By Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)
The age of tourism started in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when improved roads, communications systems, and comfortable carriages began to make it possible for people of means to contemplate traveling for pleasure, and to see the sights of famous cities outside of their own countries. Rome was a big destination. Guidebooks began to appear in print, instructing enthusiastic young travelers on what was not to be missed on a visit to the holy city. In addition to some of the destinations like the Coliseum and the Vatican, early guidebooks directed young voyagers to the homes of prominent citizens. While they were paying their respects, they were advised to ask to see some of the more spectacular items in the house.
In late seventeenth-century Rome, one such destination was the Palazzo Colonna, the home of the Prince Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna and his wife Marie Mancini Colonna. The couple were important art patrons in Rome. They commissioned works by the best artists, including the famous sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to decorate their home. When in 1662 Marie became pregnant with her first child, her husband went to Bernini’s workshop to order a new bed, where his wife could lounge and receive visitors before and after the childbirth.
“The novelty as well as the magnificence of this bed filled everyone with admiration: it was a sort of seashell which seemed to float in the middle of an artfully represented sea, which served as a base for it. It rested on the hindquarters of four sea horses mounted by mermaids; the whole thing was admirably sculpted … Ten or twelve little cherubs served as attachments for curtains of a very rich gold brocade … “.
The Fallen Amazon
Travel guides written in the late 1600s and early 1700s continued to advise travelers to go and look at the bed, and engravings of it circulated like postcards. But the bed became famous in ways that Lorenzo Colonna could not have anticipated, when his wife, in 1672, ran away from her husband and her unhappy marriage to begin a life on the road, never to return. In taking this scandalous and extraordinarily bold step Marie also left behind her three sons, who were never permitted to join her, despite her repeated pleas to her husband to let them leave Rome to be with her.
Though the runaway mother eventually reestablished contact with her sons, they must have felt some resentment toward her that they never could overcome. Filippo, the eldest, inherited the Roman family palazzo along with its lavish contents, including the bed where he had been born. The bed made a famous reappearance on the stage in the great hall of the family residence in 1689, when Filippo and his wife hosted the performance of a new opera. The opera, called ‘The Fall of the Reign of the Amazons’ , featured a scene where the Amazon queen reclined on a fabulous bed, the bed of Filippo’s mother Marie Mancini. A new generation of tourists came to see the opera and the famous piece of furniture that was its centerpiece.
A lounge for a hermit
Later editions of guidebooks to Rome in the eighteenth century continue to mention the bed, but only to say that it seemed to have fallen in disrepair and was no longer able to be viewed. Travelers continued to try to catch a glimpse of it, though, as they toured the Colonna Palace. Speculation was that it’s skeletal remains could be found in another decorative corner of the residence, a private retreat designed as an escape from the busy pressures of socializing. Now the bed was just a simple wooden structure decorating this room called a ‘hermitage’ within the palace, a peaceful corner where the wealthy residents could hide from the pressures of the world.
There is nothing left of the famous bed today, but travelers to Rome may still visit the Colonna Palace on designated weekend hours, to admire the magnificent home that is still a private residence, now occupied by Marie and Lorenzo’s descendants.
The Memoirs of Hortense and Marie Mancini, edited and translated by Sarah Nelson (2007).
Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna and her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (2012).
Joan DeJean (on ‘furniture tourism’), The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began (2009).