Early Modern Women in the Private and Public Spheres: Felice Orsina Colonna

Device of Felice Orsina Colonna

Device of Felice Orsini Colonna, from ‘Delle Imprese’ by Giulio Cesare Capaccio (Naples: Carlino & Pace, 1592), book 1, 50v.

When I first ‘met’ Felice Orsina Colonna (153?–27 July, 1596) almost three years ago after visiting the Archivio Colonna in Subiaco, I thought she was quite something. I was impressed that she apparently ran family affairs when her husband, Marcantonio Colonna (25 Feb. 1535–1 Aug. 1584), was away fulfilling his military duties or other duties of state. (This was often: his best known battle was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when he led the Papal forces. He was also Viceroy of Sicily.) However, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that she wasn’t as remarkable as I thought. The idea that noblewomen didn’t worry their pretty heads about much other than spending their time in honest (decent) pursuits, like needlework and ordering the servants around—in other words, that they were active on a domestic level, while their husbands were active in public—is being laid to rest. Felice Orsina Colonna’s activities seem to be another nail in the coffin of the notion of noblewomen exclusively operating in the private sphere. Moreover, women from diverse backgrounds, even noblewomen and cloistered noble nuns, regularly operated outside the home.

Felice was the daughter of Francesca Sforza and Girolamo Orsini. Both her grandmothers were acknowledged natural daughters of men who became popes. Her maternal grandmother, Costanza Farnese, was the daughter of Silvia Ruffini and Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III. And Felice was named after her paternal grandmother, Felice della Rovere, the daughter of Lucrezia Normanni and Giuliano della Rovere who became Pope Julius II. Felice della Rovere negotiated (or had negotiated on her behalf) excellent terms on her marriage to Gian Giordano Orsini, including that any sons she had would inherit over Giuliano’s sons by his first wife. Felice della Rovere oversaw her family’s interests after her husband died; she built the family fortune up with prudent management and key property deals. Until two days ago, when I read sections of Caroline Murphy’s Murder of a Medici Princess (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), my fantasy was that even though Felice Orsina never met her paternal grandmother, she heard lots of stories about her and took them to heart. But it turns out she wouldn’t have heard those stories from her parents. Her father, Girolamo, died in late 1540, leaving the 19-year-old Francesca Sforza a widow and heavily pregnant. Felice’s brother Paolo Giordano, was born a couple of months later. As Murphy notes (56), Francesca did not know how to run a household, and Francesco Orsini, Girolamo’s brother, seems to have been devoted to misrule. He ran the family’s finances into the ground, ruining the wealth and, presumably, the reputation that Felice della Rovere had built up. Pope Paul III, Francesca Sforza’s grandfather, stepped in: Francesco was exiled in 1542; Francesca remarried (presumably into a more financially stable family), and Felice and Paolo Giordano were entrusted instead to their maternal uncle, Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza (1518-64).

At some point, Felice must have learned how to run a household. I’m not quite sure yet how that happened—perhaps the answer will lie in the Cardinal’s account books and correspondence—but in any case she seems to have done a good job following her marriage to Marcantonio Colonna in 1552. At least, that was my impression after a brief perusal of the Colonna family’s financial records for 1575 in the Archivio Colonna.

Felice and Marcantonio’s wedding was commemorated in music by Antonio Barré, with a four-voice setting of Francesco Bellano’s five-part madrigal ‘Sorgi superbo’. This and another piece dedicated to Felice’s uncle and guardian, Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza, are encomiastic texts praising Felice. The book as a whole (Primo libro delle muse a quattro voci [Rome: Barré, 1555]) is dedicated to Felice. There are other celebrations of her in a number of song and dance collections—Pompilio Venturi (1571), Gasparo Fiorino (1571 and 1573), and Fabritio Caroso’s Il ballarino (1581).

According to Rinaldina Russell, Marcantonio Colonna and Felice Orsina hosted a literary salon that may have included Margherita Sarrocchi.* There are numerous poems to Felice in various anthologies, including Muzio Manfredi’s, Per donne romane: Rime di diversi raccolte e dedicate al Signor Giacomo Buoncompagni (Bologna: Alessandro Benaco, 1575) and a manuscript anthology in the Archivio Colonna. Felice was a muse for Curzio Gonzaga, and is also mentioned in Maddalena Campigli’s Flori.** She also had a book dedicated to her by Don Benedetto dell’Uva, Le Vergini prudenti (1582).

In terms of public works, Felice helped the marchesa Giulia Orsini Rangone to establish S. Maria del Rifugio, a refuge for impoverished girls and widows.*** In this, she may have been following the lead of her mother-in-law, Giovanna d’Aragona, who founded a convent. (Patronage on that scale certainly sounds like acting in the public arena to me.)

I still have to answer the question ‘how typical is Felice’, but my hunch is that she was, in fact, pretty normal for a Roman noblewoman. In any case, I have a lot to go on here. With luck, I’ll have more to say following my trip to Rome in July.

* Margherita Sarrocchi, Scanderbeide: The Heroic Deeds of George Scanderberg, King of Epirus, ed. and trans. Rinaldina Russell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 9.

** Maddalena Campiglia, Flori: A Pastoral Drama, ed. V. Cox and L. Sampson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 284-285 and 323 n.97.

*** Carolyn Valone, ‘Women on the Quirinal Hill: Patronage in Rome, 1560-1630,’ The Art Bulletin, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), 129-146: 136.