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Intriguing biography of a little known Medici princess
on 18 December 2012
Purchased on a whim, this has proved to be an absolutely excellent book and I am so glad I bought it. The lives of the Medici family and their centuries long relationship with their home town and fief, Florence, is fascinating stuff. This Tuscan city and its beautiful buildings almost become another character in the book as we trace the life of Isabella, beloved daughter of Cosimo de Medici, who had greatly increased the power and importance of the Medicis by becoming the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his Spanish wife Eleanora di Toledo, in the mid 16th century. One of 11 siblings, not all of whom lived long, Isabella was the absolute apple of her "Babbo's" eye from infancy onwards. She, in turn, adored him. This did not, however, stop him from marrying her strategically to the deeply unpleasant Paulo of the Orsini family in Rome. Thanks to their special relationship, however, her father left it to the husband to make the necessary trips back and forth to see his wife and she basked in the freedom both financial and (dangerously) romantic that such an arrangement permitted. After her mother's death, she became for a time the first lady of Florence with immense privilege and influence.
Such a charmed existence, full of the parties and hunting trips that she adored, could not be sustained after the death of her father, which occurred when she was in her early 30s and the fond mother of two children. The new Grand Duke was one of her more unpleasant brothers and as she came under increasing pressure to leave Florence and join the by now obese and debauched Paulo in Rome, she began to be a serious and expensive thorn in his side. Isabella had long been romantically involved with another member of the Orsini family, the handsome Troilo, who had acted as an ambassador for the Medici Dukes in France and elsewhere. This relationship had had the tacit approval of her father, who perhaps regretted saddling her with such a horrible husband. However, the new Grand Duke was not so forgiving and barely two years after Cosimo's death, during a trip to one of the family's many country villas, the news was broken that the Lady Isabella had passed away. In a horrible parallel another brother Pietro had disposed of his own troublesome young Spanish wife just a few weeks earlier. Contemporary accounts indicate that both women were brutally strangled. It was an absolutely gruesome ending for two beautiful women who had been married against their personal inclinations, and contrary to the hypocritical morality of the times, had consoled themselves with lovers. The husbands in question, of course, were free to indulge in every vice.
One imagines that Grand Duke Cosimo would have been absolutely horrified by the fate of his favourite daughter. Isabella herself is a vivid presence in the book, both through extensive quotations from her correspondence and in the stunning portraits which illustrate her story. No shrinking violet, she grasped the freedom and independence that came her way, but ultimately became a tragic victim of murder at the hands of the very men to whom she would have looked for protection. It was a superficially glamorous society in which endless plotting and murders became so commonplace that they barely raised eyebrows. This book throws open a window on that time, that place and these people truly drawing the reader in. I feel I know Isabella de Medici. which is the purpose of biography - of which this book is a first class example, with its echoes of the equally tragic Duchess of Malfi.