Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Alfonsina Orsini, Regent of the Republic Florence

Alfonsina Orsini, regent of Florence (died 7 February 1520)


Born in 1472, the daughter of Roberto Orsini and Catherine Sanseverino, Alfonsina Orsini was raised at the court of Ferrante of Naples (her father, who died of plague in 1479, served as a captain in Ferrante's army, and his daughter was named after Ferrante's father and his son, both named Alfonso). The year of Alfonsina's birth is calculated based on a reference in a diplomatic letter to Lorenzo de'Medici from Naples, which describes her as having "more than fourteen years."

She married to Piero  di Lorenzo de' Medici, the eldest son of Lorenzo "il magnifico" ("the Magnificent")--though Piero was known by a much less happy honorific than his father--he was known as Piero "the Unfortunate"!

A Botticelli portrait believe to represent
Alfonsina Orsini

Political motives--and the potential for a huge dowry--lay behind the Medici negotiations for Alfonsina's marriage to the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who hoped to strengthen his ties with Naples and with the powerful Orsini family, one of the most influential in Rome. 

But Alfonsina and her future husband were related--Piero's mother was Clarice Orsini. Thus Alfonsino and her future mother-in-law were both Orsinis, though each belonged to a different "branch" of that family.*

Not only were Piero's mother and his bride both members of the large Orsini family, with its many lines of descent, but his grandmother, Maddalena Orsini, was the sister of Alfonsina's father. (Not to mention the fact that Maddalena and her husband, Jacopo Orsini, were cousins . . . Family values and "traditional marriage"!!! Yikes!)

And so Piero and Alfonsina needed a papal dispensation in order to ensure the validity of their marriage. And a papal dispensation, granted by Innocent VIII, was received.

Although Alfonsina and Piero's marriage, by proxy, took place in 1486, the two did not meet and begin their married life together until 1488, when they celebrated a lavish wedding in Rome in February before making their way to Florence, where Alfonsina arrived in May.

For the first years of her married life, Alfonsina performed her duties as a wife, giving birth to two children, a daughter, Clarice (b. 1489), and a son, Lorenzo (b. 1492), both named for Piero's parents, Lorenzo and Clarice (Orsini). Alfonsina may also have given birth to third child, Luisa (b. 1494), but there are no further references to her.

In addition to bearing children, Alfonsina, like other women in her marital family and of her social status, was a patron of religious charities and institutions, a patron of the arts, and an intercessor for those who appealed to her to with their requests for aid, for jobs, and for legal assistance. 

Alfonsina's father-in-law, Lorenzo, died in 1492; it was after Lorenzo's death that Alfonsina's  husband, who had been raised to become not only the head of the Medici family but also to follow his father as the de facto ruler of Florence, became "the unfortunate." 

A fifteenth- or sixteenth-century medal
in honor of Alfonsina Orsini
Unsuited to the role skillfully managed by his father, Piero was soon overwhelmed by events. After Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, Piero proved unequal to the political and military challenges to the Florentine state. Piero and other male members of the Medici family were banned from the city in 1494.

Despite a public revolt that resulted in the looting of the Medici palace, Alfonsina remained behind in Florence, attempting not only to defend Medici interests but her own. Her dowry had been seized as part of Medici assets.

In this crisis, Alfonsino's mother, Catherine Sanseverino, proved to be a crucial supporter. A contemporary chronicler describes her as "a woman of authority and management ability." Historian Natalie Tomas writes that "it may well have been Caterina di Sanseverino who took the lead with Alfonsina learning by example from this Neapolitan noblewoman who was politically experienced and astute."

The negotiations were ultimately a success, at least as far as Alfonsina's proclamation as a rebel, along with the Medici men, was concerned--the French king, Charles VIII, compelled the new government in Florence to allow Alfonsina to remain in the city.

However, her continued efforts to regain her assets resulted in growing condemnation by both the government and citizens of Florence, who saw her maneuvering negatively, not on behalf of her husband and children, but on her own behalf. She was condemned for greed and corruption.

In May of 1495, Alfonsina applied to the new government of the city for permission to leave Florence and go to Rome, but her appeal was denied. Months later, she left the city without permission, joining her husband in Siena. (Her mother remained in Florence, where she died in 1497.)

After Piero's death in 1503, Alfonsina's fortunes reversed themselves. She relocated to Rome and worked to rebuild support for the Medici family, then returned to Florence, though briefly, in 1507, so that she could reclaim her financial assets and negotiate for her daughter's marriage. With the assistance of her sister-in-law, Lucrezia de' Medici Salviati, an alliance with Jacopo Strozzi was arranged, bringing this family's political influence to her side in her negotiations with Florence.

In 1510, she was finally successful in recovering her dowry. As long as she remained in Rome, she was deeply involved in papal politics, always with the aim of improving the chances of her return to Florence and her son's return to some kind of authority in the city. 

In 1512 the Medici were allowed to return to the city, where Giuliano, third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, assumed power, and in 1513, Giovanni de' Medici, second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, became pope. In 1515, Alfonsina herself was able to return to Florence to live, some nineteen years after she had left. 

Official documents show Alfonsina's success in influencing matters of state after her return to the city: marginal comments indicate, for example, "by the commission of the illustrious lady Alfonsina," "on order of Madonna Alfonsina," and "by order of Magnificent Lady Alfonsina."

When Giuliano died, Alfonsina's son, Lorenzo, was at last able to assume leadership, though with her son away from the city, leading Florentine troops, Alfonsina "in effect, 'ruled' in her son's stead." Of her actions at this time, her son-in-law noted, "She is always busy writing to Rome . . . or giving a hearing, which means that the house is always full, and from these visitors [she] has brought respect to the state, encouraged friends, and aroused fear in [the state's] enemies. She performs this office well, which would be impossible for another woman and easy for only a very few men."

As she governed Florence on behalf of her son, Alfonsina issued orders on matters of politics, the treatment of crime and criminals, taxation, property, and foreign affairs. She was also involved in many building projects in Florence as well as in Rome. 

Alfonsina's influence did not diminish after her son's return to Florence. There, in 1518, she was successful in arranging Lorenzo's marriage to Maddalena de la Tour d'Auvergne. Maddalena gave brith to a daughter, on 13 April 1519. She died just two weeks later, on 28 April. Lorenzo would not live much longer--he died on 4 May, just days after his wife and less than a month after his daughter was born.

After her son's death, Alfonsina could not, as a woman, inherit any power in Florence. Shortly after her son's death, she returned to Rome, but increasingly weak, she died on 7 February 1520. She was buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo.

The fa├žade of the Basilica of
Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Her granddaughter had been in Alfonsina's care after the death of Maddalena and Lorenzo. After Alfonsina's death, the child was placed in the care of Alfonsina's daughter, Clarice de' Medici Strozzi. She would remain there, protected by the influence of Clement VII, a Medici pope. 

In 1533, Alfonsina's granddaughter, Catherine de' Medici, was married to Henry, the  second son of the French king. She would become queen and regent of France.

The best account of Alfonsina Orsini is in Natalie R. Tomas's The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence, from which I have quoted, above,

*Clarice (Orsini) de' Medici was a member of the branch descending from Rinaldo Orsini (the di Monterotondo line), Alfonsina (Orsini) de' Medici, a member of the branch descending from Roberto Orsini (the Conti di Pacentro e Oppido line).  For detailed information about the branches of the Orsini familyh, click here.