The pope's daughter: the extraordinary life of felice della rovere

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Copyright © 2005 by Caroline P. Murphy

Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10016

Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available ISBN-13: 978-0-19-518268-2 ISBN-10: 0-19-518268-5


In Memory of John Shearman



ContentsMap of Felice’s RomeAcknowledgementsPrologue: Finding FeliceI: THE CARDINAL'S DAUGHTER

1 Felice’s Father

2 Felice’s Mother

3 The Birth of Felice

4 Felice’s Stepfather

5 Felice’s Rome

6 Felice’s Childhood

7 Enter the Borgia

8 Felice’s Departure

9 The Adolescent Felice

10 Felice’s First Marriage


1 The New Pope

2 The Reluctant Bride

3 The della Rovere Women in Rome

4 The Prince of Salerno

5 Self-Promotion

6 The Education of Felice della Rovere

7 Enter the Orsini

8 Gian Giordano

9 The Orsini Wedding


1 A Bride at Bracciano

2 Felice and the Orsini

3 Felice and Gian Giordano

4 Father and Daughter Reunion

5 The Castello of Palo

6 The Entrepreneur

7 Vatican Ambassadress

8 Felice and the Queen of France

9 Madonna Felice is Everything

10 Code Name Sappho

11 The Julian Legacy

12 Felice, Michelangelo and the Pincian Hill


1 A Trip to Loreto

2 Childbirth and its Aftermath

3 The Pope’s Daughter Becomes the Pope’s Friend

4 The Pope Goes Hunting

5 Papal Payback

6 Orsini Signora Revisited

7 Bracciano’s fonte

8 Weaving

9 Personal Reckoning

10 A Slave to the House of Orsini

11 More Reckoning

12 The Temporal Mother

13 Statio

14 Family Matters

15 Dowries and the Great Queen

16 Napoleone

17 The Taking of Palo

18 Papal Reprieve


1 At Prayer

2 The Fall of Rome

3 Hostages

4 Escape from Rome

5 Fossombrone

6 The Exiled

7 The Return to Rome

8 Rebuilding

9 At the Trinity

10 A Memorial to the Past

11 Clarice

12 The Boys

13 The War of Vicovaro

14 A Brother’s Revenge

15 Restitution


1 Final Reckoning

Epilogue: Felice’s LegacyBibliographyNotesList of Illustrations





aPalazzo de Cupis on Piazza Navona. Felice’s childhood home

bPalazzo Sforza Cesarini. Known in Felice’s day as Cancelleria Vecchia, where she married Gian Giordano Orsini

cMonte Giordano. Fortress-like home to the Orsini family

dPalazzo dell’Orologio. Orsini palace built into ancient theatre of Pompey on market square of Campo dei Fiore

ePalazzo dei Dodici Apostoli. Built by Felice’s father, her hiding place during the Sack of Rome

fSaint Peter’s and the Vatican Palace

gVilla Belvedere

hChuch of Trinità dei Monti, where Felice had a chapel, and adjacent site of her palace

iChurch of San Onofrio. Patronised by Felice’s step-father, Bernardino de Cupis

jChurch of Santa Maria dell’Anima. Church of the German nation

kSanta Maria del Popolo. Della Rovere family church, where Felice is buried

lVia Alessandrina. Main street from St Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo

mVia dei Banchi Nuova. Commercial Street near Monte Giordano

nVia Giulia, commissioned by Julius II

oChurch of San Giovanni Battista degli Genovesi and

pChurch of San Francesco a Ripa, marking district in Trastevere where Felice’s father probably met her mother

qPonte Sant’Angelo

rCastel Sant’Angelo

sPonte Sisto

tTrevi Fountain







The name of this book’s protagonist, Felice means lucky or fortunate. The word applies as much to the author, as it does to the heroine. I am immensely fortunate in all the help I have received from so many people.

It was my husband, Henry Dietrich Fernández who found Felice for me and encouraged me to write this book. Any number of ideas within are his, for which he is both credited and un-credited, and he has spent countless hours, at any time of the day or night talking about Felice, her friends and associates, making them into living people.

At the University of California, Riverside, I owe a great deal to my research assistant, Catherine de Luca, who not only retrieved, but also discovered documents in the Orsini Archive at UCLA, and who has provided equally valued service in Florence. My departmental colleague Steven

F. Ostrow is the one who first saw Felice in the Mass of Bolsena and Conrad Rudolph first alerted me to Felice’s ancestor, Jacopa Normanni. UCR’s Academic Senate research fund provided financial support for the project

In2001–2, I went for a year to Italy, where I was supported by a John Paul Getty Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti in Florence. I would like to thank everyone at I Tatti who made a contribution in some way to this book, including Andrew and Jacalyn Blume, Kurt Barstow, Christopher Hughes, Suzanne Cusick, Katherine Gill, Marilena Falzerano Cirillo, Deanna Schemek, Geraldine Albers, Allen Grieco, Paul Hills, Lawrence Jenkens and Michael Rocke, Bruce Edelstein and Jonathan Nelson. I Tatti’s director, Joseph Connors, will recognize that I have appropriated his idea about Guidobaldo Della Rovere, Clarice Orsini and Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

Others who have also helped in different ways include Bruce Boucher, Evelyn Welch, Olwen Hufton, Sara Matthews Grieco, Carolyn Valone, Sheryl Reiss, Gillian Malpass, Silvia Evangelisti, Sabine Eiche, Kathleen Wren Christiansen, Sinead O’Flynn, Piers Baker Bates, Robin Bledsoe and Jacqueline Marie Musacchio. I am also grateful to the staff of the many libraries and archives I consulted, including those of the Library of Congress, Harvard University, UCLA Special Collections, Villa I Tatti, The Biblioteca Vallicelliana, the Archivio Storico Capitolino of Rome and the Archivio di Stato of Rome, Florence and Mantua

Ruth Harris introduced me to my agent, Gill Coleridge, who has helped so much to bring this book into being; practically, emotionally and intellectually. Thanks also go to my US agent Melanie Jackson and to Lucy Luck.

At Faber, I have been extremely felicitous to have had Julian Loose as an editor, because he taught me so much about the art of biography and storytelling, and this would be a very different book without his input. Thanks also go to everybody at Faber who have helped in its production, including Henry Volans and Nick Lowndes, and to my copy-editor, Jill Burrows.

Thank you also to Peter Ginna and Furaha Norton at Oxford University Press.

It grieves me, however, that the person who gave in an overwhelming way to this book is not here to see its publication. Professor John Shear-man died suddenly in August last year, but in2000he bequeathed me the detailed notes he had compiled over the years on Felice, on my promise that ‘I would take them seriously’, and I have consulted them until the very last moment of this book’s completion. He helped me obtain the fellowships I needed to finish my research, and it made me very proud when he asked me to be included among his students at his retirement party in Florence. I always intended that the book would be his, but I never expected to have to dedicate it to his memory. But it is to his memory, with affection and gratitude, that I dedicateThe Pope’s Daughter.

Casa all’Arco Cenci Tavani, Rome, July,2004

Author’s Note

For the sake of readability in English, quoted translations are not always literal ones from Latin and Italian, but have been adapted to facilitate greater reader comprehension. Efforts have been made to standardize Renaissance spelling, often anything but standard. Any errors are my own.


Prologue: Finding Felice

In the left-hand corner ofThe Mass of Bolsena, part of the fresco cycle Raphael painted in1512in the Vatican Palace apartments of Pope Julius II, an attractive young woman stands out from those surrounding her. Her companions’ hands frame her face and direct the viewer’s eye towards her. She is the only individual in her group to be dressed in black – unusual for a young woman of the time. Equally striking is the alertness and intelligence of her gaze, as she looks across the painting to the figure of Pope Julius II, who is depicted receiving Holy Communion. A sharp-eyed viewer might notice that the Pope and the engaging young woman share a physiognomy: sloping forehead, nose and chin. But what few could possibly know is that this figure is an image of Pope Julius II’s only daughter, Felice della Rovere, who became the most powerful woman in Rome of her day.

The story of Felice della Rovere lies at the heart of Rome, embedded deep within the fabric of the city, and she is still to be found there. Felice is present at the Piazza Navona, where the palace in which she spent her earliest years still stands. She exists in the narrow medieval streets of Governo Vecchio and the Via de’ Banchi, down which she rode her mule. There are the fifteenth-century palaces of Sforza Cesarini, the old Palazzo della Cancelleria, where she got married, and Monte Giordano, where she spent much of her adult life. The eighteenth-century Spanish Steps lead to the Pincian Hill, the site of a villa and a church she loved. We can cross, as she did, the Ponte Sant’Angelo, and enter into the region of the Vatican, the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo, where she attended parties, and the Vatican Palace itself, where Felice visited her father, and where her image still remains. Other buildings that contain her belong to the seventeenth century, and include the Oratory designed by the architect Borromini, home today to the Archivio Capitolino, which houses her official papers and the thousands of letters she wrote and received.

A woman whose presence can resonate in such a way through the modern city, who has her tale to tell, was clearly a ‘somebody’ in her own day. That is a rare feat when one remembers that Felice lived half a millennium ago, at a time when a woman who achieved any kind of distinction was the exception, not the rule. Her status as a pope’s daughter immediately imbues her with the frisson of scandal and an attendant sense of intrigue. However, the source of this fascination goes beyond the fact she was the daughter of a catholic priest. Felice della Rovere is a complicated and complex woman, both bound and buttressed by the circumstances of her birth. Her tale is a story of personal achievement, one in which she strived to scale the ladders of ambition, who crept along and then sailed down the corridors of power. How far she was able to go, those who facilitated her climb, those she knocked out of her way and those to whom she extended a helping hand are all a part of her tale. Hers is also a story of sacrifice; ambition is rarely achieved without cost.

Felice’s father was a cardinal at the time of her birth. There was no expectation that Giuliano della Rovere, as he was born, would become Pope Julius II in1503. He was only one of a number of cardinals, and by no means the most important person in Rome. Any children he might have had were of little significance to the wider world. Consequently, his daughter has a ghost-like existence until Giuliano becomes pope, when Felice was about twenty years old. From the available material, I have re-created those early years out of a combination of speculation and inference, set within the social and political history of the time. The Felice you see unfold in these pages is fashioned from chronicles, correspondence and diaries, account books and inventories – her own and those of others. Whenever possible, her letters are used to allow her to speak clearly for herself. When they do not survive, I have reconstructed her life, thoughts and ideas from other documents, such as the letters of those who corresponded with her, or who commented and reported on her actions and activities. Bringing Felice to life is like bringing together the components of theparagone, the Renaissance debate on which art form – sculpture or painting – is superior. Like a piece of sculpture, she must be seen in the round in order to become a fully three-dimensional character. Like a painting, she needs colour, light and shadow to appear as a vibrant part of this world. But instead of being formed of modelling clay or pigment minerals, she emerges here from a few printed pages, and a collection of almost forgotten and faded sixteenth-century documents.


part i

The Cardinal’s Daughter



chapter 1

Felice’s Father

In the year1480, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the artist Melozzo da Forlì to create a fresco image of himself, his librarian and his nephews in the library he had instituted at the Vatican Palace. The most compelling presence in the picture is the tall cardinal standing in front of his uncle. He possesses great dark eyes, a hawked nose and angular cheekbones. This man is Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. With his red cardinal’s robes and tonsured head, this is very much how he would have looked when he first met Felice’s mother. Before that moment, Cardinal Giuliano had had more than his share of triumphs and disappointments.

Although Giuliano holds a dominant position in this picture, his status in the arena of contemporary Vatican court politics is one of greater complexity. Giuliano della Rovere was born on15December, probably in1445, in a tiny village called Albissola.1His family home, however, was nearby Savona, a coastal town in the western province of Liguria, some thirty kilometres to the north-west of its more prosperous neighbour, Genoa. Being a Ligurian, a man of the sea, was very much a part of Giuliano’s identity, and he shared his sense of adventure and vision with a fellow Ligurian, Christopher Columbus of Genoa, less than a decade his junior.

But if Columbus’s fortune was made through sea-faring, the della Rovere family fortune was built on the Church. For much of the fifteenth century, the della Rovere were obscure, endowed with neither noble blood nor a history of achievement. Julius’s father, Raffaello, might have been a sailor and his mother, Theodora, possibly Greek. This in itself is unusual. It was rare, and still not the norm in Italy, to marry outside one’s own town, let alone country, and it was certainly an unusual son who was born from this union.

The della Rovere family might have continued to languish in anonymity were it not for Giuliano’s uncle Francesco, who forged a distinguished clerical career for himself.2A Franciscan friar, Francesco was a highly effective preacher, and rapidly became a prominent member of the order. By1462, he was its General. Five years later, Pope Paul II made him a cardinal. Customarily, every cardinal was given a church and its holdings from which he derived his title, and as Francesco’s titular church the Pope gave him San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. He became the first of several della Rovere cardinals to take possession of this church, whose most precious relic was the chains (vincoli) believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Rome.

The position of cardinal gave Francesco admittance to the College of Cardinals and, with it, the power to help shape the future of the Church. He now had a vote in papal elections and indeed the possibility of becoming pope. In1471, following Pope Paul II’s sudden death, Cardinal Francesco della Rovere, only four years after his appointment, emerged as the unexpected favourite at the conclave, the papal election. On25August, Francesco della Rovere of Savona was crowned Pope Sixtus IV.

Despite his membership of a mendicant order, with its vows of poverty, Sixtus instituted a nepotistic papacy, placing the advancement of his family above the needs of the Church. He had numerous nephews, many of whom received positions of secular or ecclesiastical importance. Sixtus’ favourite nephews were the sons of his sister Bianca. Pietro was made a cardinal only a few weeks after Sixtus’ election. To keep him company, Sixtus made his cousin, Giuliano, a cardinal as well.

Pietro and Giuliano were already members of the Franciscan order, ordained in their youth, possibly under pressure from their uncle. The cousins, both nearing thirty, were scarcely able to believe their good fortune at making such a rapid advancement from being lowly friars to joining the ranks of the Church’s most powerful men. They were so excited by their new appointments that they disregarded Church decorum and scandalously began wearing their scarlet hats before they were officially elected to the College of Cardinals. ‘It is an unheard of thing to appear in public with the hat before the announcement is yet published,’ the ambassador from Mantua wrote home disapprovingly, stressing what was widely perceived as thearrivistenature of the new papal family from a Ligurian backwater.3

The cousins might have shared a common excitement at their promotion and its attendant benefits, but they were rivals for their uncle’s attention, and his preference became very clear. Pietro Riario spent heavily and was a lavish entertainer. He could be relied on by his uncle to host just the right kind of splendid occasion to impress both visiting dignitaries and Roman citizens. To celebrate St Peter’s feast day in1473, Pietro staged ‘a most noble representation of the Tribute that came to the Romans when they ruled the world, and there were sixty mules all harnessed and covered with cloths bearing his coat of arms, and they processed from the Popolo Gate to the Palace of Santi Apostoli [the home Pietro had built for himself]’.4

Pietro was a natural showman in a way that his cousin Giuliano was not, and was seen to be of greater value to Sixtus. Giuliano, as cardinal, had received his uncle’s own former titular church of San Pietro in Vincoli, but he was conscious of being the underdog at the Vatican court, his uncle’s less favoured nephew. But sometimes such treatment hardens and sharpens determination and ambition. Rather than become a jealous, passive martyr as others in his position might have done, or spend time scheming to bring about his cousin’s downfall, Giuliano concentrated instead on honing and improving his own skills and abilities. He had an innate sense of survival, an instinct for management, and a fondness of the military that in later years was to earn him the title of ‘Warrior Pope’. Rather than simply existing on the periphery of the Vatican court, conscious of his second-class status, Giuliano became Sixtus’ troubleshooter. He went out across the Italian papal states, arbitrating in disturbances and insurrections. In June1474Giuliano was sent to Todi, a hill town north of Rome whose lord, aguelph, and therefore a supporter of the papacy, had been murdered. The province had descended into anarchy. At the head of a troop of soldiers, Giuliano entered the city and succeeded in quelling the disturbances. He had similar success at the Umbrian cities of Spoleto and Città di Castello and began to enjoy his warrior-like image. On Giuliano’s return to Rome from Città di Castello on9September1474, one observer wrote, ‘All the cardinals had been instructed to go and meet him, but the hardy Ligurian was too early for them. Before the sun had risen he was at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo [sponsored by the della Rovere family].’5

Giuliano’s successes prompted Sixtus to send him even further afield. In February of1476Sixtus made him Archbishop of Avignon in France. Because of tensions between France and Rome, Giuliano travelled there a month later to provide a strong ecclesiastical presence in the country. He stayed over a year. During that time he forged good relations with the French crown and with important French prelates.

Pietro Riario died in1477, and Giuliano was left as the only della Rovere cardinal. Giuliano was confident he would grow in favour with his uncle. But his return to Rome at the end of1477revealed to Giuliano that, despite his hard work, Sixtus was still not going to make him his right-hand man. Giuliano’s power was further diluted when, in December1477, Sixtus created seven more della Rovere nephews and cousins cardinals, including his great nephew, the sixteen-year-old Raffaello Riario, who soon became his uncle’s obvious favourite.

In June1479Giuliano chose to go back to Avignon, where he was welcomed warmly, and where he felt his position and influence were more clearly appreciated. This time, his absence from Rome was to last three years.6It was an important period in the life of the man who would come to refashion Rome. The Palais des Papes at Avignon, the residence of the popes during their exile from Rome in the fourteenth century, was at this time a much more splendid establishment than the Vatican Palace. The Italian cardinal was impressed by the Avignon palace’s splendid stairways, dining rooms and audience halls, exquisite decoration and wall hangings. For the first time in his life, Giuliano, the former mendicant friar, became a patron of architecture, renovating the bishop’s palace at Avignon with fashionable new windows. The underdog cardinal could feel the thrill of putting his own stamp on a building.

For the rest of his life, Giuliano della Rovere, like no other cleric before or after him, set about establishing his identity through highly decorated architectural works of art. He understood completely the rationale of the fifteenth-century Florentine nobleman Giovanni Rucellai, who noted in his diary that when it came to leaving a legacy, constructing buildings was at least as important as fathering children.

Fathering children, or rather the act required to achieve it, probably interested Giuliano less than it did many of his ecclesiastical counterparts. In1517, four years after Giuliano’s death, the northern humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, a long-standing critic of the cardinal who became Pope Julius II, published theJulius Exclusus, in which he imagines Julius barred from entering paradise. The satirical dialogue is a conversation between Julius and St Peter at the gates of heaven, in which Peter grows increasingly appalled at the worldly nature of what Julius considers his life’s achievements. When Julius mentions his daughter, Peter, incredulous, asks, ‘Do you mean to tell me that popes have wives and daughters?’ Julius replies, ‘Well, they don’t have wives of their own of course. But what’s so strange about their having children, since they’re men, not eunuchs?’7

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