Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Women on the margins: the ‘beloved’ and the ‘mistress’ in Renaissance Florence

The tension between being a celebrated object of beauty and public display and the demure behaviour expected of a virtuous woman is exemplified by Filippa di Nofri Bischeri. Bryce cites a letter of Rosselli that describes Bischeri dancing while he and others awaited the arrival of galleys.[34]    Like Lucrezia Donati, she failed to escape the criticism of Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi who described her as flighty.[35] The tensions can also be seen in the life of Marietta Strozzi. She was the daughter of exiled Lorenzo Strozzi and Alessandra Bardi.   Her mother was celebrated by Vespasiano da Bisticci in his lives, and like Filippa Bischeri, was a woman who was used by the comune to entertain ambassadors and visitors. Like Bischeri, she had to manage a balance of beauty and virtue in an image presented for public display.   Marietta’s father died while she was young thus rendering her an orphan in fifteenth-century terms.    She attracted the attention of another member of Lorenzo’s brigata, Bartolomeo Benci. In 1464 Filippo Corsini wrote to Lorenzo de’ Medici about a snowfight that had occured outside Marietta’s house between Bartolomeo Benci and others.[36]  A festa, or tournament, was held in her honour later in 1464 and was written about by Benci.[37]    The situation of Marietta, however, was different to that of Lucrezia Donati and Simonetta Cattani.   By the time of the jousts held in their honour, Lucrezia and Simonetta were already married, thus rendering them, in the tradition of chivalric love, unassailable.   Marietta was not only unmarried, but was without a father, which meant that she was without a protector of the family honour.   Further, she was the daughter of the exiled Lorenzo di Palla Strozzi, a fact which made a good marriage even harder to achieve.   In the late 1460s Marietta attracted the notice of her cousin, Lorenzo di Matteo Strozzi, another exile who spent most of his adult life in Bruges and Naples.   Lorenzo had caused much distress to his mother, the above-mentioned Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi, by delaying in his choice of a wife.   In 1469, Filippo di Matteo Strozzi, in order to dissuade his brother Lorenzo from marrying Marietta, referred to her as being likely to have a ‘stained’ reputation because of her beauty, her lack of parents and her unmarried state.[38]    Lorenzo did not persist and Marietta married Messer Theophilo Calcagnini from Ferrara, while her admirer Bartolomeo Benci married Lisabetta Tornabuoni.[39]


Marietta’s suitor, Lorenzo di Matteo Strozzi, like many prosperous Florentines, had a mistress.   What was more unusual about his situation was that the mistress does not appear to have been a slave or servant.   We know nothing about his mistress, Caterina di Chimenti da Sommaia, apart from her bearing two children of Lorenzo’s and her marriage to a Neapolitan in 1467.[40] However, in an entry into his records, Giovanni Rucellai noted how a certain Chimenti da Sommaia had lost his wife and two children in the 1456 earthquake in Naples.[41]. This Chimenti da Sommaia appears as a Florentine who lived in Naples, a merchant who was in contact with the top tier of Florentine society personified by figures such as Giovanni Rucellai and Giovanozzo Manetti. It is tempting to think that this Chimenti da Sommaia was Caterina’s father, but, although the name da Sommaia is used in this period as a family name, it could also simply mean Chimenti from Sommaia, a village near Florence.


The quintessential ‘Renaissance man’, Leon Battista Alberti was illegitimate. Although we know a great deal about Alberti’s views on family life and about his own illegitimacy, we know little about his mother, Bianca di Carlo Fieschi, who bore the name of an illustrious Genoese family and who was the widow of a Grimaldi. Leon Battista was born in 1404; his father was Lorenzo Alberti, a an exiled Florentine patrician. The reasons why Fieschi and Alberti did not marry are obscure. Bianca gave birth to another son, Carlo (who appears to have been named after her father) and she died in the plague of 1406.[42]   Lorenzo Alberti then married a Florentine.[43]


Bartolomea Bagnesi (c.1336-1416) had an illegitimate son according to the ricordanze of her legitimate son, Lapo di Giovanni Niccolini.[44] Bartolomea was the daughter of a Filippo di Rosso Bagnesi who had served as a prior,[45] and the wife of Giovanni Niccolini, a prosperous wool merchant and a prior many times. Again, the sparseness of the records leaves questions of how a woman with a prominent family name became involved in an illicit relationship, and how she then married into another prosperous family. The compiler of the Niccolini ricordanze remarks on the generosity shown by Lapo di Giovanni Niccolini in his bequest to his illegitimate half-brother.


The travels of Florentine merchants kept them away from the city for long periods of time. Many had mistresses in foreign cities. Serena Berotti de Cimegne of Avignon was the mistress of Messer Tome Soderini. In 1406, their son, Lorenzotto, was convicted of faking documents in an attempt to prove that his parents were legally married and that he was entitled to inherit.[46] He had been brought to Florence and raised there, and although legitimated by the Signoria in 1390 he had been left out of his father’s will in 1400.[47] Maria Rendi was the daughter of a Greek notary. She became the lover of Neri di Jacopo Acciaiuoli and the mother of Antonio, who inherited his father’s kingdom in Thebes.[48] Agnola Velluti’s mother was the proprietress of a lasagne shop in Trapani and her father a Florentine merchant. After the death of her father, although illegitimate, her uncle Donato took her in, and, after some difficulty, married her off to a Florentine factor, Piero Talenti.[49]


Women married to someone other than their lover

Some of the mistresses uncovered by Kuehn in his book on illegitimacy were the wives of others, such as Piera di Nuto di Grazia Cingatti,wife of Vanni di Dino of San Clemente and the mistress of Niccol˜ di Jacopo del Palagio. She had two children with del Palagio and remained in his house as a servant and wet nurse. He declared that he owed her money but specified that it was not to go to her husband.[50] Tessa, the mistress of Damiano d’Antonio di Santi, was the wife of messer Nigio Alfani, but claimed the marriage had not been consummated. Her son Niccol˜ brought suit to the Podestˆ stating that he was legitimate and had been slandered by an uncle, Cosimo.[51] The wife of Fascello Petriboni asserted the legitimacy of her son, but did not deny not adultery. Lena di Giovanni di ser Benedetto di Neri was the wife of Benedetto di Piero and mistress of Francesco di Bartolo Bischeri.[52] These cases are interesting, as Nigio Alfani is titled messer, indicating knighthood, Petriboni is a family name,   and Lena di Giovanni di ser Benedetto di Neri would appear, from the names, to have come from a notarial family.



A number of illicit relationships were conducted from convents.[53]     As early as the thirteenth century, Diana, the abbess of the Monastero delle Scalze, was the mistress of Giovanni Angelini Machiavelli and bore him a son. When the case was heard, it emerged that other nuns of the convent had also been involved with Machiavelli.[54] In 1441 a certain Michele di Piero Mangioni was convicted of having sexual relations with a nun,[55] while in 1446 Gimignano Moronti was convicted of having entered the convent of S. Jacopo in Via Ghibellina and of sleeping with a nun.[56] In 1452 Pope Nicholas V wrote to the Florentine Archbishop, Antoninus, asking that he enquire into the conditions of the convent of Santa Caterina in Cafaggio as two of its nuns had borne children the previous year.[57]   By 1490 the convent had become branded as little more than a brothel.[58]   The prestigious Franciscan convent of Monticelli was reformed in 1434 and strict clausura enforced due to scandals. Although the Convento delle Convertite had been set up primarily for reformed prostitutes and ‘fallen women’, it was the subject of scandal in the fifteenth century.[59] In 1448 Giovanni di Bartolo was convicted of having been with some nuns of S. Agata. More seriously, he was also convicted of the abduction and rape of the abbess of S. Anna. Cecilia, a nun of San Giovannino, had a relationship with a Sante di Bartolo. They ran away together but were found in 1447-8. A Suor Caterina, a nun of S. Margherita, had a relationship with Nofri, a dyer.[60] Twins brought to the Hospital of San Gallo in 1437 were said to be the children of Suor Nanna of San Baldassare.[61]   The most famous renegade nun was Lucrezia di Francesco Buti, the lover of Fra Filippo Lippi and mother of Filippino Lippi.   Lucrezia and her sister Spinetta were both nuns in the Pratese convent of Santa Margherita, having been placed there by their brother Antonio in 1451.[62] In around 1456, Lucrezia, Spinetta, and three other women including the noblewoman Brigida Peruzzi, left the convent after being accused of having illicit relations with men.   However, in 1459, all five women renewed their vows in an elaborate ceremony. Although Lucrezia was one of these, Lippi clearly continued to visit as, in 1461, an anonymous complaint brought to the Uficiali di Notte e Monasteri accused Lippi and another of having sexual relations with nuns in the convent and states that Lippi has a son, Filippino, already by one of the nuns.[63]   That same year, on the 8th May, through the intercession of Cosimo de’ Medici, Pope Pius II conceded to Filippo Lippi the right to hold Lucrezia as his legitimate wife, and both parties were relieved of their monastic vows.[64] Four years later Filippo and Lucrezia had another child, Alessandra.[65]


Some of these scandals can be explained by the use of convents as a dumping ground for daughters who had no chance of marriage. The role of the convent in Renaissance society was not only its explicit one: that of a house of women dedicated to God, but it was also as a repositary for women who otherwise would be unmarried and therefore, uncontrolled.[66] Giovanna di messer Ugo Altoviti was forcibly put by her brothers into the convent of San Domenico at the age of twelve. The nuns initially refused her permission to take the habit due to her age, but sometime between 1347 and 1350 they conceded it to her under pressure from the papal legate.[67] In the fifteenth century the high dowries required for marriage in the city resulted in the less marriageable female members of a family being sent into convents, where the dowries required were lower, for example, in 1466 Tommaso Deti wrote to the Dowry Fund asking that his payment for his daughter Marietta be transferred to another daughter, as Marietta suffered from a physical infirmity and would thus be better off in a convent.[68] Ginevra di Piero Parenti was born in 1500 and had an account in the Monte delle dote opened for her in the same year, but by 1510 her father had decided to put her in a convent.[69]   Ippolita Minerbetti, born in 1497, caught rubella which blinded her in one eye. In 1502 she was placed in the convent of S. Maria Montughi where she remained for the rest of her life.[70] Caterina di Paolo Niccolini, born in 1434, ‘made herself a nun in the convent of the Murate in Via Ghibellina on the 29th February 1440, and she took the vows in May 1448, with the name of Agostina. The said Agostina died in the said convent on 24 Oct. 1451’.[71]


Mistresses of the clergy

The sexual proclivities of priests and the clergy formed a topos in late medieval literature.[72]   Although this is a literary topos which cannot be used as evidence of fact, and perhaps not even of contemporary attitudes to the clergy, not surprisingly, given the notoriety of Renaissance popes, historical evidence can be found that priests and friars also had mistresses.   Between 1550 and 1650 priests and friars made up 58 of the 263 criminal and disciplinary trials in Venice.[73] Laurence Stone reports that an English penitential tract gave more penance to a priest for sodomy with a woman than for the adultery which was part of the same activity.[74] Giorgio Dati – a canon of Florence cathedral – was convicted of having entered the convent of S. Caterina illegally at night. Sandra of Ponte Carraia had a child by a friar of Santo Spirito.[75] Boccaccio, himself illegitimate, had five illegitimate children.[76]   Margherita, a freed slave, had a child by Ser Andrea, a priest. The child was brought to the foundling hospital of the Innocenti with a note with an identifying almond shape stating: ‘So that the said child may be found when her mother wishes to do her some good. I have discovered that the child is called Elisabetta and her mother Margherita; she is a slave, though free, and the father who is a priest is called Ser Andrea, and he has taken this child from her mother and sent her to the hospital, and has made the slave give suck to the child of a fellow townsman, telling her that her own child has been put out to nurse; and he does not wish her to know that she has come to the hospital.’ In this case, Margherita was later reunited with her child.[77]


Women from the ranks of the lower guilds and peasants

Florentine men found some mistresses in the ranks of the lower guilds.   The mistress of Fruosino d’Ugolino Ciucci was the daughter of a dyer, and that of Uberto di Giovanni Albizzi the daughter of a blacksmith from Cortona.[78] Caterina d’Antonio di Tome was the daughter of a weaver and the mistress of Ser Iacopo di ser Paolo della Camera.[79] Mea di Angelo was daughter of a pizzicagnolo and the femmina of Bartolomeo di Barone.[80]  The mother of Pope Clement VII remains an enigmatic figure. Pieraccini cites a record of the Pazzi conspriacy by Antonio da San Gallo in which he wrote that Giuliano had a son, aged one, by the time he was killed in the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478.   The mother was ‘ a woman of the Gorini, his friend. The said Lorenzo went to see him and then gave him to the care of the same Antonio, where he stayed until his seventh year. The said son had the name of Giulio.’[81] Pieraccini goes on to compare it with a Palatina Ms., which says ‘ Giulio son of Messer Giuliano de’ Medici was born on the 6th March 1478 (s.f.), who was then pope Clement VII. Giuliano the aforesaid was killed in the Pazzi conspiarcy. Antonio da Sangallo, who lived in the Pinti, gave the news to the Magnifico Lorenzo of this baby born of Monna Antonia del Cittadino, a free woman, which baby was held at baptism by the said Antonio as a favour to Giuliano. Lorenzo reccomended him to the said Antonio up to his seventh year…’[82] According to Pieraccini, Cambi states that she was the daughter of Antonio di Michele del Ciptadino, a member of the minor guilds. A certain Andrea Maddalena di Antonio di Michele del Cittadino was baptised on 18th August 1463, making her fifteen in 1478 and thus fourteen at the conception in 1477.[83] Seraccini is cited as stating that she was Fioretta di Antonio di Michele di Iacopo del Ciptadino corazzaio. Pieraccini however states that the mother’s name was certainly ‘Fioretta’, but that all else is unknown.[84] An unpleasant paragraph then follows outlining the importance of knowing who the mother was, owing : ‘ on the laws of hereditary biology, the knowledge of whether Fioretta was daughter of nobles or plebs must be important, for example, to recognise the inheritance of particular refined talents or dispositions (such as the aesthetic taste), presumably more developed in the Florentine upper classes than in the lower ones.’[85] Giulio had himself declared legitimate during Giovanni’s cardinalate, saying that his mother had been secretly married to Giuliano.[86] The eighteenth-century Jesuit antiquarian, Giuseppe Richa, in an attempt to ensure the Medici pope’s legitimacy to the throne of S. Peter, repeated this claim of a secret marriage.[87] Hibbert follows the Gorini reference, and identifies her as Fioretta Gorini. ‘This boy, whose mother soon afterwards died, was adopted by Lorenzo’.[88] Young identifies her as Antonia Gorini.[89]

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