The Pope's Daughter by Caroline P Murphy

When a horoscope tells you not to tie the knot
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The second wedding of Felice della Rovere must have tempted Caroline Murphy to write this. Felice was the bastard of Cardinal Della Rovere, who, by the time of these repeat nuptials in 1506, had made it to the papacy as Julius II. She was a young widow who had obstructed previous rematches; her groom was a widower, 20 years older, Gian Giordano of the powerful Orsinis, a mercenary who fought in the service of the French.

The second wedding of Felice della Rovere must have tempted Caroline Murphy to write this. Felice was the bastard of Cardinal Della Rovere, who, by the time of these repeat nuptials in 1506, had made it to the papacy as Julius II. She was a young widow who had obstructed previous rematches; her groom was a widower, 20 years older, Gian Giordano of the powerful Orsinis, a mercenary who fought in the service of the French.

The exchange of contracts in Rome went smoothly, although Il Papa wouldn't allow it to be staged in the Vatican and forbade public rejoicing. But, next day, the groom turned up for the wedding unshaven, in dismal clothes, hunting boots and a cheap hat, and, because of a bad horoscope, ordered the ceremony postponed for three hours while he was barbered and located a better chapeau. The bride waited in the chapel. The rings were tacky, the service was unrehearsed and after the French style, so that Felice had no idea what was going on; once they'd exchanged vows he smacked her an embarrassing French kiss and they tumbled into bed for 15 minutes flat to consummate - not love, not lust, just legal necessity.

They should then have ridden the smart route to an Orsini palazzo; instead, they walked along a tatty Via where tarts touted. He tried to put his hat on her head; she wasn't having it. They arrived at the derelict destination as the bridal furniture was hauled in. Baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table, but there was no cutlery, so hungry guests went unfed. Early next morning, the couple set off for the country.

The scene is a cracker, its details attested to by bewildered and peckish eye-witnesses. Although it's missing some authorial interpretation of those details: I long to know if the knifeless breakfast was the result of the Francophile groom's old-fashioned presumption that guests always carried their own cased eating irons - the medieval designer accessory - while Renaissance Italy expected the host to supply sufficient flatware; or whether it was just part of the shambolic Taming of the Shrew atmosphere. And, most importantly, the description is delayed by 81 tentative pages sketching Felice's conception, childhood and first marriage (Murphy could not establish the name of groom number one).

There's a case, which this book unintentionally makes, for partial biographies that start abruptly wherever enough facts mass to make narration possible without all those emphatic formulations of supposition - "could easily", "might be", etc. If Murphy had begun, bam, on that ghastly wedding day when Felice passed from illegitimate obscurity into the Orsini family archives, from which most of the rest of the book has been patiently retrieved, I'd have been more intrigued by this near-contemporary of Lucrezia Borgia, signing herself so strongly in Latin "Felix of the Oak and Bear". (The reproduced signature has terrific conviction, but Murphy's identification of two portraits as Felice, the one on the dustjacket and a bit-part in Raphael's "Mass of Bolsena", is less convincing.)

Felice certainly warrants rediscovery: there are few maybes about her role as consigliere for her papa and second husband in making clan peace in Rome and persuading Orsini mercenaries to cancel their contract with Venice, a papal enemy. While her business enterprises went beyond most chatelaines we've heard about - she bought a castle with her own money; she purchased suburban land to upgrade access to property in Rome, and remodelled the premises to appeal to cardinals prepared to pay for a summer let; she wrote to staff micro-managing grain and hay and wood to be sold, and to which customer.

There's an interesting, but alas commentaryless, contrast between the thousands of ducats due Felice in repayments of loans and usufruct - interest on her dowry - and her domestic chits ordering the gift of single bottles of estate vino in return for favours. (Vintage? Or did Felice stay wealthy by counting every last scudi?) And in the sack of Rome in 1527 she acted for her exasperating Orsini sons, her daughter and herself in hostage negotiations, through coolness escaping as an upmarket refugee to Urbino, careful not to peeve her benefactors there by demanding more than eight chickens daily for household meals. She never did get back her father's Venetian cross which had been part of her ransom - couldn't raise enough cash to redeem it, even when it was offered minus a diamond or two.

What a solid short monograph the provable outline of Felice's life would have made, and what a pity it's been wadded to book size with speculative guff about her unknowable feelings, and so many aristo names adoringly cited that it reads like a brocade edition of Tatler.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments