At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Imperia Cognati - courtesan

Prostitute who became a celebrity


Raphael's Galatea in his frescoes at the Villa Farnesina in Rome is thought to be Imperia
Raphael's Galatea in his frescoes at the Villa
Farnesina in Rome is thought to be Imperia
Imperia Cognati, who acquired celebrity status in Rome in the early 16th century as a courtesan to a number of rich and powerful figures, was born on this day in 1486.

Courtesans were originally the female companions of courtiers of the papal court, whose duties required them to be educated and familiar with etiquette, so that they could participate in the formalities of court life and take part in polite conversation.

In time, however, in some cases their companionship became of a more intimate nature and they became the mistresses of their courtiers, who in the papal court were clerics nor permitted to marry.

It was common, too, for courtesans to be the companions of several clients simultaneously.  They were in effect a new class of prostitute, refined and educated enough to hold their own in polite society.

Imperia Cognati acquired her elevated status mainly through being the chosen companion of Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker closely associated with Pope Alexander VI and others and a patron of the Renaissance.  At one time he was thought to be the richest banker in the world.

He lavished Imperia – as she was usually known – to the extent that she could afford to keep both a palace in Rome and a country villa.

The statue named Imperia at Konstanz is said to have been  inspired by Balzac's fictional portrayal of a courtesan
The statue named Imperia at Konstanz is said to have been
 inspired by Balzac's fictional portrayal of a courtesan
Chigi remained her main client but she took others, maintaining her status – and income – by being very selective over the men with whom she would consort.  Her exclusive list included Angelo di Bufalo, who was another banker, Angelo Colocci, a papal secretary under Leo X, Tommaso Inghirami, a papal librarian, and the painter Raphael, of whom Chigi was a sponsor.

Imperia posed as a model for Raphael on a number of occasions.  It is thought that the nymph Galatea in the frescoes Raphael painted for the Villa Farnesina in Rome, built by Chigi, is actually Imperia.

Imperia’s background is not entirely clear. Some sources suggest she hailed from Ferrara but the consensus is that she was born in Rome, the daughter of a prostitute, Diana di Pietro Cognati, and raised in Via Alessandrina in the district of Borgo.

It was speculated that her father was Paris de Grassis, who would later serve as master of ceremonies under Pope Julius II, which may explain how she acquired an education, and why she at times referred to herself as Imperia de Paris.

She gave birth to a daughter, named Lucrezia, at the age of 17, of whom the father was assumed to be Chigi.

The artist Raphael was among Imperia's  lovers at the time she posed for him
The artist Raphael was among Imperia's
lovers at the time she posed for him
Imperia died in 1512, at the age of just 26, apparently from poisoning, thought to be self-administered.

Various theories have been put forward as to what might have prompted her to take her own life. One is that she was distraught that Angelo di Bufalo, supposedly her true love, decided to end their relationship, another is that she felt pushed out when Chigi took a new, younger mistress. 

Whatever the reason, she was given a stately funeral in Rome, fit for a noblewoman rather than a prostitute, paid for by Agostino Chigi.  She was buried at the church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio in Rome, although the monument erected in her name has not survived.

Apart from her image being preserved in works by Raphael, Imperia is thought to have been the inspiration for Honoré de Balzac’s 1832 story La Belle Impéria, set in the time of the Council of Konstanz, which ended the Western Schism in the Catholic Church, in which a courtesan is given the name Imperia.


The character in Balzac’s novel has been portrayed by the German painter Lovis Corinth in 1925, and also inspired the larger-than-life Imperia statue in the harbour of Konstanz, the town on the lake in Germany of the same name, erected in 1993.

Travel tip:

Via Alessandrina is a street, nowadays closed to vehicles, that runs alongside the Roman ruins of the Italian capital, from the Forum in the direction of the Colosseum, joining up with Via dei Fori Imperiali.

The Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere district in Rome
The Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere district in Rome
Travel tip:

The Villa Farnesina, built by Baldassare Peruzzi for Agostino Chigi, can be found in the Via della Lungara, in the district of Trastevere in Rome. Owned at different times by the Bourbons of Naples and the Spanish Ambassador in Rome, it is today owned by the Italian State and accommodates the Accademia dei Lincei, a renowned Roman academy of sciences.  The main rooms of the villa, including the Loggia, are open to visitors.


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