Catherine de' Medici was one of the most influential woman at French court and declared the most powerful woman in sixteenth century Europe next to Elizabeth I of England. Many legends have risen after her death, and she is often being displayed as a black widow, a royal poisoner and a tyrant - the latter because people blame her for having initiated the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre. In Alexandre Dumas' novel 'La Reine Margot', Catherine plays the role of an intrigeous mother that skillfully gets rid of everyone that comes in her way.
As the wife of king Henry II, she was Queen of France for twelve years and Queen Mother and advisor to her three sons Francis II, Charles IX (who was only ten years old when he heired the crown, so Catherine ruled France as its regent during his minority) and Henry III. She was born a daughter of the rich and influential Medici clan from Florence. Her father, Lorenzo, was the prince to whom Machiavelli had written in his political treatise The Prince, and pope Clement VII was her uncle. At the age of 14, she was betrothed to marry Henry of Bourbon by an arrangement of Clement and Henry's father. During her husband's reign as king, Catherine lived a quiet life together with her maids that had moved to France with her. As queen mother and regent she gathered several Italian advisers around her. She obviously found an interest in her Italian roots, and rumors had it that she was interested in poisons, as the French believed that Italians were ruthless practicers of the black arts. It was believed until long after her death that she had kept poisons in the more than two hundred beautiful woodcut cabinets that stood in her room in Chateau de Blois.
Catherine was very intelligent and studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, natural history, astronomy and astrology. As many in her time, she did believe that the future was written in the stars and consulted the famous seer Nostradamus several times for predictions concerning her and her children. She also employed her own astrologer that had come to France together with her in 1533. His name was Cosimo Ruggieri and he was the son of the astrologer Catherine's father had employed. Ruggieri was said to have predicted her that she would become Queen of France and although Henry was not the eldest son of the current king, his prediction was fulfilled. However, Catherine's reputation as a poisoner grew when Francois, actual heir of the throne suddenly died after a game of tennis - people rumored she had killed the dauphin in order to become Queen...
One of Ruggieri's other predictions was that Catherine would give birth to ten children seemed to be false after she remained sterile for eleven years, a circumstance which would endanger her position, as Henry considered a divorce when she could not give him an heir. But after her first son Francois was finally born, nine more children would follow. She further consulted Ruggieri regarding the future and the reigns of her children, of whom five would become rulers.
As her chambers in the Louvre had became too small for her, Catherine started building a house in the Tuileries. After Ruggieri had predicted Catherine would die 'near St. Germain', she stopped the construction project, as the Louvre and the Tuileries were part of the diocese of St.-Germain-L'Auxerrois. Instead, she commissioned the construction of a new home outside of this diocese area; the Hôtel de Soissons near the St. Eustache church. A tower that is still standing in Paris today, in front of the Paris Bourse, was built at Catherine's request. The 28 meter high column has a viewing platform, which four corners correspond with the four directions of a compass, and it is guessed that Ruggieri has used this tower for astrology. The tower was directly accessible from Catherine's home. Despite her movement, she still died in St. Germains proximity - not the church's, as she passed away in Blois, but the priest who gave her the last rites was called St. Germain...
Aside from her maids, her cooks and her astrologer, Catherine had also brought her perfumer René de Florentin to France. Catherine has introduced many Italian habits to France, including eating with a fork, dishes such as pasta and several vegetables, ballet and the high-heeled shoe. Perfume was not used in France up until Catherine came to the Louvre, but it was common in Italian noble circles. The origins of perfumes lay in Egypt, and the Arabs had brought it to Italy. Perfumes were manufactured in apothecaries. René de Florentin had his private laboratory in the Louvre, which was accessible for Catherine only via a secret passage, so that the recipes for his creations would stay unknown to others. Florentin made scented gloves for Catherine - which then became popular throughout France -, and legend says their purpose was to mask the scent of the poison Catherine hid in her jewelry.