Imperia Cognati was born in Rome Aug 3 1481. Her mother was a also courtesan, but a minor sort, and her father was not known though it has been attributed in various documents to Paris de Grassis, Master of Ceremonies to Pope Julius II. She called herself both Imperia (de Pietro) Cognati and Imperia de Paris. She also occasionally referred to herself as Lucrezia . This may also have been the name of her daughter. All this is a great example of how hard it is to track down accurate histories of anyone in the 15th c., let alone women who lived outside society’s norms. Her mother, Diana, eventually married a much older man, a member of the Sistine choir. Together Diana and her husband built two houses along the Via Recta, a new and fashionable street. How did they manage this feat in 2 short years? The answer of course was Imperia who was 17 and had already given birth to a daughter. Among her patrons were already counted Giacomo Sadoleto and Agostino Chigi, who would become the wealthiest banker in Rome.

Imperia’s beauty was legendary, both during her short life and long after. Poets attempted to capture it in sonnets and epigrams, though much of it was couched in frustratingly generic terms so that no clear picture of what she actually looked like exists. Some mention of her “broad white brow” “crowned with golden hair” is a little helpful while lines like “her neck was long” and her breasts were “ample and delicious” leave more of a mystery.

More success can be found in some of the paintings of Raphael. Some art historians identify her as Sappho and Calliope in his painting Parnassus and as the Logias of Galatea and Psyche in the Villa Farnesina. If these depictions are accurate she was the epitome of Italian beauty for her time, fair skinned, blonde, with a sweet round face and a graceful ample body.

In 1506 A Mantuan ambassador reported in one of his dispatches A Venetian named Giacomo Stella was murdered in Rome. It was not the work of an ordinary thief but a hired assassin, paid to do the job by Alberto Becuto one of the secretaries of the Vatican chancery. The reason for the homicide “was due to no other cause but jealousy over a courtesan called Imperia.” However he opined “I do not think that Our Lord will be too angry with her about it, and probably the courtesan will get off lightly, mainly because she is very well known, owing to the favor she enjoys among certain cardinals, whom one can not mention.”

Imperia ‘enjoyed’ a short stay in the house of the Governor of Rome, more as a guest than a prisoner, from June until August of 1506. The matter was quickly forgotten and she regained her liberty.

Also that year Matteo Bandello, a Dominican friar, wrote a novella about Imperia (He would go on to write another about the Courtesan Isabella de Luna). In it he expresses how greatly impressed he was with her lodgings, saying that judging from the number of servants and the luxuriousness of the furnishings and fabrics any stranger would think a princess lived there.

In the novello he goes on to tell the story of day when her patron, Angelo del Bufalo, brought the Spanish ambassador Enriques di Toledo to visit her. She came to the door to greet them herself and when she brought them through the suite of rooms to her boudoir the ambassador was so astonished at both her beauty and at the luxury and style in which she lived that he stayed talking to her some time. After a while however he felt the need to spit and, turning to one of his servants he spat in the man’s face saying “Don’t be upset because here there is nothing uglier than your face”

On March 13, 1511 she entered into a contract with Lord Aeneas Piccolomini of Siena. In exchange for leasing land from her he would build her a house of which she was to have use of rent free for the rest of her life. At her death Aeneas was to gain ownership of the house but her daughter could not be made to leave without a payment of 300 ducats. Now that her living arrangements were secured, she used her funds to purchase a vigna (vineyard) for 117 ducats along the old Appian way. No doubt this would have become a pleasure garden for her and her clients but, alas Imperia’s time was short.

In August 1512 Imperia’s heart was broken, and nothing, not her child, her great wealth or her other patrons could soothe her pain. One of her 1st lovers, Angelo del Bufalo informed her that his love for her had ended. In an excess of despair she poisoned herself. She lingered a few days, just enough time to write her will and then she passed. Her end made a profound impression on Rome

Biagio Pallai wrote:

The Gods gave Rome two great gifts: Mars gave her the Empire and Venus
Imperia…. Fortune robbed her of the Empire, and Death of Imperia
The Empire was the light of our Fathers, but To Imperia we lost our hearts

Imperia was buried in St. Gregorio on the Coelian, in a tomb paid for by Agostino Chigi. The inscription read:

Imperia a Roman Courtesan
Who was Worthy of Her Name
Her Form was of Beauty Rare Among Mankind
She lived XXXI Years and XII days
And Died In MDXII ON August XV

Leave a Reply