Imperia Cognati - the most famous courtesan of Renaissance Rome

Chigi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Pace, on the left alleged portrait of Imperia

Chigi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Pace, on the left alleged portrait of Imperia

The charm, intelligence and beauty of this lady were praised by poets and humanists alike. Her biography, provides us with the opportunity to take a look at the fate of a woman, for whom men went mad, but also allows us to get to know the life of the then elites of Rome, which next to Venice, had the largest number of „queens of the night“ from various walks of life. Imperia was one of them – the most known, admired and renowned, Roman courtesan of the start of the XVI century. As one of her adulators, Biagio Pallai wrote, „The God Mars gave the Romans an empire, the goddess Venus – Imperia“.

Chigi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Pace, on the left alleged portrait of Imperia
Alleged portrait of Imperia, Chigi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Pace
The Parnassus, Imperia as Sappho (on the left), Raphael’s Rooms, Apostolic Palace
Imperia as Sappho (on the left), Raphael’s Rooms, Apostolic Palace
Villa Farnesina, The Triumph of Galatea, fresco by Raphael
Imperia as Galatea, Villa Farnesina
Imperia’s tombstone (since XVII that of Cannon Luigi Guidiccini), Church of San Gregorio Magno

The charm, intelligence and beauty of this lady were praised by poets and humanists alike. Her biography, provides us with the opportunity to take a look at the fate of a woman, for whom men went mad, but also allows us to get to know the life of the then elites of Rome, which next to Venice, had the largest number of „queens of the night“ from various walks of life. Imperia was one of them – the most known, admired and renowned, Roman courtesan of the start of the XVI century. As one of her adulators, Biagio Pallai wrote, „The God Mars gave the Romans an empire, the goddess Venus – Imperia“.

Above the doorstep of her house, there was reportedly an inscription, informing the guests, that if they were to cross its threshold, they were to bring with them wit and good mood, while departing – leave a significant gift or money. In Rome at the turn of the XV and XVI centuries, nobody was especially shocked, especially those, who could afford a visit at the “goddess of love”. After all, we are speaking of the times of great sexual tolerance (also referred to as a loosening of morals), to a large extent born out of reading ancient writers and the ever-growing fascination with the gradually discovered antiquity. It should come as no surprise that there were analogies made between courtesans of those times and the Greek hetaeras, the ever-present companions who stimulated the male mind and imagination. We are also speaking of the times in which “decent” wives and daughters did not leave the home and did not take part in public life, in banquets or intellectual disputes. Their lack, was however, visible, especially since at the courts of other Italian cities, gradually a courtly culture developed, giving women a significant role in it. For is it possible to imagine a great feast full of men? And it was not about sex in the first place, but about an intelligent woman who could liven up such a party, whose great value was her beauty and who with her presence enriched musical and poetic soirees or excursions into the city, while in the appropriate situations she was also an outstanding hostess of meetings in her own house. In the Roman society, dominated by men, in which the role of a woman was identified with either marriage or convent, the life of a courtesan was a third way. They could count on financial independence, privileges, popularity, and security in their old age. Many of them, or at least those, who were able to acquire a fortune, also married well. All of this meant that the significance of a courtesan in the then social life was great indeed and it should come as no surprise, that they enjoyed fame similar to that enjoyed by present-day celebrities: their lavish carriages were recognized, their garments admired, while in the church they were given important places.

 

Imperia, or more appropriately Lucretia, since her name was a pseudonym, was born to an unknown father and a Roman courtesan of lower rank, Diana di Pietro Cognati. Her mother performed her profession and then she married and lived near the newly built Basilica of San Pietro at Piazza Scossa Cavalli in the Borgo district. The population census shows that, at that time the district was inhabited in 10% by prostitutes and their families. Imperia, which was a rather unusual situation, inherited her profession from her mother, who since her childhood introduced the child into the secrets of the art of love and more. Being a courtesan was by no means simple, as they were separated from regular prostitutes by a chasm, which was marked by culture, refinement and education. Besides the ability to read and write and hopefully also the knowledge of the basics of literature, playing an instrument, the art of dancing, a courtesan was to distinguish herself with a sharp mind, intelligence, wit, but also, which was not without significance, restraint – she should not laugh loudly, eat and drink without limit, she should on the other hand….smile sweetly in face of crude male jokes. However, most of all, she should spread her charm, inspire with song and dance during intervals between male discussions and also participate discreetly in these discussions, as was fit for a true lady of the court. Imperia possessed all these qualities. If that was not enough – as the later bishop, Dominican, Matteo Bandello described her – on the table of her salon there were beautifully covered Latin and Italian volumes, as well as the fashionable at that time lute or viola da braccio, and books for music learning. Imperia herself, learned to play these instruments and composed poetry, reportedly she was even the author of a few sonnets and madrigals, which in those times, was a significant social benefit. The ability to quote the Classicists, including the combination of words into graceful verses were a ticket to the foremost salons of the then Italy, also the one ran by Imperia, who surrounded herself with a group of Roman poets and humanists, probably counting on – today we would say media – response.

The palazzo of the outstanding mistress, decorated in the façade by a lying Venus, attracted male companionship, seeking entertainment and love, while she herself was a great hostess, sparing no expense for her refined and wealthy guests. The description of her abode also comes from the aforementioned Bandello. The three most important rooms in which she entertained her guests were – the salon, bedroom and boudoir, were laid with glitter and silk, the floor was covered with very expensive at that time, which was a testimony to the wealth of the hostess, carpets. The monk devoted particular attention to the boudoir with walls decorated with tapestries embroidered with gold and topped off with an ultramarine cornice, on which serpentine and porphyry vases stood. In the salon there were chests and commodes, as well as a table, on which the aforementioned evidence of the musical and literary interests of the hostess lay, put there more as a manifestation of her education than (perhaps) a true love of the classicists of antiquity.

Imperia lived in luxury, she had a house in Rome and a vineyard outside the city, while her clients included significant citizens – bankers, librarians of the papal library, the aforementioned poets, officials of the Curia, and cardinals. Among them, a leading role was played by the well-known patron of art, a banker and one of the richest people of the then Europe – Agostino Chigi. During her best period Imperia had more or less nine regular lovers from the highest circles in Rome. Some of them were her fervent worshippers, others were jealous of other men, while others still visited other courtesans besides her. Most often they had wives, but all of them were connected by a great admiration and feeling for this very woman, who seemed to be an almost personification of love. Some complained about her aloofness and   disregard for their professions of love, others were ready to commit crimes to get rid of a competitor. And that is exactly what happened when a Venetian by the name of Giacomo Stella was murdered out of jealousy by an assassin sent by one of Imperia’s lovers, an official in the Papal Chancellery, Alberto Bacuto.

 

Imperia lacked neither admirers nor money. She had just purchased a vineyard, was building her own house, while she sent her daughter Lucretia, whom she bore at the age of 17 to the convent, ensuring her future, when suddenly everything lost sense for her. With pietism she put her financial affairs in order, wrote a will, assigned the appropriate sums for her burial, masses, a funerary monument, but especially for the security of her daughter and then….she took some poison. Attempts were made to revive her, but during subsequent days of a slow death, she was only able to take the sacraments and a papal blessing and then in a stormy night she passed away. What was the reason for this act – that we cannot be certain of. Nevertheless, the aforementioned monk Bandello, who was friends with Angelo del Bufalo, in his novel devoted to Imperia, writes about genuine love for her friend, who supported her for many years, with whom she was madly in love and who left her for another. Others still suggest, that the reason was a young girl, the new love interest of her most influential lover – Agostino Chigi. Perhaps Imperia was burdened with not one but two failed love attempts, due to which – as poets wrote – her heart broke. It is also possible that in a society when the sexual life of girls started at the age of fourteen, the over-thirty-year old Imperia could no longer find a place that would suit her ambitions.

The executor of her will, was among others, Agostino Chigi. He ensured his friend with a truly lavish funeral and an equally grand tombstone in the Church of San Gregorio al Monte, on which he put an inscription: “Imperia Cognata Romana, who was worthy of such a name and whose rare beauty spread light among people, she lived for 31 years, 12 days and died on 15 August, 1512”.

The painter Raphael, who was known for his weakness towards the fair sex, and on top of that was friends with Agostino Chigi, meaning he was also a member of the circle of Imperia’s friends, immortalized her several times. After coming to Rome in 1508 he settled near her house at Piazza Scossa Cavalli. It was either he, or one of his students, who was the author of the aforementioned cardboard, depicting Imperia as a lying Venus, destined for the decoration of the façade of the house of the renowned mistress. This type of artistic tastes were also a sort of an advertisement. It was fashionable at that time to adorn the elevation with elements of ancient decorations, while the wealthier courtesans decorated their homes with paintings of mythological theme. They themselves, leaning on windows on velvet pillows, encouraged passersby to enter.

However, this Venus is not the only figure associated with Imperia’s image. Walking through the rooms of Villa Farnesina, on one of the walls we will see an outstanding image of Galatea on a dolphin-drawn chariot (Triumph of Galatea) by Raphael. In the representation of this beautiful nymph some see an image of Imperia. In the Chigi family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Pace, she will appear once again as a Sybil, in the Apostolic Palace (Raphael Rooms) as Sappho and Calliope. Yet, despite the fact that a large number of poems and sonnets appeared on the topic of the famous courtesan we do not really know what she looked like. The most attention was devoted to her gold hair, high, clear forehead, slender neck and full and “voluptuous” breasts.

Imperia’s last wish, to take care of Lucretia and marry her off, was also fulfilled by the executors of her will. Lucretia did not follow in the footsteps of her mother. Two years after her mother’s death she married a Siennese merchant and led an exemplary life. She also attempted to commit suicide, in a moment of grief, when Cardinal Raffaele Petrucci tried to force her break her marriage vows. In this way the virtue of the daughter gave further splendor to the memory of the Divine Imperia. News of her death, spread not only in Rome but at all Italian courts. At poetry evenings, also in the company of the then trendsetters of courtly life such as Isabella d’Este of Mantua, with emotion the courtesan who committed suicided out of love, was talked about and immortalized in verses.

Imperia’s old tomb, as part of the struggle with immorality was in the XVII century given to Canon Luigi Guidiccini. Although at that time it was reconstructed and modernized it is still one of the most beautiful at the courtyard of the Church of San Gregorio.