Murder Among Medicis

Few families in Italy have been as powerful as the Medici dynasty, which ruled Florence from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Their lineage includes numerous cardinals, three popes, famous Tuscan rulers like Lorenzo il Magnifico, and French and English nobility. They were once the wealthiest family in Europe, and their influence is said to have spurred the Italian Renaissance. The Medici contribution to Italian architecture includes the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace in Florence, and early members of the Medici family were tutored personally by Galileo, who named four of Jupiter's moons after his Medici pupils.

But there may have been a darker side to the Medicis. Donatella Lippi, a professor of medical history at the University of Florence and author of the forthcoming "I Medici: La dinastia dei Misteri" (Medici: the Dynasty of Mystery), has cowritten a report that claims to prove that Francesco I de'Medici, the second Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his wife, Bianca Cappello, were poisoned by arsenic, not victims of malaria as was believed for the last 400 years. The murder was most likely carried out by Francesco's brother, Cardinal Ferdinando de'Medici—who later went on to succeed Francesco—according to Lippi, who spoke with NEWSWEEK's Barbie Nadeau. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK : Why is it so important to prove Francesco I de'Medici and his second wife were murdered instead of victims of malaria?

Donatella Lippi: The proof that Francesco I and Bianca were poisoned really gives us good reason that all of the questionable deaths—and there are many in this family—must now be queried.

Cardinal Ferdinando de'Medici is the obvious suspect. Do you think he did it?

Francesco and Bianca were not well-loved by Florentine society, and they had many enemies. I can't say it was Cardinal Ferdinando because I don't have evidence, but it is the most probable theory, since he went on to rule in his brother's place.

One legend implies that Bianca may have tried to oust Cardinal Ferdinando and accidentally poisoned her husband Francesco instead, and then took her own life in desperation.

I don't believe it was Bianca. Recounts of the conversations that took place during the 11 days she and Francesco suffered on their death beds are not consistent with that theory. Though it is very, very romantic indeed.

How would history have differed if Francesco I de'Medici had lived?

Francesco's politics were deeply bound with Spain, and Cardinal Ferdinando aligned himself with France, so we can theorize that European history would have been vastly different if Francesco had stayed in power.

Cardinal Ferdinando ordered original autopsies after the deaths. Wouldn't those autopsies have showed poisoning?

Ancient autopsies were nothing more than opening a body and describing the organs, so they were not conclusive, though one account does indicate that the liver felt hard to the touch, which is consistent with poisoning. Though, for no apparent reason, the cause of death was [recorded as] malaria, which was what was most convenient for Ferdinando, who obviously [would not have wanted] the public to know he killed his brother.

Francesco I was also an alchemist; wouldn't he have known he was being poisoned?

Yes, he should have known. And in fact there is evidence that he did know. When he fell sick, he used his own therapies to counteract poisoning.

Organs from Francesco's remains were entombed in terra-cotta pots buried under the Church of Santa Maria a Bonistallo. Were Bianca's remains entombed with Francesco's?

We have positively identified that the liver fragments in two terra-cotta pots were those of Francesco I', since we have his body and can make a positive DNA match. We do not have Bianca's body, but we do know that the fragments found in two other terra-cotta pots with Francesco's are from a female who was poisoned, so we have a good idea that they were Bianca's. Bianca's body was not allowed to be buried with Francesco's, by order of Ferdinando, who said she was to be buried in the commoners' grave. But I believe I have found her body, thanks to ancient manuscripts that say she is buried outside the church walls to the left, under a stairwell. Since we cannot just dig up the old church, I have asked a gastroenterology friend of mine to help me to locate the body with the use of an endoscope, which we are sending down through the stones.

Did you have any resistance from the Church of Santa Maria a Bonistallo or San Lorenzo to unearth the Medici bodies from their graves?

No, I don't think the church cares much about these myths and legends and, in fact, this is not the first time these bodies have been exhumed. As I wrote in "Illacrimate Sepolture," these graves were pillaged in 1947 after the war, when many bodies were dug up to be studied. What the scientists did then was a tragedy. Some bodies were cut up and destroyed. Many of them were shaved, which gives us no hair for analysis now. Many of the beautiful clothing and jewels that were known to be buried with the bodies were taken. The photographic accounts of these exhumations are tragic. Much of the historical evidence is forever lost.

You have exhumed and studied 21 Medici family corpses. What have you learned?

Literary sources over the centuries have told us so many different stories about this important family and in many cases, their influence dictated how their deaths were represented, and in so many cases crimes were covered up. We have already discovered many things. From a genealogical point of view, Cosimo de'Medici, perhaps the most influential in the family, is known to have had 11 sons, all of whom are important in some way to history. But we now know through our studies that he actually fathered 19 sons, though we don't know who their mothers are, or even necessarily what contributions they made.

With 28 more to exhume, what do you expect to find?

Look at Isabella, daughter of Cosimo de Medici—she was called to her husband, Paolo Giordano I Orsini's villa and she was afraid to go. When she finally went, she was strangled as her husband embraced her in his bedroom. Accounts say that when her body arrived to be buried, the face was blue. But her body is gone and her story is left unproven. The history books show a different account—her husband's account of her death. But other accounts still point to the color of her skin, which has to be from strangulation. When I have her body, I will look for signs of strangulation to prove the myths as fact. Through the remaining 28 corpses, we also expect to find much evidence of the Medici influence. We know that the Medici cardinals were buried with diamonds on the soles of their shoes and we expect to witness many of these fascinating pious rituals when the bodies are exhumed.

Are you expecting to solve any more mysteries through the Medici corpses?

There are many, many more mysteries waiting to be solved. I believe in fate and destiny, and after 420 years, I found these pieces of liver only by luck. It is as if the victims were there waiting for me to discover them. They wanted their revenge.