by Marisa Garreffa
Gian Gastone was the last Medici ruler of Tuscany, the seventh and final Grand Duke.
The youngest of three children, he was overshadowed by his siblings until the death of his brother, when he was pushed in line to rule, a position that he did not want. As a child, he and his siblings were abandoned by their mother, Marguerite Louise of France, and history suggests that Gian Gastone was impacted by this the most. He would later abandon his marriage to go to Paris, seeking her out, though he was again rejected. In Florence, he was neglected by his father Cosimo III, who preferred Gian Gastone’s sister, Anna Maria Luisa. He was tortured by depressions that recurred over the course of his life, becoming particularly fierce in his older years.
His strategic marriage was arranged by his father and sister, to Anna Maria Franziska of Saxe-Lauenburg. While politically beneficial, his wife was famously described as being extremely overweight and unappealing to Gian Gastone, who despised her and could not forgive his sister for her role in forcing the marriage upon him. They were unhappy together and he quickly abandoned her in Bohemia, living first in Prague and then in Florence. He returned only occasionally, at the insistence of his father, to attempt to produce an heir. He did not succeed.
Much has been made of the scandalous parts of Gian Gastone’s life. He had a male lover and companion, Giuliano Dami, whom he brought back with him from Bohemia, and is known for his “ruspanti”, the hundreds of young boys named after the coins he paid them for their company and entertainment. What is less discussed are his deep depressions, and the possible reasons for them. As a young man, he was studious and curious, with a fascination for botany and talent in languages and literature. A small hut was built for him within the Boboli Gardens, and he would pass days there deep in study. One imagines that a scholar’s life may have suited him well, satisfying his passion for knowledge and keeping him in contact with great thinkers and philosophers.
However his life was not his own, and both his marriage and his rule were forced upon him by the obligations of his birth. He was not a religious man, but a great humanist, and one who believed in making life better for the people he governed over. Gian Gastone succeeded into power at the late age of 53 after his father Cosimo III died. He had little ambition, yet understood his family duty and chose his advisors wisely. He refused to use the death penalty, he lowered the price of grain to ease starvation of the poor, and he removed legal restrictions that specifically targeted Jewish people and other vulnerable groups in Florence. He was greatly mourned by the people after his death, as they loved him for the care he had shown them.
A great humanist, he honoured scientific knowledge and advancement. He restored esteem to Galileo, whom his father had banned, and had his tomb located to a place of honour in Santa Croce. Although Gian Gastone had an outrageous reputation, with many rumours of his drunkenness and lewd behaviour being shared even internationally, under his rule Florence flourished.
What didn’t flourish was his relationship with his sister, Anna Maria Luisa. He barred her from entering his apartments at Palazzo Pitti for almost 13 years, and it was only when she heard that he was dying that she finally defied this ban and pushed her way in to see him. It is this meeting that forms the basis of The Medici Dynasty Show. While we show their reconciliation as a part of this same meeting, in the true history, the visit ended with Anna Maria Luisa storming out after a furious argument in which Gian Gastone hurled insults at her without restraint.
It was later that Gian Gastone softened, and he wrote to his sister asking her forgiveness and to make amends. Anna Maria Luisa was extremely religious, a source of conflict between them, but it is said that on his deathbed he allowed her to guide him in repenting for his sins. He died in 1737, leaving behind a scandalous reputation. We prefer to remember him for the good he did while he was in rule, with a gentle hand rarely seen from the powerful Medici leaders who came before him. In his last moments, his rigid sister – with whom he had fought for so long – stood beside him, the last two of the ruling line of the Medici, united and proud.