A Visit by an Italian Prince

IMG_1111While the name Medici may conjure up extreme art patronage, high level banking, and a very complicated business relationship with Rome, we find one member of the family who came to Santiago de Compostela from Florence as a sort of a diplomatic pilgrim. Not walking certainly, given his status, and not making this one city his only significant stop in a journey that took months to complete, Cosimo III de Medici (1642-1723), spent several very miserable, rainy days in Santiago de Compostela before moving on to Coruña, where he and his group would set sail to London. Cosimo’s trip was chronicled by several members of his retinue, each giving their own view of the prince’s events and important meetings.

In a new book written by Miguel Taín Guzmán, “A Medici Pilgrimage: The Devotional Journey of Cosimo III to Santiago de Compostela,” (Harvey Miller Publishers, London, 2019) the author analyzes the prince’s journey to Galicia through the eyes of Cosimo’s companions: among them, the diplomat Lorenzo Magalotti, Filippo Corsini, his cup bearer; and Giovan Battista Gornia, his doctor. Each writer described the journey from their own point of view, offering very similar but very individual observations.

The most well-known of these travel diaries would be the one written by Lorenzo Magalotti. His chronicle is illustrated by Pier Maria Baldi, an ink and wash painter who folded paper together to create massive panoramas of the cities they visited along the way. How typically Medici to bring a painter along. It is speculated that Magalotti used an anonymous calligrapher to whom he dictated his report on the prince’s meetings and the activities of each day of the journey. The idea was that when Cosimo became the Grand Duke, just a few months later, this comprehensive literary work would be to Magalotti’s – and Cosimo’s – credit. They visited churches and met with church officials, unofficially and without fanfare, and at its end, the journey was more about forging agreeable, future diplomatic relations than anything purely religious, but Cosimo did attend Mass while he was in the Cathedral and these chronicles give us a sense now of what it was like to arrive as a pilgrim to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in 1669.

Cosimo came into town from Padron a day ahead of his company, accompanied by a select few. The next morning, he walked down to the Cathedral from his overnight stay at San Agustín, past the markets in the Plaza Cervantes and the jet carvers’ shops.

If you stand just inside the Azabacheria entrance on the north side of the building, you will be standing on the staircase, where the prince entered the Cathedral on Monday, March 4, 1669 to attend Mass in the small Chapel of San Salvador, located directly behind the main altar. This was the chapel where pilgrims would have received communion and their Compostelas. Mass could only be said on that altar by a member of the clergy who had been appointed to do so by the pope.

Cosimo may have seen the botafumeiro, too. Magalotti describes it swinging with “flames and sparks from the censer in great abundance.” Corsini, wrote about the “charcoal it contained, … consumed by great flames.” But it is unclear if they were in the presence of the prince at the time.

Climbing up to embrace the Saint would have meant a much longer activity in 1669. Pilgrims would remove their hats, place them on the head of the sculpture of the Saint, and then perform many abrazos, sometimes as many as 15 or more. Magalotti called the whole affair ridiculous and superstitious, as you might imagine anyone would, given the fervor with which this particular act was completed at the time. He says that the statue, to him, looked like a clown, changing hats every few minutes. Corsini echoes the sentiment, saying the women embrace the sculpture three times, while the men and the hats look, again, “ridiculous.” Two of the other writers from the Medici entourage are more sympathetic to the ritual, indicating that pilgrims would touch their few personal belongings to the sculpture to collect any available saintly residue to take away with them on their way home.

Cosimo spent a good bit of time holed up in his rooms at San Agustin, evading the dreary weather, one supposes, and missing out on a chance to visit the city’s book sellers, the university, or other houses of worship as he had done in other cities. He attended Mass at San Agustin on March 4 and March 5; the building is described as “modern and majestic” in the Gornia chronicle. And he had a lengthy visit with two priests, one of whom was instrumental in the implementation of the Baroque aesthetic of the late 17th century, and the newly appointed Archbishop of Compostela, Ambrosio Spinola – all of whom spoke Italian.

So, why was Cosimo there and what did he get out of this visit to Santiago de Compostela and its Cathedral? Cosimo was known to be more genuinely religious than many of his Medici predecessors, and interested in pilgrimage. And it is highly likely that the diplomatic exercise of making small talk with local religious authorities in Spain would have been something the future Grand Duke would have thought important, remembering the traditional relationship his family had with Rome. All along this journey, starting in Florence and making its way along the south of France, from Barcelona to Madrid to Andalucía before turning north through Portugal into Galicia, this group of travelers would have waited on Cosimo, certainly, but also, they would have unconsciously acted as pilgrims have done for centuries before and after them. They would have kept each other company, looked after each other’s needs, sought out refuge in local establishments, and learned quite a bit about local culture, local cuisine, and local customs. Like, how many times does one embrace the Saint.

Sadly, the more practical reason was that Cosimo was trapped in a marriage by proxy just as miserable as the Galician downpours we see in the Baldi panoramas. It is not surprising that he would set out on a long journey away from home. During their time together, Cosimo’s wife, Marguerite Louise d’Orléans, was so intent on escaping her husband that he ordered many guards to keep her from leaving. Ultimately, after bearing him three children and attempting escape several times, he finally allowed her to return to her native France. Cosimo died in 1723. His son, Gian Gastone, was the last of the Medici family dynasty, dying without an heir in 1737.

But what do we get out of his visit, reading about it 350 years later? A thoughtful description of the interior of the Cathedral as it appeared in the 17th century, and a glimpse not only into the pilgrim rituals, but into an outsider’s assessment of the rituals. It is doubtful that Cosimo would have himself embraced the Saint, given the views of his comrades. But he stood at that doorway and in the Chapel of San Salvador for Mass, and returned to the Cathedral to pay his respects to the Saint one more time before leaving. He even bought souvenirs – jet carvings and medals. And, although we will never know for certain, maybe even a boxed Tarta de Santiago for the journey to London.


Photos by the author.


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