Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Maria Magdalena of Austria, Regent of Tuscany

Maria Magdalena of Austria, Grand Duchess and Co-Regent of Tuscany (died 1 November 1631)*

Born in the city of Graz on 7 October 1589, Maria Magdalena of Austria was a member of the Habsburg family, the royal house that ruled over a vast empire in Europe and the Americas. 

Maria Magdalena of Austria,
grand duchess of Tuscany, c. 1603
portrait by Frans Pourbus the Younger
Maria Magdalena was daughter of Charles II, archduke of Austria, and his wife, Maria Anna of Bavaria--who was also Charles II's niece. Yes, another good example of traditional marriage: Maria Anna of Bavaria was the daughter of her husband's sister, Anna of Austria. Got that? (Keeping marriage in the family was a favorite Habsburg strategy, as I've noted before on this blog.) 

Maria Magdalena was also the fourteenth of the fifteen children born to the couple, thirteen of whom survived infancy.

She was well educated, taught by Jesuit instructors, her course of studies including Latin. Her father's court was deeply religious, Charles II a keen defender and promoter of the Catholic Reformation. Music played an important role in the court, and Maria Magdalena also performed in "didactic plays," based on the lives of saints. 

In 1608, when she was nineteen years old, Maria Magdalena was married to Cosimo II de' Medici, who would become the grand duke of Tuscany the next year. Between August 1609 and November 1617--just over eight years--she gave birth to eight children, all of whom survived infancy. (Although her first child, a girl, is believed to have suffered from some kind of physical or mental disability.)

Maria Magdalena's husband died when her eldest son, Ferdinando II, was just ten years old. And so, Maria Magdalena and her mother-in-law, Christina of Lorraine, became co-regents of Tuscany. 

In her recent discussion of Maria Magdalena of Austria, Maria Galli Stampino surveys the overwhelmingly negative views of Maria Magdalena's co-regency--though it is important to note that these are historians' views and not those of the regent's contemporaries. Her contemporaries keep up a detailed commentary on what's happening at court--later historians mark her regency as the beginning of the end of Florence. 

Maria Magdalena of Austria,
regent of Tuscany, c. 1621
As early as the eighteenth-century, an Italian historian decided that "everything started to decline from the moment of Cosimo II's death." As recently as 2008, the judgment is still the same: "the regency marked the beginning of the downward slope of the Medici government."

Maria Magdalena was too religious, too stern, too given to "magnificence," too dull and boring (yes, she is criticized for spending too much on lavish display and for not spending enough on lavish entertainment), too powerful, too influential over her son, 

She was "despotic" and "arbitrary," "nefarious" and "sanctimonious." Most important, she and her mother-in-law were both female and foreign. As the historian J. R. Hale concluded in his history of Florence and the Medici, "For the first time Medici rule was woman-ridden not by mistresses, anxious to please, but by viragos, determined to dominate." You can get a similar taste of this virulent attitude toward Maria Magdalena by looking at the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for her son (click here)

All that said, in her role as co-regent, Maria Magdalena developed a foreign policy that favored both the papacy and Habsburg politics. She performed charitable works. She continued her husband's support for Galileo. (A support that would be continued by her son, once he succeeded as grand duke.) She was a great patron of music and painting. And, notably, she did not lead Florence into war. Instead, she, her mother-in-law, and son got along harmoniously

Nor did she overthrow the state--her son, Ferdinando II, quietly succeeded as grand duke of Tuscany when he reached his majority at age eighteen. For many historians, that stability is also bad--he carried on his mother's policies, the people of Florence growing disappointed when "they realized that nothing had changed after his formal accession to power." 

In 1631, leaving Florence under the personal rule of her son, Grand Duke Ferdinando II, Maria Magdalena left for a visit to the Habsburg court in Vienna, where her oldest brother was now Holy Roman Emperor. She traveled with two of her sons, Mattias and Francesco, and after stops in Italy, visited her brother Leopold, archduke of Austria, in Innsbruck. She became ill on her way to Passau, Germany and died there on 1 November 1631. She was forty-two years old. 

Her body was returned to Florence. She is buried in the Medici Chapels, adjoining the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

(Maria Magdalena's daughter, Margherita de' Medici, became duchess of Parma, and, like her mother before her, she served as regent for her minor son.**)

Maria Galli Stampino's essay, "Maria Magdalena of Austria and Grand Duchess of Florence: Negotiating Performance, Traditions, and Taste," is in Early Modern Habsburg Women: Transnational Contexts, Cultural Conflicts, and Dynastic Continuities, ed. Anna Cruz and Maria Galli Stampino. I have used Stampino's excellent biographical information here, and I highly recommend her thorough summary and analysis of three centuries of critical assessments of Maria Magdalena's regency by historians. 

For online reading, I recommend Laura York's entry on Maria Magdalena in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.

*Although her name is frequently given as "Maddalena," she herself always signed "Magdalena."

**Another of Maria Anna of Bavaria's daughters, Anne, married Sigismund Vasa, king of Sweden and Poland--after Anne's death, Sigismund Vasa married her younger sister, Constance. More traditional marriage.

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