Chapter 27

The End of the Affair


ONCE SHE HAD RECOVERED from her miscarriage, Lucrezia took up with a reforming friar in the tradition of Savonarola who proposed, among many other penances, a tariff of "fines to curb profanities"—1 ducat for taking the name of a saint in vain, for example, or 2 ducats for an oath involving Our Lord or the Virgin Mary. This was too much for the good citizens of Ferrara, who proposed invoking the help of Duchess Lucrezia by sending a deputation asking her to propose to the friar that, rather than urging the punishment of blasphemers and the forsaking of cosmetics and décolletages, he should preach against more heinous sins. Lucrezia undertook to speak to him but seems to have contented herself by remonstrating with her ladies about their often scandalous behaviour.

Then, on April 22, 1507, an unexpected visitor arrived in Ferrara with dreadful news. It was one of Cesare's squires, who had travelled from Navarre to tell Lucrezia that her brother was dead, killed in battle, as Cesare had always suspected he would be, some six weeks earlier, fighting for the king of Navarre. "The harder I try to please God, the harder he tries me," wept Lucrezia when she heard. In reply to a letter from her husband, who was in Genoa with Louis XII and had penned a hasty note to her commiserating with her loss, she wrote that she hoped he could "return home as soon as possible, which is what I wish with all my heart." She then, in her grief, took to her bed; indeed, she was not seen in public for so long that rumours abounded that she was pregnant again.

By the summer, however, she had recovered enough to renew her affair with Francesco Gonzaga, who she knew was deeply attracted to her and with whom she was in love. This was a dangerous liaison and became even more so when Ercole Strozzi—who had acted as go-between when Lucrezia was entangled with Pietro Bembo—and Ercole's brother Guido Strozzi, who lived in Mantua, now became carriers of letters between the marquis and Lucrezia.

Their correspondence was interrupted at the end of 1507 when Lucrezia again became pregnant. On this occasion she was far from being so nervous as she had been during previous pregnancies. Indeed, she entered enthusiastically into discussion about the design of the baby's elaborate cradle and its clothes and the interviewing of would-be wet nurses. She relished the sweetmeats that were sent to her from Spain by her sister-in-law as well as the almond pastries filled with honey and nougat that she ate in the steaming water of her bath or while playing idly with her countless pearls.

And during Carnival at the beginning of 1508, it was noted, with relief, that Lucrezia was finally heeding the advice of her doctors, and the urgent entreaties of her husband, and was avoiding the excesses in which she had indulged in previous years, even to the extent of forgoing her pleasure in dancing. There was, however, plenty for her to enjoy: watching the jousts and the other displays of horsemanship; enjoying the daring feats of the tightrope walkers and acrobats; laughing at the ribald comedies performed in the theatre; and listening to the new songs she had commissioned specially for Carnival, which were performed, along with some of her old favourites, by the court musicians.

On April 3 Duke Alfonso had to leave his heavily pregnant wife for a few days to go to Venice on urgent business, no doubt optimistic that this pregnancy would end more satisfactorily than its predecessors. So he was absent when, the next day, Lucrezia gave birth to a boy, which, all who saw the baby agreed, appeared to be perfectly healthy; and he was named Ercole after his paternal grandfather.

The birth of an heir was greeted with great excitement and joy in Ferrara; the church bells rang out across the city; guns were fired; fireworks lit the skies. In their enthusiasm for celebrations, according to a local chronicler, the populace made bonfires of

all the screens in the market place and elsewhere and all the benches of the notaries and the table of the judges from the Palazzo della Ragione, as well as all its windows and doors, and they also burnt the ladies' pews from the cathedral and the other large churches, and all the benches, tables, stools and doors in the public schools at San Domenico and San Francesco, and the celebrations went on for three nights.

Ercole was christened in the chapel of the ducal palace soon after his birth. "He was not baptized in public," reported the chronicler, "and it is not known who held him at the font," though he did know the identity of the wet nurse employed to feed him, who was the daughter of a carpenter in the city. Nor is there any evidence that the apparently hasty and private christening betokened any infirmity on the part of the baby. Indeed, once Duke Alfonso returned from Venice a few days later, he proudly displayed his little heir to the ambassadors and other dignitaries, who were asked to examine little Ercole lying naked on his back, less handsome than he had first been reported but evidently "complete."

Alfonso announced the birth of his heir in jubilant letters dispatched to courts throughout Italy and beyond. The duke had informed his brother-in-law Francesco Gonzaga in a letter sent before he left Venice, and the marquis returned this gesture of friendship by sending his own secretary to Ferrara to offer congratulations on his behalf. Lucrezia, following the conventions of the period, sent her news to Isabella d'Este. Aware that the friendship between his wife and his brother-in-law was causing food for gossips at court, Alfonso was determined that Lucrezia should behave in the usual formal manner and forbade her to communicate the news to the marquis; Lucrezia had been furious and made it quite plain that she was so. Could it be, the question was inevitably asked, that the baby was not the child of Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, but of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, a man whom Alfonso much disliked? Certainly the baby's nose looked rather squashed as does Francesco Gonzaga's in Mantegna's Madonna della Vittoria. Certainly, also, Lucrezia, now that her baby was born, continued to urge Gonzaga to come to Ferrara to see her.

When Isabella's informant Bernardino di Prosperi saw the baby, he also pronounced the heir to be handsome and lively. He was also full of praise for the cradle that Lucrezia had commissioned, a classically inspired structure, all gilded, with coverlets of cloth-of-gold and fine cambric sheets, which had been beautifully embroidered: "of such splendour," he thought, "that I do not have words to describe it."

On April 12, just over a week after Ercole's birth, Duke Alfonso departed once again on business, this time to France, leaving Lucrezia alone once more and hopeful that Francesco Gonzaga would pay her a visit. "You would be more dear to her than 25,000 ducats and more, if you were to come," Ercole Strozzi assured the marquis. Every day, he said, we talk of you. "I cannot describe the passion which has overwhelmed her," he wrote; "she is most anxious to hear why you have not answered her letters."

No reply came to this letter. It may well have been that Francesco Gonzaga was concerned by what might happen to him if he were to go to Ferrara to see Lucrezia. He had recently been troubled by a man purporting to represent her who had arrived at Mantua with the suggestion that he might go to Ferrara to see her in secret. Gonzaga suspected a trap and paid no attention to this suggestion, whereupon the man offered him a miniature of Lucrezia that Gonzaga declined.

Meanwhile, still no word for Lucrezia came from Mantua. Strozzi's letters on her behalf became almost desperate. "She loves you passionately, much more than you can imagine. If you knew this you would be much more ardent in your letters and much more anxious to come to see her wherever she was. Do at least give her some sign of loving her. She asks for nothing more.... Do make every effort to come to her. In any case write to her and don't appear so cold."

Still Francesco Gonzaga did not respond; and it seemed that his caution was well justified. On June 5 Lucrezia had written to him with the news that the Spanish priest who had helped Cesare escape from prison and who had joined her household in Ferrara had been found "treacherously murdered"; that very night Ercole Strozzi also was killed. The chronicler Giovanni Maria Zerbinati reported the death of this "most distinguished poet," who, he said, "was found dead outside the church of San Francesco, in the middle of the street by the picture of the Virgin that is on the pilaster attached to the wall of the church"; the body was found to have received "twenty-two stab wounds and his throat was cut and no one knows who killed him," though many in Ferrara and Mantua had their suspicions that Cardinal Ippolito, or even Duke Alfonso, had a hand in the crime.

Lucrezia now had to find a new messenger for her letters to Gonzaga; and she found one in Ercole Strozzi's brother. "Lorenzo Strozzi is coming to Mantua," she wrote to Gonzaga. "He is as devoted a servant as was Ercole, his brother."

But Gonzaga had no intention of going to see Lucrezia. He wrote to say that he was ill, too ill to travel. She pleaded with him; he was still too ill. In that case, she said, she would come to look after him; and she was on the point of joining him when her husband and Cardinal Ippolito heard of her intentions and took her back to Ferrara.

As had been the case with Pietro Bembo, their ardour cooled to affection and the two remained on friendly terms, corresponding regularly for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, Lucrezia mournfully resumed her life in Ferrara, once again the dutiful wife and consort, and now, with age, less the happy, lively, young woman she had once been, who had rejoiced in wearing those extravagant hats she had designed for herself and her ladies to attend Mass in the cathedral.

On April 26, 1509, news arrived in Ferrara that Duke Alfonso had been given the post of captain-general of the church by Julius II, much to the fury of his brother-in-law Francesco Gonzaga, but to the joy of his subjects, who greeted the announcement with the customary peals of bells, thunder of artillery, and flashing fireworks. This appointment was particularly important in the light of the fact that the pope had recently arranged an alliance to curb the growing power of Venice, declaring that he would join forces with anyone in order to reduce the city once more "to a little fishing village"—and, indeed, he had been joined by most of the ruling heads of Europe: Emperor Maximilian, Louis XII of France, Ferdinand of Spain, and most of the Italian powers, including both Mantua and Ferrara.

Duke Alfonso was to be absent from Ferrara for a considerable part of the next three years, first leading Julius II's armies against Venice, which was resoundingly defeated in May 1509 at the Battle of Agnadello; when Julius II abruptly changed sides the following year, to ally himself with Venice and to launch an attack on the French forces in Italy, in order to drive the "barbarians" back beyond the Alps, Alfonso remained loyal to Louis XII, and the pope used this as the excuse he needed to excommunicate the duke and deprive him of his fief before moving north, leading his armies in person, to attack the duchy of Ferrara.

"Having been unable to separate the Duke of Ferrara from his loyalty to the French King," wrote Guicciardini, "the Pope had made every effort to occupy the duchy, pretending that he had done so on account of a dispute over the taxes and tolls on salt." For Alfonso, the autumn of 1510 was exceptionally busy as he strengthened his fortifications, something about which he knew a great deal. Nevertheless, Modena soon fell to the papal forces, and they now marched on to lay siege to Alfonso's strategic fortress of Mirandola, which had been garrisoned with the help of French soldiers.

Julius II had already proved himself a formidable opponent on the battlefield when, in 1506, having dismembered Cesare's empire, he had turned his attention to Bologna, conquering the city and removing Giovanni Bentivoglio from power. He returned to Rome in triumph. The Venetian envoy thought that never had any emperor or victorious general received so remarkable a welcome. A few thoughtful men, however, regretted that the Vicar of Christ should resemble more the Lion of Judah than the Lamb of God. The Dutch scholar Erasmus, himself ordained a priest, wrote ironically of Julius II's entry into Bologna as though in the pope's own words: "Ah, would to God you had seen me borne aloft into Bologna! The horses and chariots, the marching battalions, the galloping commanders, the flaming torches, the pretty page boys, the pomp of bishops and glory of cardinals ... and I borne aloft, head and author of all!" His satirical attack on Julius II was vicious: "Your name suits you perfectly," he wrote, likening the pope to Julius Caesar. "You unjustly seized tyrannical power, despising and ignoring the gods, and plunging your country into war"; the only difference Erasmus could see was that Julius II was of common stock.

In January 1511 Julius II arrived at Mirandola to oversee in person the siege of the castle; he took up lodgings, according to Guicciardini, "in a farmer's hovel where he was within range of the enemy artillery." He went about the camp in the bitter cold and driving snow, his armour concealed by a white cloak, his head in a sheepskin hood, cursing his enemies, moving his quarters when they were hit by cannonballs, and shouting orders to his captains, his energy and enthusiasm "not chilled in the slightest degree," added the historian, "by the bitter cold which his troops were scarcely able to endure."

Inspired by his restless energy, his men breached the walls of Mirandola, their task much eased by the icy cold that had caused the water in the moat to freeze deep enough to bear the weight of the papal troops. With no chance of relief, the castle surrendered. This fresh victory encouraged other cities to join the pope. Spain came to his aid against the French, who were Duke Alfonso's principal allies, while both Parma and Piacenza, abandoned by the French, declared themselves willing to join the Papal States. Julius II annexed them immediately, announcing that he hated the Spanish quite as much as the French, and that he would not rest until they had been driven out of the peninsula too.

Ferrara, however, was to prove a harder proposition for the bellicose pope. On November 28, 1510, the French army arrived at Ferrara to help the defence of the city. Two days later, the duke, in the presence of the French captains, had addressed the "courtiers, citizens and artisans" who had gathered early in the evening in the town hall to hear their duke speak. The chronicler Zerbinati takes up the story:

He told the people how he was expecting the Pope's army to arrive soon and asked the people to remain as faithful to him as they always had been to the house of Este, and he promised the people that he would not abandon them, as he had been abandoned by everyone except by the French, and that if they stayed faithful to him he was sure of victory because the city was strong, that they would fortify it and that we were well supplied with artillery and with food and with a large population; then he repeated that if the people kept their trust in him then he had no doubts at all.... Messer Antonio Costabili replied wisely that his people had always been most faithful to the house of Este, and for the future and for the present they would always be so, and that he was not to worry about this because the people were ready and prepared to fight against his enemies and everyone started to shout: Duke Alfonso! Duke Alfonso! And so His Lordship and the French captains left the room well satisfied with the populace who now prepared for the arrival of the enemy army in Ferrara.

The following day Duke Alfonso had published a decree ordering all warehouses and shops to close for the week and for everyone to work instead on fortifying the city. And then they waited for the enemy to arrive, going about their business as normally as possible while the winter months passed and Julius II's forces fought relentlessly for the possession of Mirandola, knowing that once that fortress had fallen, it would be their turn next.

On Maundy Thursday, April 17, the chaplains of the cathedral held the customary confirmation service behind closed doors, "which they did, not having permission from the Pope to do because of the excommunication," reported the chronicler Zerbinati, who added in the margin of his notebook that "I was told about this, because I was not there."

The winter of 1511 had been unusually long and hard, "the greatest cold, the thickest ice and the heaviest snow that I have ever seen," commented Zerbinati, adding that "the winter has lasted for so long that today, the last day of April, we are still lighting our fires and we are still wearing our fur-lined coats." Three weeks later, however, came news that warmed the hearts of the brave populace: the Bolognese had rebelled against Julius II, and the Bentivoglio were once again in power. The celebrations that night were exceptionally loud—bells, fireworks, cannonades, shouting, songs, youths roistering on the streets brandishing branches of trees on which blossoms had begun to bloom—to rejoice at the defeat of the mighty papal army "which has threatened us all the past winter." The next day "all the shops were closed, as if it were a Sunday."

Throughout these difficult years while Alfonso had been frequently absent, fighting first for Julius II and then against him, it was Lucrezia, his duchess, who took his place as ruler of the city, writing regular letters to him, sometimes as many as three a day, reporting the news from the marketplace, the gossip at court, planning policy, and asking his advice. She had pawned her jewels to raise money for her husband and also managed, in what must have been exceptionally difficult circumstances, to preside over their court, acting as a gracious hostess to the many French nobles who had come to Ferrara with the French army and were quartered in the ducal palace or in the residences of the courtiers. "She is a pearl," one Frenchman remarked; "there has never been such a wonderful duchess," he extolled, praising Lucrezia's beauty and benevolence, her kindness and charm, and, he added, "a great service to her husband."

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