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   Chapter 8 No.8

Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 31165

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Borgias and the Bad Women of the Sixteenth Century

Things went from bad to worse, as is their habit, and Italian life in the sixteenth century shows an increasing corruption and a laxity in public morals which were but the natural result of the free-thinking Renaissance. The Church had completely lost its influence as the spiritual head of Europe, and had become but a hypocritical principality, greedy for temporal power, and openly trafficking in ecclesiastical offices which were once supposed to belong by right to men of saintly lives; it is probable that this barefaced profligacy of the papal court was responsible for the widespread moral inertia which was characteristic of the time. The pontiff's chair at the dawn of this century was filled by Roderigo Borgia, known as Alexander VI., and it may well be said that his career of crime and lust gave the keynote to the society which was to follow him. By means of most open bribery he had been elected to his office, but, in spite of these well-known facts, his advent was hailed with great joy and his march to the Vatican was a veritable triumph. Contemporary historians unite in praising him at this time in his career, for as a cardinal he had been no worse in his immoralities than many of his colleagues; and he was a man of commanding presence and marked abilities, who seemed to embody the easy grace and indifference of his day. It was said of him as he rode to assume the mantle of Saint Peter: "He sits upon a snow-white horse, with serene forehead, with commanding dignity. How admirable is the mild composure of his mien! how noble his countenance! his glance-how free!" And it was said that the heroic beauty of his whole body was given him by Nature in order that he might adorn the seat of the Apostles with his divine form, in the place of God! What blasphemy this was! but it shows the moral level of the day. His intercourse with Vanozza Catanei was open and notorious, and she was the mother of that Lucrezia Borgia whose ill repute is dying a hard death in the face of modern attempts at rehabilitation. His liaison with Giulia Farnese, known as la bella Giulia, the lawful wife of Orsino Orsini, was no less conspicuous, and these two women had a great influence upon him throughout his whole lifetime. It had already been said of him: "He is handsome, of a most glad countenance and joyous aspect, gifted with honeyed and choice eloquence; the beautiful women on whom he casts his eyes are charmed to love him, and he moves them in a wondrous way, more powerfully than the magnet influences iron;" but this seduction in his manner cannot be considered as merely an innocent result of his great personal beauty, because his lustful disposition is well proved, and sensuality was always his greatest vice. Symonds makes the statement that within the sacred walls of the Vatican he maintained a harem in truly Oriental fashion; and here were doubtless sent, from all parts of the papal states, those daughters of Venus who were willing to minister to the joys of His Holiness. To cap the climax, imagine the effrontery of a pope who dared, in the face of the ecclesiastical rule enjoining celibacy upon the priesthood, to parade his delinquencies before the eyes of all the world, and seat himself in state, for a solemn pageant at Saint Peter's, with his daughter Lucrezia upon one side of his throne and his daughter-in-law Sancia upon the other! It was once said by a witty and epigrammatic Italian that Church affairs were so corrupt that the interests of morality demanded the marriage rather than the celibacy of the clergy, and it would appear that this remark has a certain pertinency anent the present situation. To illustrate in what way such delinquency was made a matter of jest, the following story is related. At the time of the French invasion, during the early days of Alexander's pontificate, Giulia and Girolama Farnese, two members of what we perhaps may call the pope's domestic circle, were captured, together with their duenna, Adriana di Mila, by a certain Monseigneur d'Allegre, who was in the suite of the French king. He came upon them near Capodimonte and carried them off to Montefiascone, where they were placed in confinement; while Alexander was notified of the occurrence and told that he must pay a ransom, the sum being fixed at three thousand ducats. This amount was paid instanter, and the captives were at once released. As they approached Rome, they were met by Alexander, who was attired as a layman, in black and gold brocade, with his dagger at his belt. When Ludovico Sforza heard what had happened, he remarked, with a smile, that the ransom was much too small, and that if the sum of fifty thousand ducats had been demanded it would have been paid with equal readiness, as these ladies were known to be "the very eyes and heart" of the Holy Father.

It was in the midst of this wanton court that the yellow-haired Lucrezia Borgia grew up to womanhood, subject to all the baleful influences which were in such profusion about her. Associating, perforce, with the dissolute women of her father's household, it would be too much to expect to find her a woman uncontaminated by the ways of the world. There are many things to show that she had her father's love, and dark stories have been whispered regarding his overfondness for her; but, be that as it may, it is certain that Alexander never neglected an opportunity to give his daughter worldly advancement. Before his accession to the pontificate, Lucrezia had been formally promised to a couple of Spanish grandees, Don Cherubino Juan de Centelles and Don Gasparo da Procida, who was a son of the Count of Aversa; but once in the Vatican, with the papal power in his hands, Alexander grew more ambitious, and looked for another alliance, which might give him an increased political power. Then come three marriages in which the daughter Lucrezia seems but a puppet in her father's hands. First, she was married to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, but differences of opinion regarding politics and the pope's desire for a still more powerful son-in-law led him to sanction Lucrezia's divorce; she was then promptly married to Alphonso, Prince of Biseglia, a natural son of the King of Naples. When Alphonso's father was deposed, the Borgias grew tired of the prince, and caused him to be stabbed one fine day on the very steps of Saint Peter's. Then, as he showed some disinclination to give up the ghost, he was strangled as he lay in his bed by Michellozzo, the trusted villain of the Borgia household. The year following, Lucrezia found another spouse, and this time it was Alphonso, the Crown Prince of Ferrara. The marriage was celebrated by means of a proxy, in Rome, and then the daughter of the pope, with cardinals and prelates in her train, set out on a triumphal journey across the country. She travelled with much pomp and ceremony, as was befitting one of her position in the world, and on her arrival in Ferrara she was welcomed with most elaborate ceremonies. This marriage had been forced upon the house of Este through political necessity, and the young duke-to-be, Alphonso, had looked forward to it with no pleasure, hence the wedding by proxy; but Lucrezia, by her charm and tact, soon won the affection of her husband and drew about her a most distinguished company of poets and scholars, all of whom were enthusiastic in singing her praise. Ariosto and the two Strozzi were there, likewise the Cardinal Bembo-who became a somewhat too ardent admirer-and Aldo Manuzio, and other men of distinction. Though of commonplace origin, Lucrezia had received the very best education possible, and she conducted herself with such propriety and showed such ready wit that she was the real centre of her literary coterie and gave little, if any, outward evidence of that immoral and dissolute character with which she had been credited in her earlier days. There can be no doubt that the corrupt influences which surrounded her in her girlhood early destroyed her purity of mind and led her to dissolute practices, but the legend which has grown up about her, filled with fearful stories of poison and murder, has been much exaggerated. A sensual woman she was, but she has had to suffer for many crimes which were committed by her father and her brother, C?sar Borgia; and while she was undoubtedly bad in many ways, the time has passed when she can justly be considered as a fiend incarnate.

With the high priest of all Christendom a man whose hands were stained with blood and whose private life was marred by every vice, it is not surprising that in all parts of Italy the annals of this time are tainted and polluted in every way. Apparently, all restraint was thrown aside, the noblest families seemed to vie with each other in crime and debauchery, and the pages of history are filled with countless awful iniquities. Among the Medici alone, there is a record of eleven family murders within the short space of fifty years, and seven of these were caused by illicit love! With that lack of logic which sometimes, under similar circumstances, characterizes the actions of men to-day, these Italians of the sixteenth century were not willing that their sisters and wives should debase themselves by dishonorable conduct, no matter what they might do themselves, and when the women were found guilty there was no punishment too severe for them. Thus, Eleanora di Toledo was hacked to pieces by her husband Pietro de' Medici, and his sister Isabella was strangled by her husband the Duke di Bracciano, with the consent of her brothers.

Isabella dead, the duke was free to marry Vittoria Accoramboni,-in no way his equal in rank, for he was an Orsini,-who was a woman totally devoid of all moral sense-if she is to be judged by her acts. She had been wedded to Francesco Peretti, but, tiring of him and seeing the opportunity for marriage with the duke, she and her mother plotted the husband's death, and it was her handsome and unscrupulous brother who did the deed. Despite the pope's opposition, the marriage was consummated, but the guilty pair were not allowed to remain unmolested for a long time, as Vittoria was soon arrested and tried for complicity in her first husband's murder. While thus under arrest, she lived in great state and entertained in a most lavish way, and seemed in no way abashed by her position. Though finally acquitted, she was ordered by the court to leave the duke and lead henceforth a life which might be above suspicion. Through the brother Marcello and his constant companion, who is continually alluded to as the "Greek enchantress," the duke and his wife were soon brought together again; they were again married, that the succession might be assured to Vittoria. Indeed, they were twice married with this purpose in view, but they were so scorned by the members of the duke's own family and so harassed by the pope's officers, who were ever threatening prosecution, that their life was one of constant care and anxiety. When the duke finally died, Vittoria was left his sole heir, though the will was disputed by Ludovico Orsini, the next in succession. Vittoria was spending her first few months of widowhood in the Orsini palace at Padua, when one night the building was entered by forty men, all masked in black, who came with murderous intent. Marcello, the infamous brother, escaped their clutches; another brother, much younger and innocent of all crime, was shot in the shoulder and driven to his sister's room, where he thought to find shelter; there they saw Vittoria, calmly kneeling at her prie-dieu, rosary in hand, saying her evening prayers. As the story goes, she flung herself before a crucifix, but all in vain, for she was stabbed in the heart, one assassin turning the knife to make death absolutely certain. She died saying, it is reported: "Jesus, I forgive you!" The next day, when the deed was noised abroad, and the corpse of Vittoria was exposed to the public gaze, her beauty, even in death, appealed to the Paduans; and they at once rushed to Ludovico's palace, believing him guilty of the crime or responsible for it in some way. The place was besieged, an intercepted letter revealed the fact that Ludovico had killed Vittoria with his own hand, and when the place was finally reduced and surrender inevitable, the noble assassin coolly gave up his arms, and then began to trim his finger-nails with a small pair of scissors, which he took from his pocket, as if nothing had happened. It is evident that, having accomplished his revenge upon this woman who had sullied the name of his family, he was now content to take whatever fate might come; and when he was strangled in prison, by order of the republic of Venice, he went to his fathers like a brave man, without a sigh or tremor.

The story of Violante di Cordona exhibits the same disregard for moral law and the same calm acceptance of death. As the Duchess of Palliano and wife of Don Giovanni Caraffa, this beautiful woman was much courted at her palace in Naples, where she lived in a most sumptuous way with crowds of courtiers and admirers about her. Through the jealousy of Diana Brancaccio, one of her ladies in waiting, who is described as "hot-tempered and tawny-haired," the fair duchess was doomed to a sad fate, and all on account of the handsome Marcello Capecce, who had been her most ardent suitor. In Mrs. Linton's words, "his love for Violante was that half religious, half sensual passion which now writes sonnets to my lady as a saint, and now makes love to her as a courtesan." But, whatever his mode of procedure, Diana loved him, while he loved only Violante, and he proved to be a masterful man. The duke was away in exile on account of a disgraceful carouse which had ended in a street fight, and Violante was spending the time, practically alone, in the quiet little town of Gallese, which is halfway between Orvieto and Rome. In this solitude, Violante and Marcello were finally surprised under circumstances which made their guilt certain, and final confession was obtained from Marcello after he had been arrested and subjected to torture. Thereupon the duke sought him out in his prison, and stabbed him and threw his body into the prison sewer. The pope, Paul IV., was the duke's uncle; and upon being told what his nephew had done, he showed no surprise, but asked significantly: "And what have they done with the duchess?" Murder, under such circumstances, was considered justifiable throughout all Italy-and it must be confessed that the modern world knows something of this sentiment. On one occasion, a Florentine court made this reply to a complaint which had been lodged against a faithless wife: Essendo vero quanto scriveva facesse quello che conveniva a cavaliere di honore! [Things being true as he has written them, he is allowed to do that which is befitting a gentleman of honor!] It was not the pope alone who proposed punishment for Violante, for the duke had a brother, Cardinal Alfonso Caraffa, who spoke of it continually, and finally, in the month of August, in the year 1559, Palliano sent fifty men, with Violante's brother, the Count Aliffe, at their head, to go to her at Gallese and put her to death. A couple of Franciscan monks gave her what little comfort there was to be extracted from the situation, and she received the last sacrament, though stoutly protesting her innocence the while. Then the bandage was put over her eyes, and her brother prepared to place about her neck the cord with

which she was to be strangled; finding it too short for the purpose, he went into another room to get one of more suitable length. Before he had disappeared through the doorway, Violante had pulled the bandage from her eyes, and was asking, in the most matter-of-fact way, what the trouble was and why he did not complete his task. With great courtesy, he informed his sister what he was about, and a moment later returned, tranquilly readjusted bandage and cord, and then, fitting his dagger hilt into a loop at the back, he slowly twisted it about until the soul of the duchess had fled. Not a harsh or hasty word was spoken, there was no hurry and no confusion, all was done quietly and in order. The marvel is that these highly emotional people, who are usually so sensitive to pain, could have shown such stoical indifference to their fate.

The case of Beatrice Cenci is one of the best known in all this category of crime, and here again is shown that sublime fortitude which cannot fail to excite our sympathy, to some degree at least. Francesco Cenci was a wealthy nobleman of such profligate habits and such evil ways that he had twice been threatened with imprisonment for his crimes. Seven children he had by his first marriage, and at his wife's death he married Lucrezia Petroni, by whom he had no children. Francesco had no love for his sons and daughters, and treated them with such uniform cruelty that he soon drove from their hearts any filial affection they may have felt for him. His conduct grew so outrageous that finally, in desperation, his family appealed to the pope for relief, begging that Cenci be put to death, so that they might live in peace; but the pontiff, who had already profited by Cenci's wealth and saw further need for his gold, refused to comply with so unusual a request, and made matters so much the worse by allowing the father to find out what a desperate course the children had adopted. One of the two daughters was finally married, and Cenci was compelled by the pope to give her a suitable dot; but Beatrice still remained at home, and the father kept her in virtual imprisonment that she might not escape him and cause him expense as the other girl had done. The indignities heaped upon her and upon the wife and sons were such that they all revolted at last and plotted to take his life. Cardinal Guerra, a young prelate, who, it seems, was in the habit of visiting the house in Cenci's absence, and who may have been in love with Beatrice, was taken into the secret and all the details were arranged. Two old servants, who had no love for their harsh master, were prevailed upon to do the deed, and were secretly admitted by Beatrice to the castle known as the Rock of Petrella, where Cenci had taken his family for the summer months-all this was in the year 1598. The father's wine had been drugged so that he fell into a deep sleep, and again it was Beatrice who took the assassins into the room where he lay. At first they held back, saying that they could not kill a man in his slumber; but Beatrice would not allow them to abandon the task, so great was her power over them.

Beatrice has shown all along a surprising firmness of character, and a more detailed description of her appearance cannot fail to be of interest. Leigh Hunt gives the following pen portrait, which he ascribes to some Roman manuscript: "Beatrice was of a make rather large than small. Her complexion was fair. She had two dimples in her cheeks, which added to the beauty of her countenance, especially when she smiled, and gave it a grace that enchanted all who saw her. Her hair was like threads of gold; and because it was very long, she used to fasten it up; but when she let it flow freely, the wavy splendor of it was astonishing. She had pleasing blue eyes, of a sprightliness mixed with dignity, and, in addition to all these graces, her conversation had a spirit in it and a sparkling polish which made every one in love with her."

Such was the girl who overcame the compassion of these hirelings by recounting to them again the story of their own wrongs and those of the family; and when they still refused, she said: "If you are afraid to put to death a man in his sleep, I myself will kill my father; but your own lives shall not have long to run." So, in they went, and the deed was done in a terrible manner: a long, pointed nail was thrust through one of the eyes and into the brain and then withdrawn, and the body was tossed from an upper balcony into the branches of an elder tree below, that it might seem that he had fallen while walking about in the night. The murderers were given the reward agreed upon, and, in addition, Beatrice bestowed upon the one who had been least reluctant a mantle laced with gold, which had formerly belonged to her father. The next day, when Francesco Cenci's body was discovered, there was pretence of great grief in the household, and the dead man was given most elaborate burial. After a short time, the family went back to Rome and lived there in tranquillity, until they were startled one day by accusations which charged them with the death of the father. Indignant denials were made by all, and especially by Beatrice, but in vain; they were submitted to torture, and the shameful truth was finally confessed. The pope at first ordered them to be beheaded; but so great was the interest taken in the case by cardinals and members of the nobility, that a respite of twenty-five days was granted in which to prepare a defence. The ablest advocates in Rome interested themselves in the matter, and, when the case was called, the pope listened to the arguments for four hours. The plan of defence was to compare the wrongs of the father with those of the children, and to see which had suffered the more. The larger share of responsibility was put upon Beatrice; but she, it appeared, had been the one most sinned against, and certain unmentionable villainies in her father's conduct, which were darkly hinted at, aroused the pity of the Holy Father to such an extent that he gave them all comparative liberty, with the hope of ultimate acquittal. At this juncture of affairs, a certain nobleman, Paolo Santa Croce, killed his mother as the result of a family quarrel; and the pope, newly angered against the Cenci family because he considered it to have set the example for this parricidal mania, ordered them all to be executed according to the terms of the original judgment, with the exception of the youngest son, Bernardo, who was given a free pardon. The sentence was executed on the following day, Saturday, May 11, 1599, on the bridge of Saint Angelo, the three victims being Lucrezia the wife, Beatrice, and the older brother, Giacomo, all the other sons excepting Bernardo being dead at this time. Part of the Cenci estates were conveyed to one of the pope's nephews, and became the Villa Borghese, wherein may still be seen portraits of Lucrezia Petroni and Beatrice Cenci, the latter by the well-known Guido Reni. It is generally believed that this portrait was painted while Beatrice was in prison, and Shelley has given the following appreciative description of it in the preface to his tragedy, The Cenci, which is based upon this story, and which he wrote in Rome in 1819:

"There is a fixed and pale composure upon the features, she seems sad and stricken down in spirit, yet the despair thus expressed is lightened by the patience of gentleness. Her head is bound with folds of white drapery, from which the yellow strings of her golden hair escape and fall about her neck. The moulding of her face is exquisitely delicate, the eyebrows are distinct and arched, the lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which suffering has not repressed and which it seems as if death scarcely could extinguish. Her forehead is large and clear, her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. In the whole mien there are simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic. Beatrice Cenci appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another; her nature was simple and profound. The crimes and miseries in which she was an actor and a sufferer are as the mask and the mantle in which circumstances clothed her for her impersonation in the scene of the world."

To-day, the story is still an oft-told tale in Rome, the portrait of la Cenci is known by all, and all feel pity for her sad fate. However great her crime may have been, it should be taken into account that it was only after "long and vain attempts to escape from what she considered a perpetual contamination, both of mind and body,"-as Shelley puts it,-that she plotted the murder for which she was beheaded; so great was the provocation, that all can pity if pardon be withheld.

The corrupt condition of life in the convents throughout Italy at this time is not a matter of mere conjecture, for the facts are known in many cases and are of such a nature as almost to pass belief. One reason for this state of affairs is to be found in the character of the women who composed these conventual orders. It is natural to think of them as holy maidens of deep religious instincts, who had taken the veil to satisfy some spiritual necessity of their being; unfortunately, the picture is untrue. In many of these convents, and particularly in those where vice was known to flourish, the membership was largely recruited from the ranks of the nobility, it being the custom to send unmarried, unmarriageable, and unmanageable daughters to the shelter of a cloister, simply to get them out of the way. Women who had transgressed, to their own disgrace, the commonly accepted social laws, whether married or unmarried, found ready protection here; a professed nun was under the care of the Church and had nothing to fear from the state, and this fact was not unknown. To show how clearly this condition was understood at the time, it is interesting to note that when the scandal concerning the convent of Santa Chiara was first made public, an easy-going priest, who had acted as a go-between in many of these intrigues of the cloister, said that he could not see why people in general should create so much confusion about it, as these were only "affairs of the gentlefolk [cosi di gentilhuomini]"!

The public disgrace of Santa Chiara was due to the evil ways of one of its members, Sister Umilia, a woman who had had some experience in worldly things before she turned her back upon them. Her name was Lucrezia Malpigli, and, as a young girl, she had loved and desired to marry Massimiliano Arnolfini; but her parents objected, and she was affianced to the three Buonvisi brothers in consecutive order before she finally found a husband, the two older brothers dying each time before the wedding ceremony. After her marriage, to her misfortune, she met, at Lucca, Arnolfini, the man whom she had loved as a girl at Ferrara, and it soon appeared that the old love was not dead. Within a short time her husband was stabbed, by Arnolfini's bravo, as he was returning with her from the church, and rumors were at once afloat implicating her in the murder. Guilty or not, she was frightened, and before four days had passed she had taken refuge in the convent of Santa Chiara. Safe from all pursuit, she endowed the convent most liberally, cut her hair, and became the Sister Umilia, who was described as a "young woman, tall and pale, dressed in a nun's habit, with a crown upon her head." For thirteen years little was heard of her, and then a telltale rope ladder hanging from the convent wall led to disclosures of a most revolting nature. It was discovered that the supposedly pious nuns were profligates, the convent was a veritable den of iniquity, and Sister Umilia was found to have several lovers who were disputing her favors. Poisons had been sent to her by a young nobleman, Tommaso Samminiati, that she might dispose of a certain Sister Calidonia, who had become repentant and was threatening to reveal the secrets of their life; and the poisons were so deadly, so the letter ran, that when once Calidonia had swallowed a certain white powder, "if the devil does not help her, she will pass from this life in half a night's time, and without the slightest sign of violence." Penalties were inflicted upon all of these offending nuns, and Umilia was imprisoned for nine years before she was restored to liberty and allowed to wear again the convent dress.

However black this picture may appear, it is passing fair when compared with the career of the notorious Lady of Monza. Virginia Maria de Leyva was a lady of noble birth who had entered the convent of Santa Margherita, at Monza, where she had taken the veil, being induced to take this step because her cousin had in some way deprived her of her inheritance, and without a dowry she had not found marriage easy. In the convent, because she was well born and well connected, she became a person of much influence and received many callers. Adjoining the convent was the residence of young Gianpaolo Osio, a reckless, amorous dare-devil, who was beau comme le jour, as the French fairy tales say. So much of the story having been told, it is not difficult to guess what is to come. It was a case of love at first sight, and Osio was aided in his conquest by a number of the older and more corrupt nuns and several other people about the convent, not excepting the father confessor, who wrote some of Osio's love letters and seemed to smile upon the affair and wish it all success. Virginia yielded, as might have been expected under such circumstances; and the amour ran along smoothly for several years, until Virginia and Osio, with the help of four obliging nuns, felt constrained to take the life of a disgruntled serving-maid who was threatening to reveal all to Monsignor Barca, the inspector of the convent, at the time of his approaching visit. When once the deed was done, the corpse was dismembered for purposes of better concealment; but suspicion was aroused by this sudden disappearance of the maid, and Osio took Virginia from the place, to shield her as much as possible. Next, he offered to help her two most active accomplices, Ottavia and Benedetta, to escape and seek refuge in a Bergamasque convent, where they would be safe; but on the way thither he treacherously assaulted them and left them both for dead. One crime rarely covers up another, however; the facts soon came to light, and all concerned were fitly punished. Virginia was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment in the convent of Santa Valeria, at Milan; and there she remained for many years, in a dark cell, until she was finally given better quarters through the interposition of Cardinal Borromeo, who had been impressed by her growing reputation for sanctity. How old she grew to be, deponent saith not, but she must have lived for many years, as the following description will attest: "a bent old woman, tall of stature, dried and fleshless, but venerable in her aspect, whom no one could believe to have been once a charming and immodest beauty."

What an awful century it was! Vice and corruption in all quarters, the pope an acknowledged sinner, the nobility tainted, and even the holy daughters of the Church virgins in name only! And this was the century in which the most beautiful Madonnas were painted!

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