Giulia Farnese

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Lady with a Unicorn by Luca Longhi, 1535-1540[1] possibly a portrait of Giulia Farnese

Giulia Farnese (1474 – 23 March 1524) was mistress to Pope Alexander VI, and the sister of Pope Paul III.[2] She was known as Giulia la bella, meaning "Julia the beautiful" in Italian. Giulia came from the noble Farnese family, who were prominent leaders in the Italian regions Parma and Piacenza.[2]

Lorenzo Pucci described her as "most lovely to behold". Cesare Borgia, the son of Alexander VI, described her as having "dark colouring, black eyes, round face and a particular ardor".[3]



Giulia Farnese was born in Canino, Latium, Italy. Her parents were Pier Luigi Farnese, Signore di Montalto (1435–1487), and his wife Giovanna Caetani.[3] One earlier member of this dynasty had been Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303). She had four siblings. Her oldest brother, Alessandro, was a notary who embarked on an ecclesiastical career. Her second brother, Bartolomeo, became Lord of Montalto in Alessandro's place, married Iolanda Monaldeschi, and had issue. Her third brother, Angelo, was a lord who married Lella Orsini and had female issue. The fourth sibling was a sister, Girolama.

Marriage and relationship with Alexander VI[edit]

Giulia Farnese as – A young Lady and a Unicorn, by Domenichino, ca 1602, Palazzo Farnese

On 21 May 1489, Giulia married Orsino Orsini in Rome (the signing of the marriage contract had taken place the previous day). Her dowry for the match was 3,000 gold florins (around US$500,000).[3][4] Orsini, who was described as being squint-eyed and devoid of any meaningful self-confidence, was the stepson of Adriana de Mila, a third cousin of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was then Vice-Chancellor of the Church. According to Maria Bellonci, it is uncertain when Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) fell in love with Giulia and decided to make her his mistress. What is known is that Adriana de Mila eventually gave her approval to Rodrigo Borgia and Giulia Farnese's relationship in order to win a higher status for her son within the Vatican. By November 1493, Giulia was living with Adriana de Mila and the Pope's daughter Lucrezia Borgia in a recently built palace next to the Vatican from where the Pope could easily make his clandestine visits. The affair was widely rumored among gossips of the time, and Giulia was referred to as "the Pope's whore" or sarcastically as "the bride of Christ". Giulia and Lucrezia became close friends.[5]

Writers like Michael de la Bedoyere dispute her alleged status as mistress.[6]

Through her intimacy with the Pope, Giulia was able to get her brother Alessandro (the future Paul III) created Cardinal in 1493.

On 30 November 1492 Giulia gave birth to a baby girl who was named Laura. It is not clear whether Laura's father was Orsino or Alexander.[3] Maria Bellonci believes that there is evidence that she did have a physical relationship with her husband. Whatever the case may be, Giulia claimed that Laura was indeed the Pope's daughter, but this may have been to raise the status of the child for future marriage considerations. In 1494, she angered the Pope by setting off to Capodimonte to be at the deathbed of her brother Angelo. She remained away from Rome, even after her brother's death, at the insistence of her husband. He eventually capitulated to papal pressure, however, and she soon set off on the journey back to her lover. This occurred at the same time as the French invasion of Italy under Charles VIII. Giulia was captured by the French captain Yves d’Allegre, who demanded from the Pope, and received, a ransom of 3,000 scudi for her safe conduct to Rome.[7][8]

Giulia remained close to the Pope until 1499 or 1500. At this time, she seems to have fallen out of his favour due to her age (25 or 26). Bellonci believes that the break between the two was probably made amicably with the help of Adriana de Mila. Her husband also died around this time. She then moved to Carbognano, which is not far from Rome.[3] This town's castle had been given to Orsino by Alexander VI.[9]

Later life[edit]

Giulia returned to Rome for the wedding of her daughter Laura in 1505. Laura was married to Niccolò Franciotti della Rovere, Lord of Gallese, who was the brother of Cardinal Galeotto Franciotti della Rovere and the son of Laura della Rovere, sister of then Pope Julius II. For Giulia, the time of love was not over. In the first years of her widowhood, after a series of lovers whose names have not been recorded, she married Baron Giovanni Capece Bozzuto di Afragola, a member of the lower ranking Neapolitan nobility. In 1506, Giulia became the governor of Carbognano. Giulia took up residence in the citadel of the castle; years later, her name was inscribed on its gate. The chronicle of the castle states that Giulia was an able administrator who governed in a firm and energetic manner. Giulia stayed in Carbognano until 1522; she then returned to Rome.

Giulia died there, in the house of her brother, Cardinal Alessandro.[3] She was 50 years old. The cause of her death is unknown. Ten years later her brother ascended the papal throne as Pope Paul III. Laura and Niccolò had three sons, who inherited the possessions of the Orsini family.

In popular culture[edit]

In the 2011 Showtime television series The Borgias, Giulia is played by Lotte Verbeek.

In the 2011 Canal+ television series Borgia, Giulia is played by Marta Gastini.

Giulia is the protagonist of Kate Quinn's book series, The Borgia Chronicles.



  1. ^ "Vatican show denies Virgin model was pope's lover | Arts & Ent , Culture | THE DAILY STAR".
  2. ^ a b "Farnese Family | Italian family". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-15.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Steigerwalt, Giulia Louise (18 November 2014). "Mystery of the bones of Giulia Farnese, the beautiful lover of Pope Borgia". Italo Americano. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
  4. ^ Gregorovius, Ferdinand (1968). Lucretia Borgia: According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day. Translated by Garner, John. Benjamin Blom, Inc. pp. 37–38. LCCN 68-20226.
  5. ^ Durant, Will (1953). The Renaissance. Simon and Schuster. pp. 412–413. ISBN 978-0-671-61600-7. Some scholars have been sought to clear Giulia on the ground that Lucrezia-who has been made respectable by research-remained her friend to the end, and that Giulia's husband, Orsino Orsini, built a chapel to her honored memory.
  6. ^ de la Bedoyere, Michael (1958). The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope. Hanover House. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-02-548710-9. Only the clearest proof of his debauching Giulia (sister of a cardinal) can, in our view, make good the accusation. Such clear evidence has not been found. The open Giulia accusation was not contemporary, and it is absurd to make anything of Roman gibe that Giulia was 'the bride of Christ.' It was typical Roman scandal-mongering.
  7. ^ "Rodrigo Borgia Part 4 – His Relationship with Women". The Borgia Bull. 1 September 2012. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
  8. ^ Abbott, Elizabeth (2011). Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman. Gerald Duckworth & Co. ISBN 9780715642337.
  9. ^ "Caprarola, Carbognano and Fabrica". Retrieved 1 May 2018.

Further reading[edit]