Archive gems: Cesare Borgia, and Catherine de’ Medici

In the course of research in the archive, you come across lots of fascinating things that will never make it into the final thesis. This may be things which are just not relevant at all, or things which are relevant, to some extent, but don’t make the final cut of material to be included.

In my case, I look through a lot of legal records and statutes, as well as archives from religious institutions. Very little of it is focused on the monastery I study, so I sift through a lot of information about any number of subjects, looking for anything that pertains to Sant’Elisabetta or prostitution. Some of the information is the mundane payments made by the councils (a treasure trove to other historians!) which can be tedious to plough through. Medieval and early modern Florentines were consumate record-keepers, and the archive is full of every sort of account.

While looking through a particular fondo at the Archivio di Stato last week, looking for some examples of where the state-employed musicians were sent, I found an entry in the archive of the Signoria’s deliberations, dated 15 May 1501. The musicians were “to play for the Duke Valentino who is to be found close to Florence.” Here, Cesare Borgia, son of the Pope, ex-cardinal, and now commander of the Papal armies, was to be treated to the best music Florence had to offer.

Cesare Borgia, c.1500-1510

Cesare Borgia, c.1500-1510

Another entry from the deliberations states that in 1518 “the expenses made to honour the Duchess of Urbino in her coming from France are registered: the most notable are for fifty jousters and the triumphal carriages. In these were singers and musicians: it seems there were five carriages.” The Duchess of Urbino was Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, coming from France to take up residence with her husband, Lorenzo II de’ Medici. The couple had married on 5 May 1518 at Amboise.

 

The Duchess of Urbino, Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne

The Duchess of Urbino, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne

Here, the Florentine Signoria had lavished some expense on welcoming her to the city, her new home. Within a year, twenty-year-old Madeleine and her twenty-six-year-old husband would be dead (probably of plague, but malaria, and syphilis have also been suggested as causes), leaving behind an infant daughter who, after an eventful childhood and youth, would go on to become the most powerful woman in her mother’s native land. Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici was born on 13 April 1519, and is better known to history as Catherine des Medicis, Queen of France. Her Florentine past is often forgotten, paling in comparison to the sensationalised events of the latter half of her life, but there, in a little note of some money spent, is the root of major political events to come.

Catherine des Medicis, more recognisable as a French widow than a Florentine child

Catherine des Medicis, more recognisable as a French widow than a Florentine child

These mentions of famous figures appear throughout the archive, and I’m reminded how small a world sixteenth-century Europe was, and how interconnected so much of what we do as historians is.

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