Credit for the present status of Florence as a jewel of European art and culture is rarely given to where it is due. Accounts of its history are replete with descriptions of the founder of the Medici’s wealth, Giovanni de’ Bicci; the exploits of Cosimo, pater patriae; the splendor of Lorenzo the Magnificent; and the achievements of the crafty Grand Duke Cosimo, who made Tuscany an independent and prosperous European duchy. Less known is the dismal history of the last successors and members of the House of Medici: the weak Fernando II, the cruel tyrannical Cosimo III, and the final rule of the perverted alcoholic and enormously obese Gian Gastone, who eventually never left his bed and died without leaving a male heir.
Tuscany had been a client state of the Habsburg empire for some 200 years. One of the major objects of the reigning Emperor Charles VI was to have the great European powers agree to accept his daughter, Maria Theresia, as head of the Holy Roman Empire. After prolonged negotiations it was agreed that France should receive the Duchy of Lorraine, which it had long wanted to annex; Maria Theresia was to be Holy Roman Empress and marry Francis II of Lorraine, who in return for giving up his duchy would receive the Duchy of Tuscany (1737).
The Florentines had no say in these transactions. As soon as Gian Gastone was dead, 6000 Austrian troops crossed the borders of Tuscany and installed the Archduke Francis II as its ruler. He came to Florence to take possession of his new property and left for Vienna after one month or two, leaving an administrator of low birth and extreme vulgarity to manage the city. All jobs and positions of importance were given to expatriates from Lorraine. Even the Medici’s traditional festive holidays were abolished, and for more than a century foreigners would rule the land of Tuscany.
Ignored in these transactions was the last descendant of the Medici family, Anna Maria Ludovica, daughter of Cosimo III and sister of Gian Gastone. She was seventy-four years old when her brother died and had lived in isolation, increasingly troubled by dropsy and not approving of her brother’s immoral life. But the new regime did not interfere with private property and with all the wealth accumulated by the Medici over centuries. Upon her death, she donated the greater part of her possessions to the State of Tuscany: the wonderful paintings of the Uffizi and Pitti Galleries, the palaces, statues, monuments, and rare collections. All this she donated on condition that the collection, unlike that of Charles I of England, should not be dismantled and never be allowed to leave Florence.
So Anna Maria Ludovica deserves to be rightly considered the founder of the splendid modern Florence of today. Without her donation, without access to the sea, industry or agriculture, the yearly flow of millions of tourists would have ceased a long time ago, its buildings decayed, its name hardly known, its status degraded to the level of its former neighboring rivals. Yet Anna Maria Ludovica’s donation is rarely mentioned. No statues have been erected in her memory, and her name remains largely unknown. But it is due to her donation that Florence owes its present greatness.
- Young, GF. The Medici. Modern Library, New York; 1910.
- Hibbert, C. The rise and fall of the House of Medici. Allen Lane; 1974. Penguin Books; 1979.
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief
Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 4 – Fall 2023