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Murders and marriages

Catherine de’ Medici goes ‘full circle’

By Linda Falcone

Issue 3, Spring/Summer 2023

Francesco Bianchi Bonavita, 1627. Detail

The Wedding of Catherine de’ Medici to Duke Henri of Orleans, Private Collection

Catherine de’ Medici, one of history’s most famous queen consorts, brought the fork to France, along with porcelain tableware, and imported new-world specialties the court had never seen, including chocolate, coffee, even potatoes. She introduced the wearing of underwear, donned the country’s first pair of high-heeled shoes on her wedding day, and brought in fads like perfumed gloves – which she was rumored to use against her enemies, when politics warranted a touch of poison.

It took Catherine and Henry II nearly a decade to get pregnant, after the couple wed in 1533 – both at fourteen – while the boy was still the Prince of Orléans. When Catherine finally conceived, it was not thanks to the diviners, magicians and medics who worked for years to boost her fertility, borrowing from their gilded books of rules and remedies. The potion recorded as helping the queen was her chef’s bird-giblet broth, whose benefits were apparently enduring. Catherine ultimately produced ten children, seven of whom survived to ‘marriageable age’. When Henry II was accidently killed during a jousting match, in 1559, she served as regent for two of her kingly sons – Francis II and Charles XI – who ascended to the throne while underage, and would continue to exercise considerable influence over the French court, even after her third son Henry III was crowned, in adulthood.

In novels and films, including Alexandre Dumas’ La Reine Margot, Catherine is portrayed as supreme antagonist, who pushes her unwilling daughter Marguerite into a loveless marriage to Henri of Navarre, a prominent member of the Huguenots, a French protestant group. Strangely, just days after the couple’s wedding, in 1572, Catherine is blamed as being the mastermind behind the Saint Bartholomew Day’s massacre – during which thousands of Protestants were brutally murdered in Paris, at the hands of Catholic nobles. Doubts remain regarding the extent of Catherine’s alleged involvement in this bloody incident, which is, in any case, indicative of the religious strife that plagued the country throughout her reign and regency.

Édouard Debat-Ponsan, 1880, One Morning at the Gates of the Louvre, Musée d’Art

Plots and patronage aside, another of Catherine’s legacies lies in her skillful marriage negotiations. Although the Medici never made good on the dowry the French royals were promised when she tied the knot, Catherine knew that weddings were a highest-bidder business, and the oldest form of political strategy. In her world, wives were the way to guarantee generations of power. Though Catherine was unsuccessful in convincing England’s Queen Elizabeth I to marry one of her frail sons, she did manage to place two of her own daughters in strategic marriages meant to ensure the continuance of the House of Valois. Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth was wed to the ultra-powerful Philip II of Spain; Claude, her second-born – known as Claudia, in Italy – was given in marriage to Charles III of Lorraine. Their spirited daughter Christine was Catherine’s favorite.

Like Catherine herself, little Christine lost her mother in infancy. To her grandmother’s delight, she was highly intelligent, and historians have made it a point to emphasize that she was not a beauty, at least by the standards of her contemporaries. Catherine, whom the French people had snubbed as a ‘shopkeeper’s daughter’ before cluing into the resourcefulness of her character, knew that being a ‘beauty’ was not everything. She had gained the court’s respect eventually, and it had not been because of the gowns she’d brought, which were so-bejeweled no fabric was needed as lining. Pretty or not, her darling Christine was bred for Florentine marriage. Gaining a foothold in Catherine’s native city would allow the older woman to return ‘full circle’ to the land of her youth – at least in spirit.

The opportunity they were waiting for presented itself following the death of Florence’s Grand Duke Francesco and his second wife Bianca Cappello. Catherine proposed Christine as ‘candidate’, when the late ruler’s brother, Cardinal Ferdinando, cast off ‘the cloth’, and began seeking a woman with whom to secure the dynasty’s continuance. Catherine was convinced the pair would get along well, ultimately. They did, in fact. Never mind that Ferdinando may have been the one to put the ‘strange’ in the strange circumstances surrounding Francesco and Bianca’s death, possibly through arsenic poisoning.

Christine de Lorraine married Ferdinando through proxy, and the conditions of that agreement were negotiated by Queen Catherine herself, but the bride did not arrive in Florence, until nearly two years after their union was made official, first due to her father’s death, and later, because she refused to leave the ailing Catherine’s bedside.

Salimbeni Ventura, XVI century. Wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici to Christine of Lorraine

National Archives of Siena

Christine finally made the trip to Florence, in 1589, after her grandmother’s funeral. She entered Medici wonderland, fittingly prepared for a month-long nuptial celebration full of public festivals, of a scale and grandeur that only the Medici could muster. Pitti’s courtyard was purposely flooded for the reenactment of a naval battle in which Christian ships stormed a Turkish fort. The verses of Dante, Ovid, Plato and Plutarch were woven together in six ‘intermezzi’ performances, whose overall message was meant to ward off evil and open the gates of a Golden Age made possible through a new Medici marriage. Their wedding can only be compared to the modern reader’s idea of a world fair. Christina was a French princess and a Medici – she had all the background she’d ever need to drive the Duchy forward. Poetry, pageantry, performance and craftsmanship – any media was worthy, when it came to welcoming a marriage whose destiny, was ‘written in the stars’, a good omen, many believed, for subjects and sovereigns alike.


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