A Strand of Hair through History

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know – Caroline Lamb referring to Lord Byron (1788-1824).

With my heart I kiss your Ladyship’s hand, since I cannot with my lips – Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) in letter to Lucretia Borgia (1480-1519).

Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips, 1813

Lord George Gordon Byron, the reprobate who personified 18th century dissipation and Lucretia Borgia, daughter of dissolute Pope Alexander VI, sister to the cunning Cesare.  A single strand of hair is all that connects these two towering historical personages over the span of time.  The strands, kept with the correspondence of Pietro Bembo and Lucretia Borgia, ‘discovered’ during Byron’s visit to Milan and praised in his letter to Augusta Leigh, October 15th, 1816.

Widely believed to be Lucretia Borgia, by Titian, 1515

Lucretia Borgia is not the fiend history has made her out to be.  She was a symbol of the Renaissance woman and the administrator of not only her father’s office, Rodrigo Borgia, but also her husband’s estates, the Duke of Ferrara.  In 1502, she met Pietro Bembo, poet and writer, an established member of her husband’s court.  Shared intellectual pursuits attracted their kindred spirits, culminating in a brief affair, but leaving a friendship that lasted until her death.

Pietro Bembo, by Titian, 1540

Bembo had what is surely one of the richest careers of the Italian Renaissance, living in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Venice of Aldus, and the Rome of Leo X.  Portrayed in youth by Bellini, and in old age by Titian, having known Raphael, Vittoria Colonna, Politian, Erasmus and Pietro Aretino; writer of two famous treatises and the best Petrarchan verse of the 16th century; ending his career with the honors of bishop and cardinal.

When the affair with Bembo drew to a close, the lovers’ “storm crossed souls” had come to rest in very adult ports of call: secretary to Pope Leo X for Bembo, motherhood for Lucretia.  Pietro knew that his letters from the duchess would earn him a fortune if published easing his entry into what Machiavelli called the alti luoghi (high places) of Renaissance power factions.  The only reference to their relationship is a dedication letter to Lucretia, found in the first edition of his book ‘Gli Asolani’.  The correspondence over a period of 16 years reveals more than a platonic affection.  The originals of the letters reside in the archive of the Ambrosiana Library in Milan with other momentos of their friendship.

Biblioteca Ambrosiana

On a folded sheet of vellum secured with a ribbon is a long lock of hair.  In 1816 Lord Byron visited the library and wrote that he had read “the prettiest love letters in the world’.  Committing some to memory because he was not allowed to make copies; when the librarian was out of the room he stole one of the long strands from Lucretia’s lock of hair, “the prettiest and fairest imaginable.”  Later viewed by Leigh Hunt, with an ode dedicated to its beauty composed by Walter Savage Landro.

Lord Byron

The Prefect of the Biblioteca confirmed that the now famous golden lock was indeed a renaissance era object, placing it for display under glass.  The elaborate stand was designed by Milanese jeweler Alfred Ravasco in 1928, a fitting reliquary for this golden fleece.  The letters have been published in a modern edition, entitiled “The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters Between Lucretia Borgia and Pietro Bembo, 1503-1519”, translation by Hugh Shankland; David R. Godine, Publisher, Boston, 2004.

By Mary Jo Gibson

July 28, 2011


Filed under July

10 responses to “A Strand of Hair through History

  1. Lord Byron is a strange character from history. Brilliantly disturbed, an enigma. Excellent post, Mary Jo!

  2. modemjunkie


  3. What happened to the hair stolen by the Englishman?

  4. Not quite sure. Since Byron died never returning to England, it is hard to imagine where that ended up, or if someone who found it knew what it was, would make an interesting story tho!

  5. I find all of this intrigue with Cardinal Pietro Bembo & Lucretia Borgia most fascinating indeed! And also the connection with the incomparably beautiful Lord Byron.
    Thomas L. Yancey

  6. So glad you enjoy it Thomas! It is truly one of my favorite things to research. While it takes many hours to cobble the story together from the historical record, the end result is well worth it with comments such as yours!


    Mary Jo

  7. Pingback: Blog Treasures 9-10 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  8. @wolfgangcapito Byron supposedly gave the strand of hair he stole to Leigh Hunt, with a note (slightly misquoting Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”): “And Beauty draws us by a single Hair” (letter from Milan, Oct. 17, 1816). Hunt was well known as a collector of celebrity hair, and counted the gift, along with locks (supposedly) from Milton and Napoleon, as among his favorites. Hunt wrote about the strand of hair at length in his 1825 “Criticism on Female Beauty” (available here: http://books.google.com/books?id=gBngb9dS57gC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=lucretia&f=false). However, the strand is not included with the rest of Hunt’s hair collection now available at the Harry Ransom Center. There is some indication, according to John L. Waltman, that “the envelope originally containing the hair (if not the hair) came up for sale at an American Art Association auction in November 1934.”

  9. Wow, what great research, thank you for sharing this! Can you imagine trying to authenticate some strands of hair for auction? Going to write. Follow up based on your research. Many thanks!

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