The Highs and Lows of the Renaissance Church

THE POPE’S DAUGHTER: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF FELICE DELLA ROVERE, by Caroline Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 359 pages, ISBN 0-19-518268-5, $28.00

Julius II is best remembered in history as the warrior-pope. Whether that image is of the belligerent figure trying to storm the gates of heaven in Erasmus’ satire Julius Excluded or the gold-armored pontiff (as played by Rex Harrison) cutting down his enemies left and right in the opening scene of the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Julius is firmly attached to his controversial status as an ecclesiastical general. While less decadent than many of the men who comprised the Renaissance papacy, Julius’ flaws extended beyond his first-hand involvement in warfare. For instance, like many of those pontiffs, he too had an illegitimate child. This female offspring is the subject of Caroline Murphy’s The Pope’s Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere.

The title is a marketer’s dream: catchy and controversial. At first glance one might get the impression that this book is part of the recent trend of anti-papal tomes, which sadly became a successful subdivision for publishers in the late 1990s with works like Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell and Papal Sin by Garry Wills. However, the title is about as overtly anti-papal as the book gets. Focused primarily on the life and world of Felice della Rovere, the book also indirectly offers another dimension to Julius II. Unlike his papal predecessor, Alexander VI, whose hedonistic behavior he reviled, Julius did not draw attention to the fact that he had violated his vow of celibacy. In fact, he rarely appeared with her in public. Also unlike Alexander VI did with his children Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, Julius did not blatantly finance his daughter’s lifestyle with papal revenues and ecclesiastical benefices.

Felice herself was fairly scandal-free and gained a great deal of power and independence – not, however, due to papal influence but from her marriage (arranged by Julius) into the powerful Orsini family. Julius relied upon her to defend and promote papal interests in the volatile political affairs of Renaissance Italy through her connection to the influential Orsinis. Like her father, who was a major patron of the arts and who commissioned the rebuilding of St. Peter’s and the painting of the Sistine Chapel during his pontificate, Felice appreciated and supported artistic creation. She herself was even depicted in one of these works of art (the only know image of her), Raphael’s Mass of Bolsena. Felice was also able to achieve one thing her father never could: a relatively peaceful relationship with Michelangelo, who graciously gave her the leftover drawings from his work on the Sistine Chapel.

The second half of the book examines Felice’s life after Julius’ death in 1513. She continued to wield a great deal clout in political affairs and occasionally indulged in the Renaissance pastime of political intrigue. Murphy goes so far as to contend that Felice was one of the most powerful women of her time, though this is a bit outlandish since the sixteenth century is filled with prominent women (like Elizabeth I or Catherine de’ Medici) who exerted much greater power and influence than the forgotten Felice.

While Murphy can be criticized for too often relying on speculation when discussing Felice’s emotions, thoughts, or early life, she is fairly successful in conveying the significance of this frequently overlooked Renaissance woman. The book is bolstered by the inclusion of a number of contemporary illustrations; the brief chapters (reminiscent of modern paperback thrillers) also make it a relatively easy read – even when it gets a bit bogged down in mundane details. In the broader scheme of things, The Pope’s Daughter serves as a good insight into the highs and lows of the Renaissance church, while also offering a different side of the warrior-pope in the process.

Vincent Ryan
Saint Louis University

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