Francesco - Il Virtuoso
Alas, when the merriment was at its height, a sudden stop was put to all the festivities, for, during the night of 8th October, the Grand Duke was taken ill with severe spasms and violent sickness. The Grand Duchess was summoned to his side, and full of alarm and devotion, she at once despatched a mounted messenger into Florence to command the attendance of the Court physicians - Messeri Giulio Agnolo da Barga and Ferdinando Cino da Roma.
They assured her that their princely patient was merely suffering from an error in diet - the dish of mushrooms, of which he had partaken freely overnight, had not been well prepared - but they considered that all ill effects would disappear as suddenly as they had arisen. The report of Francesco's illness reached the Vatican, and the Pope addressed a kindly letter to the Grand Duchess, conveying a good-natured homily to the Grand Duke upon the evils of gluttony!
Bianca cast aside her sparkling coryphean tinsel, and, putting on a quiet gown and natty little cap, appointed herself nurse-in-chief to her dear husband, and no one was better fitted for the post. Torquato Tasso, her Poet-Laureate, noted her tender, compassionate character and her sweet sympathy with human infirmities. In 1578 he had put forth the first of his Cinquanta Madrigali, with a pathetic dedication to the Grand Duchess.
"Had your Highness," he wrote, "not experienced yourself both good and evil fortune, you could not so perfectly understand, as you do, the misfortunes of others." He goes on, in his Rime, to extol his patroness:
"Lady Bianca, a kindly refuge Holds and cheers one in sad and weary pain."
Matters assumed, however, a very different aspect on the morning of the tenth, for the Grand Duchess was seized with symptoms exactly similar to those of the Grand Duke, whose condition by no means warranted the confidence of the physicians. Alarm spread through the villa and the guests departed in the greatest anxiety. The Cardinal alone remained, and his lack of solicitude and general indifference gave the members of the suite occasion for remark and suspicion.
He assumed the air of the master of the place, and gave orders as he deemed well. Into the household he introduced some servants of his own, and ordered out his Florentine bodyguard. Urgent messages passed to and fro between him and his brother Piero de' Medici, and communications were opened with Domina Cammilla, the Cardinal's stepmother in the convent of Saint Monica. These did not allay the universal distrust.
Bianca's own physician failed to diagnose her indisposition, whilst the Court physicians scouted the idea - already being translated into words - that the sudden attacks of the Grand Ducal couple were due topoison. What else could it be? The symptoms pointed that way and no other!
On the third day tertiary fever intervened, with incessant thirst and fits of delirium, and Francesco's condition caused the gravest anxiety. Bianca was inconsolable. Unable to wait upon him, and suffering exactly as was he, she penned, propped up with pillows, a piteous appeal to the Pope, in which she craved his Holiness's prayers and benedictions, and also his fatherly protection for Francesco and herself. She said: "I do not feel at all sure of the Cardinal." The pontiff replied sympathetically, and assured her that no wrong should be done her or the Grand Duke by anybody.
Francesco showed no signs of improvement, but gradually got weaker. When too late for any remedial measures to have effect, the physicians, in private conference, agreed that the cause of his seizure was poison, but - looking from the clenched hand of the dying prince to the open palm of his successor - they, in sordid self-interest, held their tongues. Who had administered the fatal drug, and when, and where, had better not be published! If by a fraternal hand, then it was no concern of theirs!
The Grand Duke expired in agony on the tenth day after his seizure. Bianca could not leave her couch to soothe his last moments. She was nearly as far gone as he, and her attendants waited upon her with the gloomiest forebodings. To her impassioned cries for her husband, they returned deceptive answers. None of her kith and kin were near to comfort her. Her only brother, Vettor, had been dismissed the Tuscan Court in the year of her coronation for unseemly and presumptuous behaviour, and his wife went back with him to Venice. There was no time and no one to correspond with her favourite cousin Andrea. Her tenderly-loved daughter, Pellegrina was at Bologna, nursing her own little Bianca, lately born, and could not travel so far as Florence.
Little Antonio would have been an affectionate companion in his loving foster-mother's illness, but the child was at Pratolino with Maria and Eleanora, unhappy Giovanna's daughters. The former, just fifteen years old, had been Bianca's special care. She was a precocious child, and her stepmother imparted to her some of her own delightful inspirations - the two were inseparable. What a comfort she would have been in gentle ministrations to the suffering Grand Duchess!
Perhaps, had pain-racked, dying Bianca imagined the splendid destiny of the attractive young Princess Maria, she might have gathered no little solace. Could she but have seen her own example and her precepts reincarnated in a Queen of France - for Maria became the consort of Henry II., and ruled him, his court and realm - she would have turned her face to the wall with greater equanimity.