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."

"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.

The winter sun had long ago set beyond the stone-pines of Monte Oliveto, and the deep blue Tuscan sky had turned to sober slate, purpled with the fading glow of northern crimson. It was a night near Christmas, and Ser Zenobio Buonaventuri sat at his table, in his modest little one-storied house on the Piazza San Marco, putting the finishing touches to his precis of the day's notarial work, in the Corte della Mercanzia. His worthy spouse, Madonna Costanza's weary fingers had just completed the stitching of the last of twelve pairs of kid gloves, for her employers, of the Guild of the Fur and Skin Merchants - the Salvetti, who were her relatives.

They had been talking, as was their wont, about their dashing, handsome son Pietro, the pride of their hearts, who was away in Venice, a clerk under his uncle, Giovanni Battista. They were a lonesome couple, and they deplored their four years' parting from their only boy. To be sure, he had often, indeed regularly, written to them happy, contented letters. Moreover, Messer Giovanni Battista had sent them very satisfactory reports of his application to business, but he named one subject, which filled the hearts of the doting parents with apprehension - it was, of course, a story of romance. Pietro had a sweetheart - that in itself caused little uneasiness; what healthy-minded young fellow had not! But Pietro had an unusually amorous nature, and his love escapades had not been few in Florence. In Venice, "the Court of Venus," he revelled in the fair beauty and the freedom of maidens, so much more lovely and so much less reserved, than the Florentine girls he knew. But when Messer Giovanni Battista named as hisinnamorata the young daughter of one of the proudest patricians of the Serene Republic, the worthy couple were in trepidation lest the lad's passion should lead to regrettable embarrassments.

No love was lost between the sister Republics, and the feeling of hostility in public matters was carried into private life. Pietro never named the romance, but Ser Zenobio, by way of meeting - as was his wont - his troubles half way, penned anxious cautions to his son. The Buonaventuri, though by no means an obscure family, were not Grandi like the Cappelli, Lords of Venice. Moreover, Bianca's father was a wealthy man and a member of the Supreme Council, whilst Ser Zenobio was merely a modest notary of no great fame or fortune.

It was bedtime, but hark! at the door were shuffling steps and voices whispering; and presently there came a gentle tap - repeated once or twice. Ser Zenobio rose to see what was passing outside his house. Peering into the gloom he saw two figures - one a girl's - and a voice he knew full well said:

"Father, we have come to crave shelter and protection."

"Who are you? My boy Pietro! And what are you doing here in Florence, and at this time of night?"

Madonna Costanza was peeping over his shoulder, and both of them were greatly agitated, and awaited with anxiety Pietro's reply.

"We have come from Venice and are very tired. See, father and mother, this is Bianca."

Sternly answered Ser Zenobio. "What do you mean, Pietro? What shame is this you have done your parents? Who is Bianca, and what are you doing with her in Florence? You never said you were coming home. Explain yourself, or come not into your father's house."

Heavy rain was falling, and Bianca was weeping as Pietro led her into the light of the candle his mother held.

"Let them come in anyhow, Zenobio, and we can hear what they have got to say, without the neighbours hearing us," put in the tender-hearted woman.

With that, Ser Zenobio gave his hand to Bianca and drew her and Pietro within the door, and then, in sterner tones, he commanded his son to tell what he had done.

Briefly Pietro recounted the story of his love and how Bianca returned it. He spoke of Messer Bartolommeo's harshness and of the unkindness of Bianca's stepmother, Madonna Lucrezia de' Grimani-Contarini - the Patriarch's sister. He described their plight and the perils which threatened them. But, when he went on to hint at Bianca's condition, the loving heart of Madonna Costanza melted towards the beauteous, weeping girl, and she drew her to her bosom to embrace and comfort her.

Long and anxious vigil the four kept that winter's night. The outcome of their deliberations was the marriage of Pietro and Bianca, on 12th December, privately, at Ser Zenobio's, with the priestly blessing at San Marco's across the way.

It was deemed expedient that the young people should conceal themselves as much as possible, in view of the extreme measures taken by the Serene Republic. If caught, Pietro was to be slain and Bianca enclosed in a convent. The abduction of a noble Venetian was a capital offence, and the girl's dowry was confiscated by the State.

Soon the news of the elopement ran through Florence and set everybody talking. The reward of two thousand gold ducats was a tempting bait for desperadoes and others in need of coin. Everybody wished to see the beauteous Venetian and have a chat with bold Pietro, for, of course, no Florentine blamed them! Who could?

       * * * * *

Don Francesco, Duke Cosimo's eldest son, was in Bavaria making believe-courtship with the Archduchess Joanne, the Emperor's daughter, when the gossip about Pietro and Bianca reached him. He, of course, knew nothing of the Buonaventuri, nor of the Cappelli, but romance is romance in every age and degree of human life! He determined on his return to Florence to find out the amorous young couple and judge for himself of the charms of the fair girl-bride.

Away back, in the grounds of the monastery of San Marco, was the garden-casino of Cosimo, "Padre della Patria," a delightful retreat. Francesco received it as a gift from his father, and there he was accustomed to entertain his friends and familiars.

Passing, on his way thither - as he often did, with a frolicsome party of young bloods - the humble dwelling of the Buonaventuri, he chanced, one day, to look up at a half-open window - the jalousies were thrown back, and there, sitting at her needlework, was the very girl he sought!

There could be no manner of doubt who she was, no Florentine maiden was so fair, and no eyes in Florence were so bright. Casually asking a member of his suite whose house they were passing, Don Francesco tossed up his glove at the girl and passed on.

Another person witnessed this love passage, the Marchesa Anna Mondragone, wife of Francesco's old governor and his chamberlain - she was on the balcony of the house at the corner of the Piazza to make her usual curtsey to the Prince. When the Marchese came home that night, he told his wife that the Prince had seen Bianca Buonaventuri, and had enlisted his services to obtain an interview with the lovely Venetian.

Nothing does a woman of the world love more than to be a go-between where sentimental couples are concerned - be it for their weal or be it for their woe - and so the Marchesa sympathetically addressed herself to the diplomatic task of bringing the two young people together. She struck up a passing acquaintance with Madonna Costanza, and upon the plea that she wished for the opinion of her daughter-in-law upon the question of a Venetian costume she was about to wear at a reception at the palace, asked her to bring Bianca to the Mondragone mansion.

Accordingly, a few days after the affair of the kid glove, the three women were closeted in the Marchesa's boudoir, where the Marchese joined them. Calling off Bianca to look at some jewellery, she whisked her into another room, and presently, leaving her absorbed in the beauty of the gems, retired.

Bianca looked up, somewhat annoyed to find herself alone, and, as she did so, she detected a slight movement behind the arras over the door. The next moment it was raised, and there stepped into the apartment none other than Don Francesco de' Medici!

Bianca stood there, speechless and embarrassed, but the Prince, approaching, took her hand in his, kissed it, and placed her beside him on a couch. When she had recovered from her surprise, Bianca fell upon her knees and, weeping, besought Francesco to befriend her and Pietro. Raising her to the couch once more, he folded her in an impassioned embrace, and promised his protection and what she would besides!

Very greatly moved was the young man by Bianca's rare beauty of face and form, and by the tenderness of her voice, and, perhaps more than all, by the undoubting confidence she reposed in him. Bianca was such a very different sort of girl to cold, unattractive and ill-educated Giovanna.

Immediate steps were taken to obtain the recension of the punitive decrees of the Venetian Council, but they proved abortive, and nothing could be done in Venice for Bianca and Pietro. In Florence Don Francesco could do as he willed. His father, Cosimo, had already made over to him much of his sovereign authority.

In July 1564, Bianca Buonaventuri became the mother of a little girl, to whom the name Pellegrina - her own dear mother's name - was given. The days of convalescence quickly passed, and Francesco paid his innamorata increasing court. Upon Pietro and Bianca he bestowed a charming palace, on the Lung 'Arno, and provided them with ample means to maintain themselves and it. He appointed Pietro Keeper of his Wardrobe and Clerk of his Privy Closet, on condition that his fascinating girl-wife should be regarded pretty much as "La cosa di Francesco."

The more the Prince saw of Bianca the stronger grew his passion. She was perfectly irresistible. After the fashion of the day, he poured forth his devotion in graceful madrigals - the first of which, began as follows: -

"A rich and shining Gem hath Dame Nature Taken out of Heaven's treasury, and Wrapping it in a lustrous human veil Hath bestowed it on me, saying, 'To thee I give this beauteous Flora for thine own.'"

Meanwhile preparations were going forward for the reception and marriage of the Austrian Archduchess, who reached Florence on 16th November 1565. Reports of her husband's infatuation for Bianca Buonaventuri had of course travelled to Vienna, and Giovanna had not long to wait for their verification. She could not brook the fouling of the marriage-bed nor permit the liaison to go on undenounced.

Francesco met her ill-humour with a frown. He pointed to the morals of her father's court, and to the Florentine cult of Platonism, and he bade her mind her own business and not make troubles. Her appeals to Duke Cosimo and to her brother the Emperor Maximilian were in vain. Francesco plainly hinted that she might go back to Vienna if she liked, for nothing that she could say or do would alter his admiration and his devotion for Bianca Buonaventuri. The strictness of married life had long ago disappeared from the conventions of Florentine society. Mutual relationships proved that men might live as they pleased, so long as they did not renounce the offspring, even when they were assured that it was not their own. The term "Partiti" - "Sharers" or "Partners" - perhaps less literally but more emphatically, "kindred souls," was bestowed upon this relationship. Still at no time was Francesco a sensuous man or a libertine like his father. His devotionally-affected mother, Eleanora de Toledo, had trained him in moral ways, and had called forth in him regard for religion and sympathy for charitable objects. Possessed of great self-command and reticence, he never betrayed himself in any way; passionate he was beyond the ordinary, but never revengeful. He loved one woman, and only one, and to her he proved himself faithful until death took them away together; but she was not Giovanna, his political wife, she was Bianca, the wife of his heart and mind.

Next to his love of Bianca was his love of money: no prince of his house was ever half so wealthy or so sparing. Avarice came to him through the rapacity of Giovanna's German followers and through her own extravagance.

The year after his marriage, Bianca Buonaventuri was introduced at Court as Bianca Cappello. The young Duchess of course was furious, and pointedly refused all intercourse with her rival. Bianca, on the other hand, laid herself out to propitiate the dour Austrian princess and to stifle slander. Still a mere girl, she was in full command of all the moves in woman's strategy. There was no school like that of Venice for the display of tact and fascination. To be sure, she was living in a crystal palace, but she was perfectly ready to repair all damages. Bianca was severely upon her guard, and her conduct was perfectly correct in every way.

Very rarely did young Cardinal Ferdinando visit Florence, but in 1569, Cosimo, his father, sent for him, that he might embrace him before he died, being, as he thought, on the point of death. At the magnificently immoral Court of the Vatican he had heard the gossip about the lovely Venetian girl who had so completely captured his brother Francesco. Quite naturally, the by no means ascetic young ecclesiastic desired greatly to see for himself the Venetian charmer, and he journeyed to Florence, bent upon judging for himself.

Francesco greeted Ferdinando quite affectionately - there was no reason why he should not - and unhesitatingly introduced him to Bianca. At the impressionable age of twenty, the young Prince fell at once under the spell of those bewitching eyes. Who could resist her? In the fulness of her womanhood Bianca Buonaventuri was without rival among the fair women of Florence, and the boy-Cardinal made, like all the rest, impassioned love to her.

Back again in Rome and busy with his plans for the great Medici Palace in the Eternal City he lost none of his admiration for his brother's "Flora," till evil tongues began to wag around him. Was not he, Ferdinando, Don Francesco's heir-presumptive? Duchess Giovanna had given her husband none but daughters; she, too, was in delicate health and might die without a son being born. What then? Why, of course, Francesco would marry Bianca Buonaventuri, and by her secure the succession. Whether he was destined for the Papacy or not, the Grand Duchy was his by inheritance, and it behoved him, they said, to guard his rights and further his expectations!

Ferdinando listened to this tittle-tattle and it caused ambitious distrust of Francesco and Bianca. As heir-presumptive to a temporal sovereignty, he began to surround himself with all the attributes and circumstances of his position. His palace was regal in its magnificence, his entertainments were upon a princely scale, and he assumed an overbearing demeanour in his relations with Francesco.

Instigated by inveterate intriguers in his entourage, he quite hypocritically affected to be shocked at his brother's liaison with Bianca, although he made no demur at his father's relations with Eleanora degli Albizzi, Cammilla de' Martelli, and other innamorate. Giovanna was only too delighted to have the invaluable assistance of the young Cardinal in her campaign against "the hated Venetian." At length he took the bold step of expostulating with Francesco upon his intercourse with the captivating rival of Giovanna. The Prince was furious, and warned his brother never to name the subject again, and on no account to meddle with his private affairs.

Ferdinando replied that he was quite content to abstain at a price. The truth was, that his lavish extravagance had exhausted his revenue and restricted his powers of borrowing, and he was in lack of funds for the maintenance of his state in Rome.

In a weak moment Francesco gave heed to Ferdinando's stipulations, and provided him with funds and increased his family allowance. In gratitude, the Cardinal threw into his brother's teeth the fact of his position as heir-presumptive, and insisted upon the purchase of a piece of land at the confluence of the Pesa with the Arno. There he built his Villa Ambrogiana, which became the seat of an anti-Francesco cabal and the headquarters of an elaborate system of paid spies and toadies.

       * * * * *

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."

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.

The Grand Duchess Giovanna gave birth, on 19th May, the following year, to a son - a sickly child to be sure, but the undoubted heir of his father. Ferdinando's hopes were shattered, but he had not done with Bianca Buonaventuri. Within nine months, on 9th February, Giovanna died, somewhat suddenly, and the Cardinal failed not to intimate that Bianca was the cause thereof, and to name poison as her means! The truth is, that the Grand Duchess one day getting out of her sedan-chair, slipped upon the polished marble floor, and, being again near her confinement, a miscarriage resulted, from which she never recovered.

Within two months of the burial of sour-tempered, unlovable Giovanna, the Grand Duke married Bianca, Pietro Buonaventuri's widow, privately in the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio.

One immediate result of this marriage was the quasi-legitimisation of the child Antonio - a vigorous youngster and certain to outlive frail little Filippo.

Reconciliation with Venice, public marriage, and Coronation were in due order celebrated, and Bianca Cappello, "the true and undoubted daughter of Venice," was enthroned in the Duomo, as the true and lawful Grand Duchess of Tuscany! Cardinal Ferdinando watched all these ceremonials from afar - the only one of his family who declined to honour the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess with his presence during the festivities.

Represented by an inferior official of his household, he remained in Rome, closely shut up in his palace, a spectacle to the world at large of ungovernable prejudice and foiled ambition. His cogitations, however, were very grateful, for he was working out in his intriguing brain a ready method for ridding himself, not alone of the two children, bars to his pretensions, but of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess also! Ferdinando was determined to succeed Francesco as Sovereign of Tuscany, come what might!

Never was a man more changed than the Grand Duke Francesco when he placed the new Grand Duchess beside him on his throne. Twelve years of gloom and disappointment gave way before the advent of the "Sun of Venice."

The best, happiest, and most popular years of his reign exactly synchronise with the period of Bianca's ascendency. No strife of parties, no pestilence, no foreign war, black-marked those years. Arts and crafts revived with the increase of population and of confidence, and men began to agree that there was something after all to be said - and to be said heartily - for Macchiavelli's "Prince," and his idea of a "Il Governo d'un solo."

In this glorious eventide of the Renaissance were reproduced some of the magnificence of its heyday, under Lucrezia and Lorenzo de' Medici.

In the early days of Francesco's infatuation for Bianca he had given forth an impassioned madrigal, which once more he sang to her as his good angel-guardian: -

"Around my frail and battered barque There is always serenely swimming, And wakefully watching me, Lest I perish, a beautiful and powerful Dolphin. Warn'd and shielded from every buffet Of the deadly wave, I feel secure. Fierce winds no longer cause me fear. I seek succour no more from oars and sails Safely accompanied by my loving Guardian!"

Francesco's devotion for Bianca continued as the years sped on their way, and he noted with supreme satisfaction that every word and action of hers were marked with unquestioning affection. The loves of Francesco and Bianca at Pratolino recalled those of Giuliano and Simonetta at Fiesole, whilst the wits, and beaux, and beauteous women who consorted there, revived the glories of the Platonic Academy.

Montaigne, who visited the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, both at the Pitti Palace and at Pratolino, in 1580, says: "I was surprised to see her take the place of honour above her husband.... She is very handsome ... and seems to have entirely subjugated the Prince."

The Cardinal was not unobservant of the trend of Florentine affairs. Plots and counterplots were quite to his liking. The Pucci conspiracy and the vengeance upon the Capponi affected him closely. Francesco was not ignorant of the patronage and encouragement vouchsafed to his secret enemies by his eminent brother in Rome - and he watched each move.

The peace and prosperity which marked the progress of the "City of the Lion and the Lily," after Bianca Buonaventuri mounted the Grand Ducal throne, were not regarded complacently by the uneasy Cardinal. The very fact that she was the admirable cause thereof, embittered his Eminence's soul, and his spleen was mightily enlarged by the creatures who pandered to his vicious ill-nature. The fascination of the Goddess engendered detestation as love was turned once more to hate in the crucible of his passions.

"She is nothing but a strumpet, and without a drop of royal blood," so he reasoned, and so he spoke; and he backed up his aphorism by conniving at the foul report in 1582, which accused "Bianca Buonaventuri" - as he always styled her - of causing poison to be administered to poor little Filippo - Giovanna's puny, sickly child! He even had the audacity to accuse Francesco of complicity, because he had ordered no elaborate court mourning, conveniently ignoring the fact that a gracious compliment was paid to Spanish custom and court etiquette, by the simplicity of the obsequies.

Plotters of other men's wrongs were ever inconsistent! One would have thought that Ferdinando would have hailed the removal of the only legitimate heir, before himself, to the Grand Duchy, but the delirium of jealousy and the fury of animosity in the Cardinal's evil heart, found a sort of culmination two years later. Bianca's daughter, Pellegrina, the only offspring of Pietro Buonaventuri, gave birth to a child. She had married, shortly after the public nuptials of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, Count Ulisse Bentivoglio di Magiola of Bologna - a by no means happy marriage as it turned out. This child, a boy, their first-born - indeed poor, pretty Pellegrina's love-child - the Cardinal affirmed "Bianca Buonaventuri" had tried to pass off as her own - another subterfuge confirmative of the first, and that his brother was conversant with the intrigue!

The Grand Duke met the gossip with impassive silence - the wisest thing he could have done - and the Grand Duchess laid herself out to make Cardinal Ferdinando utterly ashamed of himself and his foul aspersions. The integrity of her conduct, and Francesco's sapient conduct of the Government were the admiration of all Italy.

So struck was the Pope with the peace and happiness of the Medicean rule, and the personal characteristics of "the good wife and beneficent consort," as he styled her, that he bestowed upon the Grand Duchess the rare distinction of the "Golden Rose"! At first his Holiness desired the Cardinal de' Medici to head the special mission as Legate, and talked seriously to his Eminence upon his relations with the Sovereigns of Tuscany. He pointed out quite clearly the line of conduct Ferdinando should pursue - the direct converse of the position he had taken up.

The Cardinal began to reflect that the death of little Prince Filippo, and the fact that Francesco had not proclaimed Antonio his heir-apparent, left him at all events the undoubted heir-presumptive. Consequently, when the Florentine Mission, under Archbishop Giuseppe Donzelle of Sorrento, returned to Rome, and the Legate conveyed to him a cordial invitation from the Tuscan Sovereigns to visit Florence, he accepted it with the best grace he could command - keeping, at the same time, his true feelings and intentions to himself.

       * * * * *

Pageant and dirge trip up each other often enough in the course of human life! The lives especially of sovereigns, through the strong light ever beating upon their thrones, are always exposed to vicissitudes of fortune. The Papal Mission had scarcely passed out of recollection, and everything in Florence was happy and prosperous - sunshine is always brightest before eclipse - when the spectre of tragedy again cast its dark shadow over the path of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess.

A right merry party was that which set off from the Palazzo Pitti to the Villa Poggio a Caiano one bright morning in October 1587. The "hunter's moon was up," for the harvest had been gathered in, and the new luscious grapes were in the vat. Pheasant awaited the coming of the sportsmen in the home-coppices, wild boar in the thickets of Monte Ginestra, and other game was ready for the hawk-on-wrist and the dog-in-leash along the smiling valley of the Ombrone.

Hunting and sporting parties were now quite in the Grand Duchess' way. Unused to such exploits upon the canals and lagunes of Venice, she had, from the moment of her elevation, sympathetically entered into the joys of horsemanship and the pastimes of the countryside. Few could beat her in point-to-point - she feared no obstacle, nor dreaded accident, the charge of wild game terrified her not.

"Magnificent," she wrote, on 15th November 1586, "was the sport.... I actually saw four very large boars fall dead at my feet." The Grand Duke, of course, as became "a perfect gentleman," was at one with Bianca in love for, and skill in, all exercises in the open air. His seat was firm, his aim was good, and he revelled in the chase.

Still of Poggio a Caiano he had unpleasing memories, for there he met Giovanna of Austria, and had the first taste of her ill-humour as he rode by her side at her scornful entry into Florence, twelve years before. But Bianca had wrought a vast change in his disposition and environment. She had interwoven fancy and reality, and Francesco was now serenely happy. Often did he sing tender madrigals as they together sauntered in the woods and indulged in pastoral pursuits.

"Sing! sing! ye birds I am wide awake Tho' silent 'mid your tender harmony; And yet I would fain join your sweet concert, Whilst upon the face of fair Bianca, 'Mirror of Love' - I fix my yearning eyes."

The Cardinal was one of this particular hunting party - indeed, the hunt had been arranged entirely in his honour, and he expressed himself as charmed with everything - and especially with the Grand Duchess. This was his first State visit to his brother's Court and his affability knew no bounds. Bianca, on her part, laid herself out to entertain her brother-in-law, and made herself especially attractive and gracious. The presence of the Archbishop of Florence added greatly to her satisfaction and Francesco's. Very wisely, young Antonio was sent to Pratolino with his governor and tutors, and in the merry company no personality could, in any way, recall unhappy incidents of the past. The days were passed in the exhilaration of sport, and the evening repasts were followed by animated conversation, ballets, music and recitations. All the brightest ornaments of the Court were present at the Grand Duchess' behest.

Bianca, herself, in the highest spirits, dressed, sang, and danced, bewitchingly. The frolics of the Orte Oricellari were transferred to the delightful hunting-box, and everybody and everything was as gay as gay could be, and no one troubled about the morrow.

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.

Just before his death the Grand Duke sent for Ferdinando, told him he had been poisoned by no one but himself, and charged him with the double murder, for he had constant news, of course, of Bianca's illness. He asked him in that solemn hour to honour both of them in burial, to protect the little boy Antonio and his two young daughters, Maria and Eleanora, and to treat kindly all who had been faithful and true to Bianca and himself. Then he gave him the password for the Tuscan fortresses, and asked for his confessor, and so he passed away. As soon as Francesco was dead, Ferdinando demanded to be admitted to the bedside of Bianca. Concealing from her the fatal news, he intimated that Francesco had consigned to him the conduct of affairs, and in the most heartless, inhuman fashion possible, bade her prepare for death!

"See," he added, "I have brought your friend, Abbioso; you may as well make your confession to him as Francesco has done to Frate Confetti."

Bianca, though only partially conscious, knew exactly what the Cardinal meant, and railed at him for his cruelty. In delirium she made passionate appeals to Francesco, and wildly denounced her treacherous brother-in-law. Her cries resounded through the villa, but they stirred no feeling of regret or compunction in Ferdinando's breast. He gloated, fiend-like, over his victim's sufferings. It was not by chance he procured the potent poison he had used. The empiric-medico at Salerno had been well paid to furnish a potion that should, by its slow but deadly action, prolong the tortures of the sufferers! A less vindictive murderer would have secured his victim's quick release, but, during ten terrible days of sickness, delirium and agony, he witnessed the inevitable progress of his vengeance! If Cosimo, his father, had called his young son Garzia "Cain," what would not he have called the man, the bloodthirsty Ferdinando?

Bianca's illness followed precisely the course of the Grand Duke's. The tearful faces of her attendants, and the noise of preparations for his burial, conveyed to her in calmer moments the terrible truth, and she had no longer any wish to live - parted from Francesco. Bianca was already dead. She called the bishop and made a full confession of her whole life's story, hiding nothing, palliating nothing. Out of a full heart she spoke - that heart which had been the source of all her love and her happiness, her misery and her sin.

Antonio she commended to Bishop Abbioso's care, and begged him send the news of her death and Francesco's to Cavaliere Bartolommeo Cappello at Venice. After absolution and last communion, Bianca Cappello, "Daughter of Venice," Grand Duchess of Tuscany, breathed her last in peace - the delirium having abated - on the evening of 30th October, just two days after her husband.

A post-mortem examination, or at least the form of one, upon the Grand Duke revealed, it was said, advanced disease of the liver, the consequences of his unwisdom in the use of cordials and elixirs! With the connivance of the Court physicians, Ferdinando put out a proclamation that the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess - he was compelled to use the title then in speaking of Bianca - had died from "attacks of malarial fever, induced by the unhealthy atmosphere of Poggio a Caiano."

       * * * * *

Francesco's obsequies were attended by all the stately ceremonies usual in the Medici family. Conveyed into Florence by the Misericordia on the evening of his death, his body was exposed for three days in state in the Palazzo Pitti, and then carried in solemn procession to the church of San Lorenzo for burial.

If merely to save appearances, or to conceal his real intention, the new Grand Duke ordered the body of the Grand Duchess to be placed beside that of her husband in the Cappella Medici of the church. For six brief hours it was suffered to remain, and then, at midnight, agents of Ferdinando, well paid for their profanity, deported all that was mortal of the brilliant "woman whom he hated" to an unknown grave in the paupers' burial plot beyond the city boundary! "For," said he, "we will have none of her among our dead!"

Such was the end of the beautiful and accomplished Bianca Cappello - "Bianca, so richly endowed," as wrote one of her panegyrists, "by nature, and so refined by discipline, able to sympathise with and help all who approached her - her fame for good will last for ever!" The wiles of the serpent and his cruel coils had crushed the "Daughter of Venice": it was the triumph of an unworthy man over a lovable woman. She was not the only victim Ferdinando's poison overpowered - Giovanni de' Pucci, whom the Pope was about to advance to the Cardinalate, an inoffensive ecclesiastic, incurred Cardinal Ferdinando's displeasure by his sympathy with the Grand Duchess. He died mysteriously after drinking a glass of wine which Ferdinando had poured out for him![A]

[Footnote A: In 1857, when the Medici graves at San Lorenzo were opened, the bodies of the Grand Duke Francesco and the Grand Duchess Giovanna were easily identified. The bodies also of Maria, the unhappy victim of her father, Cosimo, with the fatal wound; of Eleanora de Garzia de Toledo, Piero's murdered wife; and of Isabella, Duchess of Bracciano, were also recognised. All five were in wooden chests, but robbed of the costly grave-clothes and jewels. There was no trace of the body of the Grand Duchess Bianca!]

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."

       * * * * *

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.

Nevertheless, the sparkling, merry little girl became the pet of the Court - where she was always greeted as "La Bella Bianchina." and no one dreamed of throwing her father's evil career in her face. At the public marriage of the Grand Duke and the widowed Bianca Buonaventuri, Pellegrina was, of course, a prominent figure. She had grown tall and had inherited the charming traits of her sweet mother. She was fourteen years old, and eligible as the bride of any acceptable suitor. Her dowry was considerable; equal indeed to that of the Princess Eleanora; and the Grand Duke was no less solicitous than the Grand Duchess about the choice of a husband.

At first it was hoped that a young Florentine might be the successful lover, and indeed such an one appeared to have been secured, when young Pietro Strozzo - the son of Messer Camillo di Matteo negli Strozzi - one of Pellegrina's sponsors at her baptism - was judged worthy of the matrimonial prize. They were accordingly betrothed, but the inconstancy of Love was once more proved, for the young fellow was a wayward youth, and, although only seventeen, had fixed his affections elsewhere!

The match was broken off, but within a year of Pietro's renunciation another aspirant for Pellegrina's hand and dowry appeared in the person of a distinguished young foreigner - Conte Ulisse Bentivoglio de' Magioli da Bologna. He was reputed to be the natural son of Signore Alessandro d'Ercole Bentivoglio, and had been adopted by his maternal uncle, Conte Giorgio de' Magioli. His mother's name was Isotta - a beautiful girl at the Court of the Lords of Bologna, who had romantic relations with both Signore Alessandro and Conte Giorgio. Which of the two was Conte Ulisse's father mattered far less, from a matrimonial point of view, than the fact that the prospective bridegroom was unusually wealthy and well-placed.

Conte Ulisse, twenty years of age, went to Florence along with the Bologna deputation to greet Grand Duke Francesco upon his marriage with Bianca Buonaventuri. Then it was that he first saw Pellegrina, and was accepted as her betrothed husband. He remained in Florence a considerable time, and took a leading part in the splendid festivities and the notable giostre, wherein he was hailed as a champion in the "Lists."

The marriage was celebrated three months after the Grand Ducal wedding, and, amid the tears of her mother, Pellegrina departed with her husband for Bologna. Everything went well for a time with the youthful Count and Countess. Grand Duchess Bianca paid them several visits, and Countess Pellegrina spent much time in Florence. For example, she took part in the marriage ceremonies of Virginia de' Medici, unhappy Signora Cammilla's child, in 1586, with Don Cesare d'Este. The year after her coronation the Grand Duchess went in state to Bologna, to assist at the accouchement of her daughter. A little son made his appearance, and as though to fix the real parentage of the Count, he was baptised Giorgio.

Two more sons came to seal the happiness of the young couple - Alessandro and Francesco - and two daughters - Bianca and Vittoria - and then the happy relations between the Count and Countess underwent a change, and her husband's love ceased to peep into Pellegrina's heart. The Count was much occupied with military matters, like most young nobles of his age; he also undertook diplomatic duties, and was sent, in 1585, as the special ambassador of Bologna, to congratulate Pope Sixtus V. upon his elevation to the Pontifical throne.

At the Roman Court he met Don Piero de' Medici - the Florentine envoy - and, through him, got into evil company. He returned to Bologna unsettled in his feelings, and looking for excitement and illicit intercourse. His passion for Pellegrina was passing away, and he sought not her couch but the company of a lovely girl of Bologna who had fascinated him.

By degrees his love for his sweet wife grew cold, and at length he had the effrontery to establish his innamorata in his own mansion. Pellegrina protested in vain, but the more she admonished her husband the more flagrant became the liaison. Cast off and even spurned in her own house, the poor young Countess longed for her dear, dead mother's presence. She had now no one to counsel and comfort her. Left pretty much to herself, she yearned for companionship and love. She was only twenty-four, and still as attractive as could be.

What she sought came at last, when young Antonio Riari took up his residence at Bologna as a student-in-law. He was the great-grandnephew of the infamous creature of reprobate Pope Sixtus IV. - Count Girolamo de' Riari - of the Pazzi Conspiracy a hundred years before. Good-looking, gay, amorous, and blessed with robust health and ample means, the young man was the lover of every pretty girl.

Attracted mutually to one another, the Countess Pellegrina yielded herself to her admirer's embraces - although Antonio was a mere lad of seventeen. The intimacy grew until news of it reached Count Ulisse's ears in the boudoir of his sweetheart! The gossip doubtless was garnished to the taste of the retailers and of the receiver.

The Count turned upon his wife - as he might have been expected to do, seeing that he had habitually been unfaithful, and taxed her with unfaithfulness! Innocently enough, Pellegrina told him exactly how matters stood, craved his forgiveness, and begged for the restitution of marital rights. Conscious of his own turpitude and irregularity of life, he met her protestations with scorn, and, seeing in the episode an opportunity of legalising his illicit lusts, he denounced her publicly and set spies to report her conduct.

These mercenaries, knowing the mind of their master, did not hesitate to translate his words into deeds; and very soon they were able to realise their dastardly purpose. Although the Countess had warned young Riario of the danger which menaced them both, and was, for a time, more circumspect in her intercourse with her lover, the fascination of mutual passion overbore the dictates of prudence.

Like a "bolt from the blue" fell the blow - or blows - which, if not delivered by Count Ulisse in person, were his de jure. Two paid assassins chanced upon the loving couple one day, clasped in each other's arms, in a summer-house in a remote part of the Bentivoglio gardens!

Swift and certain was the aim! Pellegrina and Antonio were discovered, late at night, each stabbed through the back, and strangled with cords - dead - with eyes of horror gazing wildly at the pale moon! No shrift had they, but bitter tears were shed by tender sympathisers, and accusing fingers were pointed at the Count.

What cared he! He merely shrugged his shoulders and sardonically hinted that as he had brought his wife from Florence - from Florence, too, had he learned how to take personal vengeance upon a faithless spouse and her accomplice! The dark deed was done on 21st September 1589, and Count Ulisse lived on with his evil conscience and his new wife till 1618, when he, too, fell in Bologna by an assassin's blade - just retribution for the foul murder of lovely Pellegrina Buonaventuri.