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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Caroline P. Murphy
Oxford University Press,
359 pages, $28
A Renaissance woman rescued from obscurity

Reviewed by DONNA MARTIN

A lack of resources to fill in the early life of Felice della Rovere, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Julius II, casts an opening shadow on Caroline Murphy’s well-researched biography.

In her prologue to The Pope’s Daughter, Dr. Murphy, a Renaissance art scholar, makes clear that it was not uncommon for major figures in the Renaissance church to father illegitimate children. In the author’s words, since the illegitimate child of a priest who had not yet ascended to the papacy had little significance to the wider world, “his daughter has a ghost-like existence until Giuliano becomes pope. From the available material, I have re-created those early years out of a combination of speculation and inference, set within the social and political history of the time.” This combination of speculation and inference leads to a weak beginning for a biography that gains color and interest as it unfolds.

Certain facts are known. Felice, daughter of Pope Julius II when he was Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, was born around 1483 and was initially allowed to live in Rome with her mother, Lucrezia Normanni, who came from one of the oldest Roman families. Giuliano arranged a marriage for Felice’s mother to Bernardino de Cupis, a major-domo in a della Rovere household.

When a Borgia came to the papacy in the person of Pope Alexander, papal politics put the cardinal, and by extension his daughter, in danger and she was taken to live with the della Rovere family in Savona.

There is evidence that Felice was married as early as age 14 and widowed not long after. By the time Giuliano himself became pope in 1492, Felice had emerged as a headstrong young woman who rejected several efforts by her father to arrange politically advantageous new marriages for her. When she finally accepted her father’s arrangement of marriage into the powerful and wealthy Orsini family, Pope Julius must have been fairly exasperated with her, denying her any public celebration of the event and declining to attend the nuptials himself.

Felice, however, seems to have had astute political judgment even at the age of 23, when she accepted marriage to Gian Giordano Orsini, more than 20 years her elder and the leader of one of Rome’s two most powerful families. With the seat of Gian Giordano’s power in Bracciano, only 30 kilometers from Rome, Felice could make her presence felt in the political life of Rome and especially the Vatican.

Marriage into the Orsini family immeasurably enriched not only Felice but also the narrative of Dr. Murphy’s book. Snippets gathered largely from secondary sources give way to informed conclusions about Felice’s way of life found in her financial accounts and later in letters exchanged between Felice and her circle of family and friends, which eventually included not only her father, Julius II, but the two Medici popes who succeeded him, Leo X and Clement VII. (The only pope not under her influence was the Dutch Pope Hadrian VI.) As Dr. Murphy trawls the Orsini archives, her authorial voice gains command and Felice emerges as a woman of extraordinary ability and influence.

Gian Giordano Orsini had been recently widowed and left with three children, including a boy, Napoleone. The peculiar but advantageous arrangement made for Felice’s marriage dictated that if she could produce a boy, Gian Giordano’s son from his previous marriage would be excluded from inheriting the Orsini lordship. And should Gian Giordano die while her son was a minor, she could become regent of the family.

This provision, of course, put a lot of pressure on Felice, but reconciliation with her father brought her new security in the form of 9,000 ducats Julius gave to his daughter. With this, she was able to buy a castle of her own, Palo, with fine woods and extensive wheat fields. Revenue from the sale of wheat, including to the Vatican during the reigns of both Julius and Leo, allowed Felice to become independently wealthy.

As Julius’ confidence in her grew, Felice became a papal political mediator and a frequent presence at the Vatican. A subsequent monetary gift from Julius made her possibly the most independently wealthy woman in Italy.

After giving birth to a daughter and a son who died in infancy, Felice eventually did produce two sons, Francesco and Girolamo, from her union with Gian Giordano, as well as a second daughter. For reasons that are not clear, she chose her second son, Girolamo, to be heir to the Orsini lordship. The naming of Girolamo as the successor to his father, however, insured the lifetime enmity of his half-brother Napoleone.

Before Gian Giordano’s death in 1517, he made Felice the Orsini regent. Her sons were only 5 and 4 years old and she would serve as long as they remained minors. Overnight, as guardian of the Orsini estate, she became one of the most powerful figures, male or female, in the city of Rome.

For nearly 20 years Felice exercised extraordinary influence on the actions of popes and princes. She would even negotiate with Michelangelo to bring completion to the tomb of her father. Most of her negotiations were to preserve and enhance her sons’ Orsini heritage. Trapped in the city with her children in 1527 during the sack of Rome by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, she managed to take temporary sanctuary in the palace of her friend Isabella d’Este and eventually to escape to a family palace in Urbino. In the aftermath, with much of her property confiscated by Pope Clement VII, she performed her greatest act of diplomacy to get it back.

The story of Felice della Rovere shows the craftiness of Renaissance women hitherto ascribed only to Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I. Caroline Murphy has rescued from obscurity a woman well worth knowing.

Writer Donna Martin served for many years as the editorial director of Andrews McMeel Publishing.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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