Claire Litt //

In early modern Italy, there was enormous pressure on noblewomen to produce healthy male children. The security of ruling families’ lines of succession (and the political stability of the city-states they ruled) were often precariously dependant on the reproductive health of only one or two women who married into each family. For this reason, the pregnancies of noblewomen who married into particularly prominent families were followed with keen political interest. When the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Christine of Lorraine, became pregnant for the first time in 1589, it was the subject of gossip and political speculation across Europe. Had her pregnancy failed, it would have hinted at infertility and cast doubts over the future of the Medici family in Florence. A daughter would have indicated that there was potential for a Medici heir, and a son—as she eventually had, in Cosimo II—secured Medici rule for another generation.

The weighty political consequences of Christine’s pregnancy caused members of the court to observe her closely. They reported on the daily changes to her health during the autumn of 1589. The Medici’s Secretary of State, Piero Usimbardi, wrote to a Medici diplomat in Naples, Giulio Battaglini, that the Grand Duchess had not been feeling well, but “[…] if likewise for two days there is not another thing as [has] come above, then it [the pregnancy] is safe […]” [1]. The King of Spain, Philip II, was particularly anxious for news of Christine’s pregnancy—or, perhaps, the stability of the Medici dynasty. Philip II also happened to be the King of Sicily and Naples. His incessant curiosity about the Grand Duchess compelled the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’Medici, to call out the Spanish King in a letter to his Spanish ambassador. Ferdinando I wrote, with a hint of sarcasm at the King’s deep concern for the Grand Duchess, “[…] And because Your Majesty [Philip II] always keeps asking about the Grand Duchess [Christine of Lorraine], it can be said that she carries her pregnancy happily […]” [2]. The tone Ferdinando I and his ambassadors’ took in their correspondence grew in confidence over the duration of Christine’s pregnancy. Under the watchful eyes of the court, Christine’s changing body was the visual reassurance of political continuity.

Christine was pregnant for the majority of the decade between 1590-1600, ultimately giving birth to four girls and five boys. While the pressure on Christine to secure the Medici dynasty exponentially decreased with every male child to whom she gave birth, her daughter Caterina de’Medici’s married life provided a foil that put the two women’s experiences in contrast. Caterina married the Duke of Mantua Ferdinando I Gonzaga in 1617. Like her mother, she was watched carefully by Mantuan courtiers. In one instance in 1617, Caterina’s lady-in-waiting wrote to Christine to say that she thought her mistress was pregnant [3]. Another letter from 1618, sent between high-ranking Florentine courtiers, reported rumours of doubts within the Gonzaga court over the veracity of Caterina’s pregnancy [4]. On two occasions, Caterina’s pregnancies ended in miscarriages [5].

The pressure on Caterina to produce an heir was intensified by the scandalous marriage of her husband’s only brother and successor, Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1594 – 1627). Vincenzo married his distant cousin, Isabella Gonzaga di Novellara (1576 – 1630), a woman eighteen years his senior and past her child-bearing years. As Mantuan courtiers came to the realization that the extinction of the Gonzaga family was within the realm of possibility, they watched diligently for signs that Caterina might be pregnant. Her unchanging body invoked fears of great political change to come.

Caterina’s foresight of the disastrous political consequences her childlessness could lead to led her to engage in what can only be described as a fantastical last-ditch attempt to save Mantua from a succession crisis. In the early 1620s, she and her mother exerted their political influence to have Pope Gregory XV investigate Caterina’s sister-in-law Isabella for witchcraft [6]. If Vincenzo II’s marriage to Isabella was annulled, it would allow him to remarry and produce a Gonzaga heir. To Caterina’s disappointment (and Isabella’s relief) the investigation by Roman officials resulted in the verdict that Isabella was a perfectly ordinary woman. In the wake of Ferdinand I’s death in 1626, and Vincenzo I’s death the following year, Mantua was thrown into political turmoil. The War of the Mantuan Succession (1628-1631) was a three-year long political disaster that eventually placed Mantua under the control of the Gonzaga’s French cousins.

Despite the political ramifications that women’s infertility could have for noble families, physicians in the early modern world were reluctant to research women’s reproductive health. Women’s generative capacities were frequently described as ‘mysterious’ in medical literature, and the lack of knowledge about pregnancy made it an inherently dangerous condition [7]. Yet, for these noblewomen, pregnancy was primarily a political matterone concerned with the health of the body politic, and not themselves.

Note: This article is the first of a series on pregnancy and women’s reproductive health in early modern Italy.


[1] “[…] Va felicemente la speranza della gravideza et se per due giorni anco non sopraviene altro, è sicuro et tocca il terzo mese. […]” in BIA: MAP, Doc ID# 15524 (ASF, MdP 5042 , not numbered folio , not numbered transcribe folio). October 5 1589.

[2] ““[…] Et poichè Sua Maestà [Philip II] tien’ domandato sempre della Granduchessa [Christine de Lorraine], potrete dirle che va portando felicemente la sua gravidez […]” BIA: MAP, Doc ID# 15503 (ASF, MdP 5042, not numbered folio , not numbered transcribe folio).

[3] Laura Guerrieri-Gonzaga di Novellara to Christine of Lorraine on June 16, 1617. BIA: ASF MdP Doc ID:4334 Vol 2949 Fol Not Numbered.

[4] Alessandro Senesi to Andrea Cioli on September 8 1618. BIA: ASF MdP Doc ID 5535 Vol 2951 Folio Not Numbered.

[5] For letters referring to Caterina de’Medici’s miscarriages, see: Christine, Beatrice Biagioli, Elisabetta Stumpo, and Caterina. 2015. Lettere alla figlia Caterina de’ Medici Gonzaga duchessa di Mantova (1617-1629), 32.

[6] Ibid, 38.  See also: “[…] La s.ra Duchessa [Caterina de’ Medici-Gonzaga] […] sta con molta curiosità qua di sentire come passi a Roma il negotio della solutione del matrimonio con d. Isabella […]”  BIA: ASF MdP Vol 2954 Folio: not numbered. December 30 1626.

[7] For an in-depth discussion on this, see: Katharine Park. Secrets of Women: gender, generation, and the origins of human dissection. New York: Zone Books: 2010, and Monica Green, “Slander and the Secrets of Women” in Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology, pp. 204-245. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2008.


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