Veronica Cibo was born on 10th December 1611 at Massa in the Lunigiana. She was the third child of Duke Carlo I and Brigida di Gannettino Spinola from Genova. Veronica had average looks and had inherited her father’s aquiline nose, small mouth and closed, hot-tempered character. She had her mother’s far apart eyes, lively intelligence and a tendency to one of the worst human defects: jealousy. She envied her play companions, their beauty and their intelligence. Her excessive pride meant that she was often hurt by the most innocent of jokes and ended up on her own, furiously eying the other children who seemed to be having all the fun that she, the prince’s daughter, was denied.
When she was 15, she took the eye of Maria Maddalena of Austria, widow of Cosimo II of Tuscany, and was betrothed to Jacopo Salviati. Salviati was a Florentine whose father, Lorenzo di Iacopo had inherited the territory of San Giuliano near Rome and the title of Marquis at the end of the sixteenth century from his uncle, cardinal Anton Maria Salviati. For the first time, Veronica had been singled out amongst all the other women in court and she bathed in their envy. She felt like the ugly duckling who, by marrying, would become the beautiful swan. Her future husband was a handsome blond man admired by all Florentine women. She felt happy for the first time in her young life and didn’t care about the disappointment that her groom felt when he first lay eyes on her. She decided that she would be a good wife and would make him appreciate her, helped of course by her family. After all, she was a Cibo.
However, the first years of their marriage in Florence were coloured by her terrible jealously as he had affair after affair. One day he dared to bring a certain Caterina Canacci home, a famous beauty who lived separately from her husband and children. Jacopo quickly fell in love with Caterina and they conducted a very public affair. Caterina’s beauty was radiant – her smile lit up her whole face and she had stunning green eyes and long, curly, blond hair. She used to sing as she went to collect water from the well with her father and was often watched by the patrons of the nearby Brogi store. Her beauty had not helped her find happiness in her life however. Quite the opposite in fact. She would always remember the evening when her parents, both crying, made her promise not to do anything stupid and to listen to their advice and marry the man of their choice. ‘He’s old,’ they said, ‘and he’s not handsome’ but Giovanni Canacci would provide their daughter with a name and a social position. She would become a ‘signora’ by marrying him and, as a mother to his children, she would be the lady of the house. In this way, both Caterina and Veronica had arranged marriages, although this was nearly always the case in those days – difficult as it is to accept today. Common as it was then though, it still made life a misery for both the women in this sad story.
The only time that Veronica was happy was when she was next to her husband, the young marquis, on their wedding day in a carriage pulled by gentle white horses and she felt everyone’s eyes upon her. Jacopo was handsome and tall, even if his smile in her direction was clearly false. She realised how little he was attracted to her right from the start. What humiliation! Her pride and fear of her father prevented her from saying anything about the fact that not only did her husband neglect her during the day, but that he also went out with his friends every night, hardly ever dropping into his wife’s bedroom when he came home. Caterina suffered in a similar way when she married Giovanni. The old man was not only ugly but also dirty with the most terrible breath. He already had children from a previous marriage and they hated her and made her life a misery. She didn’t become the ‘lady’ she had expected to become. When Caterina distanced herself from Giovanni, he became furious. Then, wanting to avert any scandal, her calmed down and allowed her to live in a house in via Pilastri – on the condition that everyone knew that he had disowned her and that a serving woman by the name of Maria di Scarperia would look after, and spy, on her. It was in this ‘free’ state that Caterina met Jacopo at a party. Caterina finally found out what love is and finally realised what it meant to be happy. She chose to ignore the warnings of Maria, the maid. Giovanni seemed to not react to the affair, but once gossip about them began to circulate, she confronted her husband herself. His apparent lack of interest only inflamed her hatred of him and her desire to hurt him. She spent many nights alone in bed imagining Jacopo’s arms around her and in the end, she didn’t know which feeling was stronger, her pain, humiliation, desire or need for revenge.
Things may have turned out differently had Veronica’s great friend Fiorenza Alemanni hadn’t whispered to her that the woman kneeling at the front of the church of San Piero Maggiore was her husband’s lover. Veronica confronted her in front of the church, just as she had done with her husband. Caterina committed the worst error possible shouting: ‘Jacopo has never loved you, he is only happy when he’s with me you miserable witch! You thought you could buy him with your family name and money but he’s mine now and he can’t live without me!’. Veronica fled, but not one tear escaped from her eyes. She was absolutely furious and began to formulate a plan of revenge. She soon met one of Caterina’s stepsons, Bartolomeo Canacci. It was Bartolomeo who led three frightening individuals to Caterina’s house in via Pilastri late one dark night. Jacopo wasn’t there as he was at his family’s country residence in Figline with his father and brother,. It seems, however, that he had had a bad omen about leaving Caterina on her own and had charged two friends with guarding her until midnight. Bartolomeo knocked on the door and, being a Canacci, the maid automatically opened up. The men behind him burst through and quickly slit her throat. Jacopo’s two friends heard the commotion downstairs, but fled rather than stay and protect Caterina. They claimed they had recognised Bartolomeo and thought it was a family argument that they had no business interfering in. Caterina was alone in the bedroom calling for Maria when the first of the men burst in. He was Uguccione da Massa, one of the prince’s most ferocious men. She pleaded with him, told him she was expecting Jacopo’s child but had wanted to keep it a secret from him, but Uguccione carried on and killed with a sword blow to the head. They then got to work: they had been told to cut her into pieces. Suddenly they heard footsteps approaching – it was the guards who had been alerted by Jacopo’s friends. They quickly hid the evidence by throwing the bodies of Caterina and Maria in the well and the river, while Caterina’s head was taken to the person who had ordered this massacre: Veronica. Veronica was highly satisfied with events, apparently saying, ‘you see, he doesn’t belong to you anymore, in fact, nothing belongs to you anymore, you stupid thief.’ She put the head in a chest and covered it in one of her husband’s shirts. What a nice surprise for him, she thought. When Jacopo woke the next morning the sun was streaming in the window and all seemed well with the world. He stretched and looked around for a fresh shirt. He hoped to avoid his wife for a few hours and not have his morning ruined. He opened the chest, took out a shirt and saw the human head underneath. A head with long, blond hair. He stood frozen as Veronica entered the room, her face a mask of pure hate. ‘Give her a kiss if you like her so much,’ she taunted. ‘now you can keep her with you always. Well, not all of her. I’m sorry for your bastard child, but he didn’t deserve to be born.’ Jacopo instinctively reach for his sword but Veronica’s words stopped him. ‘If you kill me, you stupid man, the rest of your and your family’s lives will be ruined forever. Prince Carlo, my father, will enjoy your screams as you are tortured.’ The poor Jacopo was wracked with distress, but had a moment of clarity and immediately saw how he would find his revenge without risking either his or his family’s lives. He reported his wife to the authorities and the evil Veronica was disowned by her whole family. All the members of the Canacci family were subsequently imprisoned except Bartolomeo who confessed and was tortured before being beheaded in front of the palazzo del Bargello. The rest of the family were eventually released from prison.
So what happened to Veronica? She fled. The first stop she made after leaving Florence was at villa San Cerbone, which the Salviati family had bought years before as a country residence and where Jacopo had gone for business on the evening of Caterina’s murder. As arrogant as always, Veronica arrived at the villa late at night and immediately demanded that a room be made up for her. She ate light and went upstairs to bed. Did she sleep? It seems that since Caterina’s murder she hadn’t been able to sleep at all, either for remorse or indignation. She tossed and turned in the enormous bed and suddenly heard the door open. It was past midnight and the ethereal figure that appeared before her, holding her head in her hands, was none other than her rival, Caterina. The ghost opened her mouth and spoke:
‘I will come and visit you every night, you heartless being, and when you join me, my condemnation will be yours. We will be linked for all eternity to remind us of our sins.’
Once Veronica was convinced that the ruling Medici family wouldn’t pursue her outside of Florence, she fled to palazzo Salviati in Rome. We know very little else about her. It is known that she died in Rome on 10th September 1691 in via della Lungara. She made out a will shortly before dying and her coffin was placed in the Salviati chapel in he church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. But what about Caterina’s prophecy? It is said that anyone who has the courage to wander the corridors of villa San Cerbone, currently the Serristori ‘ospedale’ (hospital), will see a terrifying scene: a brown haired woman chasing a blond woman waving a knife and then the blond chasing the brunette, holding her head in her hands and her eyes blazing. The late Doctor Ori, who worked at the hospital as a surgeon, used to tell how there were nights in the hospital when he couldn’t
sleep for the noises and banging doors. He would get up, thinking it was an open window causing a draft… The nuns and staff would avoid that part of the building even in the day time, he said. The only thing remaining which testifies to the horror of that dark night is a plaque which marks the death of Veronica Cibo.
Much of this story is taken from Massimo Pandolfi’s book, ‘All’Ombra del Campanile – Storie di Figline Valdarno tra verità e leggenda’ (‘In the Shadown of the Bell Tower – Stories, truths and legends from Figline Valdarno’). The staff of daltramontoallalba.it wish to thank the Library of Figline Valdarno for all their help in researching this legend.