Francesco - Il Virtuoso
Bianca had not been many days buried when ominous reports began to be rife all over Florence and along the countryside. People asked each other why the body of the Grand Duchess had been snatched. "Was it," they said, "to hide the real culprit and to stifle awkward questions?" The tongues of the night-birds, who had thrown that precious body aside contemptuously, and had not been permitted to mark the grave in any way, were loosened, they gave the name of their employer - Ferdinando's major-domo.
That was quite enough to fix preferentially the guilt upon the guilty party, but when the medical advisers of the new Grand Duke admitted reluctantly that neither Francesco nor Bianca had died from malarial causes, the chitter-chatter of the villa and the palace became unmuzzled, and first one and then another domestic - more or less personal - contributed his piece of private knowledge of the facts of the double tragedy.
Putting these all together piecemeal, the story reads somewhat as follows: Cardinal Ferdinando had for a very long time determined that it was absolutely essential to his succession to the Grand Duchy that Don Francesco should not be permitted to have a child - a boy, by his second wife, Bianca.
Francesco's health was indifferent and he seemed likely not to live long, but, be that as it might, the Cardinal joined the hunting-party at Poggia a Caiano fully intent upon making an attempt upon the lives of both Francesco and Bianca. Among his suite was a valet, one Silvio, a man of fiendish ingenuity, who had made himself invaluable to his master in many an intrigue. To him Ferdinando committed the task of mixing the poison, which he procured from Salerno, in the food or beverage of the Grand Ducal couple.
Silvio made several attempts to accomplish his commission, but the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess did not touch the dishes - specially treated as they passed from the kitchen to the hall - whilst in their cooling wine cups, so much beloved of Francesco, the poison failed of its effect. To be sure, two days before the Grand Duke's actual seizure, he rejected a game-pasty which had a peculiar taste, and the Grand Duchess had, as she thought, detected her brother-in-law playing with the wine glasses, which she at once caused to be replaced by others.
Upon the evening when a ragout of mushrooms was served at the supper-table, it was observed that the Cardinal quite emphatically declined to partake of the dish, but that he pressed Francesco and Bianca to eat largely of it! Bianca ate sparingly, and advised her husband to follow her example; her intuition perceived danger in the delicacy, alas, it was in vain!
This was all, perhaps, that came out concerning the tragedy, but the Cardinal met the story with another. He caused it to be bruited about that Bianca had tried to circumvent his death! For this purpose she had herself made a cake, which she urged him to eat, but which Francesco insisted upon tasting, whereupon she consumed what he had left. The Cardinal further put into the Grand Duchess's mouth the plausible lament; "We will die together if Ferdinando escapes!"
Nobody believed this version, which merely confirmed the real truth, for neither Francesco or Bianca had ever expressed a wish for Ferdinando's death.
Within three hours of the death of Francesco, Ferdinando rode swiftly into Florence, accompanied by a suite of his own creatures - not a single officer of the Grand Ducal house accompanied him. His escort was fully armed and so was Ferdinando. Stopped at the gate by the guard, he gave, to the utter surprise of the subaltern, the Grand Ducal password, and was accorded the Sovereign's salute. Thence he passed at a gallop to the Palazzo Pitti, where he placed personally his seal upon the great doors, and then put up at the Palazzo Medici.
A messenger was despatched before dawn to the Dean of the Duomo to order the big bell to sound. This was the first intimation to Florence that the Grand Duke Francesco was dead. The Lords of the Council hastened from their beds to the Palazzo Vecchio, where Ferdinando joined them, and, there and then, required them to pay him their allegiance.
Thus Ferdinando de' Medici became third Grand Duke of Tuscany. His character as a ruler may not be discussed here at length, but of him it has been succinctly said: "He had as much talent for government as is compatible with the absence of all virtue, and as much pride as can exist without true nobility of mind."
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When Pietro Buonaventuri so complacently resigned his bewitching young wife to be the plaything of Don Francesco de' Medici, he also yielded up the guardianship of his little daughter, Pellegrina, and she lived with her mother in the private mansion Bianca had received from the Prince near the Pitti Palace.
At the time of the assassination of Pietro the child was eight years old - a lovely girl, resembling, in person and manners, her attractive mother. The Prince took her under his special care, in fact adopted her, and treated her as if she was his own dear daughter. Naturally, the Duchess Giovanna resented this arrangement, and strictly forbade her own daughter, Eleanora - a year Pellegrina's junior - to have anything to do with the base-born child of her hated rival.