The fate of Renaissance princesses was a far cry from those in fairy tales who overcame obstacles, married prince charming, and lived happily ever after. Betrothed at a young age for political purposes to men they usually didn' t know, [End Page 1231] Renaissance princesses were sent to live in the foreign courts of their husbands, where they were often viewed with suspicion and discarded once they fulfilled their main function: to breed the next generation of male heirs.
Caroline Murphy's lively account of the life of Isabella de' Medici sheds light on the tribulations endured and the privileges enjoyed by one such princess. Born in 1542 to Duke Cosimo de' Medici of Tuscany and Eleanor of Toledo, Isabella led a charmed and protected life while growing up. Like her siblings, she received the humanist education with which Cosimo wished to embellish his court. After she turned ten, however, Cosimo made the fateful decision that would lead to her misfortunes. He betrothed her to the twelve-year-old Paolo Giordano Orsini, a desirable match because of the prestige of this ancient Roman family and because their lands, bordering Tuscany, helped the Medici secure the state against brigands and republican exiles who might try to overthrow them.
In the six years between Isabella's betrothal and marriage, it became clear that Paolo was a spendthrift and ne'er-do-well, bent on leading a dissolute life among the worst lowlifes of Rome. His future father-in-law sent him stern letters advising him to mend his ways: "I have heard that you have promised my daughter's dowry to the merchants. . . . Do not think that you will be able to . . . escape debt in such a way. I do not want to consign my daughter's dowry to you, because spending and frittering away everything, you will then condemn Donna Isabella to bartering with merchants" (61). The marriage took place nonetheless, but with the unusual proviso that Isabella would continue to live in Florence, where Paolo could visit when he wished. Given Paolo's dependence on the Medici to advance his career and economic position, he could hardly object. Assessing Cosimo's motivations for this decision, Caroline Murphy puts greater weight than I would on Cosimo's fondness for his daughter compared to his concern for Medici honor and wealth, which would be damaged if Isabella ended up in Rome with the proverbial beggar's cup in hand.
Pleading various conveniently timed health problems or social obligations, Isabella spent most of her seventeen-year marriage in Tuscany and away from her increasingly obese and debauched husband. She enjoyed hunting in Medici estates, living in her villa, hosting musical and literary events, and accepting the flattery of would-be and real lovers, of whom Troilo Orsini was probably the most enduring. She also presided as first lady over certain ducal functions from the time of her mother's death until her father married his mistress. While avoiding her husband as much as possible, after thirteen years she also managed to have two children, whose birth dates made it plausible to claim they were Paolo's, despite contemporary rumors to the contrary and to his later rejection of them.
Isabella's exceptional independence ended after Cosimo's death, when her brother Francesco became grand duke and moved quickly to concentrate power in his own person. Within hours, he dispatched his stepmother to a convent, began efforts to appropriate some of Cosimo's bequest to Isabella and her children, and started to get rid of potential troublemakers. Isabella was among them. No longer needed as first lady of the court, seen by Francesco as a bad influence on others, [End Page 1232] possibly linked to conspiracies, and increasingly isolated as Francesco moved against those in her orbit —including Troilo Orsini, who fled to France —she was assassinated by her husband, with the connivance of her brother. Paolo Orsini, happily rid of a wife whose...