The Region of Ponte, 'the Bridge,' takes its name from the ancient Triumphal Bridge which led from the city to the Vatican Fields, and at low water some fragments of the original piers may be seen in the river at the bend just below Ponte Sant' Angelo, between the Church of Saint John of the Florentines on the one bank, and the Hospital of Santo Spirito on the other. In the Middle Age, according to Baracconi and others, the broken arches still extended into the stream, and upon them was built a small fortress, the outpost of the Orsini on that side. The device, however, appears to represent a portion of the later Bridge of Sant' Angelo, built upon the foundations of the Ælian Bridge of Hadrian, which connected his tomb with the Campus Martius. The Region consists of the northwest point of the city, bounded by the Tiber, from Monte Brianzo round the bend, and down stream to the new Lungara bridge, and on the land side by a very irregular line running across the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, close to the Chiesa Nuova, and then eastward and northward in a zigzag, so as to take in most of the fortresses of the Orsini family, Monte Giordano, Tor Millina, Tor Sanguigna, and the now demolished Torre di Nona. The Sixth and Seventh Regions adjacent to the Fifth and to each other would have to be included in order to take in all that part of Rome once held by the only family that rivalled, and sometimes surpassed, the Colonna in power.
As has been said before, the original difference between the two was that the Colonna were Ghibellines and for the Emperors, while the Orsini were Guelphs and generally adhered to the Popes. In the violent changes of the Middle Age, it happened indeed that the Colonna had at least one Pope of their own, and that more than one, such as Nicholas the Fourth, favoured their race to the point of exciting popular indignation. But, on the whole, they kept to their parties. When Lewis the Bavarian was to be crowned by force, Sciarra Colonna crowned him; when Henry the Seventh of Luxemburg had come to Rome for the same purpose, a few years earlier, the Orsini had been obliged to be satisfied with a sort of second-rate coronation at Saint John Lateran's; and when the struggle between the two families was at its height, nearly two centuries later, and Sixtus the Fourth 'assumed the part of mediator,' as the chronicle expresses it, one of his first acts of mediation was to cut off the head of a Colonna, and his next was to lay regular siege to the strongholds of the family in the Roman hills; but before he had brought this singular process of mediation to an issue he suddenly died, the Colonna returned to their dwellings in Rome 'with great clamour and triumph,' got the better of the Orsini, and proceeded to elect a Pope after their own hearts, in the person of Cardinal Cibo, of Genoa, known as Innocent the Eighth. He it is who lies under the beautiful bronze monument in the inner left aisle of Saint Peter's, which shows him holding in his hand a model of the spear-head that pierced Christ's side, a relic believed to have been sent to the Pope as a gift by Sultan Bajazet the Second.
The origin of the hatred between Colonna and Orsini is unknown, for the archives of the former have as yet thrown no light upon the subject, and those of the latter were almost entirely destroyed by fire in the last century. In the year 1305, Pope Clement the Fifth was elected Pope at Perugia. He was a Frenchman, and was Archbishop of Bordeaux, the candidate of Philip the Fair, whose tutor had been a Colonna, and he was chosen by the opposing factions of two Orsini cardinals because the people of Perugia were tired of a quarrel that had lasted eleven months, and had adopted the practical and always infallible expedient of deliberately starving the conclave to a vote. Muratori calls it a scandalous and illicit election, which brought about the ruin of Italy and struck a memorable blow at the power of the Holy See. Though not a great man, Philip the Fair was one of the cleverest that ever lived. Before the election he had made his bishop swear upon the Sacred Host to accept his conditions, without expressing them all; and the most important proved to be the transference of the Papal See to France. The new Pope obeyed his master, established himself in Avignon, and the King to all intents and purposes had taken the Pontificate captive and lost no time in using it for his own ends against the Empire, his hereditary foe. Such, in a few words, is the history of that memorable transaction; and but for the previous quarrels of Colonna, Caetani and Orsini, it could never have taken place. The Orsini repented bitterly of what they had done, for one of Clement the Fifth's first acts was to 'annul altogether all sentences whatsoever pronounced against the Colonna.'
But the Pope being gone, the Barons had Rome in their power and used it for a battlefield. Four years later, we find in Villani the first record of a skirmish fought between Orsini and Colonna. In the month of October, 1309, says the chronicler, certain of the Orsini and of the Colonna met outside the walls of Rome with their followers, to the number of four hundred horse, and fought together, and the Colonna won; and there died the Count of Anguillara, and six of the Orsini were taken, and Messer Riccardo degli Annibaleschi who was in their company.
Three years afterwards, Henry of Luxemburg alternately feasted and fought his way to Rome to be crowned Emperor in spite of Philip the Fair, the Tuscan league and Robert, King of Naples, who sent a thousand horsemen out of the south to hinder the coronation. In a day Rome was divided into two great camps. Colonna held for the Emperor the Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Colosseum, the Torre delle Milizie,—the brick tower on the lower part of the modern Via Nazionale,—the Pantheon, as an advanced post in one direction, and Santa Sabina, a church that was almost a fortress, on the south, by the Tiber,—a chain of fortresses which would be formidable in any modern revolution. Against Henry, however, the Orsini held the Vatican and Saint Peter's, the Castle of Sant' Angelo and all Trastevere, their fortresses in the Region of Ponte, and, moreover, the Capitol itself. The parties were well matched, for, though Henry entered Rome on the seventh of May, the struggle lasted till the twenty-ninth of June.
Those who have seen revolutions can guess at the desperate fighting in the barricaded streets, and at the well-guarded bridges from one end of the city to the other. Backwards and forwards the battle raged for days and weeks, by day and night, with small time for rest and refreshment. Forward rode the Colonna, the stolid Germans, Henry himself, the eagle of the Empire waving in the dim streets beside the flag that displayed the simple column in a plain field. It is not hard to hear and see it all again—the clanging gallop of armoured knights, princes, nobles and bishops, with visors down, and long swords and maces in their hands, the high, fierce cries of the light-armed footmen, the bowmen and the slingers, the roar of the rabble rout behind, the shrill voices of women at upper windows, peering down for the face of brother, husband, or lover in the dashing press below,—the dust, the heat, the fierce June sunshine blazing on broad steel, and the deep, black shadows putting out all light as the bands rush past. Then, on a sudden, the answering shout of the Orsini, the standard of the Bear, the Bourbon lilies of Anjou, the scarlet and white colours of the Guelph house, the great black horses, and the dark mail—the enemies surging together in the street like swift rivers of loose iron meeting in a stone channel, with a rending crash and the quick hammering of steel raining desperate blows on steel—horses rearing their height, footmen crushed, knights reeling in the saddle, sparks flying, steel-clad arms and long swords whirling in great circles through the air. Foremost of all in fight the Bishop of Liège, his purple mantle flying back from his corselet, trampling down everything, sworn to win the barricade or die, riding at it like a madman, forcing his horse up to it over the heaps of quivering bodies that made a causeway, leaping it alone at last, like a demon in air, and standing in the thick of the Orsini, slaying to right and left.
In an instant they had him down and bound and prisoner, one man against a thousand; and they fastened him behind a man-at-arms, on the crupper, to take him into Sant' Angelo alive. But a soldier, whose brother he had slain a moment earlier, followed stealthily on foot and sought the joint in the back of the armour, and ran in his pike quickly, and killed him—'whereof,' says the chronicle, 'was great pity, for the Bishop was a man of high courage and authority.' But on the other side of the barricade, those who had followed him so far, and lost him, felt their hearts sink, for not one of them could do what he had done; and after that, though they fought a whole month longer, they had but little hope of ever getting to the Vatican. So the Colonna took Henry up to the Lateran, where they were masters, and he was crowned there by three cardinals in the Pope's stead, while the Orsini remained grimly intrenched in their own quarter, and each party held its own, even after Henry had prudently retired to Tivoli, in the hills.
At last the great houses made a truce and a compromise, by which they attempted to govern Rome jointly, and chose Sciarra—the same who had taken Pope Boniface prisoner in Anagni—and Matteo Orsini of Monte Giordano, to be Senators together; and there was peace between them for a time, in the year in which Rienzi was born. But in that very year, as though foreshadowing his destiny, the rabble of Rome rose up, and chose a dictator; and somehow, by surprise or treachery, he got possession of the Barons' chief fortresses, and of Sant' Angelo, and set up the standard of terror against the nobles. In a few days he sacked and burned their strongholds, and the high and mighty lords who had made the reigning Pope, and had fought to an issue for the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, were conquered, humiliated and imprisoned by an upstart plebeian of Trastevere. The portcullis of Monte Giordano was lifted, and the mysterious gates were thrown wide to the curiosity of a populace drunk with victory; Giovanni degli Stefaneschi issued edicts of sovereign power from the sacred precincts of the Capitol; and the vagabond thieves of Rome feasted in the lordly halls of the Colonna palace. But though the tribune and the people could seize Rome, outnumbering the nobles as ten to one, they had neither the means nor the organization to besiege the fortified towns of the great houses, which hemmed in the city and the Campagna on every side. Thither the nobles retired to recruit fresh armies among their retainers, to forge new swords in their own smithies, and to concert new plans for recovering their ancient domination; and thence they returned in their strength, from their towers and their towns and fortresses, from Palestrina and Subiaco, Genazzano, San Vito and Paliano on the south, and from Bracciano and Galera and Anguillara, and all the Orsini castles on the north, to teach the people of Rome the great truth of those days, that 'aristocracy' meant not the careless supremacy of the nobly born, but the power of the strongest hands and the coolest heads to take and hold. Back came Colonna and Orsini, and the people, who a few months earlier had acclaimed their dictator in a fit of justifiable ill-temper against their masters, opened the gates for the nobles again, and no man lifted a hand to help Giovanni degli Stefaneschi, when the men-at-arms bound him and dragged him off to prison. Strange to say, no further vengeance was taken upon him, and for once in their history, the nobles shed no blood in revenge for a mortal injury.
No man could count the tragedies that swept over the Region of Ponte from the first outbreak of war between the Orsini and the Colonna, till Paolo Giordano Orsini, the last of the elder branch, breathed out his life in exile under the ban of Sixtus the Fifth, three hundred years later. There was no end of them till then, and there was little interruption of them while they lasted; there is no stone left standing from those days in that great quarter that may not have been splashed with their fierce blood, nor is there, perhaps, a church or chapel within their old holding into which an Orsini has not been borne dead or dying from some deadly fight. Even today it is gloomy, and the broad modern street, which swept down a straight harvest of memories through the quarter to the very Bridge of Sant' Angelo, has left the mediæval shadows on each side as dark as ever. Of the three parts of the city, which still recall the Middle Age most vividly, namely, the neighbourhood of San Pietro in Vincoli, in the first Region, the by-ways of Trastevere and the Region of Ponte, the latter is by far the most interesting. It was the abode of the Orsini; it was also the chief place of business for the bankers and money-changers who congregated there under the comparatively secure protection of the Guelph lords; and it was the quarter of prisons, of tortures, and of executions both secret and public. The names of the streets had terrible meaning: there was the Vicolo della Corda, and the Corda was the rope by which criminals were hoisted twenty feet in the air, and allowed to drop till their toes were just above the ground; there was the Piazza della Berlina Vecchia, the place of the Old Pillory; there was a little church known as the 'Church of the Gallows'; and there was a lane ominously called Vicolo dello Mastro; the Mastro was the Master of judicial executions, in other words, the Executioner himself. Before the Castle of Sant' Angelo stood the permanent gallows, rarely long unoccupied, and from an upper window of the dark Torre di Nona, on the hither side of the bridge, a rope hung swinging slowly in the wind, sometimes with a human body at the end of it, sometimes without. It was the place, and that was the manner, of executions that took place in the night. In Via di Monserrato stood the old fortress of the Savelli, long ago converted into a prison, and called the Corte Savella, the most terrible of all Roman dungeons for the horror of damp darkness, for ever associated with Beatrice Cenci's trial and death. Through those very streets she was taken in the cart to the little open space before the bridge, where she laid down her life upon the scaffold three hundred years ago, and left her story of offended innocence, of revenge and of expiation, which will not be forgotten while Rome is remembered.
Beatrice Cenci's story has been often told, but nowhere more clearly and justly than in Shelley's famous letter, written to explain his play. There are several manuscript accounts of the last scene at the Ponte Sant' Angelo, and I myself have lately read one, written by a contemporary and not elsewhere mentioned, but differing only from the rest in the horrible realism with which the picture is presented. The truth is plain enough; the unspeakable crimes of Francesco Cenci, his more than inhuman cruelty to his children and his wives, his monstrous lust and devilish nature, outdo anything to be found in any history of the world, not excepting the private lives of Tiberius, Nero, or Commodus. His daughter and his second wife killed him in his sleep. His death was merciful and swift, in an age when far less crimes were visited with tortures at the very name of which we shudder. They were driven to absolute desperation, and the world has forgiven them their one quick blow, struck for freedom, for woman's honour and for life itself in the dim castle of Petrella. Tormented with rack and cord they all confessed the deed, save Beatrice, whom no bodily pain could move; and if Paolo Santacroce had not murdered his mother for her money before their death was determined, Clement the Eighth would have pardoned them. But the times were evil, an example was called for, Santacroce had escaped to Brescia, and the Pope's heart was hardened against the Cenci.
They died bravely, there at the head of the bridge, in the calm May morning, in the midst of a vast and restless crowd, among whom more than one person was killed by accident, as by the falling of a pot of flowers from a high window, and by the breaking down of a balcony over a shop, where too many had crowded in to see. The old house opposite looked down upon the scene, and the people watched Beatrice Cenci die from those same arched windows. Above the sea of faces, high on the wooden scaffold, rises the tall figure of a lovely girl, her hair gleaming in the sunshine like threads of dazzling gold, her marvellous blue eyes turned up to Heaven, her fresh young dimpled face not pale with fear, her exquisite lips moving softly as she repeats the De Profundis of her last appeal to God. Let the axe not fall. Let her stand there for ever in the spotless purity that cost her life on earth and set her name for ever among the high constellated stars of maidenly romance.
Close by the bridge, just opposite the Torre di Nona, stood the 'Lion Inn,' once kept by the beautiful Vanozza de Catanei, the mother of Rodrigo Borgia's children, of Cæsar, and Gandia, and Lucrezia, and the place was her property still when she was nominally married to her second husband, Carlo Canale, the keeper of the prison across the way. In the changing vicissitudes of the city, the Torre di Nona made way for the once famous Apollo Theatre, built upon the lower dungeons and foundations, and Faust's demon companion rose to the stage out of the depths that had heard the groans of tortured criminals; the theatre itself disappeared a few years ago in the works for improving the Tiber's banks, and a name is all that remains of a fact that made men tremble. In the late destruction, the old houses opposite were not altogether pulled down, but were sliced, as it were, through their roofs and rooms, at a safe angle; and there, no doubt, are still standing portions of Vanozza's inn, while far below, the cellars where she kept her wine free of excise, by papal privilege, are still as cool and silent as ever.
Not far beyond her hostelry stands another Inn, famous from early days and still open to such travellers as deign to accept its poor hospitality. It is an inn for the people now, for wine carters, and the better sort of hill peasants; it was once the best and most fashionable in Rome, and there the great Montaigne once dwelt, and is believed to have written at least a part of his famous Essay on Vanity. It is the Albergo dell' Orso, the 'Bear Inn,' and perhaps it is not a coincidence that Vanozza's sign of the Lion should have faced the approach to the Leonine City beyond the Tiber, and that the sign of the Bear, 'The Orsini Arms,' as an English innkeeper would christen it, should have been the principal resort of the kind in a quarter which was three-fourths the property and altogether the possession of the great house that overshadowed it, from Monte Giordano on the one side, and from Pompey's Theatre on the other.
The temporary fall of the Orsini at the end of the sixteenth century came about by one of the most extraordinary concatenations of events to be found in the chronicles. The story has filled more than one volume and is nevertheless very far from complete; nor is it possible, since the destruction of the Orsini archives, to reconstruct it with absolute accuracy. Briefly told, it is this.
Felice Peretti, monk and Cardinal of Montalto, and still nominally one of the so-called 'poor cardinals' who received from the Pope a daily allowance known as 'the Dish,' had nevertheless accumulated a good deal of property before he became Pope under the name of Sixtus the Fifth, and had brought some of his relatives to Rome. Among these was his well beloved nephew, Francesco Peretti, for whom he naturally sought an advantageous marriage. There was at that time in Rome a notary, named Accoramboni, a native of the Marches of Ancona and a man of some wealth and of good repute. He had one daughter, Vittoria, a girl of excessive vanity, as ambitious as she was vain and as singularly beautiful as she was ambitious. But she was also clever in a remarkable degree, and seems to have had no difficulty in hiding her bad qualities. Francesco Peretti fell in love with her, the Cardinal approved the match, though he was a man not easily deceived, and the two were married and settled in the Villa Negroni, which the Cardinal had built near the Baths of Diocletian. Having attained her first object, Vittoria took less pains to play the saint, and began to dress with unbecoming magnificence and to live on a very extravagant scale. Her name became a byword in Rome and her lovely face was one of the city's sights. The Cardinal, devotedly attached to his nephew, disapproved of the latter's young wife and regretted the many gifts he had bestowed upon her. Like most clever men, too, he was more than reasonably angry at having been deceived in his judgment of a girl's character. So far, there is nothing not commonplace about the tale.
At that time Paolo Giordano Orsini, the head of the house, Duke of Bracciano and lord of a hundred domains, was one of the greatest personages in Italy. No longer young and already enormously fat, he was married to Isabella de' Medici, the daughter of Cosimo, reigning in Florence. She was a beautiful and evil woman, and those who have endeavoured to make a martyr of her forget the nameless doings of her youth. Giordano was weak and extravagant, and paid little attention to his wife. She consoled herself with his kinsman, the young and handsome Troilo Orsini, who was as constantly at her side as an official 'cavalier servente' of later days. But the fat Giordano, indolent and pleasure seeking, saw nothing. Nor is there anything much more than vulgar and commonplace in all this.
Paolo Giordano meets Vittoria Peretti in Rome, and the two commonplaces begin the tragedy. On his part, love at first sight; ridiculous, at first, when one thinks of his vast bulk and advancing years, terrible, by and by, as the hereditary passions of his fierce race could be, backed by the almost boundless power which a great Italian lord possessed in his surroundings. Vittoria, tired of her dull and virtuous husband and of the lectures and parsimony of his uncle, and not dreaming that the latter was soon to be Pope, saw herself in a dream of glory controlling every mood and action of the greatest noble in the land. And she met Giordano again and again, and he pleaded and implored, and was alternately ridiculous and almost pathetic in his hopeless passion for the notary's daughter. But she had no thought of yielding to his entreaties. She would have marriage, or nothing. Neither words nor gifts could move her.
She had a husband, he had a wife; and she demanded that he should marry her, and was grimly silent as to the means. Until she was married to him he should not so much as touch the tips of her jewelled fingers, nor have a lock of her hair to wear in his bosom. He was blindly in love, and he was Paolo Giordano Orsini. It was not likely that he should hesitate. He who had seen nothing of his wife's doings, suddenly saw his kinsman, Troilo, and Isabella was doomed. Troilo fled to Paris, and Orsini took Isabella from Bracciano to the lonely castle of Galera. There he told her his mind and strangled her, as was his right, being feudal lord and master with powers of life and death. Then from Bracciano he sent messengers to kill Francesco Peretti. One of them had a slight acquaintance with the Cardinal's nephew.
They came to the Villa Negroni by night, and called him out, saying that his best friend was in need of him, and was waiting for him at Monte Cavallo. He hesitated, for it was very late. They had torches and weapons, and would protect him, they said. Still he wavered. Then Vittoria, his wife, scoffed at him, and called him coward, and thrust him out to die; for she knew. The men walked beside him with their torches, talking as they went. They passed the deserted land in the Baths of Diocletian, and turned at Saint Bernard's Church to go towards the Quirinal. Then they put out the lights and killed him quickly in the dark.
His body lay there all night, and when it was told the next day that Montalto's nephew had been murdered, the two men said that they had left him at Monte Cavallo and that he must have been killed as he came home alone. The Cardinal buried him without a word, and though he guessed the truth he asked neither vengeance nor justice of the Pope.
Gregory the Thirteenth guessed it, too, and when Orsini would have married Vittoria, the Pope forbade the banns and interdicted their union for ever. That much he dared to do against the greatest peer in the country.
To this, Orsini replied by plighting his faith to Vittoria with a ring, in the presence of a serving woman, an irregular ceremony which he afterwards described as a marriage, and he thereupon took his bride and her mother under his protection. The Pope retorted by a determined effort to arrest the murderers of Francesco; the Bargello and his men went in the evening to the Orsini palace at Pompey's Theatre and demanded that Giordano should give up the criminals; the porter replied that the Duke was asleep; the Orsini men-at-arms lunged out with their weapons, looked on during the interview, and considering the presence of the Bargello derogatory to their master, drove him away, killing one of his men and wounding several others. Thereupon Pope Gregory forbade the Duke from seeing Vittoria or communicating with her by messengers, on pain of a fine of ten thousand gold ducats, an order to which Orsini would have paid no attention but which Vittoria was too prudent to disregard, and she retired to her brother's house, leaving the Duke in a state of frenzied rage that threatened insanity. Then the Pope seemed to waver again, and then again learning that the lovers saw each other constantly in spite of his commands, he suddenly had Vittoria seized and imprisoned in Sant' Angelo. It is impossible to follow the long struggle that ensued. It lasted four years, at the end of which time the Duke and Vittoria were living at Bracciano, where the Orsini was absolute lord and master and beyond the jurisdiction of the Church—two hours' ride from the gates of Rome. But no further formality of marriage had taken place and Vittoria was not satisfied. Then Gregory the Thirteenth died.
During the vacancy of the Holy See, all interdictions of the late Pope were suspended. Instantly Giordano determined to be married, and came to Rome with Vittoria. They believed that the Conclave would last some time and were making their arrangements without haste, living in Pompey's Theatre, when a messenger brought word that Cardinal Montalto would surely be elected Pope within a few hours. In the fortress is the small family church of Santa Maria di Grotta Pinta. The Duke sent down word to his chaplain that the latter must marry him at once. That night a retainer of the house had been found murdered at the gate; his body lay on a trestle bier before the altar of the chapel when the Duke's message came; the Duke himself and Vittoria were already in the little winding stair that leads down from the apartments; there was not a moment to be lost; the frightened chaplain and the messenger hurriedly raised a marble slab which closed an unused vault, dropped the murdered man's body into the chasm, and had scarcely replaced the stone when the ducal pair entered the church. The priest married them before the altar in fear and trembling, and when they were gone entered the whole story in the little register in the sacristy. The leaf is extant.
Within a few hours, Montalto was Pope, the humble cardinal was changed in a moment to the despotic pontiff, whose nephew's murder was unavenged; instead of the vacillating Gregory, Orsini had to face the terrible Sixtus, and his defeat and exile were foregone conclusions. He could no longer hold his own and he took refuge in the States of Venice, where his kinsman, Ludovico, was a fortunate general. He made a will which divided his personal estate between Vittoria and his son, Virginio, greatly to the woman's advantage; and overcome by the infirmity of his monstrous size, spent by the terrible passions of his later years, and broken in heart by an edict of exile which he could no longer defy, he died at Salò within seven months of his great enemy's coronation, in the forty-ninth year of his age.
Vittoria retired to Padua, and the authorities declared the inheritance valid, but Ludovico Orsini's long standing hatred of her was inflamed to madness by the conditions of the will. Six weeks after the Duke's death, at evening, Vittoria was in her chamber; her boy brother, Flaminio, was singing a Miserere to his lute by the fire in the great hall. A sound of quick feet, the glare of torches, and Ludovico's masked men filled the house. Vittoria died bravely with one deep stab in her heart. The boy, Flaminio, was torn to pieces with seventy-four wounds.
But Venice would permit no such outrageous deeds. Ludovico was besieged in his house, by horse and foot and artillery, and was taken alive with many of his men and swiftly conveyed to Venice; and a week had not passed from the day of the murder before he was strangled by the Bargello in the latter's own room, with the red silk cord by which it was a noble's privilege to die. The first one broke, and they had to take another, but Ludovico Orsini did not wince. An hour later his body was borne out with forty torches, in solemn procession, to lie in state in Saint Mark's Church. His men were done to death with hideous tortures in the public square. So ended the story of Vittoria Accoramboni.
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