Wild Nights At the Palazzo Pitti: The Debauched Demise of the Medici Dynasty

On 24 June 1729, all of Florence was abuzz celebrating the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist – the city’s most important religious festival. As usual the day was filled with drinking, dancing and the famous Palio horse race bursting through the city streets and into the surrounding countryside. Puncturing this frivolity was the occasional solemn prayer or frenzied procession in and out of the city’s grand churches.

Into this scene crept a solitary ornate closed carriage, bearing the gilded symbol of Florence’s ruler: six circles arranged on a golden shield – the Medici coat of arms. Winding its way through the streets, curious citizens could hear a low murmuring from within, as though some sickly creature were suffering a slow and torturous death. Occasionally the carriage would stop, the door would swing open and a grimacing, powdered face would appear from the gloomy interior.

After turning a tired gaze across the faces of perplexed onlookers, the man heaved forward and vomited, his large wig quivering on its perch as he did so. This was Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, meeting his people. Eight years later he would be dead, and along with him the once noble and powerful Medici dynasty.

Towards the end of his life, the grand duke rarely appeared in public, preferring the solitude and comforts of his magnificent residence, the Pitti Palace, than the burden of ruling Tuscany. When he did appear, as on the feast day that June, his sickly complexion and often-profane behaviour were shocking – his wretched condition reflecting the lamentable waning of the Medicis’, as well as Florence’s fortunes.

Although Gian Gastone was the last Medici grand duke, the dynasty had long been in decline from its former greatness. As rulers over the Renaissance’s birthplace, the family had been among the greatest supporters of the genius artists and scholars the era produced, including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This was no exception with Gian Gastone’s father and predecessor, Cosimo III, who continued the family tradition of collecting vast quantities of art, as well as patronising the city’s talent, including the famous sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini.

 

Pitti Palace, depicted here in a 1599 lunette by Giusto Uten, served as the chief residence of the Medici from the 16th century onwards

However, Cosimo’s rule over Tuscany was far from artful, and his tenure saw a large number of severe laws, taxes and fines enacted. Many other laws brought upon a harsher treatment of the Jewish population – working for or even sleeping with a Jew was punishable by a heavy fine or prison sentence. Prostitutes could even face a whipping in the street for having sex with a Jew, and this wasn’t the only sanction they were forced to work around. Licences to solicit in the street came at a price of six crowns a year, while countless additional bribes were necessary to avoid harassment by the ominously named ‘Office of Public Decency’. As well as raking in capital from prostitutes, Cosimo also sold off monopolies to the city traders, before selling bypasses to those monopolies at an even greater price.

Capital punishment was almost a daily spectacle in Cosimo’s Florence, with more than 2,000 executions carried out in one year alone. Everything from sodomy to murder was punishable by beheading, with the latter followed up with the grisly quartering of the criminal’s body for good measure. Even the innocent act of courtship was criminalised by Cosimo, with men forbidden to “dally at doors and windows by night” – those caught in coitus with a woman they shouldn’t be cavorting with were subjected to torture sessions in the state dungeons.

However, Cosimo’s attempt to tie a strong moralistic noose around the necks of Florence’s fornicators, while withdrawing extra dividends for the state, was ultimately a failure, and this was embodied in none other than his eldest son and heir, Ferdinando. The grand prince was not only highly promiscuous, but also had a preference for pretty young men, as well as many talented singers and musicians of both sexes. He lavished gifts upon his lovers, and like all good Medicis that had come before him, he was a highly generous patron, himself a talented musician and composer. From a young age he was able to play any piece of music presented to him from sight, to near perfection, and much of his time was spent organising recitals and operas, always with the utmost style and at a triple-A budget.

What did not grip the grand prince, or even mildly interest him, were the matters of state – nor producing a Medici heir to rule that state. In 1696, he returned from a festival in Venice with a new young noble mistress, and venereal disease, both to the consternation of his wife, Violante. Long before his eldest son’s premature death in 1713, Cosimo had already determined he would have to look elsewhere to secure the Medici line.

Unfortunately, Cosimo’s remaining son seemed even less likely to provide an heir than the dead Ferdinando. Not only was Gian Gastone not interested in women, he was actively repulsed by his wife, Anna Maria Franziska of Saxe-Lauenburg, and she by him. After being forced into the marriage on 2 July 1697, the couple had moved to Anna Maria’s remote home in Bohemia, a small town called Reichstadt, where the young prince became utterly depressed and withdrawn. In later life he would wholly blame his sister, Anna Maria Luisa, Electress Palatine, who was a most enthusiastic instigator of the match.

Gian Gastone de’ Medici, circa 1737

Wracked with melancholy, Gian Gastone begged his wife to be able to return to Florence, and upon her refusal consigned himself to a mostly solitary, brooding life, with increasingly frequent bouts of debauchery. His chief accomplice in this was the charismatic, charming and handsome Giuliano Dami. A peasant by birth, Dami had nonetheless risen to favour with Gian Gastone, who had been taken with the young man’s looks while living in Florence.

Accompanied by Dami, and an assortment of attendants, in 1699 Gian Gastone escaped from his remote Reichstadt prison and travelled to Prague. This escapade is best described in a memoir of Gastone’s reign, kept at the Biblioteca Moreniana library in Florence and translated by historian Sir Harold Acton: “There were scores of fresh young students in Prague, smooth-chinned Bohemians and Germans, who were so impecunious that on certain days they wandered begging from door to door. In this wide preserve Giuliano could always hunt for amorous game and introduce some new and comely morsel to the Prince.”

The memoir goes on to detail how the revellers indulged to excess, always at Gian Gastone’s expense as well as at his encouragement. The prince gambled away fortunes during the trip, and what he wasn’t spending on cards he was drinking away in seedy bars. Often, it was said, “…he ran in peril of his life. Setting forth in disguise he would join the ribald company of wretches that lolled about half-drunk in low haunts and taverns of the town.” Caught up in the chaotic melee of alcohol-infused brawls, Gian Gastone would, “…put up with blows, pistol shots and sword cuts.”

Eventually, of course, the trip came to an end once the money ran out. Cosimo wrote to the prince, commanding him to return to his estranged wife in Reichstadt. His escapades in Prague had certainly revived Gian Gastone’s spirit, though they had decayed his physical appearance and set in place a hedonistic pattern that would define the rest of his life. To quote Acton, after returning from the capital, Gian Gastone’s “features began to settle into that monstrous mould of which we may see a likeness in the Uffizi Gallery.”

On 31 October 1723, after a prolonged illness, Cosimo III died in the presence of his confessor. In the hours up until his end he had been attended by numerous clergy and the archbishop of Pisa, who all pronounced blessings to send his soul on its final journey. He had reigned for 53 years, the longest of any Medici grand duke, and now left behind him a state of near chaos.

With no clear line of succession beyond Gian Gastone and his sister Anna Maria Luisa, the great powers of Europe hungrily vied for position over the Tuscan duchy. But the Medici prince remained as uninterested in the affairs of state and inheritance as he had ever been. He did, however, repeal many of the harshest laws and taxes enforced by his predecessor, as well as a curious payment known as the ‘Pension of the Creed’, which offered cash incentives to Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity. Now in his 50s and with no impediment to check him, he set about living for his own desires.

Gian Gastone’s daily routine thereby became one dedicated to pleasure. Waking at around midday, he would receive official visitors while sat up in bed, at least those visitors who had filled Giuliano Dami’s purse with enough crowns. Remaining in bed for the rest of the day, he would then take dinner at 5pm and supper at 2am. Between these hours was about the time he would be joined by the latest addition to the Tuscan court – the Ruspanti.

Named after the low-value coin – the ruspi – that was used to pay them for their service, the Ruspanti were a band of young men, as well as some women, recruited from Florence’s streets by Dami to entertain the grand duke. One account describes them: “It mattered not from what gang of vagrant knaves and mongrols, unruly and unclean, provided they were graced with an alluring eye and the countenance of an Adonis.”

 

Gian Gastone in bed while receiving Marquis Cosimo Riccardi, Giulia Spada and other guests, 1736

Now the master of the Pitti Palace, and with no authority to stop him, Gian Gastone revived the excessive and lascivious habits that he had picked up during his time in Prague, with the help of the Ruspanti. Reclining in his bed, covered with snuff and throwing back wine like it were water, Gian Gastone would order the Ruspanti to tease, insult and even assault him – all for his own particular entertainment. The Ruspanti also performed sexual acts with one another, as well as with the grand duke, for his own pleasure and amusement. Grand dinners would also be held regularly, during which each of the Ruspanti guests were renamed after the great statesmen and clergy of Florence, and Gian Gastone would address each of them as though they were nobility.

Gradually, the Ruspanti grew in number – eventually comprising upwards of 400 members – and the grand duke spent his time with practically no one else, all the while remaining in the confinement of his bedchamber. His sister-in-law, Violante, who was left with the daily running of the state in his absence, made efforts to force him back into the public eye, but these were to no avail. On one such occasion, she arranged a great banquet, inviting all the important aristocrats of the duchy and beyond to the Lappeggi Palace to meet with Gian Gastone, though this was to be a disaster.

Not long into the meal, Gian Gastone, “…got incapably drunk, swearing and belching as he ate his food, making occasional comments of indescribable lewdness.” Swaying back and forth at the table, while gentlemen and ladies recoiled in horror and disgust, he then suddenly raised a napkin to his mouth and promptly vomited into it. Gazing carelessly around the stunned gathering and chuckling, the grand duke then, “…wiped his mouth with the tumbling curls of his wig,” before continuing to dine as though nothing had occurred. The room was hastily vacated.

Anna Maria Luisa in The Electress Palatine in Mourning Dress by Jan Fran van Douven, 1717

This humiliation was repeated on that Feast Day in 1729, which was also the grand duke’s final appearance in public. After eventually falling into a drunken stupor among the festivities, his servants carried him back to the Pitti Palace, where he would largely remain for the rest of his life, with his Ruspanti for company.

By 1737, one noble foreign visitor noted that the Tuscan duke was, “…in a pitiable condition… He could not get out of bed; he had a long beard; his sheets were very dirty.” The duke’s bedchamber by this point was so filthy and odorous from his permanent occupancy that his servants filled it with fresh roses every day to mask the stench and save the senses of occasional visitors.

On 10 July that same year, Gian Gastone lay ill, dying, and after desperate pleas from his relatives, accepted a priest to hear his last confession in an attempt to redeem his soul. Greeting Prior Ippoito Rosselli, the local Florentine priest brought to him, the duke uttered: “You see, we all must die.” Then, after some hours, the last of the Medici line expired as a deathbed repentant.