Was Francesco de’ Medici a Better Leader Compared to His Father?


By William LandonNorthern Kentucky University

Francesco de’ Medici, the eldest of Cosimo de’ Medici’s sons, was born in 1541. Like all men of his status, he was given a wide-ranging humanistic education and one which had begun to incorporate disciplines that we might recognize as the sciences. He was an especially enthusiastic practitioner of the alchemical arts.

Bust of Francesco de’ Medici
Francesco de’ Medici was especially enthusiastic about alchemical arts. (Image: Sailko/Public domain)

Francesco de’ Medici’s Aesthetic Sensibilities

Later in his life, the young Medici duke had a laboratory, colloquially known as the Studiolo, constructed in the Palazzo Vecchio, where he spent, perhaps, too much time. In his studies at the Studiolo, Francesco developed a fascination with gemstones, curating a tremendous collection. 

Annamaria Giusti, and many other of art historians have noted that Francesco’s obsession with precious stones led him to invent a particularly Florentine decorative art form—pietra dura—which involves the meticulous arrangement of incredibly tiny polished stones, often on tabletops and inlays in furniture, to form mosaics. These could be representational or geometric. 

Francesco was responsible for first gathering the Medici family’s massive collection together there. These artistic investigations and aesthetic sensibilities had far more impact on Florence’s long-term cultural importance than anything that Francesco did in the political sphere, where he was a failure.

Charismatic Cosimo

Like his father, Francesco exhibited autocratic tendencies, but he did not possess the personal vigor or intellectual and political acuity that guided Cosimo’s reign.

Portrait of Francesco de’ Medici as a child
Like his father, Francesco exhibited autocratic tendencies. (Image: Bronzino/Public domain)

Cosimo, for example, personally ran Florence from his study in the Palazzo Vecchio. He made all decisions that affected the city’s international and domestic policy, and only carefully applied suggestions gathered from a small coterie of advisors—who, rather than offering original ideas, acted as sounding boards for Cosimo’s plans.

Cosimo managed Florence with a combination of charisma (not the kind that naturally draws one to an individual, but rather a form that embodies explosive potential, like a great cat). His commanding physical presence and detailed commentaries left to posterity by foreign ambassadors further flesh out his personality.

Age was not kind to him. And as his health failed and after his wife passed away, Cosimo habitually began to lose his volcanic temper. These factors may have been responsible for Cosimo’s retreat from public life, and for the elevation of Francesco.

While Francesco certainly attempted to emulate the most successful elements of his father’s leadership style, especially by continuing to patronize the arts and letters in Florence, he simply didn’t have Cosimo’s talent, or the implied threat of his personal charisma.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the RenaissanceWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Like Father, Unlike Son

Cosimo’s leadership style was highly orchestrated, but he allowed himself the flexibility of spontaneity. Francesco’s rule was rigorously formal; and under the cover of that formality, Francesco was able to gloss over how ineffective he was compared to his father.

Portrait of Francesco de’ Medici standing behind his father, Cosimo de’ Medici
Cosimo had made sure that Francesco had the backing of much larger European powers. (Image: Federico Zuccari/Public domain)

The barest difference between Cosimo and Francesco is exposed when we examine how they conducted foreign affairs. Cosimo was keenly interested in maintaining Florence’s independence from continental Europe’s greatest powers—France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire—and he achieved what was, for all practical purposes, an independent, Medici-controlled state. 

After Cosimo died in 1574, Francesco began to realign Florence not only with its ancient ally, France, but also with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Francesco inherited a much larger and much more tightly controlled Tuscan state from his father. The apparatus of government was an extension of Francesco’s person. 

He was often reviled, but the power he wielded was unparalleled in Florentine history. No serious challenges arose to his authority, and Cosimo had made sure that Francesco had the backing of much larger European powers.

Francesco, an Open Philanderer

His father had arranged Francesco’s marriage to Joanna of Austria—the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman emperor. Cosimo believed in keeping one’s potential enemy’s close. That marriage, which took place in 1565, was relatively brief and extremely unhappy. Joanna never felt at home in Florence and didn’t enjoy being married to an open philanderer. In 1578, she died at the age of 31.

During most of his marriage to Joanna, Francesco kept a long-term lover—Bianca Cappello. He even built her a palace near his own in Florence, and he cruelly and openly showered Bianca with physical affection in Joanna’s presence. Joanna died in April of 1578. Shortly thereafter, Francesco married Bianca. Francesco had already fathered one son with Bianca—while Joanna was still alive. Now that he was free to do so, he had this son, Antonio, legitimized. 

Francesco’s younger brother, Cardinal Ferdinando, argued that no issue of Bianca and Francesco’s adulterous union should be legally recognized. Going well over Ferdinando’s head, Francesco appealed to the King of Spain, who pushed Rome to acknowledge Antonio as Francesco’s heir, therefore placing him next in line to be the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Francesco’s Death, an Event to Rejoice

The Florentines, and Tuscans more broadly, had come to hate and to distrust Francesco and his foreign wife, Bianca (she was Venetian by birth). Thus, there was little mourning when the couple died on successive days—October 19 and 20, 1587, at the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano.

Historians debate whether Francesco and Bianca died of malarial fever or if they were poisoned. All that we can conclude is Francesco and Bianca might have died from malaria, arsenic poisoning, or both. The cause of death means little to us.

However, the simple fact that Francesco and his wife were gone caused Tuscans to rejoice. Moreover, as Francesco and Bianca’s son was too young to assume the Medici dukedom, necessity dictated a change in leadership, which turned out to be a welcomed one.

Common Questions about Francesco de’ Medici

Q: What Florentine decorative art form did Francesco de’ Medici invent?

Francesco de’ Medici invented a decorative art form called pietra dura. It involved meticulously arranging tiny stones to form mosaics. The art form started from Francisco’s fascination with gemstones.

Q: How had Cosimo de’ Medici made sure that his son would have the backing of European powers?

Francesco de’ Medici had been married to the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman emperor, Joanna of Austria. This was because Cosimo believed one should keep their potential enemies close. In this regard, Francesco had unparalleled power after he inherited his father’s position.

Q: How did Francesco de’ Medici die?

Francesco de’ Medici‘s cause of death is not known for sure. He and his wife, Bianca, died on successive days. Their cause of death might have been malaria fever, arsenic poisoning, or maybe both.

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