From The Pope’s Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere by Caroline P.
Murphy. Felice della Rovere (1483? – 1536) was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Julius II, a close ally of
Pope Leo X, and one of the most influential women of Renaissance Italy.
When Felice della Rovere entered the house of Orsini, there was a tacit agreement that
were she to have a son he would be the heir to the lordship, thereby deposing the incumbent heir, Gian
Giordano’s son Napoleone, born in 1501. This situation was not unusual; the same provision would have
applied had she married the Lord of Piombino. But several of the men of the Orsini house, in particular the condottiere Renzo da Ceri, who was married to Napoleone’s sister Francesca, viewed the provision with
suspicion and resentment. Gian Giordano was two decades Felice’s senior; they knew the likelihood was
that he would die before her sons were old enough to govern. This interloper, the bastard daughter of a
pope, would take over. And when she did, she made it plain that she had no interest in their counsel.
Nobody resented this more than Napoleone Orsini. He was eleven by the time his brother Francesco was
born, old enough be to be conscious of having been disinherited, with all its attendant disappointment and
humiliation. As compensation, Felice’s father Julius had endowed Napoleone with the Abbey of Farfa,
although the boy was not required to take holy orders. Farfa, located to the south of Rome, was one of
Italy’s largest monastic benefices, a holding of over eighty square miles. When Leo became pope, he
granted Napoleone, as abbot, an additional income of 1000 ducats a month.
Was Felice really a wicked stepmother, determined to deprive the eldest son of his rightful inheritance?
She certainly did attempt to have Napoleone excluded from provisions relating to the Orsini estate; some
documents regarding the disbursement of Gian Giordano’s property show that Napoleone’s name was
clearly added only later to those of Felice’s two sons. From Felice’s perspective, Napoleone had received
more than adequate compensation for the loss of a future title. Farfa encompassed almost as much terrain
as did the Orsini estate, and she was reluctant for him to receive anything else. She also did not want him
near her own sons. The boy was fast growing into a headstrong, aggressive and unstable young man, and
she perhaps feared he might contrive a means of eliminating her own children, his competition for the
Orsini inheritance. Felice insisted that Napoleone live at Braccione, isolated from her boys at Vicovaro.
(The 1518 Bracciano inventory shows that the seventeen-year-old’s bedroom was decorated entirely in
black.) However, her attitude towards Napoleone’s sister Carlotta was different. Carlotta stayed at
Vicovaro along with Felice’s children. She and her stepmother exchanged cordial messages both before
and after her marriage. Felice had commuted the death sentence of Michelangelo da Campagnino after
being petitioned by Carlotta and in her will of 1518 she left her stepdaughter a bequest of 3000 ducats. To
Napoleone she left nothing. On one level, in stripping Napoleone from his power, Felice was striking a
blow for her past. This illegitimate woman had turned the tables on convention. She had an unprecedented
degree of power over a legitimate male, and she was not afraid to wield it.
Felice knew that, as a Machiavellian-style principessa, any kind of conciliatory gesture she made towards
her stepson would be taken by him and the relatives who supported him – Renzo da Ceri, Mario Orsini,
Roberto Orsini – as a sign of weakness. They would not hesitate to use it to try to take advantage of her and
depose her. Compromise, as far as Felice was concerned, was not an option. But nor could Felice ignore
Napoleone. He might not succeed his father as Lord of Bracciano, but he had not been disinherited
entirely. He was entitled to his share of the estate’s produce and, when his brothers reached their majority, to
some part of his father’s patrimony. So Felice adopted a policy of trying to keep her relationship with her
stepson one where she was most emphatically in financial control. Napoleone was obliged to pay yearly
taxes on the Abbey of Farfa to the papacy. As a minor these were actually paid on his behalf by Felice, so
she was kept fully informed of the state of affairs at Farfa. She kept a sharp watch on his access to goods
from the estate. When he wanted to obtain linens from Bracciano, Felice, on her way from Rome, wrote
somewhat exasperatedly to Daniela, her maidservant, ‘My dear Madonna Daniela, go immediately to the
linen chest, and send to Signor Napoleone: four tablecloths for himself and thirty napkins; four credenza
covers and four hand towels; and do send them very quickly, and do not look for my signature because I am
having to dictate this letter from horseback.’ The implication here is that Napoloene was not above forging
a permission slip from Felice in order to take what he wanted.
Although not greatly interested himself in estate administration, Napoleone was angered by his
stepmother’s interference. He became known as l’Abate (the Abbot) but he had the genes and instincts of a
condottiere. By the age of seventeen, Napoleone had begun to live as a kind of brigand, accompanied by a
band of vassals picked up from the Orsini estates, staying at whichever castle Felice was not occupying at
the time. On one occasion, when Felice was away from Vicovaro with her younger son, Napoleone also
became convinced that Felice was removing things from Bracciano to which she had no right. Her servant
Christofero wrote to her from Bracciano in May 1521 that ‘the Abbot has insisted on making an inventory
of everything that is in the room where we keep the best things.’
But it was Felice’s decision to help her prospective son-in-law’s family acquire a cardinal’s hat that really
ignited Napoleone’s resentment. He made no secret of his fury, as he felt that any cardinal’s hat she was
able to negotiate should be his. It was not in Felice’s interest to make her stepson a cardinal. At that
period, there was only one Orsini cardinal, Franciotto, and he tended to be conciliatory to Felice because he
did not want to lose his alliance with the other College of Cardinals’ members who were her supporters. A
second Orsini cardinal might make him less amenable towards her. Felice had no intention of tipping the
balance of power at the College too far towards the Orsini, making it easier for the family to unite against
her. And she would have made no personal profit as she had from the Bisignano negotiation. Baldessar
Castiglione reported back to Mantua, informing the Gonzaga court that ‘the Abbot presumed that it would
be him. Now he has gone to Bracciano and he is being terribly threatening.’
At that time, Napoleone could do little more than threaten, because Felice was assured of Leo’s love and
support. But on 1 December 1521 Leo died suddenly of pneumonia, having caught a cold watching
bullfights at La Magliana. The following month, the College of Cardinals elected a Dutch pope, Hadrian of
Utrecht, who had been the boyhood tutor of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Hadrian chose to keep
his given name and became Pope Hadrian VI. It was a winter election and Hadrian’s reign cast a wintry
chill over the life of Rome. He had no ties to Rome and no love for the city. He was instinctively thrifty.
He put the building of New St Peter’s on hold. Construction work was halted, weeds began to grow
through the stones, and the church came to appear as great a ruin as any of the ancient basilicas in the
Roman forum. Raphael had died the previous year, and instead of supporting his school of talented
students and associates, the new Pope favoured northern artists, such as Jan van Scorel, from Hadrian’s
home town of Utrecht. Scorel was deemed as no more than mediocre by the Roman cognoscenti. But no one felt
the chill of the northern Pope’s reign more that Felice della Rovere.