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In the fresco Raphael painted at the Vatican Palace in 1512, Pope Julius II is seen celebrating mass, surrounded by his male relatives. At the other side of the altar is a crowd of supplicants, among them a dark-haired young woman dressed in black who looks lovingly towards the Pope, though his gaze is directed at the chalice. She is Felice della Rovere, illegitimate daughter of the Pope, who was named il papa terribile.
Felice is less well-known than an earlier Pope's daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. Unlike the indulgent Borgia Pope, her father kept her at a distance, reluctant to display the result of his indiscretion when a cardinal. She was brought up in Rome by her mother and dispatched to relatives in Savona, where she was married off in her early teens. She might have been lost to history if her husband had not died, leaving her with an income and a reluctance to remarry.
Unlike Lucrezia, Felice did not fall in with her formidable father's wishes over marriage. Five noble suitors were refused. Gian Giordano, head of the Orsini of Bracciano, was eventually accepted as preferable to the alternative of being sent to a convent. He was 20 years her senior, a condottiere described by a relative as "plainly mad". And he proved to be her path to power. But Felice did not trust the Orsini family, and made herself independently wealthy by buying a castle with lands.
Reconciled with her father, she became an influential figure at the Vatican. Michelangelo, who had a volatile relationship with Julius II over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, gave her his cartoons for the frescoes. Felice was celebrated by Castiglione in The Courtier and cultivated by Isabella d'Este.
A shadowy figure in the earlier part of this biography, Felice becomes fully realised as she reaches greater prominence. Caroline Murphy has found rich material in the Orsini archives of Felice's correspondence - ranging from settling squabbles among servants to a recipe for toothpaste. She often intervened on the side of the underdog.
Murphy sees Felice as following the advice of Machiavelli in strengthening her position - but events intervened. A later Pope, Clement VII, brought down the wrath of Emperor Charles V, and in 1527 Rome was sacked. Felice took refuge with a cousin, the Duke of Urbino, returning a year later to a Rome which was all but destroyed.
Felice's sons proved unworthy of her sacrifices. Girolamo was indolent and Francesco developed a dissolute nature. The woman who had worked so hard for her own and their independence died at 53, worn out. She deserved a happier end, but at least she has found an excellent biographer to tell her story.
The reviewer's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Arrow
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