- The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere
Painstakingly combing diplomatic and personal correspondence, account books, and notarial contracts and then filling gaps from the political and cultural historiography on Renaissance Italy, Caroline Murphy reconstructs the life of Felice della Rovere (ca. 1483–1536), a largely forgotten woman, almost unique in her family heritage, impressively resilient amidst the buffetings of a turbulent era of Rome's history. Felice was the acknowledged, though only sometimes welcome, daughter of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere and his mistress Lucrezia, who subsequently married Bernardino de Cupis, a maestro di casa for the della Rovere. For all Murphy's imaginative efforts, Felice's early life remains shadowy. Even her first husband's name eludes us. When her father became Pope Julius II in 1503, she gained more visibility, although the author smartly sketches the continuing ambiguities of her position. In a dynastic age her affiliation with the ruler of the Papal State gave her clout; at the same time both her illegitimacy and Julius's erratic way with personal and political ties left her influence uncertain. Felice came into her own only with her calculated, but ultimately beneficial, marriage to the head of the [End Page 494] prestigious, well-endowed old Roman Orsini family. Political maneuvering both inside and outside this many-branched clan along with the incessant demands of careful estate management, on which other power rested, consumed Felice's considerable energies and intelligence for the rest of her life, and especially in her eventful two decades of widowhood that included the Sack of Rome. In this last phase of her life, where fuller documentation records her initiative and persistence most clearly, we see Felice as not only a woman shaped by the drama around her but also a maker of her own and her family's history.
The publishers have chosen to market this story not only to scholars, but also to a broader public. Historical biographies, particularly of highborn women playing out fraught lives in the wings of political power, have long been popular. Felice, made notable by her papal parentage, is a fit subject for the genre. Renaissance Rome delivers a rich backdrop that Murphy's art historical skills evoke with a colorful eye to art, architecture, and material culture. Her first book on the painter Lavinia Fontana also had a hardworking woman as its protagonist. In both the author draws on the general social history of women to situate one life. She leaves it to interested scholars to make connections in the other direction and to ask how Felice's story illuminates the rest of women's history. In this context I find Felice interesting less for her "extraordinary" birth family and its ramifications than for her more ordinary activity as wife and mother, as the "patrona et gubernatrix" of the Orsini.
The story unfolds in a series of often very short chapters, each focused on an episode or a person in the intricate webs of Felice's life and alliances. To sew this motley into a legible tapestry, Murphy invokes themes and metaphors. Sometimes these connectors seem strained, such as the link between the Genoese della Rovere and the sea; elsewhere they tangle with the meandering thread of chronology. Rather than linear argument, the book adopts the spatial organization of a medieval painting, where multiple incidents in a story sit juxtaposed on a single canvas. Suggestions about motives or explanations of behavior, often (though not always) convincing, fit into the separate sections. A more general sense of Felice's personality accumulates only gradually as the mind slips, not always sequentially, from topic to topic.
The book's framing aims at a general audience. Two sections of well-chosen color illustrations represent the people and places of Felice's world. The map of Roman sites, drawn on a modern street plan, is less effective. Tables would help sort the murky genealogies of the della Rovere family and their...