Giulia Gonzaga and the Comfort of the Gospel

the law is whatever God commands us to do, and the gospel is the announcement of what Christ has done for sinners who are in themselves unable to keep the law.

If the law terrifies us and seems burdensome, Valdés explained, it’s because we don’t understand the gospel. “There can’t be any fear in the soul that actively and effectively points his eyes on the crucified Christ, considering with full Christ’s satisfaction and payment in his stead.”

 

Giulia Gonzaga’s early life sounds like a fairy tale. At age 20, she was already one of the most envied women in Italy. She owned large properties and her castle was a favorite meeting place for artists, poets, and musicians. She was considered the most beautiful woman in the country. Yet, she was deeply anxious and confused.

In a fairy tale, this introduction would be followed by a quest for the answer – usually a magic talisman brought by a charming prince.

Giulia’s story was different. Her anxiety came from a painful incapacity of obeying God’s law and no talisman could help. Her sinful tendencies, especially her fear of what people would say or her love for material things, got the best of her. Being perfectly aware of the biblical consequences of sin, she felt hopeless.

A Dangerous Beauty

Giulia was born in 1513 in Gazzuolo, a small city in north Italy. It was the Italian Renaissance, a time of splendor and beauty as well as political struggle, as noble families fought to maintain their power and territories. It was a struggle for survival, and marital alliances provided the greatest security.

As most noble girls of her day, 14-year old Giulia submitted to her parents’ choice of a husband: Vespasiano, Duke of Traetto and Count of Fondi, an esteemed “condottiero” (mercenary captain) from the powerful Colonna family. He was 47. In the summer of 1526, she dutifully left her home and family and moved 370 miles south with a husband old enough to be her father and a stepdaughter, Isabella, who was her same age.

Those were troubling times for Italy (the infamous sack of Rome happened less than a year after Giulia’s wedding) and Vespasiano was often called to battle. If there were any conflicts between the two coetaneous girls, they worsened when he died in 1528, leaving all his properties to Giulia, as long as she remained unmarried. Isabella considered this decision unfair and spent her life fighting it.

Giulia’s life as Lady of her castle in Fondi (between Rome and Naples) continued rather peacefully until, in the summer of 1534, a band of Ottoman pirates attacked her properties, apparently with the specific intent of kidnapping her as a present for Sultan Süleyman I. Warned by a servant, she managed to escape.

Realizing she was not safe in her own castle, she moved to Naples, in a small lodging she rented within a nuns’ convent. There, she could still conduct her business and receive guests, while visiting her castle from time to time.

Eventually, Emperor Charles V, who had been called to resolve the legal dispute between Giulia and Isabella, ended up favoring the latter, allowing her to keep the properties on condition that she gave Giulia a high yearly salary (a duty Isabella performed irregularly and begrudgingly).

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