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Johanna of Austria (1547-1578) - An Austrian Archduchess on the Grand Ducal Throne of Tuscany

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Fig 1: Francesco Terzio, Portrait of Johanna of Austria, 1565, oil on canvas, 201,4 × 105,8 × 2,3 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband

The Grand Duchess of Florence, Johanna of Austria, (Fig. 1) has not fared well in historiography. During her own life, she struggled to assert dominance and influence at the Florentine court, and in her afterlife her personae suffered a further disservice by historians and popular authors alike. She was often turned into a caricature of zealous piety and was a convenient foil to highlight her husband’s mistress, the Venetian Bianca Capello. As with most women mistreated in the annals of history, after careful consideration of her life, a more nuanced picture emerges.

Born a Habsburg Archduchess in Prague in 1547, Johanna of Austria was the youngest of fifteen children of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Queen Anna Jagiellonian of Hungary and Bohemia. Her mother died giving birth to Johanna and she was raised by her older sisters at the Hofburg in Innsbruck. As the last of fifteen children, her education was less rigorous and was mainly religious, as it was spearheaded by the local chapter of the Society of Jesus. The study room at the Innsbruck Hofburg, where Johanna was meant to receive lessons, was described at the time as a small chamber high up in the tower of the Hofburg, which was unheated and in winter plagued by cold bursts of wind coming through the cracks of the windows.

In 1565, after several years of marriage negotiations, Johanna’s hand was given in marriage to the Florentine prince, Francesco I de’ Medici (Fig. 2). The union was an arrangement reached after intense marriage talks and a generous donation of Medici bullion. A Medici prince was a surprising match for the Habsburg Archduchess. The Medici, a rapidly aggrandising banker family, had only recently been ennobled and a scion from this dynasty was far from the first choice for Johanna. Yet, a combination of an advantageous political situation, hefty financial contributions and a successful campaign of gift-giving, allowed the Medici to exploit the situation and to successfully broker the nuptials of Johanna with Francesco I de’ Medici.

Fig. 2: Alessandro Allori and workshop, Portrait of Francesco I de' Medici, c. 1568-1570, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband

Shortly after her arrival in Florence, Johanna had to contend with her husband’s mistress Bianca Capello, but also with a husband with whom she did not share a common language, customs nor interests. Francesco had understood the dynastic and political importance of this marriage, but did not take great interest in his Habsburg consort. Over the next decade Johanna forged her own path at the Medici court. She demanded to be addressed as ‘Regina Giovanna’ (Queen Johanna) in order to underscore her status in the eyes of the Tuscan nobility and in the face of the encroaching influence of her husband’s Venetian mistress, Bianca Cappello, and vehemently carved out her own sphere of influence through her religious patronage at the Florentine court. In March 1568, she was presented with the Golden Rose by Pope Pius V, the highest honour a Catholic woman could attain. The Golden Rose was not only a significant honour for herself, but also for the Medici family as a whole. She was the first Medici consort to receive this honour and it brought great esteem to the dynasty, aligning her and her new family more closely with the papacy. Nonetheless, her relationship with her husband Francesco remained strained as she failed to give birth to a male heir, birthing only daughters.

In May 1577, Johanna’s longed for son, Filippo de’ Medici, was born. His birth was Johanna’s ultimate triumph. She was able to present her consort with the ardently desired legitimate male heir. Filippo’s baptism was lavishly celebrated and his baptismal name was chosen in honour of his mother’s cousin, King Philip II of Spain. The birth of Filippo was not only an important occasion to renew Medicean ties with the extended Habsburg family, but also for the Florentine grand ducal couple to conciliate, which they did. Following the birth of Filippo, Francesco even sent his Venetian mistress away from the Florentine court. Johanna lastly had her piece of mind of having fulfilled her royal duty of proffering a male heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. As a result, this long-awaited heir to the grand ducal throne of Tuscany from the beginning of his life was lavished and fêted by his parents.

Fig. 3: Santi di Tito (?), Portrait of Don Filippo de' Medici, 1593 (?), oil on canvas, 116.8 x 78.8 cm, Private Collection.

An exquisite portrait of the young heir Filippo (see Fig. 3) to the throne saliently expresses his dynastic significance, princely status and magnificent riches. Dressed in a splendid garb of red brocade embroidered with gold, the young prince is portrayed holding a Medici portrait medal. He is flanked by a blooming bouquet in a Medici porcelain vase made in the furnaces of the Casino di San Marco in Florence and adorned with the Medici coat of arms. He is shown alongside two furry companions. Just behind his outstretched arm sits a beady-eyed, long-tailed Brazilian marmoset eating cherries. Marmosets were beloved, supremely expensive and exclusive princely pets, imported to Europe by Portuguese sailors, and they were particularly popular at the Spanish court of King Philip II of Spain. Perhaps the marmoset was a gift from Filippo’s godfather King Philip II of Spain, whose own daughter Infanta Catalina Micaela of Austria was portrayed with a marmoset by Sofonisba Anguissola. The rabbit at Filippo’s feet, a symbol of fertility, may alludes to Johanna’s ability to mother the long-awaited heir. However, Johanna was not able to enjoy the fruits of her labour, just a year later, in 1578, Johanna of Austria tragically died giving birth to a stillborn child. Young Filippo himself, passed away at only four years of age in 1582.

This contribution was written by Dr. Adriana Concin

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