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 (56) notes, 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.


Tracing Music Patronage and Commissioning by Women in Early Modern Rome


This year is the centenary of Japan's gift of cherry trees to Washington. Photo credit: 44a.CherryBlossoms.TidalBasin.SW.WDC.23March2012 by Elvert Barnes.

I spent Saturday in Washington, DC catching up with fellow scholars attending the Renaissance Society of America annual meeting (I wasn’t presenting). I received some really useful input for my fellowship project and for smaller writing projects. I was able to have a lengthy conversation with one senior colleague, who encouraged me to look at art collecting and literature too, in case there are shared erotic resonances between different art forms associated with particular people. It is clear, too, that the avvisi di Roma (news and gossip about the papal court and Roman families) will probably be an important source of information. The nearest collection is in the Vatican Microfilm Library housed at St. Louis, Missouri, so I am planning a trip there in the coming months.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to talk much with Christine Jeanneret (University of Geneva), which is unfortunate because her current project on Marenzio’s madrigal dedications to women relates in some ways to my fellowship research. Her paper surveyed Marenzio’s dedications to Lucrezia d’Este, Bianca Cappello, and Margarita Gonzaga d’Este (all associated with Ferrara), and the Roman noble women Clelia or Cleria Cesarini and Vittoria Accoramboni (second wife of Paolo Giordano Orsini, both mentioned in my post on UCLA’s Orsini archives ). Jeanneret suggested that there is little evidence of women’s patronage because women had restricted access to the public sphere, and therefore women drew upon a male network to do things like  commission compositions. One piece of evidence Jeanneret cited was a letter from Cardinal Luigi d’Este to Luca Marenzio, enclosing a poem and revealing that a group of women known to Marenzio but not identified in the letter would like him to set it. These women were most likely the Ferrarese concerto delle donne (women’s ensemble) who sang in the exclusive, invitation-only concerts held most evenings at the Ferrarese ducal court from the 1560s. Jeanneret correctly concluded that women did have musical expertise, and were able to exercise their judgement in selecting poetry and commissioning settings.

I’ve been interested that most dedications to women appear to be to married women, presumably for reasons of decorum, and perhaps also because at this stage some women may have access to their own resources to be able to give reciprocal gifts. There appear to be more dedications to women in the latter half of the sixteenth century than in the first half. I wonder, too, to what extent there are particular patterns in Ferrara and Rome: Isabella d’Este, a famous daughter of Ferrara who married into the Gonzaga family and lived in Mantua, is well-known as a music patron. In Ferrara, successive duchesses—Lucrezia Borgia, Renée de France, and Margarita Gonzaga—were music patrons (Renée de France also had at least one music book dedicated to her), as were Lucrezia’s daughters. I don’t know offhand whether there are the same patterns in other Italian courts. In comparison, if memory serves, Rome didn’t really see a significant number of music print dedications to women until the 1570s. It is possible that the social mores were different, and I suspect status and rank will be significant. Certainly, I think social standing is an important consideration when it comes to the ways different women operated in the public sphere. Some elite women may have had to rely upon male go-betweens to conduct certain transactions, but many poorer women worked outside the home and had considerable autonomy (even transacting their own marriages). So, it’s important not to generalize from the situation of a small group of women and presume their circumstances applied across the board.