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Bianca’s Bad End: Historic Whodunnit Solved

Jan
9
2007

Portraits never have done Bianca Cappello, dangerous Renaissance beauty, much justice. She looks a bit startled, slightly bug-eyed, with a nose best downplayed and a jawline destined to become heavy with age.
It’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about. But she was young, she was certainly fecund and she was a mistress who managed to marry into Florence’s ruling Medici family.


The vivacious Venetian — known for her naturally red hair — caught the eye of Francesco Medici, suffering through a diplomatic disaster of a marriage to the charmless and childless Joanna of Austria. Joanna died, then the lovers dispatched with Bianca’s foolish husband (lulling him with a cushy court job, then getting him knifed in a suspicious street fight) and were wed.



Bianca’s remains…

Happiness didn’t last long. Eight years later, the two died in the hillside villa they decorated at Poggio a Caiano within a day of each other.
For centuries, it was thought that they were murdered. Most likely suspect: the archduke’s brother and rival Cardinal Ferdinando.
We’ll never know if the Cardinal did the deed, but scientists found remains near Florence believed to be of the unhappy couple, still heavy with arsenic after all these centuries.
I used to walk past Bianca Cappello’s palazzo in Florence, intricately etched with graffito, every day on my way to work in Via Maggio. Presiding over what passed for a library at a study abroad program (about 1,200 volumes, counting student jettison self-help books and “Let’s Go!” guides), I had plenty of time to ponder the fate of this it-girl of the 1500s.
Bianca had been a near-obsession of the haggard but energetic American woman who taught Renaissance art when I was a student my first year in Florence. We had been out to see the villa — and much admired the frescoes by Portormo — and all the way there she recounted with glee this centuries-old tale of love, hate, power and murder that make reality shows about romancing princes pale in comparison.
She ended her story by pointing a scrawny, accusatory finger at us: “We may never know what really happened, the bodies were never found. Legend has it they are buried at Poggio a Caiano.”
Donatella Lippi, the scientist who has spent the last five or so years examining the remains of the entire Medici clan, shares a similar fascination for Bianca. She spent months wading through debris of all kinds in an underground basement of a deconsecrated church near Poggio, picking human remains (a liver here, a femur there) from pottery shards and abandoned religious paraphrenalia.
It looks like four centuries of mystery can finally be put to rest.

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