In my interpretation of Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen” I noted that most scholars believe that Niccolo Aurelio, a future Grand Chancellor of Venice, commissioned the painting to commemorate his marriage to Laura Bagarotto, a young widow from Padua.
Aurelio’s coat of arms can be seen in the relief on the fountain above the spigot. Apparently the wedding raised eyebrows. Aurelio held one of the highest position in the state that could be filled by a non-patrician. Although the year of his birth is not recorded, Aurelio must have been in his fifties and had never been married before. He had, however, sired a natural son, Marco.
On the other hand, Laura Bagarotto was a woman with a checkered past. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, a professor at the famed university of Padua, as well as her husband, Francisco Borromeo, had been accused of treason by the Venetian government for collaboration with the enemy during the War of the League of Cambrai. The husband most likely died during the war and later in 1509 the father was publicly hanged in the Piazza di San Marco, an execution that his wife and daughter were forced to witness.
Laura’s goods, including her substantial dowry, were confiscated. Subsequently, she maintained her father’s innocence and campaigned for the restoration of the family’s good name as well as for the restoration of her dowry, estimated at over 2000 ducats. Her marriage to Niccolo Aurelio in 1514 must have been an important step in her rehabilitation since her dowry was only restored the day before the marriage. One would like to think that Niccolo was honoring his new wife, or seeking to aid in her rehabilitation with a painting depicting Mary Magdalen as both a courtesan seeking to mend her ways, and as a repentant sinner.
Some think that Aurelio married Laura for her money but I think that there was more to it than that. In her contribution to the catalog, “Titian 500” the late Rona Goffen reproduced the last will and testament of Niccolo Aurelio along with two codicils.* Reading the will gives the impression that Aurelio married the much younger widow not for her money but in an attempt to perpetuate his family’s name. [portions of the Will are reproduced below]
Despite the prominence of his position, little is known about the life of Niccolo Aurelio, but a look at his father, Marco Aurelio, a prominent Venetian humanist, might help to shed some light on his illustrious son.
In “Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance”, a 1986 study published by Princeton University, Margaret L. King examined the correspondence and writings of practically every prominent Venetian humanist of the Fifteenth century.** Not only did she give a brilliant overview of the nature of the Venetian movement but she also provided profiles of all the humanists. One of the most prominent was Marco Aurelio, the father of Niccolo.
The Aurelio family seems to have been originally from the Venetian colony at Negropont in Greece. It would appear that they left Negropont early in the Fifteenth century before the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent fall of Negropont in 1470. Here is King’s brief summary.
Aurelio’s family stemmed ultimately from Negropont….Marco and his brothers Paolo and Pietro were sons of Niccolo Aurelio and a daughter of Niccolo Sagundino. “The emigration had seemingly been recent, as our Sagundino refers to himself (foreign-born) along with the native-born Marco as ‘new men.” The Aurelio family had with Marco’s father already established itself in the Venetian bureaucracy. Marco’s brother Paolo was also a secretary, as was his father Niccolo and his son of the same name, subsequently grand chancellor;… (p. 315)
King makes clear that humanists in Venice were not merely scholars. They constituted a caste employed by the Republic to serve its civic purposes. In other words a secretary was a civil servant, scribe, or lawyer employed in the service of the Republic. They were a separate class definitely barred from entrance into the exclusive patrician class but well above the ranks of the lower orders. The word “mandarin” comes to mind when reading King’s analysis.
Although a class unto themselves, they associated and corresponded with similar humanists in other cities and countries. King notes correspondence between Marco Aurelio and Marsilio Ficino who dedicated six opuscula to Marco. In addition,
Learned men addressed works to him Giovanni Calfurnio his editions of Horace and of Plutarch’s Problemata…and his commentary on Terence…Francesco Diedo his translation from Boccaccio; Janus Pannonius his translation of Plutarch’s De capienda ex hostibus utilitare and De curiositare; …poems by Sebastiano Bursa…Christophorus Lanfranchinus…and Aurelius Trebanus…Domizio Calderini wrote in the dedicatory letter to Giuliano de’ Medici that Aurelio had urged him to publish his commentary on Juvenal…Aurelio borrowed Gregory of Nyassa’s Life of Moses, translated by George of Trebizond, from the library of Girolamo Molin in 1458… (pp. 315-316)
Marco Aurelio introduced his son Niccolo into the Doge’s chancery at an early age. By the time of his marriage in 1514 Niccolo was one of the four Secretaries to the Council of Ten. In addition to his other duties, it appears that he was responsible for the public building programs so important in Venice. We know that he signed the contract with Giorgione for the frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Eventually, in 1523 he became Grand Chancellor, the official head of the caste of humanist scribes, and one of the leading figures in the Venetian government. As such he would be present alongside the Doge at all meetings of the Senate and Council. He would function as a kind of Attorney General.
As long as he held these important positions Niccolo Aurelio would have had no financial worries. His will is evidence that only when he somehow lost the position of Grand Chancellor, normally a lifetime appointment, in 1525 did his finances become precarious. Until then he was a well-placed civil servant of the cittadino class. Neither he nor his descendants would have dreamed of entering or marrying into the patrician class. On the other hand, it would have been unseemly for them to marry beneath themselves. They were like characters in a Jane Austen novel whose range of marital partners was severely limited.
Niccolo Aurelio’s marriage to Laura Bagarotto in 1514 would appear then to have little to do with her dowry. By 1523 his Will indicates that her dowry was completely intact. He allocated 1500 ducats of his own money for the dowry of their young daughter, and had even made substantial improvements to Laura’s properties in Padua at his own expense. Moreover, in his home he also supported his natural son, Marco, as well as the two children of his deceased brother.
Why hadn’t Aurelio married before? He loved his natural son, but Marco does not appear to have been the result of a long-term relationship with a mistress. After providing for Laura and their daughter, Niccolo left the balance of his possessions to Marco who,
even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits…
I suspect that given his elevated status in the narrow caste of humanist scribes and lawyers Aurelio had deliberately avoided marriage until Laura Bagarotto came along. She was a different story. Her father, Bertuccio Bagarotto, had been a renowned professor at the University of Padua. Despite his death in the hysteria following the loss of Padua in the aftermath of the military defeat at Agnadello, the end of the war had led some to believe that his execution had been a travesty of justice.
Bagarotto’s name was finally cleared and in 1519 the Venetian government admitted that his execution had been a mistake. Even so, Venetian humanists believed that character, status and ability were inherited. The daughter of a famous professor would certainly be a suitable match for Niccolo Aurelio. I expect that one day a student will discover a relationship between Bertuccio Bagarotto and Niccolo's father, the humanist Marco Aurelio.
Subsequent events caused Aurelio to amend his will. In 1525 he was somehow disgraced and lost his position. Despite the drastic change in his fortunes, he still would not touch Laura’s dowry but only stipulated that now most of it would have to be used to dower their daughter. Two years later Laura provided Niccolo with a male heir and wholesale changes were made. According to custom the new son became the principal beneficiary not only of his estate but also of his humanist heritage.
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home. (p. 138)###
*Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaissance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.
**Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance, Princeton, 1986.
Below are excerpts from the Will taken from "Titian 500"
Holograph will of Nicolo Aurelio, dated 20 January 1523, with codicils of 26 April 1525 and 28 June 1527.
Jesus Mary. 1523 January 20 in Venice.
I Nicolo Aurelio, Grand chancellor of Venice…have deliberated…that this be my testament and last will. And first, recommending my soul to God Most High and to his glorious mother, the Madonna, Blessed Mary Immaculate Virgin, and to all the celestial court, I want my body to be interred in San Giorgio Maggiore in our [family] tomb,…
I leave to my most dear and beloved consort [Laura] and daughter [Giulietta], aside from her [Laura’s] dowry fund of the property in Lissaro and of Villa Torta in the Padoana, on which property I have spent no small sum of money in buildings and other improvements,…all these buildings and improvements made by me are to be hers [Laura’s] freely, and she can dispose of these as her own, if she does not wish to remarry, and remains a widow, as I deem she would be for doing, given her most honest life, such as she has always led, and the great love she bears for Giulietta, our one and only child. Aside from this, I bequeath her [Laura] all her garments, whether of silk, as of wool, and others which I have had made, and her gold chain, which likewise I have had made, and 100 ducats from my estate, that she have to use and to do with as she pleases. I leave her likewise her pearls that she brought with her when she came to my household….
In the event that my said consort wishes to marry, I want her to have her entire dowry, that is, the property of Lissaro and Villa Torta, in the condition in which they were consigned to me, that is, without walled buildings of any sort, and her pearls, and further that she have all her garments of silk and other which I have had made for her: these I give her. But the stone buildings [constructed] by me…are to remain in my estate, and likewise the gold chain and the 100 ducats, which are to be for Giuietta, my most gentle and only child, for her dowry…Declaring and thus it is my wish that my said consort, remaining a widow, and wishing to remain in this land in company with Marco, my son, in the house where we live, she, my consort, is to have possession of said house together with the said Marco, in that part which belongs to me, as though it were her very own, and she may use all my personal property as she does ands may do while I am alive.
In addition, I leave to the said Giulietta,…1500 ducats of the monies in my estate for her dowry…But because I am most certain, since her mother has no other child but this, she is not going to be found wanting in dowering her honorably…
if he, Francesco, is willing to remain in company with Marco, my son, and with my consort, whom I should have mentioned first, and Giulietta, my most gentle daughter, he and Marietta, his sister, are to have their expenses, as at present, and I want them treated in every regard as though they were my own children, leaving the burden to my most cherished consort to dower Marietta,…if her brother [Francesco] does not have the means to do so.
the balance of my possessions,…I likewise bequeath entirely to the said Marco, my son, whom, even if illegitimate [naturali], I do not consider or hold to be otherwise than if he were my legitimate son, because he has always been obedient to me; and I am most certain that he comes from my viscera, as can be seen clearly from his appearance and habits;…And I order him always to hold my most beloved consort in greatest reverence and respect, being as good a companion to her as if he had been born of her;…
Codicil: Jesus Mary. 1525 on 26 April in Venice.
It having been my hard lot, and not because of any failing on my part, that my fortune has changed and that in a moment I have lost all my efforts and vigilance sustained by me since I was a child in serving this most excellent state,…
Codicil: 1527 on June 28.
Because it has pleased our Lord God to concede to me a little son by my wife, to whom I have given the name Antonio in memory of my deceased brother Antonio, 137
[to Marco] I wish that every year of thy life…that thou will have this office, that thou must give half of the earnings that thou will receive from that office to my said consort and to my other children for their subsistence…138…knowing my said consort to be prudent and wise and that she knows very well how to submit to the adversities of this world…
I wish that he, Antonio, be the residual heir of all my property, whether personal or real estate…And being open to learning letters, appearing thus to his mother, have him study either in this land or in Padua…so that he not fall from his [condition] and that he make himself a worthy man, having a great many books as he will find at home.
Goffen, Rona: “Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaisance Marriage Picture ,” in Titian 500. ed. Joseph Manca, Washington, 1993. Pp. 121-147.