“MUCH has been written on the athletic and scholastic prowess of the so-called Admirable Crichton, and his brilliant career is perhaps sufficiently well known, though some reserve must naturally be exercised for the manifest exaggeration in the accounts of his admirers, and for the amount of fiction which a love of the marvellous had interwoven with undoubted facts. Urquhart’s tales of his “Most Exquisite Jewel”1 are to a great extent fabulous, but Tytler’s account of Crichton,2 though very imperfect and incorrect in several details, may, as regards the earlier part of his career, be accepted as generally trustworthy. Interest is still taken in the young Scotchman who dazzled Europe with the brilliance of his genius; researches regarding his family, his connections, his achievements are still being carried on; only on one point, perhaps, biographers and historians have been till now in the dark. We see this marvellous son of Robert Crichton of Eliock graduate M.A. at the early age of fifteen, in the year 1575, at the University of St. Andrews, where he had the celebrated [George] Buchanan as master. We hear of his Religious dissensions with his father, the Lord Advocate of Scotland, who had become Protestant, dissensions which drove him to France; and about 1578 we hear him challenging all scholars and philosophers to a disputation at the College of Navarre, to be carried on in any one of twelve specified languages, “in any science, liberal art, discipline, or faculty, whether practical or theoretic.” Victorious in this contest, we see him proving himself equally admirable in fencing, hunting, and dancing, and gaining fair ladies’ hearts by his handsome looks and graceful manners. We follow him to Italy, see him distinguish himself equally there, hear of him at the Court of Mantua – and then? Then all seems to be dark and mysterious. Vague rumours and contradictory assertions of unreliable writers have been till now all we have had to guide us in the search for truth. How and when did Crichton die? Nearly all agree in attributing his death to Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga, but this opinion has hitherto been founded, not on direct proofs, but on mere tradition. Even the date of his death has been a subject of dispute, some writers stating it to have happened in 1582, others denying this on the grounds of a poem having been published by Crichton in the year 1584 on the death of Cardinal Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan.4
Only lately has the mystery been cleared away. The fault lies partly with the chroniclers of Mantua and partly with the historians of Italy but principally with those “in high places,” who, all powerful to raise up or destroy, could, by a menacing frown, silence the provincial chronicler, and erase from the annals of their state the record of many a dark and powerful crime. But in the Archivio Gonzaga, rich in important documents which every day help to throw new light on the history of bygone days, letters of various personages giving a full account of Crichton’s tragic death, have been recently found, some of which were published a few years ago by Professor Intra in the Archivio Storico Italiano,5 while others have been kindly granted to me for publication by the Chevalier Stephen Davari, to whom we are indebted for their discovery.
Referring the reader for further particulars of Crichton’s life previous to his arrival at Mantua to the well-known work of Tytler, in the appendix to which the accounts which the famous printer Aldus Manutius wrote of his Scotch friend may also be read, I shall confine myself strictly to the facts as narrated in the documents referred to, taking care to translate them as literally as possible.
Crichton arrived at Venice in the year 1580, and very soon acquired numerous friends and admirers. Among those there were two who seem to have been really true friends to him – friends in need, who not only took pleasure in his triumphs, but gave him very substantial help, which, in spite of his noble birth, he seems to have greatly needed. One of those, Aldus Manutius, jun., the famous printer, drew upon Crichton the attention of the whole of Italy by the unqualified eulogies which he published of his friend; and the other, James Aloise Cornaro,6 a member of one of the most distinguished Venetian families, was the means of his being called to the service of the Duke of Mantua. And this call was not one to be despised even by one whose circumstances were easier and whose talents were greater than the young Scotchman’s. The city of Virgil has ever distinguished itself as a centre of culture, and her rulers were then powerful protectors of all who devoted themselves to art or science. The most distinguished men of the time flocked from all parts of Italy to their court, which gained a new lustre from their presence. At this time, indeed, the court of the Gonzagas was less brilliant than usual; Duke William, though a good prince and a wise ruler, was physically weak, and even deformed; and this, united to a strong tendency to parsimony, induced him to pass the greater part of the year in his quiet rural castles of Goito, Revere, and Gonzaga, at some distance from the capital. The Duchess, Eleanor of Austria, daughter of the Emperor Ferdinand and niece of Catherine of Aragon, shared his taste for a quiet life, and encouraged him, too, in his religious zeal, which very often degenerated into bigotry, and even succeeded occasionally in conquering his miserly spirit. Many religious houses were founded in Mantua by this Duke and his devout consort, and one of the two incidents preserved as worthy of note by the chronicler Gionta7 in his annals of 1582 may be quoted here as illustrative of the spirit of the sovereign – the other being the marriage of his daughter Anna to Ferdinando, Archduke of Austria. In 1582 Charles Borromeo returned to carry in a procession to the church of St. Barbara one of the ribs of this saint, and Duke William presented him with twelve covers8 woven of silk and gold, which are now used in the choir of Milan Cathedral.
Nevertheless they, too, extended their patronage to men of letters. Bernardo Tasso governed Ostiglia for the Duke, while Eleanor did her utmost to alleviate the misery of his great but unhappy son, and Torquato, grateful to his gentle patroness, dedicated to her his treatise on womanly virtues.
Prince Vincenzo (b. Sept. 21st, 1562), however, did his best to keep the Court in a ferment, and destroy by his licentiousness and prodigality the pious influence exercised by his parents. As dissolute as they were sober, as spendthrift as they were frugal, he was the centre of a circle of scapegraces who seconded him in all his wild doings, and however much his preceptors, Marcellus Donati and Aurelius Pomponazzo, men of judgment and talent, tried to keep him from going too far astray, they had little reason to boast of their success. His health, naturally delicate, was much injured by his debaucheries, and neither his mother’s tearful prayers nor his father’s menacing commands had the slightest effect on the wayward prince. His monthly allowance of 500 crowns was recklessly thrown away in all sorts of dissipation; new supplies were given him, but these formed but a drop in the ocean of his desires, and once, when indignant at his ignoble conduct, the Duke refused to grant fresh demands, he, without warning of any kind, abandoned the Court, betaking himself with his retinue to Colorno on a visit to Barbara Sanseverino Sanvitale, Countess of Sala, with whom he was desperately in love. His tutors addressed severe remonstrances to him, but the only answer he deigned to give them9 was, that he was no longer a child; that at 19 years of age even the sons of the common people were provided with food and clothing, while he, condemned to accept money from his inferiors and his equals, was obliged to disgrace his position by his miserly conduct. Such things, he said, made his “stomach bitter.” He had not taken this step inconsiderately; he loved the Countess of Sala as a sister; he only wanted to prove to the Duke that he meant to consult his own tastes in everything that did not appertain to the service of his Highness, for whom, he adds with an attempt at pathos, no one would die more willingly than he. He concludes the fiery letter, declaring that he will have no mediators between himself and the Duke, begging Donati, nevertheless, to see that he has speedily fresh supplies of money, as, otherwise, he will be obliged “as a christian and a cavalier” to take possession of whatever he can find on the Duke’s territory. Repeating again that he will not be treated any longer as a child, he bids his tutors remember that they are but his servants and have only to do what they are bid. With this courteous observation he concludes, signing himself rather spitefully, To please you, the Prince of Mantua.10 A strange idea had this young man of the duties of a christian and a cavalier. While he was complaining so bitterly of the miserable state in which the Duke’s want of liberality kept him, one of his nobles, in a letter written to Mantua from the villa at Colorno, declared that they were all utterly exhausted by the amusements which were kept up incessantly day and night.
Six months after this escapade there were great rejoicings in the two cities of Parma and Mantua. Prince Vincenzo had obtained the hand of Princess Margaret, daughter of Alexander Farnese, governor of the Netherlands. The new tie would doubtless have a sobering effect upon him; he would give up his wild ways and gladden his parents’ hearts by his improved conduct. Such were their fond hopes. But alas! Vincenzo had not in him the stuff of a Henry V… On his way to Parma to receive his bride, he broke his journey to spend some days with the Countess of Sala. A few months later the unhappy Margaret was sent back to Parma, her physical defects being said to justify this repudiation, of which the indecent particulars have been discussed even too carefully by the various historians.
Such was Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga at twenty years of age, and such the condition of the Court of Mantua when the Admirable Crichton entered the service of Duke William in the beginning of February, 1582. Being only two years older than the prince he may have hoped to find a friend in him, but though there is no direct proof existing of Vincenzo’s jealousy of the young Scotchman, he seems, from the first, to have regarded him with aversion. Nor can this be wondered at. The prince till then had been “the cynosure of neighbouring eyes,” and all at once he found himself eclipsed by this “Barbarian,” as he scornfully termed him, and relegated to a secondary position. The city was somewhat tired of his freaks and disgusted at the scandal raised by his separation from Margaret, and therefore not at all unwilling to raise another idol in his place. Crichton captivated all the fair sex by his youthful beauty and his winning grace, filled all the youths with admiration and envy by his unrivalled skill in tilting and in horsemanship, astonished the learned by his wonderful linguistic powers, and won the heart of the duke by the extraordinary ease with which he defeated the erudite monks in philosophical and theological disputations. “Seldom is beauty united to wisdom,” says Petronius Arbiter, and Alexander Tassoni, the eccentric author of “The Rape of the Bucket,”11 applying this sentence to the marvellous young Scot, of whom he was a contemporary, likens him to Pico della Mirandola and lauds his skill in controversy.12
No wonder then if Vincenzo was jealous of his rival, who, though quite poor, could boast nevertheless of being allied to the royal House of Stuart. Stories run of his having usurped the prince’s place in the affection of his mistress, but for this we have no direct proof. It is likely enough, however, for by his own confession the “Admirable” was anything but “admirable” for prudence or strict behaviour. He makes no mention of the prince in his letters, but there is very often a bitter undertone running through the few that remain to us, and he complains more than once of the annoyance caused him by enemies at court. He was a favourite with Duke William, however, and did all he could to deserve this favour by the zeal he displayed in his service.
Immediately after his arrival he was called upon to draw up a plan of fortification for the Palazzo del Te, a sort of pleasure house outside the walls of the city, visited now by artists on account of the works of Guilio Romano, and the famous stucchi of Primaticcio which embellish its walls. He threw himself into his work with ardour, and discussed his project warmly with Aurelius Zibramonti, Bishop of Alba, President of the Senate, and secretary to the Duke, who made of him his chief confidant. The Duke had already withdrawn to Revere, where Crichton was prevented from joining him by the state of his carriage, which had broken down during his journey from Padua to Mantua, and which, as complaints in his last letters show, he had never been able to have properly repaired. An active correspondence, however, was carried on between him and the secretary, for whom he shews much affection. His plan, when drawn up, found approval with the Duke; not so, however, the expense entailed in carrying it out. This obstacle vexed Crichton, and, conscious of his patron’s pious tendency, he tried to win him over by an amusing stratagem. In a letter, referring to Faciotti, the engineer who had assisted him in his scheme, he says to Zibramonti:-
The work of this poor and most virtuous man has been shown to me by him, and he has particularly expressed to me his pious desire of spending in offices of Christian charity a third part of the emolument which it shall please his Highness to give him for his invention and his labours. If this were known by the Duke it might facilitate the execution of his plan.13
But the Palazzo del Te is unfortified to this day, and Crichton was called upon to display the other side of his versatile genius, and to shine on the stage, in the tournament, or in the solemn halls of science. Suddenly, however, he was obliged to ask permission to interrupt his services and to absent himself from Mantua. He had left his affairs in great confusion, and every day new complications were arising which required his presence. At Venice and Padua he had contracted many debts, and his creditors were beginning to be impatient. At the end of March he writes to Zibramonti in a very dispirited state of mind:-
1582, 27th March, Mantova.
To the very Illustrious and my most respected Signore,
In answer to you letter from Sacchetta, I inform your Lordship that Signor Augusto has done what he promised you, and I, for the remembrance you preserve of me, grow more obliged to you day by day with the little spirit that remains to me. To-morrow, therefore, God willing, I shall go towards Venice well comforted at the thought of seeing once more my beloved Signor Cornaro, as well as my other less important14 friends, who, however, are not blessed like that gentleman with the possession of most rare, nay, almost divine qualities. So much the greater, however, will be my affliction at being deprived of your most gracious presence, but, with the sure hope of a speedy return, I reverently kiss your Lordship’s hand, commending you to the Most High God.
Your very illustrious Lordship’s most affectionate Servant,
He left the court, therefore, for Venice and Padua, where he remained for about six weeks doing his best to put his affairs in order, but only partially succeeding, notwithstanding the very substantial help given him by Cornaro. Disheartened at the dark prospect which lay before him, disappointed in the appeals for help which he made to some of his countrymen, he seems to have thought of abandoning the Duke’s service, but his friend, furnishing him with the means of living, for the time being, with the splendour which his position at court required, dissuaded him from this step. Profoundly grateful, in appearance at least, Crichton continued to exalt the worth of his friend in need, and when we read the following letter, which is without address, but was evidently written to Zibramonti, we find it difficult to believe the accusations of falsehood and base ingratitude brought against him after his death by the same Cornaro:-
Illustrious and esteemed Sir,
Though your lordship may be much occupied in the multitude of your great affairs, you can at least comfort yourself with your own prudence, and hope to find a happy issue to every labyrinth however intricate; but in mine, I cannot indeed find the same consolation, being but little aided by prudence and, as yet, little accustomed to suffer. I, however, should not mind such accidents much were not the wicked offices of false friends15 added to my other misfortunes. And I know not what I should do were it not for the sincere friendship of the most illustrious Signor Cornaro (in whose mind is impressed together with all his most excellent virtues, the sweet and greatly honoured remembrance of your lordship’s great merits and incredible virtue in which he almost vies with me), which shows me how to navigate in the ocean of my greatest troubles. He has promised me to write more particularly to your lordship informing you of everything. I refer you therefore to his relation, and reverently kissing your hands with all my heart, I pray our Lord to give you a long and happy life, and to make me worthy of a particle of your favour, and that of my most serene patron.
Your illustrious lordship’s most affectionate Servant,
From Padua, 7th April, 1582.
In the next letter written from Padua, and dated the 19th of April, Crichton excuses himself for not having sent letters by the last courier, he having been at Codivio “attending to his soul”;16 and too far away from the Cornaros to write before the departure of the despatches. He again refers to Cornaro’s letters for further information, and concludes announcing his early return. Something must have happened to change his plans, however, for not until three weeks later do we find him reporting his arrival to Zibramonti.
Most Illustrious and Respected Sir,
At last I have reached Mantua, as a longed-for haven, after so many and so grave perils and hardships sustained by me during my absence. And, although some of my affairs are still imperfect, I trust, nevertheless, to have so arranged them that none of them may alienate or divert me further from the service of my most serene patron. Nor do they in themselves grieve me so much as the trouble which Signor James Aloise Carnaro gave himself for my troubles, as he writes to you in the enclosed letter. There remains one only sorrow, for which I find no remedy, caused by my having lost the opportunity of seeing the wedding of the Most Serene Archduchess, for certainly it behoved me to be present more than anyone else, as a foreign servant, honoured beyond my deserts by a great Signore. But I believe that when you will have heard what new and bitter trouble came upon me while I was at Padua, occupied in the business for which I left the Court, according to the permission kindly granted me by his highness, you will sigh once for the love you condescend to bear towards me, in return for the infinite which I bear towards you. Besides if I had been informed in time that the marriage was to take place so soon, I should have sent everything else to perdition.17 And if it seems well to you, you can present to his highness my humble and too… true apologies.
I have come, thank God, in time for the disputes, although I expressed myself on things of this kind some time ago. I have not yet seen the conclusions, but, as I cannot consult the demon of Socrates, I shall avail myself of the spirit of Homer, extemporising as well as it shall please God.18 May He always preserve in His favour your lordship, whose hands I humbly kiss.
Your Illustrious Lordship’s
Most Affectionate Servant,
Mantua, 7th May, 1582.
Here the slighting tone in which the “Admirable” talks of the disputes, by which he had acquired so much renown, is very remarkable. He was glad at having returned in time to discomfit the monks, who were considered miracles of science, but evidently more because he knew what a delight his triumphs afforded to the duke than for any special pleasure he found in them himself. He was, perhaps, beginning to understand that his fame, if it were to endure, would have to be built on more solid foundations. The letters of Cornaro, to which he refers, are not to be found, but we shall have an opportunity of examining others in which his statements are confirmed.
For some time after this, we have no more letters. Crichton seems to have joined the duke at Gonzaga, and remained there for about six weeks. Towards the end of June, however, he suddenly abandoned the country residence and returned to Mantova, from which city he wrote to Zibramonti in a very indignant state of mind, evidently much hurt by some insult offered to him by one of the courtiers, or, it may be, by the prince himself:-
Most Illustrious and Esteemed Sir,
I believe your lordship has done me the favour of letting his highness know the reason of my return to Mantua, and the vexation caused me by the little respect which others showed to bear towards my honour in the request made to his highness, which may be the cause of my repenting of my simplicity and treating those who promise themselves so much from me in a very different manner. My health has been much injured by the carriage. Nevertheless, I hope during this illness to be able to serve his highness in some way, since all my thoughts are directed next to the glory of God, to that of my master; and the greater the difficulties may be in the carrying out of such a plan, so much more sweetness shall I feel in it.19 But Signor Cavallero, whom, by means of his highness’ apothecary, I have informed of my illness, gives me no hope of my being able to present myself to his highness for the space of eight days without danger of great infirmity. I should be happy and have a quiet mind if I obtained license for this period, and I would pray your lordship, by that humanity which is all your own, to maintain me in his highness’ favour, and in that of your lordship, whose hands I kiss with all affection, begging the Lord to give you all contentment and felicity.
Your Illustrious Lordship’s
Most Affectionate Servant,
Mantua, 22nd June, 1582.
A few days after this he wrote again to Zibramonti thanking him for having informed the Duke of the state of his health, repeating his hope of a speedy recovery, and mentioning by the way some unknown gentleman,20 who, continuing to show his affection for him “in many extravagant ways,” tried, it seems, to draw him away from the Duke’s service; but, says Crichton, “Greater is my duty towards God and my prince than that towards my friend.” He did not know how soon he would be forced to abandon, not only the service of the Duke, but also that of every other earthly master. For the end was drawing nigh. Precisely on the day mentioned by the worthy doctor Cavallero, Zibramonti received another brief note, in which Crichton announced his complete cure, and declared himself ready to resume his services. And this may have been the last letter which the “Admirable” penned. Had his illness lasted but one day more, the fatal encounter of the 3rd of July might have been avoided – and Mantua might even now boast of the illustrious Scot, who had honoured her court with his presence.
LILY EGLANTINE MARSHALL.”
(To be continued.)
13 thoughts on “THE LAST DAYS OF THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON. (From Documents existing in the Archives at Mantua.) Part 1., L. E. Marshall (Apr., 1895), pp.181-192.”