Chapter 20

Frolics and Festivities


LATE IN THE AFTERNOON of December 23, 1501, the entire papal court assembled, at Alexander VI's orders, at the gate of Santa Maria del Popolo to greet the Este princes and their courtiers, who had come to Rome to escort Lucrezia back to Ferrara. The cardinals waited an uncomfortable hour on their mules before dismounting and retiring to the comparative warmth of the church, where they waited another hour before the visitors finally arrived.

They were received by Cesare, who was accompanied by pages in silk tunics, a band of trumpeters, and four thousand soldiers, all wearing his personal livery. And after the lengthy speeches of welcome had been finished, he escorted the Ferrarese party through the city, across the Ponte Sant'Angelo, to the deafening roar of cannons that thundered from the ramparts of the castle, and on to the Vatican. His appearance thrilled the crowds that had gathered on the streets to watch the cavalcade pass: Burchard recorded that he "excited great admiration in the minds of all who beheld him, for he was magnificently dressed in a coat of the French fashion, fastened with a gold belt which set off his graceful yet athletic form to advantage, and rode a fine, strong charger which was so magnificently caparisoned that its trappings alone were said to be worth 10,000 ducats."

At the Vatican Alexander VI graciously welcomed his guests, the bridegroom's three brothers, Ferrante, Sigismondo, and Cardinal Ippolito. Cesare then led them across the piazza of St. Peter's to be greeted by his sister, who was looking dramatically radiant in a white dress, her long fair hair partially concealed by a green gossamer net, secured by a gold band and two rows of fine pearls encircling her forehead.

The preparations in Rome for the reception of the Ferrarese visitors could scarcely have been more impressive. Cesare, in his extravagant way, was determined to make everything as splendid as possible: "The things that are ordered here for these festivities are unheard of," wrote the Florentine ambassador Francesco Pepi, shocked at the extravagance, adding, "The shoes of the Duke's footmen are made of gold brocade, and so are the shoes of the Pope's grooms while he and the Duke vie with each other in wearing the most magnificent, the most fashionable and the most expensive things."

Magnificent as he himself chose to appear, Cesare wisely decided not to try to take precedence over the Este brothers, who were, after all, his guests. This tactful behaviour was "considered as highly complimentary to the embassy," Burchard commented, "as it was known that ever since his marriage to Charlotte d'Albret, sister of the King of Navarre, his pride had so much increased that he allowed neither ambassadors from kings nor any of the princes of Germany, nor even cardinals, to take precedence over him in any way, making an exception only in favour of the blood royal of France."

In order to entertain his guests as splendidly as possible, the pope had issued a decree announcing that Carnival would be celebrated early: "The customary festivities," wrote Burchard, "including the horse races, will commence after Christmas." Accordingly, on December 26 the streets filled with revellers; the masked figures of Cesare and the Este princes were also to be seen joining in the bawdy fun as courtesans ran about dressed as boys and throwing eggshells filled with rosewater at each other and at passersby.

That evening Lucrezia hosted a ball, where, so Isabella d'Este's secret informant told her, the young bride "danced with extreme grace and liveliness, wearing a camorra of black velvet bordered with gold," the décolletage chastely obscured beneath a film of gilded gauze, "with a string of pearls around her neck, and a green net with a chain of rubies on her head," and, he added, "a few of her ladies-in-waiting are very pretty."

The next morning the Carnival was in full swing. For the following three days, the streets of Rome were filled with crowds watching, and taking part, in the great races run between Campo dei Fiori and the piazza in front of St. Peter's. The Jews were the first to run, but the winner was disqualified because, it was said, he had broken the rules, and it was announced that the race would be rerun the next day. There were races for old men and for prostitutes, a particular favourite with the populace. According to Burchard, there was also a race for wild boars, mounted by youths, "who beat them with sticks and kept control of their heads with reins attached to the rings that pierced their snouts, whilst other men guided them along and prevented them from running into side alleys."

When the last race was over, on December 29, those gathered in the piazza of St. Peter's watched as trumpeters and players of other musical instruments assembled on the platform above the steps of the basilica and began to sound the fanfare to announce the arrival of the bride. Burchard recorded the scene:

From her residence next to St. Peter's, Donna Lucrezia emerged, clothed in a robe of golden brocade, decorated in the Spanish fashion, and with a long train behind her which was borne by a young girl. At her side were the two brothers of her bridegroom, Ferrante on the right and Sigismondo on the left. Fifty Roman ladies, most beautifully attired, came next, followed by Lucrezia's own ladies-in-waiting, walking in pairs.

When the bridal procession had entered the Vatican, the crowds watched as a wooden castle was wheeled into the piazza and two companies of Cesare's soldiers fought a mock battle, with plenty of noise and colour, for possession of the structure.

Meanwhile, inside the palace, Lucrezia was received by her father, accompanied by thirteen cardinals and by her brother Cesare, and the ceremony began. The sermon, which was delivered by the bishop of Adria, a nephew of Duke Ercole, was long and tedious: "His Holiness," reported Burchard, interrupted the bishop several times, "repeatedly urging him to hurry through more quickly." The bishop, however, was not to be hurried; and it was some considerable time before he came to the conclusion of his address.

When the sermon was finally over, a table was brought out and placed in a suitable position in front of the pope. Ferrante d'Este, acting as proxy for his brother the groom, "brought Donna Lucrezia to His Holiness and, in his brother's name, presented her with a golden ring," and Cardinal Ippolito "brought in four other rings of great value, a diamond, a ruby, an emerald and a turquoise together with a small casket, which was placed on the table and, by the Cardinal's order, opened."

The box contained a glittering collection of the Este family jewels, a veritable trove of treasure: two beautiful caps, one of which was "studded with fourteen diamonds, as many rubies and about 150 pearls," four jewelled collars, one jewelled pendant, several bracelets, "four of which were of very great value," four strings of large pearls, and four jewelled crosses studded with diamonds. The exquisite jewels, valued at 8,000 ducats, were now given to Lucrezia by the cardinal, who promised her more of the same from her new father-in-law. These jewels, however, were evidently not intended as a gift but merely as a loan, so that the duke, as one of his envoys wrote, "need have no anxiety," adding that "the document regarding this marriage simply states that Donna Lucrezia will be given the bridal ring as a present, and nothing has been said of any other present."

The bride "with her ladies and many others all remained in the palace until five o'clock the following morning," and the festivities continued for the next few days. "The following night," reported Burchard, "a number of comedies were recited in the Pope's apartments, and ballets performed, with some singing as well." One play performed in the Sala del Pappagallo had been inspired by the work of the Roman poet Virgil, and it starred two young men playing the parts of Cesare and his new brother-in-law as rulers of the lands of the Po.

On Thursday, December 30, there took place, one after the other, the races of the Barbary horses, of the Spanish jennets, and the fillies. This day of racing was one of the highlights of the Carnival festivities, eagerly anticipated by the Roman crowds, who thronged the streets to watch the spectacle, and by the betting touts who stood to make fortunes from the gullible punters.

This particular year, according to Burchard, "there was a great deal of violence and injustice." The winner of the first race was the Arab horse belonging to the Marquis of Mantua, "but it was not awarded the prize because it had lost its rider, who had clumsily fallen off at the start of the race," leaving as the winner the Arab belonging to Cesare. Burchard did not record whether the unfortunate rider had been unseated deliberately, but there must have been many in Rome that night discussing Cesare's manner of winning the next two races.

One of Cesare's staff had won the race of the Spanish jennets "most unfairly," as Burchard reported. "The horse did not begin in the course with the others on the Campo dei Fiori but ran out of a house beside the vice-chancellor's residence as the others arrived, thus getting a lead on them and winning the prize." The fillies race was equally suspicious. "During the race, when the horses were on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, one of Cesare's grooms crossed the course on his horse, stopped the mare who was in the lead and forced its rider out of his saddle."

On January 1 the usual parade of Carnival carts took place, and the theme this year, not surprisingly, extolled the virtues of the dukes of Valence and Ferrara in the guise of Julius Caesar (Cesare) and Hercules (Ercole), in a series of tableaux that were paraded on wagons not in the usual setting of Piazza Navona but against the much grander backdrop of St. Peter's. The piazza was then barricaded to serve as the stage for a bullfight. Eight bulls and one buffalo were killed—four more bulls and another buffalo were spared for a similar spectacle on the following day.

The day was approaching when Lucrezia would leave Rome forever. On the morning of January 6, 1502, the Feast of the Epiphany, she went to bid farewell to her father. Her dowry had been formally counted the night before and handed over to her new brothers-in-law, Ferrante and Sigismondo d'Este. In the Sala del Pappagallo, Lucrezia, Cesare, and their father spoke quietly together in Spanish. As fond of them as she had always been, she bore the parting as she bore all partings, with her usual equanimity.

Mounting her horse, she rode out of the Vatican, flanked by Cesare and Cardinal Ippolito and escorted by a huge procession; "she was not wearing valuable clothes because it was snowing," reported Burchard. The pope was clearly deeply moved as he watched her leave, hurrying from window to window of the palace to catch a glimpse of the cavalcade until it was finally out of sight. He would never see his daughter again.

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