1654 Letter Regarding Leonardo Villere


I have received the kindest letter from Your Most Serene Highness, in which I understand the effects of your usual kindness towards me, and I humbly give you the gratitude I owe for the orders sent to Signor Count Riva in my regard in favor of Signor Villeré, recommended by me to you. Yet I believe any effort would be useless to return him to his position, with The Holy Cardinal Mazerin having declared himself insulted, I wouldn’t even deem it possible to know how one might talk with him, pretending he is not offended, thus incurring the great dissatisfaction and disgust of the Signor Cardinal; nor can we speak to the King or the Queen, because they too will have the same sentiment as the Signor Cardinal. However, if you wish, Your Highness, to offer a compensation for the service of Signor Villeré in some way, you can order him the honest recognition of a gift, as it most pleases the generous spirit of Your Highness, since he has treated himself with the greatest honors for the prestige of that position, and doesn’t know how to sustain himself anymore, being already forced to sell the horses, as well as the carriage, and dismiss the servants, but because I trust in the kindness of Your Highness, I will not go any further to beg at length for this.

From Signor Conte Riva I have understood that the comedic actors desired by the King are bound by their word to their commitments throughout the next Carnival season, and that they will be not available other than Lent, but because the Company where they are is not dependent on the will of any Prince, but are at their own liberty, and this being no other commitment than the word they gave each other, Your Highness could easily arrange for their arrival. Even if one had a word with some Prince, I beg you to grant them a favor, so that he might give them permission to come and serve the King, because I cannot believe that there is anyone who would more willingly be pleased to engage, in such a small thing, the satisfaction of The Most Serene Majesty, such as that for the recreations, among which he finds the Italian comedies the most enjoyable. In this way, I hope you might be able to obtain, as I hope it should be, that their arrival may happen no later than the next month of September.

I trust in the kindness of Your Highness to be able to have this honor of serving The Most Serene Majesty, as he wishes, having entrusted it to me himself with particular care, and yet I beseech you with all my spirit to make it work so that they may come, while I promise to keep a true obligation towards you, and to make you believe I truly am […]

[at the service of] Your Most Serene Highness

Paris, the 14th of July, 1654

Cre. Duke of Parma

Historical Context

As it stands, this letter from the mid-17th century is impossible to comprehend without some historical background and context. Written by an unnamed correspondent in Paris, it is addressed to Ranuccio II, the Duke of Parma, and the first half of the text discusses three individuals besides the King and Queen: Cardinal Mazarin, Signor Villeré, and Count Ranuccio Riva. From other documentary sources we know that Villeré, in the service of the Duke of Parma, had been appointed “résident ordinaire” in Paris, but in early 1654, the Cardinal had begun to suspect Villeré of plots and conspiracies, and so had him unceremoniously removed from his position. Furthermore, the Cardinal had him placed under house arrest, his house searched, and all his documents confiscated. Count Riva had been recommended as Villeré’s replacement. Once he had arrived in Paris, he discovered that he could not intercede on Villeré’s behalf, as the Cardinal could not be convinced to reconsider his decision.

What sort of man was Cardinal Mazarin and why would he have harbored an implacable ill-will towards Signor Villeré? Cardinal Jules Mazarin served as the chief minister of King Louis XVI from 1643 to 1661. He was one of the most powerful men in Europe, and at the end of his life, he was likely the wealthiest public figure in the Kingdom of France, as well as the most despised. Someone simultaneously carrying out edicts from Rome and representing the long arm of royal power is bound to earn hostility in various quarters. In fact, for several years directly prior to the writing of this letter, Cardinal Mazarin was actively fighting a political movement in France known as the Fronde, also termed the “Revolt of the Nobles,” which involved innumerable conspiracies against the throne. Moreover, as Mazarin himself was not French, but rather had been born in Rome, he was targeted by a relentless propaganda campaign against Italians and other people of foreign birth. As a man of immense power and wealth, bedeviled by political enemies who actively plotted against him, Cardinal Mazarin was always on the lookout for conspiracies, and apparently perceived Villeré as yet another enemy who could not be trusted.

However, fortunately for us, since Cardinal Mazarin maintained a robust correspondence with many of his colleagues and allies, there are several other letters in both French and Italian which allude to his adversarial relationship with Villeré, and more of this story will be illuminated as other letters are compiled and translated.