Christina Strunck: Christiane von Lothringen am Hof der Medici. Geschlechterdiskurs und Kulturtransfer zwischen Florenz, Frankreich und Lothringen (1589-1636) (= Studien zur internationalen Architektur- und Kunstgeschichte; 149), Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag 2017, 735 S., 162 Farb-, 219 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-7319-0126-6, EUR 99,00
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Christina Strunck's massive new book continues her post-doctoral work on female rulers and dynastic brides, in particular those connected to the House of Medici in Florence. In the present case, richly illustrated and with substantial appendices, her interest focuses on Christina of Lorraine, grand duchess of Tuscany by marriage to Ferdinand I de' Medici. At the time of the marriage in 1589, the Medici had only been ennobled for c. 60 years and the father of her husband, Cosimo I de' Medici, had managed to negotiate a rise in rank to grand duke of Tuscany with Pope Pius V as late as 1569. During the sixteenth century, the marital family of Christina had so far been mostly oriented towards political ties with Spain and Austria - not always by choice but certainly in the hope that imperial connections would help establish Medici power over Florence more permanently and at a higher level.
The union between Christina and Ferdinand meant an influx of new people and new ideas to Florence. It was not the first time that such transfers happened; after all each of the earlier duchesses and grand duchesses had made particular contributions to the court culture and etiquette of a principality in the making. At the death of Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici, his brother Cardinal Ferdinando immediately seized the opportunity to declare himself the only legitimate heir. As a consequence of his changed status, he had to seek an appropriate bride. Christina was ideal in that she was a distant cousin through Queen Catherine de' Medici, brought a rich dowry and counter-balanced the pervasive Habsburg influence in Florence.
According to Strunck, Grand Duchess Christina together with her grandmother Queen Catherine de' Medici became the paradigm for female political activity at a foreign court at a time when women rulers were still regarded as against both law and nature in many European nations. The role of such a dynastic bride needed to be carefully negotiated, even more so if and when it was supposed to go beyond established court etiquette and the roles God and nature had ascribed to aristocratic women. In France as well as in other European realms the Lex Salica had been used to exclude women from the succession to the throne for centuries, it was confirmed in France in 1317 and reinforced and continued from the late sixteenth century. It is therefore important to study the extent and effects of Catherine's and Christina's respective spheres of action against the rules established in diverse parts of Europe.
Strunck's main theses claim that in general Christina has not yet been given her due as a successful dynastic bride, cultural patron and political leader, in particular as regent during the minorities of her son Cosimo II and her grandson Ferdinand II. Strunck traces how over the centuries Christina's importance for Florence and the Medici court would be increasingly hidden and absorbed into Medici myths of cultural pre-eminence, while Christina herself was either disregarded or maligned as a religious bigot. Hence, the book reads very much like a vast and sometimes ponderous panegyric that explains to the reader the many diverse and innovative roles of Christina in the private and public, in the sacred and secular and in the gendered spheres of an early modern court on the verge of the Baroque. Strunck attempts to show that cultural exchange could happen in every direction, that Medici Florence was not the only place where cultural and scientific innovation took place in Europe and that Christina of Lorraine rather than a bigot was a thoroughly emancipated - one might even say radical feminist - grand duchess working to the best of her abilities in a male-dominated society.
Strunck is certainly right to claim that Florence was not the only cultural centre in Europe and that - not least by the exchange of dynastic brides - cultural transfers happened throughout mediaeval and renaissance Europe. A second factor to remember is that during the long sixteenth century the Medici were not the only new family trying to secure their power through marriage and cultural politics (and forgery), making it all the more important to express ambitions and aspirations in easily legible visual form to peers as well as to subjects. Finally, general prejudice against powerful women, then and now, means that more than one female biography was rewritten in a negative key. Mary Tudor is a prime example in her native England, while Catherine de' Medici or Marie Antoinette of Habsburg-Lorraine represent two vulnerable, foreign dynastic brides in France. Even such an "attractive" personality as Eleonora of Toledo who clearly fulfilled her duties as duchess and brought financial expertise as well as considerable style to Florence had to wait for centuries to have her reputation restored by a high number of publications focusing on her Spanish legacy.
Of the many details of Christina's patronage that Strunck discusses, I would like to pick up two particularly interesting examples, both of which have to do with grand ducal projects in the Florentine Oltrarno. Ever since Duchess Eleonora of Toledo had acquired Palazzo Pitti, the reach of the Medici was extended from the Via Larga and Palazzo di Piazza to an area across the Arno with more space and greater scope for development and princely representation. Two buildings in particular, Palazzo Pitti and the monastic church of Santo Spirito, had already been of interest to Medici patrons from the fifteenth century onwards.
After Christina arrived in Florence, important donations and changes were made to the buildings mentioned above to ensure and present a pedigree of the Medici that would include members of the family and their deeds back to republican times. An unbroken chain of political development and caring statesmanship was presented for example by works of art in the Pitti Palace. As Strunck discusses in the sections on the Sala di Bona (495-527), this particular room may well have been decorated after the battle of Bona in Albania had been fought in 1607 and after Grand Duke Ferdinando's death in 1609. It means that Christina probably had great influence over this commission and that its pictorial programme formed part of an appreciative biography of her late husband as well as of a glorious future for their son and his future descendants. In this room, Ferdinand is depicted as a mild but triumphant victor whose charity and majesty are manifest through his endeavours with the help of the military Order of Saint Stephen.
Christina's own charity, much praised by her husband after the Tuscan famine of 1591, is not represented in the Sala di Bona (525), for during her regency it might have been difficult, perhaps even dangerous to point at parallels between the situation in France (Maria de' Medici) and Florence (Christina of Lorraine and Maria Magdalena of Austria). Nonetheless, Christina found other possibilities to create allusions to her help for the needful, for example in the Sacristy of Santo Spirito (311-349), where a side altar dedicated to Saint Fiacre managed to tell the story of the Irish saint who had moved to France and was venerated there for his medical knowledge and as a patron of agriculture. Christina, who shared the veneration for this particular saint with the French royal family, had brought this reverence to Florence. As Strunck points out, following the work of Sheila Barker, the commission of this altarpiece to Alessandro Allori for a semi-public room with architecture reminiscent of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, allowed the grand duchess to present herself not only as charitable towards the hungry in a serious time of crisis. She also called attention to her own healing expertise as well as to that of the Medici who had long referred to the physician saints Cosmas and Damian in their artistic projects. Christina thus tied her own heritage and knowledge to both France and Florence and made it look almost inevitable that she had to become grand duchess and regent of Florence in order to bring her intellectual and caring gifts to Tuscany.
In many ways, Strunck's book is a milestone towards a better understanding of the workings of court culture and the fate of dynastic brides in early modern Europe. Sometimes complicated by long regencies, the lives of such women were not only concerned with the search for a personality that would combine their own cultural heritage with the traditions of their marital court. If they were lucky, they found a home and developed mutual appreciation with their spouses.
Finally, I was slightly bemused by the section "The American Question" posed at the book's beginning (21-22), which makes it appear as if in the Anglo-American academic world there is no interest in female patronage. After all, the American Joan Kelly (1928-1982) was one of the first feminist historians to write about the changing roles of women in the Renaissance and her groundbreaking article, "Did Women have a Renaissance?" (1977), sparked heated debates as well as leading to the establishment of the first masters' programme in Women's History. Rather, I got the feeling that Strunck may have been the victim of a misunderstanding. At US universities and in Anglo-American academe, the question "Why do you think your book / research is important and how will it contribute to current scholarship?" is the standard opening for discussions. It does not mean that nobody cares but that as a scholar one has always to be able to "sell" one's theses and to teach them to diverse audiences.