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   Chapter 9 THE NEST OF THE PH NIX

Romance of Roman Villas (The Renaissance) By Elizabeth W. Champney Characters: 30006

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


'TIS an incredible fable that of the phoenix, the crimson wonder-bird, which springs in immortal youth from the flames which destroy its eyrie. But it is not more strange than one which I could tell of how I found Fenice, and snatched the joy and glory of my life from the conflagration of her ancestral town and castle, in which, but for my efforts, her pure soul would have vanished from the earth.

Fenice, flame-bird, radiant and peerless, I had named her at our first meeting, long before the tragic burning of Palliano, for it seemed to me that in her vivacity and brilliancy she resembled a little dancing flame. I well remember also how at that time the longing came to me to warm my numbed heart forever in her presence.

I am no poet, but a plain man of war, and this phantasy of the ph?nix came into my head in a very natural and simple way, for Fenice when first I saw her was sending up little fire-balloons from the garden of the Colonna palace. It was an unusual and a dangerous pastime for a young girl, but the sudden flashing from the gloom of those flickering lights, that illumined for an instant the beautiful face which the darkness as quickly obliterated, gave an additional zest to my enjoyment of the vision.

I strode to her side and affected great interest in her occupation. The balloons were ingeniously constructed to represent birds with spread wings, and it was the alchemist of the family who dwelt at Palliano who had invented them. "It is his conceit," she explained, "that rising from the flames they resemble the ph?nix, a bird peerless in beauty and song, which appears upon earth but twice in a thousand years."

"Then that shall be my name for you," I said, for we were alone for the instant; "but will you as tranquilly soar away from me, leaving the world the darker for your passing?"

Though she gave me not at that time the answer I coveted, I liked none the less the modesty which made her winning difficult. There were also other matters of importance to the world at large, which I must now digress to explain, that at first hindered, but in the end abetted that winning.

It was in the spring of the eventful year of 1525 that my cousin, Federigo Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, requested me to escort his mother, the worshipful Marchesa Isabella d'Este Gonzaga, upon her journey to Rome. This demand was the more reasonable in that the Marchesa was a most loving and munificent patroness of my sister Giulia, for whose orphaned condition the great lady had shown the most tender sympathy, removing her from our lonely ancestral castle, and bringing the girl up in her own brilliant court. Giulia was now at the height of the attractiveness which was soon to be so extravagantly sung, many still maintaining her the most beautiful woman of our time.

From that estimate her brother must be allowed to differ. A superbly regal creature she certainly was, but too grandly made for my ideals. Let the question rest, for her heart was ever as great as her body, and I deny her supremacy to but one other. At this time I loved her better than any woman in the world, and as she was to accompany the Marchesa, I was the more willing to lend my protection to the cortège.

It was an inauspicious season for ladies to choose for a pleasure jaunt, for their Majesties the Emperor Charles V. and Francis I. had entered upon their struggle for the possession of Italy. The French had already entered Lombardy, and the Imperial forces under the Viceroy of Naples, Pescara and Bourbon were marching to meet them, but the Marchesa was of an adventurous and fearless disposition, and was moreover bent in her present expedition upon something more than pleasure. Never have I known man or woman of such marvellous finesse as well as courage, and she desired above all things to obtain the cardinal's hat for Ercole, her second son. Therefore it seemed good to her, while the actual fighting was still confined to the north of Italy, to hasten to Rome, and obtain this coveted prize, before the Emperor should succeed in deposing Pope Clement and possibly set up another pontiff less friendly to the House of Gonzaga.

Colonna Palace, Rome-The Grand Salon

At the same time, that Charles V. might have no cause to complain of her lack of loyalty, she sent her third son, Ferrante, to Spain to assure the Emperor of her entire sympathy with his cause and to ask for a command in the Imperial army. Rome at this time was a place where there were wheels within wheels. While on the surface all was gay and peaceful, and old enemies hobnobbed with one another, daggers lurked under the olive branches, old feuds were not forgotten, plots were hatched, and secrets were wormed from comrades over the wine-cup. While I could not emulate the consummate ruse with which the Marchesa trimmed her sails to every possible wind I had my own little surprise to spring at the auspicious moment.

I believed that the firm hand of the Emperor alone could give peace to Italy. I had lost faith in the Medicean popes, and especially in this weak and crafty cousin of Leo X. As a condottiere by profession I could have sold my services to the French but I preferred to offer them to Charles V., and I had a secret commission in my pocket from his representative, the Marquis of Pescara, then near Pavia, authorising me to raise and command the Italian contingent to the Imperial army. The Marquis desired me to take counsel with his wife's kindred, the Colonnas, who were always inimical to the Pope, as to the best means of effecting a junction with their troops in case an attack upon Rome should be decided upon the coming year. When I add that the head of the house, Vespasian Colonna, had offered the hospitalities of his palace to the Marchesa Isabella d'Este Gonzaga, it will be understood how marvellously this lady's visit to Rome fell in with my schemes.

As we made our entry into that most beautiful room of all the world, the sala de gala of the Colonna palace, my sister clutched my arm tightly. A glimpse of the glories of heaven could not in sooth have been more transporting to the rapt gaze of an anchorite, for Giulia was essentially of this world and a superb mundane life was her highest ambition.

She had profited by her tutelage at the court of the Marchesa, the most cultured in the north of Italy, but this dazzling room surpassed any in the Mantuan palace as far as her own beauty outshone that of her protectress. So as her foolish little heart cried out "Oh! that I might reign here as Queen," she looked up into the admiring eyes of Vespasian Colonna and heard the echo of her unuttered cry-"Reign here as Queen."

Garden of the Colonna Palace, Rome

With permission of Mr. Charles A. Platt

For Vespasian was a widower, and the snows of age had not cooled the volcanic fires of his heart. He offered his arm to the Marchesa, and together they made the rounds of the regal apartments. But ever as we paused before a portrait and he explained that this was some fair ancestress his backward glance at Giulia told that in his estimation she surpassed them all.

The interior of the palace inspected we passed over a bridge, which spanned a side street, to the terraced garden crowned by the ruins of the old Roman Temple of the Sun. Here were also statues and fountains, square-cut hedges, and sun-warmed, marble seats, and the air was heavy with the perfume of roses and jasmine. But the glory of the garden, as Colonna told us, was its outlook over Rome. This we could not now fully appreciate for dusk was falling and the city was in a purple haze, which deepened as we looked. Soon coloured lights glimmered forth in the dark allées, and suddenly from the summit of the ruin there rose slowly a fire balloon and twinkling far away into the blue seemed to seek its companion stars.

"It is the conceit of my daughter Isabella," Vespasian explained, "a fête of fire-works in honour of your coming."

I delayed to hear no more, but drawn by some mysterious attraction sought and found the Signorina Colonna. The flame signals flashed in her cheeks as her eyes met mine, for my glance seemed to her doubtless overbold, though it held naught of disrespect God wot.

And then she explained the mechanism of her fire balloon which was simple enough though it had been invented by a Moorish alchemist, who still practised the black art in a tower of the family castle in the Campagna. "If you ever come to Palliano we will greet you with a still more brilliant illumination," she promised, little realising how well she would keep that pledge.

It was then as I have already said that I bestowed upon her the name of Fenice, making what improvement I could of my scant opportunities. These were suddenly cut short, for Ippolito de' Medici, the Pope's handsome and dissipated nephew, presently joined us and bore Fenice away with the air of a proprietor. Such indeed he had a right to regard himself, as I ascertained on the next day during a conference with Vespasian Colonna and his nephew the Cardinal Pompeo.

Castle of Vittoria Colonna at Ischia.

I had arrived at the understanding desired by their kinsman the Marquis of Pescara, for they very willingly agreed that whenever desired all the clansmen of the Colonna would be ready to combine with the Imperial forces in the siege of Rome. Pompeo, the most truculent of the race in spite of the fact that he was a churchman, would take command, but Ascanio Colonna who was now in Naples with his sister Vittoria, the Marchesa di Pescara, might be counted upon with his sturdy vassals from the Abruzzi. We were jubilant, for news had just arrived that the Emperor's troops had won the battle of Pavia and that Francis I. was a prisoner. The Pope was reported nearly crazed with fear, and our plot of taking Rome for Charles V. seemed perfectly feasible.

"In any event," said Vespasian, "our compact of friendship stands, and I hold you and your family in such high esteem that I desire to make our alliance not merely that of comrades-in-arms but a much closer relationship. I wish to propose a marriage, which Pompeo here shall celebrate, in our ancestral home before you leave us."

My hopes rose high for I thought he had perceived my love for Fenice and I sank upon one knee in a transport of gratitude.

"Nay, rise my brother," he continued, "I count myself honoured in your acceptance of that relation. Your sister's beauty will confer undying lustre upon our house. Believe me she runs no danger as my wife, for even should the chances of war reverse the present position of King and Emperor, I have assured myself with the Pope, since my daughter is betrothed to his nephew Ippolito. He will not break with me for she will be one of the richest heiresses in Italy, well able to aid her husband in his ambition to become the Grand Duke of Tuscany."

My heart, which had been so hot, was like ice. So wretched was I that I got no comfort from the thought of the brilliant future opening before my sister. I terminated my interview with Vespasian in all haste, and strode into the garden, pacing its walks like a madman.

Here, as my good fortune willed, I came upon Ippolito de' Medici, seated with all the familiarity of an accepted lover by the side of Fenice. It was true that the young couple were chaperoned by my sister, and that Ippolito, who was holding a skein which she was winding, was leaning forward in rapt attention listening to some merry story which Giulia was relating; but, instead of congratulating myself that Fenice had now a protectress who was devoted to my interest, I was filled with rage to see Ippolito thus received into the intimacy of the family.

My sister by a light gesture indicated that there was room for me on the marble bench near Fenice, and the girl, to give me room, moved a trifle nearer to her betrothed. This angered me, and, instead of seating myself, I glowered at a little distance until Giulia, having finished her winding and her story, came toward me, leaving Ippolito free to address himself to Fenice. To my surprise he did not avail himself of the opportunity, but, springing up, begged my sister to walk with him to another part of the garden. Delighted by this unexpected turn of affairs, I seated myself by the side of Fenice and rallied her upon her lover's neglect.

"He could not have pleased me more," she replied. "The Signorina Gonzaga would be my good angel if she could rid me of him forever."

This admission was like the striking of a spark in the darkness. It was not only illuminating as to Fenice's feeling toward her fiancé, but it fired the mine of passion stored in my heart. How I told her I know not; the words exploded from me with such violence that I fear I frightened her, and yet-and yet she was not displeased, for when Giulia returned to us she found Fenice striving to cool my hot cheeks with her small hands, but succeeding only in inflaming them the more by her gentle caresses. My sister paused before us with her arms akimbo.

"Here is a coil," she said, "and I beg you to tell me how I am to explain it to the Signor Ippolito de' Medici."

"Ah! dearest lady, can you think of no way of persuading the Signor Ippolito to renounce his suit?" cried Fenice.

"Very easily," Giulia replied, "since he has just besought me to pray you to release him from his engagement that he may be free to marry me; but upon reflection I am not sure that this expedient would please your honoured father."

With that we all fell a-laughing, though the situation was serious enough. It grew rapidly more so, for my sister, apparently forgetting her new vows, manifested the utmost pleasure in Ippolito's society, and drove me wild with her coquetry. I remonstrated with her, telling her plainly that I could not understand her behaviour.

"Have you no sense of decency," I cried, "to contract yourself to a noble gentleman, who, though he is no longer young, is still distinguished in appearance and possessed of many attractions-one whose fortune and rank immeasurably surpass your own, and who, moreover, loves you beyond your desert? Are you not ashamed, I insist, to accept all this and then to treat your affianced husband with such indignity? If you must take a lover, wait at least till your honeymoon is over, and then choose one who will contrast less unfavourably with the man whom you so dishonour."

She laughed at me when I began, but as I waxed more imprudent in my chiding her cheek flamed and she retorted "Truly, since you misunderstand me thus, I scorn to explain my conduct." Nor did she deign to amend it, and so anxious was I, that (a temporary peace delaying any warlike demonstration), I lingered on in Rome to protect her against herself, and to see her safely married. The wedding took place in midsummer, but the aged bridegroom was in no happy frame of mind, for Giulia had led him a lively dance during their short engagement, and had so p

ractised upon Ippolito de' Medici by her wiles that the infatuated young man had broken his compact with the Colonnas. Suspecting that my sister had caused this defection Vespasian hastened his marriage and retired with his bride and his daughter to Palliano the strongest of his castles.

Nor was I invited to accompany the party for, having dared to ask her father for the hand of Fenice, I met with an angry refusal and was accused of having by my attentions given Ippolito an excuse for breaking his word.

But Fenice promised with many tears to be true to me, and with her pledge to await my coming I was forced to be content.

Rome having now no further attraction for me I returned to Lombardy, leaving the Marchesa, who still awaited her son's cardinalate, in the security of a peace which at that time promised to be lasting.

No sooner, however, was Francis I. released from his Spanish captivity than the Pope began again to intrigue with him, and the Emperor, learning that Clement had broken faith, ordered the attack upon Rome.

Then, at last, the Pope, realising how much he needed the friendship of the Gonzagas, sent the Marchesa Ercole's red hat.

That triumph achieved she would gladly have returned to Mantua but it was now too late, for Bourbon had arrived before the city. The siege had begun, and neither man nor woman might leave Rome.

At the Pope's own villa upon Mount Mario (the Villa Madama), without the walls, I met Cardinal Pompeo Colonna and heard the news that his uncle Vespasian had died, and that Giulia and Fenice were still at Palliano, where I vowed soon to join them.

Of the sack of Rome which intervened I shall say nothing. Would God that I could as easily dismiss its memory from my mind. I entered the city with the youngest son of the Marchesa Isabella d'Este, Ferrante Gonzaga, who commanded a division of Spaniards, and we made our way at once to the Colonna palace which refuge the Marchesa had packed with her friends. Their lives we saved and the palace from burning and plundering. Cardinal Pompeo himself paid the ransoms of many of its guests, and rescued from the Spanish soldiery upwards of five hundred nuns. Far be it from me to extenuate the life of that profligate prelate, but his brave and generous acts at this fearful time must be counted to his credit.

After that horror of cruelty and wanton destruction abated I counted on being free to seek Fenice and my sister, but greatly to my disgust, I was constituted the warden of the Pope, who was confined a close prisoner in the castle of St. Angelo.

Though this seemed to me at the time a great hardship it proved in the end the best that could have happened, for so I came to know Clement most intimately and even to feel a pity for one so beset. I well remember his dismay when Ippolito de' Medici came to him with the alarming news that the Orsini, who, under cover of their devotion to the Pope embraced every opportunity to fight the Colonnas, had refused to recognise that the war was ended and were now burning and pillaging the castles of their rivals throughout the Campagna.

Ippolito reported that Fenice and my sister were for the present safe, having fortified themselves in Palliano, but he desired the Pope to send him with orders to Napoleone Orsini to restrain his wild clansmen, and also to grant him a far greater favour. This was no less than absolution from clerical vows, which he had taken at the time of my sister's marriage, and permission, since she was now a widow, to ask for her hand.

But Clement knew that Ippolito's next move would be to use my sister's wealth to secure the government of Florence, which his Holiness desired for his more favoured nephew Alessandro. He therefore refused to release Ippolito from his vows as a churchman, salving the wound by creating him a cardinal and promising that he should one day succeed to the tiara. Then, imagining that he had thus disposed forever of so slight a thing as a young man's passion, he bade him make all speed to the pacifying of the truculent Orsini, for he well knew that unless this were instantly done the Emperor would call him in question for their unruliness.

I had been present during this interview, as was my duty, and the Pope now turned to me and bade me assist Ippolito by all means in my power, and we went forth together to prepare for the expedition.

But Ippolito's face was all aflame, and he could at first speak of nothing but his disappointment.

"By the Blood!" he cried, "his Holiness shall rue his interference in my love affairs, for I will balk him yet."

"Have you forgotten," I asked, "that you have just been made a cardinal?"

"And what of that? Is not Pompeo Colonna a cardinal? He can find no fault with me if I follow his example. I tell you that I love your sister and that she loves me. Is there any power that can divide us?"

"Yea," I answered "that of God, and there is also my power with which it seems you have forgotten to reckon."

He looked at me and laughed. "That for your power," he scoffed, snapping his fingers.

We had planned to ride to Nemi to find Napoleone Orsini but at Frascati we were met by a messenger who gave Ippolito a letter. On reading it he told me excitedly that Pompeo Colonna was besieged in his monastery of Subiaco by a rabble of the Orsini.

"Go, and hold them in play," he commanded, "and I will hasten on to Nemi and fetch Napoleone with me, to command his clansmen to raise the siege."

The plan commended itself to my reason and, suspecting no treachery, I galloped off with my troop for the relief of Pompeo. Ippolito shouted to me to await his coming at Subiaco, and I might have remained there until this day had I obeyed him. But at the monastery to my surprise I found all quiet nor had there been any fighting since the previous year, when the papal troops had been beaten by the monks and left their banner behind them. Both Cardinal Pompeo and I were puzzled by the false news which had brought me in such haste, but, being where we were, we accepted the hospitality of the monastery and rested and refreshed ourselves for three hours and no more. For, at the expiration of that time, came an aged man clad in Oriental garments, who had escaped from Palliano that morning while Napoleone Orsini was sacking the town. The castle on the summit of the cliff was unstormed when he left, but its fall was inevitable unless help should speedily arrive. Then I knew how Ippolito de' Medici had tricked me, for he desired not my company at Palliano, where he wished to pose as the sole rescuer of its ladies.

The messenger whom my sister had sent to Subiaco was the Moorish alchemist who had taught Fenice to make the fire balloons, and I was at first encouraged by his assurance that the fortress was well munitioned, and that he had manufactured great quantities of gunpowder which was stored in its donjon. But I reflected that this circumstance was but an added danger as the assailants were endeavouring to fire the castle.

With this news the Cardinal ordered his bravi to horse, and the monks girded up their gowns for the march. As fighting men the latter suffered no disparagement when matched with my soldiery save in their weapons, for, as their vows forbade them to take the sword, they were forced to content themselves with battle-axes.

Wearied as were our horses my troop took the lead, and all night by toilsome ways over the mountains we rode toward Palliano, in the vain hope of arriving there before Ippolito in spite of the long detour which he had foisted upon us; and I felt no fatigue, for I rode for my sister's honour and the life of her I loved.

But, in the grey dawn, at the little town of Genazzano, some six miles from the Colonna stronghold, I met Ippolito and his escort returning from Palliano, for he, too, had ridden hard. His face was drawn and white, but he faced me unflinchingly.

"You need not have come," he said, "for I have given Napoleone Orsini the mandate of his Holiness. He will draw off his men. They will leave the castle of Palliano unattacked. I was too late to save the town."

"And my sister?" for Fenice's name stuck in my throat.

"Your sister is capable of taking care of herself," he answered bitterly; "at least that was the reply she gave me when I offered to remain for her defence. Nay, look not so black for I am not the villain that my mad words of yesterday stamped me. Let me right myself in your estimation. I offered her no insult, but honourable marriage, for I have not yet been consecrated, and I would have repudiated the cardinalcy and every other bribe of the devil, if she could have loved me. But she told me plainly that she had never done so, that she had but coquetted with me in the old days to prove me fickle and false to my betrothed, and thus leave Fenice free to wed with you; and that this Vespasian Colonna understood and left you his blessing ere he died."

"Say you so! Ippolito," I cried. "Then I have not made this journey in vain, and you are a better man than I thought. I will plead your cause with my sister. You shall win her yet."

But he shook his head though he wrung my hand for he knew her mind better than I. So I rode on with my men, and it was well that I did so, for Orsini after the departure of Ippolito had returned to the attack of Palliano, and as we came in sight of the promontory on which it stands, the sky was crimson, not with sunrise, but with the reflection of burning houses.

The citadel towered gaunt and black above the ruined town like the ph?nix in its flaming nest, and I acknowledged that my darling had kept her promise to greet my coming with a festival of fire.

I wondered if from one of those dark windows she were looking forth anxiously for succour, and I called the alchemist to my side and bade him send up a fire balloon as a signal that help was at hand.

"It will notify the enemy of our approach," he protested, but I replied that I cared not, and from the silken guidon of my troop he fashioned the balloon so that as it soared aloft the device of the Gonzagas was displayed to all onlookers.

Then, with hardly an interval, there shot from the platform of the great tower of the castle in quick succession a flight of answering flame signals-one, two, three, a half-dozen; I counted them as they rose and drifted away on the light morning breeze. There flashed forth lights also below in the camp of the Orsini which ringed the town, for the sentries had sounded the alarm, and when we came up with their outposts the army had formed in battle array.

I was glad of this, for it has never been my practice to fall upon and massacre sleeping men. My trumpeter sounded a parley and with a white handkerchief on the staff from which I had stripped my ensign I rode out to meet Napoleone.

I told him that I came as messenger from the Pope to bid him keep the peace, for the war was over.

He replied that he had already received that news from Ippolito de' Medici, who on the previous evening had come and gone; but that it was not easy to pacify such men as the Orsini when their blood was up.

"Then I will pacify them," I cried, "for peace I will have, though I fight for it."

"That is the peace for me," he replied, and at it we went.

I banged them well, and the monks of Subiaco coming up in good time when we were nearly spent, joined in the fray with their war-cry of "The Holy Column!" and "Christ for Colonna!" My sister's vassals also made a sally from the castle but were driven back, certain of Orsini's men following them closely and throwing firebrands upon them as they dashed through the postern gate. That was the great disaster and tragedy of the day, for the tower in which the fugitives had sought shelter was the powder-magazine and a spark from the fiery missile thrown, guided by the evil one, found its way to a little trail of the devil's dust, which had been scattered on the stairs, and so fired the mine in that pent-up hell.

With a noise as of the rending of mountains the tower belched a volcano of flame and the battle-field was as Sodom and Gomorrah when the heavens rained brimstone.

The Cascade Villa Conti Torlonia, Frascati.

By good fortune the occupants of the castle were chiefly in a tower upon the other side of the court, at whose foot the main battle was now raging, so that the loss of life was not so great as it might otherwise have been. As it was we were all so terrified that we ceased from our fighting, Orsini's men fleeing in hot haste, nor did our troops pursue, but busied themselves in giving help to the wounded. At the same time those within the castle, seeing that the battle was over, opened its gates, and to my unutterable joy I beheld Fenice and my sister standing unharmed within its portal.

So it was that we pacified the wild Orsini, and later a new castle was born ph?nix-like from the ashes of the old. But for a while it was deserted, for Cardinal Pompeo would no longer risk the lives of his relatives at Palliano, but leaving the wounded in the care of the monks we escorted the ladies to the Colonna palace at Rome which was thereafter my sister's residence.

Villa Madama-Interior

By all the canons of romance-writing my story should end here at its climax, but this is not the way of real life, which goes on spinning new threads, and intertwining them so with the old that there is no coming to the end until the shears of death cut the skein.

My duty as the Pope's body-guard kept me at his side, and my cousin Ferrante Gonzaga having less to do, was constantly at the Colonna palace, where he incontinently fell in love with Fenice. This had indeed been planned out long before by his mother, for the Marchesa had lived long enough in the Colonna palace to fall under its spell and she had marked the Colonna heiress as a suitable parti for Ferrante.

Therefore at the great reconciliation between the Emperor and the Pope which took place at Bologna, where Clement crowned Charles, and they parcelled out to their favourites the dignities of Italy, Ferrante Gonzaga besought the hand of Fenice in recognition of the services of his house. To this request both the Emperor and the Pope agreed, but when the parties to be contracted were called into their presence, Cardinal Pompeo Colonna and I came with them and forbade the banns. Being asked why we thus defied the will of the greatest powers of Christendom, I confessed how in the crimson dawn of the peace of Palliano, being determined that no power in heaven or earth or hell should henceforth jeopardise our happiness, Fenice and I had been secretly but soundly married by the Cardinal, deferring only the public festivities of the wedding to a merrier morn.

With that the Emperor declared the jest a good one, and that one Gonzaga was as good as another. "And better," whispered his Holiness in my ear, as I knelt before him for his blessing.

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