Claudia de’ Medici was born on 4 June 1604 in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence as the youngest child of Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Christina of Lorraine. She was the youngest of nine siblings, though not all of these would survive to adulthood. Claudia was most likely named after her grandmother Claude of France and great-grandmother Claude, Queen of France and Duchess of Brittany.
By the age of four, Claudia was promised in marriage to Federico della Rovere, the future Duke of Urbino, who was a year younger than she was. The engagement contract was signed on 23 March 1609. For now, Claudia remained at home and received her education at the Benedictine convent della Murate. She and her three sisters, Eleanora, Catherine and Maria Maddalena, were all educated there. While there, she discovered a love of music and painting, and she would remain there for six years.
Claudia first met her future husband at the age of 12 when he came for an official visit in 1616. Various festivities were held in his honour, but there is no information as to how Claudia and Federico got along. The following year, Claudia attended the wedding of her sister Catherine to Ferdinando Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whose sister Eleanora Gonzaga (the Elder) would marry Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor. Her eldest brother Cosimo, who had succeeded their father upon his death in 1609, had already married Maria Maddalena of Austria, Ferdinand’s younger sister, in 1608. In 1618, Ferdinand’s younger brother Leopold, who would become Claudia’s second husband, visited Florence, probably for the baptism of his nephew Leopoldo, who had been named in his honour. They probably never imagined they would end up getting married as Claudia was engaged to Federico and Leopold was in the clergy.
When news reached the ducal court that Ferdinand II had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1619, Florence duly celebrated for three days. He had been widowed since 1616 – his first wife had been Maria Anna of Bavaria– and thoughts also turned to a possible match between him and Claudia. Claudia’s sister-in-law Maria Maddalena was quite taken with the idea and ordered a painting to be made of Claudia to be sent to the court in Vienna. Ferdinand reportedly liked the painting, but in the end, the match never materialised. The dowry was simply too high, and Federico’s father was unwilling to end the engagement between her and his son.
And so, the preparations for her marriage to Federico began in its earnest, even when Claudia became very ill with smallpox in November 1620 and when her eldest brother Cosimo II tragically died at the age of 30 on 28 February 1621. On 29 April 1621, a simple and scaled-down wedding took place between Claudia and Federico. She left Florence at the end of the following month with her mother Christina who escorted her to Pratolino. Her brother Carlo accompanied her the rest way. By then, she was already in the early stages of pregnancy.
As she arrived, she was greeted by her mother-in-law, who showed her to her new apartments. A planned fireworks display had to be postponed to the next day because of the rain. Claudia was less than pleased to find that her new husband had also housed his mistress in the palace. Claudia left the palace in protest and could only be persuaded to return a while later. At the end of the year, Federico’s father made him Duke of Urbino.
Their daughter Vittoria was born on 7 February 1622. Federico continued to live a carefree life, and he was found dead in his bed on 28 June 1623. Although there were some rumours of poisoning, he probably died of an epileptic attack. Federico’s father took up the title of Duke of Urbino again, and while it was expected that Vittoria would one day inherit the lands or the title, they were eventually ceded to the papal states. Shortly after Federico’s death, there was some hope that Claudia might be pregnant, but when this proved not to be, she was allowed to settle in Florence. But she was still young and had proven herself fertile. She would not remain unmarried for long.
Once more, her sister-in-law Maria Maddalena suggested her to her family – only this time, she suggested Leopold. He had become Archduke of Further Austria in 1619 but was still a clergyman as Bishop of Passau and Strasbourg. Maria Maddelena sent him a portrait of Claudia and praised her beauty. However, Leopold would need the consent of the King of Spain and his brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, to give up his ecclesial positions to marry. For now, Claudia and Vittoria went to live at the Dominican convent della Crocetta. Vittoria remained heir to her grandfather’s private fortune, and so she was betrothed before her second birthday to her first cousin, Ferdinando II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, son of Maria Maddelena and Cosimo II.
It took Leopold quite some time to get the proper permissions, but once he had them, the marriage negotiations could begin. Claudia would be a bride again.1