Francesco - Il Virtuoso
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In September 1571, Francesco issued a decree which ennobled the family of Bianca's husband, and Ser Zenobio, unambitious, pottering notary that he was, and Pietro, and all their male kith and kin, were enrolled "inter nobiles, inter agnationes et familias ceusetas et connumeratus." Pietro was now a gentleman of Florence, and he at once assumed the airs of such, as he conceived they should be, but his bad manners and his arrogance brought upon him the contempt of the whole Court.
Francesco at first shielded his protege, but his overbearing conduct and his importunities at length alienated his regard, and he made no attempt to conceal his displeasure. Bianca pleaded with her husband in vain, success had turned his head, and now came "the parting of the ways."
Pietro had consented that Bianca should be "La cosa di Francesco "; he too would enjoy life, and he sought his compensation in the embraces of the most attractive and most scheming flirt in Florence, Madonna Cassandra, the wealthy widow of Messer Simone de' Borghiani - born a Riccio. Although well over thirty years of age, she was run after by all the young gallants of the Court and city. Two already had been done to death for love of her - mere boys - Pietro del Calca and Giovanni de' Cavalcanti.
Pietro Buonaventuri vowed he would marry her, but the Ricci would have none of him; and he fell, one summer's night, under the very windows of his wife's bedchamber, pierced with twenty-five savage dagger thrusts. That same night - it was 27th August 1572 - Madonna Cassandra was stabbed, in her own apartment, also twenty-five times, and two stark, mutilated corpses were mercifully borne away, in the dawn, by the brethren of the Misericordia, and given burial.
Bianca, widowed, demanded at the hand of her princely lover justice for the spilling of her husband's blood; but, for answer, Francesco drew her gently to his heart and said: "The best thing I can do now, my own Bianca, is to make you, before long, Grand Duchess of Tuscany!"
The Cardinal was keenly interested in this tragedy, not indeed that he took any part therein, but it had a distinct bearing upon his line of conduct, and he noted with apprehension the redoubling of Francesco's devotion to "the hated Venetian."
Bianca, of course, was perfectly aware that she was the real cause of Ferdinando's animosity, in spite of his protestations of admiration and the like. She set about to unmask his real intentions and to circumvent his hypocrisy. Her methods were at once original and full of tact, for she disarmed his aggression by playing to his personal vanity and by furthering his lust for money.
Not once, nor twice, but many times, did Bianca plead with Francesco for his brother, and always with success, and many a substantial sum of money was lodged in the Roman Medici bank at his disposal. Ferdinando began to realise that the only way to his brother's purse was by Bianca's favour, and he began to evince a distinctly amiable spirit in his relations with her.
As marking the improvement in the situation, the Cardinal accepted an invitation to a family gathering at Poggio a Caiano in the autumn of 1575. The Grand Duchess Giovanna quite properly was the hostess, but Bianca Buonaventuri, who was installed in a Casino in the park, which Francesco had given her, and called "Villetta Bini," was of the party, the life and soul of all the entertainments.
During the festivities Bianca managed to be tete-a-tete with her brother-in-law in a secluded summer-house. The fascination of three years before was again transcendent. "The Venetian is irresistible," he said afterwards, "I cannot hate her, try how I will!" The truth was, he was madly in love, and he owned it, but his love was, after all, like the hot fumes of a lurid fire.
The year 1576 was a black one in the annals of the Medici. Two beautiful and accomplished princesses of the ruling house were done to death by jealous, unfaithful husbands.
Bianca Buonaventuri was stunned by the terrible end of her dear sister-friends, Isabella de' Medici and Eleanora de Garzia de Toledo. Would her turn come next? The three had been called "The Three Graces of Florence," and certainly each had vied with the other in elegance and fascination, but to Bianca the golden apple had been accorded unanimously. Beauty and charm seemed to be magnets of destruction, and Bianca was upon her guard!
So far as she herself was concerned, she knew that at any time she might still fall a victim to a Venetian desperado, or to a Florentine assassin, and under every friendly guise she feared a foe.
With respect to the Grand Duchess Giovanna and her detestation of Bianca, a story may be told which has all the appearance at least of probability. Giovanna expressed, not once, but often, her wish for Bianca's death. This, indeed, in those days, and in Florence, the "City of Assassins," was as good as a judicial sentence. The Grand Duchess, moreover, it was reputed, followed up her words by action. "One day," the story goes, "in the month of March 1576, her carriage chanced to meet that of Bianca's upon the Ponte SS. Trinita. She besought her coachman to try and upset her rival, hoping that she might fall into the river below and be drowned! Conte Eliodoro del Castello, her Chamberlain, saw the manoeuvre and prevented a deplorable fatality."