This book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- haThis book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- have been written in the last five hundred years. Apparently, this book is also the only biography of Felice della Rovere that has ever seen print. It’s easy to discern why --- compared to Lucrezia, who (among other things) is accused by some of having an incestuous relationship with her father, Pope Alexander VI, Felice lived the relatively dull, virtuous life of a Renaissance clan matron. She was married twice, both arranged by her father for dynastic/political purposes, the second one to a scion of the powerful Orsini family, whose continuing street brawls with the Collonnas make the Capulets/Montagues feud looks like a schoolyard fight. In fact, their everlasting vendetta against each other drove the Papacy away from Rome for a while, and Julius II, Felice’s father, was desperate to engineer peace between the two clans. Marrying his bastard daughter into the troublesome, warlike family would ensure that they toed the papal line.
Unlike his predecessor (and arch-enemy) Alexander VI, who had numerous illegitimate children from several different mistresses, Julius was actually considered quite chaste --- the ‘Warrior Pope’ was more interested in making war than love. His having a daughter was nothing strange in an age when the preferred vice for a Catholic priest was not pedophilia but plain old-fashioned fornication with women, preferably aristocratic ones. The children that issued from such relationships became valuable pawns in their fathers’ political games and were mated with the sons of the powerful families that effectively ruled Italy. Their relatives, in turn, were given cardinals’ hats through blatant acts of nepotism (non-relatives were expected to engage in simony --- the Vatican did not believe in freebies for strangers).
Felice, despite having an unblemished reputation, was an adept of all the aristocratic arts of the day, which included everything that Macchiavelli advocated short of murder. Apparently, had she been born a man she would have been a formidable player, but being female, she had to be contented with being the dynastic brood mare of the Orsinis. When her mercenary husband died, she became the regent for her small sons and the de-facto ruler of the Orsini fiefdom. She spent the rest of her life managing the vast estates and outwitting the clan enemies, as well as envious, even murderous in-laws. She not only survived, but was able to hand over the family patrimony largely intact to her sons (who turned out to be totally undeserving, but that’s another story). To her credit, she was also piously charitable, ever ready to listen to sob stories and share her estate’s bounty with hard-luck tenant farmers and loyal retainers.
The story of her life, although not as piquant as Lucrezia’s, is an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period in Italian history; it was during her father’s reign that St. Peter was built and the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. Raphael preserved her likeness in frescoes commissioned by the pope. She survived the sack of Rome by paying an enormous ransom, fleeing the city in a disguise.
Not much is known about her private thoughts, save for a few hints gleaned from official correspondences, and it seems that the author had to form quite a number of conjectures about them. It’s hard to know which are hard facts and which are mere inferences as there is a dearth of footnotes about them. It makes her story reads more smoothly, but is it really an accurate portrait? ...more