The second Italian Queen at the French court: Maria de’ Medici

Mary is the second Italian to become Queen of France. As fate would have it, she bears the same surname as the first Medici, Catherine, who was never much loved by the French. Mary, therefore, must construct a role as queen without being able to relate to past models, first and foremost that of her distant relative.

When her husband Henry IV was killed, she had to change roles again: she became queen regent, brought her style of Medici influence to the government, promoted the monarchy at the cultural level and exercised a fundamentally peaceful foreign policy.

A great marriage of prestige was celebrated by proxy in Florence on 5 October 1600 when Marie de Medici became Queen of France through her marriage to Henry IV.

Henry IV is of royal lineage while Maria comes from a family of great culture and from a country, Italy, cradle of the arts. And so, when the queen embarks in Livorno to join her husband in France, her ship is a real floating princely dwelling with statues, gold and precious stones, creating a casual contrast to the wretched vessels of the French navy.

When Maria de’ Medici arrives at the Louvre, the residence of the King of France, she is disappointed to discover an unpleasant building, accessed via a wooden bridge over a malodorous moat and consisting of dimly lit flats with deteriorating furniture and torn tapestries. The new queen goes from euphoria to bewilderment, in an epiphany of emotions culminating in great discouragement. She may come from a small state, from a family of bankers whom so many have called parvenu, but her old residence, the Pitti Palace, boasts a magnificence incomparable to the Louvre.

In a short time, thanks to Maria, the Louvre regained its former splendor and several objects that she herself had brought from Italy were transferred to the queen’s rooms: jasper bowls, alabaster lamps, mirrors with gold frames and other precious ornaments.

Maria’s father, Grand Duke Francesco, created the Uffizi Gallery and Maria, fascinated by the arts and beauty, also brought some works with her from Italy to embellish the new French palace.

Like all members of the Medici family, Maria had a great sensitivity towards the arts and as was the family custom, even when she became Queen of France, she sent emissaries to Italy and the rest of Europe to discover new artists.

Her uncle Ferdinando de’ Medici, who became Grand Duke after the death of his father, sent an advisor to France to serve his beloved niece ‘as a painter, sculptor and engineer for all sorts of inventions, ornaments and artistic fantasies, houses, galleries and fountains’.

Maria is a great connoisseur of metals and precious stones, she loves jewelry and wears a great deal of it, and her refined, typically Florentine taste never fails to distinguish even in jewelry. In addition to her passion for jewelry, Maria is a patron of painters, especially Flemish ones, such as Rubens who painted a celebratory cycle of 24 canvases for her and Pourbus her favorite portrait painter. She loved to promote the image of the French royal family with portraits that she then sent as gifts to the various courts.

Another art that Mary helps to perfect is that of ballets, bringing style and techniques already in vogue for years in Florence. The queen also called to court the Franchini brothers, masters of stage machinery, who had already distinguished themselves in 1600 on her marriage with the performance of the first opera in the history of music, Jacopo Peri’s Orpheus and Eurydice.

As far as sculpture is concerned, Maria had a large equestrian statue of Henry IV commissioned from the Florentine workshop of the famous Giambologna placed on the Pont Neuf, thus bringing great prestige to the city.

But the greatest cultural work she wanted was urban planning: the construction of a large palace, le Palais de Luxembourg. It is a sort of new ‘Palazzo Pitti’, which, as the queen wrote to her aunt, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, ‘I have always esteemed, for the order of its architecture and the great comforts to be found there’.

The ending of her life is worthy of a novel: her son condemns her to political and personal exile, thanks in part to the influence of Cardinal Richelieu. The latter helped to make Mary go down in history as a foreign queen succubus to her Italian advisors, politically untalented and frivolous.

Maria de’ Medici was the second Italian queen in France little loved by her adopted people who, over the centuries, tried to make survive only the joke of one of the many mistresses of her husband Henry IV of Bourbon who called her ‘the fat banker’ not so much for her physicality as for the inordinate dowry she brought to the coffers of the king who, nevertheless, continued to be a great debtor to the Medici, highlighting her negative sides and erasing her from historiography. Despite the ostracism of the French, however, the figure of Maria de’ Medici has been rediscovered in recent times thanks to more in-depth and objective studies that have brought out the merits of the Italian queen, so much to recognize her significant role in the cultural and artistic history of the country, legitimizing her as a key figure in French cultural modernization, thanks – above all – to the Florentine model.

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