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Document Highlights
September 2001


Is Vincenzo I Gonzaga impotent?
The Mantuan Succession hangs in the balance.

Giovanni Bilivert (Florence, 1585-1644)
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife
Oil on Canvas, 240 x 300 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence.
Click for large image
PRESENTED BY: Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
The Medici Archive Project
DATED: 22 [?December] 1583

Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Mediceo del Principato 3255
(Entry 10834 in the "Documentary Sources" database.)

According to what they write, a rumor is circulating in that city [Milan] that two unmarried women have been sent from Florence to Ferrara so that the Prince of Mantua [Vincenzo I Gonzaga] could demonstrate his potency with the Lord Duke of that place [Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara] as witness. Furthermore, while the Prince of Mantua was on the road heading to this combat, he was overtaken by a messenger especially sent by the Lord Duke his father [Gugielmo I Gonzaga], since it was apparently the advice of Signor Carlo Gonzaga [di Vescovado] that such a marriage should not begin with a mortal sin.

They also say that tests were made to determine whether he could support a reasonable weight with his erect member and if he could thrust sufficently against the palm of a hand so as to be able to pass through an unmarried woman. In addition, a measure was made from nature to see whether his member is so deformed as to cause impotence. The result of all of this, it would seem, is that he is potent. Furthermore, it is known that he has used it worthily in many places, even if some of the doctors who treated the Princess of Parma [Margherita Farnese-Gonzaga] cast some doubt as to whether the Prince of Mantua was entirely potent. Some of these doctors would have it that the ailment of a fistula between his member and his rear could easily hinder his potency and his ability to procreate.

A person has been proposed to the Mantuan Ambassador here [in Milan] who has treated a similar ailment in the case of a man who remained with his wife for several years without being able to effect anything with her. This person cured him easily and afterwards he was able to procreate and he had several children. The Ambassador, it is believed, relayed this proposal to his lord [Gugielmo I or Vincenzo I Gonzaga.] Every effort will be made to find out what is happening and to share this information.

[...] Scrivano che in quella citt� s'era sparso voce di Firenze esser stato mandato due cittelle a Ferrara, acci� che sotto la testimonianza di quel signore Duca, Il Sig.r Principe di Mantova facesse prova della sua potentia et che sendo egli per strada per andare a questo abbattimento li sopragiunse corriere mandato a posta dal Sig.r Duca suo padre, acci� ritornassi a Mantova parendo che cos� fusse consiglio del Sig.r Carlo Gonzaga che tal matrimonio non s'havesse a cominciare con peccato mortale. Dicono anco essersi fatto prova se pu� reggere peso honesto con il membro ritto, et se pu� aspettare incontro fattoli col palmo delle mani tanto che potesse anco passare una cittella. Et di pi� fatto una misura in forma di natura per vedere se il membro suo � tanto disforme che causi l'impotentia. Qual'cose pare che tutte mostrino esser potenti. In oltre, che si sa haver usato in molti luoghi, et portatosi valorosamente, se bene da alcuni di questi medici, che furono alla cura della Principessa di Parma vien dato qualche ombre che detto Principe di Mantova non sia del tutto potente volendo alcuni d'essi, che il suo male di fistula sia fra il membro et il sedere cosa facilissima a impedire la potenza et il generare. A questo ambasciatore di Mantova � stato preposta persona che ha curato un simil male a persona che stette con la moglie qualche anni senza mai poter venire a effetto alcuno con essa, qual lo san� facilmente e doppo fu atto a ingenerare si come hebbe alcuni figliuoli e per quanto si crede detto Ambasciatore deve haver fatto questa preposta al suo signore, che valendosene tutto si sapr� e se ne dar� avviso [...]

In studying the social and sexual customs of Early Modern Europe, it is interesting to note that men could sometimes be subjected to as many gross indignities as women. This was especially the case with ruling families, since the ultimate stability of the political system depended on the capacity of princes and princesses to procreate and secure their line of descent.

When the present avviso circulated in the last weeks of 1583, the case of Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562 -1612) had long been an international sensation. Vincenzo was heir to the Dukedoms of Mantua and Monferrato and in 1581, he married Margherita Farnese (1567-1643), granddaughter of the Duke of Parma, Alessandro di Ottavio Farnese. Though this seemed an impeccable dynastic alliance between the rulers of two adjoining states, the diplomatic and political honeymoon was in fact as short-lived as the conjugal one.

Rumors of Vincenzo Gonzaga's impotence were already in the air only three days after the lavish state wedding. Doctors were summoned to examine the young bride and determine whether she suffered a physical impediment to sexual intercourse. Regarding the groom, there were insinuations that Vincenzo had enjoyed a longterm homosexual relationship with Alfonso Felix d'Avalos, Marchese of Pescara and Vasto, not to mention a more traditional heterosexual affair with the Contessa Sala. This storm of gossip, with its conflicting accusations of impotence, adultery and sodomy, was offensive to everyone concerned and led to a definitve breakdown of relations between the Gonzaga and Farnese families. The only evident solution was to annul the marriage and when the case was presented in Rome, it was intensely acrimonious. Both families had powerful Cardinals to defend their reputation and interests. Cardinal Scipio Gonzaga argued that Vincenzo was too virile for Margherita, citing the Crown Prince's escapades with various mistresses and prostitutes. Meanwhile, Cardinal Alessandro di Pierluigi Farnese claimed the contrary, insisting that Vincenzo was functionally impotent. In 1583, after two years of attack and counter-attack, Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni officially annulled the marriage. Margherita then entered a convent in Parma where she remained until her death sixty years later.

As heir to the throne of Mantua, Vincenzo Gonzaga desperately needed to marry and produce heirs. Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, had daughters to place (particularly the sixteen year-old Eleonora, 1567-1611) and a Mantuan marriage would have made excellent dynastic sense, if the accumulated doubts could be dispelled. There were fundamental medical questions to be resolved and it was in everyone's interest to avoid yet another grotesque public farce.

In order to set a tone of high moral seriousness, ecclesiastics were called in to determine whether a physical test could or should be required of Vincenzo and to define its practical logistics. Pope Gregory XIII declared that Vincenzo was virile (the evidence for his finding is not recorded) but Grand Duke Francesco de' Medici wanted more substantive proof that Vincenzo was indeed capable of copulating with a virgin. If not, it was considered that Vincenzo might need to marry a widow who would presumably present lesser physiological challenges. Vincenzo's defense team (including the Bishop of Mantua Fedele Gonzaga, Cardinal Scipio Gonzaga, Canon Marc'Antonio Gonzaga and Padre Francesco Gonzaga, as well as the noted preacher Francesco Panigarola) vehemently objected that the Grand Duke's insistence on such a test undermined the authority of the Pope. This led to a special convocation of the College of Cardinals, where Cardinal Alessandro Farnese beseeched the assembly to disallow the test. (Farnese presumably knew that if Vincenzo was proven virile, his grand-niece Margherita Farnese would be implicated in the dissolution of the previous marriage.) Cardinal Farnese argued that it was indecent for the College to connive at "prostituting an innocent virgin and consenting to her violation." He then raised the weighty question of where they would find an appropriate virgin, what kind of family might be expected to donate one of its daughters and whether it might prove necessary to lift a virgin from a convent or a Church-run orphanage.

Despite Cardinal Farnese's impassioned plea, the College voted to allow the test, which was to take place in Ferrara (a neutral territory, without evident pro-Gonzaga or pro-Medici biases.) The selected virgin would be examined before witnesses to verify her status and then held in seclusion in the Castello di Belfiore until the day of the event. Cesare d'Este (nephew and heir of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara), was to supervise the test in person, seeing and touching the "nature" of the prince. Vincenzo Gonzaga agreed to these rules, stipulating however that the girl be from a reasonably good family and have a pretty face. A suitable candidate was found in January of 1584, when the recent widow of the famed architect and painter Pirro Ligorio (1500-83) offered her eldest daughter in return for a dowry and a suitable marriage partner after the event. The girl was then taken to the Castello di Belfiore and Vincenzo duly presented himself in Ferrara, only to return to Mantua in haste, without undergoing the test or offering an explanation.

The Gonzaga continued to delay and then attempted to cancel the test
altogether. Meanwhile, the Medici were losing patience and Grand Duke Francesco warned the Mantuans that Carlo Emanuele, Duke of Savoy, had also offered to marry Eleonora. Out of desperation, the Gonzaga agreed once again to undergo the test, but asked that Vincenzo be given three nights to prove his prowess. The Grand Duke eventually compromised, allowing Vincenzo three chances but only in the course of a single night. Apparently the Este in Ferrara wished to remove themselves from the middle of this increasingly fraught situation, so the Ligorio girl was released from the Castello di Belfiore and the test site was transferred to Venice.

Francesco de'Medici resolved to furnish the virgin himself and his choice settled on Giulia, an illegitimate daughter of the Albizzi family who was living in an orphanage in Florence. Belisario di Francesco Vinta (1542-1613), the Medici agent in Mantua, accompanied the girl to Venice where the test took place on 7 March. Vinta examined Vincenzo's genitals and expressed disappointment in their size. He also noted that the Crown Prince failed on the first attempt but succeeded on the second. On balance, however, it was concluded that the future Duke of Mantua was indeed a suitable spouse for Princess Eleonora de' Medici.

The case of Vincenzo Gonzaga has long attracted the scholarly interest of historians and medical specialists, not to mention the curiosity of the prurient. In 1963, the French writer Roger Peyrefitte devoted a fascinating and witty book to the subject, La Nature du Prince (published in English in 1964 as The Prince's Person, without the Gallic pun.) Peyrefitte's account forms the basis of the preceding narrative.

How do we reconcile Peyrefitte's telling of the story with the present avviso? Most of the elements here are already familiar, at least in general outline. There is the test in Ferrara (to be supervised, however, by Duke Alfonso II not his nephew and heir Cesare d'Este.) There is the exportation of test material from Florence (two virgins, however, not one), which was an aspect of the subsequent event in Venice. There is also the dramatic cancellation of the Ferrara test (we now have Vincenzo intercepted on the road even before his arrival.) However, the most intriguing addition is the impressively circumstantial account of the diagnostic tests that were evidently performed without female assistance (it is not mentioned where these tests took place, though the implication is that it was in Ferrara, perhaps as a compromise after the Mantuans disallowed the actual penetration of a virgin.) Finally, a concrete physical ailment is introduced into the discussion (a fistula on Vincenzo's perineum.)

"According to what they write, a rumor is circulating..." is how the avviso begins. This mixture of privileged inside information and blatant hearsay was the stuff of which avvisi were made. Avvisi were handwritten newsletters despatched to elite subscribers across Europe (the recipient in the present case was Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici, who was himself a central figure in the drama.) Sensational on the surface, this avviso had profound political implications involving most of the rulers of Northern Italy: the Gonzaga of Mantua (the family of the problematic groom), the Farnese of Parma (the family of the aggrieved ex-wife), the Medici of Tuscany (the family of the proposed second wife) and the Este of Ferrara (the proposed referees.)

The outstanding question is the date of the present avviso, which is highly conspicuous by its absence (avvisi were almost always prominently dated, in order to emphasize their topicality.) From its context in volume 3255 of the Archivio Mediceo del Principato, we can deduce that it was written in December of 1583. However, in sorting through the apparent admixture of fact, garbled fact and supposition, a week or even a few days could significantly affect our understanding of the public dimensions of the evolving Vincenzo Gonzaga story.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the whole case was its ultimate inconsequence on the most basic level. Following the test in Venice in March of 1584, no time was lost in concluding the marriage, which took place a month later. After Vincenzo's succession to the Mantuan throne in 1587, he and Eleonora de' Medici ruled together for 24 years and produced five children, including three successive Dukes of Mantua: Vincenzo II, Ferdinando I and Francesco IV. Vincenzo also developed quite a reputation as a ladies' man and is known to have fathered at least four other children with various women.

Giovanni Bilivert (Florence, 1585-1644), Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, Oil on Canvas, 240 x 300 cm., Galleria Palatina, Florence. Though there are many renaissance and baroque depictions of women resisting the sexual attentions of men (Lucrezia and Tarquin, Susanna and the Elders and the Rape of the Sabines, to name just a few), this exotic Old Testament subject gave artists and patrons the opportunity to savor a familiar situation in reverse. The present very large picture was executed for Cardinal Carlo de' Medici in 1620 for the decoration of his Florentine residence, the Casino di San Marco. In later years, it became one of the most acclaimed paintings in the Medici Granducal Collections, with such melodramatic titles as "The Chastity of Joseph" or "The Flight of the Chaste Joseph."

"The Four Seasons: An Image from Autumn"
Property of Duke University Medical Collections Library, Trent Collection, History of Medicine Collections, Durham, North Carolina.
This is one state from "The Four Seasons", a set of four seventeenth-century copperplate engraving of probably Flemish or German origin. Each of these engravings alludes to a season of the year, using the human body as an emblem for one of the "ages of man." The four engravings are in fact complex constructions with many movable parts, including superimposed paper flaps and volvelles. Though they constitute an impressive demonstration of the study of human anatomy, they also integrate many allusions to alchemy, astrology, astronomy, botany, geography, palmistry and zoology-offering a compelling impression of that age's inclusive concept of "natural philosophy".

"The Four Seasons" are one of the treasures of the History of Medicine Collections at the Duke University Medical Center Library. For more information (including 504 slides of these four engravings with different arrangements of their movable parts) visit:

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