She comes bearing the calamities of the Greeks
Caterina Maria Romula de Medici was born at around eleven o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 13 April 1519. Her father, Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino, scion of the ruling House of Florence, had married her mother, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, the previous year. This royal-blooded French countess and great heiress made a brilliant catch for the Medici, who were considered by many in France to be merely nouveaux riches merchants. Since their magnificent wedding, hosted by the bride’s kinsman, King Francis I of France, and the couple’s glorious return to Florence, there had been little cause for celebration. Madeleine’s pregnancy, which had been announced in June, progressed well but the young duke, whose health had been poor for some time, had fallen ill in the autumn of 1518. Intermittent high fevers and fears over his condition led to him leaving Florence where the newlyweds had been living in princely state. The duke, probably suffering from syphilis and possibly tuberculosis, moved to the cleaner air of the surrounding countryside to await the birth of his child. By the time he returned to the city for his wife’s confinement, he was dying.fn1
Immediately after her birth, attendants carried the baby to her bedridden father for inspection. The news that her mother had by now also become very ill was kept from the duke for fear of hastening his decline. The fact that she had borne him a daughter cannot have cheered him much since there would clearly be no further issue from this illustrious couple. In an attempt to brighten the gloomy reality of the baby’s sex, a contemporary chronicler applied a sycophantic gloss to the ducal disappointment: he declared that the couple ‘have both been as pleased as if it had been a boy’.1Due to the illness of both parents, the child’s hurriedly organised baptism took place on Saturday, 16 April at the family church of San Lorenzo. With four senior clerics and two noble relations in attendance, the baby received the names Caterina, a Medici family name, Maria, since it was the day of the Holy Virgin, and Romula, after the founder of Fiesole – although I shall henceforth refer to her throughout as Catherine. On 28 April the duchess breathed her last followed by the duke only six days later on 4 May. The entombment of the couple in the splendid family vault at the church where their baby had so recently been baptised provided a dismal conclusion to their brief marriage.
On the day the duke died his friend the poet Ariosto had arrived to condole with him over the death of the duchess. When he discovered that only an orphan child remained of the marriage that had promised a revival of the Medici fortunes he wrote a short ode, ‘Verdeggia un solo ramo’, dedicating it to the last hope of this pre-eminent merchant dynasty:
A single branch, buds and lo,
I am distraught with hope and fear,
Whether winter will let it blow,
Or blight it on the growing bier.
Catherine owed her existence to the obsessive Italian territorial ambitions of Francis I of France. Between the fall of the western Roman Empire and its late-nineteenth-century unification, Italy was a patchwork of principalities, duchies, and city-states. Most of these showed a precocious vigour in the arts, technology and trade, making them tempting acquisitions for outsiders. Unlike Florence, they were usually ruled by families descended from famous warriors (known as condottieri); names like the Sforza of Milan and the Gonzaga of Mantua evoke the mercenary soldiers who carved their fortunes from battle. While a small number of states such as Venice, Genoa and Florence were – for a time at least – independent, by the mid-sixteenth century the majority were ruled either directly or indirectly by Spain. From 1490 until 1559, when Spanish supremacy was established, Italy became the bloody arena where the two Continental superpowers played out their bitter struggle to dominate Europe.
Francis I, descended through his great-grandmother from the Visconti of Milan, required a sturdy ally in the peninsula to press his claim for the duchy. Accordingly, he forged an alliance with Pope Leo X, Giovanni de Medici. Unlike popes today, His Holiness was not only Christ’s representative on earth, but he also exercised the temporal powers of a monarch as ruler of the Papal States, most of which were in central Italy. The papal tiara was a triple crown that placed the popes above kings and emperors; not only did the papacy hold claim to a huge amount of property throughout the Catholic world (in pre-Reformation England one fifth of the land was held by Rome) but the pope also had the right to legal jurisdiction in Catholic countries and many types of legal cases were referred to the Ecclesiastical Court. To strengthen his agreement with the Medici Pope, Francis decided to arrange the marriage of an orphaned Bourbon heiress, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, to Leo’s nephew, Lorenzo de Medici. At Leo’s instigation Lorenzo had recently snatched the duchy of Urbino from the della Rovere family.fn2 For this enterprise the Pope had provided prodigious financial support with monies gained from the creation of thirty new cardinals. In private, Francis felt snobbishly sceptical about Lorenzo’s ability to keep the newly acquired fief of Urbino, commenting that he was after all ‘only a tradesman’.
It is true that by early-modern standards the Medici of Florence could not claim any blue-blooded descent, but wise husbandry and steady expansion of the family banking business by the founder Giovanni di Bicci de Medici (1360–1429) had ensured that they were the most prosperous and powerful family in the important city-state of Florence. The Medici originally came from the Mugello, ten miles north of Florence. Although their name and the red balls or palle – varying in number from twelve to six – on a field of gold on their emblem suggested medicine, and they appropriated the martyred physicians Sts Cosmas and Damian as their patron saints, they had always been in commerce, specialising in wool, silk, precious metals, spices and banking.fn3 They rose to become papal bankers and with the economic opportunities after the decimation of the Black Death in 1348–49 there was much demand for their services. Like his father Giovanni, Cosimo de Medici (1389–1464) was a quiet, unassuming man who did not favour the grandiose way of life of his later descendants, though he did build the most impressive palace yet seen in the city – the Palazzo Medici. Today, although much changed since Cosimo’s time, one can still see the formidable defensive walls that once protected Catherine as a young child from a rebellious mob; the solid outer walls reflect the need for protection against the political uncertainties of that age and hide the building’s exquisite interiors.
Cosimo was learned and philanthropic, and the most significant private patron of the arts of his day, employing Michelozzo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and other leading figures of the early Renaissance. Underlining their importance by patronising the arts, which, from the thirteenth century onwards, became the most visible symbol of Italian wealth and dynamism, the Medici played an indispensable role in the process which produced the Italian Renaissance.
Cosimo took the family bank to new heights, opening branches all over Europe, including ones in London, Geneva and Lyons. After a brief period of banishment by rival Florentine factions, who tried but failed to take control of the executive council of the Florentine Republic, the Signoria, Cosimo returned at the people’s invitation to become Gonfaloniere (head of the Signoria), a citizen of Florence but in effect the uncrowned ruler of the city-state. He understood the need, in order for commerce to flourish, for political harmony both internally and externally, and used his huge resources to influence matters in favour of his family and Florence. A benevolent dictator with a quiet manner, Cosimo assumed the air of a private citizen but in fact nearly all major decisions were made by him or with his consent. Pope Pius II described him as ‘the arbiter of peace and war and the moderator of the laws, not so much a private citizen as the lord of the country … he it is who gives commands to the magistrates’.2 Cosimo was looked upon as a father by many of the Florentines who, after his death, awarded him the affectionate title ‘Pater Patriae’. One contemporary called him ‘King in everything but name.’
Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo (1449–92), known as ‘The Magnificent’ (the title was given to persons of note who were not of princely blood), was to prove himself truly worthy of the sobriquet. He is perhaps the most famous of the Medici, although it was paradoxically under his charge that the family’s commercial fortunes began to decline. He was a poor banker but a superb scholar, poet and collector. History recalls Lorenzo as the extraordinary patron of such great artists as Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi, the Ghirlandaios and Verrocchio. His patronage also touched future masters such as Leonardo da Vinci. In his garden at the Palazzo Medici, Lorenzo set up a workshop for sculptors, and it was there that Michelangelo first came to the attention of buyers and artists alike. Lorenzo was a gifted diplomat, a wise politician devoted to the welfare of Florence and above all zealous in his promotion of the Medici family and its supporters. When Pope Innocent VIII heard of Lorenzo’s death he is said to have cried out, ‘The peace of Italy is at an end!’
Lorenzo had three sons; it is said that he called one good, one wise and one a fool. Unfortunately it was the ‘fool’, Piero the Fatuous (1472–1503), who was the eldest. Ill suited to rule, Piero found himself and his family quickly ejected from the republic and he later died in exile. His brother Giuliano – ‘the good’ – worked with Giovanni – ‘the wise’ – who had become a cardinal at thirteen thanks to his father’s intervention, for the only thing that mattered – their eventual return to Florence. They had to plot in penury for they were virtually bankrupt, their fortune taken by usurpers and their properties confiscated by the republic. Giovanni had a good head for intrigue but required patience; it was to be a long wait before events turned in the Medici favour again. Perhaps the family motto, Le Temps Revient (Our time will return), gave them courage. It was certainly the moral by which Catherine was later to live her life.
In 1512 a league of small Italian states managed temporarily to expel the French from Italy. Unwisely the Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini, an unremarkable but honest man, had denied the league Florentine support. The league turned upon Florence in revenge for not joining them against the French and Soderini fled with his government. The Medici seized the moment and manoeuvred to regain their lost citizenship as a new regime took power in the Arno city.
Soderini was not alone in exile following the return of the Medici. Among the friends and advisers stripped of office in the political purge was a minor official of the Second Chancery, Niccolò Machiavelli. Among other things, Machiavelli travelled on diplomatic missions to leading figures such as the Holy Roman Emperor and Cesare Borgia; he also created a Florentine militia for Soderini and was charged with matters relating to the defence of the republic. But in 1513, languishing in exile and eager to return to power, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, dedicating it to Catherine’s fatherfn4 in an effort to ingratiate himself with the family. This, Machiavelli’s most celebrated work, is a brilliant study on statecraft. The author radically discarded cherished and traditionally held tenets of the virtues that defined a good ruler; instead he boldly and emphatically embracedRealpolitik and argued that to be an effective ‘Prince’ all means were justifiable for the good of the state. The pragmatism and the ability, when necessary, to step outside normal bounds of morality were not based on Christian or Classical ideals. The goodwill of the people was a necessity, but a ruler must be prepared to earn their respect by using exemplary punishment, or eliminating those who endangered the nation’s health. It took some time for the work to surface and make an impact outside Florence but the ‘little book’ was to bedevil Catherine during the wars of religion and long afterwards as this work, advocating a steely adherence to practical solutions for the good of the state, was quoted (often purposely out of context) by her enemies. They called it Catherine’s bible, and it eventually acquired the reputation as a manual for cruel autocrats while the name Machiavelli became synonymous with scheming, evil and tyranny.
On 1 September 1512, after eighteen years of exile, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s two surviving sons, Giovanni and Giuliano, made their triumphant return to Florence. With them came Lorenzo’s grandson and eventual heir, also called Lorenzo. Unfortunately he had none of the qualities of his grandfather. Spoiled by his doting mother, Alfonsina, he grew into an arrogant, selfish and lazy young man. This pair were not only grasping, but once the Medici returned to power in Florence, the young Lorenzo lived extravagantly and with such strutting grandiosity that he risked losing the affection people still held for his family.
Almost immediately after the joyful reinstatement of the Medici in Florence, Julius II died and Giovanni was elected Pope Leo X. He was thirty-seven years of age, overweight, troubled by a stomach ulcer and an agonising anal fistula. His formal entry on horseback into the Vatican was thus not quite the unalloyed pleasure it might have been. Although sitting side-saddle to avoid some of the discomfort, he suffered terribly from the heat and the pain of riding in his condition. Those who stood nearby suffered almost as much from the overpowering and noxious smell emanating from his ulcerous stomach and the infected fistula on his enormous backside.3 Nevertheless Leo’s joy was evident to all and the crowd responded with an enthusiastic welcome. While the words he is supposed to have uttered upon his election – ‘Now God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it!’ – are almost certainly apocryphal, enjoy it he did. The glorious painting by Raphael of Leo seated flanked by two cardinals shows us a Renaissance voluptuary. His face is plump, his body plumper, the large pendulous cheeks, bulbous eyes and sensuous lips were strong family traits; unfortunately, some of these were later to be inherited by his great-niece Catherine. Though nepotistic, Leo was far less prey to some of his predecessors’ vices, and this enlightened man brought the fruits of his learning to the papacy. He lived in splendour with a huge household; naturally generous, after his years of exile and poverty he now possessed the means to patronise the arts, commission building projects and above all to indulge himself and others. He gave lavish and frequent banquets at which he entertained his guests with novelties, such as tiny birds flying out of pies. He loved comedies and practical jokes.
Leo’s most serious flaw as Pope was his failure to grasp the critical need for reform of the Church. While this need had existed for some time, it had become acute since the rise of an obscure German monk named Martin Luther. Luther had spoken out against the sale of indulgences, appealing to the Church to rid itself of corruption and criticising the worldliness of the papal court. He believed in ‘sola fide’ (faith alone) and that man could reach God without the intervention of ‘cleric or sacrament’. Leo called the controversy ‘a monkish squabble’, not realising that the touchpaper had been lit for a conflagration that would one day split the Church, tear nations apart and shake the thrones of his great-niece Catherine and her sons.
As head of the family and due to his removal to Rome, Leo needed to select a successor to protect the family’s position in Florence. It was decided that Giuliano ‘the good’ (whom Leo thought far too soft) should help the new Pope in Rome and that their nephew Lorenzo could be left in charge of Florentine affairs, though he had no patience for them and was often in Rome with his uncle, leaving Florentines to feel like a subject state. This was hardly in the tradition of even the nominal Florentine republic but with a Medici wearing the papal tiara, Leo wisely made it seem that there would be plenty of advantages for the people. In 1515 Giuliano travelled as Leo’s emissary to France to congratulate Francis I on his accession to the throne. The King was in a hurry to conquer Milan and take Naples, of which the Pope was suzerain. The two met later the same year at the papal town of Bologna where they signed an agreement that restored relations between the French Church and the papacy.
To flatter Leo, the King offered Giuliano the dukedom of Nemours in France and his Aunt Philiberta of Savoy’s hand in marriage. In exchange Francis was to have the Italian states of Parma and Piacenza, and the support of the Pontiff regarding his ambitions for Milan and Naples. The marital alliance between the ruling House of France and the merchant Medici was as thrilling to the latter as it was to prove short-lived. Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, died within a year of his marriage, leaving no legitimate heir but only a bastard son named Ippolito. Now all Leo’s hopes rested with his nephew Lorenzo.
Leo and Francis both wished to continue their alliance despite Giuliano’s death, so Lorenzo, by then the Duke of Urbino, became His Holiness’s emissary representing the pope at the christening of Francis’s first-born son the Dauphin. Leo had been asked to stand godfather to the baby. Some time before the christening, Francis had written to Lorenzo to congratulate him on becoming Duke of Urbino, adding, ‘I intend to help you with all my power. I also wish to marry you off to some beautiful and good lady of noble birth and of my kind, so that the love which I bear you may grow and be strengthened.’4 Once the bride, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, had been selected, it was decided that the marriage should take place soon after the baptism of the Dauphin. The other important matter was the bride’s enormous inheritance. Both her mother, Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendôme, a royal princess, and her father, Jean III de La Tour, were dead and she shared their extensive properties in Auvergne, Clermont, Berry, Castres and Louraguais with her sister, the wife of the Scottish Duke of Albany. The Medici needed cash to re-establish themselves firmly in control of Florence, and Madeleine’s double dowry of blue blood and gold was gleefully anticipated by the older generation. The good times were back.
Lorenzo’s appearance in France was so sumptuous, his crimson-clad train so large, his gifts so extravagant, including a vast bed made of tortoiseshell decorated with gems and mother-of pearl, that it seemed as though an eastern potentate had arrived.5 Lorenzo and his bride-to-be immediately liked the look of each other and matters progressed better than anyone could have hoped. The duke was given the honour of holding the infant heir to France at the baptism at the Château of Amboise on 25 April 1518, and it was there that the wedding took place three days later. The groom was twenty-six years old and the bride just sixteen. At Amboise the inner courtyard was covered with fabulous silk awnings and gorgeous tapestries clothed the walls over the ten days of feasts, banquets, masked balls and ballets. During the day there were tournaments and a mock battle, which must have been fairly realistic since at least two people were killed. Francis knew how to dazzle with his entertainments and seemed particularly anxious to show the Italians, whose culture he so admired, that the French did not lack polish.
By the time the couple set off for Florence, where they arrived in September 1518, Francis had taken Lorenzo on a tour of Brittany and behaved very agreeably towards him. He also awarded the duke the Order of Saint-Michel, the highest order of French chivalry, and a company of gens d’armes (heavy cavalry). There was much to celebrate, especially upon the announcement of the young duchess’s pregnancy. The news sent Francis and Leo into raptures of delight.
It is not hard to imagine the dismay of both the Pope and the King of France when Lorenzo and Madeleine de Medici, Duke and Duchess of Urbino, both died months later, leaving only a daughter as the living token of their great schemes. To make mattersworse, Catherine fell ill in August 1519 when only three months old and for several weeks her life hung in the balance. Yet she survived and by October Leo insisted that the ‘duchessina’, as the Florentine people fondly called her, could be moved to Rome without risk to her health. Leo had already emphatically refused Francis’s request that the child be brought up at the French Court. He sensibly declined to offer up his great-niece as a hostage against the promises he had recently made to Francis, for he was already planning to break them. The circumstances had completely changed, so now must his policies. After wiping away his seemly tears at the death of his nephew and niece, Leo lost no time in opening secret talks with King Charles of Spain, now Charles V the new Holy Roman Emperor and Francis’s mortal enemy.fn5 By May 1521 Leo was openly allied to Charles, whom he had promised to crown as Emperor and to invest with Naples. When he heard the news, Francis fell into a furious rage at the Pope’s betrayal and before long France and the Empire were once again at war.
When Catherine was brought to her uncle in Rome, he is said to have greeted the baby with the words: ‘She comes bearing the calamities of the Greeks!’ After a long and careful look at the baby, however, he declared with satisfaction that she was ‘fine and fat’. Leo’s first reaction to the disastrous death of Lorenzo and his wife had been to take a resigned and pious stance, saying, ‘God has given. God has taken away.’ He now faced a dilemma over whether to hand the family inheritance to the collateral branch of the Medici, whom he had hitherto studiously snubbed and ignored, regarding them as a possible threat to his dynasty, or have the illegitimate members of the senior branch made his heirs. He decided on the latter. He created Catherine Duchess of Urbino and as soon as she was old enough, Leo intended to marry her off to Ippolito, the Duke of Nemours’s son, whom he would legitimise. The pair would then become the ruling couple of Florence.
There existed another illegitimate boy, Alessandro de Medici, born in 1512, who had been loosely acknowledged as the child of Lorenzo and therefore Catherine’s half-brother. It is certain that Alessandro was in fact Cardinal Giulio de Medici’s son, though forthe sake of expediency he had been attributed to Lorenzo, not least because Giulio himself was not only illegitimate, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother, but a cardinal to boot. Meanwhile Catherine remained in the hands of her grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini. After Orsini’s death in 1520 Catherine moved into the care of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s daughter, Lucrezia Salviati, and her aunt Clarice Strozzi, the woman who was to become her surrogate mother for the next few years. Both women had married extremely rich bankers and Clarice, a strict and exigent guardian, had young children with whom the little girl could play. The Strozzi cousins became the brothers and sisters the child never had, and she loved them prodigiously for the rest of their lives.
Leo did not live long enough to see his plans for Catherine and Florence come to fruition. Having had an operation on his persistent and troublesome anal fistula in late November 1521, he had decided nevertheless to go out hunting. He caught a chill, weakened quickly and died a few days later on 1 December. Catherine’s future now depended upon the Medici maintaining power in Florence without papal prestige and influence to back them. Leo’s illegitimate cousin, Cardinal Giulio de Medici, until recently his highly efficient assistant, had hoped to succeed him, but now retreated to Florence with Catherine and the two bastard boys Ippolito and Alessandro. The new Pope was Hadrian VI, formerly Adrian of Utrecht, previously Grand Inquisitor of Spain and Charles V’s boyhood tutor (he was nicknamed ‘the Emperor’s schoolmaster’). The election of such a severe and pious man from what the Italians considered barbarian northern Europe was a horrid surprise to them. They tried to comfort themselves that at sixty-three years old he might die soon.
The French were appalled that someone so close to the Emperor now sat upon the papal throne. Nor was there to be much cheer for the Medici, as Hadrian promptly handed the duchy of Urbino back to its rightful owners, the della Rovere family.fn6 The Medici even experienced difficulties paying for some of Leo’s funeral expenses and a syndicate of leading Florentine families including the Strozzi and the Capponi contributed 27,000 ducats to help meet the costs (the monthly wage for a foot soldier at the time was 2 ducats). As security Giulio used Leo’s jewel-encrusted cross worth 18,000 ducats. A document survives describing the most precious stones that adorned it: ‘There is a central diamond, four emeralds, two large sapphires and three rubies.’ The cross was given for safe keeping to the nuns of a Roman abbey until the eventual discharge of the debt.6Although it was not a particularly prosperous time for the Medici, Catherine spent the next two years in comparative peace in Florence living with the two boys, Ippolito and Alessandro, under Cardinal Giulio’s careful supervision.
In September 1523 Hadrian VI obliged everyone except the Emperor and himself by dying, some said through poison – 450 years were to pass before a non-Italian was elected pope again. On 19 November, having used every blandishment, bribe and promise at his disposal, Leo X’s ‘ecclesiastical flunkey’, Cardinal Giulio de Medici, managed to get himself elected Pope, becoming Clement VII. This half-caste Medici set off for Rome, leaving his stooge, Cardinal Passerini, in charge of Florence nominally on behalf of the minor Ippolito. With Clement as Pope, Catherine became a valuable marriage pawn once more. Even without the Duchy of Urbino, her inheritance still meant she was an important heiress: the properties from her mother alone made her one of the richest young women in Europe.fn7 To present her in the correct setting, Clement ensured that she lived in state with a princely retinue at the Palazzo Medici.
Yet the Florentines grew restless. Despite embezzling huge sums from Florence to pay for his Court and brilliant lifestyle, Leo X had deftly managed the papacy and Florence. Clement VII, who lacked his cousin’s dexterous flair, inherited the bitterness that now emerged over Leo’s financial misdealings. People also felt unhappy with the all but direct rule from Rome barely and ineptly disguised by Passerini. To complicate matters further, it became clear that Clement did not favour Ippolito as eventual ruler of Florence, but pushed the candidacy of his own son Alessandro. Nicknamed ‘Il Moro’ because of his thick lips, dark skin and curly hair – his mother may have been a Moorish slave woman – Alessandro was growing up to be as vicious and nasty as he was ugly. Meanwhile, as time passed Ippolito had grown into a dashing, handsome and charming young man.
Clement VII had been an energetic second-in-command to Leo X and as long as life proceeded along the same lines as before, he had the ability to keep matters under control. This critical period of religious unrest and war, however, required creative initiative and Clement was lost. For much of the 1520s, Francis and Charles were either at war with each other or threatening to fight, while a clamour for Church reforms grew and Lutheranism took hold in many German states within Imperial borders. The Pope lacked the courage to deal decisively with these problems. His half-measures, secret agreements and slippery shifts in policy were to prove disastrous. Clashes between France and the Empire overflowed into Italy once more, with catastrophic results for the benighted peninsula.
In 1526 Clement formed part of a league with France, England, Florence and Venice – known as the League of Cognac – to expel the Empire from Italy. Charles V was preoccupied with the Turks who had invaded his eastern borders and had Francis acted vigorously and promptly the league could well have trounced him. Yet the French King, who had just been returned from captivity by Charles after his disastrous defeat at the battle of Pavia in 1525, seemed to have lost his touch. He failed to give the league the support it needed, which led to its defeat by the Emperor. This left Clement, Rome, Florence and eventually Catherine at Charles’s mercy. At the Emperor’s instigation a Roman faction, hostile to Clement, rose up against him and he took refuge in the fortress of Castel Sant’ Angelo on the banks of the Tiber, from where he quickly renounced the league. Once freed, he soon found himself under even greater threat.
On 6 May 1527 the Imperial troops in northern Italy had marched south and now stood before Rome: unfed, unpaid and in an ugly mood. As Charles did not pay their wages he proved powerless to stop his troops, many of them Lutherans from his own dominions, rampaging through the Eternal City. While Rome was being sacked and pillaged, her craven and luckless Pope fled once again to his redoubt at the Castel Sant’ Angelo. He rushed along a passage which led directly to the fortress with his skirts held up for him by the Bishop of Nocera to prevent him from tripping. Once in the formidable circular stronghold he sat besieged.
From his bolt-hole Clement could hear the cries of his flock begging for mercy as the Imperial troops ran amok. The soldiers taunted His Holiness from beneath the solid castle walls, promising that they would eat him when finally they breached its defences. They ran in packs, desecrating sacred relics, raping and murdering citizens, lopping off bejewelled arms and fingers, destroying ancient monuments and treasures. Some soldiers even dressed themselves in the scarlet robes of murdered cardinals. Clerics, even the most insignificant of them, who did not escape the rabble were held to ransom and in many cases recaptured and ransomed again.
Clement’s own ransom was set at nearly half a million ducats, a sum greater than his annual income. To raise the money he ordered his goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini – also besieged with him – to improvise a furnace for melting down the papal tiaras he had managed to take with him. Horses were stabled in St Peter’s itself, grotesque mock services were held and the leader of the many Lutheran despoilers carried a silken cord intended as a noose from which to hang Clement. The iconoclastic plunder of the Holy City outraged the civilised world. It was to take over seven months before the occupying mob were driven from the foetid ruins by hunger and a plague epidemic. As Rome was sacked, an insurrection was mounted in Florence. Aided by the arrival of the Emperor’s army, the overthrow of Passerini and the Medicean regime proved easy.
Catherine’s position now became fraught with uncertainty. By 11 May 1527 news had filtered back to Florence about the horrors taking place in Rome. In the Medici Palace on the via Larga, the eight-year-old girl would have grasped that this was a calamity. Clarice Strozzi, considered by many as ‘the man of the family’, proceeded to rave at Passerini, whom she thought incompetent and an unmitigated fool; she also rounded upon Alessandro and Ippolito, calling them unworthy of the Medici name to which they aspired. All the while, a menacing crowd pushed at the palace gates. Passerini and the two boys managed to escape thanks to Clarice’s contacts with the new regime, with whom she struck a deal that was promptly reneged on by Passerini. They fled Florence on 17 May. This left Catherine and her aunt to face the mob. The new rulers of Florence boiled with fury when they realised that Alessandro and Ippolito had managed to flee without fulfilling the bargain. Catherine, their remaining hostage, would not be allowed to slip through their hands.
It was decided that the child should be taken to the Santa Lucia convent in the via San Gallo, a place known for its antipathy to the Medici family. Clarice stormed in protest at Bernardo Rinuccini leading the large troop escort that had come to take her niece. They were at Poggio a Caiano (a splendid Medici country villa) where she and Catherine had managed to escape from the angry citizens, but Clarice’s exhortations availed her little and did not prevent the child from being bundled off for what were to be three hazardous years of semi-incarceration during which her life was under different degrees of threat, depending upon the tergiversations of the political scene. The little girl lived miserably in the Santa Lucia convent, but in December 1527 orders came that she be moved to the convent of Santa-Caterina of Siena, also in Florence. When the French ambassador visited her there he found the place a disease-ridden hovel and insisted that Catherine must be relocated immediately. With the permission of the Signoria (the executive council), the ambassador arranged for the child’s transfer to a far more agreeable place, the convent of the Santa-Maria Annunziata delle Murate (literally ‘the walled-in-ones’). The journey of a heavily veiled Catherine to the Murate took place at dead of night on 7 December 1527. The walls deprived her of her liberty but they also protected her from the hostile world outside. Hatred now fuelled the Florentine people’s mood as they desecrated and damaged all reminders of the Medici. During an angry outburst early in this rebellion Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the statue of David, lost its left arm when a stone was thrown at it. If Catherine were to remain a valuable negotiating tool for the Signoria, however, they must see to her well-being.
Generally regarded as pro-Medicean, the Murate was a convent which undertook the education of aristocratic young women but also allowed elderly noblewomen to withdraw from the world in some comfort. It appears from records and receipts for alms dating from between 1524 to 1527 and overseen by Cardinal Armellino, Apostolic Chamberlain for Leo X and then Clement VII, that the convent had been given substantial support by the Medici.7 One of the nuns recalled Catherine’s arrival: ‘The magistrates gave her tous and we received her very happily and graciously for the obligation we have to her family. Notwithstanding that she may have been infected by the plague we received her.… One evening at two at night the band took her to the gates of the monastery and all the nuns without fear gathered around her, protected by God and Our Lady we received no wound. The Duchessina stayed for three years.’8 She continued, ‘With how much humanity and refined conversation she would talk, [all] could not be said because she had two women who looked after her.’9
The abbess was Catherine’s godmother and she arranged for her to have the spacious and comfortable cell once occupied by a widowed relation and namesake, Caterina Riario de Medici. Spoiled by the nuns, many of whom were themselves of high birth, Catherine had found a corner of calm from the raging world outside and she learned much from these good women. Her graceful deportment, her enchanting manners – later to become such formidable weapons – the ability to charm in conversation and the strength of mind to keep her own counsel can be attributed to this time. One historian wrote, ‘At the Murate the Catherine of the wars of religion was formed.’ Here too she would have learned all the traditions and ceremonies of the Church for which she always showed reverence. Yet a truly spiritual education seems to have been omitted.
One of the nuns, Sister Niccolini, wrote of the ‘dear little child … with such gracious manners … that she made herself loved by all’ adding that she was ‘so gentle and pleasant that the sisters did all they could to ease her sorrows and difficulties’.10 Another wrote of the little girl’s ‘good disposition’.11 No wonder they felt protective of the ‘duchessina’. Death continued to take Catherine’s loved ones when her protector and mother figure, Clarice Strozzi, died on 3 May 1528. The French ambassador now became her mainstay and he did what he could to see to her well-being. After a visit he wrote to her uncle, the Duke of Albany, who had been married to Catherine’s maternal aunt, ‘Madame, your niece is still in a convent leading a good life, but rarely visited and little regarded by these Florentine signori who would gladly see her in Kingdom Come. She expects you to send her some presents from France for the Seigneur de Ferraris. I can assure you that I have never seen anyone of her age so quick to feel the good and the ill that are done her.’12
By 1528 the French forces left in Italy had been soundly beaten and Clement decided to make overtures to Charles, saying, ‘I have quite made up my mind to become an Imperialist, and to live and die as such.’ On 29 June 1529 the Treaty of Barcelona was signed between Clement and Charles. In it, Clement promised to crown Charles Holy Roman Emperor; in return Charles would support the restoration of the Medici to Florence. The coronation did indeed take place at Bologna on 24 February 1530, though Charles V was the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by a pope. The agreement also provided for a marriage between Clement’s bastard son Alessandro and Charles V’s illegitimate daughter Margaret of Austria. At Cambrai on 3 August 1529 the French signed their own peace with the Empire, known as ‘La Paix des Dames’ as it was concluded by Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy, and the Emperor’s aunt, Margaret, regent of the Netherlands. As events began to turn in Clement’s favour, the extremist People’s Party that had replaced the moderates ruling Florence early in the revolt began to wonder if ‘Kingdom Come’ might not be the best place for Catherine after all. Her murder would finally deprive the Pope of his marital jewel.
In October 1529 Imperial troops led by the Prince of Orange laid harsh and effective siege to the city of Florence. Among others, Michelangelo was drafted by the citizens to protect the city as a military engineer. Plague and famine exacerbated the people’s terror and hatred of the Medici, and their efforts to withstand the siege were not helped by traitors from within. It was now that Catherine, who had remained tucked away in the convent, became the focus of attention for the increasingly desperate rebel rulers of the city. One suggestion was that she be lowered naked in a basket, in front of the city walls and thus possibly killed by her own allies’ gunfire. There was also talk of leaving the eleven-year-old girl in a military brothel so that any valuable marriage plans by the Pontiff would be spoiled for ever. Without making a decision about Catherine’s ultimate fate, the council determined that she be removed immediately from the friendly Murate convent, from which they feared she might be liberated without too much difficulty. Thus it was that the Signoria sent Silvestro Aldobrandini with an escort of troops to fetch Catherine late on the evening of 20 July 1530. In the words of one of the nuns: ‘They decided to remove her at night and this happened with such tribulation and effort … but such force was used by the eight that we had to give her up.’13fn8
Catherine, certain that she had been condemned to death and that Aldobrandini had come to fetch her for execution, put up a struggle. In preparation the eleven-year-old girl had shorn her hair and donned a nun’s habit. Announcing that as a bride of Christ she refused to go quietly, Catherine cried out, ‘Holy Mother, I am yours! Let us now see what excommunicated wretch will dare to drag a spouse of Christ from her monastery.’14 She refused to change out of her nun’s clothing, and Aldobrandini brought her through the small streets riding on a donkey, braving a starving and menacing crowd voicing threats and open hatred. The perilous journey proved a formative experience for the young woman as Aldobrandini kept Catherine safe and surrounded by his soldiers until he delivered her to the St Lucia convent. It was here that she had first started life as a captive nearly three years earlier. She never forgot Aldobrandini’s goodness to her and when, on 12 August 1530, the siege was lifted and Clement took possession of his native city once more, she interceded for him and succeeded in having his death sentence commuted to exile. Upon her release, Catherine visited the sisters of the Murate and together they celebrated her good fortune. She remained in contact with the order for the rest of her life and wrote to them regularly, sending them money annually and giving them the revenues from one of her properties. Catherine never forgot a kindness any more than she forgave a disservice.
All too soon the girl found herself a central feature in Clement’s international policy and she moved to Rome where her ‘uncle’, as he called himself, greeted her with such warmth that the old hypocrite managed to convince one onlooker ‘she is what he loves best in the world’. Another noticed that Catherine seemed emotionally marked by her dreadful time in the hands of her family’s enemies: ‘She cannot forget the maltreatment she suffered, and is only too willing to speak of it.’ Clement installed Catherine with Ippolito and Alessandro at Rome’s exquisite Palazzo Medici (today the Palazzo Madama and used as the Italian Senate). He wanted her to acquire the veneer and accomplishments necessary for a glorious marriage. Antonio Soriano, the Venetian ambassador, described her physical appearance at the time of her arrival in Rome, writing that she was ‘small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family’.15 Nobody called her beautiful because she was not, but her manners lent her an elegance that her physique lacked. One observer from Milan called her heavy-looking, although he was probably describing her face, adding that she seemed a sensitive child who ‘for her age, shows great spirit and intelligence’. The same man noted that ‘altogether this little girl does not look like she will become a woman for a year and a half yet’.
Catherine lived under the care of her great-aunt Lucrezia Salviati (Leo X’s sister) and her husband. It is not known how she spent her days but perhaps it was in Rome, a city being rebuilt after the ravages it had endured, that she acquired her love for art in general and architecture in particular. She had the opportunity of watching the greatest artists of the day not only restoring the damaged city but creating new masterpieces to adorn it. She certainly enjoyed access to one of the finest libraries in the world and lived surrounded by the treasures both of antiquity and the Renaissance. In Rome at Clement’s Court, too, Catherine became accustomed to the attendant rituals and particular formalities of this way of life.
Also during her time in the Eternal City, much to Clement’s alarm, Catherine fell under the enchanting spell of Ippolito de Medici. By the spring of 1531 rumours were circulating about the couple and the young man might well have nurtured ambitions of marriage. He cut a tremendous figure. According to contemporary descriptions, spectacularly supported by the famous Titian portrait of him in the dress of an Hungarian horseman, now at the Pitti Gallery in Florence, he was slim and tall with dark good looks. He had a penchant for theatrical adornments, dressing with diamond aigrettes and jewelled scimitars. Ippolito provided the perfect antidote to Catherine’s years of loss and suffering. Older than Alessandro, he should by rights have been groomed as the ruler of Florence: the peace Treaty of Barcelona, however, indicated that Clement had other plans.
The marriage was agreed between Alessandro and Margaret of Austria, the Emperor’s illegitimate daughter, and a new constitution had been drafted by a group of Florentines known as ‘the thirteen reformers of the republic’ making the Medici hereditary rulers of the city and finally settling twenty-five years of political revolutions and instability. With the Emperor’s backing, therefore, Ippolito had been bypassed in the succession. He had unwillingly been created a cardinal at the age of twenty but would happily have put his red hat aside, left the Church and married Catherine, taking what he felt was his rightful place as Florence’s ruler. After a failed attempt to raise support in the Tuscan capital – where people now rejected further strife and yearned for a return to calm and prosperity – Ippolito, bribed by His Holiness with rich benefices and other gifts in exchange for a promise to agitate no further, found himself packed off to Hungary as Clement’s legate in June 1532.
Pressing family matters crowded the Pope’s agenda. He wished to expedite the implementation of the Treaty of Barcelona; and to see his son Alessandro properly invested as Duke of Florence and married off to Margaret of Austria. The Signoria was abolished under the new constitution and on 27 April 1532 the Pope’s illegitimate son was officially created Duke of Florence. Catherine had been sent to the city to lend legitimacy to the proceedings and for the first time in her life undertook official public duties at Alessandro’s side. Observers noted that the thirteen-year-old girl carried herself with admirable dignity and grace. She continued her public role in Florence while awaiting the arrival of Alessandro’s bride in April 1533. Apart from enjoying the many and lavish celebrations marking the new duke’s confirmation, Catherine also pursued her studies. We know little about her formal education except that she learned Greek, Latin and French; she was also a keen mathematician, an interest that would have coincided well with her later love of astrology. Clement kept her in Florence while he proceeded carefully with marriage talks on her behalf in Rome.
Since her birth, Catherine had inevitably been the object of much matrimonial discussion. Even before the revolt in Florence, Clement had been approached by various potential suitors, mainly Italian potentates from families such as the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Este of Ferrara and the della Rovere of Urbino. Now that the Pope enjoyed a far stronger position than formerly he looked for more illustrious offers. Among the earlier candidates was Henry VIII’s illegitimate son the Duke of Richmond. Although Sir John Russell, the English ambassador to the Vatican, reported that His Holiness was ‘very wel contentyd to have suche alliaunce’ nothing came of the talks and the duke died a few years later, quite possibly from poisoning. When the Duke of Albany, Catherine’s uncle, proposed the candidacy of King James V of Scotland, Clement did not think this offered him any real advantages and worried that the courier service between the two countries might be too costly. The Prince of Orange had briefly been considered as a possible husband until his death while campaigning to retake Florence.
The one candidate Clement could not afford to ignore, however, was the Holy Roman Emperor’s own preference. Charles backed a marriage between Catherine and Francesco II Sforza, Duke of Milan. Unfortunately for Catherine the duke, a somewhat dim-witted man, prematurely aged at thirty-seven, sick and broken, mainly by the huge sums of money demanded by the Emperor in order to retain his duchy, was not a particularly gleaming matrimonial prospect. In addition Clement feared that by marrying Catherine to Charles’s client he would find himself too deep in the Emperor’s pocket to be able to free himself if necessary. Another worry for Clement was Charles’s request for a general Church Council. The Pontiff feared that this might provoke a schism in the Church. Besides, Clement had never been ordained into the priesthood, thus making him technically ineligible for the papal throne. At this point a giddying proposal arrived from Francis I of France. His ambitions for territories in Italy stirred anew and he required a friendly pope to back them. In 1531, with this in mind, Francis offered Clement his second son, Henry, Duke of Orléans, as a potential husband for Catherine.
Early in 1531 Gabriel de Gramont, Bishop of Tarbes, was sent as Francis’s envoy to discuss such a marriage. By April a preliminary agreement had been signed by Francis at the Château of Anet (ironically enough the home of Henry’s future lover Diane de Poitiers). It stipulated that Catherine would live at the French Court until of an age to consummate the marriage and secret clauses in the agreement stated that her dowry would include Pisa, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio, Modena and Leghorn. Clement also committed himself to backing French efforts to take Genoa and Milan, and to making a joint attempt to annex Urbino for the young couple. In June 1531 word came back to France that Clement would not after all send Catherine to live at the French Court before her marriage. He was both wary of the wrath he knew this alliance would incur in the Emperor and fearful of a change in French policy once Catherine was already in Francis’s hands. His matrimonial ace would thus remain in his own care until the wedding. Clement also stipulated that Catherine’s dowry of 100,000 gold écus would include an extra 30,000 écus in exchange for the revenues from her Florentine inheritance. Francis agreed to give Catherine a further 10,000 livres per annum, and she would also enjoy the substantial income that came from her mother’s inheritance.
As the second son of the mighty King of France, Henry, Duke of Orléans had no shortage of possible brides. The most important of these was Mary Tudor. The possibility of a marriage with Henry VIII’s eldest daughter had been marred when the English King tried to have the marriage to her mother, Catherine of Aragon, annulled. Meanwhile Francis concentrated his attentions on Catherine, who could best further his Italian ambitions. Henry of Orléans had been born on 31 March 1519 and, while not expected to inherit the French throne, represented a substantial catch for any royal princess, let alone an Italian duchess without a duchy. Catherine might have been rich but she was emphatically not of royal blood. In January 1533 at Bologna, secret talks were held between Clement and Francis’s emissaries. The Pope, terrified that the Emperor would put a stop to the French alliance if he caught wind of it, decided to continue the negotiations regarding a marriage to Francesco II Sforza, Duke of Milan, as a feint. In fact Charles, certain that Francis would never stoop to marrying his son to a ‘merchant’s’ daughter, generally laughed off the rumours he did hear as preposterous. When he eventually taxed Clement on the matter, the Pope hedged and promised the Emperor that if Francis did prove serious about the marriage then he would contrive to sabotage the talks: ‘I know his nature, he [Francis] will want the honour of breaking with me, and this is what I desire.’16 By the time the marriage was announced later on that same month, Charles could do nothing about it other than be amazed.
Clement’s finest hour had arrived. He had defied adversity against monstrous odds. He had survived the sack of Rome and was restoring the city. His family had been thrown out of Florence; now they were reinstated in glory. He had, through an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, not only re-established his family as rulers of Florence, but managed to place the republic under the rule of his son as its hereditary duke.fn9 His illegitimate son Alessandro had been created Duke of Florence with the Habsburg potentate’s daughter for his duchess. By playing the Emperor off against the King of France, and dazzling the latter with over-optimistic promises of vast territorial gains in the peninsula, he had managed the match between Catherine and Henry of Orléans. He had reconciled the irreconcilable. Albany wrote to Francis that ‘His Holiness marvellously desired this marriage.’ Clement’s simpering evidently amused de Gramont, the French envoy to Rome, who recorded the discussions during which Clement ‘kept repeating over and over that his niece was not worthy of so lofty an alliance but ready nevertheless, for every sacrifice and any concession to secure it’.17 Clement could not have foreseen that concession and sacrifice were indeed to become the young bride-to-be’s most constant companions for what he rightly called ‘the greatest match in the world’.
fn1 It was claimed by Florange, the French memoirist, that Lorenzo had syphilis and had infected his bride.
fn2 Leo X had originally planned to take Urbino for his brother Giuliano. The ambitious Pope had focused upon the relatively minor and unsupported duchy as an easy prey to extend to his family’s territory. On Giuliano’s death Lorenzo succeeded his uncle in the Pope’s plan.
fn3 There is continued controversy about the origins of the family emblem, the balls, or palle, which were the symbol for cupping glasses or pills. Some argue that they may also represent pawnbroking.
fn4 It is thought that Machiavelli had originally intended to dedicate The Prince to Giuliano de Medici, but when he died the letter of dedication was made to Lorenzo II.
fn5 Charles I of Spain, a Habsburg, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in June 1519. He took the title Charles V.
fn6 Leo had created Catherine Duchess of Urbino but annexed the duchy to the Papal States, allowing Florence to keep the fortress of San Leo.
fn7 Catherine continued to carry the title Duchess of Urbino for pro-Mediceans even after the della Rovere were reinstated to the duchy.
fn8 The ‘Eight of Watch’ were in charge of internal security in the Florentine state.
fn9 Florence is sometimes referred to as a hereditary duchy, though technically it remained a republic until the 1700s. Although the republic was ruled by Duke Alessandro, the title of duke was a purely honorific one and conferred by the thirteen ‘reformers’ of the republic and it was hereditary. The matter had the Emperor’s blessing but the title was not actually conferred by him. The Florentines believed that this would help keep them as independent as possible and not legally his vassals or clients.