February 29th is a strange day and some really interesting people were born right on this day. One of them has had a great importance for Parma, he is the “Cardinal gonnella” (Cardinal petticoat) as Pasquino called the young Alessandro Farnese, born on February 29th 1468.
You probably know that Pasquino is a statue placed along Palazzo Breschi in Rome. The locals used to hang on the statue’s neck (they sometimes still today do it) some satirical sentences or harsh critics against the Church and the clergy, the so-called “pasquinate”.
The Farnese is definitely one of the most cunning, influential and fascinating persons of the sixteenth century: a man who has influenced history. Titian has left us a beautiful and eloquent portrait of him; from it all the cleverness and wit of this old but still very lively and witty Pope shine through.
Since the Thirteenth century the family Farnese was in continuous ascent, for prestige and importance, in central Italy, and it reached its proper apex thanks to Alessandro, son of Pier Luigi the Old and Giovannella Caetani. Giovannella was a descendant of Pope Bonifacio VIII and she brought great shine to the more modest Farnese. She started her second-born to the ecclesiastical career, but the cassock was too heavy to wear for the young Alessandro, that obtained a church dispensation and was allowed to wear civil clothes also as Cardinal. Thanks to his mother he lived for a while at the court of Lorenzo il Magnifico, in Florence, where he met Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. However Giovannella didn’t like her son to live in excessive luxury and vice, so that he had her imprisoned on the Bisentina Island from which she could excape only thanks to the influence of some very powerful friends.
Back in Rome Alessandro made good progress at the papal court also thanks to his sister Giulia, beautiful woman, who enjoyed the favors of Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope. Giulia also was repeatedly used as a pawn by her brother to blackmail the Borgia and obtain prestigious positions and privileges. Giulia Farnese’s beauty is legendary, several documents talk about it on many occasions: beauty contests, special parties at the papal court, ladies parades seized by the French and so on. She is thought to have been portraited by various artists, including Raphael: she is probably the woman kneeling at the foot of the Transfiguration. Giulia was widowed twice, she also had a daughter, Laura, attributed to her husband, but the father was perhaps the Borgia. She died at the age of about 48 years, and ten years after her brother ascended the papal throne.
Alessandro Farnese was able to get elected Pope in 1534 and took the name of Paul III. He is a controversial figure: great patron, cultured, refined, skillful manipulator, nepotistic, a lover of comfort and luxury but also a staunch defender of Catholicism, he instituted the Roman Inquisition, granted approval to the Society of Jesus and he is the father of the Counter-reformation.
The Farnese is the outsourcer of the Last Judgement by Michelangelo and of a good part of the Castel Sant’Angelo frescoes. Paul III is also the one who opened the Council of Trent, but he closely oversaw his own interests and the ones of his family too. Thanks to an agreement with the Emperor Charles V, he created the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza; first Duke was Pier Luigi Farnese, the Pope’s eldest son.
Pier Luigi is a bleak and gloomy figure who fell victim of a conspiracy in 1547. Two years later, on November 10th 1549, also Paul III died: he was eighty-one years old and his health had suddenly deteriorated after a violent fight with his nephews Alessandro and Ottavio, about the Duchy of Parma.
Good and bad coexist in this man, who is still today considered one of the greatest Popes of the sixteenth century, the only one, perhaps, among his contemporaries, who had the ability to understand the importance of the Reformation.
After Paul III’s death Pasquino said: Ei fu Paolo Farnese, / che mai nulla donò, che tutto prese. / Fate per lui orazione: / poveretto, morì d’indigestione. (He was Paolo Farnese / that never gave, he only took. / Pray for him: / poor man, he died of indigestion)
All the images in this article have been downloaded from Wikipedia