Tomorrow, 18 April 2018, marks the 500th anniversary of one of history’s most iconic royal love stories: the marriage of the Italian Princess Bona Sforza to King Sigismund of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania.
In celebration, the Weston Building at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, is hosting the exhibition A Renaissance Royal Wedding. The display chronicles the unexpected union of the two royals from different cultures, and the Italian-Polish connections that developed as a result.
On 18 April 1518, the two were married in Cracow cathedral, Poland. Their lavish wedding was attended by dignitaries and scholars from across Christendomn. The relationship underpinned links of politics and kinship between the two countries, that evolved into a dynamic exchange of people, books and ideas which continued for decades, in a story still unfamiliar to many scholars and students of the sixteenth century.
An Italian ruler in her own right, Bona Sforza (1494-1557) was born a Milanese-Neapolitan princess and went on to be queen of Poland through marriage, before she became duchess of Bari, Puglia in 1524. By contrast, King Sigismund (1467-1548) was the scion of a large royal house which, at its peak (c. 1525), ruled half of Europe, from Prague to Smolensk. Their five children – who later ruled in Poland-Lithuania, Sweden and Hungary - presented themselves throughout their lives as Polish-Italian royalty. To this day, Queen Bona Sforza remains a high-profile - if controversial, figure in Polish history.
The Bodleian exhibition showcases Oxford’s exceptional collections relating to early modern Poland and Italy. Highlights include, Queen Bona Sforza’s own prayer-book – very rarely displayed in the UK. The book is a tiny treasure of Central European manuscript illumination, painted by the Cracow master and monk Stanisław Samostrzelnik, and decorated throughout with her Sforza coat of arms. Other objects in the display include an account of Bona’s bridal journey across Europe (the first book ever printed in Bari), a Ferraran medal of Bona from the Ashmolean’s collections, and early 16th-century orations, chronicles and verse produced in both Cracow and Naples testifying to the Italian-Jagiellonian connection.
The display, curated by Natalia Nowakowska and Katarzyna Kosior, of Oxford’s History Faculty, is part of a European Research Council (ERC) funded project, entitled Jagiellonians: Dynasty, Memory and Identity in Central Europe. To accompany the display, a public lecture and international conference on Renaissance royal weddings, with speakers from 13 countries, will be held over the coming weeks at the University (dates tbc).