Written by Marisa Garreffa
She created the Boboli Gardens, and yet has received so little scholarly attention. Peccato! Who was this Spanish princess, Eleonora di Toledo?
She was born in Spain, and came to Naples with her mother in 1534 to join her father who was there working as the Viceroy of the Spanish court. These were “strict and closed surroundings” so it was a sombre and restricted type of upbringing. And yet, despite being sheltered, she still managed to catch the eye of the future Duke of Tuscany! Cosimo was visiting from Florence with his cousin Alessandro in 1535, and shared a few glances with the beautiful young Spanish royal. This turned out to be quite the fateful glimpse when, three years later, her Daddy the Viceroy offered Cosimo one of his three daughters as a bride – but he’d chosen the oldest and “plainest” one. Cosimo, with the memory of Eleonora in his mind, asked if he might marry her instead. Negotiations ensued! Sorry, sister Isabella.
Cosimo began to court Eleonora through letters, and she taught herself Italian, taking pride in reading one of his letters entirely on her own. Cosimo’s representative in Naples, Jacopo de’ Medici, wrote to him about Eleonora’s reaction to his letters saying, “The Lady Duchess says she is happy and filled to the brim with satisfaction.” Ah, the power of a well written word. The marriage would go ahead.
The negotiated dowry was thirty thousand scudi, which was never paid to Cosimo in the end, along with two donations of twenty thousand scudi, all to ensure that Eleonora would be taken care of in the event that Cosimo died without any heirs. This outcome never happened, the two of them bred like rabbits. What this did mean was that Cosimo pretty much negotiated himself a royal bride for free. And that Eleonora had some serious bank in her pocket, which she used well, as you’ll see.
The wedding was held in 1539 in the Cathedral of Florence. Florence had been heavy-hearted beneath the shadow of a recent siege, but the marriage celebrations marked a wonderful return of cultural and artistic life to the city. Their pairing did more than refresh the city, it also refreshed the Medici family tree; the couple produced eleven children! A generous flood of heirs for the ruling line. This is likely the reason behind the emblem designed by Cosimo for Eleonora: a peahen with the motto “cum pudore laeta fecunditas” – happy fruitfulness with chastity.
“The union of Cosimo and Eleonora showed itself to be better matched than most princely marriages at that time. In fact, everything leads us to believe that a sincere love truly did develop between that robust young man of twenty and that pretty young woman of seventeen, a love that lasted all of Eleonora’s life. The two spouses were a model of mutual faithfulness, aside from the fact that they produced about ten children together. Aside from being a wife, Eleonora was also a passionate collaborator for Cosimo, and always took his side, even against her own compatriots. Cosimo never paid attention to another woman as long as Eleonora was alive: something very unusual for a Renaissance prince.” (Giorgio Spini – Italian Historian)
They were a couple in love; Eleonora chose to follow Cosimo on all of his trips and remain near his side. They were also similar in a certain hard-headedness, arrogance even. A serious power couple – young, in command of Florence, and determined to build their kingdom. Christopher Hibbert in his history of Florence says of Cosimo I that “only with his wife and with his daughters when they were young did he seem to be at ease. Indeed he appeared to be devoted to to his wife, Eleonora di Toledo, the extremely rich daughter of the Spanish viceroy at Naples, though she was as demanding as he was himself, capricious, arrogant, and extravagant.”
Eleonora became known for her opulent clothing of Spanish royalty, influencing Florentine fashion and infusing Cosimo’s reputation with the image of imperial power. While history books on her are hard to find, Konrad Eisenbichler wrote one of her few biographies, reflecting on what had been written about her previously. He observes that reports about her personality were mixed, some seeing her as a radiant and royal companion to Cosimo, and others focussing on her arrogance and alleged cold nature.
To find out more about the achievements of Eleonora, read our blog next week where we’ll be talking all about the transformation of the Palazzi, and the creation of the Boboli Gardens. If it is a woman who makes a house a home, next week you’ll discover what a Duchess can do with a palazzo.