Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling are currently writers in residence in the “Vigna di Madame Reale,” a baroque villa built in Torino during the 1650s. In this post, Jasmina and Bruce are interviewing the original patroness and the interior designer of the villa.
“Madama Cristina,” Cristina Maria di Borbone-Francia, is Duchess of Savoy, Princess of Piedmont and Queen of Cyprus (1606–1663). Her master builder, chief dramatist and long-time companion is the Count Filippo San Martino d’Aglie (1604–1667).
JT: Your Majesty, and Signor Count, thanks for letting us write our novels in your beautiful hillside villa! We’re the “Globalisti a Torino,” and we met each other in Torino, and we got married. So it’s wonderful to be here in your palace, which is the site of your famous Turinese romance.
BS: We’re also grateful that you were somehow able to return from the dead in order to talk to us.
Fd’A: That feat was not easy. I haven’t appeared as a ghost in Torino since the late 1970s.
MC: I haven’t been seen in Torino since the night that I died, and I flew across the River Po in a flaming carriage drawn by six flaming horses.
Fd’A. I saw Her Majesty performing that spectral feat, by the way. Because I was living in this villa at that time, and this is the place where she last came to me, in her flaming ghost carriage.
MC: I wanted to bid farewell to him, in the special place where we were most happy.
JT: That is so romantic! (she chokes up) That makes me want to cry!
BS: (handing her a tissue) You two hardly seem dead at all, to us two. I’m from Texas, and I can see that the two of you are living presences in this city. Especially you, Madama Cristina. The San Salvario district has a big, long street called “Madama Cristina.” An excellent street! Really nice shopping!
MC: I command you to address me as “Your Most Serene Highness.”
MC: This is a royal audience! A reigning monarch must be addressed in a polite and courtly fashion, such as: “If it would please Your Most Serene Highness to offer us your wisdom on the following topic,“ and then, and only then, do you presume to pose any question to me.
BS: But we’re journalists! This is an interview! We can’t engage in polite, elaborate Savoyard court rhetoric. The people need to know the facts!
MC: I know what a newspaper is! We had a newspaper in Savoy. One only, and it was controlled by a Jesuit.
JT: Your Most Serene Highness, may I presume to ask if you read that newspaper?
MC: You are a foreign woman from the Balkans, is that not so? Yet you’re also a writer? You are a woman, who writes?
JT: Yes! Yes I am!
MC: Then I command you to read “Astrae,” by Honoré d’Urfé. It is the best novel ever written at my court. It has a thousand pages, so the court ladies can read it aloud to each other, all winter long. It is a romance, so you are sure to like it.
BS: Count Filippo, what do you think of that romance novel?
Fd’A. I’m not a novelist. I’m a man of action. I create festivals, choreography, costumes, opera, ballet, and tournaments. And architecture of course. I did a lot of urban planning.
BS: So, you were pretty much the one-man government of all Savoy, then.
Fd’A (nodding) At Her Majesty’s command, of course.
BS: Yet you don’t have any street named after you. I’ve noticed that Prince Maurizio and Prince Tommaso, who were bitter rivals of yours — they both have streets in modern Torino. But not you.
MC (warningly) Sir, you are pressing on his sore spot.
BS: Count Filippo, let’s be frank. You were the court favorite of your Duchess here, her secret lover and basically the powerful Prime Minister of all Piedmont. Yet there seems to be some shadow over your political achievements as a statesman. The Turinese should have properly named a whole city square after you.
Fd’A. My San Martino family, they have their street named in Torino.
BS: But not you. It’s about the scandalous royal romance, isn’t it? You two were in a settled, intimate relationship, but you never married. Because she’s a royal Bourbon princess from France, the sister of Louis XIII, while you were just a modest Piedmontese country gentleman. But you shared a bed in this villa, against all propriety. Is that why you were denied your proper fame and glory?
Fd’A: Look here, presumptuous foreigner: you may think you understand Turinese baroque politics, but you have it all wrong. I don’t need any fame and glory. Her Majesty already has all that — she was born into that condition! As for me, I manage the grandeur and magnificence. I design the glorious sets, I choreograph the dancing, the fireworks, and the public festivals, but personally, I’m modest and humble. I’m like a Capuchin monk, almost.
BS: You don’t appear very humble. You have beautiful lavender silk clothing and all kinds of gold rings and royal medals.
Fd’A. Ridiculous! This color isn’t “lavender!” This is a special tint which is “gridelino” or “mauve gray.” It’s Her Majesty’s own signature color! As her minister, I always dress in “Cristina Gray.”
JT: We’ve noticed that your big villa here is full of that ‘gridelino’ color.
Fd’A. Because I decorated it myself! Of course, the Vigna di Madame Reale doesn’t look as grand today as it did when I managed it. I gave Her Majesty huge formal gardens, a band-stand, a dance-floor, and her own zoo.
MC (to JT) He is so nice to me.
JT: I can see that.
MC: He is so charming. And so handsome, too. The “Bel Filippo,” they called him. Every woman in my court was in love with him.
JT: That must have been troublesome.
MC: Yes, I had to put up with a lot of trouble to keep him always at my beck and call, but he was worth it. Filippo d’Aglie is the most entertaining man in the world. He was the greatest creative genius of Baroque Turin. He was inventing ballet, and also opera, just for me. He could play ten musical instruments and write poetry for me in four languages.
Fd’A. All part of my day’s work, Your Majesty. It was my privilege to serve you and my native realm, the Duchy of Savoy.
MC: You can see how good he is.
JT: Yes. I married a guy who is sort of entertaining, but he’s Texan. In your age, all the Texans were naked savage cannibals.
MC: Your Texan still seems rather rude and brutal. You should make him sit up straight and comport himself more like a gentleman. Does he speak any Latin?
JT: Not one word of Latin! I’m a literary translator, but Texans are terrible at languages. He’s writing a book about you, but if this villa was still in Baroque Turin, maybe he could clean out the palace stables for you. Other than that, a Texan would be no good at all.
MC: Well, you seem a bit better than him. My father-in-law, Duke Carlo Emmanuel, had a chance to become King of Serbia. Then I would be the Queen of Serbia, and your people would have been my loyal subjects.
MC: Why not? My sister was Queen of Spain, my other sister was Queen of Britain. I was Queen of Cyprus, even though I never saw Cyprus. A small, primitive Balkan country like yours would be easy to conquer. Serbia just needs better administration. Then Serbia would be less ugly and backward, and more grand and magnificent, like Savoy.
BS: Your Most Serene Highness, that’s some impressive political acumen.
MC: I pick good servants. The key to governance is delegation. Giovanni Botero, the geopolitical strategist of Savoy, was the best political thinker in the world.
BS: I don’t know much about Giovanni Botero. I’ve seen his street in Torino, though. It’s right downtown.
Fd’A. You must read Botero’s treatise, “On the Grandeur and Magnificence of Cities.” That was our manifesto for Turin. Everything we built here, every map, every street, every citadel and artillery firing station — it all relates to that plan.
BS: Wow! Thanks a lot, Filindo! That’s a great tip!
MC (to Fd’A): He knows that my pet name for you was “Filindo.” How does he know that?
Fd’A. From books, probably. Books can outlast great buildings, sometimes. Not very often, though.
MC: Filindo, why must we suffer as fictional characters? Isn’t it enough, for you and me, that we suffered as historical characters?
Fd’A. Your Majesty, I was just thinking that myself.
MC: Every relation between mortal man and woman has a sadness to it, because it must end. Journalists, I must dismiss you. This audience is at an end.
JT: Oh no! Please! You can’t! We were just getting started!
BS: There’s so much that we still need to know! What about the time you were kidnapped? Did you really start your love affair during the Black Death? And what about the Compagnia di San Paolo?
JT: It’s too late! They’ve dissipated into air, like spoken words… There’s nothing left of two of them, but one mauve gray fog…