moment's delay, he started off for Florence to tax the Duchess with unfaithfulness. At the Porta Romana he was staggered by the news which greeted him—Piero de' Medici had killed his wife, Eleanora de Garzia de Toledo, at Cafaggiuolo!
He tarried not to pay his respects to the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess at the Palazzo Pitti hard by, but galloped off post-haste to his wife's villa, and, unannounced, surprised Isabella in the midst of preparations for a sudden journey! If, as some maintained, she meant to follow her fleeing lover, Troilo, at all events she was determined to seek the Court of France, and throw herself upon the sympathy of Queen Caterina, her kinswoman, and crave her protection for herself and her babe!
Several letters had already passed between the two illustrious women. Isabella, on her part, says: "I have asked pardon of God for my sins, and have resolved to let things take their course"; but she implores Catherine to protect her little son. In the last of these letters she writes:—"Let your Majesty think of this letter as the last words of a person bound to you by the ties of blood, and consider them as the confidence of one who is about to die, resigned and repentant, who otherwise could only end her life in despair and desperation."
The Duke judged his wife guilty, before she had offered any explanation of the tragic doings at the Villa, and his impulse was to dishonour her before her whole household. The spirit of duplicity, which had haunted their married life, during eighteen random years of misunderstanding, distaste and estrangement, still ruled them both—but Bracciano restrained his passion for a while.
He noted the preparations for hasty flight—indicative of Isabella's guilt—but, what more than all else enraged him almost beyond the power of self-control, was the cry of an infant within Isabella's apartments! That child was not his. Whose was it?
Isabella met her husband perfectly unabashed, and, if she expected an immediate explosion, she was agreeably though somewhat misgivingly surprised at his cordial greeting. He asked her where she was going, and suggested that they should go away together. Isabella of course prevaricated—truth is a negative quality between those who doubt each other! Then, to her great surprise, Bracciano began to express himself in terms at once tender and apologetic.
"The faults, and faults there are, have been all on my side," he said, "but I wish to alter all this and begin a new course, happy, and well-regulated. I suggest that bygones be bygones, and that we mutually agree to bury the past. Let us, Isabella, begin an entirely new course of life and live henceforth only for each other." His fair words were matched by the mild expression he contrived to put into his face, and, although the Duchess distrusted them, or at least her sense of hearing, she met his advances handsomely.
The day passed over pleasantly, the rapprochement seemed to be real and sincere, and when the Duke invited her to accompany him upon a hunting expedition to Cerreto Guidi, on the morrow, his wife expressed her pleasure and acquiescence. He himself set off early in the day, it was 10th July, and he asked Isabella to follow with her maidens leisurely.
Whether from innate distrustfulness, or presage of coming evil, the Duchess put off her journey till quite late, and only arrived there as night was coming on. At the entrance to the Villa the Duke met her, holding in a leash two splendid hare-hounds, which he begged her to accept and use on the morrow.
The dinner-party was numerous and merry, but not one of the company was gayer than the host. Isabella sat beside him, and he offered her many lover-like attentions. Everybody remarked these excellent and unusual relations between the Duke and Duchess, and wondered greatly thereat. After a very pleasant musical evening the company separated for the night, and the Duke, passing into his own bedchamber, invited his wife to enter with him.
Was it instinct or was it second sight, which caused Isabella's steps to falter on the threshold? She trembled as her husband held aside the arras, turned deadly pale, and, retreating for a moment, she whispered to her lady-in-waiting, Donna Lucrezia de' Frescobaldi—"Shall I enter, or shall I not?" Bracciano's voice again was raised in gentle persuasiveness, and taking her by her hand, clammy cold as it was, he asked her, laughingly, why she held back.
She bade Donna Lucrezia good-night very tremulously, and then the curtain fell, and Isabella was alone with her lord. The room was in its usual state, but truth to tell, she had not lain there for many a long night, and, as the Duke continued to talk affectionately, and to prepare for bed, she began to feel less alarm. Without more ado she flung herself into a deep lounging-chair and began to meditate and to chatter.
Seating himself by her side, Bracciano began to caress her hands and to fondle her in his arms, and when he noted that she had given herself entirely to his will and pleasure, as an amorous, faithful wife once more, he swiftly reached down for a corda di collo—a horse's halter—which he had placed behind the chair. Implanting an impassioned kiss upon those lovely lips, which had so long yearned for a husband's embrace, he adroitly threw the rope round his wife's neck, and pulling it taut in a wild access of rage, he strangled her—holding on until her struggles ceased!
Then he cast her fair body from him, and spurned it with his foot, as though it had been some foul and loathsome thing. Thus perished, in her thirty-sixth year, Isabella de' Medici, wife of Paolo Giordano d'Orsini—as sinful as she was lovely, but much more sinned against than sinning after all.
Before the dawn of day the Duke, accompanied by one attendant only, rode into Florence, and left at the Palazzo Pitti a heartless message for the Grand Duke, requesting him to despatch the brethren of the Misericordia to Cerreto Guidi, where was "something which required their attention"—then he continued his course straight on to Rome.
Florence was aghast at this horror, but the Grand Duke Francesco kept his own counsel, and no pursuit followed the murderer. An official announcement was made to the effect that "The Duchess of Bracciano died in a fit of apoplexy." This nobody for a moment believed: whether her brother was privy to the deed is perhaps open to doubt, for he and Isabella were devoted to one another.
It has been said that it was due to Bianca Buonaventuri's persuasion that the Grand Duke took no steps to vindicate his sister's honour or dishonour. The punishment of assassins mostly leads to further assassinations, and the "La cosa di Francesco" had reason to fear for her own life, seeing that her husband and her two dearest friends in Florence had been done brutally to death.
What became of the child, whose cries the Duke of Bracciano had heard, at Villa Poggio Baroncelli, no one seems to have recorded, nor are there any statements extant as to who his father actually was—a boy he was anyhow, and, though his name is uncertain, he was spoken of by the Duchess as "il mio becchino," "my little kid."
We may father him as we like—and at least three claimants for that honour are known—Troilo d'Orsini, the Duke's cousin and the Duchess' companion; Lelio Torello, the comely young Calcio player, and the favourite page of the Grand Duke Francesco; and, be it said in terms of doubt and horror, the Grand Duke Cosimo! If the latter, then this "Tragedy" is the culmination of all the abominable orgies which have blackened the character of the greatest tyrant and monster of his epoch!
Another story affects the career of the Chamberlain Troilo d'Orsini. He sought sanctuary in France and was befriended by Queen Catherine, to whom his mistress, the unhappy Duchess of Bracciano, had commended "the little kid." Whether he accepted the role of father to save the fame of the defunct Grand Duke is not known, but the unfortunate, if guilty, fugitive was stabbed in the streets of Paris by bravoes sent after him in the pay of the Duke of Bracciano.
BIANCA CAPPELLO—"La Figlia di Venezia"
PELLEGRINA—"La Bella Bianchina"
True Lovers—and False
"We'll have none of her among our dead!"
These were the brutal words of Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici, at the villa of Poggio a Caiano on the morning of 21st October 1587. They formed the curt reply his Eminence vouchsafed to Bishop Abbioso of Ravenna, "her" confessor.
The bishop, looking to favours from Ferdinando, who succeeded Francesco as third Grand Duke of Tuscany, sent overnight, the following message to his new Sovereign:
"This moment at 8 p.m. Her Most Serene Highness the Grand Duchess passed to another life. The present messenger awaits your Highness' orders as to the disposal of the body."
Yes, it was "the body" of as loving a woman as ever lived in Florence. She had been the most faithful of wives, the most attractive of consorts, and one of the most generous of benefactresses. It was "the body" of as unselfish a sister-in-law as any man, high or low, ever had, who strove her utmost to propitiate, screen, and honour the self-seeking brother of her husband. It was "the body" of Bianca Cappello!
Ferdinando had, for years, plotted her death, and now he had accomplished his dastardly design—a design which also made him the murderer of his brother, Francesco de' Medici.
To be sure, the double tragedy was adjudged no tragedy by such as waited for favours from the coming ruler, and the mysteriously sudden deaths of Francesco de' Medici and his wife Bianca were assigned to natural causes by well-paid dependants upon Ferdinando's bounty and favour. The bloodguiltiness of fratricidal Ferdinando was well whitewashed by his courtiers, and historians have painted him in colours that ill befit his character. So is history written ofttimes and again.
Pope Sixtus VI. had all the gruesome circumstances placed before him, and whilst he was too weak or too cunning—it matters not which—to charge the princely murderer with his deeds, he tacitly accepted the finding of his commission of inquiry:—"Ferdinando de' Medici, Cardinal-Priest of San Giorgio, Grand Duke of Tuscany, poisoned his brother and his sister at Poggio a Caiano."
Now must the story be told, gathered out of records, more or less reliable—more or less biassed. It is a story which brings a blush to the cheek and a lump in the throat, and calls forth feelings of detestation for the murderer. At the same time it is a thrilling story of a love stronger than death.
* * * * *
Late one dark night, in November 1563, a gondola shot out from the deep shadow of the church of Sant' Appolinare, upon the Rio della Canonica, in Venice, dipped under the Ponte del Storto, and sped its way, swiftly propelled by two stalwart boatmen.
There was little use to cry out "Lei" or "Stali," for no other craft was afloat at that hour, and the gondola was unimpeded in its course. Crossing the Grand Canal the helmsman made for the Guidecca, and on past the Punta di Santa Maria, and on still, away across the wide and silent lagune, right on to Fusina, on the mainland.
In the herse were two persons—a boy and a girl—fast clasped in each other's arms: she sobbing upon his breast, he comforting her with hot kisses upon her lips. They were Pietro de' Buonaventuri and Bianca de' Cappelli. The elopement was complete, and all Pietro's manhood rose as he held his sweetheart in a strong embrace: he would guard her with his life, come what might. He knew they were safe from present pursuit, for to none had he revealed his plans; but he also knew that a price would be set upon their heads, and daggers dodge their course. Stepping lightly ashore with his sweetheart, the young man paid his boatmen and bade them not hurry back to Venice. Then the young couple took the road to Bologna, on their way to Florence. They had very little money between them, but Bianca had stuffed into her pocket her jewellery and Pietro had just received his quarter's salary.
At the Cappello mansion, on the morrow, was a scene of wild confusion. Messer Bartolommeo Cappello was like a madman; he demanded his daughter at the hand of her faithful maid, Maria del Longhi, and laid the matter at once before the Supreme Council. On enquiry, Pietro Buonaventuri, who had been for long Bianca's most favoured admirer, was neither at the Salviati bank, where he was occupied as a clerk, nor at his lodgings.
The daughter of a Venetian patrician gone off with a banker's clerk! The idea maddened the old man—he would trace them, and punish them, and all who had assisted their flight. Messer Giovanni Battista Buonaventuri, Pietro's uncle, the manager of the bank; Bianca's maid and her parents; the two gondolieri and their wives; and ever so many others were cast into prison.
No news came of the erring couple, and now they were well ahead of pursuit. Two thousand ducats was the blood-money offered for Pietro, dead or alive. Assassins bought for gold followed on the road to Florence, but never caught up their quarry. Messer Bartolommeo's vengeance knew no bounds, and his new wife, Madonna Lucrezia de' Grimani-Contarini fanned the flames. She hated Bianca.
The winter sun had long ago set beyond the stone-pines of Monte Oliveto, and the deep blue Tuscan sky had turned to sober slate, purpled with the fading glow of northern crimson. It was a night near Christmas, and Ser Zenobio Buonaventuri sat at his table, in his modest little one-storied house on the Piazza San Marco, putting the finishing touches to his precis of the day's notarial work, in the Corte della Mercanzia. His worthy spouse, Madonna Costanza's weary fingers had just completed the stitching of the last of twelve pairs of kid gloves, for her employers, of the Guild of the Fur and Skin Merchants—the Salvetti, who were her relatives.
They had been talking, as was their wont, about their dashing, handsome son Pietro, the pride of their hearts, who was away in Venice, a clerk under his uncle, Giovanni Battista. They were a lonesome couple, and they deplored their four years' parting from their only boy. To be sure, he had often, indeed regularly, written to them happy, contented letters. Moreover, Messer Giovanni Battista had sent them very satisfactory reports of his application to business, but he named one subject, which filled the hearts of the doting parents with apprehension—it was, of course, a story of romance. Pietro had a sweetheart—that in itself caused little uneasiness; what healthy-minded young fellow had not! But Pietro had an unusually amorous nature, and his love escapades had not been few in Florence. In Venice, "the Court of Venus," he revelled in the fair beauty and the freedom of maidens, so much more lovely and so much less reserved, than the Florentine girls he knew. But when Messer Giovanni Battista named as his innamorata the young daughter of one of the proudest patricians of the Serene Republic, the worthy couple were in trepidation lest the lad's passion should lead to regrettable embarrassments.
No love was lost between the sister Republics, and the feeling of hostility in public matters was carried into private life. Pietro never named the romance, but Ser Zenobio, by way of meeting—as was his wont—his troubles half way, penned anxious cautions to his son. The Buonaventuri, though by no means an obscure family, were not Grandi like the Cappelli, Lords of Venice. Moreover, Bianca's father was a wealthy man and a member of the Supreme Council, whilst Ser Zenobio was merely a modest notary of no great fame or fortune.
It was bedtime, but hark! at the door were shuffling steps and voices whispering; and presently there came a gentle tap—repeated once or twice. Ser Zenobio rose to see what was passing outside his house. Peering into the gloom he saw two figures—one a girl's—and a voice he knew full well said:
"Father, we have come to crave shelter and protection."
"Who are you? My boy Pietro! And what are you doing here in Florence, and at this time of night?"
Madonna Costanza was peeping over his shoulder, and both of them were greatly agitated, and awaited with anxiety Pietro's reply.
"We have come from Venice and are very tired. See, father and mother, this is Bianca."
Sternly answered Ser Zenobio. "What do you mean, Pietro? What shame is this you have done your parents? Who is Bianca, and what are you doing with her in Florence? You never said you were coming home. Explain yourself, or come not into your father's house."
Heavy rain was falling, and Bianca was weeping as Pietro led her into the light of the candle his mother held.
"Let them come in anyhow, Zenobio, and we can hear what they have got to say, without the neighbours hearing us," put in the tender-hearted woman.
With that, Ser Zenobio gave his hand to Bianca and drew her and Pietro within the door, and then, in sterner tones, he commanded his son to tell what he had done.
Briefly Pietro recounted the story of his love and how Bianca returned it. He spoke of Messer Bartolommeo's harshness and of the unkindness of Bianca's stepmother, Madonna Lucrezia de' Grimani-Contarini—the Patriarch's sister. He described their plight and the perils which threatened them. But, when he went on to hint at Bianca's condition, the loving heart of Madonna Costanza melted towards the beauteous, weeping girl, and she drew her to her bosom to embrace and comfort her.
Long and anxious vigil the four kept that winter's night. The outcome of their deliberations was the marriage of Pietro and Bianca, on 12th December, privately, at Ser Zenobio's, with the priestly blessing at San Marco's across the way.
It was deemed expedient that the young people should conceal themselves as much as possible, in view of the extreme measures taken by the Serene Republic. If caught, Pietro was to be slain and Bianca enclosed in a convent. The abduction of a noble Venetian was a capital offence, and the girl's dowry was confiscated by the State.
Soon the news of the elopement ran through Florence and set everybody talking. The reward of two thousand gold ducats was a tempting bait for desperadoes and others in need of coin. Everybody wished to see the beauteous Venetian and have a chat with bold Pietro, for, of course, no Florentine blamed them! Who could?
* * * * *
Don Francesco, Duke Cosimo's eldest son, was in Bavaria making believe-courtship with the Archduchess Joanne, the Emperor's daughter, when the gossip about Pietro and Bianca reached him. He, of course, knew nothing of the Buonaventuri, nor of the Cappelli, but romance is romance in every age and degree of human life! He determined on his return to Florence to find out the amorous young couple and judge for himself of the charms of the fair girl-bride.
Away back, in the grounds of the monastery of San Marco, was the garden-casino of Cosimo, "Padre della Patria," a delightful retreat. Francesco received it as a gift from his father, and there he was accustomed to entertain his friends and familiars.
Passing, on his way thither—as he often did, with a frolicsome party of young bloods—the humble dwelling of the Buonaventuri, he chanced, one day, to look up at a half-open window—the jalousies were thrown back, and there, sitting at her needlework, was the very girl he sought!
There could be no manner of doubt who she was, no Florentine maiden was so fair, and no eyes in Florence were so bright. Casually asking a member of his suite whose house they were passing, Don Francesco tossed up his glove at the girl and passed on.
Another person witnessed this love passage, the Marchesa Anna Mondragone, wife of Francesco's old governor and his chamberlain—she was on the balcony of the house at the corner of the Piazza to make her usual curtsey to the Prince. When the Marchese came home that night, he told his wife that the Prince had seen Bianca Buonaventuri, and had enlisted his services to obtain an interview with the lovely Venetian.
Nothing does a woman of the world love more than to be a go-between where sentimental couples are concerned—be it for their weal or be it for their woe—and so the Marchesa sympathetically addressed herself to the diplomatic task of bringing the two young people together. She struck up a passing acquaintance with Madonna Costanza, and upon the plea that she wished for the opinion of her daughter-in-law upon the question of a Venetian costume she was about to wear at a reception at the palace, asked her to bring Bianca to the Mondragone mansion.
Accordingly, a few days after the affair of the kid glove, the three women were closeted in the Marchesa's boudoir, where the Marchese joined them. Calling off Bianca to look at some jewellery, she whisked her into another room, and presently, leaving her absorbed in the beauty of the gems, retired.
Bianca looked up, somewhat annoyed to find herself alone, and, as she did so, she detected a slight movement behind the arras over the door. The next moment it was raised, and there stepped into the apartment none other than Don Francesco de' Medici!
Bianca stood there, speechless and embarrassed, but the Prince, approaching, took her hand in his, kissed it, and placed her beside him on a couch. When she had recovered from her surprise, Bianca fell upon her knees and, weeping, besought Francesco to befriend her and Pietro. Raising her to the couch once more, he folded her in an impassioned embrace, and promised his protection and what she would besides!
Very greatly moved was the young man by Bianca's rare beauty of face and form, and by the tenderness of her voice, and, perhaps more than all, by the undoubting confidence she reposed in him. Bianca was such a very different sort of girl to cold, unattractive and ill-educated Giovanna.
Immediate steps were taken to obtain the recension of the punitive decrees of the Venetian Council, but they proved abortive, and nothing could be done in Venice for Bianca and Pietro. In Florence Don Francesco could do as he willed. His father, Cosimo, had already made over to him much of his sovereign authority.
In July 1564, Bianca Buonaventuri became the mother of a little girl, to whom the name Pellegrina—her own dear mother's name—was given. The days of convalescence quickly passed, and Francesco paid his innamorata increasing court. Upon Pietro and Bianca he bestowed a charming palace, on the Lung 'Arno, and provided them with ample means to maintain themselves and it. He appointed Pietro Keeper of his Wardrobe and Clerk of his Privy Closet, on condition that his fascinating girl-wife should be regarded pretty much as "La cosa di Francesco."
The more the Prince saw of Bianca the stronger grew his passion. She was perfectly irresistible. After the fashion of the day, he poured forth his devotion in graceful madrigals—the first of which, began as follows:—
"A rich and shining Gem hath Dame Nature Taken out of Heaven's treasury, and Wrapping it in a lustrous human veil Hath bestowed it on me, saying, 'To thee I give this beauteous Flora for thine own.'"
Meanwhile preparations were going forward for the reception and marriage of the Austrian Archduchess, who reached Florence on 16th November 1565. Reports of her husband's infatuation for Bianca Buonaventuri had of course travelled to Vienna, and Giovanna had not long to wait for their verification. She could not brook the fouling of the marriage-bed nor permit the liaison to go on undenounced.
Francesco met her ill-humour with a frown. He pointed to the morals of her father's court, and to the Florentine cult of Platonism, and he bade her mind her own business and not make troubles. Her appeals to Duke Cosimo and to her brother the Emperor Maximilian were in vain. Francesco plainly hinted that she might go back to Vienna if she liked, for nothing that she could say or do would alter his admiration and his devotion for Bianca Buonaventuri. The strictness of married life had long ago disappeared from the conventions of Florentine society. Mutual relationships proved that men might live as they pleased, so long as they did not renounce the offspring, even when they were assured that it was not their own. The term "Partiti"—"Sharers" or "Partners"— perhaps less literally but more emphatically, "kindred souls," was bestowed upon this relationship. Still at no time was Francesco a sensuous man or a libertine like his father. His devotionally-affected mother, Eleanora de Toledo, had trained him in moral ways, and had called forth in him regard for religion and sympathy for charitable objects. Possessed of great self-command and reticence, he never betrayed himself in any way; passionate he was beyond the ordinary, but never revengeful. He loved one woman, and only one, and to her he proved himself faithful until death took them away together; but she was not Giovanna, his political wife, she was Bianca, the wife of his heart and mind.
Next to his love of Bianca was his love of money: no prince of his house was ever half so wealthy or so sparing. Avarice came to him through the rapacity of Giovanna's German followers and through her own extravagance.
The year after his marriage, Bianca Buonaventuri was introduced at Court as Bianca Cappello. The young Duchess of course was furious, and pointedly refused all intercourse with her rival. Bianca, on the other hand, laid herself out to propitiate the dour Austrian princess and to stifle slander. Still a mere girl, she was in full command of all the moves in woman's strategy. There was no school like that of Venice for the display of tact and fascination. To be sure, she was living in a crystal palace, but she was perfectly ready to repair all damages. Bianca was severely upon her guard, and her conduct was perfectly correct in every way.
Very rarely did young Cardinal Ferdinando visit Florence, but in 1569, Cosimo, his father, sent for him, that he might embrace him before he died, being, as he thought, on the point of death. At the magnificently immoral Court of the Vatican he had heard the gossip about the lovely Venetian girl who had so completely captured his brother Francesco. Quite naturally, the by no means ascetic young ecclesiastic desired greatly to see for himself the Venetian charmer, and he journeyed to Florence, bent upon judging for himself.
Francesco greeted Ferdinando quite affectionately—there was no reason why he should not—and unhesitatingly introduced him to Bianca. At the impressionable age of twenty, the young Prince fell at once under the spell of those bewitching eyes. Who could resist her? In the fulness of her womanhood Bianca Buonaventuri was without rival among the fair women of Florence, and the boy-Cardinal made, like all the rest, impassioned love to her.
Back again in Rome and busy with his plans for the great Medici Palace in the Eternal City he lost none of his admiration for his brother's "Flora," till evil tongues began to wag around him. Was not he, Ferdinando, Don Francesco's heir-presumptive? Duchess Giovanna had given her husband none but daughters; she, too, was in delicate health and might die without a son being born. What then? Why, of course, Francesco would marry Bianca Buonaventuri, and by her secure the succession. Whether he was destined for the Papacy or not, the Grand Duchy was his by inheritance, and it behoved him, they said, to guard his rights and further his expectations!
Ferdinando listened to this tittle-tattle and it caused ambitious distrust of Francesco and Bianca. As heir-presumptive to a temporal sovereignty, he began to surround himself with all the attributes and circumstances of his position. His palace was regal in its magnificence, his entertainments were upon a princely scale, and he assumed an overbearing demeanour in his relations with Francesco.
Instigated by inveterate intriguers in his entourage, he quite hypocritically affected to be shocked at his brother's liaison with Bianca, although he made no demur at his father's relations with Eleanora degli Albizzi, Cammilla de' Martelli, and other innamorate. Giovanna was only too delighted to have the invaluable assistance of the young Cardinal in her campaign against "the hated Venetian." At length he took the bold step of expostulating with Francesco upon his intercourse with the captivating rival of Giovanna. The Prince was furious, and warned his brother never to name the subject again, and on no account to meddle with his private affairs.
Ferdinando replied that he was quite content to abstain at a price. The truth was, that his lavish extravagance had exhausted his revenue and restricted his powers of borrowing, and he was in lack of funds for the maintenance of his state in Rome.
In a weak moment Francesco gave heed to Ferdinando's stipulations, and provided him with funds and increased his family allowance. In gratitude, the Cardinal threw into his brother's teeth the fact of his position as heir-presumptive, and insisted upon the purchase of a piece of land at the confluence of the Pesa with the Arno. There he built his Villa Ambrogiana, which became the seat of an anti-Francesco cabal and the headquarters of an elaborate system of paid spies and toadies.
* * * * *
In September 1571, Francesco issued a decree which ennobled the family of Bianca's husband, and Ser Zenobio, unambitious, pottering notary that he was, and Pietro, and all their male kith and kin, were enrolled "inter nobiles, inter agnationes et familias ceusetas et connumeratus." Pietro was now a gentleman of Florence, and he at once assumed the airs of such, as he conceived they should be, but his bad manners and his arrogance brought upon him the contempt of the whole Court.
Francesco at first shielded his protege, but his overbearing conduct and his importunities at length alienated his regard, and he made no attempt to conceal his displeasure. Bianca pleaded with her husband in vain, success had turned his head, and now came "the parting of the ways."
Pietro had consented that Bianca should be "La cosa di Francesco"; he too would enjoy life, and he sought his compensation in the embraces of the most attractive and most scheming flirt in Florence, Madonna Cassandra, the wealthy widow of Messer Simone de' Borghiani—born a Riccio. Although well over thirty years of age, she was run after by all the young gallants of the Court and city. Two already had been done to death for love of her—mere boys—Pietro del Calca and Giovanni de' Cavalcanti.
Pietro Buonaventuri vowed he would marry her, but the Ricci would have none of him; and he fell, one summer's night, under the very windows of his wife's bedchamber, pierced with twenty-five savage dagger thrusts. That same night—it was 27th August 1572—Madonna Cassandra was stabbed, in her own apartment, also twenty-five times, and two stark, mutilated corpses were mercifully borne away, in the dawn, by the brethren of the Misericordia, and given burial.
Bianca, widowed, demanded at the hand of her princely lover justice for the spilling of her husband's blood; but, for answer, Francesco drew her gently to his heart and said: "The best thing I can do now, my own Bianca, is to make you, before long, Grand Duchess of Tuscany!"
The Cardinal was keenly interested in this tragedy, not indeed that he took any part therein, but it had a distinct bearing upon his line of conduct, and he noted with apprehension the redoubling of Francesco's devotion to "the hated Venetian."
Bianca, of course, was perfectly aware that she was the real cause of Ferdinando's animosity, in spite of his protestations of admiration and the like. She set about to unmask his real intentions and to circumvent his hypocrisy. Her methods were at once original and full of tact, for she disarmed his aggression by playing to his personal vanity and by furthering his lust for money.
Not once, nor twice, but many times, did Bianca plead with Francesco for his brother, and always with success, and many a substantial sum of money was lodged in the Roman Medici bank at his disposal. Ferdinando began to realise that the only way to his brother's purse was by Bianca's favour, and he began to evince a distinctly amiable spirit in his relations with her.
As marking the improvement in the situation, the Cardinal accepted an invitation to a family gathering at Poggio a Caiano in the autumn of 1575. The Grand Duchess Giovanna quite properly was the hostess, but Bianca Buonaventuri, who was installed in a Casino in the park, which Francesco had given her, and called "Villetta Bini," was of the party, the life and soul of all the entertainments.
During the festivities Bianca managed to be tete-a-tete with her brother-in-law in a secluded summer-house. The fascination of three years before was again transcendent. "The Venetian is irresistible," he said afterwards, "I cannot hate her, try how I will!" The truth was, he was madly in love, and he owned it, but his love was, after all, like the hot fumes of a lurid fire.
The year 1576 was a black one in the annals of the Medici. Two beautiful and accomplished princesses of the ruling house were done to death by jealous, unfaithful husbands.
Bianca Buonaventuri was stunned by the terrible end of her dear sister-friends, Isabella de' Medici and Eleanora de Garzia de Toledo. Would her turn come next? The three had been called "The Three Graces of Florence," and certainly each had vied with the other in elegance and fascination, but to Bianca the golden apple had been accorded unanimously. Beauty and charm seemed to be magnets of destruction, and Bianca was upon her guard!
So far as she herself was concerned, she knew that at any time she might still fall a victim to a Venetian desperado, or to a Florentine assassin, and under every friendly guise she feared a foe.
With respect to the Grand Duchess Giovanna and her detestation of Bianca, a story may be told which has all the appearance at least of probability. Giovanna expressed, not once, but often, her wish for Bianca's death. This, indeed, in those days, and in Florence, the "City of Assassins," was as good as a judicial sentence. The Grand Duchess, moreover, it was reputed, followed up her words by action. "One day," the story goes, "in the month of March 1576, her carriage chanced to meet that of Bianca's upon the Ponte SS. Trinita. She besought her coachman to try and upset her rival, hoping that she might fall into the river below and be drowned! Conte Eliodoro del Castello, her Chamberlain, saw the manoeuvre and prevented a deplorable fatality."
Be this as it may, the Grand Duke not only sympathised with Bianca's fears, but appointed certain of his own bodyguard to take up similar duties near the person of Madonna Buonaventuri, and her progresses henceforward were watched with as much circumstance as his own. At the same time his devotion to the woman he loved increased from day to day. The perils she was called upon to meet were incurred through her unquestioning love of him. This he knew well enough.
Writing on 29th March 1576, Carlo Zorzi, the Ambassador of the Serene Republic, and a warm adherent of his fascinating fellow-countrywoman, says: "I visited the Grand Duke's Villa Pratolino, and also Madonna Bianca Buonaventuri's charming retreat, the Orte Oricellari, and her pretty Villa della Tana, which he had lately given her, looking upon the Arno, and I observed Don Francesco's intimacy with the Madonna. I noted also her extraordinary influence for good upon him.... They appear to be made for one another, and to be absorbed in the same occupations and interests.... She had but to name an object for charity or patronage, and at once she had his hearty approval."
Francesco never concealed his concern at having no son. With his own physicians and the physicians of the Grand Duchess he held many consultations: not a few quacks and empirics also were sought to for nostrums and charms which should obtain by science what nature had so far withheld. He and Bianca held anxious counsel, for he knew that she would lay down her life for him, and would grant him every facility which it was in her loving power to supply.
Reflecting deeply, Bianca saw only one situation: Giovanna was barren of male issue, why should not she herself become once more a mother—the mother of a son, a son of Francesco!
This idea haunted her, but all the same she had no conception; and then a design presented itself to her weary brain—as natural as it was indefensible. For some time she had been getting stout—her age, her constitution, and her rich living were all conducive to that condition. If she was not to be the mother of his child by natural means, she could be so by a subterfuge, which her embonpoint would uphold!
In the spring of 1576 Bianca Buonaventuri gave out that she was enceinte and began forthwith her preparations for accouchement. She left her palace in the Via Maggio, under the shadow of the Pitti Palace, and took up her abode in the Casino of the Orte Oricellari, which she had lately purchased from the family of Rucellai, and surrounded herself with confidential friends and attendants.
The denouement came on 29th August, when the Grand Duke was informed by Bianca's surgeon-accoucheur, that she had been delivered of a child—a boy! Francesco was almost frantic with delight, and he hastened to his beloved Bianca's bedside. Picking up his child, he fondled him tenderly and almost smothered him with kisses, and at once gave orders for a ceremonial baptism. Antonio, he called him—after the kindly patron saint of that auspicious day—when he personally handed the child to the Archbishop at the font.
The Grand Duchess was inexpressibly shocked, she refused to see her husband, shut herself up in her own apartments, and demanded an escort to Vienna! The news was not long in reaching Rome, and it made Cardinal Ferdinando furious. In a moment all the blandishments of "the Venetian" were dissipated; the better terms lately established in Florence were renounced, and the angry Prince, in unmeasured language, asserted that the child was not Francesco's.
He knew well enough that what had come to pass, unless unchallenged, would imperil his presumptive title. First it was sought to throw doubt upon Bianca's actual maternity, and next to secure the person of the little boy.
Bianca and Antonio, under a strong guard, were sent off to Pratolino, hers and Francesco's best-loved retreat—they had together planned its beauties. There, during her make-believe convalescence, she came to consider the very serious nature of her love's stratagem, and she determined to make a full confession to her lover. The Grand Duke was thunderstruck, but at once he recognised the emphatic importance of secrecy; for, as Vincenzio Borghini quaintly said: "Florence was the greatest market in the world for tissues and materials of all kinds, and full of evil eyes, and ears, and tongues!" Meanwhile Ferdinando had not let the water run under the Arno bridges for nothing. He discovered the surgeon-accoucheur who had attended Madonna Bianca—one Giovanni Gazzi. He maintained the fact of the confinement, but incidentally named the wet nurse, Giovanna Santi. This woman admitted that she had been instrumental in the introduction into Madonna Bianca's chamber of the newly-born son of a reputable woman, who lived with her husband behind the Stinche.
No trace could be found of these humble parents of Francesco's supposititious child, and all Ferdinando's enquiries were fruitless. Many were the tales rife, in and out of the palaces and markets, but neither the Grand Duke nor Bianca took any steps to refute them, and after being, as usual, a nine days' wonder, the subject dropped, apparently.
The Grand Duchess Giovanna gave birth, on 19th May, the following year, to a son—a sickly child to be sure, but the undoubted heir of his father. Ferdinando's hopes were shattered, but he had not done with Bianca Buonaventuri. Within nine months, on 9th February, Giovanna died, somewhat suddenly, and the Cardinal failed not to intimate that Bianca was the cause thereof, and to name poison as her means! The truth is, that the Grand Duchess one day getting out of her sedan-chair, slipped upon the polished marble floor, and, being again near her confinement, a miscarriage resulted, from which she never recovered.
Within two months of the burial of sour-tempered, unlovable Giovanna, the Grand Duke married Bianca, Pietro Buonaventuri's widow, privately in the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio.
One immediate result of this marriage was the quasi-legitimisation of the child Antonio—a vigorous youngster and certain to outlive frail little Filippo.
Reconciliation with Venice, public marriage, and Coronation were in due order celebrated, and Bianca Cappello, "the true and undoubted daughter of Venice," was enthroned in the Duomo, as the true and lawful Grand Duchess of Tuscany! Cardinal Ferdinando watched all these ceremonials from afar—the only one of his family who declined to honour the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess with his presence during the festivities.
Represented by an inferior official of his household, he remained in Rome, closely shut up in his palace, a spectacle to the world at large of ungovernable prejudice and foiled ambition. His cogitations, however, were very grateful, for he was working out in his intriguing brain a ready method for ridding himself, not alone of the two children, bars to his pretensions, but of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess also! Ferdinando was determined to succeed Francesco as Sovereign of Tuscany, come what might!
Never was a man more changed than the Grand Duke Francesco when he placed the new Grand Duchess beside him on his throne. Twelve years of gloom and disappointment gave way before the advent of the "Sun of Venice."
The best, happiest, and most popular years of his reign exactly synchronise with the period of Bianca's ascendency. No strife of parties, no pestilence, no foreign war, black-marked those years. Arts and crafts revived with the increase of population and of confidence, and men began to agree that there was something after all to be said—and to be said heartily—for Macchiavelli's "Prince," and his idea of a "Il Governo d'un solo."
In this glorious eventide of the Renaissance were reproduced some of the magnificence of its heyday, under Lucrezia and Lorenzo de' Medici.
In the early days of Francesco's infatuation for Bianca he had given forth an impassioned madrigal, which once more he sang to her as his good angel-guardian:—
"Around my frail and battered barque There is always serenely swimming, And wakefully watching me, Lest I perish, a beautiful and powerful Dolphin. Warn'd and shielded from every buffet Of the deadly wave, I feel secure. Fierce winds no longer cause me fear. I seek succour no more from oars and sails Safely accompanied by my loving Guardian!"
Francesco's devotion for Bianca continued as the years sped on their way, and he noted with supreme satisfaction that every word and action of hers were marked with unquestioning affection. The loves of Francesco and Bianca at Pratolino recalled those of Giuliano and Simonetta at Fiesole, whilst the wits, and beaux, and beauteous women who consorted there, revived the glories of the Platonic Academy.
Montaigne, who visited the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, both at the Pitti Palace and at Pratolino, in 1580, says: "I was surprised to see her take the place of honour above her husband.... She is very handsome ... and seems to have entirely subjugated the Prince."
The Cardinal was not unobservant of the trend of Florentine affairs. Plots and counterplots were quite to his liking. The Pucci conspiracy and the vengeance upon the Capponi affected him closely. Francesco was not ignorant of the patronage and encouragement vouchsafed to his secret enemies by his eminent brother in Rome—and he watched each move.
The peace and prosperity which marked the progress of the "City of the Lion and the Lily," after Bianca Buonaventuri mounted the Grand Ducal throne, were not regarded complacently by the uneasy Cardinal. The very fact that she was the admirable cause thereof, embittered his Eminence's soul, and his spleen was mightily enlarged by the creatures who pandered to his vicious ill-nature. The fascination of the Goddess engendered detestation as love was turned once more to hate in the crucible of his passions.
"She is nothing but a strumpet, and without a drop of royal blood," so he reasoned, and so he spoke; and he backed up his aphorism by conniving at the foul report in 1582, which accused "Bianca Buonaventuri"—as he always styled her—of causing poison to be administered to poor little Filippo—Giovanna's puny, sickly child! He even had the audacity to accuse Francesco of complicity, because he had ordered no elaborate court mourning, conveniently ignoring the fact that a gracious compliment was paid to Spanish custom and court etiquette, by the simplicity of the obsequies.
Plotters of other men's wrongs were ever inconsistent! One would have thought that Ferdinando would have hailed the removal of the only legitimate heir, before himself, to the Grand Duchy, but the delirium of jealousy and the fury of animosity in the Cardinal's evil heart, found a sort of culmination two years later. Bianca's daughter, Pellegrina, the only offspring of Pietro Buonaventuri, gave birth to a child. She had married, shortly after the public nuptials of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, Count Ulisse Bentivoglio di Magiola of Bologna—a by no means happy marriage as it turned out. This child, a boy, their first-born—indeed poor, pretty Pellegrina's love-child—the Cardinal affirmed "Bianca Buonaventuri" had tried to pass off as her own—another subterfuge confirmative of the first, and that his brother was conversant with the intrigue!
The Grand Duke met the gossip with impassive silence—the wisest thing he could have done—and the Grand Duchess laid herself out to make Cardinal Ferdinando utterly ashamed of himself and his foul aspersions. The integrity of her conduct, and Francesco's sapient conduct of the Government were the admiration of all Italy.
So struck was the Pope with the peace and happiness of the Medicean rule, and the personal characteristics of "the good wife and beneficent consort," as he styled her, that he bestowed upon the Grand Duchess the rare distinction of the "Golden Rose"! At first his Holiness desired the Cardinal de' Medici to head the special mission as Legate, and talked seriously to his Eminence upon his relations with the Sovereigns of Tuscany. He pointed out quite clearly the line of conduct Ferdinando should pursue—the direct converse of the position he had taken up.
The Cardinal began to reflect that the death of little Prince Filippo, and the fact that Francesco had not proclaimed Antonio his heir-apparent, left him at all events the undoubted heir-presumptive. Consequently, when the Florentine Mission, under Archbishop Giuseppe Donzelle of Sorrento, returned to Rome, and the Legate conveyed to him a cordial invitation from the Tuscan Sovereigns to visit Florence, he accepted it with the best grace he could command—keeping, at the same time, his true feelings and intentions to himself.
* * * * *
Pageant and dirge trip up each other often enough in the course of human life! The lives especially of sovereigns, through the strong light ever beating upon their thrones, are always exposed to vicissitudes of fortune. The Papal Mission had scarcely passed out of recollection, and everything in Florence was happy and prosperous—sunshine is always brightest before eclipse—when the spectre of tragedy again cast its dark shadow over the path of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess.
A right merry party was that which set off from the Palazzo Pitti to the Villa Poggio a Caiano one bright morning in October 1587. The "hunter's moon was up," for the harvest had been gathered in, and the new luscious grapes were in the vat. Pheasant awaited the coming of the sportsmen in the home-coppices, wild boar in the thickets of Monte Ginestra, and other game was ready for the hawk-on-wrist and the dog-in-leash along the smiling valley of the Ombrone.
Hunting and sporting parties were now quite in the Grand Duchess' way. Unused to such exploits upon the canals and lagunes of Venice, she had, from the moment of her elevation, sympathetically entered into the joys of horsemanship and the pastimes of the countryside. Few could beat her in point-to-point—she feared no obstacle, nor dreaded accident, the charge of wild game terrified her not.
"Magnificent," she wrote, on 15th November 1586, "was the sport.... I actually saw four very large boars fall dead at my feet." The Grand Duke, of course, as became "a perfect gentleman," was at one with Bianca in love for, and skill in, all exercises in the open air. His seat was firm, his aim was good, and he revelled in the chase.
Still of Poggio a Caiano he had unpleasing memories, for there he met Giovanna of Austria, and had the first taste of her ill-humour as he rode by her side at her scornful entry into Florence, twelve years before. But Bianca had wrought a vast change in his disposition and environment. She had interwoven fancy and reality, and Francesco was now serenely happy. Often did he sing tender madrigals as they together sauntered in the woods and indulged in pastoral pursuits.
"Sing! sing! ye birds I am wide awake Tho' silent 'mid your tender harmony; And yet I would fain join your sweet concert, Whilst upon the face of fair Bianca, 'Mirror of Love'—I fix my yearning eyes."
The Cardinal was one of this particular hunting party—indeed, the hunt had been arranged entirely in his honour, and he expressed himself as charmed with everything—and especially with the Grand Duchess. This was his first State visit to his brother's Court and his affability knew no bounds. Bianca, on her part, laid herself out to entertain her brother-in-law, and made herself especially attractive and gracious. The presence of the Archbishop of Florence added greatly to her satisfaction and Francesco's. Very wisely, young Antonio was sent to Pratolino with his governor and tutors, and in the merry company no personality could, in any way, recall unhappy incidents of the past. The days were passed in the exhilaration of sport, and the evening repasts were followed by animated conversation, ballets, music and recitations. All the brightest ornaments of the Court were present at the Grand Duchess' behest.
Bianca, herself, in the highest spirits, dressed, sang, and danced, bewitchingly. The frolics of the Orte Oricellari were transferred to the delightful hunting-box, and everybody and everything was as gay as gay could be, and no one troubled about the morrow.
Alas, when the merriment was at its height, a sudden stop was put to all the festivities, for, during the night of 8th October, the Grand Duke was taken ill with severe spasms and violent sickness. The Grand Duchess was summoned to his side, and full of alarm and devotion, she at once despatched a mounted messenger into Florence to command the attendance of the Court physicians—Messeri Giulio Agnolo da Barga and Ferdinando Cino da Roma.
They assured her that their princely patient was merely suffering from an error in diet—the dish of mushrooms, of which he had partaken freely overnight, had not been well prepared—but they considered that all ill effects would disappear as suddenly as they had arisen. The report of Francesco's illness reached the Vatican, and the Pope addressed a kindly letter to the Grand Duchess, conveying a good-natured homily to the Grand Duke upon the evils of gluttony!
Bianca cast aside her sparkling coryphean tinsel, and, putting on a quiet gown and natty little cap, appointed herself nurse-in-chief to her dear husband, and no one was better fitted for the post. Torquato Tasso, her Poet-Laureate, noted her tender, compassionate character and her sweet sympathy with human infirmities. In 1578 he had put forth the first of his Cinquanta Madrigali, with a pathetic dedication to the Grand Duchess.
"Had your Highness," he wrote, "not experienced yourself both good and evil fortune, you could not so perfectly understand, as you do, the misfortunes of others." He goes on, in his Rime, to extol his patroness:
"Lady Bianca, a kindly refuge Holds and cheers one in sad and weary pain."
Matters assumed, however, a very different aspect on the morning of the tenth, for the Grand Duchess was seized with symptoms exactly similar to those of the Grand Duke, whose condition by no means warranted the confidence of the physicians. Alarm spread through the villa and the guests departed in the greatest anxiety. The Cardinal alone remained, and his lack of solicitude and general indifference gave the members of the suite occasion for remark and suspicion.
He assumed the air of the master of the place, and gave orders as he deemed well. Into the household he introduced some servants of his own, and ordered out his Florentine bodyguard. Urgent messages passed to and fro between him and his brother Piero de' Medici, and communications were opened with Domina Cammilla, the Cardinal's stepmother in the convent of Saint Monica. These did not allay the universal distrust.
Bianca's own physician failed to diagnose her indisposition, whilst the Court physicians scouted the idea—already being translated into words—that the sudden attacks of the Grand Ducal couple were due to poison. What else could it be? The symptoms pointed that way and no other!
On the third day tertiary fever intervened, with incessant thirst and fits of delirium, and Francesco's condition caused the gravest anxiety. Bianca was inconsolable. Unable to wait upon him, and suffering exactly as was he, she penned, propped up with pillows, a piteous appeal to the Pope, in which she craved his Holiness's prayers and benedictions, and also his fatherly protection for Francesco and herself. She said: "I do not feel at all sure of the Cardinal." The pontiff replied sympathetically, and assured her that no wrong should be done her or the Grand Duke by anybody.
Francesco showed no signs of improvement, but gradually got weaker. When too late for any remedial measures to have effect, the physicians, in private conference, agreed that the cause of his seizure was poison, but—looking from the clenched hand of the dying prince to the open palm of his successor—they, in sordid self-interest, held their tongues. Who had administered the fatal drug, and when, and where, had better not be published! If by a fraternal hand, then it was no concern of theirs!
The Grand Duke expired in agony on the tenth day after his seizure. Bianca could not leave her couch to soothe his last moments. She was nearly as far gone as he, and her attendants waited upon her with the gloomiest forebodings. To her impassioned cries for her husband, they returned deceptive answers. None of her kith and kin were near to comfort her. Her only brother, Vettor, had been dismissed the Tuscan Court in the year of her coronation for unseemly and presumptuous behaviour, and his wife went back with him to Venice. There was no time and no one to correspond with her favourite cousin Andrea. Her tenderly-loved daughter, Pellegrina was at Bologna, nursing her own little Bianca, lately born, and could not travel so far as Florence.
Little Antonio would have been an affectionate companion in his loving foster-mother's illness, but the child was at Pratolino with Maria and Eleanora, unhappy Giovanna's daughters. The former, just fifteen years old, had been Bianca's special care. She was a precocious child, and her stepmother imparted to her some of her own delightful inspirations—the two were inseparable. What a comfort she would have been in gentle ministrations to the suffering Grand Duchess!
Perhaps, had pain-racked, dying Bianca imagined the splendid destiny of the attractive young Princess Maria, she might have gathered no little solace. Could she but have seen her own example and her precepts reincarnated in a Queen of France—for Maria became the consort of Henry II., and ruled him, his court and realm—she would have turned her face to the wall with greater equanimity.
Just before his death the Grand Duke sent for Ferdinando, told him he had been poisoned by no one but himself, and charged him with the double murder, for he had constant news, of course, of Bianca's illness. He asked him in that solemn hour to honour both of them in burial, to protect the little boy Antonio and his two young daughters, Maria and Eleanora, and to treat kindly all who had been faithful and true to Bianca and himself. Then he gave him the password for the Tuscan fortresses, and asked for his confessor, and so he passed away. As soon as Francesco was dead, Ferdinando demanded to be admitted to the bedside of Bianca. Concealing from her the fatal news, he intimated that Francesco had consigned to him the conduct of affairs, and in the most heartless, inhuman fashion possible, bade her prepare for death!