Giuliano de’ Medici was the youngest of the two Medici brothers who essentially ruled Florence during Ginevra’s lifetime. Beautiful, lithe, graceful, exuding vitality and a love of life, he became known as “The Prince of Youth.”
DA VINCI’S TIGER opens with the Joust of 1475—in which Giuliano was the much beloved and favored contender—because it is probably where Ambassador Bernardo Bembo first saw Ginevra. And it gives Ginevra a tantalizing taste of the most spectacular elements of the Medici court and the aggrandizing aspects of being chosen one of its female Platonic Muses.
“The Prince of Youth” paraded through Florence’s streets and then onto the jousting field flourishing a banner painted by the famed Botticelli, depicting Giuliano’s Platonic Muse—Simonetta Vespucci—as Athena, the goddess of wisdom and virtue. (Simonetta, BTW, is probably the inspiration for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or “Venus on a half shell” as some jokingly call the iconic work.)
Following Giuliano were trumpeters and men-at-arms, carrying more colorful banners, dressed in matching blue silk brocade, their sleeves embroidered with flames. Giuliano wore gleaming armor, draped in diaphanous material studded with pearls, rubies, and emeralds. He rode a nimble black-and-white pie-bald horse, named Orso, also draped in blue embroidered silk. Before riding into completion, the beautiful Giuliano cantered to the stands where Simonetta sat, drew up his horse in a spray of white sand, and elegantly bowed, requesting the favor of her scarf to tuck into his armor as good luck.
Can you imagine the fanfare, the visual sumptuousness?
It was such an extravaganza, poet Angelo Poliziano wrote a Stanze inspired by the joust and the Platonic Love between Giuliano and the fair Simonetta. (The two of them basically were the “Brangelina” of 15th century Florence.)
Poliziano wrote of Giuliano: “In the lovely time of his green age, the first flowers yet blossoming on his cheeks, fair Julio, lived content in peace and liberty; sometimes bridling a noble steed, the glory of the Sicilian herds, he would race, contending with the winds. Now, with skill, causing him to bound like a leopard, now compelling him to turn in a narrow circle, often dealing bitter death to the wild game. So the gallant youth used to live, with no thought for his own harsh and dire fate, as yet unaware of his tears yet to come…” (translation David Quint)
Of course, jousts were highly dangerous events—many a rider died in the collisions, breaking their necks in the falls, or blinded by dagger-like splinters piercing their eyes through the slot in their helmets.
Charging the beautiful Orso down the jousting lane in twenty-two rounds against other equally determined and beautifully ermine-and-velvet attired riders, Giuliano broke 49 painted lances on their breast plates and helmets and then….
Hmmmmm…. Perhaps it’s best I let you read DA VINCI’S TIGER to find out!
Giuliano in his jousting armor, terra cotta by Verrocchio, the National Gallery of Art.