Lucrezia - Eleanora - Isabella

Three Murdered Princesses

"Shall I go in, or shall I not?" asked Isabella de' Medici, Duchess of Bracciano, with a catch in her voice.

Donna Lucrezia de' Frescobaldi, her first Lady of Honour, made no reply, but grasped her mistress' arm convulsively. The two women stood pale and trembling at the door of the Duke's bedchamber, in their charming villa of Cerreto Guidi, a few miles out of Florence.

There was something uncanny in the air, which caused the Duchess and her lady instinctively to draw back. It was not the Duke's voice, for that was pitched in an unusually tender key, and yet, its very unusuality might have caused their trepidation. There was something indefinable in the situation, which produced apprehension and alarm.

Doubtless their nerves were overstrained by the terrible event at Cafaggiuolo. Eleanora, the Duchess's sister-in-law, had seen and felt the cold steel dagger, struck out from behind the arras, by her husband's hand - she was dead! Every titled woman, and many another too, felt instinctively that she was walking on dangerous ground: murder seemed to lurk everywhere, and marriage appeared to spell assassination!

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The remorse of Cosimo de' Medici for the murder of his dearly-loved child Maria, his first-born, did not hinder his policy of aggrandisement. He was determined to keep the whip-hand over Ferrara, and to maintain the precedence of his house over that of the Estensi. He had already sacrificed one daughter, not only to his parental passion but to his sovereign will, and one daughter still remained unbargained; he would use her to hold what he had got.

Lucrezia was no more than twelve years old when Maria passed to Paradise. Prince Alfonso was twenty-two, and his father, Duke Ercole II., had apparently no fiancee in view for him, and the lad seemed not to be in a marrying mood. At the moment Ferrara was isolated, but Cosimo, seizing a favourable opportunity, through his relationship with the King of Spain, contrived to arrange a treaty between that kingdom, Tuscany and Parma, which he adroitly extended to include Ferrara.

It was a powerful combination, and Cosimo had his price, and that price was the betrothal of Alfonso and Lucrezia. The Duke of Ferrara yielded, and in the same month, March 1558, the treaty of alliance was signed at Pisa, and the two young people were affianced there by proxy.

To be sure, there was trouble with Rome. Julius III., in 1552, had bespoken Lucrezia for his bastard nephew, Fabiano Conte Del Monte - a man without resources and of no recognised position nor of good character - it was just a selfish whim of the Pope - the children never saw each other. Cosimo, with his usual daring, brushed the whole project aside, and made a liberal contribution to Peter's Pence that year!

If Lucrezia was somewhat less fair and less clever than Maria, she was, all the same, an attractive girl. Thin in figure - as all growing girls - tall, well-formed, with the promise of a well-proportioned maturity, she had an oval face and a high forehead, well-clustered with curly auburn hair. There was a peculiarity about her eyes - black they were or a very dark brown - they had something of that cast of optic vision which was remarkable in Cosimo, "Il Padre della Patria" and in Lorenzo, "Il Magnifico," as well as in other members of the family.

"She had a pretty mouth and a dimpled chin, and always wore a pleasing expression indicative of good-nature and resolute affection. Very unlike her elder sisters, Maria and Isabella, she was somewhat reserved in manner; she spoke little, but expressed her opinion with flashes of her eyes." Her father admired her firmness of resolution greatly, and generally spoke of her as "La Mia Sodana," "my little strong-willed daughter."

"She is quite a chip of the old block," he was wont to say of her, "quite one of us - a Medico in frocks!" Lucrezia shared the lessons of her brother, and had been brought up specially with the idea of a brilliant foreign marriage, and her maid was a girl from Modena who knew Ferrara well.

One condition of the marriage-contract was most unusual - namely, that the bridegroom should be free to leave Florence upon the third day after the nuptials had been celebrated! This was necessary, the Prince averred, in order that he might keep an appointment he had made, with his father's consent, with the King of France - the enemy of the quadruple alliance!

Prince Alfonso troubled himself very little about his fiancee. He was devoted to selfish pleasures, and, when his energies were called into play, they were devoted to the service of arms. His betrothal to Maria de' Medici, without his consent, her untimely and suspicious death, and the character Duke Cosimo bore for tyranny, ambition, and greed, were undoubtedly deterrent to the young man's wish to cultivate another Medici alliance.

His own father, Duke Ercole, resembled his prospective father-in-law in many respects. The Estensi, with the Malatesti of Rimini and Pesaro, the Sforzai of Milan, and the Medici of Florence, were classed as "families of tyrants." Duke Ercole was a man of strong will and forceful action - a tyrant in his own family and cruel to his unhappy consort - he could not brook any disobedience to his behests. He commanded his son to set forth at once from Ferrara and claim his bride in Florence.

Accompanied by a glittering retinue, which included a dozen Lords of the Supreme Council, Prince Alfonso took his way over the Apennines, along the Bologna road. On 18th June the cavalcade was discerned from the heights of Olivets, wending its way through Boccaccio's country to the city walls.

He was received with great distinction by the Duke and Duchess, attended by the whole Court; and his welcome by the citizens was very cordial. Florentines always loved a spectacle. Everyone, however, remarked the Prince's haughty bearing, and the coldness with which he returned Cosimo's greeting. He bore himself as a man in presence of a foe whose every action must be watched intently. The Duchess, with all her Spanish sensibility, perceived at once the disfavour of their guest, and sought to interest him in the scene around him and in the happiness in prospect.

Alfonso was quite unmoved. He met Lucrezia's greeting with a cold handshake, and begged that the marriage ceremonies might be hurried forward, as "he had not much time to spare." Cosimo joined in the Duchess' entreaties that the uncanny condition, in the marriage-contract, might be observed in the breach.

"My word is pledged to the King of France," he replied disdainfully, "and go I must."

Duke Ercole, in a letter delivered to Cosimo by Alfonso, urged the former not in any way to dissuade his son from carrying out his intention. It was common knowledge, however, in Ferrara, and reported by members of the Prince's retinue to the courtiers of Florence, that Henry II. of France had made known to Duke Ercole his intention of repaying the three hundred thousand gold ducats he owed Ferrara. A condition accompanied the proposal, namely, that the Duke should withdraw from the alliance, and despatch his son at once to Paris, to assure the bona fides of the new arrangement.

Moreover, Henry hinted not only at the advisability of separating the too youthful couple, and of giving the Prince military employment until his young wife attained a more mature age; but suggested that some way should be found, even at the eleventh hour, of allying Alfonso to a French princess.

Nevertheless, Alfonso claimed his Florentine bride, whilst Lucrezia appears to have conceived an attachment for the warlike young Prince, who caused a courier to inform his father that the Princess "seemed to like" him. Duke Ercole replied as follows: "I am much pleased that your bride is satisfied with you. I would rather have heard your own state of mind in regard to the matter...."

Letters to the Duke from the chief members of the Prince's suite assured him that the Prince really fell in love with the Princess at first sight, but there is no word of Alfonso's extant which shows that he cared in the least for the bride State policy had assigned for him.

Duchess Eleanora was exceedingly provoked by the young Prince's demeanour and his insistence upon the observance of the unnatural condition. Moreover, she protested to the Duke her wish that the marriage might at least be postponed, pointing out, with a woman's intuition of trouble, that no good could come out of such an uncanny arrangement.

She, of course, was Spanish, and she seems to have forgotten that French blood flowed in Alfonso's veins - his mother, Duchess Renata, or Renea, being a daughter of Louis XII. Duke Ercole added to the trouble by deeply wounding the Duchess' susceptibilities with a suggestion that the young bride should be sent to Ferrara, immediately after the nuptial ceremony, under the care of chosen proxies for his son.

Haughtily she answered the Duke's representative: "A married daughter of the Medici, and of Spain, remains at her parents' palace until her husband, and no one else, takes her away."

The day fixed for the marriage was 3rd July - a Sunday - and the wedding Mass was celebrated in the private chapel of the Palazzo Pitti, by the Bishop of Cortona. One hundred and one comely Florentine gentlewomen formed a beauteous guard of honour for the bride, each arrayed splendidly in silk brocade and covered with costly jewels. As many young nobles, with the accompaniment of music and dancing, performed a gorgeous pageant of Greeks, Indians and Florentines. In the Piazzo di Santa Maria Novella a State exhibition of the popular Florentine game of Il Calcio (football), was given by sixty of the best-looking and most noble youths, attired in cloths of gold and silver.

The bride and bridegroom retired late at night to the Palazzo Medici in the Via Larga, set in order for them, but, on the third day, Prince Alfonso, as good as his word, set off for France! Don Francesco, Lucrezia's eldest brother, accompanied him as far as Scarperia, on the Bologna road, and there bade him a not too friendly farewell. The young man had made a very bad impression in Florence; he had kept himself entirely to himself, and had gone through his part of the ceremonials like a puppet.

Lucrezia moved like the fabled princess in a dream. Her eyes were wet with weeping, and, although she restrained her emotion, her disappointment and distress caused her silent and bitter suffering. Accustomed as she was to obey implicitly the commands of her autocratic father, she knew that she must submit to the harshness of her spouse, and make the best of a most unfortunate and embarrassing situation.

Alfonso had forbidden her to write to him, but appointed a faithful follower of his, Francesco da Susena, as confidential Chamberlain of the youthful Princess. He was to provide funds and disburse them for the expenses of the Princess, and to keep his master well posted in all that transpired, and, in particular, to inform him of every word and action of his forsaken girl-wife!

Ten days after the departure of the Prince from Florence, he wrote a letter to Lucrezia, which he bade da Susena read, and then give her. The Court was at Poggio a Caiano in villeggiatura, and the Chamberlain was in the company. He gave the Princess her husband's letter, and made the following report to his master: -

"I was taken to the slope of a hill, where Her Highness the Princess was walking with the Duchess Eleanora, who is always with her. I gave her the letter, which she took greedily, with exceeding joy, and retired apart with it. She read it over and over again, and then she questioned me about your Highness.... I told her that she had no occasion to fear, for your Highness would run no more risk than the king himself. She appeared much comforted, and told me to beg your Highness, in her name, to hasten your return to Florence." Within six months of Lucrezia's ill-fated marriage, Duke Ercole died at Ferrara, and her husband succeeded as Alfonso II. The life of Ercole and his Duchess Renata had been anything but happy. He was as ambitious as he was unscrupulous: Lord of Modena and Reggio and Papal Vicar of Ferrara, his possessions stretched from the Adriatic to the Apennines. Extravagant and devoted to amusement, he spared neither time nor money in the full enjoyment of pleasure.

The Court of Ferrara became under him the most splendid Court in Europe - famous for the excellence of its music and its dancing and the superiority of its theatre - Carnival lasted from New Year's Day to Ash Wednesday. Duchess Renata never loved her husband nor his people. Until she fell under the influence of Calvin she was discontented, passionate, and bigoted. The Duke scouted her ill-humour and treated her cruelly.

"Peu d'amys, qui conques est loing d'eulx" was said of unhappy Renata. She gave her disposition to her son, but he did not follow her religious predilections. He enclosed her in a convent - the sanctuary of princely widows and orphans - where she died in 1597.

Duke Alfonso sent to Florence for his consort early in 1560, but, true to her determination, Duchess Eleanora required him to come for Lucrezia in person! With perhaps less frigidity than he had exhibited the year before, but with very little more friendliness, Alfonso made his second appearance in Florence. He was accompanied by Cardinal de' Medici, his brother-in-law - so soon to come to a tragical and untimely end in the Maremma - and a princely escort of two thousand five hundred horsemen. The young Duchess, not yet sixteen, mounted upon a cream-white palfrey, rode out of the Porta San Gallo, by the side of her husband. The day was gloomy and the purple and white crocuses, which children scattered before her, betokened, so it was said, disaster.

Anyhow, it was a sorrowful parting with her parents, and with Florence. Never again was she destined to see them or it. The days of her childhood, spent happily enough with her brothers and sisters, were over: the fatigues and intrigues of a hostile Court were before her, and, already, trouble had marked her young life with scars - more were to follow.

The Duke and Duchess entered Ferrara in full State, on 21st February, but their reception was as cold as was the weather. The dynastic dispute, whilst ostensibly healed at its head, still affected the limbs of the Duchy. The people were, to a man, and perhaps to a woman, anti-Medicean, and showed their disapproval of their Sovereign's consort, by abstaining from taking their share in the festivities.

One's heart bleeds for this child-bride of seven months introduced unguarded to the gayest, maddest, and most corrupt Court in Italy. Of the Ferrarese it has been justly said: "By nature they are inclined only for pleasure and revenge." True enough, happiness and tragedy are close partners in life's story. No one loved Lucrezia de' Medici in Ferrara - least of all her husband.

Perhaps the position may be succinctly stated - "the bride of three nights was not enceinte! Had she only possessed the attributes of coming motherhood, Lucrezia's origin might have been condoned. But surely it was foul cruelty which fixed the fault on her alone. As it was, the poor young Duchess was accorded at her husband's court the position of a 'Cosa della lussuria' - to be set aside as soon as the novelty had passed away!"

The Duchess determined, possessed as she undoubtedly was, though so young, of much of the force of character of her family, to put a good face upon things. Her letters to her parents, written during the Carnival, are full of pleasant details of her new life. She was enjoying, with girlish zest, the gaieties around her, and entering fully into the merry prospects of the Court masquerades. Whether her expressions are quite sincere, is, perhaps, immaterial under the circumstances - she knew her father's disposition too well to make complaints.

The anniversary of her wedding came round to find her childless and devoid of any prospect of issue. Duke Alfonso was far too much engaged in politics and pleasure to give his due to his wife, who yearned in vain for the fulfilment of the conjugal vow. Duchess Renata had her party at Court, a party opposed, as she was, to anything and everything Florentine: her son gave heed to her cautions, and thus the breach widened.

Alfonso's long absences from home, and his disinclination for his wife's society, left Lucrezia to seek necessary consolations elsewhere. She did not fail of admirers in that giddy Court: the wonder is that she maintained her dignity as well as she did. The Duke became jealous, of course, of his neglected wife - all faithless husbands are the same. He paid spies to report to him the daily occupations of the Duchess, with the names of her visitors and friends. Thus evil eyes and ears were opened, and evil tongues began to wag, until they caused the utter undoing of the innocent young Duchess.

Alfonso, in vain, tried to fix the lovers of his wife - she was as tactful as they were prudent - but he was not without means to his end. The Duchess early gave symptoms of ill-health. In Florence she was the strongest of all her father's family, but at Ferrara she became delicate and a victim to incessant sickness. What could it be?

The Court physician hinted at pregnancy, but the Duke knew that was impossible, so far as he was personally concerned, nevertheless it served its purpose. The winter came on and the Duchess was confined to her apartments in the palace, suffering from continual fever and nausea. Maestro Brassavola - of good report as a specialist in feminine ailments - treated her unsuccessfully. Unhappy Lucrezia - no mother to console her, no friend to speak to her, all alone in the big palace with unkindly attendants - nearly sobbed herself to death. Daily bleedings and cuppings further diminished her strength. Some say that Don Francesco, her brother, was urged, by his mother, to pay Lucrezia a visit, but the bad terms upon which he stood with Duke Alfonso was an effectual bar to his mission. Whether from craven fear or premeditated cruelty, the Duke never entered the sick-room, and seemed entirely indifferent to his poor young wife. Indeed, he continued his life of prodigality and self-indulgence unrebuked, as we must suppose, by his conscience.

At last the Duchess' condition became so critical that the physicians could no longer disguise the danger, and they intimated to the Duke the approach of death. Then, and then only, Alfonso found his way to his wife's bedside. With a sorrowful, stricken face she greeted him affectionately, and remorse seemed, at length, to have brought him to his senses. He became the most tender of nurses and watched by his dying wife day and night - but the poison had worked its cause!

At midnight, 21st April 1561, after months of cruel suffering, neglected, affronted, and wronged, the innocent soul of poor young Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, passed into another world. She was not yet seventeen years old - in bitter experience of life's hardships she was seventy. At the autopsy of her body Maestro Pasquali of Florence declared that death was caused by putrid fever! Thus was the Duke's duplicity preserved.

Funeral honours due to her rank were rendered, and her shrunken little body was buried in the Estensi chapel of the convent church of Corpus Domini. A marble slab before the high altar reads thus:

"Lucretia de' Medici - moglie di Alfonso II., Duca di Ferrara " - and that is all - as curt and as cruel as possible. The Duke's show of grief was as insincere and hypocritical as could be. He shut himself up in his palace with a few chosen cronies for seven days; meanwhile sending off Bishop Rossetto, a court chaplain, to Florence, to communicate the sad tidings to Duke Cosimo and Duchess Eleanora.

Very soon after the death of Lucrezia the Marchese Creole de' Contrari, a prominent Ferrarese noble, was cast into prison upon an unstated charge, but it was given out by his jailor, that he had aspired to the hand of an Estensi princess. He was never seen alive again, for he was strangled in Duke Alfonso's presence - who caused his name to be vilely linked with that of the poisoned Duchess! Cosimo and Eleanora made a show at least of grief, and a splendid Requiem was sung for Lucrezia at the Medici church of San Lorenzo. At the same time Cosimo made known, in most heartless fashion to Alfonso that, whilst he was resigned to the will of Heaven, he assured him of his sincere affection, and expressed a fervent wish that nothing should loosen their bonds of true and solid friendship! Devout Duchess Eleanora's indifference is harder to explain than Duke Cosimo's nonchalance. Perhaps in her case evil associations had corrupted good manners, or, more likely, the memory of her child Maria's terrible death compelled discretion in her dealings with her husband - "Tyrant of tyrants." It might be her turn next to feel that cold steel!

And what about Duke Alfonso? Well, very soon he forgot all about Lucrezia, and found consolation, though actually he needed none, in a second marriage. This union, however, led to the resurrection of the hatchet of discord, which Cosimo and Ercole had agreed to bury underground.

The new Duchess was Barbara d'Austria, sister of the Archduchess Giovanna, bride of Don Francesco, poor Lucrezia's brother. A double wedding was fixed at Trento in August 1565, but a fracas occurred at the church doors between the Medici and Estensi suites for precedence. The two princely couples were married separately by the Emperor Maximilian's command, each in the capital of the bridegroom's dominions. Duke Alfonso died in in 1597.

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One notable effect of the foreign marriages of the Medicean princes was the settling of aliens, in considerable numbers, in Florence. With Clarice and Alfonsina d'Orsini had come greedy Roman adventurers; with Margherita and Giovanna d'Austria many enterprising Germans; self-seeking Spaniards came with Eleanora de Toledo.

From one point of view this foreign immigration was advantageous - it tended to revive the falling fortunes of Florentine commerce. On the other hand aliens were introduced into prominent positions at the Court and in the city, whose speculations robbed the citizens of their fame and fortune.

In the suite of Duchess Eleanora de Toledo were several young relatives, bound to her by ties of affection and looking to her for patronage and advancement. The ranks of these dependants were constantly being recruited by young people of noble birth, for whom the exceptional educational advantages obtainable in Florence were strong attractions.

One of these was the Duchess's niece and godchild - Donna Eleanora, the daughter of her brother, Don Garzia de Toledo. Born in 1553 in Naples, where her father kept his Court as Viceroy for the King of Spain, the child lost her mother when she was only seven years old. The Duchess Eleanora adopted her and sent to Naples for her, and little Eleanora de Garzia was brought up with the children of Cosimo and Eleanora, and she was regarded by them as their sister.

Upon the Duchess' melancholy death in 1562, her daughter Isabella, Duchess of Bracciano, acted the part of mother, young as she was, and only just two years married. She had no child of her own, and, apparently, no promise of one, anyhow by her husband; and the lively, pretty little Spanish girl, nestling upon her knee, much consoled her in her disappointment.

At fourteen, Eleanora de Garzia was, as Antonio Lapini has described her: "Beautiful, elegant, gracious, kindly, charming, affable, and, above all, possessed of two eyes rivalling the stars in brilliancy." She was also a clever girl, and her studies had been carried on in companionship with the younger children of her aunt - Garzia, Ferdinando, and Piero. The strictness of their control was loosened when the Duke became a widower, and he does not seem to have done anything to guard the morals of his young children.

The Court of Florence was not the place in which to rear, in ways of obedience and steadiness, young boys and girls, and Eleanora and her "brothers" were left pretty much to themselves, save for the indulgent guardianship of their tutors and attendants. To be sure, Don Ferdinando was sent off to Rome when he was fourteen, and was enrolled in the Sacred College. Don Garzia's tragic death in 1562 left Don Piero the sole playmate of little Eleanora - a strange act of Providence.

Duke Cosimo was not quite inconsolable for the loss of his Spanish wife; he had, during her lifetime, set an evil example in Florence for libertinage and unchastity. Every good-looking girl, in city or at Court, in one way or another, received his amorous attentions; and the halo which surrounded his first acclamation as Duke, and which he earned well, be it said, became dimmed by the execrations of many disgraced and suffering households. Men and women saw the bad days of Duke Alessandro revived, and Florence, after a temporary purgation, became once more the sink of iniquity.

When the Duke laid aside, in 1564, his sovereignty, it was that he might give reins to his passions, and, of the many girls he ruined, probably not one he loved better or longer than Eleanora degli Albizzi. At Villa del Castello he had his harem. This was the example Cosimo de' Medici set his wayward, precocious son Piero, and the lad followed it to his heart's content, until his escapades became so notorious, and raised up such a storm of resentment amongst the citizens, that his father was forced to intervene.

At fifteen, young Piero was sent off to Pisa and attached to the staff of the Admiral of the Florentine fleet, Cavaliere Cesare Cavanglia. In various encounters with Turkish galleons and the barques of buccaneers, the young Medico proved himself no coward - indeed the Admiral reported of him most favourably. Well for his fame had Piero remained before the mast and upon the quarter-deck.

The lad was practically his own master, and the memories of Florentine gallantries filled his mind with desires for their resumption. Two years of naval-military discipline were quite enough for him, and he returned home again. He found Donna Eleanora de Garzia a grown woman and a woman of the world; an arrant flirt, like her protectress, the Duchess Isabella; dividing her time between the Villa Poggio Baroncelli and his father's villa at Castello.

Rumours of illicit intercourse between her and the Grand Duke were current all over Florence, and evil gossips at Court affirmed that the liaison had been of long continuance, wherein, too, the Duchess Isabella was herself implicated. Cosimo seems to have been conversant with the tittle-tattle, and, fearing the evil effect it might have for all concerned, determined to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and to keep the scandal within the family.

His son Piero - who was walking closely in his father's footsteps, and leading a free and fast, wild life, heavily in debt and habitually intoxicated, and the companion of loose women and gamesters - should be his scapegoat. He would marry him to his cousin! At the beginning of the negotiations Piero refused stoutly his father's proposition, asserting his intention not to marry. By dint of ample offers of enlarged pecuniary emoluments and by tempting promises of exculpation from the consequences of his lustful extravagances, Piero at last yielded an unwilling assent to the betrothal. How far he was influenced by threats we can well imagine.

Piero de' Medici and Eleonora de Garzia de Toledo were married in the private chapel of the Pitti Palace on the morning of 21st April 1571. That very night his young wife revealed the fact that she wasenceinte, and she named his father, Duke Cosimo, as her ravisher! The Prince was too much taken up with his own pleasure to care very much about this revelation: he would go his own way, and his wife might go hers - such was the morality of the day! Still, this discovery was the first page in the tragic history of beautiful Eleanora di Piero de' Medici.

Very shortly after the marriage Eleanora, who was then at Pisa, was delivered of a child, whom, in the absence of her husband, she named Cosimo - a significant nomenclature! She caused letters to be written to the Grand Duke Francesco, her brother-in-law, to acquaint him with the birth of the child, and to crave protection for his father's son!

Following the unhappy example of Paolo d'Orsini and Isabella de' Medici, and being absolutely their own masters, Piero and Eleanora agreed to live separate lives - he, a boy of seventeen and she just eighteen. What more disastrous beginning can be imagined for two young wedded lives, and yet it was inevitable. Piero did not care a bit for Eleanora, and Eleanora hated and despised Piero.

The marriage was but a brief break in evil associations, for the boy returned to his boon-companions in the city, and the girl sought the solace of her lovers. It was in vain the Grand Duke pointed out the errors of their ways - Piero retorted with a "Tu quoque frater!" He had every bit as much right to console himself with a mistress, one or more, as Francesco did with his "Cosa Bianca!" Moreover, he became urgent in his demand for a still more liberal allowance, which the Grand Duke weakly conceded - as he had done in the case of his other grasping brother, the Cardinal.

Everything and everybody at the Court of Florence seemed to be demented. To enjoy the basest pleasures and to indulge in the foulest passions, such was the way of the world; and Eleanora was but a child in years, but a woman in experience - and that experience not for the honour of her life, alas! Sinned against, she sinned like the rest. How could a lovely, talented, warm-hearted girl, with the hot blood of Spanish passion coursing through her veins, resist the admiration, the flattery, and the embraces of the gay young cavaliers of the Court? She merely followed the vogue, she was no recluse; and when, in 1575, she was enrolled as a "Soul" in the Accademia degli Elevati, she assumed the name of "Ardente" - a true title - a correct epithet!

One of the captains of the palace guard - himself a remarkably handsome and gallant soldier - Francesco Gaci, had a prepossessing young son, Alessandro, a cadet of the same regiment, who fell violently in love with Don Piero's fascinating young wife. Unable to restrain his boyish ardour, one day he seized Donna Eleanora's hand, covered it with kisses, and professed himself ready to die for love of her. The Princess, pining for love, looked with favour upon her infatuated lover, and granted him something of what he wished.

Alas, for love's young dream! The Grand Duke caught wind of it, and without making much ado, promptly stopped the intrigue. Alessandro Gaci was removed summarily from his commission and enclosed in the monastery of Camaldoli; whilst to the Princess was administered a smart rebuke and warning.

Eleanora's haughty spirit rose at the interference of her brother-in-law in matters of her heart, and she determined to act in opposition to his commands. She had scarcely got off with the old love before she was on with the new. This time she appears to have made the first advance. At all events, in the entourage of the Grand Duchess Giovanna, was an attractive and youthful knight of the Order of St Stephen of Pisa - Duke Cosimo's new naval-military order. He was a court chamberlain with the military rank of lieutenant - Bernardino, the son of Messer Sebastiano degl' Antinori, who had translated Boccaccio's works for Cosimo.

The young cavaliere had the misfortune to kill, quite accidentally, in a friendly game of "Calcio," a great friend of his - Francesco de' Ginori. The game was played in presence of Princess Eleanora and many ladies of the Court. Bernardino wore Eleanora's favours, as he usually did, making no secret of his passion for Don Piero's neglected, beauteous wife, and of the return of his love by his fair innamorata - it was indeed the talk of the town.

The Ginori, an ancient and lordly family, intimately connected with the Medici, claimed satisfaction at the hands of the Grand Duke for what they chose to call the assassination of their young relative. Francesco judged that the liaison between his sister-in-law and the so-called "assassin" required regulation, especially as she had failed to comply with his previous admonition. The two offences would be best judged by the banishment of the cavaliere, whose rank forbade his inclusion in a monastery. Consequently Bernardino was sent off, under guard, to a fortress in the Isle of Elba, and Princess Eleanora was confined, during the Grand Duke's pleasure, to her apartments in the Medici Palace.

The old tale that "love laughs at locks" had now one fresh telling! An amorous correspondence began between the parted lovers, which was carried on for a considerable time without detection. At last there came a day when the secret was out, through the carelessness of Bernardino's brother Filippo, the intermediary in the love affair. Watching his opportunity of dropping a letter into the hand of the Princess, as she passed through the corridor connecting the Pitti and the Uffizi - just completed by Duke Cosimo's orders - Captain Filippo had the curiosity to read the billet-doux himself. He failed to notice that a brother officer was standing close by, who also glanced at the contents of the letter.

Captain Giulio Caccini was Master of Music and conductor of the palace orchestra, and when he had a favourable opportunity he confided to his master what he had seen - doubtless he considered himself well on towards the receipt of a reward for his mean services.

Francesco was furious: he might, as Sovereign, have his love passages with whom he willed - although be it said, truly, he had one and only one love, Bianca Cappello Buonaventuri - but he could not tolerate any amours between a princess of his house and a subaltern of his guard.

Captain Bernardino was ordered to be brought back to Florence immediately, and, after a stormy interview with the Grand Duke, he was consigned to the condemned-criminal dungeon of the Bargello.

The same night the prisoner's cell was entered by a Frate - a confessor, who acquainted him that he had been sentenced to death! Expostulation was vain, and his asseverations of innocence and promises of submission to the Grand Duke's will were rudely interrupted by the appearance of the headsman! Forced upon his knees, the unhappy young officer mumbled out his confession, and then the executioner, passing a stout cord about his throat, strangled him - struggling and crying out piteously for mercy!

When Antinorio was dead, Francesco was informed, and, sending for Eleanora, he told her what had become of her second lover, and warned her that a like fate might easily be hers if Don Piero was made acquainted with the intrigue - surely a fell prophecy of coming tragedy! Piero, too, was sent for to the palace, and again reprimanded for his evil life and for his cruel desertion of his charming young wife. He took his brother's words in an entirely wrong sense, abused him soundly for his interference, and left his presence in a violent passion.

At once he caused an intimation to be made to the Princess that he wished to see her about a matter which concerned them both intimately, and required her to meet him out at the Villa di Cafaggiuolo. It was the 20th of July, in the year 1576, that Eleanora received her husband's commands - just ten days after the brutal murder of her lover - during the course of which she gave way to uncontrolled grief. This summons she knew presaged dire consequences to herself, and she had no friend to seek for consolation and advice. The Grand Duke was out of the question, and Duchess Isabella d'Orsini, who had proved herself no friend of good omen, was in a plight very much like her own!

No, she had to fight the battle of her life and death alone, this girl of twenty-three. She replied that she was quite prepared to meet Piero, but she asked for a short delay. She spent it in weeping by the cradle of her little son, Cosimo, and arranging her worldly affairs - she was quite prepared for the worst.

Leaving Florence in the middle of a hot summer's day, the course to Cafaggiuolo was trying to her horses - one indeed fell and died on the way - an evil omen for poor Eleanora! As night was coming on she reached the villa, more dead than alive with fright, and accompanied only by two faithful ladies of her household. To their surprise the house appeared to be deserted: there were no lights in the windows, and no one seemed to be about.

The great doors were wide open, and with much trepidation the Princess mounted the marble steps. The door of every room also was open and the arras pulled aside, but nowhere could she see or hear her husband. Very uncanny everything felt, the silence was almost suffocating, and the darkness threw weird shadows athwart her and her companions.

At the entrance of the room, which she deemed to be Piero's - they had never cohabited there, or indeed anywhere, she knew not where he slept - Eleanora paused, affrighted. She had heard a rustle! she had seen something! it was a hand held beyond the arras! - and there was a poignard within its grasp!

E'er she could cry out or take a step backwards, a sudden, savage blow struck her breast - she fell! - stabbed to death! The hand was the hand of Piero de' Medici!

Eleanora was dead! Her life's blood crimsoned, in a gory stream, the marble lintel, and Piero gazed at the victim of his desertion, lust, and hate - he was mad!

Kneeling upon his knees in the hellish darkness, he tried to stanch that ruddy stream. Then he laved his hands in her hot blood and conveyed some to his raging lips! Reason presently asserted herself; and, throwing himself prostrate along the floor, he banged his head, thereupon calling out in a frenzy of remorse for mercy for his deed!

"God of Heaven," he pleaded, "judge between my wife and me - I vow that I will do penance for my deed, and never wed again."

The short summer's night early gave place to the dawn - not rosy that sad morning, but overcast - gloom was in everything. Piero was still praying by his dead wife's side when the tramp of footsteps upon the gravel outside the house fell upon his ears. Swiftly he ran and closed the entrance-doors, and then calling in a creature of his - a base-born medico - he ordered him to make, there and then, an autopsy of the corpse, and report according to his express instructions.

"Death from heart failure and the rupture of an artery," such ran the medical certificate of death! Miserable Eleanora di Piero de' Medici was buried ceremoniously in the family vault at San Lorenzo, and Piero made a full confession to his brother, the Grand Duke.

Francesco counselled him to leave Florence at once, and seek a temporary home at the Court of Madrid, where he might inform his kinsman by marriage - the King of Spain - of the truth about Eleanora's death. It was reported at the time that Piero gained possession of Eleanora's child, Cosimo, and took him away with him from Florence; but what became of the unfortunate little fellow no one ever knew - probably he went home to his mother in Paradise just to be out of the way!

Don Piero was appointed by King Philip to a command in the war with Portugal, but, whilst he distinguished himself by bravery and ability during the campaign, on his return to Madrid he began the evil life he had left behind in Florence. The religiously disposed courtiers were shocked and outraged by his enormities, and, at last, the King requested his unwelcome visitor to go back to Tuscany.

The Grand Duke very unwillingly allowed Piero to settle once more in Florence. His house in the Via Larga - it had been occupied by the scapegrace assassin, Lorenzino - again was a nursery of immorality, as well as the headquarters of the enemies of his brother. Piero became the ally of the scheming Cardinal Ferdinando, but his depraved and evil life was to the end given over to the basest uses of human nature, and he died miserably, as he well deserved, in 1604, having outlived his second wife - Beatrice, daughter of the Spanish Duke of Meneses - two years. Of legitimate offspring he left none, but there survived him eight natural children by two Spanish nuns in the grand ducal convent of the Santa Assunta delle Murate.

       * * * * *

After the death of Maria, his eldest daughter, Duke Cosimo centred his paternal affection in his second daughter, Isabella Romola. She was born in 1542, just a year younger than his eldest son, Francesco Maria. Her Spanish name endeared her especially to the Duchess Eleanora, who built many "Castelli en Espana" for her child.

The young Princess was a bonnie, precocious little girl. At her christening it was said, greatly to his embarrassment, she kissed the ascetic bishop who held her at the font; this was taken as an omen of her success in the service of Prince Cupid! Brought up with her two sisters and her brothers, Francesco and Giovanni, she very early gave evidence of charming and peculiar talent.

Merry as a bird and playful as a kitten, the young girl was singing, singing the livelong day, and dancing with the utmost grace and freedom. She greatly astonished her parents by her musical gifts and by her talent as an improvvisatrice. She composed, when only ten years of age, some really excellent canzone and, more than this, she set them to her own tunes for the lute and pipe, and arranged a very graceful ballet.

At Court, Isabella was now known as "Bianca la Seconda," her attainments and her person recalling those of Bianca, "the tall daughter" of Piero and Lucrezia de' Medici. She had, as well, a remarkable taste for languages: she rivalled her sister Maria in Latin, which she wrote and spoke with ease. Spanish seemed to come to her naturally, greatly to the delight of her mother the Duchess, and French she acquired with similar success.

With her facile pen she could design and draw what she willed, with as great freedom as she applied to musical notation. Indeed, there seemed to be no art in which she could not distinguish herself, and she received encouragement from all the most famous artists of her father's Court. One of her panegyrists has written thus of Princess Isabella: "Suffice it to say, that she was esteemed by all - strangers as well as those about her - a perfect casket of virtue and knowledge. She was greatly beloved, not only by her parents, but by the whole of the people of Florence."

Added to her mental accomplishments, which developed with her physical growth, the Princess exhibited all the charm of a beautiful face and graceful figure, and, when she reached the ripe age, - for Florence, - of twelve, she was the most lovely and attractive young girl in Italy. Reports of her beauty and talent were current in all the Courts of Europe, and many princely fathers of eligible sons made inquiries about her fortune; whilst many an amorous young Prince found his way to Florence, to judge for himself of the charms of the fair young girl.

Duke Cosimo was not the man to give his comely daughter away at random: indeed he cherished the thought of keeping her in Florence and by his side, so courtly refusals of proffered hands, and hearts, and crowns, were dealt out to one and all the suitors. Pope Paul IV., who was on the best of terms with Duke Cosimo, and never forgot what he owed in his elevation to the Papal throne to his friend's influence, conceived a matrimonial project for youthful Isabella. At his Court was a young man of illustrious descent, good attainments, the heir to vast possessions, and a devoted adherent of the Holy See - Paolo Giordano d'Orsini.

The Orsini were split up into many branches, but the family was one of the most ancient and honourable in Rome. Signore Girolamo d'Orsini, father of Paolo Giordano, was lord of Bracciano and Anguillaria, and of the country around Civita Vecchia. When only twelve years old, he had been named by Pope Leo X. to the honorary command of a Papal regiment of cavalry. When still in his teens the youth served with distinction in France and in the Neapolitan war; and, on attaining his majority, he was sent with a detachment of troops to the assistance of the Emperor Charles V., in the devastating war against the Turks in Hungary.

Created General and Marquis by the Emperor, the young commander returned to Rome in 1537, and took up his position as the acknowledged head of his family. He married Francesca, daughter of Bosso Sforza, heiress of the Counts of Anguillaria. Three sons and a daughter were born to them.

Paolo Giordano, born 1539, was adopted by his maternal uncle, Carlo, Cardinal Sforza da Santa Fiora, and became a protege of Paul IV. Following his father's profession of arms, he saw military service in Spain, but was recalled to Rome by the death of both his parents. On succession to the family estates the Pope created the Lordship of Bracciano a Duchy, and sent a message to Duke Cosimo, commending the young soldier to his notice, and suggesting a matrimonial alliance with one of his daughters.

Cosimo looked with favour upon the Pope's proposition, and asked the young Duke to pay the Florentine Court a visit. The young people seemed made for one another: he was handsome, brave and rich, she was beautiful, talented, and lovable. Perhaps it was a case of love at first sight, anyhow they were betrothed in 1555, with the proviso that the nuptial knot should not be tied until Isabella had attained her sixteenth year.

In due course the marriage-contract was drawn up, signed and sealed, but it contained a condition which was as unnatural as it was impolitic. Duke Cosimo insisted that his dearly-beloved daughter should make his house her home for at least six months each year, and only pay occasional visits to her husband's palace in Rome! Duke Paolo, quite rightly, resented this questionable arrangement, and only agreed at last on pressure from the Pope.

Whatever made Cosimo take such a weird course no one can really say, although horrible rumours were indeed rife in Florence about the relations between father and child! It was, however, a fatal bar to all marital happiness, and led to the one and only possible denouement - tragedy. Certainly the Duke bestowed upon the young couple the splendid estate and villa of the Baroncelli, which had come into his hands, and which he enlarged and surrounded with a park. He added a munificent endowment and had the villa refurnished and redecorated throughout, according to his son-in-law's wishes.

The marriage was celebrated on 3rd September 1558 in the private chapel of the Pitti Palace, - a Saturday, always considered, in Florence, an unlucky day for a wedding, - a few months after that of Prince Alfonso d'Este's to Isabella's younger sister - Lucrezia. After a brief honeymoon spent at their villa the youthful bride and bridegroom separated - an ominous repetition of a fateful error. Truth to tell, Duke Paolo took an intense dislike to his father-in-law: he distrusted him both in relation to his affection for Isabella, and also with respect to his tyrannical character generally. Florence also and the Florentines were distasteful in their excesses of ill-living, cruelty, and chicanery - not that the Court of Rome was a Paradise, or the young man a St Anthony!

The Duke went back to Rome and resumed his ordinary life there, without bearing with him any of the wholesome leaven of matrimony - a husband in name, and little more. Duchess Isabella, a mere child, wanton and wilful more than most, was thus left the uncontrolled mistress of a princely establishment, with no marital check to regulate her conduct. Surely as unstable a condition, and as conducive to infidelity, as can well be imagined.

Before leaving his wife at Poggio Baroncelli, Duke Paolo appointed her household, and made every provision for her comfort. A cousin of his, Cavaliere Troilo d'Orsini, was placed in charge of the Duchess as Chamberlain, or quasi-guardian - another false step, and embarrassing for all parties. He was a handsome and accomplished man, avowedly unmarried, young and of a sympathetic disposition, and manifestly not at all the sort of person to place upon terms of such close relationship with the attractive young Duchess.

Under its fascinating Castellana the Baroncelli villa became a busy little Court, the scene of constant festivities, gossip, and intrigue. Her mother's Court at the Pitti was quite second in attractiveness. Duchess Eleanora if virtuous and conscientious, was rather dull and uninteresting. She cared much more for her Spanish connections than for her Florentine courtiers: much of her time she spent in the Cappella degli Spagnioli at Santa Maria Novella. What time she spared from her devotions she occupied in the establishment and patronage of the Accademia degli Elevati - "Souls," for the encouragement of poetry.

Duchess Isabella d'Orsini was hailed as "La Nuova Saffo" by those who gathered round her. She was by nature an arrant flirt - as most pretty women are - for she inherited her father's amorous disposition; and she was impulsive, - an added charm where beauty reigns, - worldly-minded, and dreadfully extravagant; moreover, she dressed to perfection.

The Duke of Bracciano paid rare visits to Florence, but the Duchess, in compliance with her marriage-contract, spent a portion of each year with her husband in Rome. These visits were not occasions of happiness and satisfaction. The two had scarcely any interests in common, and the infrequency of intercourse entailed unfamiliarity and embarrassment. The good-byes were never unwelcome on either side!

The Duke took up, once more, his military duties, following in the footsteps of his father as commander, in 1566, of a division of the Imperial army against the Turks. For his bravery at the battle of Lepanto, he was made Field-Marshal of the Emperor and a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. In other respects he had his consolations for his enforced separation from his wife - and Isabella, naturally, had hers too!

It was said that every man fell in love with her, and she, on her part, did not restrain her passion. There was no one to advise, no one to check, no one to help her to keep in the path of wifely fidelity. Reports of liaisons were made to the Duke by his Chamberlain from time to time, but these were couched in words which concealed his own part therein. He and the Duchess were accustomed to be much alone together. He was a musician and a linguist, a scholar and an artist like herself, and a most attractive companion. She helped him in his great literary work - Lezione della Lingua Toscana - perhaps the only serious occupation she ever undertook.

An intimacy, with such a similarity of tastes, ripened naturally into a romantic attachment - certainly quite in accord with the tenets of Platonic humanism, and perhaps something more! That Duke Paolo was conversant with the relations of his wife with his cousin was well known, but he made no complaint, and took no action to check them. Likely enough he had that "easy-going contempt of everything and everybody" which Niccolo Macchiavelli has stigmatised as the prevailing tone of Italian society.

Probably the sad deaths of Princess Maria and Duchess Lucrezia d'Este, and the tragic events in the Maremma of 1562, affected Isabella greatly, but they only tended to increase her husband's detestation for everything Florentine. No doubt he judged that Cosimo's hand slew both Maria and Garzia - might it not strike Isabella or himself! When a man, in an autocratic position such as that made by Cosimo I., yields to unguarded passion, reason and right alike are at a discount. Isabella's husband had taken the measure of her father - alas, that he was destined to follow his example!

For Isabella a new interest was created when, in 1564, Bianca Buonaventuri became "La cosa di Francesco," - her brother. She, so to speak, clasped the lovely young Venetian to her bosom. She entered into the romance of the elopement, and of her brother's infatuation, with all her heart. Isabella de' Medici and Bianca Cappello-Buonaventuri became inseparable friends.

During Duchess Eleanora's life the gaieties and the follies of the court had been kept within something like bounds, but she had hardly been laid in her tomb within San Lorenzo than Duke Cosimo gave reins to his passions, and the Palazzo Pitti and the various Medicean villas became the scenes of unbridled lust and depravity. In 1564 the Duke deputed most of his sovereign power to his son Francesco, who became Regent and virtual ruler of Tuscany.

The grave scandals which distracted Florentine society began to raise up in the minds of the people violent antipathy for a Sovereign whose private example was so abominable, and whose discharge of public duties was so basely marked by turpitude. A revolution of a drastic description seemed to be inevitable, and, really, Cosimo had no other course than abdication.

The Florentine rendering and observance of Platonism favoured illicit connections between the sexes. The palaces of the nobles and of the wealthy merchants were nothing more or less than harems. The manners and traditions of the Orient took root, not only in Florence, but in all the other Italian States, and the normal strictness and restrictions of lawful married life had everywhere all but disappeared. Every household, not only of the noble but also of the middle class, had among its number a cicisbeo, or two or more, - "unofficial wives" - we may call them, possessed of almost equal rights and position as the lawful spouses.

       * * * * *

The great event of the year 1562 was the marriage of Prince Francesco and the Archduchess Giovanna d'Austria. Quite certainly the Duke and Duchess of Bracciano were among the notable personages present at the nuptials. Indeed that year the Duke spent more of his time than usual in Florence, and was very busy buying and rebuilding the Villa Cerreto Guidi, and laying out the park and gardens - the former for the pursuit of deer-hunting, the latter by way of rivalry to Pratolino - Francesco and Bianca's plaisance.

The Grand Duchess Giovanna was something like her predecessor, Duchess Eleanora, a serious-minded sort of woman, with no pretensions to beauty or ability, not at all the sort of sovereign for that gay and dissolute court. The beau monde took themselves off to the Orte Oricellari - to pay their devotions to the lovely Venetian mistress of their Sovereign; and to Poggio Baroncelli - where Duchess Isabella reigned as queen of fashion and frivolity.

Cosimo and Cammilla de' Martelli - whom he married secretly and took away to his favourite Villa del Castello - lived in strict retreat, rarely came into Florence, and kept no sort of state. At the same time two sons of his were sources of keen anxiety.

Ferdinando, born 1549, was now wearing the Cardinal's red hat, which hapless young Garzia's hunting-knife had caused to fall from his brother Giovanni's head in the Maremma. Ambitious, jealous, but, perhaps, less depraved than his father, the Cardinal de' Medici made no secret of his dislike of his brother Francesco and his innamorata, Bianca Buonaventuri. He became a thorn in his father's and brother's sides on account of his extortionate and presumptuous demands. His young stepmother - only two years his senior - favoured his pretensions, and so brought trouble upon herself, as we shall see later on.

Piero, Cosimo's youngest legitimate son, was but a boy of fourteen when his father married his second wife. Of course she was far too young and inexperienced to be of any use in guiding his growth and tastes.

The Court was thus divided: the two parties were headed respectively by the Grand Duchess Giovanna, the titular Grand Duchess-dowager, - so to call Cammilla, - with the Cardinal de' Medici; and by Bianca Cappello di Pietro Buonaventuri and Duchess Isabella of Bracciano.

With respect to the latter coterie, its influence was vastly augmented by the assassination of Pietro Buonaventuri in 1572. Duchess Isabella gave her whole heart's support to the beauteous young widow. She wrote to her the most affectionate letters, in one of which, if not in more, she says she loves Bianca "more than sister," and bids her retain her position as "the loving helper of my brother."

Bianca heartily returned her "more than a sister's" affection, and she repeatedly spoke of Duchess Isabella in her letters to her cousins in Venice. "I had," she says, for example, on 17th July 1574, "the illustrious Domina Isabella to dine with me in my garden, and with her came my good friends her brother Don Piero and his young wife...." Beautiful, accomplished, and light-hearted, Isabella and Bianca were the dearest and most constant of companions. They lived apparently only for admiration and adulation, but the Duchess' position was infinitely more free and unconventional than that of the Venetian: the latter lived for one man's love alone - Francesco - Isabella dispensed her favours where she willed!

Duke Paolo grew suspicious of his wife's liberty of action. His protests, at first couched in deprecatory language, were met with girlish insouciance; but, when he began to complain arrogantly, Isabella replied with spirit and determination. His jealous reprimands were met by like charges and, truth to tell, there was not a pin to choose between the two.

The Grand Duke Cosimo before his death in 1574, and the Grand Duke Francesco, were alike irritated by Bracciano's cool, calculating conduct; and both upheld Isabella against her husband's ill-humour and harsh judgments. Duke Paolo, however, kept his own counsel, and by means of spies discovered that Troilo d'Orsini's monthly reports were at least open to doubt as to their truthfulness with respect to his wife's conduct in private. Matters, however, drifted - he was too intent upon his own affairs in Rome and elsewhere to disturb rudely the state of things at Poggio Baroncelli.

His suspicions at length were brusquely confirmed, and the uneasy peace of evil deeds was broken by portentous news from Florence. A courier in his pay arrived one evening, in July 1576, breathless, at the Bracciano Palace, with the intelligence that the trusty chamberlain had stabbed to the heart an attractive young page, Lelio Torello, attached to the household of the Grand Duke; and had, moreover, at once taken flight precipitately from the Villa!

Bracciano knew exactly what this purported - young Torello was a lover of his wife as well as Troilo d'Orsini! Without a moment's delay, he started off for Florence to tax the Duchess with unfaithfulness. At the Porta Romana he was staggered by the news which greeted him - Piero de' Medici had killed his wife, Eleanora de Garzia de Toledo, at Cafaggiuolo!

He tarried not to pay his respects to the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess at the Palazzo Pitti hard by, but galloped off post-haste to his wife's villa, and, unannounced, surprised Isabella in the midst of preparations for a sudden journey! If, as some maintained, she meant to follow her fleeing lover, Troilo, at all events she was determined to seek the Court of France, and throw herself upon the sympathy of Queen Caterina, her kinswoman, and crave her protection for herself and her babe!

Several letters had already passed between the two illustrious women. Isabella, on her part, says: "I have asked pardon of God for my sins, and have resolved to let things take their course"; but she implores Catherine to protect her little son. In the last of these letters she writes: - "Let your Majesty think of this letter as the last words of a person bound to you by the ties of blood, and consider them as the confidence of one who is about to die, resigned and repentant, who otherwise could only end her life in despair and desperation."

The Duke judged his wife guilty, before she had offered any explanation of the tragic doings at the Villa, and his impulse was to dishonour her before her whole household. The spirit of duplicity, which had haunted their married life, during eighteen random years of misunderstanding, distaste and estrangement, still ruled them both - but Bracciano restrained his passion for a while.

He noted the preparations for hasty flight - indicative of Isabella's guilt - but, what more than all else enraged him almost beyond the power of self-control, was the cry of an infant within Isabella's apartments! That child was not his. Whose was it?

Isabella met her husband perfectly unabashed, and, if she expected an immediate explosion, she was agreeably though somewhat misgivingly surprised at his cordial greeting. He asked her where she was going, and suggested that they should go away together. Isabella of course prevaricated - truth is a negative quality between those who doubt each other! Then, to her great surprise, Bracciano began to express himself in terms at once tender and apologetic.

"The faults, and faults there are, have been all on my side," he said, "but I wish to alter all this and begin a new course, happy, and well-regulated. I suggest that bygones be bygones, and that we mutually agree to bury the past. Let us, Isabella, begin an entirely new course of life and live henceforth only for each other." His fair words were matched by the mild expression he contrived to put into his face, and, although the Duchess distrusted them, or at least her sense of hearing, she met his advances handsomely.

The day passed over pleasantly, the rapprochement seemed to be real and sincere, and when the Duke invited her to accompany him upon a hunting expedition to Cerreto Guidi, on the morrow, his wife expressed her pleasure and acquiescence. He himself set off early in the day, it was 10th July, and he asked Isabella to follow with her maidens leisurely.

Whether from innate distrustfulness, or presage of coming evil, the Duchess put off her journey till quite late, and only arrived there as night was coming on. At the entrance to the Villa the Duke met her, holding in a leash two splendid hare-hounds, which he begged her to accept and use on the morrow.

The dinner-party was numerous and merry, but not one of the company was gayer than the host. Isabella sat beside him, and he offered her many lover-like attentions. Everybody remarked these excellent and unusual relations between the Duke and Duchess, and wondered greatly thereat. After a very pleasant musical evening the company separated for the night, and the Duke, passing into his own bedchamber, invited his wife to enter with him.

Was it instinct or was it second sight, which caused Isabella's steps to falter on the threshold? She trembled as her husband held aside the arras, turned deadly pale, and, retreating for a moment, she whispered to her lady-in-waiting, Donna Lucrezia de' Frescobaldi - "Shall I enter, or shall I not?" Bracciano's voice again was raised in gentle persuasiveness, and taking her by her hand, clammy cold as it was, he asked her, laughingly, why she held back.

She bade Donna Lucrezia good-night very tremulously, and then the curtain fell, and Isabella was alone with her lord. The room was in its usual state, but truth to tell, she had not lain there for many a long night, and, as the Duke continued to talk affectionately, and to prepare for bed, she began to feel less alarm. Without more ado she flung herself into a deep lounging-chair and began to meditate and to chatter.

Seating himself by her side, Bracciano began to caress her hands and to fondle her in his arms, and when he noted that she had given herself entirely to his will and pleasure, as an amorous, faithful wife once more, he swiftly reached down for a corda di collo - a horse's halter - which he had placed behind the chair. Implanting an impassioned kiss upon those lovely lips, which had so long yearned for a husband's embrace, he adroitly threw the rope round his wife's neck, and pulling it taut in a wild access of rage, he strangled her - holding on until her struggles ceased!

Then he cast her fair body from him, and spurned it with his foot, as though it had been some foul and loathsome thing. Thus perished, in her thirty-sixth year, Isabella de' Medici, wife of Paolo Giordano d'Orsini - as sinful as she was lovely, but much more sinned against than sinning after all.

Before the dawn of day the Duke, accompanied by one attendant only, rode into Florence, and left at the Palazzo Pitti a heartless message for the Grand Duke, requesting him to despatch the brethren of theMisericordia to Cerreto Guidi, where was "something which required their attention" - then he continued his course straight on to Rome.

Florence was aghast at this horror, but the Grand Duke Francesco kept his own counsel, and no pursuit followed the murderer. An official announcement was made to the effect that "The Duchess of Bracciano died in a fit of apoplexy." This nobody for a moment believed: whether her brother was privy to the deed is perhaps open to doubt, for he and Isabella were devoted to one another.

It has been said that it was due to Bianca Buonaventuri's persuasion that the Grand Duke took no steps to vindicate his sister's honour or dishonour. The punishment of assassins mostly leads to further assassinations, and the "La cosa di Francesco" had reason to fear for her own life, seeing that her husband and her two dearest friends in Florence had been done brutally to death.

What became of the child, whose cries the Duke of Bracciano had heard, at Villa Poggio Baroncelli, no one seems to have recorded, nor are there any statements extant as to who his father actually was - a boy he was anyhow, and, though his name is uncertain, he was spoken of by the Duchess as "il mio becchino," "my little kid."

We may father him as we like - and at least three claimants for that honour are known - Troilo d'Orsini, the Duke's cousin and the Duchess' companion; Lelio Torello, the comely young Calcio player, and the favourite page of the Grand Duke Francesco; and, be it said in terms of doubt and horror, the Grand Duke Cosimo! If the latter, then this "Tragedy" is the culmination of all the abominable orgies which have blackened the character of the greatest tyrant and monster of his epoch!

Another story affects the career of the Chamberlain Troilo d'Orsini. He sought sanctuary in France and was befriended by Queen Catherine, to whom his mistress, the unhappy Duchess of Bracciano, had commended "the little kid." Whether he accepted the role of father to save the fame of the defunct Grand Duke is not known, but the unfortunate, if guilty, fugitive was stabbed in the streets of Paris by bravoes sent after him in the pay of the Duke of Bracciano.