In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/3


The Churches of Rome, small and big, are full of statues and pictures on walls, and canvas portraying popes and their mistresses and their progeny, not to speak of nephews and a great variety of other relatives. Of course these statues and pictures are not so labeled. By the faithful they are supposed to represent the Madonna and child, some angel or an apostle or one of the popular saints. The desire for fame beyond the tomb appears strangely powerful in the Eternal City, where human life seems so pitiably short in the face of the ages.

Alexander VI shared this essentially pagan longing for the perpetuation of his memory and that of his kith and kin. So strange and monstrous was this pope that he gloried in his shame and yearned to leave imperishable monuments to his own infamy. He thus sought to immortalize his first favorite mistress, the much married Rosa Vannozza, or as Burckard calls her, the "domina Rosa"—"the Lady Rosa." Rosa brought much ill and woe into this world when she presented her lover with Valentino, later called Cesare Borgia, an inhuman monster like his father; Lucretia Borgia, deft mixer of poisons in her youth and a shining example of Romanist piety in her declining years, and Juan Borgia, a victim of his own brother's perverted jealousy. The house in which she first lived with Borgia still stands on the corner of Via dei Cappellari and Vicolo del Gallo, facing the Campo de Fiori. Heretofore we have known very little indeed about the antecedents of this woman and not much more of her life outside of her adulteries with Borgia.

We know that soon after or perhaps even a little before Alexander's elevation to the papacy she passed out of his life, though her children always continued to visit her and she remained a well known personage in Rome. Until recently her tombstone could be seen on the floor of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church rich in historic names and memories. The epitaph recited a rather imposing list of personal virtues such as piety and a generous disposition to the poor. For some reason the inscription has been removed, but her resting place is known to the Augustinian monks who have charge of the church. Until the beginning of last century masses were still being said in this church for the repose of her soul and that of her ill-starred son Juan Borgia, buried with her under one tombstone.

I may remark in passing that tradition by word of mouth lives long in the Eternal City, almost as long as in the countries of the East. Much of it may be gossip but there is always a vein of truth. The men who deal in books and pictures, following in the footsteps of remote ancestors, preserve many a curious and interesting fact which is not found in formal chronicles. Traditions especially attach themselves to certain persons and institutions or localities and live on vigorously from generation to generation. The story of the demons that in the guise of ravens haunted the tomb of Nero until the evil spell was broken by the building of a Christian temple is told o the wondering tourist by cabmen who are unable to read or write.

Now in the case of "Lady Rosa" I have supplied many reliable data by tapping the oral traditions. I was led to an acquaintance with the site of a very old church which had been known as San Salvatore in Termis. The church was torn down some twenty years ago and no trace remains of its existence. Nothing in the neighborhood (Piazza Madama) even refers to it except the very short street still known as Via del Salvatore. This church was a favorite place of worship of Rosa Vannozza, who before and after her association with Borgia lived not far away. Shortly after the birth of Cesare Borgia she posed for an artist in the part of the Madonna with Cesare as the "bambino." The interesting group was first set up in the church but later was taken out of the place and attached to the facade. There it stayed, protected like so many other statues and pictures in the open, by an iron grating. When it was decided to demolish the church the little bas-relief was removed and transferred to the curious monumental morgue connected with the Church of St. Louis, the national French Church of Rome. In this strange reliquary of old disused or dismantled churches the statue was buried for many years.

The origin of the little work was well known. To strangers and tourists of course the most discreet silence was observed, but to persons who were seen to be familiar with the real facts the sacristan became quite garrulous and made no secret of who the models had been. The exquisite beauty of the group at last attracted so much attention and caused so many questions that it was removed and placed in the Church of St. Louis, where it is to this hour. When you enter the church walk up the left aisle to the last chapel near the high altar and there you will find chiseled out of the finest marble a bas-relief of the Madonna and the Child. The photograph in the text, a great rarity by the way, gives but a faint idea of its exquisite workmanship. One look at the little statue is enough to convince the beholder that the woman who posed for the Madonna was not a professional model. The pose is stiff and forced, a labored imitation of popular models. As a piece of sculpture it obviously belongs to the latter half of the 15th century.

There is other proof that the ancient Church of S. Salvatore in Termis was much favored and patronized not only by Rosa Vannozza but by at least one of her children, none other than her first born, Valentino Cesare Borgia. Cesare as he grew to manhood developed a craze for seeing himself immortalized in marble and on canvas. He was possessed of the notion that he resembled the Saviour. In this same strange annex of the French National Church, to which I have just alluded, there is found a bust of the Saviour for which Cesare furnished the model. In the rare photographs still existing of this bust one may read the legend: "Bust of S. Salvatore in Termis, supposed to be that of Cesare Borgia."

The bust was found in the niche above the entrance to the Church of S. Salvatore. Upon the destruction of the latter the bust was removed to the curious monumental morgue next to St. Louis Church, together with the bas-relief of the Madonna and Child. It is there to this day. As you enter the "morgue" you will find it high up in a niche near the ceiling immediately on the left. No attempt is made by the guide or sacristan to conceal the identity of the model. Such was the mania of this, the most fiendish of all the Borgias, to be modelled for the sacred figure that he posed on one occasion for a head crowned with thorns. This bust, too, had in all probability come in the first place from the church of S. Salvatore, but was removed after the downfall of the Borgias and disappeared until strangely enough it was rediscovered on the walls of the penitentiary of Civita Castellana, where it may be seen to this day. The muse of history must have been in her most ironic mood when she permitted the face of Cesare Borgia to appear as the patron saint on the walls of a penal institution. Pitifully to relate, the pious folks of the town and countryside have made a shrine of it, surrounding it with flowers and candles and an iron grating. Likeness of both Cesare and his sister Lucrezia as well as of Alexander VI himself appear in various guises in the frescoes of Pinturicchio both on the ceiling of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo and in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican.

Such are some of the half-forgotten souvenirs of the days of Borgia and his tribe and his mistresses, more interesting to the student probably than to the general reader. There is one memorial, however, of a far different sort—not hidden in obscure corners, not strayed, lost or stolen, but standing within a few inches of the high altar in St. Peter. Whenever mass is said there the officiating pope must see the figure of a woman who slept quite often in the arms of another pope. I am speaking of the woman known in Rome as the "Venus of the Vatican," the fair Julia Farnese, immortalized in dazzling marble posing as the statue of Justice beneath the bronze likeness of her brother, Pope Paul III, who owed his seat on the "throne of St. Peter" to the shame and crime of this same sister Julia. The monument was not built by her papal paramour. Borgia was dead when the artist molded that superb shape in all the carnal frankness of a pagan sculptor.

Borgia had ordered Julia's picture as the Madonna (with their offspring Laura as the "bambino") in one of the loveliest frescoes in his new apartment, where it may still be seen. She is the center of a very dainty "medallion" in that portion of the Borgia apartments, which is known as the "Hall of Mysteries." No doubt the brush of the artist has idealized the young girl just past twenty and a wife of two years. Although Borgia's intimacy with her antedates her marriage, she still has preserved a touch of shame or shyness in her facial expression, of which the painter made the most. The artist who many years later fashioned her classic form in marble used for his model a very fine picture of Julia which, together with other portraits of her, is still preserved in the Farnese Palace. He was true to his art and true to his model.

His task was to use that model for a statue representing Justice. In that he failed, nor could any artist have succeeded. Being honest with his artistic conscience he produced the finest type of Venus to be found in Rome to this day, the many classic creations all included. Had he done nothing else, this speaking statue of Borgia's last and most beautiful concubine would entitle him to rank high among the sculptors of any age. He has made the "Venus of the Vatican" breathe and live and cast her spell on every beholder, even the pious pilgrims who gaze at the sight in wonder and in absolute, if blessed, ignorance of the facts.

There she is; bold, conscious of her charms, exulting in her powers of fascination, triumphantly unashamed. A head of intoxicating beauty but altogether sensual; the limbs perfect in their rounded symmetry. What a mockery to label this figure as the symbol of Justice. The flame in her right hand is well placed, she holds it daintily as if it were a bouquet of flowers, but the emblem of Justice seems to fall from her grasp because so shockingly misplaced. No other figure of Justice in all the allegorical sculpture of the world lies thus languidly and longingly on a couch. Thus she probably lay in Borgia's bed—one cannot help thinking that this was the picture in the artist's mind. An attempt has been made to harmonize the Venus of the Vatican with her austere and sacred surroundings by hiding her gorgeous nakedness in a blanket of grey lead. A fig leaf would have been far more decent, far more artistic, and far less suggestive. If she were shrouded like a woman of the Turkish orient, with nothing visible but the eyes, even then the poise of the head and pose of the body would tell the story to every visitor : the story of the physical perfection of a brazen courtesan.