This is the story of a famous and extraordinary Swedish Girl in Rome … no it’s not the one in the picture on the left side of your screen … no, it’s not Greta Garbo, as we don’t have any record of the actress living in Rome … no it’s not the one that was bathing in the Trevi Fountain at night, kissing Marcello Mastroianni in the movie La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini. Anita Ekberg was a sex symbol, this one was far from being a sex symbol, and in fact it is hard to establish to which sex she belonged. So, Who’s that girl would ask Madonna? Well, actually we’re not even sure it was a girl … she dressed like a girl, but sometimes she also dressed like a man; she had masculine manners, a masculine voice and nobody knows about her sex … it’s even possible that she was an intersexed individual, which is a congenital status of persons having the characteristics of both the male and the feminine gender. To answer the question you should go to Piazza Farnese, in Rome, and read the sign on the building which is on the left side of Palazzo Farnese … so you may ask: “Why are you calling this individual a woman if you’re not even sure of her sex?” We say “her” because her official title was that of a Queen, the Queen of Sweden.
It was in the reign of Pope Alexander VII that Rome welcomed that most extraordinary of exiles, the former Queen of Sweden. Vivacious, witty and unconventional, Queen Christina had given up her throne eighteen months before at the age of 27, and had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. Regardless of the impression she created, she seemed to take delight in shocking people and once introduced her intimate friend, Ebba Larsdotter Sbarre, to the staid English Ambassador as her “bedfellow”, assuring him that her friend’s mind was as lovely as her body. She often wore men’s clothes and, although short in stature, spurned the high heels that women usually favoured and wore men’s flat shoes instead. The French Duc de Guise wrote about her:
Her voice and nearly all her actions are masculine. She has an ample figure and a large bottom, beautiful arms, white hands, but more like those of a man than a woman … her face is large but not so fault, also all her features are marked: the nose aquiline, the mouth big but not disagreeably so, teeth passable, her eyes really beautiful and full of fire; in spite of some marks left by chicken-pox her complexion is clear … the shape of her face is fair but framed by the most extraordinary coiffure. It’s a man’s wig, very heavy and piled in front … she is always heavily powdered over a lot of face cream … she loves to show off her mastery of horses … she speaks eight languages but mostly French and that as if she had been born in Paris. She knows more than all our Academy and the Sorbonne put together, understands paintings as well as anyone and knows much more about our court intrigues than I do. In fact she is an absolutely extraordinary person.
In Rome she was to be judged so, too. At first, however, she behaved with the utmost discretion, obviously delighted with the respect and honour shown to her. She was received in private audience by pope Alexander who arranged for her to sit beside him, even though a chair had to specially designed for her by Bernini, since only a ruling sovereign could sit in His Holiness’s presence in a chair with arms and no chairs without arms which were sufficiently imposing could be found. She was invited to occupy Roman apartments in Torre dei Venti above the Cortile del Belvedere which had been beautifully furnished for her and provided with a blazing fire and silver bed-warmer. She was presented with a splendid carriage and six horses, a litter and two mules, an exquisitely caparisoned palfrey and a sedan chair, designed, like her bed, by Bernini, with sky blue velvet upholstery and silver mountings. It’s a pity Bernini is no longer alive to design the apartments managed by Rome City Apartments. She was invited to a banquet by the Pope, although protocol did not allow him to eat in the presence of a woman. The orchestra played, the choir of St Peter’s sang; a sermon was preached by a Jesuit priest; and after the meal was over the Queen was accompanied by a procession of distinguished guests to the Palazzo Farnese, which a less favoured convert, Frederick of Hesse-Darmstadt, had been required to vacate for her benefit.
From the Palazzo Farnese, which had been redecorated and refurbished for her, the Queen set out the sights of Rome under the direction of the charming and amusing Cardinal Azzolino. She was escorted everywhere, from St John’s Lateran to St Peter’s, from the Sapienza where she was given over hundred books, to the Propaganda Fide where she was welcomed in over 20 languages, from the Collegio Romano where she was showed an apparatus used for making antidotes to poison, to Castel Sant’Angelo where, having a meagre appetite and little taste for alcohol, she was not tempted by the offer of refreshments comprising the richest wines and huge mounds of crystallized fruits, nougat and sugared almonds. That year the Carnival was known as “the Carnival of the Queen”, and at the end of February a magnificent pageant, the Giostra delle Caroselle, was presented especially for her benefit. She was serenaded in her box as Cavaliers fought Amazons in the arena below and a fierce dragon, rockets issuing from its nostrils and flames from its mouth, was slain in her honour.
But by now the Queen’s eccentric behaviour and the depredations of her unpaid servants, who went so far as to chop up the doors of the Palazzo Farnese for firewood, were causing widespread annoyance in Rome. Having given up male attire for the moment, the Queen now wore the most provocative dress, even when receiving cardinals. She hung some extremely indelicate pictures on the wall of the palace and had fig leaves removed from its statues; and when the Pope was persuaded to remonstrate with her both about this and her refusal to make public displays of her conversion, she merely replied that she was not in the least interested in “considerations worthy only for priests”. It was rumoured that she was enamoured of a nun whom he had met in a convent in the Campo Marzio, and it was also said, with good reason, that she had fallen in love with Cardinal Azzolino. The news that Queen Christina was to leave Rome for that time was accordingly greeted with relief by the papal Court.
Missing the pleasures of power and hoping to solve her financial problems, she had decided to have herself made the Queen of Naples. But her schemes foundered and, having ordered the execution of her equerry, the Marquis Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, on the grounds that he had betrayed them, she returned to Rome, much to the annoyance of Pope Alexander who expressed the opinion she was “a woman born a barbarian, barbarously brought up and having barbarous thoughts”. He was, however, slightly mollified when Cardinal Azzolino obtained the Palazzo Riario for her at a modest rent; she would not, therefore, be living so close to him as she had been at the Palazzo Farnese.
Soon her new palace was filled with treasures, despite her irregular allowances. In the garden exotic and beautiful flowers and shrubs appeared with each passing season. She remained as unpredictable as ever. One grand visitor who tediously complained of his solitary life received the reply “Better 3 days by oneself than half an hour with you”. With the death of Pope Alexander VII in 1667, however, Queen Christina entered upon a more tranquil and less contentious stage of her life. The new Pope, Clement IX, in whose election her friend Cardinal Azzolino had played a critical role, was a kind-hearted, modest man, well disposed towards a highly intelligent woman (?) who shared his love of pictures, music and theatre. Anxious to make her feel at home in Rome, he came to visit her at Palazzo Riario and gave a public banquet in her honour; and as a Christmas gift he gave her a liberal pension.
Her finances now in more satisfactory condition, she added to her collections both Palazzo Riario and another palace which she leased, Palazzo Torlonia. The Queen also became a patron of archaeology, having obtained the pope’s permission to excavate the ruins of Decius’s palace near the Church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna. She founded her own Academy, the Accademia Reale, forerunner of the celebrated Arcadia, at which distinguished scholars gave lectures, read papers and held seminars; and she gave her warm support to the theatre which was built on the site of the Tor di Nona prison and in which many of the finest performances were given by singers in her service, such as Antonio Rivani, known as Cicciolino (not to be confused with Cicciolina, the Hungarian pornstar), whose departure from Rome for the court of the Duke of Savoy, prompted an imperious letter to her French agent “…whatever has become of him, he shall live and die in my service, or it will befall him”. Cicciolino obediently returned and he was still in her service when he died in 1686. She had long since acquired the services of Bernini, who had created for her the lovely looking glass which stood behind one of her most precious possessions, the bronze head of a Greek athlete of about 300 B.C. The last completed work of Bernini had been an over life-size bust of Christ carved for Queen Christina.
The Queen had been bitterly disappointed by the election of Innocent XI in 1676, for this new Pope was a severely economical reformer, stern and austere. He strictly limited the festivities of the Carnival, refused favours asked of him with such regularity that the Romans called him “Papa- no”, ordered the private parts of statues not already concealed by Innocent X to be decently covered, and the breast of Guido Reni’s Madonna to be painted over. He had the public theatres closed, and banished women from every stage. Queen Christina’s Tor di Nona became a granary. Yet, for all the regrets for the lost pleasures of the past, the Queen was as entertaining as ever, and as obliging as she had always been to those who did not bore her, willingly allowing visitors to see her collection as though they were contained in public museums, and sometimes inviting sightseers to come to see her, too. She now was, after all, as she herself liked to admit, an ancient monument, one of the sights of Rome.
She had expressed the wish that she should be buried quietly in the Pantheon, the church on Piazza della Rotonda, formerly the Pagan Temple of all gods, where the bones of Raphael lay. But this was considered an unsuitable resting-place and, in the “pomp and vanity” she had wished to avoid, her body was carried to St Peter’s and placed in the crypt where the remains of only four other women had previously been placed. Some years later, when the 17th century was nearly over, Carlo Fontana was asked to design a monument for her. The Rome in which she died, in 1689, had changed out of all recognition from the city to which Michelangelo had been summoned. The gentle shapes of domes and cupolas beneath the greater dome of St Peter’s had replaced the bristling towers of the medieval nobles. The forbidding fortresses of earlier ages, when the swordsmen fought each other through the streets, had given way to fine palaces and splendid villas in spacious, flower-filled gardens. And the travertine stone, so extensively used by the architects of baroque, had begun to predominate over the marble of the Renaissance. This was the Rome which travellers of the 18th century now came south to enjoy.