ORAZIO MALASPINA, CALLED “CELIO MALESPINI” (1531-1609), ADVENTURER AND MAN OF LETTERS

An eminently romantic character, alternately soldier, adventurer, editor, translator and author, Orazio Malaspina, called “Celio Malaspini”, was presumably born in Venice in 1531. He was the son of Francesco Malaspina, himself Galeazzo Malaspina's son, from the branch of the Santo Stefano d'Aveto descending from the marquesses of Mulazzo. At the beginning of the XVIth century, Galeazzo, owning only a small amount of money had settled at Pavia, where he was still living in 1545. His son Francesco, further to a wandering which led him to Venice, Milan and eventually Genoa, where he married Moisetta Imperiali, set up at Verona. Orazio “Celio” was born in the Venetian Republic during one of his parents' stays there. He got a brother, Scipione Malaspina, with whom he kept up a lengthy correspondence and who could be identified as the homonymous artist-architect who was appointed at the end of the XVIth century to rebuild the major altar in the Cathedral of Pisa. Orazio's youth is known only through what he told in his Two Hundred Short Stories, where he declared he had received a gentleman's education “in the letters and in the arms.” After serving as a soldier in the Spanish army during the Flandres war with Alessandro Farnese, he remained in the service of Philip II in 1559-1560, this time at the Court of the bishopric of Milan, where he filled a position which remains unknown even now.


In 1561, he was summoned at Mantua by his friend the sculptor Leone Leoni, who asked him to assist him in the completion of the splendid party organised for Duke Guglielmo's wedding.

Sculpture by Leone Leoni: Bust of the Emperor Charles V (El Prado Museum)

 

Back in Milan, Orazio, forgotten by the Spanish governors and having no alternative but to feed his three children, took up a career of forger of letters and schedules. His talents brought him to Savoie in 1564: he went to the General tax collector of the Empire and introduced himself as the “Count of Pompei” and, with a fake imperial edict, asked for six thousand gold crowns for the sake of a secret mission in the service of the Emperor. Unmasked by the Cardinal of Granvelle, who perused the letter so carefully that he noticed that it was a fake, Orazio would have answered: “So if, as His Excellency puts it, it is a fake, pray deliver it to His Imperial Majesty, who will exchange it for a valid one.”

Finally confounded by the Cardinal, Orazio confessed his previous frauds, and the Minister and the Milanese magistrates were rapidly acquainted to the fact. On Granvelle's advice, Orazio was kept in prison so that they could use his skills as a forger. Escaped or simply relaxed in 1570, he reappeared in 1571 under the name of “Celio”, and he entered Grand Duke Francesco de' Medici's service officially as his secretary. In actual fact, Francesco de' Medici used his many talents: in addition to his skills as a forger, Orazio / Celio organised original sumptuous parties for the Grand Duke's mistress, Bianca Cappello. In 1576, he had to flee from Florence to Venice  further to a new forgery. Back in his native city, he proposed the Doge and the Council of Ten to take advantage of his talents as a forger, putting forward the benefits of this practice, apparently in vain.

Paintings: Francesco de' Medici and Bianca Cappello

 

He eventually changed occupations and became the editor of an unachieved manuscript of Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso: he had got a copy in Florence by the Grand Duke and he supplied the first edition in 1580 with Gofredo as a title, obviously without the agreement of Tasso, who eventually hated him indefinitely. The following year was published an “allowed” full edition of the twenty songs and Celio republished the work with the six missing songs. An edition followed by two other publications in 1582 and 1583, still with the title given by Malaspina, were bestsellers.

Torquato Tasso

 

Confirmed in his Venetian literary career, “Celio Malespini” published in 1591 a translation of Garden of Peculiar Flowers by the Spanish learned author Antonio Torquemada, an heterogeneous encyclopaedic sum of philosophical, theological and geographical knowledges, with a marked priority to teratology: for instance, one could read about a two-headed-man, one coming out of his stomach, which was shown as a retribution.

In 1591, Orazio / Celio worked for the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo Gonzaga. Probably backed up or even commissioned by the Spanish, our Malaspina brought the Duke to demand from the Emperor Ferdinand I the succession of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who died poisoned in 1587. He was assisted in this task by Fra Maranta, a Dominican who had served Francesco de' Medici as an alchemist, a necromancer and a “Kabbalah master” and had to flee from Florence after forging Bianca Cappello's will.

Painting: Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua

 

The plan failed and Orazio, fallen progressively into disgrace, sank progressively into poverty. In 1609, he published a collection of short stories, Two Hundred Short Stories (Ducento Novelle), extracted from different sources, principally Spanish and French (Les Cent Nouvelles, work from the XVth century), where he vividly mixed up his personal memories: the court life in ducal Florence, Venice hit by the plague of 1576 and the many Gambling companies and gallant academies which flourished in Italy at that time... The work was a bestseller in Europe and was repeatedly imitated. A long time later, a one-act-Dutch operetta, “A Rat in the Mousetrap” (“Eene Rat in de Val”), was an illustration of this impact: a young lady (Felicita), promised to a student (Edward) against her will, found the solution to her problem by using a trick found in “a tale by the mischievous Celio Malespini” to get rid of the undesirable.

Orazio “Celio” Malaspina did not have the opportunity to enjoy the success met by his novel: he died only a few months after its publication. Yet this versatile adventurer, a symbol of the spirit of his century, put his stamp on Italian literature in several aspects and he remains one of the most endearing characters of the noble family.