Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I love a good chevalric order and the symbol of the uber prestigious Order of the Golden Fleece is my absolute favourite.
Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence at the time, was awarded the honour of becoming a member of the much coveted boys club in 1545. It was a limited membership of 50 (increased in 1516 ) and couldn’t be passed on to heirs.

Portrait of Cosimo I de Medici wearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Bronzino
The order originated in 1430, by the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good) in celebration of his wedding to the Portuguese princess Isabella of Aviz. The Burgundian lands were subsequently absorbed into the domain of the Hapsburgs, explaining why Cosimo received the knightly membership from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of the Hapsburg family.  Membership was excluded to heretics and so it became an exclusive catholic order during the Reformation.  The dedication of the order to the ‘golden fleece’ refers to the mythological story of Jason, who, along with his team, the Argonauts, managed to obtain the golden fleece which was being kept in a tree guarded by a dragon, a deed which was necessary for him to claim his birthright.

Jason with the Golden Fleece by Peter Francavilla in the Bargello
The order’s patron saint is St Andrew, whose calendar day is 11 August, the day on which Cosimo I received the honour in the cathedral of Florence. The badge of the order is in the shape of a gold fleece hanging from a jeweled collar of fire steels in the shape of B (for Burgandy) and linked by flints. Cosimo is shown wearing the collar in many portraits as well as appearing painted into various political scenes in the Medici palaces

Fresco on the ceiling of the staircase from the first to the second floor of the granducal apartments, showing the Golden Fleece collar
In 1561 Cosimo received the authority from Pope Pius IV to create his own chivalric order, the Order of St Stephen, Pope and Martyr. He was the first Grand Master of the order and his successors, as the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, inherited the leadership. 

Medici arms surmounted by a coronet and surrounded by the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece
The objective of the order when formed was to combat the growing threat of the Turks on the Tyrannian sea.  The initial seat of the order was in Elba but was later moved to Pisa. It was an ingenious way to unite the nobles from the recently conquered Siena and Pisa, now under the rule of the Medici dukes, with the Florentines in a unified front against a common enemy. St Stephen, Pope and Martyr was important to Cosimo as it was on this saint’s calendar day, 2nd August in 1554, that he defeated the French led by the exiled Florentine Marshal Strozzi at the battle of Marciano. The two bronze statues in the chapel of the Princes show the Medici Grand Dukes wearing the cloak of the Grand Master of the Order.

Cameo of Cosimo I (holding the collar) and Eleanora with children in the Silver Museum in the Pitti Palace