Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday Art & History Feature - Catherine de Medici

Catherine Di Medici Anonymous (c. 1555)
There's a new show in CW, which mixes their "teen" style shows with history. The show is called Reign and is about Mary of Scots, the tragic queen who has captured the imagination of many a historical writer. I admit that, when I started watching the show, I was skeptical and a bit outraged. As a historical fiction fan, I know that to make history come alive, writers sometimes have to mix facts with fiction and fill in the historical holes using their imagination. However, as a history buff, it was hard for me to accept that there would be so many glaring historical inaccuracies in a TV show. From the gowns that were more suited to a Gossip Girl ball (I mean, sleeveless and see-through half the time!) to the fact that Francis was a sickly teenager at the time that Mary married him and the fact that he didn't have a half-brother by his father's mistress named Bash (or any, for that matter). I was prepared to hate the show. But I had to see it.

Poster for the CW show Reign
To my surprise, I got hooked and am still watching Reign. In my defense, though, I completely dissociated myself from the "history" aspect of the show - otherwise I wouldn't be able to watch it. I do, however, find it entertaining, pretty and with enough good acting to keep me watching.

Catherine di Medici is portrayed by Megan Fellows on Reign
Having said all that, there is one more issue that I take with the show. It takes place in one of my favorite time-periods, and in one of the most intriguing courts - the court of one of the most notorious and powerful women in history, Queen of France Catherine de Medici. Catherine and her daughter Margot have long held my imagination and I am very particular with these historical characters.

I wrote about Queen Margot, Catherine's fascinating daughter, in this post at an earlier time.

Today, I thought I'd talk about her mother and share with you some real historical facts on this fascinating woman.

Catherine was born in Florence, Italy in 1519 to Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino and Madaleine de la Tour d'Auvergne. Unfortunately, both of her parents passed within a year of her birth, leaving her an orphan, and the only heir. Because there were no close relatives around to take care of her, Cardinal Guilio de Medici, a distant relative, took control of the Florentine government and took Catherine into his care.

When she was eight, Florentine people rebelled against the government and attacked the Medici palace. Everyone fled the palace, but in order to save their lives, they were ordered to leave Catherine behind as a hostage. She spent the next years in various convents in Florence, where she received education that excelled and allowed her to become one of the best educated women of her time.

In 1529, Florence was conquered by Holy Roman Emperor Charles, and there calls for Catherine to be handed over to be exposed naked and chained to the city walls, or to be handed over to the troops for their sexual entertainment. When the city surrender in 1530, Pope Clement had Catherine come to Rome to live with him. Clement loved the little girl and wanted to make sure to arrange a good political marriage for her.

At 14, her looks were described as follows: "small and slender, with fair hair, thin and not pretty in face, but with the eyes peculiar to all the Medici" (Young 393).

Wedding Of Catherine de Medici With Henri, Duke of Orleans by Vasari
It was decided that her husband will be Henry of Orleans, the King of France's second son. She was soon sent to France for her marriage celebration, which was grand. It is also rumored that she had a Florentine artisan create shoes with high heels for her, the first of its kind, so she would seem grander since she was short.

King Francis I, Catherine's new father-in-law, loved Catherine's wit an charm and she often accompanied him on trips around France. However, most others saw her as someone not "royal enough" for the France's dauphin and called her "the Italian woman" in derision. She had an extraordinarily hard time making friends in the French court. This especially became problematic when the king's oldest son, Francis, died and Henry of Orleans became the heir to the throne. There were many who did not want to see an Italian on the throne as the Queen.

Catherine de Medicis bedroom at Chateau Chenonceau
Henry did not show much interest in Catherine, even though she loved and adored him. He took many mistresses, but one was always by his side - from the time he was 19 and she was 38, and for the rest of his life - Diane de Poitiers. Catherine did not produce any children for the first ten years of the marriage, and many hoped that she would be aside because she can't produce an heir. She was knows to use many tricks and superstitions to try to get pregnant, and in 1544 she finally gave birth to her first son, Francis. After that, she had no more problems with fertility, and born Henry 10 children altogether, 6 of whom survived to adulthood. Among them were three future kings of France, and, of course, Margaruite (Margot) who will become the Queen of Navarre.

Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II, by an Unknown artist
King Francis I died in 1547 and Henry became King of France. Catherine was crowned as the Queen of France in June of 1949. Henry did not allow Catherine any political power in court and Diane was more of an influence in those years than her.

In April of 1559, Henry suffered a jousting incident, in which the lance of his opponent pierced his eye. He died in July of that year. After his death, Catherine's personal emblem became a broken lance, with the inscription "lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor" ("from this come my tears and my pain"). She wore black for the rest of her life. Diane was expelled from the court. The time of Catherine keeping her feelings and thoughts to herself was over.

Catherine's oldest son, Francis II, came to throne but was weak of mind and body. He died in 1560. Charles IX, who was only aged 10 at the time, became the next King. Since Charles was so young, Catherine became the Queen Regent of France, as she would again with her third son, Henry III.

Henry III of France, Catherine's youngest son by Jean de Court (Louvre)
Her reign was not easy. There were mounting tension between Huguenots (protestants) and Catholics in France, and the French still bore much hatred toward her. Catherine worked tirelessly (and sometimes deviously) to preserve the monarchy and to protect the Valois royal dynasty. Even though she arranged the marriage between Margot and King Henry of Navarre to show unity between the Huguenots and Catholics, she is also partly blamed for the St. Batholomew's Day massacre, which followed two days after Margot's marriage took place, and in which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered. However, in the years that followed, her actions were towards appeasing the Huguenots. In fact, at one point she made a 18-month trip to the south of France in order to meet with the Huguenot leaders, an effort that earned her respect from the French.

Catherine was a great patron of the arts. She also believed in humanistic ideals and understood that princes have to wield the power of education and letters, not just force. Her name is also forever linked to the name of Nostradamus. She was a great admirer of the astrologer and summoned him to court in 1555, where he eventually became the Counselor and Physician-in-Ordinary to her young son, King Charles IX. She was also known and feared for her skills with poisons. It is often said that René le Florentin, Catherine's perfumer, was a master of poisons and often prepared them for her.

Catherine de Medici, the widow by Jean de Court
Catherine has seen her sons become kings and die. When her youngest son died, her dreams of preserving the Valois line died with him. Henry IV, who succeeded to the throne, brought with him the Bourbon royal line.

She died at the age of 69 in January of 1589.

Henry IV, King of Navarre at one time married to Catherine's daughter, Margot, and who inherited the French throne after the death of Henry III, Catherine's son, said this of her:
I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.
(Brantôme, p. 88.)

The tomb and effigies of Catherine de Medici and Henry II Paris Saint Denis Basilica
Me in front of the tomb in Saint Denis Basilica in Paris in 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...