Francesco - Il Virtuoso
BIANCA CAPPELLO - "La Figlia di Venezia"
PELLEGRINA - "La Bella Bianchina"
True Lovers - and False
"We'll have none of her among our dead!"
These were the brutal words of Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici, at the villa of Poggio a Caiano on the morning of 21st October 1587. They formed the curt reply his Eminence vouchsafed to Bishop Abbioso of Ravenna, "her" confessor.
The bishop, looking to favours from Ferdinando, who succeeded Francesco as third Grand Duke of Tuscany, sent overnight, the following message to his new Sovereign:
"This moment at 8 p.m. Her Most Serene Highness the Grand Duchess passed to another life. The present messenger awaits your Highness' orders as to the disposal of the body."
Yes, it was "the body" of as loving a woman as ever lived in Florence. She had been the most faithful of wives, the most attractive of consorts, and one of the most generous of benefactresses. It was "the body" of as unselfish a sister-in-law as any man, high or low, ever had, who strove her utmost to propitiate, screen, and honour the self-seeking brother of her husband. It was "the body" of Bianca Cappello!
Ferdinando had, for years, plotted her death, and now he had accomplished his dastardly design - a design which also made him the murderer of his brother, Francesco de' Medici.
To be sure, the double tragedy was adjudged no tragedy by such as waited for favours from the coming ruler, and the mysteriously sudden deaths of Francesco de' Medici and his wife Bianca were assigned to natural causes by well-paid dependants upon Ferdinando's bounty and favour. The bloodguiltiness of fratricidal Ferdinando was well whitewashed by his courtiers, and historians have painted him in colours that ill befit his character. So is history written ofttimes and again.
Pope Sixtus VI. had all the gruesome circumstances placed before him, and whilst he was too weak or too cunning - it matters not which - to charge the princely murderer with his deeds, he tacitly accepted the finding of his commission of inquiry: - "Ferdinando de' Medici, Cardinal-Priest of San Giorgio, Grand Duke of Tuscany, poisoned his brother and his sister at Poggio a Caiano."
Now must the story be told, gathered out of records, more or less reliable - more or less biassed. It is a story which brings a blush to the cheek and a lump in the throat, and calls forth feelings of detestation for the murderer. At the same time it is a thrilling story of a love stronger than death.
* * * * *
Late one dark night, in November 1563, a gondola shot out from the deep shadow of the church of Sant' Appolinare, upon the Rio della Canonica, in Venice, dipped under the Ponte del Storto, and sped its way, swiftly propelled by two stalwart boatmen.
There was little use to cry out "Lei" or "Stali," for no other craft was afloat at that hour, and the gondola was unimpeded in its course. Crossing the Grand Canal the helmsman made for the Guidecca, and on past the Punta di Santa Maria, and on still, away across the wide and silent lagune, right on to Fusina, on the mainland.
In the herse were two persons - a boy and a girl - fast clasped in each other's arms: she sobbing upon his breast, he comforting her with hot kisses upon her lips. They were Pietro de' Buonaventuri and Bianca de' Cappelli. The elopement was complete, and all Pietro's manhood rose as he held his sweetheart in a strong embrace: he would guard her with his life, come what might. He knew they were safe from present pursuit, for to none had he revealed his plans; but he also knew that a price would be set upon their heads, and daggers dodge their course. Stepping lightly ashore with his sweetheart, the young man paid his boatmen and bade them not hurry back to Venice. Then the young couple took the road to Bologna, on their way to Florence. They had very little money between them, but Bianca had stuffed into her pocket her jewellery and Pietro had just received his quarter's salary.
At the Cappello mansion, on the morrow, was a scene of wild confusion. Messer Bartolommeo Cappello was like a madman; he demanded his daughter at the hand of her faithful maid, Maria del Longhi, and laid the matter at once before the Supreme Council. On enquiry, Pietro Buonaventuri, who had been for long Bianca's most favoured admirer, was neither at the Salviati bank, where he was occupied as a clerk, nor at his lodgings.
The daughter of a Venetian patrician gone off with a banker's clerk! The idea maddened the old man - he would trace them, and punish them, and all who had assisted their flight. Messer Giovanni Battista Buonaventuri, Pietro's uncle, the manager of the bank; Bianca's maid and her parents; the two gondolieri and their wives; and ever so many others were cast into prison.
No news came of the erring couple, and now they were well ahead of pursuit. Two thousand ducats was the blood-money offered for Pietro, dead or alive. Assassins bought for gold followed on the road to Florence, but never caught up their quarry. Messer Bartolommeo's vengeance knew no bounds, and his new wife, Madonna Lucrezia de' Grimani-Contarini fanned the flames. She hated Bianca.