Contessina de Bardi, the wife of Cosimo de’ Medici, has became a celebrity thanks the Netflix series “Medici Masters of Florence”. The beautiful and talented Annabel Scholey brings to life this strong woman character who was very involved in her husband’s political life. But is it true that women had such a role in 15th century Italy? We’ve done our homework and uncovered an altogether different story…
Contessina de’ Bardi – daughter of the Bardi family
Contessina de Bardi’s real name was Lotta. She was born around 1391 into the ancient and prestigious family of the Bardi. This Florentine dynasty was at the height of its wealth and political power from mid 1200’s. They had a powerful bank with branches all over Europe that went bankrupt in 1345. They lent a huge sum of money to the king of England, Edward III, who needed to finance the interminable war against France. What better guarantee than a king? But, unfortunately for the Bardi, Edward III defaulted on his loan, and the Bardi enterprise met its end.
Despite all of this, the Bardi was still a respectable name in Florence. And when the time came for Giovanni de’ Bicci, the father of Cosimo de’ Medici, to pick a suitable wife for his son, Contessina de’ Bardi seemed the perfect choice. If Cosimo was destined to bring forward the fame and glory of the Medici dynasty, he needed someone with a good name and reputation. The young Contessina conserved all the dignity and nobility of her name, even if she didn’t offer much by way of dowry.
Her life as the wife of Cosimo de’ Medici
Contessina and Cosimo got married in 1415, and lived in the Palazzo Bardi bought by Cosimo. Their first son Pietro was born there the following year. Later they moved to Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Via Larga, that Cosimo had completely redesigned. Here Cosimo had his office, but it’s very unlikely that the Contessina was even allowed inside. Women had nothing to do with politics. Their role instead was to take care of the household and the children’s education.
So when in the TV series “Masters of Florence” we see Contessina bravely entering the Palazzo Vecchio on horseback to save her man… this is, sadly, pure fantasy. In reality she spent most of her life inside the four walls of her home. What’s more she didn’t follow her husband when he happened to be exiled (1433). Though she did entertain official guests in her home, and accompanied Cosimo on official occasions.
What was the Contessina de’ Bardi really like?
Historians describe her as a bit chubby, jovial and quite careful with money. The kind of housewife who haggled over the price of meat. What we know about her comes from her letters, a body of 35 missives addressed to the members of her family. She wrote to Cosimo, who was often away on business trips, to her daughter in law Lucrezia Tornabuoni with whom she was very close. In the letters to her children, we see her pushing them to apply themselves to study.
The portrait that comes out is of a practical, loyal and faithful wife, who always put her family first. Even when Cosimo came home with a bastard son, born from a passionate relationship with a young slave Maddalena, she accepted him as her own. The boy Carlo was brought up with his two half-brothers, Piero and Giovanni, and ended up a wealthy religious man.
What did Cosimo really look like? Have a look at Rubens’ painting here! You can find another portrait of Cosimo in the “Adoration of the Magi” by Botticelli.