Born in Florence in 1541, Francesco I’ de’ Medici was the elder son of Grand Duke Cosimo I. He was the second Grand Duke of Florence, taking over power when his father died in 1574.

Cosimo I had left a stable state and a group of loyal men that took care of government, as Francesco was far more occupied with scientific research and his love life than political affairs. A fascinating character, he died in mysterious circumstances, leaving an important legacy to his city.

francesco I de medici grand duke of florence

Francesco de’ Medici Grand Duke of Florence – 10 Curious facts

1. We have Francesco to thank for the Uffizi Gallery.

While his father Cosimo had the Uffizi building constructed to accommodate the city’s civic offices in 1559 (by Vasari), Francesco later devoted the upper part of the building to host a private art gallery. The collection of paintings and statues that we admire today in the Uffizi Gallery and in the Pitti Palace in Florence are were chosen by Francesco, who was a great appreciator of art.

But the Uffizi was also a political move, given that Florence’s power, wealth and prestige could be shown off to foreign dignitaries visiting the city. Exposing unusual objects and impressive artworks became a trend among the powerful and the rich, and a kind of ‘business card’ for their country.

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“Birth of Venus” by Botticelli – Uffizi Gallery, Florence

2. An alchemist leader of Florence

Francesco de’ Medici wasn’t interested in political scheming and public affairs. He preferred to dedicate his time to studying, especially chemistry and applied science. He experimented with the effect of heat on crystals and semi-precious stones, and invented a new form of porcelain to rival the Chinese one. Fascinated with alchemy and astronomy, he often invited scholars to discuss their theories with him.

3. A hidden room in Palazzo Vecchio: Francesco’s studiolo

If you wish to see where Francesco used to spend most of his time, you can visit his studiolo in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. This Small-Group Guided ‘Secret Passages’ Tour makes it possible to enter Francesco’s secret windowless room that is decorated top to bottom with allegorical paintings.

He commissioned Vasari, the Medici’s favourite architect at the time, to decorate this room just off his bedroom. Here he kept his collections of wonderful and rare objects divided according to elements, guarded inside cabinets hidden behind paintings. A cabinet of curiosities that is truly one of a kind.

palazzo vecchio secret passages tour
The ‘studiolo’ in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

4. Francesco de’ Medici and the “Florentine mosaic” Pietra dura fiorentina

Francesco de’ Medici was the first to experiment with semi-precious stone inlay, the technique that became known as “Florentine mosaic”. He opened a workshop that after his death, under the patronage of his brother Ferdinando, that became the Opificio Pietre Dure.

You can visit the Opificio in Florence, and if you want to see an opulent example of this technique, visit the Prince Chapel in the Medici Chapels.

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Prince Chapel – Medici Chapels, Florence

5. An unhappy marriage

Francesco de’ Medici was, as you’d expect, in an arranged marriage, orchestrated by his astute father: he married none other than the sister of the Emperor, Johanna of Habsburg. The wedding was celebrated in the Medici Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, and the couple went to live in Palazzo Vecchio, renovated and frescoed for the occasion. But his heart was not in it, and being the romantic soul he was, he found love in an unexpected place.

6. A man of love, not war

He fell in love with Bianca Cappello, a noble Venetian woman who had come to Florence after escaping from Venice with a ‘commoner’, the clerk Florentine Piero Benvenuti. She and Piero got married in secret, risking his life and the chance that she would be sent to a convent . When they arrived in Florence they were forced into hiding, living in a humble dwelling opposite San Marco Church. Francesco caught sight of her as he was riding past her window, and it was love at first sight. They arranged to meet, the husband was silently disposed of, and she became his lover. 

She was beautiful and graceful, while Johanna was plain and annoying, and when the wife died in 1578 (aged 30) they got married. The marriage was legitimate and official, to the dismay of the Florentines and his brother Ferdinando, who had always hated her. Gossip about her being a witch started to circulate, but she was just quiet and reserved and loved spend her time far from the public eye. Their story had a fairytale ending, and they lived happily ever after.

7. His favourite Villa

He employed the court architect Buontalenti to built the Medici Villa in Pratolino, in honour of Bianca Cappello. His taste is clear in the Mannerist gardens that can be visited today, with the giant Apennine statue by Giambologna squatting surrounded by stalactites.

francesco I de' Medici grand duke of florence
“Appennine Colossus” by Giambologna, in the Villa Demidoff garden – photo Shutterstock

8. The port of Leghorn

One of his main achievements in Tuscany regards the port of Livorno, where he carried out his father’s plan for a complete restoration. The commercial and strategic importance of this port in the Mediterranean didn’t elude him, and he carried out the planned fortification of the port.

9. Was he murdered?

His death remains a mystery in Medici history. He and his wife were at their Villa at Poggio a Caiano when they lost their lives. His brother Ferdinando had been invited to spend a few days with them at the villa. During a hunting expedition Francesco came back feverish and wanted to cure himself with his home made treatments. After a few days the wife fell sick too, and they both died on 19th October 1587.

Were they poisoned? Ferdinando ordered an autopsy to clear his name of any suspicion but no trace of poison were found. In a last spiteful gesture, Fernando denied the couple a joint burial. Francesco is buried next to his first wife in the Medici Chapels, while Bianca’s burial place is unknown. 

10. Francesco I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Florence died childless

All his seven children, from the first wife, died at a young age. When Francesco died he didn’t have any heirs, and less popular brother Ferdinando took his place in government.

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Title Image by Wikimedia: portrait of Francesco I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany by Bronzino.