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Postmark: Renaissance

Love and Venom in the Medici Courts

By Edward Goldberg | HUMANITIES, May/June 2002 | Volume 23, Number 3

Two and a half centuries after the end of Medici rule, the most complete documentary record of any princely regime in early modern Europe is being cataloged and indexed with the latest information technology.

Virtually every letter sent or received by the Medici family and the Medici court from 1537 to 1743 has survived, filling 6,429 volumes and a full kilometer of shelf space. Because the Medici grand dukes had ambassadors, agents, and correspondents in every major city and court in Europe and the Mediterranean world, their archive is international in scope, making it a source for the history and culture of an entire age. Under the auspices of the Medici Archive Project, this mountain of paper is being excavated, revealing the remarkable archival culture that developed at the Tuscan court during the reign of Cosimo I and flourished throughout the life of the Medici rule.

Cosimo I de’ Medici was elected capo e primario of Florence in 1537 at the age of seventeen, three days after the assassination of his cousin Alessandro. Though Cosimo was apparently viewed as a short-term compromise, he not only survived, but quickly began to consolidate power, establishing himself as the Duke of Florence that same year, as Duke of Florence and Siena in 1557, and finally as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. Six of his descendents succeeded him on the Tuscan throne, ruling for two centuries, followed by the six-year interregnum of Anna Maria Luisa, whose tomb reads Ultima della stirpe reale dei Medici, or “Last of the royal Medici line.”

During Cosimo’s early reign, while he was inventing a new government for his new state, his administration was based on a fluid collaboration between executive secretaries who traded assignments back and forth. Since everyone and no one was responsible for everything, the only way to avoid administrative chaos was through meticulous record keeping. From the beginning, every major and minor executive decision was duly noted, every incoming letter was saved and every outgoing letter was recorded for the files. This had revolutionary implications in an age when state business was still largely enacted through discussions between courtiers and left little permanent trace.

Even the weekly news bulletins called avvisi--expensive handwritten newsletters sent to princes, government officials, businessmen, and ecclesiastical dignitaries, conveying a mix of international and local current events--were saved. The Medici Granducal Archive contains one of the world’s richest collections of avvisi from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Cosimo recognized that documentation meant power, documentation meant order, and documentation meant control. Integral to his transformation of the old Florentine Republic into an absolute monarchy was the annexation of the archives of the civil government, beginning with the system of justice.

No less significant was Cosimo’s proclamation of 14 December 1569 assuming direct control of the notarial archive, which recorded all Florentine property transactions. This proclamation set the terms for filing, consulting, and copying all contracts, including transfers of ownership, wills, and marriage settlements.

This is not to say that the documents have been entirely spared mishaps due to fire, flood, and the heedlessness of scholars. The historian Riguccio Galluzzi in preparing his monumental Istoria del granducato di Toscana sotto il governo della casa Medici, published in 1781, worked in the amiable old-fashioned way, marching through the Medici Granducal Archive, seizing whatever took his fancy and setting it aside for eventual use. Galluzzi’s selection of documentary material was returned but never refiled, and now constitutes the 676 filze of the so-called Miscellanea Medicea, known to scholars as “the Bermuda Triangle of the Medici Granducal Archive.”

In the twenty-first century, the researcher hardly expects to take rare documentary material home for leisurely perusal. However, through searchable databases, digitized images, and web delivery, the Medici Archive Project is working to recreate such access virtually.

A Paycheck for Galileo

24 MAY 1608

We hereby authorize you to debit to our expenses 235 scudi, lire and 10 denari (at 7 _ lire per scudo) equaling the 297 12 ducats disbursed by Mannelli in Venice, at an exchange rate 79 1/6% to be paid to Agostino Parenti and Company silk merchants
for the 100 Spanish gold doubloons that they paid to the Excellent Gentleman Giulio Galilei, lecturer at the University of Padua, for services rendered to us. This money will be credited you when you balance your books.

Considering the fame of Galileo Galilei, it is surprising to see his name getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. “Giulio,” however, was a far more common first name than “Galileo”and in May of 1608, the forty-four-year-old astronomer was on the verge of becoming an international phenomenon.

Two years later Galileo Galilei published Sidereus Nuncius, or The Starry Messenger,” announcing his discovery of Jupiter’s moons--flatteringly named “The Medicean Planets.” As a result, he was appointed chief mathematician and philosopher to Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici.

In previous years, Galileo had worked strenuously to achieve a position at the Medici Court. The
Galileo of these documents was an energetic self-promoter and a self-made man--an interesting
contrast to the popular image of him as an ivory-tower philosopher and starry-eyed defender of abstract truth.

In 1597 in Padua, Galileo began manufacturing a new kind of “military compass,” which performed mathematical calculations relevant to problems of ballistics. When he discovered a Latin treatise plagiarizing his ideas in 1605, he transformed his manuscript user’s manual into a fuller printed version and dedicated it to Prince Cosimo de’ Medici. He eventually succeeded in having all unsold copies of the rival work confiscated and the author expelled from the University of Padua.

In 1605, Galileo began spending his summers in Florence giving mathematical instruction to the young Prince Cosimo, who would become Grand Duke Cosimo II in 1609. Galileo had no regular contract and had to reapply for the job each year. The present document most likely authorizes payment for one of these summer trips.

News of the Armada


This evening there were letters from London dated the 29th of last month, with news that the Catholic Armada was in Scotland, at an island called Hylandia in the area of the Orkneys. According to highly reliable sources, the men were given provisions and other refreshments and when word reached the king [James VI of Scotland] some would have it that he decreed the death penalty for anyone who gave them anything. It was also noted that all of Scotland had taken up arms in support of the Queen of England [Elizabeth I]. The Dragon [Francis Drake] and the Admiral [Charles Lord Howard of Effingham] were at her court for a few days, working to rehabilitate their fleet which had suffered at the hands of the Catholics. They were eager for another engagement and it is said that they have already embarked with 180 ships.

In fact, it was the Spanish Armada that suffered grievously at the hands of the English in August of 1588, and not the other way around. However, avviso writers in Antwerp, the chief port of the Spanish Netherlands, must have enjoyed sharing unwontedly optimistic tidings with the Medici court, which was resolutely Catholic and pro-Spanish.

Spanish troops did not land in Scotland, nor were they aided by the Orkney Islanders--least of all those of the island of Hylandia, which does not appear on any known map, past or present. There is indeed an Orkney island called Hoy--and the better known islands Ireland and Iceland. Perhaps this overzealous avviso writer scrambled his Scottish geography and moved the mountainous region of the Highlands offshore.

By September of 1588, when this avviso was circulating, bad weather and three battles with the English navy under the command of Admiral Howard and Vice-admiral Drake had already reduced the Invincible Armada to a straggling caravan limping homeward around the coast of Scotland.

How could the avviso-writer have gotten it so wrong? Avvisi were the product of a peculiar journalistic underground. Working independently or in “avviso shops,” the writers were a motley assortment of penniless scholars, aspiring literati, moonlighting diplomats, and marginal eavesdroppers. Like present-day journalists, they worked against deadlines, struggling to get out a story under the pressure of time.

Most avvisi were distributed weekly, though there were occasional special editions when warranted. More often than not, avviso writers competed to scoop each other with the late-breaking news and insider revelations for which their subscribers were paying. There were established networks of correspondents or “intelligencers” around Europe and the Mediterranean, and information gleaned from people with privileged access to correspondence in embassies and government offices. In a seafaring city like Antwerp, there were merchants and sailors freshly arrived from other ports, as well as private travelers of every description. Though information could make the rounds with surprising speed, it was often difficult to verify sources or check facts. And when one’s competitors were not lingering to check their facts, there was little incentive to do so.

The names of people and places were often the chief victims of error in an age when there were few detailed maps and atlases. With regard to place names, there was seldom a single standardized form, but rather a proliferation of variants in Latin and the local languages. As documented by the correspondence in the Medici Granducal Archive, letter writers in 1588 could opt for Firenze, Fiorenza, Florentia, Florencia, Florence, or Florenz, and count on getting their letters delivered.

The Medici Granducal Archive’s collection of avvisi allows us to track the developing Armada story as it shocked, frightened, encouraged, and bewildered its readers of all religious and political persuasions across Europe. Information may have alternated with misinformation and sheer fabrication; but whatever people believed at a particular moment stands as a historical truth in its own right.


19 March 1588
100 Spaniards allegedly land in England and seize a port called Baldras near the Scottish border. However, not only was the Invincible Armada still massing in Lisbon Harbor at that time, not to sail for another two months, but there is no known town of Baldras in that part of the world. Perhaps Berwick-upon-Tweed was intended.

26 March 1588
According to this avviso writer, the Spaniards are circulating counterintelligence that the Armada intends to fight the Turks, not the English, in retaliation for pirate attacks on Spanish shipping. Its true target is Algeria, not the British Isles.

13 August 1588
The Armada reaches England, where it resists a heavy attack by Francis Drake. Bad weather then forces it back toward the Dutch coast.

29 October 1588
Genoese merchants at Dunkirk claim that the Invincible Armada has been broken up and dispersed. Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, duke of Medina Sidonia and admiral of the Armada, arrived at the port of Santander in Vizcaya with just twenty-five ships. Another twelve ships in very bad shape reach La Coruña in Galicia; along the way they encounter ten other equally damaged vessels. “They are unaware of where the rest of the Armada has disappeared, in which many thousands of soldiers had embarked.” Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma and general of the Spanish forces in the Netherlands, is suffering from “extreme melancholy” due to his inability to reach the Armada with crucial reinforcements.

Overture for an Inquisition

26 APRIL 1581

On Holy Wednesday in the Church of the Descalzas [Reales] in Madrid, founded and richly endowed by the Princess of Portugal, a most ugly and scandalous event took place. When they performed the rites of the Tenebrae, which normally last for half an hour without light of any kind, many of the chief gentlemen of these kingdoms found themselves near to various noblewomen. Incited by the darkness and the devil, they affronted these women, wanting at first to kiss them and then go even further. Even if the women cried out, they were foiled by the noise of banging and were thus not heard, which resulted in further insolent behavior. Various of these men were imprisoned, including the Prince of Ascoli, the Conte de Castagneda eldest son of the Marchese de Aguillar, the Marchese de Carpio eldest son of Don Diego de Cordova, Don Pedro Vanegas son of Don Luis Master of the Queen’s Horse, Don Antonio Manrique, Don Luis de Cordova, the Conte de Peredes and Don Enrico de Mendozza. This, it seems, will be to the detriment of the court since they are all principal gentlemen. It is believed that His Majesty [King Felipe II] will have to make an exemplary lesson since the Holy Inquisition has become involved.

The rite of the Tenebrae or “The Darkness” was a monastic service for Matins that took place between Palm Sunday and commemmorated the three days Jesus lay in his tomb by dramatically reenacting this cosmic darkness. Candles were gradually extinguished, leaving the church in near or total obscurity. Since the participants were unable to see each other, movements such as rising
or kneeling were signaled by sounds of knocking or tapping. After the last psalm, the congregation joined in a general clamor of loud banging, recreating the natural upheaval that occurred at the time of Jesus’s death.

The Tenebrae was probably the only time during the year when such acts could have taken place, under the cover of these rites. A common hour for the Tenebrae was four or five in the afternoon, though the windows might have been shuttered or curtained in any case. The noise of pounding at
the end of the service would have allowed a narrow opportunity for amorous adventure.

A Ghost in the Garden

14 AUGUST 1620

I will tell Your Lordship about a fine joke at the Escorial. One evening the Crown Princess [Isabel de Borbón] and some of her ladies were enjoying the fresh air at a window overlooking the garden right below the church. They heard a noise coming from amidst the trees but didn’t see what caused it and were frightened since it’s been said that spirits frequent that place.

And so everyone believed there was a ghost, especially since the people they sent to check out the noise didn’t see anyone there at all. Then immediately the story spread and gave rise to the most wonderful speculations that the fervid imaginations of these courtiers can conceive. In fact, the same rustling was heard another evening at the same time and once again the soldiers of the
guard went over the kitchen garden and couldn’t find the source. Since the whole palace really began to believe that there were spirits and ghosts, the monks wanted to get to the bottom of things because the place was getting a bad name. So, on the third night, when they heard the same noise and the same coming and going, they set out with lit torches to go over the kitchen garden. And what they found was a donkey amusing itself and eating the grass. They said that they had seen the donkey there on the previous occasions but it had not occurred to them that he might have been responsible for the noise. So in short, for many days a donkey has been a topic of discussion for the entire court.

If ever a place seemed designed for ghostly infestation, it was the Escorial--the vast, brooding
amalgam of monastery, palace, and tomb constructed by King Felipe II in the midst of the Castillian plain.

Though the incident of the ghost donkey might seem to have been lifted from a comic story or operetta, it was a deadly serious matter for some of its participants, most notably the Augustinian Friars of the monastery. In the seventeenth century, as is still the case, there was no strict article of Catholic faith regarding such a supernatural presence. There was, however, a significant body of orthodox belief and biblical precedents--for example, the appearance of the spirit of the prophet Samuel to King Saul. In any case it seems that the denizens of the Spanish court, including Isabel de Borbón, the future queen of Felipe IV, were strongly disposed to credit their existence.

A Lethal Recipe

15 FEBRUARY 1548

In regard to that man who offered to poison Piero Strozzi’s water or wine, impelling you to send a courier here to obtain a recipe from us, we inform you that we have never looked into such matters nor authorized others to do so. This is not our custom and even if we should wish such a thing, we would have no idea to whom we might turn in this city. And should such an occurrence come to pass, we think it best that either you nor I be the source. However, if that person you mention really is inclined to carry out his plan […] he might find that Apollonius [of Citium] gives some recipes. In any case, we do not know where to obtain such things, nor have we any interest in doing so, since we find such matters excessively horrid.

In the winter of 1548, there must have been few people whom Cosimo I de’ Medici would have liked to see dead more than Piero Strozzi. Since Cosimo’s accession to the throne in 1537, the greatest threat to his security was posed by the underground network of Florentine republicans living in exile in Sienese territory and in Rome. The most visible and powerful of these fuorusciti, or exiles, was Piero Strozzi. Piero’s father Filippo Strozzi had been captured by Cosimo’s forces at the Battle of Montemurlo in 1537, but committed suicide rather than abandon the republican
cause. Piero managed to escape, finding refuge first in Edirne and then in France, where he obtained the support of the French crown for the anti-Medicean faction.

By 1548, Francesco Vinta had already served for two years as the Medici agent in Milan and
his family was firmly established in the ducal administration in Florence. From the present letter, it emerges that an obliging if anonymous individual had offered to resolve the Piero Strozzi problem and Vinta jumped at the chance of doing his master so useful a service.

Duke Cosimo, however, was more circumspect--for reasons that we can only deduce. It is worth noting that Vinta did not bother to put his homicidal letter in code, a glaring oversight since the post was often lost, stolen, or tampered with. Cosimo seems keen to cultivate deniability. He pleads ignorance and abhorrence of toxicological matters, even though Florence and Pisa were renowned centers of medical, alchemical, and pharmacological research. He refers his correspondent to Apollonius of Citium, an ancient Greek medical authority.

Piero Strozzi managed to avoid being poisoned and reappeared in Tuscany a few years later as leader of the French forces arrayed against Duke Cosimo in the Sienese War. Recalled to France, he died of wounds incurred in battle at Thionville, in Lorraine, in 1558.

A Gift of Glass

15 MARCH 1621

The three chests of drinking glasses arrived just when I was beginning to wonder whether they had suffered the same ill fate as those ships that were seized by the Turks. The timing of their arrival was perfect, considering the present illness of the King [Felipe III of Spain]. If the King hadn’t been ill, I would have sent this glassware to the Prioress of the Convent of the Encarnacíon so that she could present them to His Majesty when he takes his children to see her. However, I decided to waste no time going through such channels since glassware is a great amusement for sick people. Therefore, I sent the King some of the best by way of Doña Leonor and have heard from her and others that the King greatly appreciated them and has received no better amusement during his illness. He examined these drinking glasses one by one and tried them out, now and
again distributing some of them to his children as he thought best, then he had the rest carefully stored away. I will give away the remaining glasses as seems appropriate, since this is truly one of the most curious and esteemed presents that we can bestow. There is nothing more desirable than these for men. However, it would have been well to have had more of those water glasses for the ladies who do not drink wine, as long as they are made of pure and very clear glass.

This gift of Medici glassware might well have cheered King Felipe III of Spain on his sickbed.
However, it didn’t cure him and he died sixteen days later on 31 March 1621. Illness was a
gift-giving occasion in seventeenth-century Spain. Glassware was viewed as a distracting and
entertaining novelty and was thus considered particularly suitable for rallying the sick and infirm.

Cosimo I de’ Medici officially opened the Medici glassworks in 1569 at the Uffizi Palace, then still in construction, under the direction of a Venetian master glassblower named Bortolo. Since the Republic of Venice strictly forbade the exportation of this secret technology, Bortolo had to plot a clandestine escape to Florence.

It appears from the documentation, however, that Prince Francesco--later Grand Duke Francesco I--was already one step ahead of his father, having built his own glassmaking facility in Florence in 1566.

Francesco later transferred this activity to his favorite Florentine retreat, the Casino di San Marco, where he could watch the work at first hand. For many years, Prince Francesco’s Casino di San Marco, was the chief center of Medici glass production, although a separate shop was later established at the Uffizi for finishing glassware “a lume di lucerna,” or by lamplight, a technique that involved shaping and twisting the material over a controlled flame.

For those of a mannerist or baroque poetic sensibility, glass seemed to contradict the fundamental laws of nature, becoming the most pliable of substances when hot, and the most hard and fragile when cold. The delicate Medici creations had a less than even chance of surviving intact for the long overland and sea journey to the Spanish court.