brooke williams

Women of the Italian Renaissance | CLARICE ORSINI (ca. 1453-1488)

In 1467, Lucrezia Tornabuoni wrote to her husband Piero de’ Medici, detailing her visit to Rome to inspect a potential wife for their eldest son Lorenzo. She describes the young woman, Clarice Orsini, as being

…fairly tall, and fair, and [with] a nice manner, though she is not as sweet as our girls. She is very modest and will soon learn our customs … Her face is rather round, but it does not displease me … We could not see her bosom as it is the custom here to wear it completely covered up, but it seems promising.

Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice was not universally welcomed by the Florentines. Many of the city’s nobility had hoped to marry one of their own daughters into the powerful Medici family, and there was some tut-tutting about Lorenzo’s snubbing of the women of Florence in favour of a foreign girl. But in marrying into the powerful Orsini family, the Medici earned themselves a connection to old nobility as well as an ally with significant military strength and influence within the Papal city.

In Florence, Clarice found herself consigned to a somewhat lonely existence. Though she would bear Lorenzo ten children (seven of whom survived to adulthood), they spent much of their time apart, with Lorenzo preferring the company of his mistress Lucrezia Donati and other Florentine beauties, to whom he dedicated amorous sonnets. As for Clarice, she spent the best part of her time either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy, usually in one of the Medici’s country properties.

She was not even mistress of her own home; that role was snatched up by her mother-in-law Lucrezia, who continued to reside in the Medici Palace after Piero’s death, managing the household, acting as hostess on social occasions, and advising Lorenzo on political matters. She allowed no room for Clarice to exert any influence, treating her daughter-in-law with cool disdain.

She struggled to find acceptance within Florentine society, where her “foreign” status and strict religious personality did little to earn her popularity – she was seen as neither particularly elegant nor intelligent, and perhaps out of defensiveness she looked down on society life. Even on visits to her home city of Rome she was met with frustrations as her relatives complained about her lack of influence over her husband.

Following her mother-in-law’s death in 1482, Clarice began to assume a slightly more prominent role, occasionally acting as Lorenzo’s proxy and frequently answering requests for charity or intercession. Her health, however, had always been poor, and she died quite young in 1482, aged only thirty-five.

Among her sons were Giovanni de’ Medici, who eventually ascended to the Papacy as Leo X, and Piero “the Unfortunate”, who holds the less noble distinction of being the guy whose political ineptitude got the Medici family exiled from Florence.

But Clarice had left one final legacy. Though the modern-minded humanists of Florence had looked down on Clarice and her old-fashioned attitudes, during her long stays in the countryside she had continued to perform the functions of a great feudal lady, earning the goodwill and loyalty of the Tuscan peasants as a result. They remembered her generosity, and when in 1494 the Medici were run out of Florence, it was among people such as these that the family found shelter.

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