The beautiful redhead, Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo was born in Florence in 1553 and raised amidst great splendour by her doting aunt and uncle, Cosimo and Eleonora di Medici, Duke and Duchess of Florence after her mother, Vittoria died when she was just a few months old.
Cosimo and Eleonora doted on their lovely, lively niece, Leonora and ensured that she had every advantage in life, which helped her become the very epitome of the graceful, elegant and accomplished Renaissance princess, admired by all who knew her for her vivacity, wit and general gorgeousness. The ageing prince Cosimo di Medici was particularly fond of Leonora, and it was this fondness and desire to keep her close which may ultimately have led to her downfall.
Leonora was popular with her Medici cousins and was especially close to Lucrezia, who was to become the Duchess of Ferrara in Robert Browning’s poem and Isabella, the most beautiful and witty of them all, who was to become the first lady of the decadent and splendid Florentine court after her mother’s untimely death in 1562.
A girl as well endowed in every way as Leonora di Toledo could not remain unmarried for long and in 1571, she was married to her cousin, Pietro di Medici. This was a splendid marriage, with the bride bringing a dowry of 40,000 gold ducats and was probably the result of Cosimo’s desire to keep her within his own family as by now he considered her to almost be one of his own daughters.
Unfortunately for Leonora, her new husband was a horrible, spiteful, disturbed young man who had to be forced to consummate the marriage, was subject to terrible violent rages and was in permanent debt due to spending all of his money on his many mistresses.
Poor Leonora, however, made the best of the situation and enjoyed the freedom that her new married status gave her, making sure not to spend too much time with her husband and instead turning to her cousin, Isabella for companionship.
Isabella was just as unhappily married to Paolo di Orsini, Duke of Bracciano and after providing him with two children had opted to live apart and pursue her own life, which involved throwing amazing parties, gathering like minded people around her and taking lovers. The impressionable, spirited Leonora soon followed suit, although with rather less discretion than her older cousin.
Cosimo di Medici knew about his niece’s transgressions against their marriage vows but decided to turn a blind eye so long as there was no scandal and they continued to be discreet. He was well aware that their marriages were unhappy and that in the case of Leonora at least, who was married to his son, that their husbands were far from ideal.
However, when Cosimo died in 1574, matters became very different when his eldest son Francesco, who seems to have been a total misogynist, inherited the title and looked with marked disfavour on the wanton behaviour of his sister, Isabella and cousin, Eleanora. His dislike was fostered by the endless complaints of their husbands who felt that their precious pride and Italian Guy machismo was threatened by their status as the most renowned cuckolds in Florence.
Finally, on the 11th of July 1576, matters reached a head and Don Pietro attacked his wife, Leonora in her bedchamber at the Villa de Medici at Cafaggiolo and strangled her with a dog lead, during a struggle that was so violent that she bit and injured his hand. Pietro then calmly sat down and wrote to his brother, Grand Duke Francesco:
‘Last night at six hours an accident occurred to my wife and she died. Therefore Your Highness be at peace and write me what I should do, and if I should come back or not.’
It was a disingenious attempt to deflect blame from both brothers as the twenty three Leonora had been murdered with Francesco’s full knowledge and connivance.
Six days later, her cousin, Isabella, who had been having an affair with her husband’s cousin, Troilo d’Orsini was also strangled at the Villa di Cerreto Guidi by her husband and with the full knowledge and agreement of her own brother, the Grand Duke Francesco who again let it be publicly known that she had met with an unfortunate ‘accident’.
Leonora and Isabella’s lovers also shared their fates and were both strangled. Leonora’s lover, Bernadino Antinori was imprisoned and strangled in his cell, while Isabella’s, Troilo d’Orsini met his end in Paris shortly afterwards.
The Medici brothers’ attempt to evade blame was doomed to failure amidst the all seeing eyes of the Florentine gossip vine, in which everyone’s business was openly and freely discussed. On the 29th of July, the Ferrara Ambassador to the Florentine court, wrote home to his master, the Duke of Ferrara (who was married to Isabella, Pietro and Francesco’s sister, Lucrezia):
‘I advise Your Excellency of the announcement of the death of Lady Isabella; of which I heard as soon as I arrived in Bologna, [and] has displeased as many as had the Lady Leonora’s; both ladies were strangled, one at Cafaggiolo and the other at Cerreto. Lady Leonora was strangled on Tuesday night; having danced until two o’clock, and having gone to bed, she was surprised by Lord Pietro [with] a dog leash at her throat, and after much struggle to save herself, finally expired. And the same Lord Pietro bears the sign, having two fingers of his hand injured by [them being] bitten by the lady. And if he had not called for help two wretches from Romagna, who claim to have been summoned there precisely for this purpose, he would perhaps have fared worse. The poor lady, as far as we can understand, made a very strong defence, as was seen by the bed, which was found all convulsed, and by the voices which were heard by the entire household. As soon as she died, she was placed in a coffin prepared there for this event, and taken to Florence in a litter at six o’clock in the morning, led by those from the villa, and accompanied with eight white tapers [carried] by six brothers and four priests; she was interred as if she were a commoner.‘
Francesco did his best to claim that Leonora, always the very vision of health and vitality, had died of a sudden heart attack but in vain and in the end he was forced to write to Philip II of Spain, who was furious about the incident as Leonora belonged to a Spanish noble family and tell him the truth: ‘Although in the letter I had told you of Donna Eleonora’s accident, I have nevertheless to say to His Catholic Majesty that Lord Pietro our brother had taken her life himself because of the treason she had committed through behaviour unbecoming to a lady … We wish that His Majesty should know the truth … and at the first opportunity he will be sent the proceedings through which she should have known with what just reasons Lord Pietro acted.’
Because Francesco publically stated his support of his brother Pietro’s callous and horrific actions, he was never brought to trial but ended up being exiled to Spain a year later where he died in debt and iniquity, loathed by all.
Isabella’s husband however was now a wanted man and fled first to Rome then Venice before finally settling in Abano with his mistress Vittoria Accoramboni, who was married to the nephew of the future Sixtus II. The fugitive couple were married there, but he didn’t enjoy his life for much longer as he died in 1585, with Vittoria being murdered shortly afterwards by someone he had previously annoyed.
It probably comes as no surprise that the tragic stories of Isabella, Leonora and Vittoria served as inspiration for the works of Jacobean tragedies such as The White Devil and Duchess of Malfi with their tales of intrigue, incest and murder stalking the beautiful halls of Italian palaces.
If you want to know more then there is a brilliant book ‘Isabelle de’ Medici: The Glorious Life and Tragic End of a Renaissance Princess’ by Caroline P. Murphy.
There’s also a fab post about it at Raucous Royals!