The artistic interchanges between Italy and France form a fascinating story. No where are they better expressed, at least to my mind, than in the Medici Fountain, commissioned by Marie de’ Medici at in the Luxembourg Garden in 1630. The fountain has a 3-part history: 1. its original construction; 2. its restoration by Napoleon; and 3. the relocation and additions of sculpture in 1866.
Marie de’ Medici was the widow of France’s King Henry IV and the regent of King Louis XIII of France.
The fountain in the Luxembourg garden was designed by Tommaso Francini, a Florentine fountain maker and hydraulic engineer who was brought from Florence to France by King Henry IV. The fabulous fountain was constructed in the form of a grotto, a popular feature of the Italian Renaissance garden.
The French queen was born as Maria at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy. She was the sixth daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Archduchess Joanna of Austria. Marie was not a male-line descendant of Lorenzo the Magnificent but from Lorenzo the Elder, a branch of the Medici family sometimes referred to as the ‘cadet’ branch. She did descend from Lorenzo in the female-line however, through his daughter Lucrezia de’ Medici. She was also a Habsburg through her mother, who was a direct descendant of Joanna of Castile and Philip I of Castile.
Although Marie was one of seven children, only she and her sister Eleonora survived to adulthood.
She married Henry IV of France in October 1600 following the annulment of his marriage to Margaret of Valois. The wedding ceremony was held in Florence, and was celebrated by four thousand guests with lavish entertainment, including examples of the newly invented musical genre of opera, such as Jacopo Peri’s Euridice. Henry did not attend the ceremony, and the two were therefore married by proxy. Marie brought as part of her dowry 600,000 crowns. Her eldest son, the future King Louis XIII, was born at Fontainebleau the following year.
Her husband was almost 47 at the time of the marriage and had a long succession of mistresses. Dynastic considerations required him to take a second wife, his first spouse Margaret of Valois never having produced children by Henry or by her lovers. Henry chose Marie de’ Medici because Henry owed the bride’s father, Francesco de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had helped support his war effort, a whopping 1,174,000 écus and this was the only means Henry could find to pay back the debt.
The marriage was successful in producing children, but it was not a happy one. The queen feuded with Henry’s mistresses in language that shocked French courtiers. She quarreled mostly with her husband’s leading mistress, Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues, whom he had promised he would marry following the death of his former “official mistress”, Gabrielle d’Estrées. When he failed to do so, and instead married Marie, the result was constant bickering and political intrigues behind the scenes.
Catherine referred to Maria as “the fat banker’s daughter”; Henry used Maria for breeding purposes exactly as Henry II had treated Catherine de’ Medici. Although the king could have easily banished his mistress, supporting his queen, he never did so. She, in turn, showed great sympathy and support to her husband’s banished ex-wife Marguerite de Valois, prompting Henry to allow her back into the realm.
Marie was crowned Queen of France on 13 May 1610, a day before her husband’s death. Hours after Henry’s assassination, she was confirmed as regent by the Parliament of Paris. She immediately banished his mistress, Catherine Henriette de Balzac, from the court.
The construction and furnishing of the Palais du Luxembourg, which she referred to as her “Palais Médicis”, formed her major artistic project during her regency. The site was purchased in 1612 and construction began in 1615, to designs of Salomon de Brosse.
It was well known that Henry of Navarre (her husband) was not wealthy. She brought her own fortune from Florence to finance various construction projects in France. But more importantly, she contributed to the financing of several expeditions including Samuel de Champlain’s to North America, which saw France lay claim to Canada.
In 1612 Marie de’ Medici had 2,000 elm trees planted, and directed a series of gardeners, most notably Tommaso Francini, to build a park in the style she had known as a child in Florence.
Francini planned two terraces with balustrades and parterres laid out along the axis of the chateau, aligned around a circular basin. He also built the Medici Fountain to the east of the palace as a nympheum, an artificial grotto and fountain, without its present pond and statuary.
The Medici Fountain fell into ruins during the 18th century, but in 1811, at the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, the fountain was restored by Jean Chalgrin, the architect of the Arc de Triomphe.
In 1864-66, the fountain was moved to its present location, centered on the east front of the Palais du Luxembourg. The long basin of water was built and flanked by plane trees, and the sculptures of the giant Polyphemus surprising the lovers Acis and Galatea, by French classical sculptor Auguste Ottin, were added to the grotto’s rockwork.