Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Last Grand Duchess and the Heist of the Century

     One of Michelangelo’s most brilliant works is the Medici Crypt in the Florentine Church of San Lorenzo. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the mass of brilliant names buried there - roughly fifty members of the world’s most influential family lay entombed in marble sepulchers - and, even more easy to pass over some of the lesser known members of the family. To the average tourist with only a minimal grasp of history, this may be excusable. But what is not excusable is losing out on the opportunity to pay homage to a little known Medici whose name isn’t as famous as Cosimo de Medici or Lorenzo il Magnifico, but whose legacy and contributions to the city of Florence, the Tuscan people, and indeed the world are just as momentous. 

 The Tomb and Monument of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, Florence.

    Anna Maria Luisa de Medici was born on August 11th, 1667 to Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici, the ruler of Tuscany, and his royal-born French wife Marguerite d’Orleans de Bourbon, granddaughter of King Henri IV of France. Her childhood was dominated by the almost incessant quarreling between her parents. Marguerite hated anything Italian and especially the Medici Family, despite the fact that her grandmother was a Medici herself. Several times she had attempted to induce an abortion by means of riding in order to kill Anna Maria Luisa, but to no avail. Stressed and harried, Cosimo III agreed to a legal separation in 1674, and Anna Maria’s mother abandoned her and her brothers for the Convent of Montmartre in France. She was a girl of just seven.
    Worn down by the disastrous state of affairs in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Cosimo III had little choice but to elicit the help of his mother Vittoria della Rovere, who would end up raising his young children.

    In time, Anna Maria grew up to be a beautiful young woman, and one of the most eligible brides on the European continent. It was proposed that she be wed to Dauphin Louis de Bourbon of France, the son of King Louis XIV; however, Cosimo III did not like this idea, and eventually rejected it. She was then proposed as a match for King Peter II Braganza of Portugal; but Peter, fearing that Anna Maria had inherited her mother’s flippant temperament, declined the offer. 

Anna Maria as the Grand Princess of Tuscany

    After a few more rejections, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I suggested Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II von Wittelsbach. Finally seeing a groom worthy of his beloved daughter, Cosimo III consented to the match, and the pair were wed by proxy in 1691. A few days later, she and her retinue set out, arriving eventually in Dusseldorf, where the Elector Palatine’s court resided.
    She soon became pregnant, but miscarried. Johann Wilhelm had at some point contracted syphilis, and this is generally accepted as the reason for the barrenness that would plague Anna Maria all her life. Despite the lack of issue, the couple shared a harmonious marriage. In keeping with Medici support for the arts and scholarship, Anna Maria went about transforming Dusseldorf from a provincial city to an artistic capital of Europe. French playwrights and Italian mathematicians drew many travelers, from Portugal to Russia.

The Elector and Electress Palatine dance at their court in Dusseldorf

    Cosimo III was impressed with the brilliance of his daughter’s court. Due to the fact that his brother and two sons lacked male issue, Cosimo altered Tuscan Succession Laws to allow for a female succession should the male-line succession fail. Following the failure of Anna Maria Luisa to inherit, for whatever reason, the succession would then fall to the Medici-Ottajano Branch, or the Medici of Caprara and Verona, as per the normative laws of succession in Tuscany, as well as Vatican Law. The Tuscan Senate wholeheartedly approved the plan. 

Anna Maria in hunting dress

    In 1713, Cosimo’s eldest child Grand Prince Ferdinando died, making the issue of the Tuscan succession that much more urgent. To complicate issues, Elisabeth Farnese, heiress of Parma and Queen of Spain, laid claim to Tuscany as a descendant of Margherita de Medici. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI repeatedly changed his stance on the issue, but eventually conceded that the succession proposed by both Cosimo and the Tuscan people was to be accepted. In 1716, Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II died, and Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, now the Dowager Electress, returned to Florence in mourning. 

The Dowager Electress in mourning

    Two years later, in 1718, France, England, and the Dutch Republic selected Don Charles of Spain, the son of Elisabeth Farnese, as the heir and successor of Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici. Anna Maria Luisa, the heir by both Tuscan Law and Vatican Law, was not even consulted, and Grand Duke Cosimo III was reduced to the role of a spectator in matters of the fate of his family, wealth, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. No matter how much he, as the Sovereign Ruler of Tuscany, or the Tuscan people protested against foreign interventions in local matters, the negotiations as to his own family’s fate continued without even the slightest consultation given to him.

The Dowager Electress holding a miniature of her late husband

In the midst of this abuse of proper decorum, Anna Maria Luisa’s mother Marguerite died, and her wealth was appropriated by the European Powers and given to her distant relative the Princess of Epinoy rather than her children, as had been stipulated by both her will and a contract signed in 1674. This was a deliberate attempt to starve the Medici of funds and harry them into compliance. Cosimo was not intimidated, and he was determined to see his cherished daughter ascend the throne should she outlive her brother Gian Gastone. Grand Duke Cosimo III issued a final proclamation that Anna Maria Luisa should succeed her brother unhindered and that the Grand Duchy of Tuscany should remain independent; however, instead of giving it the slightest attention, it was completely ignored by Europe, a snub to a ruler who held the title of Grand Duke. Cosimo III died unsure and nervous a few days later.
Grand Duke Gian Gastone ascended the throne. Deeply depressed and melancholic, he and his wife shared a mutual loathing, and never had any children. His relationship with his sister was complicated, and she was resented by him for her role in negotiating his marriage on behalf of their father some years before. Nevertheless, she attempted to improve his public image by hosting parties and fetes; his ridiculous behavior drove courtiers away. 

In 1736, as the War of Polish Succession raged on, Don Carlos of Spain was banished from the Grand Duchy, and Francis III of Lorraine was made the usurping heir in his stead. The Spanish troops who had held Tuscany by force were withdrawn, and were replaced by a large occupying force of Austrian troops.
In 1737, Grand Duke Gian Gastone died. The envoy of Francis III of Lorraine offered Anna Maria Luisa a nominal regency until his master could arrive; seeing that this was beneath the dignity of the last surviving member of the main line of the greatest Royal House that history had ever seen, she laughed at the proposal and politely declined.
She knew that Austria would be after both her family’s wealth and vast collection of art. She feared that it would be taken from the city that she loved so dearly, bartered off, and hung in villas and palaces from Sagres to St. Petersburg. So she engineered a plan that is perhaps her most lasting contribution to the city of Florence and the world, an act that she is still honored for when people congregate at her tomb annually to say a Mass for the repose of her soul - She wrote a will. And in that will, she legally protected the Medici artwork from the greedy hands of the men who surrounded her, waiting eagerly for her to die so they could all get a piece of the Medici legacy. In what is now known as the Patto di Famiglia, or Family Pact, she willed all her wealth and property to the Tuscan State, provided that not even a jewel-encrusted paper weight be removed from the city of Florence.
Francis III of Lorraine may have been greedy and unscrupulous, but he was not stupid. He knew better than to break the agreement upon her death, as the Florentine princess was much beloved throughout both Italy and the entire world. The people had already proved themselves extremely antagonistic to Austrian occupation; several sporadic rebellions in favor of the Medici had to be violently suppressed, earning him even more of the enmity of the Tuscan people before he had even begun to reign. He didn’t dare removed anything from the city. 

Anna Maria Luisa dazzles in a Spanish gown

Anna Maria Luisa finished her days as a private citizen, stripped of her wealth, titles and property, and banished to her own wing of the palace which her family had refurbished, embellished, expanded, and in which she had been raised. Perhaps feeling guilty for his treatment of her (although not guilty enough to rectify the situation), Francis III instructed his regent to invite her to his parties in the other wing of the Palazzo Pitti. However, the lustful, riotous, crude parties which the Prince de Craon hosted in her beloved childhood home proved to much for her, and deeply offended her devoutly Catholic sensibilities. She must have wondered with a touch of anger at how the world could be so strange at times; that the last days of the Last Medici Grand Princess, heiress to a family legacy that included Popes and Princes, Artists and Cardinals, a family which had almost singlehandedly engineered the Renaissance, would be spent enduring a lascivious man who drunkenly groped women in the childhood home where she once played. That the world could treat her family thus, after how well her family had treated the world. 

Anna Maria in her old age

At least she did not allow her pain to cloud her judgment; her clear thinking at the time of the Family Pact not only ensured that her family legacy had been saved, but actually saved the City of Florence from receding into the background, as had happened to Rome following numerous sacks. Thanks to her, Florence today remains an incredibly wealthy city, it’s tourism industry attracting people from both near and far who long to see the grandeur of the Medici and the works of priceless art which they commissioned and financed.

The Dowager Electress as the undisputed First Lady of Florence

Her last days were spent overseeing the construction of an unfinished Cathedral started by her great-great grandfather Grand Duke Ferdinando I de Medici. The day of her death was unusual; hurricanes and storms raged throughout the city, as if to show God’s displeasure with the treatment of such a dignified woman. A devout Catholic to the end, her funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, and the people of Florence were struck by the loss of such a deeply beloved woman. She had protected and sheltered them as much as she was able to during two occupations, and upon her death had ensured the city of its lifeblood. She alone provisioned that it's libraries remained open, it’s museums remained full, and it’s schools remained funded, providing opportunities to the common man that were rare elsewhere in Europe.
Her successors in the role of First Lady of Florence never did garner nearly as much public support as she. Some of the Habsburg-Lorraine rulers loathed by the people. Habsburg-Lorraine had begun occupying other small-northern Italian states in a manner similar to Tuscany, such as the usurpation of Mantua upon the death of Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga; collectively, the Austrian usurpers and their consorts earned the scorn of Italy, some for their negligence and cruelty, some for their outrageous behavior, such as Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess Consort of Parma, who was known for cross-dressing as a man and engaging in orgies with her guards.
But for the Tuscan people, Anna Maria remains somewhat of a folk legend. As even Church Law at the time was unable to prevent the usurpation by Austria and ensure the establishment of the Branch of Medici-Ottajano, she was the last of the Medici; her death was a cultural blow for Tuscany, as, in their eyes, a grand epoch of art, music, and scholarship had died and lay entombed with her in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.

The Elector and Electress Palatine in "Homage to the Arts"

Others may have followed her, and occupied her station, sleeping in her bed, dining at her table, riding in her carriages and holding balls in the Palace halls she once skipped through as a child. They may have spoken her tongue and reclined where she once had, worn her dresses and finery. But in the eyes of the Tuscan people, the Last Grand Duchess had died, and nothing could bring her back.

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