A Medici’s story, DNA reveals the truth of the most controversial couple of Florence

An unresolved mystery in 1500’s Florence.


The most controversial couple in 16th century Florence, an intriguing story at the Grand Duke’s court, a first wife and a love and death story that still leaves some open questions on the causes of the death of Francesco I and his beautiful second wife, Bianca. Mystery is served !


Francesco I dei Medici was one of the most ambiguous and controversial characters in the family’s history. It had been difficult to grow with two austere and tyrannical parents where, his father, Cosimo, had a superb and selfish personality. His mother was the sweet Eleonora of Toledo, a young Spanish woman, portrayed by Bronzino with a gorgeous damask dress and her little son Garzia. She was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples. With Eleonora, the stiff ceremoniousness of the Spanish Court was introduced at the Florentine Court, the beautiful city was transformed into a controlled one, in a fortress, with a tyrannical and belligerent Grand Duke, and a Grand Duchess, a pious woman, devoted and dedicated to charitable works.


Francesco grew up in a dark atmosphere full of ceremonials and, when it was time to get married, Giovanna of Austria, sister of the Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg, was chosen.


Thus, Francesco found himself settled with a descendant of the great Charles V, and everyone in Florence was very curious of Giovanna’s rank, a woman who descended directly from the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Haughty, superb and not inclined towards affections. Giovanna was not happy at all. The situation was aggravated by the lack of a successor to the throne, of a healthy and lively male to continue the lineage. Instead, two girls were born, unsuitable for the throne and a problem for the family: dowry, weddings, guarantee of a palace or monastery life.

From young age, Francesco had madly fallen in love with the beautiful Venetian noble lady Bianca Capello, married to a poor man, banned by the Venetian Republic because of this dishonorable marriage. As soon as he saw her, despite her unusual spouse, he had a great fancy for the magnificent Venetian woman and they began a relationship that lasted for the rest of their lives.


Francesco, besides his love for Bianca, had a true passion for naturalistic philosophy, sciences and alchemy. He had a studio built for him in Palazzo Vecchio, which was worthy of a magician or an alchemist. For those who visit Palazzo Vecchio this is one of the curiosities not to be missed. We owe the Grand Duke the discovery of the crafting of the first Italian porcelain in the model of the Chinese one. The first examples of this delicate white matter emerged from the San Marco laboratory.


Between studies and government, time passed by and in a very serious accident Giovanna lost her life. She was pregnant and unfortunately, she and the son she was carrying, died. After only three months, Francesco finally married his beloved Bianca. The Medici villas scattered throughout the Tuscan territory were the settings for carefree days, and amongst these was the one at Pratolino, which our Grand Duke gave in gift to his beloved.


Nevertheless, happiness generates envy and envy often leads to hatred. Very few people in Florence saw this union with a good eye. They considered Bianca a woman of easy habits, forgetting the fact that she belonged to one of the most noble Venetian families. The most prestigious houses tried to bypass the problem, especially since there was no male descendant. Their son, Don Antonio, had dark origins, and many believed that he was not the son of Bianca and Francesco.


The couple’s tragic end was near. In Poggio a Caiano, in one of the most beautiful villas, the two began to feel ill, a fierce fever with retching hit the couple and after an agony of 11 days, they died at a distance of 1 day from one another. This death brought about the legend of poisoning from a prolonged ingestion of arsenic. 


Wasn’t that the era of conspiracy theories, of rings with poison, daggers and dark intrigues? For centuries, this story was handed down and believed true. Nonetheless, in 2004, thanks to a scientific and historical project, some remains from under the Medicean Chapel were exhumed and tested together with an urn that was found in a church in Poggio a Caiano that should have held the organic remains of the who unfortunate rulers.


The results from the DNA analysis,which could have potentially resolved a cold case from about six centuries ago, did not yield any certain results. According to paleopathology researchers, the investigation proved to be more complex than expected and despite traces of arsenic detected, it was not considered relevant as the substance was used to treat the bodies to prevent decomposition.


The great Court doctors described the development of the illness, the excruciating retching, the high fever and loss of consciousness. These could have been some of the symptoms of malaria, which was endemic in the Poggio a Caiano plain. Let’s leave the dilemma with the scientists.


We know that the two lovers died together, as if death was to seal forever their love.


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