- The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence
This study of the Medici women brings to life the now common notion that women of the Early Modern period wielded considerable power in their roles as mediators and substitute leaders. The female members of Florence's most famous family have been overlooked in discussions of female authority because of the general assumption that women living under republican governments possessed far fewer opportunities for exercising political clout than their counterparts under monarchies or seigneurial systems, an assumption that Tomas nuances in tracing the Medici women's political involvement as their family's locus of power shifted away from the government place towards the Medici palace. Despite their many restrictions, Tomas demonstrates that the Medici women managed to carry out political activity on behalf of the family through the networks they created not only within Florence, but beyond, in Rome, and even further afield, through their familial ties to Popes Leo X and Clement VII. Her readings of contemporary correspondence and records reveal in fascinating detail how they and their male relations negotiated that activity.
Running parallel to the well-known and documented story of the Medici's consolidation of ducal power between Cosimo the Elder's assumption of power in 1434 and the accession of Duke Cosimo I in 1537, the story recounted by Tomas is that of the wives, daughters, and sisters who bolstered the family's rise and furthered its interests when the men were exiled: Lucrezia Tornabuoni, wife of Piero (son of Cosimo the Elder) and mother of Lorenzo the Magnificent; Lucrezia's daughter-in-law Clarice Orsini, wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent; Clarice's daughter-in-law Alfonsina Orsini, wife of Piero; Clarice's daughters, Maddalena Cibo and Lucrezia Salviati; and Maria Salviati, Lucrezia's daughter, who married Giovanni delle Bande Nere of a cadet branch of the Medici family [End Page 255] descended from Lorenzo, brother of Cosimo the Elder. Others appear, but the story revolves around these women, for whom rich archival sources exist.
The first chapter, 'The Locus of Power', situates the political authority of the Medici women within its physical context. In general, women at courts had much greater latitude for exercising influence than those under Republican systems, for these operated in a clearly public arena that was theoretically off-limits to women, whereas seigneurial power, focused in a person, was inseparable from the household. Tomas observes that authority gravitated towards the Medici Palace and away from the government palace during the late years of Cosimo the Elder's rule, bringing increased opportunities for female influence. Chapter two explores exactly how the Medici women exercised power, acting as patrons within extended networks and as intercessors. With each successive generation, they assumed influence at an earlier age, trained by the preceding generation. Tomas emphasizes the importance of the women's reputations to their power to influence, writing of Lucrezia Tornabuoni: 'Lucrezia had become, by virtue of her reputation as a mother and saint, a key element in the Medici's own story of their dynastic success as Florence's ruling family' (p. 67). The third chapter, 'Medici Matronage', discusses contributions as patrons of the arts – architectural, religious, and literary. In chapter four, 'In Exile', describes how the Medici women, left in Florence during the exiles of 1494-1512 and 1527-1530, maintained a base of power while waiting for the return of their male relations. The sisters of Pope Leo X were actively involved in life at the Papal Court, subject of chapter five. Lucrezia Salviati and her daughter Maria enjoyed close ties to the court of Pope Clement VII, Lucrezia's cousin. This papal connection widened the circle of influence of the Medici women beyond Florence and even Rome.
The final chapter, 'The "Problem" of a Female Ruler', recounts a story familiar to anyone who has studied female rulers of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, that of the strong and therefore passionately hated female leader. Alfonsina Orsini ruled Florence from...