The Queen and the Cardinal – a love story?
It’s a tough job being a 17th century queen. Well, in this case, we’re talking ex-queen, but Christina of Sweden was a tad sensitive about the ex, so if you didn’t want her to yell at you, it was best to stick to the “Your Majesty” when addressing her. After all, there were days when Christina seriously regretted abdicating in 1654 on behalf of her cousin. There were others when she didn’t, when she remembered why she abdicated, starting with the fact that she had secretly embraced the Catholic faith, thereby making it quite, quite impossible to remain reigning queen of the Very Protestant Sweden.
Instead, Christina moved to Rome – an early version of Escape to the Continent, if you will, albeit that 17th century Rome was a disconcerting mixture of fabulous art (think Bernini) and primitive entertainment such as forcing Jews to run naked through the streets. Christina stuck to the arty stuff – and to the various princes of the Church she regularly interacted with (She also put a stop to the tradition of making the poor Jews run naked) . Well, when she wasn’t dabbling in politics that is. Or enraging the French by executing poor Monaldesco without a preceding trial in France. But mostly, she stuck to invigorating discussions about everything from God to philosophy to the art of war – and her principal companion was one Cardinal Azzolino.
Ever since Greta Garbo depicted Christina on the silver screen, people seem to believe this Swedish queen was quite the beauty. Err…no. Christina may have been extremely gifted intellectually, she rode as well as any man, and by all accounts was as adept with a rapier, but she was not drop-dead. A lot of dark hair, a beak of a nose adorning a face that had little feminine softness to it – well, except for her large eyes. Not that Christina ever expressed much interest in how she looked or dressed. Initially, because she knew it didn’t matter whether she is pretty or not – her courtiers sucked up to her anyway, falling over their feet in their eagerness to compliment the little queen and win her favour. The little queen was too smart to take this at face value. And when men swore they loved her, chances were she’d snort. She didn’t believe in love – and she didn’t believe these men loved her. If anything, they loved her crown.
Christina grew up with few examples of loving relationships. Her father, Gustav Adolf, died when she was not yet six. Her mother, Maria Eleonora, had never reconciled herself to the disappointment of having birthed yet another daughter, not the much-longed-for son, and had a tendency to take this disappointment out on Christina, by dropping her down the stairs and the like. Gustav Adolf and Maria Eleonora were very different people: he had his sights on conquering Europe and establishing a mighty Swedish Empire, she was clinging and needy, and felt abandoned whenever he set off to fight. Accordingly, Gustav Adolf preferred to avoid his wife as much as he could, which only made her more clingy and needy.
When Gustav Adolf died at the Battle of Lützen, Sweden reeled with shock. Their gallant young king, cut down before he had presented the kingdowm with a male heir, before he had won the Thirty Years’ War! Now what? Woe, woe, and even worse, their new queen was a child of six. Maria Eleanora wailed with the best of them. In her role as grieving widow, she gave the Oscar performance of her life and would spend her nights with Gustav Adolf’s embalmed heart by her bed. Little Christina quickly learnt that love could morph into morbid obsession, which in turn could impact your sanity. Christina liked being sane and in control. Ergo, love was something to be wary of.
So when, in 1655, Christina arrived in Rome, I think it is a safe bet to assume she was relatively inexperienced when it came to matters of the heart. Yes, she’d had a teenage crush on her cousin, the future Carl X Gustav, yes, there was the matter of her infatuation with Ebba Sparre, yes, she’d flirted a bit with Swedish gallant Magnus de la Gardie, but all in all, Christina was still an innocent, had not been struck by Cupid’s arrows. Yet. Because, you see, in Rome there was that handsome cardinal, Decio Azzolino.
A cardinal? I hear you ask. Well, dear peeps, I hate to break it to you, but many of the cardinals of the 17th century – and the popes – weren’t exactly moral rolemodels. Those seven capital sins afflicted several of the princes of the Church, everything from greed and gluttony to lust. Those who became cardinals were not necessarily the most pious among priests. Rather, they were the most brilliant, the most ambitious, the most well-connected. In Azzolino’s case, he was among the truly brilliant, having received doctorates in law, philosphy and theology. He was also a skilled cryptographer, an able administrator, and ambitious. Some years older than Christina, he would have been in his early thirties when they first met, and by then it was well known Cardinal Azzolino liked beautiful women, had a knack for writing poetry and also had a burning interest for science.
So far in her life, Christina had openly expressed her distaste for marriage – one of the reasons she abdicated was because she refused to entertain the notion of marrying anyone as it would reduce her to a subservient status. (She was also of the firm belief women should not rule, being too weak, too affected by emotions. I dare say she considered herself something of an exception) She found love and emotions in general ridiculous and unreliable and preferred to be guided by her intellect and rational thought. In truth, she saw herself as the Minerva of the North – wise, cool, unobtainable.
Decio Azzolino was an attractive man who carried himself with elegance. He was also well-educated, shared Christina’s interests for science and philosphy, and was appointed to help her settle into her new life in Rome. Soon enough, he had become indispensable to her, and there are rumors suggesting she took to carrying his portrait around, extracting it from wherever she was hiding it to peek at it. Hmm. Doesn’t sound quite like Christina, but hey, maybe this was Cupid’s bolt hitting home.
As to rumors, Cardinal Azzolino was surrounded by many of them. It was said he got no work done due to all his amorous affairs, that he had a fondness for busty actresses (and Kristina seems to have been aware of this, sending him a letter in which she snarkily comments that she assumes he only spends time in the company of these lady thespians to offer his services as a priest). There is, however, no proof to support the notion of Azzolino as a serial womanizer. His love of the theatre and of the arts is well-known, but other than that, Decio Azzolini seems to have invested most of his time in church politics.
Whatever the case, soon enough “everyone” in Rome knew that Christina and Azzolino were spending their days, their nights, their mornings and afternoons together. The pope was so worried he expressed his concerns to Azzolino who replied in writing (the letter, dated 1656, still exists) stating that there was nothing untoward in his relationship with the young Swedish queen. And maybe that was true for Azzolino, but Christina herself was soon in the grips of a passion, a love so strong it would last for the rest of her life.
Over the coming decade, Azzolino and Christina indulged in an exclusive friendship. He was fond of her, was perhaps even slightly attracted to her – but only slightly, because Christina was, as stated before, not a particularly attractive woman. But where Azzolino liked Christina – a lot – she loved him, all the way to the depth and breadth and height her soul could reach when it was safely out of sight. Some spreculate that they did, in fact, have a physical relationship during the early years of their relationship, but I’m not so sure.
How do we know that Christina loved Azzolino? Well, mainly because of the letters she wrote him – and in particular a letter dated in 1667, when she was moping in Hamburg, far from Rome and her cardinal. While Christina’s letters glow with feelings, Azolino’s missives are borderline dry – well, at least the ones that have survived are. Azzolino took the precaution of destroying most of his archives in the days before his death, and we will never know just what it was he was so anxious to reduce to ashes.
All the same, from reading her letters to him, it’s pretty clear that where she burns, where she loves, he retreats into cool friendship, going so far as to admonishing her for her emotional outbursts. Now, at the time, (and we’re in 1666 – 1667 by now) Christina was going through a rough patch. She was pushing forty and had been back to Sweden in an effort to convince the council to appoint her as regent for the new little Swedish king (Carl X Gustav died young-ish) and received a resounding “NEJ!” in reply. No way was this Catholic ex-queen going to be allowed anywhere close to the little boy.
She was also struggling with financial problems – something Azzolino helped her deal with as she had effectively given him a carte blanche to do what was needed to salvage her economy. Azzolino was of the opinion Christina needed to cut back on her expenses. She wasn’t too thrilled at having most of his letters to her consist of long lists of excessive spending she needed to curb. What she wanted were expressions of love – or at least affection – instead, she got rebukes. To add to her burdens, she was suffering health problems, some of which she was certain would be cured if only she could ensure a steady supply of fresh milk (!)
Christina was a proud woman. As proud as Lucifer. some would say. And yet, in her letters to Azzolino she grovels. She begs for scraps. She requests to be allowed to adore. This is a woman desperate to consummate her love. Unfortunately for her, he does not share her passion. Unrequited love is a bummer, people, even more so when Azzolino forbids her to love him- or at least to express such feelings for him. And while she is up north, our dear cardinal is not exactly without beautiful female company, which drives Christina crazy.
Where he in one letter assures her of his warm friendship towards her, she replies by telling him she more than deserves his friendship, seeing as she has the tenderest of passions for him. “I know I will never again be happy, but I also know I will love you until the day I die.” She speaks of love, he wants friendship… This is in the summer of 1666, and clearly the cardinal is a tad worried by her declaration of love. As the summer progresses, he turns down the temperature in his missives, warm friendship becoming cool friendship, and by September, Kristina is devastated by what she perceives as his distance. She writes: “Whatever change of heart you may experience, it will not affect me, and I will be loyal to you unto death.”
In October she writes: “I can neither change my feelings for you, nor share them with you without hurting you.” Azzolino has by now forbidden her to declare her love to him. But she perseveres. “No matter how coldly you treat me, it will not stop me from adoring you for the rest of my days.” This is a woman writing her heart’s blood onto the paper, while the recipient is frightened rather than flattered by all that pent-up passion. After all, Azzolino was a cardinal, and to openly indulge in a carnal affair with someone as closely watched as Christina would be the equivalent of professional suicide. Plus, she wasn’t his type.
In January of 1667, Christina throws caution to the wind and writes the following: “I would like to add that is not my intention, by the grace of God, to offend Him, or to lure you into sin ; but this intention cannot stop me from loving you unto death, and as your piety makes it impossible for you to be my lover, I find it impossible to have you as my servant. Instead, I want to live and die your slave.” (I’ve included the original French further down – for those fluent in the langauge, this may offer further nuances my translation may not convey)
Wow. I can see Azzolino sitting back and fanning himself after reading that. I also suspect he’d have wondered if she was being ironic – after all, dear Decio was not known for his piety. Personally, I don’t see anything ironic in the above. I just hear the voice of a sad, heartbroken woman, fully aware of the fact that cruel Cupid has made her fall in love with an unobtainable man. Sometimes, love sucks.
The letters between Christina and Azzolino went back and forth for almost two more years. Letters in which she is at times bitter, at times abjectly begging for forgiveness, terrified at the thought of losing what little affection he had for her. At the end of this period, Kristina had learnt her lesson: she no longer wrote about love, she wrote about the deep friendship they shared. She tried to find other interests and submerged herself in the study of alchemy (an interest they shared, to the extent of setting up a laboratory together in Rome) Slowly, she buried her love, her fiery passion underneath layers of steel. It displeased him to know she loved him. She, therefore, had no choice but to pretend she no longer did.
Azzolino may have been reluctant to become Christina’s lover, but he was her friend, a loyal and devoted friend throughout her life. When, in April of 1689, Christina died, Azzolino was the main beneficiary of her will. He did not live long enough to enjoy it, as he followed her to the hereafter some months later. Instead, Kristina’s collection of artworks and books fell into the hands of Azzolino’s nephew, who quickly sold it and cashed in. Said nephew also inherited his uncle’s books and stuff – and Azzolino’s severely depleated personal archive, with most of his letters to Christina (and from Christina) destroyed. We have no idea what secrets he chose to take with him to the grave. Maybe, just maybe, there was an early declaration of love from him to her? Or maybe not.
And as promised, here’s the French version: “J’ajouterai toutefois que mon intention est de n’offenser jamais Dieu, avec sa grâce, et de ne vous donner jamais sujer d’offenser, mais cette résolution n m’empêchera pas de vous aimer jusqu’à la mort, et pusique la dévotion vous dispense d’être mon amant, je vous dispense d’être mon serviteur, car je veux vivre et mourir votre esclave.”