Catherine de’ Medici’s Identities

Elite women of sixteenth-century France took advantage of their positions to become influential art patrons and collectors. Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) was one such woman. As her sociopolitical status shifted from wife, to mother, to widow, Catherine differently strategized how her artistic commissions and the display of her art collection advanced her objectives. By examining Catherine’s ever evolving collection, we can better understand how she defined herself as an individual and how royal women in general utilized art to their advantage.

The claims made by Catherine’s imagery and activities as a collector were multifaceted, reflecting the various roles that she occupied. As a bride, she endeavored to present herself as the ideal wife to offset her status as a non-royal Florentine and her “failure” at first to fulfill the role society expected of her: to give birth to male heirs. When her husband Henri II died, she continued to advance an idealized pictorial persona, but the imagery shifted to reflect her role as widow and queen mother. Finally, after the death of her son Francis II, her imagery transitioned for a third time, to that of an ideal mother whose focus was the success of the French monarchy. To show this array of identities, Catherine commissioned and purchased art that represented her wedding, her mourning clothes, her role as wife and woman in her husband’s tomb, and her personification as the ancient queen Artemisia. Additionally, her architectural projects as well as her library reinforced Catherine’s French identity as well as her loyalty to the French over the Florentines. 

Catherine’s Beginning

Catherine de’ Medici’s childhood was in many ways unstable, a situation that may have contributed to an early awareness of the advantages of art patronage and collection for women in precarious social positions without familial support or a guaranteed position in society. Catherine was born in 1519 in Florence to Lorenzo de’ Medici and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auverne.[1] Her parents were expected to secure a new dynastic lineage for the Medici family in Italy since her father was the heir to the Medici line and her mother was French royalty.[2] Their marriage formed a powerful alliance for the Medici family by aligning them with royalty. Unfortunately, both Lorenzo and Madeleine died within a month of Catherine’s birth, thus orphaning her and sending the family into upheaval.[3] There was no possibility of her returning to her mother’s family and her father had no other children or close siblings who were available to raise Catherine. Therefore, throughout her early life, she was passed from family member to family member and at times was used as a political pawn for the family as they attempted to reestablish dominance in Italy.[4] While for most of this time one of two Medici popes, Leo X (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-1534), were her official guardians as direct male relatives, the raising of Catherine fell to female relations.[5] At times her circumstances were fraught. She was held as a political hostage, threats of rape were sent to her in an effort to dissuade suitors and discourage politically advantageous marriages, and she lacked the benefit of consistent guardians or role models.[6] The threats of rape were especially troubling since calling her purity into question would have precluded her from marrying well and improving her life in the process. Nevertheless, Catherine’s guardians (who were almost all women) saw to it that she received a comprehensive education and, for better or worse, she was exposed to the complexities of politics from an early age. This set her up for later success as queen and eventually queen regent. 

Catherine’s exposure in the first few decades of her life to some of the most powerful women in Europe helped to shape her subsequent negotiation of her position at the French court. She was originally put under the guardianship of her grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini (1472-1520) who was considered the matriarch of the Medici family. Alfonsina was responsible for her early humanist education.[7] Then, while under “arrest” at the convent of Le Murate in Florence, her education was furthered by the nuns. Le Murate served as a “multigenerational female Medici house” that shaped Catherine’s fluid understanding of patronage as well as the importance of female relationships.[8] The majority of the nuns were from the wealthy aristocracy and able to provide Catherine with aristocratic and scholastic training in different languages and humanist teachings. Caterina Sforza (1463-1509), the Countess of Forlì, also served as an influential example.[9] Sforza was the matriarch of her own family and was ruling in the stead of her under-aged son while defending her lands. She spent the last years of her life at the convent, a little over a decade before Catherine was imprisoned there. Sforza defended her son and his legacy and also hid many valuable items from her collection at the convent. She would serve as the first direct exemplar of maternal advancement of power as well as protection of her children from their enemies. Decades later, Catherine perhaps recalled this precedent when she effected the same strategy as Sforza by serving as regent for two of her sons while always striving to protect them. 

At age fourteen, Catherine left Italy behind for France, the country she would later rule through her sons. Her betrothed was Henri d’Orleans (1519-1559), at the time the second son of King Francis I (1494-1547) of France.[10] The marriage was advantageous at the time, but would become even more so when Henri’s older brother and heir to the throne, Francis III, died unexpectedly in 1536. As the wife of the second son of the king, Catherine’s role was less scrutinized then other foreign wives at court; an heir was expected but not necessary for the line of succession. Catherine flourished at court where she was able to continue her humanist education. Francis I was intrigued with Italian culture and history which led to a strong bond between the king and Catherine. He worked especially hard to continue her education and expose her to the glories of sixteenth-century culture. However, her husband had a powerful mistress, Diane de Poitiers, which complicated their marriage until Henri’s untimely death.[11] Diane served as Henri’s mistress for his entire adult life and was understood to yield more power than Catherine while Henri was alive.[12] Additionally, for the first ten years of their marriage, Catherine did not give birth.[13] Not only was she a woman and a foreigner, but she was unable to fulfill her royal marital duties. Catherine’s marriage was negotiated on the basis of her potential to bear male heirs and an advantageous political alliance with her uncle Pope Clement VII. When the Pope died and Catherine still had not given birth, her position became very precarious. Although she was a favorite of the king, she was otherwise disliked at court. Her unenthusiastic reception, her uncle’s death, and Henri’s elevation to heir to the throne threatened her marriage and led her to propose that she enter a nunnery.[14]

As would become a trend for Catherine, her circumstances swiftly changed. Henri’s older brother, the dauphin, died, making Henri the heir to the throne and bringing Catherine with him into the spotlight.[15] Shortly thereafter, Francis died, at which point Henri became king, Catherine queen, and Diane mistress to the king. However, Catherine did not gain power since Diane was the more powerful party: running court life, controlling Henri, and even managing the households and the educations of Catherine’s children once they were born.[16] Moreover, Catherine no longer had Francis as an ally. She was relegated to the sidelines. As this project demonstrates, she used her art collection and patronage to counteract her elision at court. 

Scholarship on Catherine

Catherine has been discussed extensively by historians in the past decades, from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre at her daughter’s wedding, to her status as the last of one of the Medici lines and as mother-in-law to Mary Queen of Scots. On the one hand scholars tend to focus on specific events in her life; on the other, they have produced overarching, general biographies. There has been notably less written about her by art historians, perhaps because of the lack of historical documentation about her few surviving artistic commissions, since almost all of Catherine’s collections, including books and art works, and her palace were destroyed by a Protestant uprising soon after her death. However, Catherine ordered that her collection be inventoried not long before her death. It is from these inventories and other personal accounts that we can learn about the nature of her collection. One of the few art historians who has studied Catherine extensively is Shelia ffolliott, who brought to light and analyzed many of Catherine’s works discussed here. Her publications have explored Catherine from a feminist perspective, especially in terms of her rivalry with Diane de Poitiers. The present project builds on ffolliott’s work to analyze Catherine’s artistic commissions as well as her relationship to other women of the time. As one of the first scholars to discuss Catherine as an art historical figure, her scholarship focuses on bringing Catherine’s patronage to the forefront of the narrative. My goal is to analyze this patronage within the context of individual identity as well as connect Catherine’s work with other women of the time to show a system of art patronage among elite women of the sixteenth century. 

The purpose of this project is to broaden the context around Catherine de’ Medici to analyze, through sociohistorical and feminist approaches, the use of imagery by northern European women in power in the sixteenth century. Catherine’s different political roles will be discussed in chapter one, with attention to her strategies for commissioning works of art that she intended to shape her public persona and advance her socio-political agenda. Catherine was the wife of the Dauphin, Queen of France, Queen Mother, and Queen Regent. These four roles fall into three distinct but overlapping eras of Catherine’s life: wife, widow, and mother. It is through her art collection that Catherine defined these intersecting identities in such a way that they helped her to maintain power and status. This post relies heavily on ffolliott’s work to consider these different artistic commissions, which do not necessarily exist in their original form today but were vital to the construction of Catherine’s public identity in the sixteenth century. 

Later discussions will investigate Catherine’s female networks. I argue that such influences proved vital in the creation of female identity through art patronage, collecting, and display. Catherine was able to take note from Margaret of Austria, who was in a similarly unusual position that allowed her more freedom and the ability to define a multilayered identity of her own. Then, Catherine mentored her descendants, Marguerite de Navarre and Christine de Lorraine, and through them the future Queen of France, Marie de’ Medici. While women have at times been stereotyped as being powerless in this period, these women prove that position wrong by claiming power and asserting it, often expressly through their art collections. 

Most elite early modern women were not able to claim power in traditionally masculine ways, but they were able to exert their influence through other means. Collecting and displaying art were important ways in which women of the upper echelons of European society defined their intersecting identities and affirmed their status and legitimacy. It is through this lens that I have studied Catherine de’ Medici and her contemporaries as prime examples of women in unconventional situations who used art to their advantage. 

-Taylor Curry


[1] Michael G. Paulson, Catherine de’ Medici: Five Portraits (NYC: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2002), 3.

[2] “Geoffroy Tory and Catherine de Medici Queen of France,” ed. by Gustave Cohen translated by Samuel 

A. Ives. (New York: H. P. Kraus, 1944), 15. 

[3] Kerrie-Rue Michahelles, “Catherine de’ Medici’s 1589 Inventory at the Hotel de la Reine in Paris,” 

Furniture History 38 (2002): 1. 

[4] Kathleen Wellman, “Catherine de’ Medici: King in All but Name,” in Queens and Mistresses of 

Renaissance France, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 228.

[5] ffolliott, “The Italian ‘Training’ of Catherine de’ Medici,” 41. 

[6] ffolliott, “The Italian ‘Training’ of Catherine de’ Medici,” 41.  

[7] Paulson, Catherine de’ Medici: Five Portraits, 3. 

[8] ffolliott, “The Italian ‘Training’ of Catherine de’ Medici,” 44. And Megan Holmes, Fra Filippo Lippi the 

Carmelite Painter, (New Haven: Yale University Press,1999), 221.Catherine drew from this experience almost forty years later in France at her private home, the Hôtel de la Reine, where she created separate apartments for her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter that are discussed later.

[9] ffolliott, “The Italian ‘Training’ of Catherine de’ Medici,” 43. Sforza had been released from

 imprisonment and was ruling in the stead of her underaged son. She came to the convent in hiding to protect her son and this would be the first, but definitely not the last time that Catherine would see a powerful woman, ruling for an underaged son. 

[10] Paulson, Catherine de’ Medici: Five Portraits 4. It is important to note that Catherine spent almost none 

of her childhood in Italy with her Medici relations. Most of her time was spent with nuns at the convent. Therefore, she had no personal relations with the Medici’s, especially her cousin Cosimo who would prove to be one of her greatest rivals on the political world stage. When they married, Henri was only a duke and second in line for the throne. However, his older brother would die before their father making Henri the heir apparent and later the king of France. 

[11] De Lamar Jensen, “Catherine de’ Medici and her Florentine Friends,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 9, 

no. 2 (1978): 58. 

[12] Shelia ffolliott, “Casting a Rival into the Shade: Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers,” Art Journal 48, no. 2 (1989): 139.

[13] Paulson, Catherine de’ Medici: Five Portraits 5. 

[14] Paulson, Catherine de’ Medici: Five Portraits, 6.

[15] Sara Sturm-Maddox, “Catherine de’ Medici and the Two Lilies,” The Court Historian 10, 1 (2005): 31. 

[16] Wellman, “King in All but Name,” 230. 

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