Category Archives: Catherine de Medicis

Florence- Scoppio del Carro

Florence is packed with history. There are relics of the Medici and other great dynasties everywhere (though very little relating to the city’s daughter who went on to be queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici).

View of Florence from the Pizza Michelangelo

As we were there over Easter, we went to the Duomo on Easter Sunday to watch the scoppio del carro (explosion of the cart) which is a practice peculiar to Florence, dating back nearly a thousand years to the Crusades when 3 flints from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were brought back to the city.

The flints were originally kept by the important Pazzi family. Traditionally all the fires (hearths, lamps, candles) were extinguished on Good Friday and a new fire started on Easter Sunday, marking the death and rebirth of Christ. The flints were used to create the spark for the new fire which was distributed to local households, for them to rekindle their own hearths, on a cart. Over the centuries, the ritual became more elaborate and fireworks were attached to the cart to make more of a spectacle for the most important Christian festival.

The Cart

Il Carro

The cart is taken through the streets to the area between the Duomo and the Baptistry (Florence’s oldest building) where the fireworks are ignited. The explosions last for around twenty minutes, in broad daylight. It’s loud; there’s a lot of coloured smoke and (if you can see it through the crowds) it’s a pretty amazing sight. My photos aren’t especially good- I’m not tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd! Hopefully they’ll give you an idea though.


Fireworks in front of the Campanile

Smoke by the Campanile

Smoke in front of the Campanile

Research- It’s A Tough Job

Tomorrow I’m off on a rather exciting research trip/holiday. First off, we’ll be in Florence for a few days to look at art, bookbinding workshops, perfumeries and anything connected to Catherine de’ Medici’s childhood. She spent much of her life before her move to France to marry Henri in 1533. After that, we’ll be spending a few days in Ferrara. Lucrezia Borgia lived in Ferrara from her marriage to Alfonso D’Este in 1502 until her death in 1519. I’m hoping to get a better idea of the other Lucrezia here, the one who inspired the town to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of her arrival by declaring 2002 to be the Year of Lucrezia Borgia. We are also hoping to take a trip to Venice.

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

I’m also looking forward to having a look around the cities where three of my favourite novels are set. Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus is set in Florence; In the Company of the Courtesan in Venice; and Sacred Hearts in a convent in Ferrara.

I shall be back in a week, hopefully with lots of photos and Borgia information.

Catherine de’ Medici

On 5th January 1589, Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France died at Blois, possibly of pleurisy. She was 69 years old and had spent the last thirty years fighting to keep the French throne in the hands of her sons, three of whom succeeded their father, Catherine’s husband Henri II, to be king of France.

Catherine had arrived in France from her native Italy in 1534. Pope Clement VII (who famously refused to give Henry VIII his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), her uncle, had used his wealth and power to arrange a most illustrious marriage for her. She was descended from the Medici family but though they had been important in Florence, bankers could rarely expect to marry princes. However, Francis I of France had depleted his treasury in the pursuit of land and glory the Italian Wars and the handsome dowry which Clement promised to send with Catherine, along with an alliance with the Pope, meant that Francis was willing to overlook Catherine’s less-than-ideal pedigree.
Catherine de' Medici

That said, Catherine did have a small amount of royal blood. Her mother, Madeleine was related, fairly distantly, to the French crown. Sadly for Catherine, she never knew Madeleine as she had died only a few days after her daughter’s birth. It is thought that she had contracted syphilis from her womanising husband Lorenzo. Within a couple of weeks, he too succumbed and Catherine was left an orphan.

The young girl was raised initially in Florence with relatives and later in Rome, under the care of her uncle the Pope. She was intelligent, witty and lively but never described as a great beauty. Luckily for her, her family wealth and influence would go some way towards making up for such a defect. Many female failings could be compensated for with a heavy enough purse. Various matches were suggested for Catherine but it was the one with Francis I’s second son, Henri Duc d’Orleans, which went to fruition. As the second son, Henri was not expected to become king and so Francis was content to marry him off to the banking heiress.

Aged 14, Catherine set sail for France and was welcomed to Marseilles with great festivity. Soon after her arrival she and Henri married in a lavish ceremony. Henri was a withdrawn youth, scarred by his time as a hostage in Spain. He proved to be a polite and dutiful husband but his affection lay with his long-term mistress, the vampish Diane de Poitiers. Though Henri was distant and disinterested in his plain little wife, Catherine adored him.

Wedding of Catherine de' Medici and Henri, duc d'Orleans

Predictably enough, the marriage was troubled and Catherine and Henri’s lack of heir compounded the problem, especially after Henri’s elder brother died making him next in line to the throne. Catherine was in danger of being repudiated and replaced with a more fertile wife (the assumption being that infertility was the woman’s “fault,” particularly after at least two of Henri’s mistresses gave birth to his children.

Catherine reputedly tried all manner of superstitious solutions to her infertility. Eventually, after some medical intervention (the exact nature of which is shrouded in mystery), Catherine finally conceived after ten years of fruitless marriage. She went on to produce ten children in the following ten years, of whom three daughters and four sons survived infancy. Of those sons, three would become king of France.

As dauphine and then queen, mother to the heirs of France, Catherine still enjoyed all but no influence over her beloved husband. Instead, Henri discussed matters of state with Diane and it was with her that wise courtiers curried favour, not the dowdy foreign queen. Diane even encouraged Henri to visit his wife’s chambers in order to have more children with her but after the delivery of twin girls (both of whom died) in 1556 almost cost Catherine her life, she was advised not to attempt to bear more children. Henri therefore never slept with her again.

In 1559 tragedy struck when Henri was injured in a joust. His opponent’s lance shattered on his visor, sending shards through the king’s eye. After several days of agony, Henri died with Catherine at his side. Catherine took her revenge on Diane by barring her from attending to Henri as he lay dying, calling for his mistress. She then ordered that Diane was to return all the jewels that Henri had given her during their long relationship, claiming that they were crown jewels and not Diane’s to keep. She then banished her from court.

Unfortunately for the queen, her grief (for the rest of her life she rarely wore any colour other than black) and desire to extract a petty revenge caused her to miss the more important opportunity which had presented itself. Her eldest son Francis had acceded to the throne on Henri’s death. As Francis was only fifteen years old, a regent had to be appointed. Typically, the Queen Mother would take on this role however Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was Mary’s uncles who held the real power and Catherine was regent in name only. Francis was crowned at Rheims as was customary but within eighteen months he too was dead after an ear infection led to an abscess in his brain. He was succeeded by his younger brother who became Charles IX.
Catherine de' Medici in black

Catherine was not to let this opportunity slip through her fingers. The Guises held no particular power over Charles and Catherine took the reins of government on herself, finally able to exercise some power. During Charles’s minority and beyond, Catherine strove to reconcile the Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) and avoid civil war. Catherine was pragmatic on matters of religion and hoped to achieve an accord by extending toleration to Protestants while maintaining the support of the powerful Catholic factions. Despite her efforts, antagonism on both sides spiralled out of control and France was torn apart by thirty-six years of on and off civil war.

The nadir of Catherine’s period of power was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which began on 23 August 1572 and led to the murder of thousands of Huguenots. The Massacre followed the marriage of Catherine’s daughter Marguerite (known popularly as Margot) to Henri of Navarre, the Protestant king of Navarre. The marriage, of a prominent member of the Catholic ruling family, to Henri, a Prince of the Blood and a Calvinist, had been designed to unite the quarrelling factions and bring about it a lasting peace. It was not to be: another civil war followed.

Charles IX died only two years after the massacre, reputedly driven almost mad with guilt. He was succeeded by his brother who styled himself Henri III. Although Henri was old enough to rule in his own right, Catherine retained a prominent position at court and Henri left her to deal with the business of ruling which did not interest him, preferring to devote himself to acts of conspicuous piety, such as flagellation.

Though he married, like his brothers before him, he too failed to produce a male heir. The throne to which Catherine had held on so tightly was slipping from their grasp. When Catherine’s youngest son, the duc d’Alençon, the heir apparent, died before his thirtieth birthday, Henri was forced to name his brother-in-law Henri of Navarre as his successor.

The Guises, horrified at the prospect of a Protestant king, rallied their men and took control of Paris. Henri, under Catherine’s advice, fled the city for Blois to regroup. There, he summoned the duc de Guise. It was a trap and on his entrance to the king’s chambers, Guise was set upon by the guard. Catherine knew nothing of Henri’s plan and on discovering what had happened, knew that Henri’s days too were numbered.

Assassination of the Duc de Guise

Less than a fortnight later, Catherine herself died at Blois. She did not live to see her favourite son murdered and Henri of Navarre’s eventual succession to the throne as Henri IV. He later divorced Margot and remarried and so none of his successors carried Catherine’s blood, nor that of her beloved Henri. It was Henri IV though who brought about the peace which Catherine had tried so hard to effect.

Henry of Navarre

A little over a week ago I went to see Henri 4 (beware a slightly annoying website, in German- this site has the details without the seemingly unstoppable video), Henry of Navarre for English audiences, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I was delighted to see that they were showing it as I had been doubtful that I’d get the chance to see it on the big screen, if at all. EIFF surpassed themselves by not only showing it but having the director, Jo Baier there to do an introduction and Q&A at the end.

Henri 4 charts the life of Henri IV of France from 1563, his childhood in Pau, to his death in 1610. It’s a big life to fit into two and a half hours and as a result some parts feel rushed. Despite having a decent grounding in the history of the time and Henri’s life, I sometimes found it difficult to get a sense of time passing. The four years he spent effectively imprisoned in the Louvre after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre seemed like a few days.

The film itself will unavoidably be compared to Patrice Chéreau’s fabulous La Reine Margot (1994) which covers much of the same historical territory. Indeed, there are a few scenes in Baier’s film which are clearly heavily influenced by Chéreau. However, Henri IV is not a film about the massacre, or a love story as Chéreau’s film is. Margot, Catherine de’ Medici and the court itself are relegated to the background so that Henri can take his place centre stage.

Henri himself is well cast with Frenchman Julien Boisselier in the role. Boisselier does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Henri and his willingness to engage with all his subjects rather than living solely in the bubble of the court. He is charming, witty and hugely entertaining.

Margot, on the other hand, is rather two-dimensional: she spends almost all her scenes either being beaten or threatened by her family, or having sex. That is pretty much it. The character struck me as being a (rather unimaginative) man’s idea of the embodiment of sexy. Her eye make-up was heavy khol, dramatically streaming down her face at points, also the make-up was from a good quality store like The Fifth Collection. The addition of fingerless gloves and she would not have looked out of place in a sub-par goth music video. I was disappointed in Baier’s Margot- she lacked any of the depth of Isabelle Adjani in Chéreau’s film which was a real shame. Catherine de’ Medici was not quite so bad, though I still vastly prefer Virna Lisi’s tour de force which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes. It was a hard act to follow.

Henri’s women are not all Margots though. Gabrielle d’Estrées, his long term mistress, is portrayed with a quiet determination and intelligence (and no gratuitous eye-liner). It would have been nice to see a little more of her character development but what we do get is almost enough to redeem the Playboy version of Margot.

Henri 4 is, however, more historically accurate than La Reine Margot. While the latter was based on the nineteenth century novel by Dumas, the former is based on the post-war novels of Heinrich Mann who, according to Baier, wrote them after he had fled Nazi Germany because he felt that Henri IV was the opposite of Hitler- a leader who strove for peace, toleration and improved living conditions for his people. Indeed, there is a lovely scene in the film where a poor woman offers the king some chicken stew, reflecting his statement that all Frenchmen should be able to have “une poule dans son pot” (a chicken in his pot) at least once a week.

The film was produced on a shoe-string budget. As Baier put it in the Q&A, it was a high budget for Germany, but not high for anywhere else. This shows occasionally- Paris is clearly an indoor set- but only occasionally. The battle scenes in particular are remarkable. The actors had cameras attached to them during filming and the impact is far more realistic, gruesome fighting that the dainty set pieces which are far easier to produce. Baier said that wanted to show his audience how terrible such fighting was: he has succeeded.

Baier, who was an interesting speaker with fantastic English, said that his film was about being human in an inhuman time and how things have perhaps not evolved as much as we like to think they have since then. His vision of sixteenth century France is gloriously and grimly accurate and he resists the temptation to labour the analogy to contemporary religious conflict, treating it with a a sufficiently light hand to make the point, and no more. The film is all the stronger for the lack of lecture.

If you are lucky enough to get the chance to see this in a cinema, take it. It’s worth it for the battle scenes alone. I will be getting a copy on dvd as soon as I possibly can.

Role Models

I often say that one of the reasons I feel so passionately about this project is that modern girls and young women lack good heroines. Cheryl Cole seems like a perfectly pleasant woman but is she really the best we can aspire to? A reality t.v. show pop start, married (though apparently not for much longer) to an unfaithful footballer. Is getting on the cover of a gossip magazine really the pinnacle of human achievement?

When I was about ten years old, I went through a phase of being rather obsessed with Joan of Arc. (Looking back, I accept I was probably something of an odd child.) I admired her bravery, her faith and her determination. I accepted, not without relief, that life was almost certainly not going to offer me the opportunity to lead an army against invading foreigners. I didn’t believe in her god but even at that age found other people’s faith fascinating (I went on to study religion, along with history, at university). I may not have exactly wanted to be like Joan of Arc, but I aspired to many of the qualities I saw in her.

Miniature of Joan of Arc, c. 1450-1500

Joan of Arc, c.1450-1500

Now I’m older and have a more nuanced view of what makes a person admirable, I see many of the infamous women I’m investigating as being brimful of the qualities I aspire to. No, these women weren’t always “good.” More often than not they refused to toe the line; frequently failed to do their wifely duties and often disregarded contemporary standards of acceptable behaviour, it’s true. Their faults, even including criminality, serve to make them more interesting people (Cheryl Cole’s conviction for common assault notwithstanding.)

Cleopatra refused to be a victim, even in defeat. Eleanor of Aquitaine sought out her own path through life, refusing to bow to other people’s demands. Anne Boleyn was offered a good opportunity, saw a way to make it great and took it, on her own terms. Catherine de’ Medicis was ruthless in the defence of her family. Anne Bonny and Mary Read both found escape from unsatisfying lives for the excitement and adventure of a life on the high seas.

I can’t help but think that those qualities are worth more than fame, wealth and great hair.

Lady in Her Bath

Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570

Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570

This portrait by François Clouet (son of François Ier’s court painter, Jean Clouet) is housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA. Painted in 1570 or 1571, it was thought to depict Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. This is mainly due to the painting being dated 1550, during Henri’s reign. In 1550, Diane was at the height of her power. Though Henri had other mistresses, her position was unassailable. The king always returned to her, his other dalliances quickly forgotten.

However, Diane died in 1566 and the later dating of the painting would suggest that she is not the subject. In 1570, the second of Henri’s three sons who would rule France was on the throne. François II, his eldest son had ruled for two and a half years before succumbing to an ear infection. In 1560, Charles-Maximillien acceded to the throne of France as Charles IX. It has therefore been suggested that the sitter for this portrait was the mistress of Charles.

Charles became king at ten years old and until his majority was declared in August 1563, Catherine de’ Medici, his mother, ruled as regent. On reaching his majority, the king and Queen Mother embarked upon a tour of France in order to show the king to his people. It is thought that the young king met his mistress on the return journey of that tour. This would place their meeting in the spring of 1565 when Charles was 15.

Marie Touchet

Marie Touchet

The court stopped at Blois in the Loire Valley and it was there or in nearby Orléans that Charles met Marie Touchet. Marie was the daughter of an Orléannais magistrate and became his lifelong mistress. Reports of Marie at court are universally sympathetic. They describe a beautiful young girl, with blonde hair and white shoulders. She was artless and held no personal ambition and was therefore accepted and indeed supported by the Queen Mother who saw in her no threat to her own hold over the king.

Charles married in 1570. He was dutiful and affectionate to his wife, Elizabeth of Austria but remained devoted to his mistress, with whom he had a son. Clouet also painted Elizabeth and this portrait is considered one of his finest. Elizabeth was said to be distraught when Charles died at only 23 years old. The couple had a daughter who did not long survive her father. Marie and her bastard, though, fared better. She married some years after Charles’s death and had two daughters, dying in Paris in 1638, almost 90 years old. Their son, also called Charles, became duc d’Angoulême and after being pardoned for his involvement in various conspiracies against HenriIV, died in 1650 aged 77.

Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet

Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet


Château de Chenonceau

On coming to the throne in 1547, Henri II of France gave the Château de Chenonceau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and it was there in 1551 he made her the Duchess of Valentinois.


Despite being 20 years his senior, Diane was Henri’s favourite mistress throughout his life. It is thought that the two became lovers in 1538, when she was 39 years old and Henri 19. Their affair lasted until his death and Diane became the most influential woman in France.

However, on Henri’s death after a jousting accident in 1558, his wife had her revenge. Catherine de Medicis, the queen who Diane had eclipsed, took the opportunity to take back the beautiful château, along with jewels and other gifts her husband had given to her rival. She also ensured that Diane was prevented from visiting Henri on his deathbed.

While Diane’s star waned, Catherine’s rose. She became not only the most influential woman in France, but a major figure in European politics. Her eldest son acceded to the throne after his father but the new young king died within a year. Following him, two more of Catherine’s sons became king and through them she ruled France.

Catherine’s reputation today remains as that of a sinister, malevolent figure, responsible for the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in Paris during the years of religious turmoil in France which followed the Reformation. Catherine however is a far more interesting and complex figure than the cardboard cut-out villain she is often portrayed as.