A few days ago I attended a lecture by Professor Tim Blanning on the subject of the European context of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s stupendous bequest to the University of Cambridge in 1816. Bearing in mind Fitzwilliam’s continental travels and his long period as a resident of Paris, it seems very likely that he was interested in and influenced by the movement among Continental rulers to open up what had previously been their private art galleries, concert halls or opera houses to a wider public.
Coincidentally (or was it?), at about the same time, I came across the alleged Last of the Medici, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667–1743), Electress Palatine, duchess and countess of all sorts of places, including Cham (near Regensburg, had I but known) which is alleged (by Wikipedia at any rate) still to enjoy ‘the laid-back lifestyle from the days of yore’.
Since very large numbers of people worldwide can demonstrate their descent from the Florentine family (including of course all the various claimants to the throne of France, who have a few drops of the blood of not one but two Medicis flowing through their veins), to decide who is/was the ‘last’ is problematic, but the Electress was undeniably the last member of the Medici family who had any power in Florence. The unfortunate circumstance of her being a woman, and childless, meant that the line of the Medici as Grand Dukes of Tuscany died out with her younger brother, Gian Gastone, in 1737.
However, Anna Maria Luisa did as much for the city of Florence of any of her illustrious ancestors (and considerably more than some of the more unpleasant ones): to put it briefly and crudely, she left to the city – inalienably and in perpetuity – all the Stuff accumulated by the Medici family in the previous three centuries.
By the so-called ‘Family Pact’ of 1737, she ensured that ‘furnishings, belongings and rarities inherited from the Most Serene Grand Duke her brother, such as galleries, paintings, statues, libraries, jewellery, and other precious things, as well as saints’ relics and reliquaries’ were bound to the city of Florence forever. However, this bestowal of centuries of artistic patrimony occurred only under ‘the express condition that it be maintained as ornamentation of the State, for public use and to attract the curiosity of foreigners’, never to be ‘removed or transported outside of the capital and the Grand Ducal State’.
Anna Maria Luisa thus prevented the wholesale selling off of the inheritance that many other noble families in Italy resorted to after the disasters of the Napoleonic wars, and made Florence a continuing magnet of art and culture for the rest of Europe, and subsequently for the world. In 1765, the Uffizi Gallery, originally designed by Giorgio Vasari for Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1560, was opened to the public, fourteen years before the first purpose-built public museum in Europe, the Fridericianum at Kassel (built by Friedrich II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel), which contained a library and observatory as well as collections of paintings and sculpture, prints, coins and medals, and antiquities.
Anna Maria Luisa, daughter of Cosimo III and his French wife Marguerite Louise d’Orléans (daughter of Gaston de France, duc d’Orléans, and niece of Louis XIII) had both an older brother, Ferdinando, and a younger, Gian Gastone. She never saw her mother again after Marguerite, locked in mutual loathing with her husband, left Italy in 1675 to lead a distinctly rackety life in France (until she got religion and started reforming the convent of Saint Mandé); Anna Maria was brought up mostly by her strong-minded grandmother, the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere.
Since Cosimo had the requisite heir and spare for Tuscany, it was Anna Maria’s duty to marry royally elsewhere in Europe. Louis, the dauphin of France, was briefly considered, but Cosimo was not keen on another French alliance. Negotiations with Savoy, Spain and Portugal also came to nothing (there was a subplot about status, the duke of Savoy outranking his potential father-in-law because he was pretender to the kingdom of Cyprus), and in the end she was wedded by proxy on 29 April 1691 to the widower Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine, and a week later set off for his capital, Düsseldorf, taking her younger brother with her.
Things did not go too well. She miscarried a baby in 1692, and had no more children: it was believed that her husband infected her with syphilis which rendered her infertile (though a twenty-first-century autopsy has cast doubt on this diagnosis). Her marriage was happy apart from this, and she turned her court in a major centre for the arts, especially music. But the Medici legacy was in peril: Ferdinando, though married to Violante of Bavaria, spent most of his time among musicians and (male) singers, and showed no signs of producing an heir.
Anna Maria was instructed by her father to find a wife for Gian Gastone, and her choice was disastrous: the widowed Anna Maria Franziska of Saxe-Lauenburg was wealthy, but loathed her overtly homosexual husband, and refused to move from Bohemia. Already showing signs of a depressive personality, after ten months of marriage he moved away to Prague. Various attempts to reconcile the couple ended in failure, and there were clearly going to be no children of this unhappy marriage.
Cosimo therefore took steps to ensure that – unprecedentedly – his daughter would succeed to the grand ducal throne if she survived both her brothers (he presumably hoped that she might yet produce a male heir which would resolve the situation a generation on). In 1713 (on the death of the childless Ferdinando), he changed the laws of Tuscany to allow a female to succeed, and lobbied hard to get the major European powers to accept his plan. Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, would accept only if he himself became the next heir after Anna Maria; Cosimo would not agree. Various other proposals were made and rejected, and in the meantime the Elector Palatine died in 1716, and his widow returned to Florence.
Two years later, the stalemate over the succession was broken by a proposal supported by England, France, the Dutch Republic and Austria that Don Carlos, oldest son of Philip V of Spain (and the great-great-grandson of a distant Medici relative) should inherit: Anna Maria was specifically excluded. Up to a few days before his death in October 1723, Cosimo was campaigning to keep the right to choose his successors himself, but he and his various legal steps were ignored.
Gian Gastone, increasingly depressive and increasingly reclusive, ruled until his death in July 1737 – at which point the European powers excluded Don Carlos and gave Tuscany to Francis Stephen of Lorraine (this all had something to do with the end of the War of the Polish Succession). The final irony was, of course, that Francis Stephen was the husband of Charles VI’s daughter Maria Teresa – whose right of succession Charles had achieved by the Pragmatic Sanction – and hence, in due course, succeeded his father-in-law as Holy Roman Emperor. One law for the Habsburgs, another for the Medici, it seems.
In October 1737, Anna Maria Luisa signed the Patto Familiare, with the support of Charles VI and Francis Stephen. She spent the rest of her life in a wing of the Pitti Palace, secluded but busy in charitable deeds and in overseeing the completion of the Medici family chapel in the church of San Lorenzo, where she was buried after her death, in the midst of a violent hurricane, on 18 February 1743. The Family Pact, a remarkably far-sighted and generous donation to the city with which the Medici name had for so long been synonymous, is the fundamental reason why Florence is as it is today – quite a legacy!