Chapter 28

The Death of the Duchess


NOW THAT THE ANXIETY and worry of the much-feared papal invasion was over, Lucrezia, as so often happens on such occasions, fell ill and retired to the convent of San Bernardino to recover, which she did, after some months of convalescence, and of mourning for the death of the twelve-year-old Rodrigo Bisceglie, her first son, whom she had not seen since he was a toddler when she left Rome for the last time. She did, however, have the comfort of knowing that her other son Juan, the result of her affair with the papal valet Pedro Calderon, was safe and well. Since 1505 he had been living in nearby Carpi and was frequently a visitor in Ferrara, where, thanks to her father's bull "explaining" the parentage of the boy, he was always assumed to be her half-brother.

In August 1509, at the start of the conflict with Julius II and just sixteen months after the birth of Ercole, Lucrezia had given birth to another healthy son, named Ippolito in honour of Alfonso's brother, the cardinal. During the troubled years that followed, she had taken refuge with her young sons, spending long hours playing games with them, taking part in masquerades, telling them fairy stories, listening with them to strange surreal tales told by her dwarf, Santino, who sat perched upon a chair placed upon a table like a miniature stylite. On occasions the children's father would look in on the scene with an indulgent eye, no longer jealous of such threats to the composure of his marriage as Francesco Gonzaga and Pietro Bembo.

Julius II's threat to Ferrara finally ended on April 11, 1512, when his armies were decisively defeated by the French at the Battle of Ravenna. Duke Alfonso's knowledge of artillery had played an important part in the victory, which had been fought at the cost of ten thousand lives, including that of Cesare's erstwhile captain, Yves d'Alègre. And a year later, toward the end of January 1513, Julius II, complaining of being suddenly taken ill, took, uncharacteristically, to his bed. By the end of the week, feeling that the end was near, he summoned his master of ceremonies to dictate detailed instructions for his funeral; and on February 21 he died.

Age never mellowed Julius; to the end he was a papa terribile. As a sick old man, he still spoke of waging a war to drive the Spanish out of Italy. He was, indeed, a great patriot and, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he thought of Italy not as a mere collection of rival states but as an entity of its own. Yet, however much the warrior pope he may have been, Julius II was also one of the most enlightened and discriminating patrons of art that the Western world had ever known. He had much of the Vatican Palace reconstructed and rebuilt the main courtyard as well as the immense courtyard that stretches from the palace toward the Belvedere. Beneath its walls he laid out an extensive and lovely garden, the first great Roman pleasure garden since the days of the Caesars.

Julius II hired artists as if recruiting an army—including most of the great living masters of the Italian Renaissance. One of these was Raphael, who worked for the pope on the decoration of the new official quarters of the palace, the Vatican Stanze; another was Bramante, who undertook to rebuild the ancient and venerated Basilica of St. Peter's, clearing the site of the decaying medieval structure with such eagerness that he became known as "maestro Ruinante," master Ruiner. He also hired the Florentine artist Michelangelo to paint the memorable frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and to cast an enormous statue of the pope—fourteen feet high and weighing six tons—which was set up on the facade of the cathedral in Bologna and then torn down by the mob after the city rebelled against Julius II's rule. The ruined statue was given to Duke Alfonso, who melted it down and made it into a cannon, which he wittily named La Giulia.

He had been a great champion of the Church and of its capital city. The Romans, recognizing this, were deeply grateful. When he died in 1513, people wept in the streets and, according to Francesco Guicciardini, they "thronged to kiss his feet and gaze upon his dead face, for all knew him to be a true Roman pontiff." Although "full of fury and extravagant conceptions," Guicciardini concluded, "he was lamented above all his predecessors and ... is held in illustrious remembrance."

A few days later, twenty-five cardinals assembled in Rome for the conclave that was to elect his successor. Less than a week later, Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico and Alfonso's prisoner after the Battle of Ravenna, was elected pope as Leo X, and Pietro Bembo, once Lucrezia's lover, was appointed papal secretary.

It was not until the summer of 1513, four years after the birth of her last child, Ippolito, that Lucrezia found herself pregnant once more; but upon this occasion, the baby boy to whom she gave birth was far from being as handsome as Ippolito and Ercole. Despite being named Alessandro after her beloved father, it clearly pained Lucrezia to look upon the child with its strangely large and misshapen head, and she was relieved rather than distressed when he gave up the struggle to live, aged just two years old.

Meanwhile, in July 1515, when Alessandro was just fifteen months old, Lucrezia had given birth yet again, this time to a daughter, named Eleonora after Alfonso's mother. By the time Alessandro died, she was pregnant again with Francesco, who was born in November 1516 and, perhaps, as the name chosen had featured in neither her own family nor that of Alfonso's, the baby was named after its uncle Francesco Gonzaga; but, anyway, it was a pretty baby whom she clearly adored.

So, with no little pleasure, Alfonso found himself the father of a number of children—all his legitimate heirs. He was engrossed in his own affairs; but, nevertheless, he was highly satisfied with the esteem and admiration now bestowed on his wife. The admiration she excited in former years was due to her youthful beauty; it was not owing to her virtues. She, who as a young girl had been the most vilified woman of her times, had, in middle age, won a place of the highest honour.

The ducal couple, now clearly at ease in each other's company, shared an interest in all the arts, not solely music, and as the patron of artists and poets that all Renaissance princes were expected to be, Alfonso relied upon the taste and discernment of his wife to guide him. It was she who persuaded him to take into his service the poet Ludovico Ariosto, who, in return, praised Lucrezia with wild hyperbole in his Orlando Furioso: "Other women are to Lucrezia as tin is to silver, copper to gold ... coloured glass to precious stones."

It was evidently Ariosto who introduced Titian to the court at Ferrara. At this time Titian was about twenty-five years old. The son of a minor official, he was born in the village of Pieve di Cadore north of Venice, and at the age of nine, he had gone with his brother to live with an uncle in Venice, where he became an apprentice to a mosaicist before moving to the workshop of the elderly Giovanni Bellini, the most celebrated Venetian painter of his day. Also working in Bellini's studio at that time was Giorgione, an artist some ten years older than himself, with whom he worked on the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the great storehouse of the German merchants close to the Rialto Bridge in Venice.

Having moved to Ferrara to work for Alfonso d'Este, apparently at Lucrezia's instigation, Titian worked on a cycle of mythological compositions for the Camerino d'Alabastro, a room that had recently been rebuilt in the castle at Ferrara and where Alfonso proposed to display his collection. He had bought Giovanni Bellini's canvas of the Feast of the Gods in 1514 and, four years later, commissioned Titian to paint two companion pieces, the Worship of Venus (now in the Prado at Madrid) and Bacchus and Ariadne(now in the National Gallery in London).

These masterpieces were but three of the magnificent works of art to be seen in Ferrara. The tapestries hanging on the walls of the ducal palace were renowned; so was the cycle of frescoes, mostly by Cosmè Tura, in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara and theAnnunciation on the organ doors in the cathedral; so, too, was the magnificent gold and silver dolphin service designed by Cosmè Tura. Both the works and the company of these artists clearly delighted Lucrezia, as did the company of her lively ladies, who accompanied her on her expeditions to other ducal villas in the countryside outside Ferrara.

She was accustomed to leaving Ferrara each spring, with her ladies and her musicians, to spend weeks on end in the country, choosing to stay in a villa near a convent where she could be a regular worshipper at the services held there. At the villa there would be games of charades, songs, and stories, or, on occasion, the company would be entertained by tales related by Santino, the dwarf, or the wild fantasies and strange behaviour of the mad girl Catarina, whom Lucrezia had done her best to educate. And on warm sunny days, Lucrezia would bathe in the clear waters of some secluded reach of the Po.

Yet in quieter moments, an aura of sadness surrounded Lucrezia, who had taken to wearing sackcloth beneath her silk dresses and had joined a lay order of the Franciscans. Her only surviving brother, Jofrè, died in 1517, having remarried after the death of the childless Sancia in 1506, and was able to pass the title of Prince of Squillace on to his eldest son. She took to making regular confessions to her priest and was just as assiduous in attendance at services in the cathedral. She put aside the "pomp and vanities of the world to which she had been accustomed since childhood," in the words of Paolo Giovio, "and gave herself up to pious works, founding convents and hospitals. She did what she could to help the poor in times of distress, going so far as to pawn some of her jewels to help pay for their relief."

She was now far from well; the succession of pregnancies and births, some difficult and all debilitating, had weakened her sadly. She had little appetite and fainted often. There were still evenings, however, when Lucrezia would call for her musicians, singers, and dancers, and then Alfonso would appear with his viol, which he played with a virtuosity that astonished those who knew him only as a hardworking ruler and a general devoted to his artillery. Yet her husband, in his insensitivity, still made love to her in his rough, perfunctory way, and in the autumn of 1518, she found she was pregnant once again.

In November that year news arrived in Ferrara of the death of her mother, Vannozza de' Catanei, who, unlike Lucrezia, had always been spoken of with respect, in Rome on November 16, 1518. As well as her three inns in Rome and various other properties, Vannozza left several flocks of sheep beyond the city's outskirts, all of which were bequeathed to various religious and charitable institutions in the city. The Venetian envoy Marin Sanudo wrote in his diary:

The day before yesterday died Madonna Vanozza, once the mistress of Pope Alexander and mother of the Duchess of Ferrara and the Duke Valentino.... The death was announced, according to the Roman custom, in the following formal words: "Messer Paolo gives notice of the death of Madonna Vanozza, mother of the Duke of Gandía; she belonged to the Gonfalone Company." She was buried yesterday in Santa Maria del Popolo, with the greatest honours—almost like a cardinal. She was 76 years of age. She left all her property—which was considerable—to San Giovanni in Laterano. The Pope's chamberlain attended the obsequies, which was unusual.

As Lucrezia's pregnancy progressed, she no longer felt the inclination to bathe; at the age of thirty-nine, she felt herself to be growing too old for bearing children. On March 24 Francesco Gonzaga died; the following month she was not well enough to watch her nine-year-old son, Ippolito, be confirmed and be installed as archbishop of Milan, one of the premier sees in Europe. Soon afterward she complained that her head had grown too heavy for her. Her hair was then cut off and swept up on the floor. She felt, she said, that she was going blind.

On June 15 she gave birth prematurely to another girl, who was baptized Isabella Maria that same day, and this time the chronicler had no doubt that the child was sickly. Lucrezia herself contracted puerperal fever, and, pale and drawn, she took to her bed and thereafter rarely left it. Knowing that she had not long to live, she wrote a letter to Leo X:

Most Holy Father and Honoured Master, with all respect I kiss your Holiness's feet and commend myself in all humility to your holy mercy. I approach the end of my life with pleasure, knowing that in a few hours I may ... be released. Having arrived at this moment, I desire, as a Christian, although I am a sinner, to ask your Holiness in your mercy, to give me all possible consolation and your Holiness's blessing for my soul.... 22 June 1519 at Ferrara, in the fourteenth hour, your Holiness's humble servant.

She died two days later, on June 24, 1519. Duke Alfonso lost consciousness during her funeral in the Church of Corpus Domini. Devastated with grief, he wrote to his nephew, now Marquis of Mantua, that "it has pleased our Lord God to call to Himself the soul of our most illustrious Duchess, our well beloved wife," and "I cannot write these lines without weeping[,] so hard is it to find myself separated from such a dear wife."

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