Effimate Gian Gastone de' Medici (1671-1737) had always been somewhat melancholy, but when he was pressed to beget an heir with a plump and masculine wife he detested, he became severely depressed. Soon, he let a life filled with alcohol, gambling, witticisms and orgies. After spraining his anckle, his smelly bed became the center of his existence..

Gian Gastone's parents are an interesting example of marital incompatibility. His fater, Grand Duke Cosimo III de' Medici of Tuscany (1642-1723), was an austere and gloomy man. Like some of his Della Rovere ancestors, Cosimo had an inclination towards melancholy. Contemporaries claimed that he never laughed. In contrast, Cosimo's wife, Marguérite Louise of France (1645-1721, to the right), was beautiful, fun-loving, extremely lively, witty and refined, but also stubborn and selfish.
Before their marriage, 16-year-old Marguérite Louise had fallen in love with her cousin Charles of Lorraine (1643-1690) and possibly took him as her lover1. Cosimo III, however, was averse to physical contact and feared that "sexual activity would undermine his health". Sophia of Hanover reported: "He sleeps with his wife but once a week, and then under supervision of a doctor." Marguérite Louise repeatedly refused to share her bed with her grave husband for months. Around 1665, she was temporarily exiled from court. During her pregnancies, she unsuccessfully tried to induce a miscarriage; while she was pregnant of her third child, Gian Gastone, Marguérite Louise even tried to starve herself. Still, the child was born on May 24, 1671, and named after its maternal grandfather, Gaston d'Orléans. The next year the Princess unsuccessfully tried to convince everybody that she was about to die. Four years after Gian Gastone's birth, his mother left for France, never to return. There she lived on a pension supplied by her husband. Regularly, Marguérite Louise would write him for more money, adding phrases like: "There is not an hour or a day when I do not wish someone would hang you."

As a child, Gian Gastone was neglected by both his parents, while his elder siblings ignored him, too. He grew up as a studious and solitary youth. For months, he could be dreary and listless, alternated by short periods of cheerfulness and ironic witticisms. Contemporaries noted that he often seemed taciturn and sad, weeping alone in his chamber. Some wondered whether he was wholly sane, but Gian Gastone was actually quite smart. He received the same education as his elder brother, Ferdinando (1663-1713), and appeared to be good at languages and literature in particular. He was also interested in botany and experimented with rare spacies of herbs. A small buidling in the Boboli Gardens was built for his retreat. His pleasure-loving uncle, Francesco Maria (1660-1711), frequently invited Gian Gastone to Lappeggi, hoping to distract him from his introspective hypochondria.

In 1686 a marriage proposal between Gain Gastone and Isabel of Portugal (1669-1690) came to nothing, because Cosimo III would not give his son a sufficient allowance. Two years later, his brother Ferdinando was married by proxy to little Violante of Bavaria (1673-1731), and Gian Gastone travelled to Bologna to meet her. Ferdinando didn't like his bride, but in time Violante and Gian Gastone became friends. His sister Anna Maria Luisa (1667-1743) was married by proxy to the widowed Elector Palatine in 1691. She left for Dusseldorf on May 6, accompanied by Gian Gastone.
It was his sister who finally proposed a bride for Gian Gastone: Anna Maria Franziska of Saxe-Lauenburg (1672-1741, to the right), a wealthy widow2 with a daughter. She is described as "appalling and immensely fat"  with "ungainly massive limbs". Her main interests were hunting and horses and she was easily moved to paroxysms of rage and tears. The Princess had no particular wish to remarry and had no intention of leaving her Bohemian estates. The homosexual Gian Gastone meekly obeyed his fathers wishes and they were married on July 2, 1697. Soon his reaction to married life was one of horror. He took an immediate dislike to Bohemia, to the smell of horses and to possible intercourse with his wife. Like his mother had found his father unbearable, Gian Gastone found his wife unbearable and complained about her "capriciousness, peevish faces and sharp words". Anna Maria Franzinska probably looked upon Gian Gastone as an effeminate weakling. She ordered him about and claimed that he was impotent. Nevertheless, she tried to loose some weight to improve the chance of conception.

For comfort, Gian Gastone turned not only to liquor and gambling, but also to his lackey, Guiliano Dami, a man of humble birth. He would exert great influence over Gian Gastone for the remainder of his life. After ten months of marriage, Gian Gastone could bear his wife no longer and hired a residence in Prague. He travelled to France to see his mother, who received him coldly, and visited his sister3. Back in Prague, Guiliano Dami introduced him to pretty young students, lackeys and footmen. Gian Gastone wandered the streets at night and visited taverns, drinking fiery liquor and rossolis. Through such frivolities, he could temporarily put out of his mind his repellent wife and his austere father. Alcoholism, gambling and sex were doubtful cures for his depression. From time to time Gian Gastone returned to his wife, pressed by his father to beget an heir. His wife busied herself rebuilding Ploskovice Castle, adding artificial grottos with baroque fountains.
By 1704, Gian Gastone seemed utterly depressed, inert and withdrawn, spending most of his time simply gazing out of the window. He would not even sign his letters, already written by his secretary, because of a peculiar dislike of his writing-table. After visiting Vienna and Innsbruck, in 1705 Gian Gastone was finally back in Florence. He returned to Reichstadt in 1707 to induce his wife to come with him to Florence, but, despite a letter from the Pope to recall her to her duties as a wife, she refused to leave. The next year, Gian Gastone returned to Italy alone. There no longer seemed any possibility of a Medici heir being born to him.

In 1709, 48-year-old Francesco Maria, brother of Cosimo III, was pressed to resign his religious offices and marry 23-year-old Eleanor Gonzaga (1686-1742) to beget heirs. The bridegroom consisted of rolls of flesh and had a puffy face with a blotched and pock-marked skin. He suffered from gout and "a variety of questionable diseases". When the bride refused to submit to his embraces, priests were called in to persuade her and she told them of her "dread of contracting shameful diseases". Finally, she submitted to the consummation, but nothing came of it. Within two years of matrimony, Francesco Maria expired of dropsy. The health of Gian Gastone's popular elder brother, Ferdinando, had been declining, too. He suffered from epilepsy and dementia before he died lame and insane as a result of syphilis in 1713.

Even in Florence, Gian Gastone was seldom seen in public during the daylight hours. After dinner he was usually intoxicated. He often fell from his horse, when he was drunk. Whole nights he spent alone gazing at the moon. Occasionally, he did things that made people believe him to be mad. One day, for example, he bought the entire stock of a peasant selling brooms and ordered them to be delivered to the municipal offices "for future use". The eccentric, but witty Gian Gastone probably thought that it would be a good thing to clean-up the corrupt city administration.

As the years went by, Grand Duke Cosimo III (to the right) became even more narrow-minded; all naked statues were removed from the streets and galleries - even Michelangelo's David - on the ground that they were "an incitement to fornication". His egocentric ex-wife died in 1721, leaving all her property to a distant relative instead of to her children. When the gloomy Cosimo III died two years later, Gian Gastone succeeded him as Grand Duke of Tuscany. He had little interest in governmental matters, but he chose his ministers well and soon Florence flourished again.
The new Grand Duke's levee was at noon, when those who had business with him were summoned to his bedchamber. He lunched in bed around five o'clock in the evening, and supped in it at two in the morning. He always ate alone, and generally in bed. In summer he lived on the ground-floor. Every winter, he was carried in a sedan-chair to an apartment above.
As a result of his curious and unusual lifestyle, Gian Gastone was a prematurely aged, fat drunkard, who looked at the world through a more or less permanent haze of intoxication. Once, he went to a reception given by his brother's widow, Violante, and became so drunk that he uttered all kinds of obscenities and was pushed vomiting into his coach, wiping his mouth with his wig. In contrast to his father's religious fanatism, Gian Gastone's contempt for the Church became notorious.

Guiliano Dami was well bribed by anyone who wished to approach the royal recluse. He also acted as a pimp for Gian Gastone's orgies, seeking out young men and boys. They were called the 'ruspanti', because they were paid a fee from one to five ruspi for their services. In the last years of his life, Gian Gastone had around 370 ruspanti, some well born, some women. To endure the dubious embraces of their master they had to be pretty, young, strongly sexed, sufficiently immune to good taste and blessed with a limited sense of smell. It was Gian Gastone's habit to invite the chosen youth to his bed-chamber, examine his teeth, provide him with drink and examine and touch his private parts to see if they were well shaped and likely to blossom rapidly. Then the boy was initiated. If he did not seem to penetrate sufficiently, Gian Gastone used to shout: "Press in, boy, press in." Thereafter he would call him 'you', and finally descend to the familiarity of 'thou', while hugging and kissing him. Somethimes he would order his ruspanti to adopt pompous attitudes and call them by the well-known names of grave counsellors and revered matrons. Then he would exclaim to one of them: "Well, my Lord Marquess, how does the Marchioness yonder appeal to you? You admire her, do you not? To business! Tumble her!" The addressed youths merrily yielded to his wishes and Gian Gastone, between roars of laughter, liked to encourage them loudly with the cries of a huntsman.

Gian Gastone's last appearance in public was in 1729 at the festival of St John the Baptist. He had drunk heavily to fortify himself for the occasion. As he was driven in gala through the streets of Florence, he turned now and again to vomit out of the chariot window. On arrival, he was helped on to the terrace, where he kept raising his voice, hic-cupping deplorable remarks. Then he fell into a dozing torpor and his servants carried him back to the Pitti Palace.
In 1730, Gian Gastone (to the right) sprained his ankle and remained in his bed. From then on he left it only on some very rare occasions. It became the centre of his existence. The dogs slept with him in bed and it stank of tobacco, drink, vomit and excrement. From time to time his brother's widow organised the cleaning of his bed until she died in 1731. A few times Gian Gastone let himself be seen from a balcony. In the evening of July 5, 1735, he was transferred to the villa of Poggio Imperiale in a litter by way of the Boboli Gardens, wearing a dressing-gown and a straw hat. When people approached him with torches, he began to shout: "Away with lights!".
In his later years, Gian Gastone became nearly blind and could hardly walk anymore. He let his fingernails, toenails and beard grow. Gradually he became senile. In June 1737, he became seriously ill, suffering from a large stone in the bladder. His sister, who had returned to Florence as a widow, organised to have him moved to a cleaner bed. When little strength was left in him, a priest was summoned and Gian Gastone told him: "You see, we all must die." He died around July 94.

Copyright © 1997-2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


  1 The couple went out riding daily and passed blissful hours together undisturbed. After her wedding Marguérite Louise still send Charles of Lorraine passionate letters, and he replied with amusing and affectionate verses.
  2 Anna Maria Franziska's first husband, the Count Palatine Philip of Neuburg (1668-1693), had drunk himself to death. He was a younger brother of Anna Maria Luisa's husband, John William (1658-1716). Their sister Maria Ana (1667-1740) had married Mad King Carlos II of Spain (1661-1700).
  3 Anna Maria Luisa was taking the waters, because her husband had infected her with syphilis.
  4 Gian Gastone was the last Grand Duke in the De' Medici family. His sister donated the family's art collection to the city of Florence, but referred in her testament to Pier Pablo de' Medici, who belonged to a distant branche of the family. Giuseppe de' Medici, Prince of Ottajano, was also still alive.


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