Eleanor of Toledo (1522-1562)
She was the second daughter of the Viceroy of Naples, Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, Marquis of Villafranca del Bierzo, and Maria Osorio. Eleonora became the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the ruler of Tuscany, whom she married in 1539. Eleanor and Cosimo had eleven children, including five sons who reached maturity; before this time the Medici line had been in danger of becoming extinct. Thus by providing an heir, and ample spares, as well as through her daughters’ marriages into other ruling and noble families of Italy, she was able to inaugurate an era of strength and stability in Tuscany. Two of her sons, Francesco and Ferdinando, reigned as grand Dukes of Tuscany.
During her marriage, despite her initial unpopularity as a Spaniard, she gained great influence in Florence, she encouraged the arts and was patron to many of the most notable artists of the age. A pious woman, she encouraged the Jesuit order to settle in Florence; she also founded many new churches in the city. She was interested in agriculture and business, helping to expand and increase not only the profitability of the vast Medici estates, but also through her charitable interests the lot of the peasantry. She also supported unhesitatingly her husband and his policies, So great was his trust in her that in his frequent absences he made her regent, a station which also established her position as more than just a pretty bearer of Medici children.
As a consequence, it became known that Eleanor was the key to her husband, and those unable to gain an audience with Cosimo realised that through his wife their causes could at least be pleaded. No evidence exists, however, to prove that she greatly influenced him; but the importance of her usefulness to him cannot be ignored. Contemporary accounts of Eleanor belie the stern formal appearance of her many portraits. In her private capacity she loved to gamble, and she was a devoted traveller, moving endlessly from one of her palazzi to another. In the earlier part of her marriage the Medici lived in Florence’s Via Larga at what is now the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi and later at the Palazzo Vecchio. The rebuilding of the Pitti Palace was only partially completed at the time of her death. Eleanor of Toledo died at Pisa in 1562. Since her death, historians have tended to overlook her importance to Florentine history, and today she is often thought of as just another Medici consort and lover of luxury. (x)