(Isabella painted in the 1560s by Alessando Allori)
Isabella de’ Medici was born in Florence the 31st of August in 1576 to the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici and his Spanish wife, Eleonora di Toledo. Unfortunately for her, her parents married her to an ill-tempered man who eventually had her killed when he found out that she was having an affair with his cousin.
Isabella was a great beauty and she was also very charming, which of course led to her being courted by several men. She was also very clever and well-educated and could talk many different languages, sing and write verses and play instruments. She was so devoted to her studies that she even had her Poggio Imperiale mansion in Florence transformed into a haven of authentic literary and artistic works. You can say that Isabella was what we today call an "it-girl". Unfortunately for this beauty, her family’s position forced her to marry for economical and political reasons, and Isabella was betrothed at the age of eleven to a very violent man, Paolo Giordano Orsini, who happened to be Duke of Bracciano. They married in 1558 when Isabella was sixteen. Her father Cosimo negotiated a marriage contract which ensured that Isabella could continue to live in Florence instead of with her husband; that meant Isabella had far more freedom and control over her own affairs than other women of her era. When her mother died in 1562, Isabella acted as first lady of Florence for a time, displaying the de' Medici aptitude for politics.
Interestingly enough, Isabella did not have her first child until 1571 (she suffered several miscarriages), when she gave birth to her daughter Francesca Eleonora . A year after she birthed an heir, Virginio.
When her husband went away for a while in 1576, Isabella travelled back from Rome (where the two of them lived with their two children) to Florence together with Paolo’s cousin, Trolio Orsini. Paolo had given his cousin instructions to take care of his wife and watch her while he was gone. However, Trolio and Isabella were very much alike and got on very well, so well that they allegedly became lovers. At the age of 34, Isabella was still beautiful, so resisting her was not that easy.
It is not known how her husband came to know of her affair, but when he heard about it he ordered his wife to come to Cerreto Guidi’s mansion. It was here, on the 16th July 1576, that after having dined, the two of them went together to the bedroom, and as soon as Paolo was certain that they were completely alone with Isabella, and that he would not be seen, he lowered the oxbow which was hanging by a rope which had been looped through a hole that had been made in the ceiling earlier on. Then, with the help of several hit men, he drew the rope around her neck and brutally strangled his wife. Her lifeless corpse was then left to hang freely above the bed. Isabella’s powerful father had died at that time, so it was no problem for Paolo to strangle Isabella as her brother, Francesco de’ Medici, the newly appointed Grand Duke of Tuscany, chose not to take any action. This being because he too was also guilty of committing adultery. He was having an affair with an attractive Venetian woman called Bianca Cappello, and he knew that if his wife ever found out she would most probably kill him.
Isabella’s cousin and good friend, Eleonora di Toledo (yes, she shared her name with her aunt) had also been killed by her husband (Isabella’s brother) for her infidelity only six days earlier. I will write about her some other day.
It is said that Isabella’s restless ghost appears periodically in some of the places where she lived, including the Odescalchi Castle on Lake Bracciano, near Rome.
If you want to know more about this ill-fated woman, there is a biography written by Caroline P. Murphy called Isabella de’ Medici. I have not had the pleasure of reading this myself though.