The Medici Songbird (extract)

Paduan Oil Lamp (copyright: Sotheby’s)

October 1587, Firenze

The Book of Marriages and Deaths lies open under the glow of the lamp.  Monsignor Bernardo Baldovinetti picks up his quill, then hesitates.  How best to capture the facts of the matter? Fixing on a simple form of words, he dips into the ink and begins his entry.

On the 19th of October 1587, between the hours of four and five at night, His Most Serene  Highness Francesco Grand Duke of Tuscany died; and on the 20th of same month and year Her Most Serene Highness, the Grand Duchess Bianca his wife also died.

Died…Is that the best he can do?  As a man of integrity he must stick to the facts.  There is no evidence of foul play.  As a man of conscience, however, he – like all who know the family – wonders if these are natural deaths.   Why else would Cardinal Ferdinando, the last family member to see the Grand Duke, insist on an immediate autopsy?  The unseemly haste hints at an effort to conceal, rather than to reveal, the truth of his brother’s death.

The Monsignor dips his quill once more and continues, determined to leave a thread for those with a mind to follow it.

She died on Tuesday at 15 hours.  There was an interval between one and the other of about 12 hours.  

Then, in acknowledgement of his responsibility for their eternal souls, he adds a final blessing.

May God give them rest.


On the other side of town, across the wet streets of Firenze, a favoured musician of the Grand Duke is sitting at his walnut desk.  Giulio Caccini puts down the sheet of paper he has been working on and squeezes his eyes shut.  The chaotic distribution of dimly lit characters across the page is making his mind whirl.  He has never had a fondness for numbers and attempting finance with an already troubled mind is a recipe for a headache.

The door of his study opens gently and Lucia sticks her head in.  Seeing he has no quill nor paper in his hand, she steps in, pushing the door closed behind her.  Giulio leans back in his chair, glad of the interruption.  For once he is in the humour to share his burdens with his wife.

‘That is not music,’ she says simply as she spins the sheet of paper in front of him around in order to see what he has been working on.

‘No,’ he nods.  ‘I’m thinking that if I sell the farm and land in Fiesole it will be enough to start a dowry for Francesca.’

Lucia leans over the desk to kiss his head.  

‘Not the farm, Giulio – is that really necessary?’

He has always spoken of his farm as a sanctuary for the future, a place in the country they will retire to when they are too old for life at Court.

‘It has to be done,’ he says.  ‘If I bargain well, I should to raise a thousand scudi. Six hundred can be deposited in the Monte de Pietà bank for her and I will have the balance to invest again.  Bulbs, perhaps – bulbs are trading well this year.’

Six hundred scudi – how the cost of dowries keeps rising!  That is more than three years of his Court salary. 

‘You’re a good father,’ Lucia says, more as encouragement than as a statement of fact.  Francesca is not two months old and Giulio has yet to prove himself.

But Giulio’s mind has moved on to matters more immediately troubling than the loss of his retirement home and the cost of his daughter’s dowry.

‘Things may be different for us now, Lucia,’ he says,  with a tap of his fingers on the polished desk, ‘now that the Grand Duke is gone.’

He has no need to explain further.  Like all those employed by the Court, Lucia and Giulio have reason to hope their patrons remain alive.  Cabinet makers, engineers, sculptors, painters, stuccoists and, of course, musicians all depend on the continued good health and vitality of the Grand Duke for their livelihoods.  

For now, though, Lucia says nothing, unwilling to spend valuable sleeping time in conjecture.  Finding her feet as a new mother is taking every ounce of energy she has and she is not in a place to speculate about how the change may affect her little family.  

Giulio, on the other hand, is keen to tease the subject apart.

‘If Cardinal Ferdinando returns from Rome, he continues, ‘which, doubtless, he will…How could he not?  There is no-one else.  And he has never made a secret of the fact that he dislikes how his brother has been governing…Nor any secret of how much he despised the second Grand Duchess…

For a moment, Giulio loses his train of thought, distracted by another.

‘Do you really think he killed them, Lucia?’

His wife yawns, and shrugs.  The rumour that the Cardinal is behind the deaths of both his brother and wife has reached the ears of all in Firenze by now.  For Giulio, whose career was fostered by Francesco de Medici, it is indeed most unwelcome news. 

 ‘If Cardinal Ferdinando returns,’ he resumes, ‘he may not look too kindly on those of us who were in favour with his brother.  He will want fresh musicians, new singers.  What will happen to us?’

‘The Grand Duke Francesco recognised your talents,’ Lucia replies.  ‘Perhaps his brother will too.’

She lifts the candle from the desk and leans across her husband to light a hanging oil lamp.  Its flame flickers faintly then springs to life, illuminating the contorted acrobat figurine which is the lamp.  Its upside down eyes glint from between its legs, the flame now glowing warmly from its bottom.  She frowns.  She has never liked the lamp, a gift from a friend of Giulio’s.  It disturbs her to see it, the oil reservoir nestled beneath the bronze acrobat’s testicles, daring her to light the wick.  Yet here she is, lighting its grotesque form.

‘Are you not coming to bed?’  she asks, irritation in her voice.  ‘We should not be wasting oil.’  

Giulio shrugs.  If she chooses to waste oil by lighting the lamp, that is her concern.  He had been content with the candle.  

‘Please yourself,’ she snaps.  ‘The bed is warmed and Francesca is sleeping.’

As the door closes behind her, he reaches up and nudges the small lamp, its swinging motion casting an alternating shadow across the desk. He grins, taking a perverse satisfaction from his wife’s irritation.  What do women know of these things?  There is trouble enough in the world and a man must also have his trinkets – even if they come in the form of a naked bearded figurine of an oil lamp from Padua. 

(Manuscript at first draft stage, March 2021; copyright Freya Watson)

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Freya Watson

Author, lover, mother, adventurer, shaman, therapist, business consultant and healer - I wear lots of different hats!

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