Written by Marisa Garreffa
She was the last living descendant of the Medici’s ruling line, and the powerhouse whose Family Pact ensured that the Medici family legacy would remain in Florence for all time.
The second of three children, she was the only daughter of Cosimo III and Marguerite Louise d’Orlèans, and her father’s favorite child, a position that she relished. She grew up with her brothers Ferdinando and Gian Gastone at the Medici Villa Poggio Imperiale, where they lived with her vicious and bigoted grandmother, Vittoria Della Rovere. Anna Maria Luisa was just like Vittoria, adhering strictly to rules and religion, but her mother Marguerite was restless and refused to be confined to the traditional roles of women. She abandoned her children when they were young, fleeing to Paris and leaving Anna Maria Luisa and her brothers to be raised by their grandmother. Perhaps this is one reason why Anna Maria Luisa took after her grandmother so strongly, and reverently loved her father. She was a fearsome and loyal Medici, born to lead.
Anna Maria Luisa gained great power through her arranged marriage in 1691 to Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine, bringing her the title of Electress Palatine and a life of luxury in Dusseldorf. They were happy together, and it was a marriage of love. Together they supported the arts, amassing a collection of over fifty paintings by Rubens and patronising countless musicians, painters, and other creative artists. Over time, Anna Maria Luisa amassed a dazzling collection of jewelry so extensive that it became internationally famous, and select pieces are still on display at Palazzo Pitti. She also facilitated artistic exchange between Florence and Düsseldorf; works by Italian artists such as Raphael and Andrea del Sarto were sent to Germany, while Flemish and Dutch paintings were added to the Medici collections. The one thing they were unable to add to their collection, was a child and heir. Though they tried, it is said that she miscarried more than once and that the problem was syphilis, contracted by her husband in the past and passed onto her.
When Anna Maria Luisa’s husband died in 1716 she returned alone to Florence. Though her brother Gian Gastone met her at the gates of the city to welcome her home, things were tense between them. She had helped to organise his own arranged marriage, which had turned out to be disastrous. He was furious at the contrast between her wonderful life in Dusseldorf and his own misery living in Bohemia with a wife he though was repulsive. He felt betrayed and unloved by his sister, who he saw as aligning with their father to judge him. She couldn’t understand why he was so unable to do his duty as a Medici, and honor his marriage to produce an heir. He refused to let her live at Villa Lappeggi, instead of giving it to their brother’s widow Violante who Anna Maria Luisa did not get along with. Anna Maria Luisa was severely critical of her brother’s hedonistic lifestyle, and his lack of dignity in public. Eventually, they stopped speaking for almost fourteen years.
Anna Maria Luisa took up residence in Villa La Quiete and lived a monastic life with the nuns there. Never an idle woman, she undertook extensive renovations of the villa and created a magnificent three-tiered garden, before later moving to live in her own wing of Palazzo Pitti. She continued to patronize Tuscan artists, commissioning numerous works. She also facilitated important works in San Lorenzo: under her direction, Vincenzo Meucci frescoed the cupola and the campanile was rebuilt by Federico Ruggieri.
She would have made an excellent eldest son of the family. As it was, her father tried to make a special arrangement so that the Medici rule could be passed onto Anna Maria Luisa in the case of her brother’s death, but he was refused by the courts of Europe and died without securing the future of the dynasty. By 1737, when only Anna Maria Luisa and Gian Gastone remained, it had been decided that Florence would pass to the Lorraine family of Austria, a family in debt who wanted to sell the treasures to restore their wealth. Anna Maria Luisa was determined to put as many things to rights as she could before the dynasty ended. She ignored Gian Gastone’s refusal of her, and pushed her way back into his life, forging a tender reconciliation during his dying year in which she took care of him and encouraged him to repent his sins before dying.
Greatly concerned with the Medici family name and their legacy, she feared for the loss of the Medici’s great artistic patrimony. Many other great cities had lost their incredible collections of art when the ruling family fell from power, such as the Gonzaga family in Mantua, a city that was emptied of all of its treasures. Anna Maria Luisa was determined that this wouldn’t happen in Florence. Never one to give up on a fight, in an act of vision and genius she created a contract to stipulate that while the patrimony must be passed on, none of the collection could ever be sold or removed from Florence and the wider state of Tuscany.
“What will they see, in the future, when they visit here? When they walk the streets, they will see our crest on the buildings, our sculptures standing proudly. Inside, they will see the paintings, the jewelry, the ceramic vases, all the ornaments, all the beauty that we created by supporting so many artists. They will know that the music they hear was born from our patronage, the sounds of a piano first heard in our palace. They will walk through a city whose soul is our very soul.”
(The Medici Dynasty Show)
The Family Pact, as it was called, declared that the patrimony must remain “ornaments of the state for the use of the public” that would “attract the curiosity of foreigners”. Her vision lives on today, and Florence is one of the most visited cities in the world. It is no wonder they called her “Principessa Saggia” – the wise princess. Despite this, history is written by the victors and the Lorraine were incapable of recognising how valuable she was to the city of Florence, leaving her a largely invisible figure for centuries after her death. Time has been kind to her, however, and in the last century she has emerged as a powerful figure from history and given the credit she has long been due as a visionary. She made Florence what it is today, the permanent cradle of the Renaissance and a beacon for intellectuals and art lovers the world over.
Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici died on the 18th of February, 1743. She is celebrated throughout Florence on this day every year, when the city opens the Medici museums and tombs free for visitors. For a stunning portrait of her in sculpture by the artist Raffaello Salimbeni, seek out the small gardens behind the church of San Lorenzo. It is very near to her resting place, inside the magnificent Medici Tombs that she helped to complete, and here you will find another statue of her regally presented in bronze. A recent exhumation of her remains revealed that she had been buried proudly wearing her Electress Palatine crown, a sign of her great love of Dusseldorf and the happy years that she lived there. The ultimate bella figura, right to the very end.