Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Monarch Profile: Grand Duke Ferdinand I of Tuscany

The third member of the House of Medici to hold the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany was born on July 30, 1549 to Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and Eleanora di Toledo, the daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. He was the fifth son to be born to the couple, though only the third to survive and, as such, he was not expected to ever take the grand ducal throne. However, there was always the need to keep up the family presence in the Sacred College, so young Ferdinand was expected to take on a religious vocation and was educated accordingly. In 1562, at the age of 14, he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by HH Pope Pius IV (Giovanni Angelo Medici, a distant relative). Teenage cardinals were far from uncommon at the time and in those days a cardinal was not necessarily an ordained man. As it turned out, Ferdinand Cardinal Medici displayed remarkable organizational and administrative skills while working for the Church in Rome. In typical Medici fashion he was also a great patron of the arts and accumulated a remarkable collection at his home, called Villa Medici (now the home of the French Academy in Rome and owned by France). Most assumed that would be where Ferdinand would spend his life.

However, Grand Duke Cosimo I suffered many tragedies with the early deaths of his boys but he was succeeded by his eldest, Grand Duke Francis I. However, the only son of Francis died while still a boy and so when he passed away in 1587 it fell to his younger brother the cardinal to become the third Grand Duke of Tuscany. He packed up his art treasures and returned to Florence though he remained a Cardinal in the Church for the next two years until his marriage to Christina of Lorraine (daughter of Charles III of Lorraine and actually a granddaughter of Catherine de’ Medici) in 1589. Their wedding was a colossal and magnificently colorful occasion. Grand Duke Cosimo I, married to a Spanish lady, had been very close to Spain and the Hapsburg Empire and Queen Catherine de’ Medici had pushed for the marriage of Christina to Grand Duke Ferdinand to restore the House of Medici as allies of France rather than Spain and the Empire. There were lavish banquets, dances and even mock naval battles in a flooded courtyard. The wedding would influence the art of entertaining in royal courts across Europe for many years to come.

Grand Duke Ferdinand I brought about something of a revival in Tuscany. He and Grand Duchess Christina had five children over the years; two boys and three girls, and he worked to detach Tuscany from the influence of Spain and the empire. This made him very popular as the public had previously been taxed heavily to pay for contributions to the empire and their own laws had often been superseded by foreign statutes. Grand Duke Ferdinand reestablished the traditional justice system, took a great interest in the well being of his people and enacted many changes that boosted economic development. He established freedom of religion in Tuscany which caused many Jews and Protestants to flock to Livorno in particular and their industry was also a boost to the economy. Harbor improvements helped promote trade, irrigation projects improved agriculture and Florence became a center of banking with branches all across Europe. He took a similarly broad-minded approach to foreign policy but, in that area, was less successful.

To ease out Spanish and imperial influence and draw closer to France, he supported King Henri IV of France against the Catholic League of Guise family and the more belligerent Protestants after the assassination of King Henri III. King Henri IV was greatly helped by the money the Grand Duke loaned him and Ferdinand urged him, for the peace and stability of France as well as for his own good, to convert to the Catholic faith. He also used his connections in Rome to urge the Pope to accept a conversion on the part of the King of France, welcoming him into the Catholic fold. This, King Henri IV eventually did do, famously saying that, “Paris is well worth a mass” which has caused some to claim that his conversion was not genuine. However, there is ample evidence that his change of heart was sincere. However, King Henri IV returned no favors to Grand Duke Ferdinand who backed away from France after that point, maintaining the neutrality of the House of Medici which he thought paramount to secure their independence.

Unlike some, Grand Duke Ferdinand was not willing to ally with non-Catholic powers against those of his own faith. Despite his unwillingness to be ruled by Spain or the empire he still supported the Spanish in their war in Algeria, led by King Felipe III, against the Moors and he supported Hapsburg Emperor in his ongoing conflict with the Turks in eastern Europe. In fact, the war galleys of Tuscany won several crucial victories against the Muslim Barbary Pirates operating out of North Africa during his reign, though this commitment to the defense of Christendom did not come without cost and necessitated the raising of taxes, something the Grand Duke had not wanted to do. Nevertheless, he was always a man of vision who favored big ideas, ingenuity and entrepreneurship. His first thought was to follow up the victory of his fleet with the establishment of a domain for Tuscany in North Africa, however, this did not work out. Still, he remained eager to embrace other possibilities. Toward the end of his reign he commissioned the one and only official effort by an Italian state to colonize the Americas. In 1608 Grand Duke Ferdinand commissioned the English Captain Robert Thornton to lead an expedition to the coast of South America, around northern Brazil.

The ships reached the New World, explored the area and took on some native passengers before returning to Italy. The plan was to follow-up with the establishment of a colony around what is now Cayenne, to reach down to the Amazon and make the area a source of timber exports to Italy and a place of colonization for Italian settlers. A few decades later this area would be claimed and colonized by France, named French Guiana and it remains an overseas department of France to this day. The voyage was a success and Captain Thornton returned without losing a man. Unfortunately, he returned to find that Grand Duke Ferdinand I had died on February 17, 1609 at the age of 59. He prepared to launch the planned follow-up voyage but the new monarch, Grand Duke Cosimo II (Ferdinand’s son) saw no need for an Italian colony in America and called off the enterprise. Nonetheless, the reign of Ferdinand I is a bright spot in the history of the Medici family and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He was a capable monarch who defeated his enemies, aided his allies and left his state more prosperous, more developed and more free and independent than he had found it.


  1. Interesting to contrast his reign with that of his son.

  2. I agree with your view.your article is excellent. I have been examinating out some of your stories and i can state pretty nice stuff. I look onward your next editorial. Its a great post.

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