New from 1622: Fray Domingo de Jesús María, the Boncompagni, and the Gesualdo of Naples

An illustrated essay by Maxwell Wade (Rutgers ’19)

P. de Santa Teresa, Vida, virtudes y obras de fray Domingo de Jesús María, carmelita descalzo (1647). Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de España

Found among the recently digitized documents in the Boncompagni Ludovisi noble family archive in their Villa Aurora in Rome is a series of eight letters from a Barefoot Carmelite monk known as Fray Domingo de Jesús María (1559-1630). Spanning from 1612 to 1624 and written in both Spanish and Italian, the letters reveal details in the internal politics of the Boncompagni, Ludovisi and Gesualdo noble families in Italy, as well as pointing to other key events for European political and religious history in the Counter Reformation.

Fray Domingo, born Domingo Ruzzola in 1559 in the region of Aragon in northern Spain, is a fascinating and somewhat enigmatic figure of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who, despite having little presence in English-language scholarship, has left quite a serious and profound historical impact in his wake.

Orphaned at the age of seven, he took the habit in 1571—he was a mere 12 years old at the time—and joined the Carmelite order in Spain. An ambitious and highly driven monk, he rose through the ranks and became an important figure among the clergy in Zaragoza, Valencia, Toledo, and by 1601 he was a curate (parish priest) in Madrid.

Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a Monk (1621), which depicts Fray Domingo. See M. Jaffé, “Rubens’ Portrait of Father Ruzzola”, The Burlington Magazine 104 no. 714 (1962) 389-366.

After the founding of the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites in 1593, Fray Domingo, inspired by Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), went on to become involved with and eventually joining the order. With years of experience in both priories and other monastic duties, Domingo traveled to Italy in 1604 to take on the position of the Master of Novices for the Prior of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome a year later.

S. Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The next two and a half decades of his life would see Fray Domingo becoming increasingly involved in Italian and Papal politics, and—as the Counter Reformation intensified—the politics of the Holy Roman Empire as well. This came to a head in the year of 1620, in which Fray Domingo would, on order of Pope Paul V Borghese (1550-1605-1621), accompany the Holy Roman Empire’s Imperial Army in the Battle of White Mountain (1620). As a result of his mystical visions and supernatural healing powers that he earned the nickname, “the thaumaturge,” or miracle-worker.

Pieter Snayers, Schlacht am Weißen Berg [Battle of the White Mountain] (1620). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A mere three years later, after the death of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi, Domingo would find himself deeply involved in the Papal Conclave of 1623, where he would receive five votes from the college of Cardinals—more votes than the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632). He lost to the papal legate of Bologna, Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644), who would go on to be known as Pope Urban VIII.

The Boncompagni connection formally begins in 1612 with a series of two letters written to the Marchese of Vignola and second Duke of Sora, Gregorio I Boncompagni (1596-1612-1628), grandson of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1502-1572-1585).

The young Duke would encounter Fray Domingo again a decade later, at a time in which the Boncompagni family was trying to navigate a series of complex inter-familial marriages and alliances between two other noble families, the Ludovisi from their native Bologna, and the Gesulado from Naples.

Visually enhanced version of the 13 November 1622 letter from Fray Domingo to Gregorio I Boncompagni, the Duke of Sora. Collection of HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Of supreme interest is a letter from 13 November 1622, written in apparent haste by Fray Domingo to Gregorio Boncompagni. This letter was compsed in the context of, and largely responds to, the attempt by the Gesualdo family in Naples to arrange a marriage between one of their daughters and a Boncompagni son. However, the attempt for a marriage alliance was unsuccessful. What happened?

Piecing the story together is difficult since Fray Domingo is sparing in the letter with proper names. Fray Domingo here does speak most positively of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, He does say he went to the Cardinal “three times” to ask him about that marriage alliance, and urges Gregorio Boncompagni to write to him as well.  Ludovico Ludovisi was of course the nephew of the reigning Pope, Gregory XV, and just the day before the drafting of this letter (12 November 1622) had been named Prefect of the newly created Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

Then there is a reference to “the sister of the Princess” as party to the proposed marriage alliance. Now, Ludovico had a younger brother named Niccolo’ Ludovisi (1613-1664). On 1 May 1622 Niccolo’ had married Isabella Gesualdo (1611-1629) of Naples. This must be “the Princess” in question. Isabella was the granddaughter of the Prince of Venosa, famed composer and notorious murderer Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), and daughter of his son Emanuele Gesualdo (1588-1613). At the time of their (celebrated) marriage, Niccolo’ Ludovisi was 9 years old, and Isabella Gesualdo not quite 11. 

And “the sister of the Princess”? Emanuele Gesualdo had three children in Naples with his wife Marta Polissena di FurstenbergCarlo (died in infancy in 1610); Isabella (1611-1629), “Princess of Venosa” after her father’s death in 1613, a title which after the marriage of 1622 passed into the Ludovisi family; and Leonora Emanuela Carlina (April 1613-1667).

It must be that Fray Domingo is trying to forge a marriage alliance involving this Leonora, then aged 9; the childhood marriage of Isabella Gesualdo to Niccolo’ Ludovisi would serve as a ready precedent, and explains the involvement of Cardinal Ludovisi in the proceedings. The Boncompagni groom can be either of Gregorio’s sons, Giacomo Boncompagni (then age 9) or Ugo Boncompagni (age 8). 

Frontispiece by Giovanni Luigi Valesio (1561-?1640) for Nelle felicissime nozze de gl’ill.mi et ecc.mi Sig. D.Nicolò Ludovisi e D. Isabella Gesualda Principe di Venosa (Rome 1622)

In the event, the alliance never happened, and Leonora Emanuela Carlina Gesualdo joined the convent in Naples shortly afterward, in 1625. The Boncompagni and Ludovisi families themselves formally unified in 1681. However this letter attests to connections that were being made between the two families long before that union.

So this letter and others in its set are a firsthand account of the intricate web of allegiances and intrigue among Italian nobility at this time. Likewise, the failure to secure a suitable noble marriage for both Gesualdo daughters would play a part in the continued decline of the family, which would eventually fall into obscurity due to series of scandals—chief among them, the infamous public murders committed in 1590 by Prince Carlo Gesualdo—and general mismanagement and financial difficulties.

Ultimately, these newly uncovered letters play a major role in elaborating the existing scholarship around this period, particularly in informing the complex dynamics of these families at this time. Further research into the content of these letters will continue to unveil new and untold stories about life at this time.

Engraved portrait of Fray Domingo by J. Messager (ca. 1580-1649)

About the author: Max Wade is a rising senior in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences (Honors College) majoring in philosophy and political science. He is interested in the history of philosophy and intends to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. Max is currently writing his thesis on Heidegger’s metaphysics and how it informs his reading of Nietzsche. In 2017/2018 he participated in Rutgers’ Aresty Undergraduate Research Program under the direction of T.C. Brennan, and this summer he is studying in Prague. He thanks Carol Cofone (Rutgers ’17) for help in transcribing the 1622 letter, and of course HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for her great generosity in sharing materials from her Archive at the Villa Aurora.

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