Thursday, December 20, 2012

Eleanor of Toledo, Duchess of Florence

It is probably a debatable point, but Eleanor of Toledo, Duchess consort of Florence, is usually pointed to as woman who set the standard for “First Ladies” all the way up to the present day. Eleanor was born in 1522 in Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, the second daughter of Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, Marquis of Villafranca who was the Viceroy of Naples on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V aka King Carlos I of Spain. At the age of seventeen she was married to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence who, in 1569, would become the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was an arranged marriage with Eleanor’s father expecting his daughter to gain some of the Medici wealth (which was more apparent than real) and the Medici hoping to gain some status and security by marrying someone highly placed in the Spanish aristocracy and related to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor. With Spain dominating Florence and much of the surrounding area in Italy at that time, being on good terms with the House of Hapsburg was a necessity. Part of the agreement for the marriage was that it would be a show of loyalty to the Hapsburg Emperor sufficient enough to allow for the removal of the Spanish garrison.

However, arranged or not, the marriage was certainly a success as far as what was most required of royal couples; ensuring the survival of the Medici family by producing heirs. There was certainly no problem in securing the succession and Duchess Eleanor gave her husband eleven children between 1540 and 1554, two of whom would succeed their father as Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the future. Given the less than ideal birth status of the previous leaders of the House of Medici, Duke Cosimo was intent to present a new public image of respectability, stability and traditional values. His own large family would be the centerpiece of this new look and Duchess Eleanor was the most important part of it. As far as her public image went, there could not have been a better choice. Not only was Eleanor quite the fertile myrtle, she also had a lovely but reserved appearance which gave the impression of strength and stability to those who saw her. She was also quite religious and a patron of the Society of Jesus, still relatively new at that time. At first the people were inclined to dislike her because of her Spanish origins, and given what so many Italians had been through, that is hardly surprising, but her patronage of the Church, the arts and charitable causes soon won everyone over.

Duchess Eleanor was as conscious as anyone of putting her best face forward and took great care about her appearance, which included sitting for portraits as the prim and proper consort (and later mother of an heir to the throne) as well as wearing lavish gowns. This cannot be dismissed as mere vanity. It was an effort to inspire confidence among the people and visiting dignitaries as to the wealth, stability and power of the Medici monarchy. Nor was it merely an act. Duchess Eleanor was a serious and intelligent lady who ruled Tuscany as regent on behalf of her husband when he was absent. She was also sincerely pious and her devotion to the Church inspired her many acts of charity as well as her donations that allowed for building a number of new churches and her encouragement in bringing the Jesuits into Florence. There was more to her than her public face though and in private she was known for her great (if sometimes low-brow) sense of humor, great personal determination and love for games of chance. And, of course, she was always the perfect hostess, gracious, charming as well as being a close unofficial advisor to her husband in his rule of the duchy and later grand duchy.

Only relatively recently have researchers discovered what a tremendously tough woman Duchess Eleanor was. Studies done on her remains have shown that she suffered from a severe calcium deficiency that must have caused her immense pain. From the results we can surmise that her teeth must have given her a great deal of trouble and that her bones would have caused her incredible agony (she may have even shrank quite a bit over her life). Given all that she was going through, in addition to giving birth to eleven children and still always remaining the ideal consort, public figure, national hostess and even running the government when necessary, Duchess Eleanor emerges as an extremely remarkable woman. Sadly, her life was cut all too short when, at the age of only 40, she died on December 17, 1562 in Pisa during a malaria epidemic that also took the lives of two of her sons.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Strange Case of the Luigi Torelli

In the Italian submarine fleet, or most any naval force in the world, few ships had such an odd and colorful career as the Torelli, a Marconi class submarine (pennant number TI) launched on January 6, 1940. It was an extremely successful submarine, sinking seven enemy vessels for a total of 43,000 tons during her short career as a raider. The Torelli made one patrol in the Mediterranean and then slipped past the British at Gibraltar on September 8, 1940 to join the Italian submarine forces in the Atlantic operating out of Bordeaux, France. On her first patrol in the Atlantic, the Torelli sent four enemy ships to the bottom. The sub had no such luck on her second patrol but did add another ship to her score card on her third patrol. In December of 1941 the Torelli along with three Calvi class submarines aided in the rescue of 254 sailors from the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis. During "Operation Neuland" the intrepid Italian sub sent two more enemy ships to the bottom but her closest call was to come from the air rather than the sea.

Because of their large size, most Italian submarines tended to be slower to submerge compared to some others and this made them particularly vulnerable to air attack. However, as a result, Italian submariners became very skilled anti-aircraft gunners. While most other subs would crash dive on spotting an enemy plane, since they most likely could not get underwater fast enough, Italian subs would stay on top and shoot it out with enemy aircraft. In the eastern Atlantic, while returning from hunting around the Bahamas the Torelli was attacked by a British flying-boat on June 5, 1942 and suffered heavy damage. Because of this, the submarine was unable to dive and had to try to make it back to Bordeaux only on the surface. Only two days later the Torelli was spotted by the British and quickly attacked by two Sunderlands. However, the Italian anti-aircraft fire was so fierce that their bombing runs were ruined, though they did manage to spray the sub with gunfire that killed Sergeant Flavio Pallucchini and wounding Captain Antonio de Giacomo and another officer. Still, one of the planes was hit and both were finally forced to retreat and the Torelli returned to port for repairs.

Once at sea again, the Torelli was on patrol off the coast of Brazil when she was attacked by three Catalina American torpedo planes and, because of a valve malfunction, was unable to submerge and again had to shoot it out on the surface. The Italian gunners shot down one of the Catalinas and forced the other two to retreat but took several casualties and suffered a lot of damage. The radio-man was killed, the chief engineer, an assistant engineer and the captain were all wounded and the captain was forced to turn command over to his first lieutenant. Still, they made it back in one piece but because of the extensive damage suffered, the days of the Torelli as a commerce raider were over. Her offensive weapons were removed and she was converted to a long-range transport with her torpedo tubes being converted into extra fuel tanks. On June 14, 1943 she left Bordeaux loaded with supplies as well as a German engineer, two civilian mechanics and Japanese Colonel Kinze Sateke, a telecommunications specialist who has just undergone training in Germany. These passengers were to be delivered to Singapore to help in modernizing the Japanese war effort.

The Allied code-breakers found out about this special voyage and had aircraft searching from Gibraltar to the Cape but they failed to locate the Torelli which made the passage through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans without incident to Japanese-held Singapore. However, by the time they arrived the King had dismissed Mussolini and taken Italy out of the war. After that time the Germans grabbed all Italian personnel and equipment they could get their hands on and that included the Torelli which was drafted into the German navy, as part of their Far East submarine flotilla (the 12th and later 33rd U-Boat Flotilla) and the crew were thrown into a POW camp. However, once Mussolini established his puppet regime in Salo the Italian crew were given the choice of joining the Italo-German navy of the Italian Social Republic. They decided to join Mussolini's navy, unfortunate, but not surprising given that their only other option was prison camp. So, the Torelli was joined by more Germans and renamed the UIT-25. However, the strange career of the Torelli did not end there. When the Salo Republic collapsed and Germany surrendered the sub was taken over by the Japanese and continued on as I-504 of the Imperial Japanese Navy, serving in the Pacific until the Japanese surrender with a German-Italian-Japanese crew. Communications onboard must have been rather complicated! They ended up scoring the last Axis victory of World War II when they were attacked by American bombers when the Italians on the 13.2mm Breda shot down one of the American planes in Kobe, Japan. After the Japanese surrender the submarine was scuttled by the U.S. Navy, ending a long and colorful career.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Our Prayers for Japan

A magnitude 7.4 earthquake has struck off the coast of Japan, 303 miles northeast of Tokyo and a tsunami warning has been issued. Details are still scarce at this point but hopefully it will not be as bad as the last such disaster, which Japan has still not recovered from. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people at this difficult time.
God bless Japan.
Long live the Emperor.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Remembering Queen Elena

It was on this day in 1952 that HM Elena of Montenegro, Queen of Italy, consort of HM King Vittorio Emmanuele III was taken to her eternal reward in Montpellier, France. Her cause for canonization is currently being considered. May she pray for us and rest always in the sight of God.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Emperor Claudius

Amongst all the emperors of Rome, Claudius has a very unique story; the malformed fool who became the ruler of the world, so it is no wonder that he has been the subject of a great deal of literature and even his own television series (which is quite good despite being littered with historical inaccuracies). Claudius was only the fourth Roman emperor and the first to be born outside of Italy. He was born Tiberius Claudius Drusus on August 1, 10 BC in Lugdunum or what is now Lyons, France. His father was Drusus, the son of Livia Drusilla by her first husband, with whom she was already pregnant when she married the Emperor Augustus. Likewise, on his maternal side, he had illustrious ancestry as well, his mother Antonia being the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Caesar Augustus. Yet, despite this lofty lineage, Claudius was a disappointment from the very beginning -even his mother was not terribly fond of him. When he was simply sitting still one might not notice anything wrong with him but when he moved it became very noticeable that something was not quite right and his disabilities would mark him as the object of shame and ridicule for most of his life.

What exactly was wrong with Claudius? We have descriptions but can only speculate as to the underlying cause. In fact, given what a competent emperor he eventually became, some have suggested there was never much wrong with him at all and that he was simply very adept at ‘playing the fool’ in order to survive. That is a tempting idea but it is beyond the realm of probability that he could have kept up such an act for so long from the very beginning of his life. Claudius was a mess to look at. He walked not so much with a limp (as often described) but an overall uneven balance, jerking his limbs and lurching back and forth. He had a very pronounced speech impediment, tended to drool at times, always seemed to have a runny nose and, according to some, was also hard of hearing and prone to twitch. All of this tended to put people off as did his habit of telling odd jokes that no one but him seemed to understand or find amusing. Still, the image some have of Claudius as the locked away, shy, disabled innocent is totally incorrect. The family were embarrassed by him and did not like to appear in public with him, but Claudius was no introvert. As he got older he enjoyed drinking, gambling and womanizing as much as any other privileged Roman youth.

It is also true that if Claudius was less than perfect physically, there was certainly nothing wrong with him mentally (though one of the popular explanations for his symptoms is cerebral palsy). He was a very intelligent man, was very well read and (in another aspect that makes me partial to him) was a historian, writing histories of the Etruscans who preceded the Romans; as well as the greatest enemy the Roman Republic ever faced: the Carthaginians. He was also no less ambitious than the other members of his family but he was intelligent enough to know that power was not to be taken lightly and he appreciated the dangers that went along with it and even the pursuit of it. Some have attributed this to his witnessing of the rest of his family killing each other off in palace intrigues until Claudius was the only one left. However, this is easy to exaggerate and usually goes back to the story that the Empress Livia (aka Julia Augusta, Claudius’ grandmother) was a murderess who had half the imperial family poisoned. An entertaining story, but one with no facts to back it up. As far as we can tell most of those who died in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius were simply the victims of time and chance and nothing more.

All that being said, it certainly helped Claudius remain unscathed that most viewed him as a simple-minded fool who was no threat to anyone. Rather than a possible contender for the purple, he more often seemed to be viewed as a victim for ridicule and jokes. He had kept fairly distant from actual politics until being named consul by his nephew Gaius, aka the Emperor Caligula. He was more than up to the job but we may never know if he was appointed consul because of his intellect or as some sort of joke along the lines of Caligula famously appointing his horse to high office. Whatever the case, it was fortunate for all that Claudius survived to become Emperor of Rome and that his boat was not swamped in the tidal wave that brought down his nephew.

As most know, I am a big fan of Imperial Rome and an ardent defender of the original Julio-Claudian dynasty. For some, they have a bad reputation even to this day, but the facts rarely match the gossip that has become accepted “fact”. Augustus Caesar was a colossus and truly one of THE great men of history. Emperor Tiberius, while he did get a little nasty at the end, was a great soldier, a dutiful man and a capable ruler. Even Emperor Nero was not without his good points and while he, on the whole, deserves most of his bad reputation, a great deal has been exaggerated. Emperor Claudius we are just coming to, but then there is Caligula. With him there really is not much to say, the man was a horror. One day I may go into his story but for right now, suffice it to say that the end of the reign of Caligula was an extremely low point for the imperial monarchy. Not only was the Emperor murdered, his wife was murdered, his little daughter was murdered, his statues were smashed and his name was blotted out of the record books. His nearly four years in power were a nightmare that most wanted to forget. Claudius was by then 50-years old and was, supposedly, found hiding behind a curtain after this bloodbath and expected to be killed just like his nephew. However, a member of the Praetorian Guard found him and they hailed Claudius as Emperor of Rome.

The downfall of Caligula had been seized upon by the senate as an opportunity to take back power and restore the republic. They hoped that the urban cohorts would back them but the Praetorian Guard had already declared Claudius the new emperor (again, some suggest as a joke to highlight their own power) and Emperor Claudius solidified their allegiance with a generous bribe. When the urban cohorts defected to Claudius and the monarchist camp it was clear that the senate had been checked and republican rule would not be returning. In this, Claudius has often been portrayed as a hapless pawn but that is certainly not true. He knew what he was doing and worked quickly and cleverly to secure his newfound position. Despite what some romantics may think, a return to the republic would not have been good for anyone. True, there had been plenty of intrigue and bloodshed since the beginning of the reign of the Caesars but this was almost exclusively within the imperial family and household. Under the republic, the same had gone on but on a far wider scale, involving coalitions of senators and generals with their own armies, devastating the Roman world from end to end. For Rome, the empire meant peace and stability.

To reassert imperial authority, Emperor Claudius first had the murderers of his nephew Caligula executed. Caligula had become an insane, perverted, sadistic nightmare on two legs, but he was an emperor and the law had to be upheld. Still, Claudius was astute enough to know that most viewed the assassination of his predecessor as a good thing and only those who had done the actual killing were put to death. To show that things would be different, Emperor Claudius destroyed his nephew’s stockpile of poisons, returned confiscated lands, burned the criminal records, repealed the laws which awarded the emperor the property of anyone convicted of treason and put an end to treason trials altogether. It was a smart as well as benevolent move to make. Because of what happened to his nephew, Emperor Claudius was also downright paranoid when it came to his personal security, but not without reason and when someone did act against him Claudius could be just as harsh as Tiberius had been.

Perhaps the biggest problem Claudius had was his wife, the infamous Messalina. She soon became notorious for both arranging the murder of those who displeased her as well as immense amounts of adultery. As usual, malicious writers were quick to embellish Messalina to epically wicked proportions with stories of her as a murderous nymphomaniac, poisoning or framing for some capital offense those who would not share her bed, of her organizing wild orgies and even working at a brothel under an assumed name. It remains something of a mystery how all of this went on (though the more lurid tales are probably fabrications) without Emperor Claudius taking action. They say the husband is the last to know, but surely someone so paranoid about plots and intrigue would have had some clue. Was he aware but willingly ignorant or was he perhaps so enamored of his beautiful young wife that he refused to believe the evidence in front of him? Whatever the case, Messalina became ever more brazen in her behavior until she finally went too far and actually married one of her lovers while the emperor was away. Claudius thought it a plot to overthrow him but, if it was, it came to nothing. He was rushed to the Praetorian Guard camp and Messalina and her lover were promptly executed, though unlike her accomplice, the empress was not allowed to see her husband for fear that she might melt his resolve and convince him to spare her life.

It was really for the best as she was the greatest piece of “evidence” cited by those who believed that Emperor Claudius was a weak man who was ruled by his wife and his closest officials. This, however, is largely false and was likely “sour grapes” on the part of the traditional governing elite who were upset that Claudius filled high offices with freedmen (emancipated former slaves) who were often extremely intelligent and capable and whom he felt he could trust more than the usual power-hungry elite. It is also untrue that Emperor Claudius was some sort of republican at heart. He had no qualms about continuing the monarchy and, indeed, during his reign, further centralized power at the very top. He did, though, take a great interest in the justice system, often presiding over cases himself, and seeing that the government functioned smoothly. He is often criticized for his love of the games but in this he was no worse than any other average Roman of his time. His odd habits and paranoid behavior kept him from being as popular as he might have been but he gained a huge boost when his armies completed the conquest of Britain, the greatest expansion of Roman power since the imperial era began. He may have cut an odd figure at his triumph afterwards but all Romans took pride in the achievement.

Emperor Claudius also sought to bring the provinces of the Roman Empire outside Italy closer together and he was unusually generous in granting citizenship and appointed non-Romans to the senate (something extremely rare but not unprecedented as Julius Caesar had done the same). Unfortunately, women continued to be a problem for him. After the heartbreak and betrayal he felt over Messalina, Claudius had no desire to marry again but he was finally persuaded to accept his niece Agrippina (the younger sister of Emperor Caligula) as his wife. For Claudius, this proved a big mistake. Gossip soon began to circulate that Agrippina was simply Messalina “part two”. Her schemes, however, were mostly devoted to securing the succession of her son from a previous marriage over that of Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Messalina. She was ultimately successful and her son, by then known as Nero, was given the title “Prince of Youth” and married to Claudius’ daughter Octavia. With that done, Agrippina arranged for Emperor Claudius to be poisoned and he died on the night of October 13/14 54 AD. He was succeeded by his step-son, Emperor Nero, just as Agrippina had planned though she might have regretted her efforts before it was all over.

After his death, Emperor Claudius was deified, the first emperor since Augustus to be so honored (not counting the self-deification of Caligula) and yet, despite being declared a god, one still has the impression that Emperor Claudius was not as appreciated as he should have been. He was a brilliant man, despite his disabilities, and for about thirteen years was a very capable emperor, a learned man and a man who took his duties and responsibilities seriously. He wrote his own autobiography (which has unfortunately been lost) and he took great care to ensure the survival of the Roman Empire and the imperial monarchy at a time of great crisis because he wanted peace and moderation to reign throughout the world. He wrote about caring for sick slaves and, of course, caused controversy by giving power to his freed slaves. His jokes may not have been funny and he may not have cut a fine figure but he was a good man, he kept order in Rome and the provinces, improved the infrastructure, left behind some magnificent buildings, expanded the empire by conquering Britain and the world was better off for his reign.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Italians in Argentina

The Italian connection to Argentina goes back to the very beginning of European awareness of the country. The very first Europeans to see Argentina came in 1502 with the voyage of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who the Americas are named after) and this was followed by the period of Spanish colonization. Some Italians came to Argentina in that period, some as simple settlers and others as Spanish colonial officials; this being the period when the Spanish Royal Family ruled southern Italy. When the first moves toward Argentine independence from Spain began to come about, at the forefront was a prominent Italian-Argentine who is still a celebrated national hero in Argentina today, one General Manuel Belgrano. He was born in Argentina to an Italian father and after being educated in Spain began to work for greater Argentine autonomy within the Spanish empire. Eventually this developed into pushing from complete independence. He supported the May Revolution and served in the first government but was defeated when he led a military expedition into Paraguay but which still led, indirectly to Paraguayan independence later on.

General Belgrano also designed a battle flag which was later adopted as the first national flag, eventually becoming the modern flag of Argentina with some minor changes. The government did not, however, agree to the plan he and some others supported for placing a descendant of the Inca rulers on the throne in a South American constitutional monarchy (Jose de San Martin also endorsed such a plan). General Belgrano remained though an Argentine patriot and died in 1820 still fighting to preserve the independence of his country. He has many monuments in his honor throughout Argentina as well as a monument in Genoa, Italy. In the later years of the nineteenth century Italian immigration to Argentina increased and by the twentieth century many Argentines of Italian descent began to play an increasingly prominent role in national life. One of the most powerful but also most controversial of these was Juan Domingo Peron, President of Argentina on three separate occasions. Like many, he was of mixed ancestry but included in that mix was Italian ancestry from the island of Sardinia. During his presidency, Peron would remark on the pride he took in his Sardinian heritage.

During his military career, Peron studied Italian alpine military tactics, was educated at the University of Turin, observed the Italian army and became a student of the Fascist system of government of Benito Mussolini. He admired Mussolini in many ways but preferred social democracy to totalitarianism (whereas the Duce was fond of boasting of the totalitarian nature of his regime). Back in Argentina, as he climbed the political ladder, he instituted the first social insurance program as well as other social welfare programs and increased benefits for labor unions, building up a strong base of support among the working class. He first gained the presidency on a wave of popularity from nationalizing the central bank and promising economic independence and “social justice”. He tried to portray himself as representing a “third way” between capitalism and communism, the “Free World” and the Soviet bloc. He opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for the first time and refused to take Argentina into either the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund. He was criticized for giving Nazi war criminals refuge in Argentina but he also allowed no discrimination against Jews and was the first Latin American leader to recognize the State of Israel.

Peron founded a political dynasty but was eventually overthrown in a military coup led by the Catholic nationalist Lieutenant General Eduardo Lonardi, another Italian-Argentine. He tried to reconcile the country and for his efforts was deposed by the liberals in favor of a more vengeful leader. The second national leader after Lonardi was another Italian-Argentine, President Arturo Frondizi whose family came from Umbria. He tried to have the ban on the Peronist faction lifted and tried to mediate peace between the United States, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (to no avail). He had a large middle class following but when he succeeded in removing the restrictions against the Peronist faction, the next election saw them make huge gains, alarming the military, and he was brought down in a coup in 1962. Another Argentine of Italian descent, President Jose Maria Guido, succeeded him briefly, presiding over a period of turmoil between right and left-wing factions within the military. He was succeeded by another Italian-Argentine, President Arturo Umberto Illia, whose family came from Lombardy, and he tried to be a more moderate leader but was also eventually brought down by a military coup.

The next Italian-Argentine to hold the presidency was Raul Alberto Lastiri who occupied the position temporarily in 1973 before the return of Juan Peron. After Peron and his wife held the top job a military junta seized power. Some of these generals were Italian-Argentines such as General Roberto Eduardo Viola who held power briefly in 1981. The most well known, however, and the most controversial was his successor General Leopoldo Galtieri. His parents were poor Italian immigrants and Leopoldo joined the army and worked his way up through the ranks. When he came to power the military had shut down Congress and all political parties but General Galtieri was praised by some in the United States for his staunch opposition to communism. President Reagan’s national security advisor called him a “majestic general”. Industries were privatized, government spending was cut and salaries were frozen. Galtieri himself retained control of the army but allowed opposition to be voiced, which democracy advocates certainly did. In 1982 Galtieri took his most controversial action when he ordered Argentine forces to invade the British held Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas in Argentina) which were seized in a relatively quick and easy surprise attack.

This came at a time of dropping popularity for General Galtieri and many think he ordered the invasion simply to boost his popularity. If that is true, it was not a successful tactic in the long-run. His popularity soared after the initial success but his political career would not survive the backlash that came with defeat. Galtieri did not believe that the British would be able or willing to respond to the seizure of the islands and the United States would want to stay out of it due to Galtieri’s support for the anti-communist cause in Central America. It is true that many in the British Foreign Office would have liked to be rid of the Falklands and, at a different time, Galtieri’s gamble might have worked but not when Margaret Thatcher was in charge. Similarly, if the invasion had come only a short time later Britain might have lacked the ability to respond due to cuts in the military budget. In any event, the British counter-attacked and within two months had retaken the islands with the Argentine forces there being taken prisoner. Galtieri was then overthrown, arrested by the military and sentenced to be shot but this was commuted and eventually he was pardoned. He died of a heart attack in a Buenos Aires hospital in 2002.

There have been the always present good and bad cases but Italians have had a greater impact on Argentina than probably any other minority group or any other group of Europeans aside from the Spanish. Today, nearly half the population of Argentina (or about 20 million people) have some Italian ancestry. The Italian influence can be seen in the arts, entertainment (television, movies etc) as well as sports (such as Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs in Texas or football stars like Lionel Messi and Javier Zanetti) and of course national politics as seen above. Italian cuisine is quite common, elements of the Italian language have worked their way into everyday speech in several areas and aside from those of Italian ancestry there are still well over half a million Italian citizens living in Argentina today. There are still Italian festivals and cultural events held throughout the country but just as an Argentine of Spanish ancestry would consider themselves Argentine rather than Spanish, those of Italian descent are just as thoroughly Argentine though there is probably more nostalgia for Italy compared to the rivalry or even hostility most Hispanic Americans still feel toward Spain.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Happy Birthday Princess Olga

On this day in 1971 HRH Princess Olga of Savoy-Aosta was born to TRH Prince and Princess Michael of Greece and Denmark. In 2008 she married HRH Prince Aimone, Duke of Apulia and they now have two sons; Prince Umberto and Prince Amedeo who will carry on the name of the House of Savoy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Marshal of the Air Italo Balbo

Italo Balbo is, in many ways, evocative of the Italian story as a whole during the final decades of the Kingdom of Italy and the Fascist era. He started his life as a restless revolutionary and a radical republican; an early and rough Blackshirt beloved of Mussolini. At the peak of his career he became a zealous and talented empire-builder, a bringer of civilization and finally he became an ardent royalist, disillusioned with the Fascist regime and often at odds with Mussolini. Italo Balbo was born on June 6, 1896 in Ferrara and starting at a very young age was drawn to radical politics, nationalism and a life of adventure. He was only fourteen he went to Albania with a group of volunteers led by Ricciotti Garibaldi (son of Giuseppe Garibaldi) to fight in a rebellion against the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. As a young man he supported Italian participation in World War I on the side of the Allies and when Italy did enter the war he enlisted in the Royal Army. Balbo first served as an officer candidate in the Alpini Battalion “Val Fella” before beginning training with the air service.

After the disastrous battle of Caporetto, Balbo returned to the front, serving in another Alpini Battalion where he took command of the assault platoon. He courage in the face of the enemy eventually earned him one bronze and two silver medals for military valor as well as promotion to captain before the war ended. He studied in Florence after the war and he wrote a paper on “the economic and social thought of Giuseppe Mazzini”. He was, obviously, a republican at this stage but came to detest the socialists and the labor and trade unions they controlled because of their disorder and disrupting of the Italian economy and society. He was working as a bank clerk back in his home town when, in 1921, he became one of the first members of the National Fascist Party. He rose to be secretary of the Ferrara branch of the Fascist party and soon organized his own squad of Blackshirts which he led in raids on local socialist and communist groups as well as helping to break up strikes and protests organized by Marxists in the area. Balbo soon became known as one of the most active and forceful leaders in the Fascist movement.

Balbo, second from left, with Fascist leaders
Like many of the early squadristi, Balbo had been a republican, saw himself as a revolutionary and envisioned a Fascist state in which local bosses like himself would hold more power rather than a central dictator. Obviously, this was not the vision of Mussolini who had started to move his party more to the right as the socialists and communists began to drive more support in their direction. This was also part of a deliberate effort by Mussolini to broaden his base of support beyond the radical fringe and become more than just republican revolutionaries who disagreed with the socialists almost only on their attachment to internationalism and denigration of patriotism. Unity was particularly sought with the older nationalists who were right-wing and staunchly monarchist. Yet, because Balbo had become such a star in the Fascist Party, he was chosen for a prominent leadership position. When Mussolini (from the safety of his office in Milan) planned the Blackshirt march on Rome in 1922, Italo Balbo was one of the “Quadrumvirs” chosen to lead it. However, he would serve alongside more conservative Fascists such as Cesare De Vecchi and General Emilio De Bono. The presence of Michele Bianchi, a socialist turned syndicalist, helped balance out the leadership and, Mussolini hoped, appeal to the widest array of Italians possible.

The march, of course, turned out to be little more than a parade as political maneuvering had already secured the premiership for Mussolini before his Blackshirts ever entered Rome, however, Italo Balbo had secured his place as one the leading members of the Fascist hierarchy and was appointed one of the first members of the Fascist Grand Council in 1923. The following year he was named commander of the Blackshirt militia and in 1925 was made Undersecretary for National Economy. His real significance, however, came in 1926 when he was made Secretary of State for Air. Mussolini wanted to put a renewed emphasis on Italian aviation and Balbo was the man who would be in charge of this project. Balbo learned how to fly himself and set to work organizing what became the Regia Aeronautica. By 1928 he had been promoted to General of the Air Force, later Minister of the Air Force and, eventually, Marshal of the Air. Aside from organizing the military air branch, Balbo also encouraged exploration and endurance flights that would generate publicity for the air force, encourage more Italians to take an interest in aviation and raise the profile of Italy in the skies. As part of this campaign, Balbo himself led a trans-Atlantic flight in 1930 from Italy to Brazil and in 1933 all the way to Chicago where he was received with great fanfare and media attention. President Roosevelt even decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Italo Balbo had risen to become an international celebrity and many in the Fascist ranks began to speak of him as the future successor of Benito Mussolini. However, Balbo and Mussolini did not always agree on everything and the issues they disagreed on seemed to be growing more numerous. When, in 1933, Balbo was appointed Governor-General of Libya many viewed it as an effort to “exile” him from Rome. It was also a formidable mission he was tasked with. Balbo came to Libya with the expectation that he would make it a model colony, demonstrating Fascist efficiency and truly turning the place into the “fourth shore” of Italy. Although many today would not like to admit it, Balbo did essentially that. Expansion and development increased to such an extent that Balbo became known as the “Father of Libya” and this was largely true inasmuch that Libya became modern and up-to-date for the first time in history. Mussolini, for a time, hoped that Italy might gain the remains of the former German colony of Cameroon for an Italian Cameroon that would be linked by a land bride to Libya and give Italy an Atlantic port. With the frenzy of new roads, buildings, settlements and harbor facilities going up in Libya, anything seemed possible.

When international tensions began growing over the threat of renewing the war in Abyssinia, Marshal Balbo began making plans for an invasion from his colony into Egypt-Sudan. If Britain decided to go to war with Italy over Abyssinia, or close the Suez Canal to Italian troop transports, Balbo wanted to lead the attack to force the vital chokepoint open. Ultimately, Britain did not intervene on behalf of Ethiopia but they did reinforce their military presence in the Mediterranean, however, there is reason to believe that had such a conflict occurred, Italy would have had a legitimate chance of success. At the height of the crisis, Balbo deployed his troops along the Egyptian border and due to the poor state of British military intelligence, they had no idea it happened and Balbo would have been in a perfect position to have launched an attack on Egypt and take the British forces completely by surprise. Britain only became aware of it all via Rome itself when Mussolini rejected the planned operation, which turned out to be unnecessary in any event.

Although it was hardly seen as a promotion, by being posted to Libya, Marshal Balbo actually had far greater autonomy than he would have otherwise enjoyed and used his position to circumvent the normal military bureaucracy to create his own elite unit of Libyan paratroopers. Balbo himself, along with his pilots, undertook reconnaissance flights over Egypt and the Sudan to familiarize themselves with the area in the event of war between Britain and Italy in north Africa. He was determined to be prepared for any eventuality. However, Balbo was also aware enough of the true state of affairs to oppose Italian involvement in World War II. In fact, he had come a long way from his days as a blackshirt leader and was increasingly conservative, realistic and even royalist. Balbo was the only leading member of the Fascist Party to openly oppose the racial laws aimed against the Jewish community and the only one to publicly denounce the Axis alliance with Adolf Hitler. As Italy moved closer and closer toward the prospect of world war alongside Nazi Germany, Balbo reversed his earlier republicanism and was grateful the monarchy had been preserved and hoped that the King would intervene to stop Mussolini from taking the country to war.

Unfortunately, while the increased attachment to the monarchy was laudable, this was an all too common response of many in the Fascist hierarchy; men who had previously opposed the King and helped Mussolini gain dictatorial power suddenly demanding that the King reassert himself, taking all the political risk, to bail them out of a situation of their own making and to take actions against Mussolini that they were unwilling to take themselves. Air Marshal Balbo, to his credit, did more than most in the Fascist ranks to express his displeasure (saying that the alliance would result in the Italians being totally subservient to the Germans) but nonetheless, acceded to the policies of the government and determined to do his duty as best he could. Part of this included an intricate plan for the elimination of British armored forces in Egypt through the use of diversionary attacks from the air and a fast moving motorized column. However, Balbo would not live to see any of his plans carried out. When Italy joined the war in 1940, Balbo became supreme military commander of Italian north African forces and began planning the invasion of Egypt. Unfortunately, while flying into Tobruk on June 28, just after a British air raid, his plane was mistakenly shot down by Italian anti-aircraft batteries.

Some, then and now, believe that Mussolini set up the whole thing to get rid of Air Marshal Balbo because of his opposition to Fascist policies. However, there is no evidence to back that up and it certainly would not have looked good for Mussolini as such an action would have contradicted his boast that “Mussolini is always right” considering that he had earlier considered Balbo to be his successor as Duce. Balbo was buried near Tripoli but his body was moved to Italy in 1970 after the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to desecrate the bodies of all Italians buried in Libyan soil.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Remembering the Unknown Soldier

It was on this day in 1921 that the unknown Italian soldier of the First World War was buried, with an eternal flame, at the King Vittorio Emanuele II Monument in Rome. Alberto Sparapani designed the tomb after a campaign to honor the 'unknown soldier' was made by Italian veterans of the Great War and by other Allied veterans, after Great Britain and France had done the same. The United States of America awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor of the Italian unknown soldier shortly before they took the step of honoring the unknown American soldier. The Kingdom of Italy lost over a million people, soldiers and civilians, in the First World War, more than the British Empire, less than France or Russia and less than any of the Central Powers other than Bulgaria. About 650,000 Italian soldiers died in the conflict. Some Italian soldiers had voluntarily joined the war prior to the declaration of war by serving with the French Foreign Legion, later Italian forces served on almost every major front of the war. Some served on the western front, others in Albania and Macedonia, in Libya and Somalia, in the Middle East and, of course, the primary front against the Germans and Austrians on the northeast border.

To honor the sacrifices of these men, Colonel Giulio Douhet, writing in "Dovere" recommended entombing the body of an unknown Italian soldier to symbolize all of those whose names are not recorded, who died for their King and homeland. The Commissione Nazionale per le Onoranze ai Militari d'Italia was established which would eventually see this goal carried out with the unknown Italian soldier entombed in the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome. The government proposed and King Vittorio Emanuele III approved a bill on August 11, 1921 to find the Italian warrior who would represent all at the monument. Eleven bodies were found and taken to the Basilica of Aquileia on October 27, 1921 and one of these was chosen by a simple woman, Maria Bergamas of Trieste, who was the mother of an army lieutenant killed on Mount Gimone, to have the honor of representing his comrades. With all due ceremony the coffin of the unknown soldier was taken to a special train and journeyed through Udine, Venice, Bologna, Florence and finally Rome where the coffin was carried from the train station by veterans who had earned the Gold Medal for Military Valor in the late war. A special memorial service was held at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and on November 4, 1921 the remains were transferred to the Piazza Venezia and then finally entombed.

The date was chosen to coincide with the Day of National Unity and the Armed Forces, a day first set aside to mark the end of the First World War and which is the only national holiday from the era of the Kingdom of Italy to survive the destruction of the monarchy by the republic. On the day that the unknown soldier was laid to rest, King Vittorio Emanuele III was noticed to have tears in his eyes and suppressed his emotions only with difficulty as he stepped forward to bestow the Gold Medal on the deceased warrior, representing all of those who had fought with courage and heroism, anonymously enduring hardship and privation for their King and fatherland.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

May King and Queen Honored

Today in Rome, two avenues within Villa Ada have been renamed in honor of the last King and Queen of Italy. The plaques for "Umberto II of Savoia" and "Queen Maria Josè" were unveiled by the Mayor of Rome Gianni Alemanno. He spoke of the "long and difficult" history of Italy and pointed out that it was the House of Savoy that united Italy and that it was love for that Italy which prompted the re-naming of the streets in honor of King Umberto II and Queen Marie Jose. He pointed to how the last King and Queen loved Italy and how the King chose to abdicate rather than split the country in two and possibly inaugurate a civil war. Personally, I wish he had chosen any of numerous other examples to highlight the patriotism of the last king. I do not, of course, wish to be critical of this tribute but I do think it unfortunate when people speak as if the only good King is one who gives up his crown. In any eveny, Culture Minister Dino Gasperini was present at the unveiling and spoke of preserving the past for future generations. Is that a little frightening? That it will come down to a street sign to remind the youth that the Italian people once had a King and Queen? Of course, the assembled dignitaries also were sure to reassert their allegiance to the republican institutions of the country, just in case anyone might mistake this tribute for an actual sign of loyalty on their part. For a politician, the only thing worse than being caught doing the wrong thing, is to be caught doing the right thing. No, those assembled were assured that the republic is "safe" from any monarchists but that the House of Savoy should be remembered for their role in the Risorgimento and the creation of the modern, united Italy. He also had to say that these were "controversial" figures. Please. The only reason there is anything at all "controversial" about the May King and Queen is because republican politicians chose to make them so in order to help clear the way for their own power grab.
I am, of course, extremely pleased to see any tribute to the late King and Queen of Italy. I wish it was more significant that two avenues. I am only annoyed that the subject of the monarchy always has to be treated as if it is something dangerous, with the politicians reassuring everyone that they are republicans and that the monarchy was "controversial" and that they only do this for historical-educational reasons and certainly not because they have any affinity for the House of Savoy. Frankly, they should, especially if they are going to highlight the role the House of Savoy played in bringing Italy together. All patriotic Italians who love their country should be grateful to all those involved, including the House of Savoy, in the creation of the unified Italy. It was done under the House of Savoy and ever since 1946 it has been a case of republicans taking up space in a home built by someone else, someone they evicted in order to snatch their property. King Umberto II and Queen Marie Jose had every necessary quality to be an excellent monarch and consort and to guide Italy into the future in the post-war world they faced. Together, they represented a perfect balance between tradition and innovation and Italy could be so much more if all that had not been thrown away in one emotional, frantic effort by self-seeking people to throw away Italian history.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Italian Defender of Constantinople

The fall of Constantinople must rank as one of the most tragic events in the history of Western Civilization and, contrarily, there were few if any greater and more symbolic victories for the forces of the Ottoman Empire. On the Christian side, the most famous defender of the city was, of course, the great Emperor Constantine XI. However, the commander of his army which defended the last citadel of the old East Roman Empire was an Italian, and from a republic no less; a condottiero from Genoa named Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. It is not known exactly when he was born but he was the son of one of the most prominent Genoese families, related to the famous Doria family. When Constantinople was imperiled by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mehmed II, Giovanni Giustiniani used his own fortune to recruit and equip some 700 soldiers and a naval armada to carry them. When he arrived at Constantinople, he so impressed the Emperor that Constantine XI named him commander of his land forces. It was a wise decision given that, we are told, Giustiniani was an expert at siege warfare and the defense of fortified places.

His were not the only non-Greek forces to arrive to help. About 3/5 of the defenders of Constantinople were westerners, most of them Italians. Alvise Diedo was the commander of the Venetian naval forces and he and his men decided that they would stay and help defend the city. Another was the Venetian ambassador Girolamo Minotto who was determined, in his diplomatic capacity, to maintain the neutrality of the Republic of Venice yet, in his personal capacity, he was no less determined to prevent the Turkish capture of Constantinople and fought on the walls alongside the other defenders of the city. Cardinal Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev, the Papal Legate, also recruited about 200 soldiers in Naples, with funds provided by the Pope, to aid in the defense of Constantinople. There also numerous other brave individuals who participated such as Maurizio Cattaneo and the Bocchiardo brothers, Paolo, Antonio and Troilo. All of these men were ultimately under the command of Giovanni Giustiniani and, not surprisingly, he had to prove himself an able diplomat as well as a soldier in prevailing upon the Greeks and the Italians to work together in their common goal of repelling the Turks. Even getting the Italians alone to cooperate was not always easy given the long-standing rivalry between Venice and Genoa at that time.

The courage of Giustiniani and his skill at the art of siege warfare was instrumental in Constantinople holding out as long as it did against the hopelessly large odds against them. When the final attack came on May 29, 1453 Giustiniani was wounded while fighting on the wall to repel the invaders. The exact circumstances remain unknown and sources differ as to whether he was wounded by a crossbow bolt or debris from a cannon shot as well as whether his wound was in the arm, leg or torso but whatever the case may be it was sufficient to put him out of action. This caused morale to drop among the hard-pressed soldiers on the wall and eventually panic began to set in. Giustiniani was helped out of the combat area and as the men began to waver following his absence, Sultan Mehmed II took notice and ordered an all-out assault. The defenders were finally overwhelmed, Emperor Constantine XI falling in the attack as he rushed headlong into the Turkish column pouring into the city. Cardinal Isidore of Kiev was able to escape only by dressing a dead man in red robes and he watched as the Turks decapitated the corpse and carried the severed head through the streets thinking they had killed the Churchman.

Meanwhile, Giustiniani was helped back to his ship by a handful of his men who had survived but he died of his wounds at sea sometime early the next month. His loyal troops took his body back to the island of Chios (a Greek island which then belonged to Genoa) and buried him in the village of Pirgi. Giustiniani and his men were among the most well armed, trained and disciplined that the small garrison had and most were posted at the St Romanos Gate. He, and those with him, played a critical part in the historic battle that saw the city of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who envisioned a great capital city there on the banks of the Bosporus, fall to a non-European foe; irretrievably so it seems. Given east-west tensions, men like Giustiniani and his soldiers who fought to defend Constantinople often seem forgotten. They should not be and deserve to be remembered for their courage and sacrifice alongside Emperor Constantine XI and the thousands of others who lost their lives in the battle for the last citadel of Eastern Rome.

*Note - I have been unable to find an actual picture of Giovanni Giustiniani. Those above are simply pictures of Condottieri of the same general period.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wedding in Luxembourg

TRH Prince Emanuele Filiberto and Princess Clotilde arrive at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg for the religious wedding of Hereditary Grand Duke Guillaume and Countess Stephanie de Lannoy

The Prince and Princess of Venice and Piedmont arrive at the wedding gala dinner.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Venice Needs Italy as Italy Needs Venice

Because of a mass rally and a few new polls, there has been a lot of talk about the city of Venice seceding from Italy and becoming an independent city-state again (or actually not just a city-state as they plan to claim Veneto, Lombardy, Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia). The Republic of Venice II. However, one thing that should be established clearly at the outset is that if these modern-day separatists have their way, the new independent Venice will not be anything like the old Republic of Venice, nor will it really be independent. One of the first thing the pro-independence group did was to take their case to the President of the European Commission which should make clear to everyone that even they themselves do not believe in independence but would rather be ruled from Brussels instead of Rome. Newspaper polls have found 70-80% of the local population in favor of this so-called independence, yet at the same time stressing that part of the reason for the large numbers is the economic crisis. Italy would certainly be harmed economically by the loss of Venice but Venice would neither be better off in the long-term with her economic policies still being dictated by EU bureaucrats in Brussels.

The Republic of Venice (and I mean the original, legitimate, genuine article of centuries past) was a great and admirable country and a significant Mediterranean regional power in its own right. In fact, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the old Republic of Venice. Title aside, if anyone from our own time could go back and see the Republic of Venice as it was then; they would take it for a monarchy. The Doge certainly looked and acted more like a monarch than a president and, even at the time, despite his republican form of government, was considered something of a prince by the other crowned heads of Europe. Obviously, this is not what is being proposed today nor would it be something the ruling elites of the EU would ever tolerate. Venice was a city that celebrated its accomplishments, today people are expected to apologize for them. The most famous public spectacle of the old Republic of Venice was the ceremony, presided over by the Doge, which “married” Venice to the sea. This ceremony, however, originated as a celebration of the Venetian acquisition of the Dalmatian coast. Would the powers-that-be in Brussels ever allow something like that to be celebrated today? Of course not. Because they scorn pride, ambition and achievement.

Today, Venice is one of the more prosperous parts of Italy, like the north in general is still more prosperous than the south, and this is a large part of what drives the separatist campaigns in these areas; people resent having to work to support less successful parts of the country. However, so long as a potential Republic of Venice remained in the EU, this would still be the case only in a different way. This is a complaint though that many people can sympathize with. It is part of what is driving similar movements in various European countries, from Catalan to Flanders. However, separation within the EU will not solve the problem. The only thing that will solve the problem is to lift up the poorer areas so that they are no longer dependent on the more prosperous regions and this is part of why Italy needs Venice and the north in general. All Italians should take a look back at what made Venice great during her glory days. Everyone should try to learn the lesson of how this watery village of refugees rose to become one of the major regional powers of the eastern Mediterranean. The simple, basic reason is the profit motive.

The Republic of Venice was able to exercise a level of power and influence far beyond her own strength because of her economic success, driven by trade and commerce all of which was driven by the profit motive and the maintenance of a pro-business, pro-entrepreneur, adventurous spirit. That atmosphere drove Venetians to build up an extensive commercial empire throughout the eastern Mediterranean and even some areas beyond. I marvel at what Venice was able to accomplish yet, I also think of how much more could have been possible or how such a vast network could have been maintained if the rest of Italy was alongside in support rather than tearing each other apart in squabbles between the Italian states. What if men of vision and talent like Christopher Columbus or John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) had been sailing for the Italian nation rather than Spain or England? What if there had been a united Italy to prevent the conquest of Venice by the French revolutionaries in the first place and so also prevent the years of Austrian rule? If Venice wishes greater control over their own local affairs, I would have no problem with that. I would applaud a Venice that becomes even more successful by their own decisions and I would deplore Venice being robbed of their success to reward the less successful. Rather, I would encourage less successful areas to follow their example in making themselves just as prosperous as Venice.

Again, however, we come back to the current state of the Italian republic which has an EU-imposed government, which discourages national pride, encourages people to be ashamed of success and there is the very existence of the republican government in Italy which has taught the Italians to be complacent and content with the status of a third-rate power. They condemn the Kingdom of Italy, amazingly, for encouraging Italians to think “big”, to strive for something greater, to see themselves as a great people and work to reach their maximum potential. No, the answer to the ills of Venice is not independence and another republican micro-state dependent on the EU. The answer is, and always has been, the restoration of the Kingdom of Italy, the restoration of the lire, freedom from crushing bureaucratic red tape, confiscatory taxation and burdensome regulation. The answer is free and open competition that will, by the talents and ambition of individual Italians, raise up the country to a level of prosperity that states like Venice once had when they lived by these same principles but which will be so much the greater with all Italians pulling in the same direction rather than feeding off of one another in a state of collective slavery to the political class.

Viva Venezia! Viva Italia! Evviva il Re!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Grand Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany

The third member of the House of Medici to hold the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany was born on July 30, 1549 to Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and Eleanora di Toledo, the daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. He was the fifth son to be born to the couple, though only the third to survive and, as such, he was not expected to ever take the grand ducal throne. However, there was always the need to keep up the family presence in the Sacred College, so young Ferdinando was expected to take on a religious vocation and was educated accordingly. In 1562, at the age of 14, he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by HH Pope Pius IV (Giovanni Angelo Medici, a distant relative). Teenage cardinals were far from uncommon at the time and in those days a cardinal was not necessarily an ordained man. As it turned out, Ferdinando Cardinal Medici displayed remarkable organizational and administrative skills while working for the Church in Rome. In typical Medici fashion he was also a great patron of the arts and accumulated a remarkable collection at his home, called Villa Medici (now the home of the French Academy in Rome and owned by France). Most assumed that would be where Ferdinand would spend his life.

However, Grand Duke Cosimo I suffered many tragedies with the early deaths of his boys but he was succeeded by his eldest, Grand Duke Francesco I. However, the only son of Francesco died while still a boy and so when he passed away in 1587 it fell to his younger brother the cardinal to become the third Grand Duke of Tuscany. He packed up his art treasures and returned to Florence though he remained a Cardinal in the Church for the next two years until his marriage to Christina of Lorraine (daughter of Charles III of Lorraine and actually a granddaughter of Caterina de’ Medici) in 1589. Their wedding was a colossal and magnificently colorful occasion. Grand Duke Cosimo I, married to a Spanish lady, had been very close to Spain and the Hapsburg Empire and Queen Caterina de’ Medici had pushed for the marriage of Christina to Grand Duke Ferdinando to restore the House of Medici as allies of France rather than Spain and the Empire. There were lavish banquets, dances and even mock naval battles in a flooded courtyard. The wedding would influence the art of entertaining in royal courts across Europe for many years to come.

Grand Duke Ferdinando I brought about something of a revival in Tuscany. He and Grand Duchess Christina had five children over the years; two boys and three girls, and he worked to detach Tuscany from the influence of Spain and the empire. This made him very popular as the public had previously been taxed heavily to pay for contributions to the empire and their own laws had often been superseded by foreign statutes. Grand Duke Ferdinando reestablished the traditional justice system, took a great interest in the well being of his people and enacted many changes that boosted economic development. He established freedom of religion in Tuscany which caused many Jews and Protestants to flock to Livorno in particular and their industry was also a boost to the economy. Harbor improvements helped promote trade, irrigation projects improved agriculture and Florence became a center of banking with branches all across Europe. He took a similarly broad-minded approach to foreign policy but, in that area, was less successful.

To ease out Spanish and imperial influence and draw closer to France, he supported King Henri IV of France against the Catholic League of Guise family and the more belligerent Protestants after the assassination of King Henri III. King Henri IV was greatly helped by the money the Grand Duke loaned him and Ferdinando urged him, for the peace and stability of France as well as for his own good, to convert to the Catholic faith. He also used his connections in Rome to urge the Pope to accept a conversion on the part of the King of France, welcoming him into the Catholic fold. This, King Henri IV eventually did do, famously saying that, “Paris is well worth a mass” which has caused some to claim that his conversion was not genuine. However, there is ample evidence that his change of heart was sincere. However, King Henri IV returned no favors to Grand Duke Ferdinando who backed away from France after that point, maintaining the neutrality of the House of Medici which he thought paramount to secure their independence.

Unlike some, Grand Duke Ferdinando was not willing to ally with non-Catholic powers against those of his own faith. Despite his unwillingness to be ruled by Spain or the empire he still supported the Spanish in their war in Algeria, led by King Felipe III, against the Moors and he supported Hapsburg Emperor in his ongoing conflict with the Turks in eastern Europe. In fact, the war galleys of Tuscany won several crucial victories against the Muslim Barbary Pirates operating out of North Africa during his reign, though this commitment to the defense of Christendom did not come without cost and necessitated the raising of taxes, something the Grand Duke had not wanted to do. Nevertheless, he was always a man of vision who favored big ideas, ingenuity and entrepreneurship. His first thought was to follow up the victory of his fleet with the establishment of a domain for Tuscany in North Africa, however, this did not work out. Still, he remained eager to embrace other possibilities. Toward the end of his reign he commissioned the one and only official effort by an Italian state to colonize the Americas. In 1608 Grand Duke Ferdinando commissioned the English Captain Robert Thornton to lead an expedition to the coast of South America, around northern Brazil.

The ships reached the New World, explored the area and took on some native passengers before returning to Italy. The plan was to follow-up with the establishment of a colony around what is now Cayenne, to reach down to the Amazon and make the area a source of timber exports to Italy and a place of colonization for Italian settlers. A few decades later this area would be claimed and colonized by France, named French Guiana and it remains an overseas department of France to this day. The voyage was a success and Captain Thornton returned without losing a man. Unfortunately, he returned to find that Grand Duke Ferdinando I had died on February 17, 1609 at the age of 59. He prepared to launch the planned follow-up voyage but the new monarch, Grand Duke Cosimo II (Ferdinando’s son) saw no need for an Italian colony in America and called off the enterprise. Nonetheless, the reign of Ferdinando I is a bright spot in the history of the Medici family and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He was a capable monarch who defeated his enemies, aided his allies and left his state more prosperous, more developed and more free and independent than he had found it.