Francesco - Il Virtuoso
Be this as it may, the Grand Duke not only sympathised with Bianca's fears, but appointed certain of his own bodyguard to take up similar duties near the person of Madonna Buonaventuri, and her progresses henceforward were watched with as much circumstance as his own. At the same time his devotion to the woman he loved increased from day to day. The perils she was called upon to meet were incurred through her unquestioning love of him. This he knew well enough.
Writing on 29th March 1576, Carlo Zorzi, the Ambassador of the Serene Republic, and a warm adherent of his fascinating fellow-countrywoman, says: "I visited the Grand Duke's Villa Pratolino, and also Madonna Bianca Buonaventuri's charming retreat, the Orte Oricellari, and her pretty Villa della Tana, which he had lately given her, looking upon the Arno, and I observed Don Francesco's intimacy with the Madonna. I noted also her extraordinary influence for good upon him.... They appear to be made for one another, and to be absorbed in the same occupations and interests.... She had but to name an object for charity or patronage, and at once she had his hearty approval."
Francesco never concealed his concern at having no son. With his own physicians and the physicians of the Grand Duchess he held many consultations: not a few quacks and empirics also were sought to for nostrums and charms which should obtain by science what nature had so far withheld. He and Bianca held anxious counsel, for he knew that she would lay down her life for him, and would grant him every facility which it was in her loving power to supply.
Reflecting deeply, Bianca saw only one situation: Giovanna was barren of male issue, why should not she herself become once more a mother - the mother of a son, a son of Francesco!
This idea haunted her, but all the same she had no conception; and then a design presented itself to her weary brain - as natural as it was indefensible. For some time she had been getting stout - her age, her constitution, and her rich living were all conducive to that condition. If she was not to be the mother of his child by natural means, she could be so by a subterfuge, which her embonpoint would uphold!
In the spring of 1576 Bianca Buonaventuri gave out that she was enceinte and began forthwith her preparations for accouchement. She left her palace in the Via Maggio, under the shadow of the Pitti Palace, and took up her abode in the Casino of the Orte Oricellari, which she had lately purchased from the family of Rucellai, and surrounded herself with confidential friends and attendants.
The denouement came on 29th August, when the Grand Duke was informed by Bianca's surgeon-accoucheur, that she had been delivered of a child - a boy! Francesco was almost frantic with delight, and he hastened to his beloved Bianca's bedside. Picking up his child, he fondled him tenderly and almost smothered him with kisses, and at once gave orders for a ceremonial baptism. Antonio, he called him - after the kindly patron saint of that auspicious day - when he personally handed the child to the Archbishop at the font.
The Grand Duchess was inexpressibly shocked, she refused to see her husband, shut herself up in her own apartments, and demanded an escort to Vienna! The news was not long in reaching Rome, and it made Cardinal Ferdinando furious. In a moment all the blandishments of "the Venetian" were dissipated; the better terms lately established in Florence were renounced, and the angry Prince, in unmeasured language, asserted that the child was not Francesco's.
He knew well enough that what had come to pass, unless unchallenged, would imperil his presumptive title. First it was sought to throw doubt upon Bianca's actual maternity, and next to secure the person of the little boy.
Bianca and Antonio, under a strong guard, were sent off to Pratolino, hers and Francesco's best-loved retreat - they had together planned its beauties. There, during her make-believe convalescence, she came to consider the very serious nature of her love's stratagem, and she determined to make a full confession to her lover. The Grand Duke was thunderstruck, but at once he recognised the emphatic importance of secrecy; for, as Vincenzio Borghini quaintly said: "Florence was the greatest market in the world for tissues and materials of all kinds, and full of evil eyes, and ears, and tongues!" Meanwhile Ferdinando had not let the water run under the Arno bridges for nothing. He discovered the surgeon-accoucheur who had attended Madonna Bianca - one Giovanni Gazzi. He maintained the fact of the confinement, but incidentally named the wet nurse, Giovanna Santi. This woman admitted that she had been instrumental in the introduction into Madonna Bianca's chamber of the newly-born son of a reputable woman, who lived with her husband behind the Stinche.
No trace could be found of these humble parents of Francesco's supposititious child, and all Ferdinando's enquiries were fruitless. Many were the tales rife, in and out of the palaces and markets, but neither the Grand Duke nor Bianca took any steps to refute them, and after being, as usual, a nine days' wonder, the subject dropped, apparently.