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Giulia Farnese (1474 – 23 March 1524) was mistress to Pope Alexander VI. She was known as Giulia la bella, meaning "Julia the beautiful" in Italian. Lorenzo Pucci described her as "most lovely to behold." Cesare Borgia, son of Alexander VI, described her as having "dark colouring, black eyes, round face and a particular ardor."
Giulia Farnese was born in Canino, Latium, Italy. Her parents were Pier Luigi Farnese, Signore di Montalto (1435–1487), and his wife Giovanna Caetani. 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.
On 21 May 1489, she 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). Orsini was the stepson of the ambitious Adriana de Mila, third cousin to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Vice-Chancellor of the Church (and later Pope Alexander VI). Orsini was described as being squint-eyed and was devoid of any meaningful self-confidence. According to Maria Bellonci, it is uncertain when Alexander fell passionately in love with Giulia and decided to make her his mistress. What is known is that Adriana de Mila, Borgia's cousin, eventually gave her approval in order to win a higher status for her son with 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 known among the 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.
Through her intimacy with the Pope, Giulia was able to get her brother Alessandro created Cardinal. This earned him the title of "Cardinal of the skirts" from Pasquino.
Giulia had a daughter whom she named Laura. It is not clear whether Laura's father was Orsino or Alexander. 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.
Giulia remained the Pope's mistress until 1499 or 1500. At this time, she seems to have fallen out of his favour due to her age. 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. This town had been given to Orsino by Alexander VI. Alexander himself died three years later.
Giulia returned to Rome for the wedding of her daughter Laura in 1505. Laura was married to Niccolò della Rovere, who was the son of the sister of then Pope Julius II. For Giulia, her 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 Giovanni Capece of Bozzuto. He was 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.
She died there, in the house of her brother, Cardinal Alessandro. 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.
Giulia is the protagonist of Kate Quinn's book series, The Borgia Chronicles.
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