The Search for an Image
Daughter of Pier Luigi Farnese and Giovanna Caetani, and sister of Alessandro (the future Pope Paul III), Giulia farnese was born in 1475, in Canino, in a territory around lake Bolsena, North of Rome. She had a sister and three brothers. One of the brothers, Alessandro, later became a Pope by the name Paolo III.
Since birth Giulia had been promise to Orsino Orsini. When they married, in 1489, she was 15 years old and Orsino 16. In 1492 she had a daughter by name Laura, and the gossip was that Laura wasn't Orsino's daughter!
In the meantime Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia had broken his relation with Vannozzathe woman who had given him four children, among whom Lucrezia Borgiaand had also provided to marry her off to another complacent husband for appearances. Having Vannozza been remarried, Rodrigo removed Lucrezia and her three brothers from their mother's home and placed them all under the care of his cousin Adriana de Mila. Adriana was the widow of Ludovico Orsini and the mother of their son Orsino, now Giulia's husband. They had married in 1489.
The open relation between Giulia and Cardinal Rodrigo began in 1489 and continued even after the Cardinal became Pope with the name of Alexander VI. During this time Orsino was frequently away for his business, and Giulia went to live with Adriana de Mila and Lucrezia Borgia in the newly-built palace of S. Maria del Portico. The building had a private door that lead into St. peter. This allowed the Pope to visit his daughter as well as his latest mistress, Giulia.
When Giulia gave birth to her daughter Laura, in 1492, all of Rome was whispering that Laura's real father was not Orsino but Pope Alexander. And probably it was true if one considers the Pope's effortsmade through Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giulia's bother, to contract for Laura the most advantageous agreements of matrimony. But after Pope Alexander's death the new Pope, Julius II, and the Farnese began their slow rehabilitation in the eyes of the world that culminated with the marriage between Laura Orsini and Niccolò della Rovere.
Historians describe Giulia as a very beautiful woman, and in fact she was called Giulia "la Bella"the Beautiful. And yet no images, paintings, miniatures, sculptures of her have come down to us.
In Raphael's painting The Transfiguration, in the Vatican, there is a splendid profile of a kneeling woman that has been traditionally considered as Giulia's portrait. However, several critics believe that Giulia is to be sought in the some Renaissance portraits of Women with Unicorn: Raphael and Longhi, for instance. And it is important to remember that, among other meanings, the unicorn represents also the penetration of the divine into the human. Others believe that Giulia is represented by the Armed Lady painted by Francesco Salviati in Palazzo Farnese, in Rome. But a great number of critics, following an ancient tradition, see Giulia ( "the Venus of the Vatican") in the statue representing Justice, in the tomb of Pope Paul III in the Vatican. Finally Giorgio Vasari, in the Lives of the Artists, says: "In the palace he [Bernardino Pinturicchio] also portrayed over the door of one of the living rooms Signora Giulia Farnese [with dauther Laura] in the features of our Lady, and in the same picture the face of Pope Alexander, who is adoring the Madonna" (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Penguin Classics, vol. II: A selection translated by George Bull, p 83).