Living environments

First floor

The rooms you are in constitute the first floor of the residential area of the Castle.  A staircase leads from the second room to the floor below, which is used for services.

These rooms were the scene of events involving great historical figures such as Federico Barbarossa, Countess Giulia Gonzaga.

Audio guide

An in-depth look at Barbarossa

barbarossaIn the summer of 1534, the terrible corsair Ariadeno, known as Barbarossa, under the command of 80 galleys, headed for the Italian coast once again.

The main objective of this raid is not to loot, but – destination Fondi – to target the Countess Giulia Gonzaga, considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. It is said that Sultan Suleiman II had ordered Barbarossa to kidnap the beautiful Giulia for him.

On the night between 8th and 9th August 1534, the town of Fondi was attacked by the pirate Barbarossa, who had been plundering the Tyrrhenian coast for weeks.

Several authors have described the moments of extreme danger experienced by the Countess when the pirates entered the palace and were already running up the stairs to her bedroom. Giulia’s faithful servant warned the princess of the danger and she leapt out of bed half-naked (she was wearing only a light crepe shirt) and managed to escape by lowering herself from a window of the baronial palace onto the castle drawbridge. From there, escaped to the countryside through a secret exit and then took refuge here, in the fortress of Itri, escaping the rape of the violent corsair.

(M. Francesco Sansovino. Portrait of the most noble and famous cities of Italy. Venice, 1555, pg. 31): “in the year 1534 Barbarossa ran with his army through these large seas and gave (Fondi) a great sack. And almost the beautiful and famous Giulia Gonzaga, wife of Vespasiano, was taken there, because it is said that Barbarossa, having heard of her beauty, secretly sent for her to give her to Suleiman; but she fled half-naked, so much so that the Turks were ready to attack her; but mounted on a mare, she was saved”.

A letter sent from Rome on 10 August 1534 by Francesco Saraceno to Ercole d’Este (Arch. State of Modena, Ducal Chancellery, dispatches of the Este oratories in Rome) states that:

Barbarossa has dismounted and come to Fondi and one thinks… of Signora Donna Giulia, who, by those who are reputed… is held beautiful among the beautiful… and not being able… to give her to the Turk, who escaped on a horse to a fortress… far away. Those people of Barbarossa destroyed and burned Fondi.

Barbarossa suspects that the escaped prey may be hiding in a monastery of nuns, in the Benedictine convent in San Martino in Pagnano. He invaded the convent and left the nuns at the mercy of his men, who violated and killed them. A massacre culminated in the convent being razed to the ground. Barbarossa, furious, vents his rage by burning down the villages in his path. Few escaped death by fleeing to the surrounding mountains. Terracina was easily invaded and sacked.

Where is Giulia Gonzaga hiding?

Philoculus of Halicarnassus shows her wandering, accompanied by an old servant and two maidens, through the woods “feeding on wild sorbs, myrtles, and other wild animal food”. Cardinal Ippolito De’ Medici looked for her and, having found her in a cave, “consoled her, regaled her with costume, food, and had her mounted in the saddle, accompanying her as far as Fondi”, asking, as a reward, that she abandon her mourning.

It seems rather strange that the Countess would return immediately to Fondi, even if accompanied by the Medici, with soldiers in tow, when Barbarossa was still searching for her in the area. Instead, it is more logical to think that the fugitive was accompanied by her saviour to the town of Itri which, with its well-fortified castle and its position further away from the coast, represented a good refuge. Barbarossa did not give up, he went to the castle of Itri where Giulia had taken refuge and laid siege to the city, but the inhabitants, ready to defend themselves and helped by the arrival of five or six thousand men under the command of Cardinal Ippolito De’ Medici, put up a strenuous and effective resistance, forcing the attackers to retreat. If it may seem exaggerated that an expedition by the corsair Barbarossa was planned with the main aim of kidnapping Giulia Gonzaga, this is confirmed by the writers of the time. We read that Barbarossa “sent people as far as Fondi to take Donna Giulia Gonzaga, to present her to the Grand Turk, who wanted her because of the great fame of her beauty.

Fondi was sacked and Donna Giulia barely had time to save herself that night on a horse in her shirt, as if she was there”. (Gregorio Rosso, History, p.10) And, again, “having heard that in the city of Fondi there was the famous Giulia Gonzaga, daughter of Ludovico, lord of Bozzolo, a beautiful woman, second wife of Vespasiano, son of Prospero Colonna, lord of that city, he soon sent secretly to get her for wanting to give her to Suleiman; but the Turks were so willing to attack her that having heard the noise, she fled half naked, and mounted a mare to save herself: The barbarian, seeing himself defrauded in his desire, ruined and sacked Fondi with the whole of the coast as far as Terracina”. (Summonte, of the history of the city and kingdom of Naples. Naples, 1675, volume 4, p. 146).

But there are also other hypotheses. The Colonna family is believed to be responsible for the kidnapping attempt. Remember that Giulia Gonzaga married Vespasiano Colonna in 1526, at the age of 14. He was 46, a widower, and had a daughter – Isabella. After only two years of marriage, Giulia was widowed and her will defined her as heir to all her husband’s assets and titles and guardian of her stepdaughter. On condition, however, that she did not remarry.

Vespasiano had planned to marry his daughter Isabella to Ippolito de’ Medici. Giulia, however, gave her in marriage to her brother Luigi Gonzaga. As fate would have it, the man who had been destined to marry Isabella became Giulia Gonzaga’s greatest lover. These events saw the two women – Giulia and Isabella – opposing each other in a long battle – also legal – but above all conditioned by slander, underground agreements, and plots. With this in mind, it is thought that there had been an agreement for Barbarossa to kidnap Countess Giulia Gonzaga. She would then have been a precious gift to offer to Sultan Suleiman, a noble lady, ‘the beautiful among beauties’. Moreover, it seems highly improbable that the landing of the Turkish fleet of 80 galleys could have gone unnoticed, despite the warning system along the Tyrrhenian coast. Moreover, Barbarossa had already raided Sperlonga and set it on fire.

Yet, no glimmer of light was noticed. Finally, according to documents of the time, although it was dawn, Barbarossa found the town of Fondi open and with the drawbridges down. It is implausible that at a time of pirate attacks, the town gates were left open and unguarded. Yet the documents show that the viceroy of Naples reported to his king Charles V downplayed the incident or argued that the raid of Barbarossa had been exaggerated by the inhabitants of Fondi and that the damage had been modest. Nevertheless, he decided to exempt Fondi from the payment of taxes for the damage suffered, going elsewhere to collect taxes and ensuring unchanged revenue for the crown. (Luigi Muccitelli, The Countess of Fondi Giulia Gonzaga. Gazzuolo from Mantua 1513 – Napoli 1566), ed. lo Spazio, Fondi 2002) There can be several explanations for this clear desire to minimise the facts. A first reason could be not wanting to formally intervene in the quarrel between Giulia Gonzaga and her stepdaughter Isabella Colonna. It can also be assumed that the viceroy wanted to avoid that the event might call into question his ability to control the territory and, consequently, his role and office. Why was only Giulia Gonzaga the last to escape Barbarossa’s attack? Why had no one informed her of the danger she was in? Or had she been informed but dissuaded from fleeing?

We will never know the truth…

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