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Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Piazza della Minerva, 42, 00186 Roma RM

Carlo Carafa.jpgCarlo Carafa (March 29, 1517 – March 6, 1561) was an Italian cardinal. Born in Naples, Carafa was a younger son in a powerful noble family. He became a soldier and for 17 years took part in the bloody wars which ravaged Italy, first on the side of the Habsburg imperial armies, afterwards with French troops. Then his uncle, Gian Piero Carafa (1476–1559), was elected pope, as Paul IV (in office 1555–1559), and made Carafa a cardinal, entrusting him with important duties and for long periods leaving him in charge of the Papal States. Carafa profited from his power to spin a web of intrigues, orientating the papacy in a pro-French and anti-Spanish direction – a series of about-faces which aimed at securing a Tuscan state for Carafa's family to rule. The war against the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, however, had disastrous results for the Papal States (the southern parts of which were occupied by the Spanish). The Treaty of Cave (1557) returned the situation to the status quo ante bellum, crushing the ambitions, if not the intrigues, of Carafa, who now switched his loyalties to the imperial side.

These developments gave new wind to the pro-French opponents of Carlo and Giovanni Carafa, the nephews of the upright and moralistic Paul IV; their scandalous conduct was violently denounced to the pontiff. For instance, on 17 January 1558, Cardinal Charles de Lorraine (1525–1574) asked the French ambassador in Rome to report to the pope scandals concerning his nephews. In his letter he stated that the courtiers had been scandalised by what they had witnessed, ‘and among the culprits were openly numbered, to my great regret, those who were closest in blood relations to our Holy Father the pope’. They had engaged in ‘that sin so loathsome in which there is no longer a distinction between the male and female sex’.

These rumours cannot be explained away as political slander. Already, in about 1555, the poet Joachim du Bellay (1522?–1560), who was then in Rome, wrote a sonnet mentioning one Ascanio (presumably recently deceased) as the beloved of Carafa. In Sonnet CIII of Les Regrets, he invites Love to weep, ‘for now you must not recall / his father to handsome Ascanio; now you should mourn / handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity! / Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes: / Ascanio, whose face was handsomer / than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods’.

At first the pope refused to believe the numerous and varied accusations, but he was finally convinced of their veracity; furious with his nephews Carlo and Giovanni, he deprived them of their positions and exiled them in January 1559. Carlo Carafa's fall opened the way for lampoons which accused him of being a sodomite; one published at the time of the pope's death (1559) abhored Carlo's conduct: ‘Look at this wicked bad man / who his incest and his sodomy notwitstanding / is in the cardinals’ company’. After Paul IV's death, Carlo returned to Rome but immediately felt the effects of the disastrous political choices imposed on the Papal States. The new pontiff, Pius IV, had him arrested for a lengthy series of crimes ranging from homicide to heresy, among which was sodomy. A kangaroo court convicted Carlo with his brother Giovanni, and he was executed. It is worth noting, however, that the charges of sodomy were of little or no significance in the trial; politics provided the true motivation for their condemnation. Conviction of Paul IV's nephews amounted to a condemnation of the anti-Spanish politics of the former pope, the blame for which was laid entirely on their shoulders. When a rapprochement had been effected with Spain, the new pope, Pius V, reopened the case in 1567 and rehabilitated Carlo Carafa. The cardinal's tomb lies next to that of his uncle in the Carafa chapel in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

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