A few March 8th’s ago I was frolicking around Rome with my two BFFs visiting from the states. Their visit thus far had been particularly charmed. The sun was shining, Zara sales were in full swing, no trains were missed and we even convinced a nice clan of dapper young Italians to buy us a steak dinner. The next day, nervous to jinx our string of good luck, we scarcely even questioned the guard at the Colosseum who shuffled us past the winding ticket line and into the arena free of charge. Perhaps they thought we were movie stars? Politicians’ daughters? At least some of Berlusconi’s girls? Later, when a street vendor approached us with some beautiful free mimosas (the flowers not the drinks) we knew something was up. We asked the vendor and he graciously explained to us that it was International Women’s Day (well I think it was more like “today we love all lady in Italy and give flower to“). Ahhh! Got it! With our ticket money still in our pockets and mimosas in hand we celebrated our womanhood, and free gifts, with a photo op with a particularly studly gladiator named Tommaso. My first Terrific Lady Day was in fact terrific. And that day I swore to never let another March 8th go by without celebrating my womanhood and demanding something free!
If you happen to have an extra X chromosome and are in Florence this March 8th, then you’re in for quite the day. And no demanding necessary, as the city will be served to you on a silver platter, free of charge (click here for a list of free museums and activities). So, where to go and what to do? How about spending this terrific day with a pretty terrific Florentine (well actually Spanish, but we’ll get to that later) lady – Eleonora di Toledo at her private quarters and chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio (open 9 AM to 7 PM).It was this portrait by Bronzino that first drew my attention to this particular donna. I found the comforting caress of her child, sleepy eyelids, porcelain skin, and to-die-for dress (which can be seen in the costume gallery at the Pitti Palace), left me wanting to know more about who this woman was. Over the years of studying art history and living in Florence, her story unfolded, and I came to admire more and more the woman that was Eleonora di Toledo.
Eleonora was raised a Spanish princess and in 1539, at the age of 17, wed Duke Cosimo de Medici (pictured below, spitting image of Justin Timberlake, right?), in what both Florence and Spain hoped would be the perfect political match.
Twenty-three years, eleven children, and perhaps most impressively, zero mistresses later, Cosimo and Eleonora proved that their marriage was more than political. It was love – an emotion hard to come by in the politics of Renaissance Italy.
Eleonora wasn’t just a baby-making trophy wife. Oh no. This Spanish broad quickly proved to the skeptical Florentines that if they wanted change in the city, they first had to get through her. Frequently considered the first First Lady, Eleonora had a very active hand in the politics of Florence. She was a patron of the arts, encouraged agriculture, took up the interests of the poor, brought the Jesuit Order to Florence encouraging intellectual growth, and supported her husband without waiver. How much influence she had over Cosimo’s decisions is up for debate, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find her personal touch in his policies. I mean would you really want to butt heads with a Spanish woman? As a testament to her political capability, Cosimo made Eleonora regent to rule in his absence.
And perhaps what I love most about Eleonora – she loved to gamble, wasn’t afraid to laugh at dirty jokes, and had a serious knack for style.
With your new found inspiration in the sassy Spaniard, let’s go see one of the most beautiful works of art in all of Florence, where Eleonora did her best thinking. And for you ladies, of course Florence is keepin’ it free! Head to the Palazzo Vecchio, use those feminine wiles and pass the ticket line. Once inside, follow the signs to Eleonora’s chapel. Before entering the chapel you will be channeled into her private quarters. The nearly bare green walls, with the exception of a beautiful Botticelli, are a stark contrast to the brilliantly Bronzinoed chapel beyond the classical doorway.
The chapel decoration is all fresco with the exception of the large oil painting of the Lamentation which serves as the centerpiece. Around the scenes swirl angels, saints, prophets, virtues, and of course the brilliant colors and pretty faces that are so perfectly Bronzino. For a full explanation of the scenes and saints hand picked by Eleonora for her personal inspiration, prayer and meditation click here.
In the middle of the room stands a small kneeler so the visitor can imagine the pious and thoughtful Eleonora taking a moment for herself to refocus and refuel from her eleven bambini, thousands of Florentines petitioning her for the attention of her husband and perhaps most challenging of all, a mother-in-law who put all others to shame.
Eleonora died of malaria at only 40. Upon her death Cosimo retreated into a depression for the last decade of his life. So deep, that he handed over rule to his most emo and broody son (big mistake), Francesco.
Eleonora di Toledo, while not Florentine herself, left a lasting legacy in the city. Not only did she prove herself as a supportive wife and loving mother under the pressures of public life, but did not allow for her voice to go unheard in the politics of the city.
And again, she loved to gamble!
So today as you enjoy everything terrific about being a lady, especially free flowers and museum entry, don’t forget to pay your respect to the women who got us to the point where being a woman is really terrific. And if you’re in Florence, that woman is Eleonora di Toledo. Now go blare some Beyonce, demand some free things, and get it girl!