Showing posts with label Lucrezia Borgia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lucrezia Borgia. Show all posts

13 July 2022

Vannozza dei Cattanei - popes’ mistress

Mother of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia was figure of influence

Vannozza dei Cattanei hailed from an aristocratic family in Mantua
Vannozza dei Cattanei hailed from
an aristocratic family in Mantua
Vannozza dei Cattanei, who was for many years the chief mistress of Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia - later Pope Alexander VI - was born on this day in 1442 in Mantua.

Herself from the aristocratic Candia family, Vannozza - baptised as Giovanna de Candia - grew up to be a beautiful woman but also a successful businesswoman, acquiring a number of osterie - inns - after she moved to Rome.

In 15th century Italy, it was not unusual for cardinals and popes to have mistresses, despite Holy Orders coming with a vow of celibacy.  Before her relationship with Rodrigo de Borgia, Vannozza allegedly was mistress to Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II and a rival to Borgia in the 1492 papal election that he won.

Rodrigo made no attempt to hide his sexual dalliances, acquiring the nickname Papa Cattivo - the naughty pope - not only for his promiscuity but his questionable morals in other areas, with allegations that he was involved in bribery and extortion on his rise to the top, and rumours that he poisoned some of his rivals.

Unusually, compared with other popes and cardinals who flouted the rules, Borgia openly acknowledged the children that Vannozza bore him during their relationship, which is thought to have lasted between 20 and 25 years, providing for them financially and having a significant influence over their lives.

The eldest, Cesare, born in 1475, became a cardinal and as leader of the Papal armies captured large amounts of territory that were added to the Pope’s empire.  Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, the treatise on power that was written as a kind of reference point for new princes and royals, was influenced by Cesare’s lust for power.

Pope Alexander VI is thought to have fathered four children with Vannozza
Pope Alexander VI is thought to have
fathered four children with Vannozza
Of the others, Giovanni - also known as Juan - became the second Duke of Gandia but was murdered at the age of 21, possibly by Cesare; Gioffre married the daughter of the King of Naples, which was advantageous to Rodrigo Borgia.

Lucrezia, meanwhile, was forced to marry three times to elevate Rodrigo’s own status and acquire land and wealth. She took lovers of her own and there were rumours that Giovanni was in fact her own son, the product of an affair with her father's chamberlain.

Vannozza herself had to agree to marriages arranged by Borgia, first to Domenico d'Arignano, an officer of the church, then Giorgio di Croce, for whom Borgia had procured a position as apostolic secretary, and later Carlo Canale, the warden of a papal jail.

Her relationship with Rodrigo Borgia is thought to have changed after she turned 40 and Borgia’s passion for her had diminished by the time he was elevated to Pope in 1492. The care of all her children was entrusted to others in Borgia’s circle, although she remained part of it herself as a sort of matriarchal figure and her former lover sought her counsel as Pope.

He continued to support her financially and by the time she died in 1518, at the age of 76, she had acquired a considerable portfolio of property around the city.

Vannozza outlived Rodrigo de Borgia by 15 years yet despite the nature of their relationship she was granted a public funeral, recognised by Pope Leo X as the widow of Alexander VI. She was buried in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, near her son, Giovanni, after a ceremony attended by the Papal Court. 

The skyline of Mantua has changed little since it was the Renaissance seat of the Gonzaga family
The skyline of Mantua has changed little since it
was the Renaissance seat of the Gonzaga family

Travel tip:

The small, historic city of Mantua in Lombardy, which can be found approximately 150km (93 miles) southeast of Milan along the Po Valley, is flanked on three sides by artificial lakes created in the 123th century as the city’s defence system, filled with water from the Mincio river, a tributary of the Po. There was a fourth lake, which meant the city was once surrounded by water, but it dried up in the 18th century and never replenished. It was traditionally the seat of the Gonzaga family, who established a court with a heavy emphasis on music, art and culture. The city has a number of architectural treasures and elegant palaces, while the skyline of its historic old centre has changed little since Renaissance times. At its heart is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna. Inside the Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707, the Camera degli Sposi is decorated with frescoes by Mantegna.

The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is in Piazza del Popolo, adjoining Porta del Popolo
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is in Piazza
del Popolo, adjoining Porta del Popolo
Travel tip:

The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is a minor basilica in Rome that stands on the north side of Piazza del Popolo, hemmed in between the Pincian Hill and Porta del Popolo, one of the gates in the Aurelian Wall, its position making it the first church encountered by many travellers arriving in the city. The original church was founded by Pope Paschal II in 1099. The existing structure was built largely between 1472 and 1477 as part of an urban renovation programme instigated by Pope Sixtus IV. A trio of great architects - Andrea Bregno, Donato Bramante and Gian Lorenzo Bernini - contributed to its design and are among those whose works can be found inside, along with Raphael, Caravaggio, Alessandro Algardi, Pinturicchio and Guillaume de Marcillat. 

Also on this day:

1478: The birth of Giulio d’Este of Ferrara 

1814: The founding of the Carabinieri police force

1928: The birth of Mafia mobster and ‘pentito’ Tommaso Buscetta 

1974: The birth of racing driver Jarno Trulli


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14 June 2022

Giovanni Borgia - murdered son of Pope

Killing still unsolved after 500 years despite plenty of suspects

Giovanni Borgia was the brother of Cesare and Lucrezia
Giovanni Borgia was the brother
of Cesare and Lucrezia
Giovanni Borgia, the brother of Cesare and Lucrezia and son of Pope Alexander VI, was murdered on this day in 1497 in Rome.

There was no shortage of possible suspects but the murder was never solved. The grief-stricken Pope launched an immediate murder inquiry, but mysteriously closed down the investigation after just one week, leading to speculation that the perpetrator could have been a member of Giovanni’s own family.

The case has fascinated historians and writers for the last 500 years and been the subject of many books, including Mario Puzo’s historical novel, The Family, and it has featured in many films and televisions programmes.

Giovanni was born in Rome in either 1474 or 1476 to the then Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress, Vanozza dei Cattanei. He is thought to have been  the eldest of the children fathered by Pope Alexander VI with his mistress, but this is disputed.

He was married to Maria Enriquez de Luna, who had been betrothed to his older half-brother, Pedro Luis, who had died before the marriage could take place.

Afterwards, Giovanni was made 2nd Duke of Gandia, Duke of Sessa, Grand Constable of Naples, Governor of St Peter’s and Gonfalonier and Captain General of the Church.

He and and Maria had twins, a boy and a girl, Juan and Francisca, and another daughter, Isabel, who was born after the murder of her father.

Painter Ettore Roesler Franz's impression of the
Via Rua in Ghetto as it make have looked in 1880
Giovanni was killed near what later became Piazza della Giudecca in the ghetto of Rome. He was last seen alive at a feast arranged in his honour by his mother at her villa near the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. His siblings, Cesare, Lucrezia and Gioffre were all present at the feast.

On the way back to the Papal Palace, he stopped and dismissed his retainers, saying he was going to visit his mistress. He took with him only his valet and a masked man whose identity has remained unknown, but who was believed to have been visiting Giovanni for about a month before the murder. Giovanni then rode as far as the ghetto, where he ordered the groom to wait for him until a certain time, when he was planning to return to the Papal Palace. He then rode off with the masked man.

The next morning his horse came back without its rider and with one of the stirrups cut off. The groom was later discovered in the same area dying of his wounds.

Pope Alexander ordered a search for his son. A witness was found whose information led to the discovery of Giovanni’s body. He had seen five men throw a corpse into the river next to the fountain at the Hospital of Jerome, where refuse was often disposed of.

Giovanni's brother, Cesare, was among the suspects
Giovanni's brother, Cesare,
was among the suspects
The river was dragged and Giovanni’s body was recovered from the Tiber on June 16, fully clad and with 30 ducats still in his purse, ruling out robbery as a motive. He had nine stab wounds in his head, neck, body and legs.

Although the killers have never been identified, there are three main theories about who was responsible:

First, the killer could have been either his brother, Cesare, or his brother, Gioffre, as both Giovanni and Cesare were having a relationship with Gioffre’s wife, Sanchia.

Second, the murder could have been carried out on behalf of Antonio Maria della Mirandola, whose house was near the Tiber. Giovanni had kept mentioning that he had dishonoured the daughter of one of the ancient Roman della Mirandola family.

Third, the murder could have been an act of revenge by relatives of Virginio Orsini, the head of a family hostile to the Pope, who had died in a prison in Naples.

In fictitious accounts of the murder written subsequently, the villain has sometimes been identified as Cesare, and sometimes as Lucrezia, with the help of one of her lovers.

The ghetto is the area highlighted  adjoining the river Tiber
The ghetto is the area highlighted 
adjoining the river Tiber
Travel tip:

The Roman ghetto (Ghetto di Roma) was established in 1555 in the Rione Sant’Angelo close to the Tiber and the Theatre of Marcellus. It occupied the area bordered today by the Via del Portico d'Ottavia, Lungotevere dei Cenci, Via del Progresso and Via di Santa Maria del Pianto. Apart from brief periods, the ghetto was controlled by the papacy until the capture of Rome in 1870. Despite the area being subject to frequent flooding from the river, Jews were required to live in the ghetto, which was a walled quarter with its gates locked at night.  It was established by a papal bull - an edict - issued by Pope Paul IV in 1555, which also revoked all the rights of the Jewish community and prohibited Jews among other things from owning property and practising medicine on Christians.

Michelangelo's Moses is part of a huge funeral monument
Michelangelo's Moses is part of
a huge funeral monument 
Travel tip

The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli - St Peter in Chains - which was near the villa where Vanozza dei Cattanei was living, is a minor basilica best known for being the home of Michelangelo’s Moses. It is on the Oppian Hill near Cavour metro station, not far from the Colosseum. It was first built on old foundations in 432-440 to house the relic of the chains that bound St Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. San Pietro in Vincoli was the church of the powerful Della Rovere family and the Moses sculpture is part of a massive funeral monument for Pope Julius II - born Giuliano della Rovere - within which the Pope was buried.



Also on this day:

1800: The Battle of Marengo

1837: The death of Giacomo Leopardi, poet and philosopher

1968: The death of Nobel Prize-winning poet and engineer Salvatore Quasimodo


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3 March 2020

Ascanio Sforza – Cardinal

Borgia pope’s ally used his power to benefit Milan


Cardinal Ascanio Sforza has been described as  Machiavellian in his diplomatic skills
Cardinal Ascanio Sforza has been described as
Machiavellian in his diplomatic skills
Ascanio Maria Sforza Visconti, who became a skilled diplomat and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, was born on this day in 1455 in Cremona in Lombardy.

He played a major part in the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI in the papal conclave of 1492 and served as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1492 until 1505.

Ascanio was the son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Bianca Maria Visconti. Two of his brothers, Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Sforza, became Dukes of Milan, as did his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza.

At the age of ten, Ascanio was named commendatory abbot of Chiaravalle and he was promised the red hat of a cardinal when he was in his teens. He was appointed Bishop of Pavia in 1479.

Pope Sixtus IV created him cardinal deacon of SS Vito e Modesto in March 1484. Pope Sixtus died in August before Ascanio’s formal ceremony of investiture had taken place and some of the cardinals objected to him participating in the conclave to elect the next pope.

Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia intervened on his behalf and Ascanio was received with all the rights of a cardinal. The conclave elected Giovanni Battista Cybo as Pope Innocent VIII.

Sforza played an important part in helping Rodrigo Borgia be elected as Pope
Sforza played an important part in helping
Rodrigo Borgia be elected as Pope
After Pope Innocent’s death in 1492, Ascanio promised his vote to Rodrigo Borgia at the next conclave. In return, Borgia promised him the office of Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, many other lucrative posts, and the Palazzo Borgia. Ascanio managed to persuade other Cardinals to vote for Rodrigo Borgia and he was duly elected, becoming Pope Alexander VI.

Ascanio became so powerful he was virtually prime minister of the Holy See.

He arranged the marriage of Giovanni Sforza, his cousin, to Lucrezia Borgia, the pope’s illegitimate daughter, but the marriage was annulled four years later on the grounds of non consummation.

The friendship between Ascanio and Alexander VI came to an end when the French invaded Italy because the Sforza family had made a secret alliance with King Charles VIII of France. Ascanio tried to get the pope deposed along with several cardinals but the papal troops defeated the French. Once the Sforzas gave up their support of the French, Ascanio was received in the Vatican again, but his relationship with Alexander VI was never the same.

When Giovanni Borgia, the pope’s son, was stabbed to death, Ascanio was accused of the murder but he was quickly absolved by the pope.

After the French invaded Italy again in 1500, Ascanio’s brother, Ludovico Sforza, was imprisoned and Ascanio was taken to France where he was held captive for nearly two years.

Andrea Sansovino's tomb for Ascanio  was commissioned by Pope Julius II
Andrea Sansovino's tomb for Ascanio
 was commissioned by Pope Julius II
In the papal conclave of 1503 Ascanio tried to succeed Alexander VI, but he was beaten by Francesco Piccolomini, who became Pius III. He died the same month as his coronation and Ascanio took part in the conclave of October 1503 when Giuliano delle Rovere was elected as Pope Julius II almost unanimously.

Ascanio became ill with the plague in May 1505 and died, aged 50, at his home near San Girolamo degli Schiavoni in Rome. He was buried the same evening with no ceremony because he had died of the plague.

Julius II commissioned Andrea Sansovino to erect a tomb for Cardinal Ascanio in the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Maria del Popolo with an inscription announcing that Julius II had forgotten Cardinal Ascanio’s honest opposition - ‘honestissimarum contentionum oblitus’.

Ascanio Sforza has been judged to have been both intelligent and Machiavellian, but to have remained dedicated to Milan and to his family.

In recent TV dramas about the Borgias, the role of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza has been played variously by the British actors, Clive Merrison, Peter Sullivan and Christian McKay.

Cremona's famous bell tower, il Torrazzo
Cremona's famous bell tower, il Torrazzo
Travel tip:

Cremona in Lombardy, where Ascanio Sforza was born, is famous for having the tallest bell tower in Italy, il Torrazzo, which measures more than 112 metres in height. The city is also well known for producing torrone, a type of nougat. It is thought the concoction of almonds, honey and egg whites was first created in the shape of il Torrazzo to mark the marriage of Ascanio’s parents, Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco I Sforza, in 1441. To sample the many different types of torrone now made in Cremona, visit Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino in the centre of the city.

The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where Ascanio Sforza is buried
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where
Ascanio Sforza is buried
Travel tip:

Ascanio Sforza’s tomb by Sansovino is in Santa Maria del Popolo, a minor basilica in Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The basilica was important during the Borgia era. When the Pope’s son, Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, was murdered in 1497 his body lay in state in the basilica for several days before being buried in the Borgia chapel. Vannozza dei Cattanei, former mistress of Alexander VI, and Ludovico Podocataro, the pope’s secretary and physician, were also buried there.

Also on this day:

1578: The death of Venetian Doge Sebastiano Venier

1585: The inauguration of the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza

1768: The death of composer and teacher Nicola Porpora

1882: The birth of fraudstar Charles Ponzi


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13 February 2019

Isabella d’Este – Marchioness of Mantua

‘The First Lady of the world’


Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este, housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este, housed
at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Isabella d’Este, who was a leading cultural and political figure during the Renaissance, died on this day in 1539 in Mantua.

She had been a patron of the arts, a leader of fashion, a politically astute ruler and a diplomat. Such was her influence that she was once described as ‘the First Lady of the world’.

Her life is documented by her correspondence, which is still archived in Mantua. She received about 28,000 letters and wrote about 12,000. More than 2000 of her letters have survived.

Isabella grew up in a cultured family in the city of Ferrara. Her father was Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and her mother was Eleanor of Naples.

She received a classical education and had opportunities to meet famous scholars and artists. She was reputed to have frequently discussed the classics and affairs of state with ambassadors who came to the court.

When Isabella was just six years old she was betrothed to Francesco, the heir to the Marquess of Mantua.

At the age of 15 she married him by proxy. He had succeeded his father and become Francesco II and she became his Marchioness.

A charcoal sketch of Isabella by Leonardo for a portrait that was never completed
A charcoal sketch of Isabella by Leonardo for
a portrait that was never completed
In 1493 Isabella gave birth to a daughter, Eleonora, the first of her eight children.

About 12 years into her marriage, Lucrezia Borgia, who had married Isabella’s brother, Alfonso, became the mistress of Isabella’s husband, Francesco, yet Isabella continued to bear Francesco’s children throughout their long affair.

After Francesco was captured during battle in 1509 and held hostage in Venice, Isabella took control of Mantua’s forces and held off the invaders until his release in 1512.

She was hostess at the Congress of Mantua, held to settle questions concerning Florence and Milan. Francesco was said to have been humiliated by his wife’s superior political ability and their marriage broke down.

After Francesco's death, Isabella ruled Mantua as regent for her son, Federico II. She played a part in getting Mantua promoted to a Duchy, had another son, Ercole, made a Cardinal and negotiated skilfully with Cesare Borgia.

Many of the famous artists of the time worked for her, most notably Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo.

She was in contact with many writers, including Ludovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo and Baldassare Castiglione. She sponsored musicians and employed woman as professional singers at her court.

As a ruler, Isabella followed the principles of Machiavelli
As a ruler, Isabella followed the
principles of Machiavelli
Isabella’s style of dressing, wearing caps and displaying plunging décolletage, was imitated throughout Italy and at the French court.

She worked hard as a devoted head of state following the principles in Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, The Prince, and was respected by the people of Mantua.

In retirement, she made Mantua a centre for culture, started a school for girls and turned her apartments into a museum containing the finest art treasures.

When she was in her mid-sixties she returned to political life and ruled Solarolo in the Romagna until her death at the age of 64.

She was buried with her husband, Francesco II, in the Gonzaga Pantheon in the Church of Santa Paola in Mantua.

Pietro Bembo once described Isabella as ‘one of the wisest and most fortunate of women,’ while diplomat Niccolò da Correggio called her ‘The First Lady of the World.’

The home of the State Archives of Mantua, where Isabella's surviving letters are preserved in digital format
The home of the State Archives of Mantua, where Isabella's
surviving letters are preserved in digital format
Travel tip:

It is possible to view Isabella d’Este’s letters, which are preserved in digital format, at the Archivio di Stato di Mantova in Via Robertó Ardigo, Mantua. The building, previously a Jesuit convent, also houses the Gonzaga archive, which is one of the most complete archives belonging to a family that has governed in the modern age, and the Castiglioni archive acquired by the descendants of Baldassare Castiglione, including parchments, maps, drawings and documentation of the noble Mantuan family from the 13th to the 20th century. For more information on the Isabella d’Este Archive visit www.archiviodistatomantova.beniculturali.it.

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The Church of Santa Paola in Mantua. where Isabella and Francesco are buried in the Gonzaga Pantheon
The Church of Santa Paola in Mantua. where Isabella and
Francesco are buried in the Gonzaga Pantheon
Travel tip:

The 14th century Church of Santa Paola in Mantua, where Isabella d’Este was buried is in Piazza Quazza Romolo. The church and adjoining monastery were built according to the wishes of Paola Malatesta, wife of Gianfresco Gonzaga, to accommodate a group of Poor Clares. Isabella and Francesco’s daughter, Livia, who became prioress there, commissioned frescoes for the interior after her mother’s burial. Giulio Romano later painted scenes for the funeral of Isabella’s son, Federico II, of which some traces remain.

More reading:

Machiavelli's premise that 'the ends justify the means'

Lucrezia Borgia - the notorious beauty who inspired poets and painters

Titian, the giant of Renaissance art

Also on this day:

1571: The death of the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini

1816: Fire destroys the Teatro di San Carlo opera house in Naples

1912: The birth of poet Antonia Pozzi

1960: The birth of football referee Pierluigi Collina

(Picture credits: State Archives building and Church of Santa Paolo by FranzK via Wikimedia Commons)

(Paintings: Da Vinci's sketch of Isabella is in The Louvre in Paris; Santi di Tito's portrait of Machiavelli, Palazzo Vecchio collection, Florence)

5 July 2018

Giovanni Sforza – Lord of Pesaro and Gradara

Military leader was briefly married to Lucrezia Borgia


A 15th century portrait of Giovanni Sforza d'Aragona
A 15th century portrait of Giovanni
Sforza d'Aragona
Giovanni Sforza d’Aragona was born on this day in 1466 in Pesaro in the region of Le Marche.

The illegitimate son of Costanzo I Sforza, Giovanni became part of the powerful Sforza family and inherited his father’s titles when he was just 17, as Costanzo I died leaving no legitimate children.

Giovanni Sforza is mainly remembered for being the first husband of Lucrezia Borgia, but he was also a condottiero - a professional army commander -  who fought military campaigns and ruled over Pesaro and Gradara from 1483 until his death.

In 1489 Sforza married Maddalena Gonzaga, the daughter of Federico I of Mantua, but she died the following year.

As Giovanni was related to the Sforza branch who ruled the Duchy of Milan, he was regarded as a valuable connection by the Borgias and with the help of Giovanni’s cousin, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the Borgias arranged a marriage between Giovanni, who was by then in his twenties and Lucrezia, the 12-year-old illegitimate daughter of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI.

Lucrezia Borgia is said to have tipped off Sforza of a plot to have him killed
Lucrezia Borgia is said to have tipped off
Sforza of a plot to have him killed
A proxy marriage took place on 12 June 1492 as the contract stipulated that Lucrezia would stay in Rome and not consummate the marriage for a year.

Giovanni and Lucrezia then spent two years together in Pesaro, during which his importance to the Borgia family dwindled because they had formed other political alliances.

It is believed that the Pope and his son, Cesare, contrived a plot to murder Giovanni while he was in Rome, but Lucrezia was informed by her brother and warned Giovanni to leave the city.

In 1497 the Pope petitioned for an annulment of the marriage on behalf of Lucrezia.

Giovanni refused to accept the annulment as he would have had to return Lucrezia’s dowry and also sign a paper stating he was impotent.

In response, he accused Lucrezia of paternal and fraternal incest, a claim which has sullied the reputation of the Borgia family over the centuries, even though it may not have been true. The marriage was eventually annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.

Giovanni was excommunicated in 1500 and there were several attempts to kill him. He was forced to leave Pesaro and could safely return to his home city only after the death of Alexander VI.

Giovanni Sforza remarried and fathered a son, Giovanni Maria, who succeeded him as Costanzo II, after his death in Pesaro in 1510.

The Palazzo Ducale - Ducal Palace - in Pesaro
The Palazzo Ducale - Ducal Palace - in Pesaro
Travel tip:

Pesaro, which Giovanni Sforza ruled between 1483 and 1510, is a coastal city in Le Marche with a 15th century Ducal Palace, commissioned by Alessandro Sforza, one of Giovanni’s ancestors. It has become known as the city of music because the opera composer Gioachino Rossini was born there in 1792. The Rossini Opera Festival has taken place in Pesaro every summer since 1980 and the town is home to the Conservatorio Statale di Musica Gioachino Rossini, which was founded from a legacy left by the composer.

The medieval castle at Gradara
The medieval castle at Gradara
Travel tip:

Giovanni Sforza was also Lord of Gradara, a town in the region of Le Marche about 15km (9 miles) from Pesaro. Gradara has a double line of medieval walls and a large castle. It is famous for being the location of the ill-fated, true love story of  Paolo and Francesca, which was described by the poet Dante Alighieri in the fifth canto of his famous work, Inferno.

More reading:

Did Lucrezia Borgia deserve her notoriety?

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere - last of the great condottieri

Francesco Sforza and the Treaty of Lodi

Also on this day:

1966: The birth of footballer Gianfranco Zola

1982: Paolo Rossi scores a hat-trick as Italy eliminate Brazil from the 1982 World Cup in Spain
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13 July 2017

Giulio d’Este of Ferrara

Plots and prison ruin life of handsome son of Duke


Giulio d'Este, as he was said to have looked on his release from prison at the age of 81
Giulio d'Este, as he was said to have looked on his
release from prison at the age of 81
Giulio d’Este, who spent more than half of his life in prison for taking part in a failed conspiracy against his half-brother, the Duke of Ferrara, was born on this day in 1478 in Ferrara.

He was the illegitimate son of Ercole I d’Este, an earlier Duke of Ferrara, born as a result of an affair the Duke had with Isabella Arduin, a lady in waiting to his wife.

Giulio was often in conflict with his half-brothers, Alfonso and Ippolito, which led to him eventually playing his part in a plot to assassinate them.

He had grown up in the court of Ferrara and later lived in a palace on the Via degli Angeli in Ferrara.

The first major conflict between Giulio and Ippolito arose over a musician, Don Rainaldo of Sassuolo. Rainaldo was in the service of Giulio, but Ippolito, who had by then become a Cardinal, wanted him for his chapel and so in 1504 he abducted Rainaldo and held him in the Fortress of Gesso.

When Giulio discovered where he was being held, he went with a group of armed men and recovered the musician. In a sign of defiance, Giulio replaced him with the warden of the fortress.

Ferdinand Kingsley - son of the great British actor Ben Kingsley - played Giulio in the 2011 TV series Borgia
Ferdinand Kingsley - son of the great British actor Ben
Kingsley - played Giulio in the 2011 TV series Borgia
Ippolito complained about his actions to his brother, Alfonso, who had by then succeeded their father as Duke of Ferrara, and Giulio was exiled to Brescello – more than 100km (62 miles) away – as a result.

Lucrezia Borgia, Alfonso’s wife, and Isabella d’Este, his sister, eventually managed to persuade Alfonso to pardon Giulio.

The following year, Giulio and Ippolito discovered that they were both admirers of the same lady at the court, Angela Borgia, the cousin of Lucrezia, the Duchess.

But Angela favoured Giulio and told Ippolito, who despite being a Cardinal was a ladies’ man, that ‘Giulio’s eyes were worth more than Ippolito’s whole person.

Ippolito ordered his servants to kill Giulio and tear out his eyes and when they discovered Giulio on his own, returning to Ferrara from a trip, they surrounded him, beat him brutally and stabbed his eyes.

Although he was not killed he was badly scarred, lost the eyesight in one eye and was left with blurred vision in the other.

Giulio's palace in the Via degli Angeli is now the headquarters of the Prefecture of Ferrara
Giulio's palace in the Via degli Angeli is now
the headquarters of the Prefecture of Ferrara
Alfonso then organised a formal truce between Giulio and Ippolito, but Giulio bore a grudge against his half-brother for the loss of his eyesight and his good looks. He was also angry with Alfonso for not punishing Ippolito.

Another of his half-brothers, Ferrante, aspired to replace Alfonso as Duke and Giulio and other men hostile to Alfonso helped him organise a plot to eliminate Alfonso and Ippolito.

The conspirators waited at night in the street with poisoned daggers but failed to encounter Alfonso. Ippolito’s spies gathered evidence about the plot for him but, before he could relay it to Alfonso, Lucrezia and Isabella urged Giulio to flee to Mantua to be protected by Francesco Gonzaga.

The conspirators were tried in Giulio’s absence and along with his half-brother, Ferrante, and three other men, Giulio was found guilty and condemned to death.

Alfonso threatened to take his army to recover Giulio and eventually Francesco had to hand him over. The other conspirators were executed, but the sentences for Giulio and Ferrante were reduced to life imprisonment.

Ferrante died in prison at the age of 63 after 34 years of incarceration, but Giulio was freed by Alfonso II d’Este - his great nephew - at the age of 81 after he had spent 53 years in prison.

Giulio caused a stir when he was first seen out in the streets of Ferrara again because despite his years in prison he was said to have retained his charm and erect posture and he was still dressed in the fashion of 50 years before.

The Este Castle dominates the centre of Ferrara
The Este Castle dominates the centre of Ferrara
Travel tip:

Ferrara is a city in Emilia-Romagna, about 50 km (31 miles) to the north-east of Bologna. It was ruled by the Este family between 1240 and 1598. Building work on the magnificent Este Castle in the centre of the city began in 1385 and it was added to and improved by successive rulers of Ferrara until the end of the Este line.

Travel tip:

Giulio d’Este’s palace in Via degli Angeli is now the headquarters of the Prefecture of Ferrara. It was designed by Renaissance architect Biagio Rossetti and was given to Giulio by his natural father, Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. After Giulio’s imprisonment, it was taken over by his arch enemy and half brother, Ippolito. The palace became the property of the Province of Ferrara in 1932.



27 November 2016

Jacopo Sansovino – architect

Death of the designer praised by Palladio


A portrait of Sansovino by Tintoretto, currently  housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
A portrait of Sansovino by Tintoretto, currently
 housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Jacopo d’Antonio Sansovino, the sculptor and architect renowned for his works around Piazza San Marco, died on this day in 1570 in Venice.

He designed the Libreria Sansoviniana in the Piazzetta, which was later praised by the architect Andrea Palladio as ‘the finest building erected since antiquity’.

Sansovino had been born Jacopo Tatti in 1486 in Florence and was apprenticed to the sculptor Andrea Sansovino, whose surname he subsequently adopted.

He was commissioned to make a marble sculpture of St James for the Duomo and a Bacchus, which is now in the Bargello in Florence.

However, his designs for sculptures to adorn the façade of the Church of San Lorenzo were rejected by Michelangelo, who was in charge of the scheme.

In 1529 Sansovino became chief architect to the Procurators of San Marco, making him one of the most influential artists in Venice.

The Palazzo Corner della Ca'Grande was the first building in Venice designed by Sansovino
The Palazzo Corner della Ca'Grande was the first
building in Venice designed by Sansovino
His first Venetian building was the Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande, a huge classical palace for one of the richest families in Venice.

Sansovino designed the Loggetta and its sculptures adjoining the Campanile and statues for the Basilica of San Marco. He also helped rebuild many of the churches and palaces in Venice.

His masterpiece is considered to be the library building in the Piazzetta, which houses the national library of San Marco, the Biblioteca Marciana.

Construction began in 1537 opposite the Doge’s palace and it became one of the most richly decorated Renaissance structures in Venice, surmounted by statues of mythological gods.

During the construction, the roof vaulting collapsed and at the time Sansovino was blamed and imprisoned. He was freed only after appeals from eminent people in Venice, including the artist Titian.

After Sansovino’s death in Venice in 1570 he was buried in St Mark’s Basilica.

The Libreria Sansoviniana, which houses the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, is considered Sansovino's masterpiece
The Libreria Sansoviniana, which houses the Biblioteca
Nazionale Marciana, is considered Sansovino's masterpiece
Travel tip:

The National Library of St Mark’s, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, is housed in the Renaissance building designed by Sansovino opposite the Doge’s Palace in the Piazzetta. It is one of the earliest surviving public manuscript depositories in the country holding one of the greatest collections of classical texts in the world. The library is named after Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice. One of the first librarians was poet and scholar Pietro Bembo, who had earlier written beautiful love letters to Lucrezia Borgia while they were having an affair.

Travel tip:

Sansovino was buried in the beautifully decorated Baptistery of Saint Mark’s near the altar. The Baptistery was built on to the southern end of the church in the first half of the 14th century. In the centre of the room stands a baptismal font in marble and bronze, which was designed by Sansovino.

More reading:


The worldwide influence of the Renaissance giant Titian

Andrea Palladio - the world's favourite architect

The day the Campanile of St Mark's collapsed


Also on this day:



1964: The birth of footballer and manager Roberto Mancini

(Picture credits: Palazzo Corner della Ca'Grande and Libreria Sansoviniana both by Wolfgang Moroder via Wikimedia Commons)


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11 August 2016

Pope Alexander VI

Scheming pontiff married off his children to secure power


Pope Alexander VI: a portrait by Cristofano  dell' Altissimo, property of the Uffizzi Gallery
Pope Alexander VI: a portrait by Cristofano
 dell' Altissimo, property of the Uffizzi Gallery
Rodrigo Borgia became one of the most controversial popes in history when he took the title of Alexander VI on this day in 1492 in Rome.

He is known to have fathered several illegitimate children with his mistresses and his reign became notorious for corruption and nepotism.

Born in Valencia in Spain, Borgia came to Italy to study law at the University of Bologna. He was ordained a Deacon and then made Cardinal-Deacon after the election of his uncle as Pope Callixtus III. He was then ordained to the priesthood and made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano.

By the time he had served five popes he had acquired considerable influence and wealth and it was rumoured that he was able to buy the largest number of votes to secure the papacy for himself.

He had made himself the first archbishop of Valencia and when he was elected as Pope Alexander VI, following the death of Innocent VIII, his son, Cesare Borgia, inherited the post.

Borgia had many mistresses, but during his long relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei he had four children that he acknowledged as his own, Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia and Goffredo. He had several other children with different mothers.

Altobello Melone's portrait of Cesare Borgia, which  can be found in Bergamo's Accademia Carrara
Altobello Melone's portrait of Cesare Borgia, which
 can be found in Bergamo's Accademia Carrara
He made many military alliances to secure his position and married his children off to the offspring of important families to strengthen his power base.

Lucrezia is known to have had three marriages arranged by her father but rumours that she was involved in poisoning men who had become Borgia’s enemies have never been substantiated.

When France and Spain were at war, Borgia offered to help the French on condition that Sicily was given to his son, Cesare. Then he offered to help Spain in exchange for Siena, Pisa and Bologna.

Cesare brought the north of Italy under control, conquering the duchies of Romagna, Umbria and Emilia, earning the admiration of Niccolò Machiavelli, who used Cesare as a model for his classic work on politics, The Prince.

As a patron of the arts, Borgia had Castel Sant’Angelo strengthened and restored and embellished the Vatican palaces. He also commissioned Michelangelo to draw up plans for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica.

Borgia fell ill with fever in 1503 and died five days later after confessing his sins. He was 72 years old.

After a short stay in the crypts of  St Peter’s, Borgia’s body was moved to the church of Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli.

Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome, which Rodrigo Borgia strengthened and restored
Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome, which Rodrigo Borgia
strengthened and restored
Travel tip:

Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome was originally built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian and his family. It was later used by popes as both a fortress and a castle and is now a museum. Pope Alexander VI had bastions built at each corner of the base, added battlements and warehouses for arms and developed a papal apartment inside. The castle was featured by Puccini as the setting for the third act of his opera, Tosca, which ends with the heroine leaping to her death from the castle’s ramparts.

Travel tip:

The Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, where Pope Alexander VI is buried, is the Spanish national church in Rome, dedicated to the Virgin of Montserrat. It is north of Palazzo Farnese in Via de Monserrato in the Campo dei Fiori area of Rome.

More reading:


Lucrezia Borgia - more sinned against than sinning?

How the Borgias inspired Machiavelli's political philosophy

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20 May 2016

Pietro Bembo – poet and scholar

Lucrezia’s lover helped with the development of modern Italian


Portrait of Pietro Bembo
Titian's portrait of Pietro Bembo, painted in
around 1540, when the poet was 70 years old
Pietro Bembo, a writer who was influential in the development of the Italian language, was born on this day in 1470 in Venice.

He is probably most remembered for having an affair with Lucrezia Borgia while she was married to the Duke of Ferrara and he was living at the Este Court with them. His love letters to her were described by the English poet, Lord Byron, centuries later, as ‘the prettiest love letters in the world.’

As a boy, Bembo visited Florence with his father where he acquired a love for the Tuscan form of Italian which he was later to use as his literary medium. He later learnt Greek and went to study at the University of Padua.

He spent two years at the Este Court in Ferrara where he wrote poetry that was reminiscent of Boccaccio and Petrarch.

It was when he returned to the court at Ferrara a few years later he had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, who was at that time the wife of Alfonso I d’Este. The love letters between the pair to which Byron referred are now in the collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. 

Byron greatly admired them when he saw them there in 1816 and also claimed to have managed to steal part of a lock of Lucrezia’s hair that was on display with them.

Bembo went to live in Urbino where he wrote his most influential work, a prose treatise on writing poetry in Italian, Prose della vulgar lingua. His writing was later to revive interest in the works of Petrarch.

Bembo worked as a historian and librarian in Venice for a time before going to live in Rome, where he took Holy Orders. He was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1539.

He died in Rome in 1547 at the age of 76.

Photo of The Castello Estense in Ferrara
The Castello Estense in Ferrara, where Bembo was a guest
of Alfonso I d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia
Travel tip:

The Castello Estense in Ferrara, where Lucrezia Borgia lived after her marriage to Alfonso I d’Este and where Pietro Bembo was a guest, is a moated, brick built castle in the centre of the city. It is open to the public every day from 9.30 till 5.30 pm apart from certain times of the year when it is closed on Mondays. For more details and ticket prices visit www.castelloestense.it.

Travel tip:

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Piazza Pio XI in Milan was established in 1618 to house paintings, drawing and statues that had been donated to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the library founded in the same building a few years before. In addition to works of art, the museum keeps curiosities such as the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo and a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, in front of which famous poets such as Lord Byron and Gabriele D’Annunzio spent a lot of time drawing inspiration. Pietro Bembo’s letters to Lucrezia are also in the museum’s collection. Visit www.leonardo-ambrosiana.it for more information.

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18 April 2016

Lucrezia Borgia – Pope’s daughter


Notorious blonde beauty inspired painters and poets


Bartolomeo Veneto's 1520 portrait of a courtesan is generally accepted as depicting Lucrezia Borgia
Bartolomeo Veneto's 1520 portrait of a courtesan is
generally accepted as depicting Lucrezia Borgia
Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, was born on this day in 1480 in Subiaco near Rome.

A reputedly beautiful woman, she entered into arranged marriages to important men to advance her family’s political position and rumours have abounded about the fate of her first two husbands.

Macchiavelli wrote about the Borgia family in his book, The Prince, depicting Lucrezia as some kind of femme fatale and this characterisation of her, whether just or unjust, has lasted over the years, being reproduced in many works of art, books and films.

Lucrezia was born to Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of Rodrigo Borgia’s mistresses, and had three brothers, Cesare, Giovanni and Gioffre.

When she was just ten years old the first matrimonial arrangement was made on her behalf but was annulled after a few weeks in favour of a better match, which was also later called off. But after Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI, he arranged for Lucrezia to marry Giovanni Sforza.

When the Pope needed a new, more advantageous, political alliance it is thought he may have ordered the execution of Giovanni, but Lucrezia was able to warn her husband and he fled to Rome.

The marriage was eventually annulled and Lucrezia was then married to Alfonso of Aragon, who was murdered two years later.


The Castello Estense, where Lucrezia Borgia lived  is right at the centre of the town of Ferrara
The Castello Estense, where Lucrezia Borgia lived
 is right at the centre of the town of Ferrara
She was then married to Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. They lived in Ferrara and had several children and she eventually earned the reputation of being a respectable and accomplished Duchess, despite her affairs with other men.

During her relationship with the poet, Pietro Bembo, they exchanged love letters, which are now in the collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Byron called them ‘the prettiest love letters in the world’ when he saw them there in 1816 and also claimed to have managed to steal part of a lock of Lucrezia’s hair that was on display with them.

Lucrezia has been described as having heavy, long, blonde hair, a good complexion, hazel eyes and a graceful figure.

Rumours that she was involved in incest and possessed a hollow ring, which she used to poison men’s drinks, have never been substantiated.

After the birth of her last child to Alfonso I in 1519, Lucrezia became seriously ill and died at the age of 39 in Ferrara
.
Her surviving children went on to make good marriages and many royal and notable people today can claim Lucrezia Borgia as an ancestor.


Travel tip:

The Castello Estense in Ferrara, where Lucrezia Borgia lived after her marriage to Alfonso I d’Este, is a moated, brick-built castle in the centre of the city. It is open to the public every day from 9.30 till 5.30 pm, apart from certain times of the year when it is closed on Mondays. For more details and ticket prices visit www.castelloestense.it.


A lock of Lucrezia Borgia's hair is on display in a glass case at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
A lock of Lucrezia Borgia's hair is on display
in a glass case at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
Travel tip:

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Piazza Pio XI in Milan was established in 1618 to house paintings, drawing and statues donated to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a library founded in the same building a few years before. In addition to the works of art, the museum keeps curiosities such as the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo and a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, in front of which famous poets, such as Lord Byron and Gabriele D’Annunzio are reputed to have spent a lot of time drawing inspiration. Visit www.leonardo-ambrosiana.it for more information.

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