Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

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Tell it Like it Is

04 20 aretino by titianToday is the birthday of Pietro Aretino, who was born in Arezzo in the Florentine Republic in 1492. His life didn’t have a very promising start, he was the illegitimate son of a cobbler, was probably not well educated and was, for reasons I’ve been unable to divine, banished from his home town as a teenager. Aretino at first thought he might be a painter, but soon realised that writing was where his real talent lay. He would be honoured by Popes and befriended by Kings, but not because he was a writer of fine and elevated literature. Aretino was good at noticing people’s weaknesses and he wasn’t afraid to write about them. This made him a lot of enemies, so he survived on his wits and also a certain amount of good fortune. He also wrote poetry and plays that were extremely sexually explicit that have earned him the title of the inventor of literate pornography.

When he was about fourteen, he moved to the nearby city of Perugia, where he worked as assistant to a bookbinder. But he had to leave the city after he vandalised a statue of Mary Magdalene by painting a lute in her hands. By the time he was twenty-four, he was living in Rome, working for a rich man called Argostino Chigi. For Chigi, he began to write obscene and witty poems which he recited at dinner parties, much to everyone’s delight. But Aretino wanted more. He wanted fame and he thought a combination of his writing and access to a printing press could probably help him achieve that. He just needed to find the right subject.

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Then, in 1516, the Pope’s pet elephant died. The Pope, Leo X, loved his elephant. His name was Hanno and he used to appear in parades. Sadly, after two years of living in Rome he died after a failed attempt to treat his constipation. The Pope composed Hanno’s epitaph himself and commissioned Raphael to paint a fresco in his honour. It might have seemed a bit over the top to some people, and then a pamphlet appeared, purporting to be ‘The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno’. It mocked pretty much every cardinal and authority figure in Rome. The elephant bequeathed his jaws to Cardinal Danti Quattro so that he will be able to devour the revenues of the Church more easily. To Cardinal Santa Croce, he left his knees: “so that he can imitate my genuflections, but only on the condition that he tells no more lies in Council” and to Cardinal Grassi, his generative organs because he is such an ‘incorrigible fornicator’. Luckily, the Pope saw the funny side. Leo X was a member of the Medici family and was, like Aretino, from the Republic of Florence. Maybe he thought it would be useful to have a man like Aretino in his employ and he hired him for himself.

Five years later, Pope Leo died and Aretino was naturally hoping that another Medici would be elected in his place. He published a lot of rude things about the other potential candidates. Unfortunately for him, someone else was elected. Adrian of Utrecht was known to: “scorn the vanities of this world”. As a man who relied pretty heavily on the vanities of this world, Aretino could see that things were not going to work out very well form him and he fled Rome

Pope Adrian died the following year and another Medici, Clement VII, was elected in his place. Aretino returned to Rome and began, once again to publish rude pamphlets mocking the power hungry men who surrounded the Pope. This time though, he made himself a powerful enemy called Giovanmatteo Giberti, who swore revenge. It wasn’t long before he was presented with the ideal opportunity.

To explain what happened, I need to tell you about a couple of artists. The first was Giulio Romano. He was doing some work in the Vatican, but when he was bored he did a few sketches for his friends. There were sixteen drawings and they all: “dealt with the various attitudes and postures in which lewd men have intercourse with lewd women.” Legend suggests that he actually drew these pictures on the walls of the Vatican. I’d love that to be true, but it probably isn’t. When he left to work on another commission elsewhere he left the drawings with his friend Marcantonio Raimondi. Marcantonio had learned how to reproduce drawings as engravings and had them printed. He sold thousands of them. When the Pope heard about it, Marcantonio was arrested and thrown in prison. Every single copy of the engravings was found and destroyed. Somehow, and we don’t know how because he was not a popular man, Aretino managed to campaign for Marcantonio’s release.

Then, of course, he wanted to know what all the fuss had been about. Marcantonio showed him the drawings and Aretino was so impressed that he was inspired to write a sonnet to accompany each illustration. Each poem is a conversation between a courtesan and her client. Some of the characters were recognisable as prominent public figures. The work was published all over again as a book which is called ‘I Modi’ or ‘Aretino’s Positions’. They were dedicated to his enemy Giberti. When this came to the attention of Giberti he ordered Aretino arrested. But when the guards arrived at his house, he was already gone. All copies were again sought out and destroyed. All that remains of Marcantonio’s engravings are a single illustration and a few fragments which now belong to the British Museum. Aretino’s sonnets have survived along with some woodblock prints from a forged copy of their book.

04 20 i modi fragments

04 20 i modi raimondi

Aretino fled to Mantua, but Giberti’s influence was far reaching and in July 1525 Aretino was on his way home from a party, when he was stabbed twice. He was stabbed once in the chest and once in the hand and was expected to die. But slowly he began to recover. He had to learn to write with his left hand because his right was so badly damaged. In 1527, he moved to Venice, which was an extremely liberal place and pretty much perfect for him. Aretino knew a lot of things about a lot of very important people. Sometimes he made a living writing about them, sometimes by not writing about them. People would give him gifts in the hope that he would publish something salacious about their enemies. Sworn rivals Francis I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V both petitioned him in the hope that he would have something to say about the other one.

Before we leave Aretino today, I want to tell you a bit about one of his other works. His ‘Capricciosi Ragionamenti’ (Capricious Dialogues) was a three part work. It was a discussion between one prostitute and another about how she should raise her daughter. Basically, there were three life choices open to women. They could become a nun, a wife or a whore. The mother Nanna, wondered which was best. Her friend, Antonia, suggests that, as Nanna had been all three, she should describe the life of nuns, the life of wives and the life of whores and she will be able to tell which is best for her daughter.

As a young woman, Nanna had been sent to a convent. She expected to find a place of piety and prayer, a place where she might as well have been dead. Instead, as she sat 04 20 nun picking penises off a treedown to eat, a man brought a basket, which he claimed contained fruits from paradise. But what the basket contained was loads of glass penises made out of Murano glass. The picture on the right is not an illustration from his work, it’s actually from around two hundred years earlier, but I was reminded of it. Nanna was completely debauched in the nunnery and eventually left to return to her family. Then, she was married off to a very old and rich man. To convince him that she was a virgin, her mother placed an egg shell filled with chicken’s blood inside Nanna’s vagina. The ruse completely fooled her husband and Nanna later met many other wives and learned about the tricks they’d pulled on their foolish husbands. Nanna had lots of affairs while she was married and wound up stabbing her husband when he found her in the arms of a beggar. It was after that, that she became a whore, selling her ‘virginity’ over and over. Her friend concluded that she would be better off making her daughter a whore straight away. That way she wouldn’t be breaking any promises to God, or her marriage vows.

04 20 death of aretinoPietro Aretino died in 1556. He died of laughing too much. Either he asphyxiated or he fell backwards and hit his head on the floor. Which isn’t the worst way to go. You can see a nineteenth century depiction of the event by Anselm Feuerbach on the left. His work continues to cause controversy. In 2007, Michael Nyman set some of his ‘lust sonnets’ to music. When they were performed in 2008 at Cadagon Hall in Chelsea, the programme was withdrawn on grounds of obscenity. It is one of the few pieces of classical music which carries a ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Content’ sticker.