Renaissance Trivia: Medici Bones

Florence’s long-dead ruling family was in the news last week as scientists announced the results of their investigation into the death of Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. They exhumed his bones, looking for signs of poisoning, or something else.

The cause of death turned out to be something else: malaria. Killer of Dante, and so many Italians.

That spoils one or two good stories of Shakespearian proportions that have been circulating for 400 years.

In one story. Francesco died from eating a poison tart prepared by the love of his life, the lovely Venetian noblewoman, Bianca Cappello. She was Francesco’s mistress for the years while he was still married to plain Giovanna of Austria, but then the lovers married when Giovanna died in 1578. That was in a fall, they said. There’s a lot of stairs in the Pitti palace. Accidents happen, they say. A pity

It’s not that Bianca meant to kill the Duke, according to the the story. It’s a little like that mix-up with the poison wine in final act of Hamlet. Bianca’s intended victim was the duke’s younger brother, Cardinal Fernando de Medici, to whom succession would pass should she fail to produce a male heir, which at that point seemed likely. The Cardinal and the brother Duke had not been on the best of terms since his taking up with Bianca.

Bianca’s fortune rested on her producing that heir. She was desperate, so desperate in fact that she faked a pregnancy and tried to swap out the new-born child of a maid, telling the maid that the infant boy was still-born. When her doctor later disclosed the fraud, that naturally lead to conjecture as to what else this woman might do, like maybe baking a poison tart and offering it to her brother-in-law.

Good plots get their complications. In this one, Bianca’s husband eats the tart intended for this brother. He falls ill. Bianca is so distressed that she poisons herself and dies within hours of her husband’s death.

And then there’s another story that says Fernando poisoned both his brother and sister-in-law.

What we do know is that the cardinal, does become the new Grand Duke of Tuscany.


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