Florentine history as an archive for passion and betrayal
1) One of the most scandalous and debated illicit love affair that occurred in Florence was that between the Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello during the sixteenth century. Let’s see what happens when a rich, powerful, married man falls for a poor, beautiful girl married to another poor.
Bianca was a noble Venetian very young woman who had eloped to Florence to marry, at the age of 15, a penniless Florentine, Pietro Bonaventuri. Beautiful as she was, she soon became popular in the city and drew the attention of many, including that of the Grand Duke himself, who appointed her husband as ‘Keeper of the Royal Wardrobe’. Of course, it was a move to keep her close to him in the palace.
Let’s skip a few passages now, leaving the reader free of using his/her imagination. Shortly after, penniless Bonaventuri was murdered in the streets of Florence. The circumstances of his death remained obscure. As it often happens when important and rich people are involved, the court never came to a definitive verdict. Well, what happened after was that in 1576 Bianca gave birth to a baby who was pretty much looking like Francesco.
There is more. Two months after the death of Francesco’s wife, Joanna of Austria, in 1578, Francesco and Bianca were married. The timing of the event, following on the heels of the grieving period, caused widespread scandal. In addition, after Joanna’s death the existence of the illegitimate Don Antonio and his claim to the duchy were publicly acknowledged.
You think the story is finished? Not really. Francesco and Bianca died within days of each other in 1587, supposedly poisoned. On their mysterious deaths speculation followed for centuries. Until six years ago, when Francesco’s body was exhumed from the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo and investigated. As evidence of a malaria-causing parasite was found in his remains, the debate was put to rest. Penniless Bonaventuri and wealthy Bianca neither revenged nor were revenged.
2) Ready for another love affair? This happened in the early nineteenth century. Protagonists are Ugo Foscolo, a man with a strong passion for writing and for political freedom, and a woman by the name of Quirina Mocenni Magiotti. In Italy, double surnames like that of Quirina imply a noble descendant. The ‘location’ of their affair was the now-destroyed Villa Torricelli on Florence’s Bellosguardo hill. It was precisely this place and this woman that inspired the verses of the famous, unfinished poem Le Grazie (‘The Graces’) in 1812.
Those beautiful words, that Quirina was probably reading secretly from her aristocrat husband, are – and were – all that remain of Ugo’s love for her. Ugo was in fact exiled to Switzerland and England after Austria regained control of Italy in 1814. His tomb lies in Santa Croce alongside those of Michelangelo, Alfieri, Galileo and Machiavelli. His verses for Quirina, forever unfinished as his love for her, are still studied in the Italian schools.
3) Let’s see now something about the expats. One of Florence’s most notable expat couple, Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, made most of their lives here. Florence’s influence on their literary productions was profound, as profound was their love for liberty: in fact, Elizabeth also became a passionate supporter of Italian liberation and unification. The couple lived at Casa Guidi in Piazza San Felice for 15 years until Elizabeth’s death in 1861, the same year that the Kingdom of Italy was established. She is buried in the Protestant English Cemetery at Piazza Donatello. After her death, Robert returned to England with the son that the woman he was secretly married to had given to him. The couple had in fact left England to escape Elizabeth’s oppressive father, who disapproved of the match, and had wed in Florence.