Medici, Eleonora de (1567–1611)

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Medici, Eleonora de (1567–1611)

Duchess of Mantua . Name variations: Eleonora Gonzaga. Born Eleonora de Medici in 1567; died in 1611; daughter of Joanna of Austria (1546–1578) and Francis or Francesco I de Medici (1541–1587), grand duke of Tuscany (r. 1574–1587); sister of Marie de Medici(c. 1573–1642); married Vincenzo I (1562–1612), 4th duke of Mantua (r. 1587–1612), in 1583; children: Francesco (1586–1612), 5th duke of Mantua (r. 1612–1612); Ferdinando also known as Ferdinand (1587–1626), 6th duke of Mantua (r. 1612–1626); Margherita Gonzaga (1591–1632); Vincenzo II (1594–1627), 7th duke of Mantua (r. 1626–1627); Eleonora I Gonzaga (1598–1655).

Eleonora de Medici was born into the ruling family of Florence, Italy, the oldest child of Francesco I de Medici, later Grand Duke Francesco I of Tuscany, and his first wife, Joanna of Austria . She received an excellent education in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance aristocracy, which included the study of languages, ancient literature, music, and philosophy.

When Eleonora was about 15, her father entered into negotiations with Guglielmo Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua, to arrange a marriage between Eleonora and Guglielmo's son Vincenzo Gonzaga. The matter of 20-year-old Vincenzo's marital career was of scandalous interest in the courts of Europe, as Vincenzo was accused by many prominent Italian men of being impotent. Since impotency was seen as a sign of weakness in a man, and since fathering children was crucial to being a ruler, no family wanted to marry their daughter to a man suspected of impotency unless he could prove it to be false. Negotiations between the Medici and the Gonzaga were completed concerning Eleonora's dowry and other property issues, but the agreement could not be finalized until the Medici were convinced of Vincenzo's worthiness. This led to a series of "tests" designed to let Vincenzo prove himself a potential husband, as well as to scientific debates over the nature of impotence and much gossip at Vincenzo's expense across the courts of Europe. But at last the "tests," which involved witnesses (including women he had supposedly had affairs with) testifying to Vincenzo's sexual abilities, satisfied the Medici's suspicions. Eleonora left Florence for Mantua, and married Vincenzo in 1583.

Eleonora's thoughts about her husband and her marriage are revealed in some of the letters she wrote later to her sister Marie de Medici , queen of France. She and Vincenzo appear to have been compatible, but it was not a love match. They shared many of the same interests—love of theater, appreciation for the visual arts, and the desire to create a splendid court which passed its days in luxury, expensive feasts, and lavish entertainment. They had six children, three daughters and three sons.

But Vincenzo, though a cultured and intellectual man, was also the product of his times, which valued violence as a sign of masculinity. He was frequently drunk, and more than once the courts of Europe learned of Vincenzo knifing some courtier, entertainer, or stranger in a fit of rage over a perceived insult. He also had a particularly antagonistic relationship with his father which Eleonora tried unsuccessfully to diffuse, even goading Vincenzo into a short-lived reconciliation with his father on his father's deathbed. All this was enough to make Eleonora's married life difficult, but Vincenzo was also, as were many aristocratic men of his time, notorious for his affairs with prostitutes and court women. As her letters to her sisters reveal, Eleonora sometimes railed against her situation, even advising Marie de Medici to avoid similar marital hardships by refusing to get married. Eleonora also suffered from ill health for most of her married life, illnesses compounded by her numerous pregnancies. Duchess Eleonora died early, at age 44, in 1611. Her husband survived her by less than a year. All three of her short-lived sons eventually succeeded their father to the throne of Mantua. The portrait of Eleonora de Medici by Pulzone, located in the Pitti Gallery, shows her to be of considerable beauty.


Simon, Kate. A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua. NY: Harper & Row, 1988.

Young, George F. The Medici. 2nd ed. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1911.

Laura York , M.A. in history, University of California, Riverside, California

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