All For Love

The Uncompromising Heart: A Life of Marie Mancini

by Françoise Mallet-Joris, translated by Patrick O'Brien
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 274 pp., $5.50

Marie Mancini
Marie Mancini; drawing by David Levine

In the old Europe of the Kings, a man could rise from a humble station to all power, short of royalty, and govern a country which was not even his native land. Such was the career of Cardinal Mazarin. He was not a laborer’s son, like Alberoni, or a butcher’s son, like Wolsey; he belonged to what would now be called the lower middle class—his mother was a distant relation of the powerful Colonna family and his father, who came of Sicilian peasant stock, was employed by Prince Colonna in a clerical capacity. Young Mazarin, a brilliant boy, took minor orders in the Church, accompanied a Papal legate to France, and in due course was himself appointed Nuncio. Then he became the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. At a court where nobody could drive with the King unless he could prove his seize quartiers of nobility, Mazarin was the closest friend (probably the lover, possibly the husband) of the Queen Mother; after the death of Richelieu he was all powerful in France. He saw the little boy, Louis XIV, through turbulent times, taught him the love of pictures and the art of statesmanship, and tactfully died when the King was beginning to think he would like to rule on his own. Mazarin left priceless books and pictures, a palace which is now the Bibliothèque Nationale, a settled realm, and his nieces.

THERE WERE SEVEN of these beauties for whom the Cardinal arranged dazzling marriages; many notabilities descended from them and their sons included Prince Eugene of Savoy and the Old Pretender. The most famous of the nieces was Marie Mancini, who may have been the original of Perrault’s Cinderella as well as of Racine’s Bérénice. As a child she was the plain one of the family and had an obstinate, difficult nature; her mother did not care for her and wanted to put her in a convent but she stood out against this with such determination that finally she was allowed to make her debut at the Court of Louis XIV. Her sisters were already the stars of the young King’s little set. Louis took a fancy to her; she fell violently in love with him and blossomed into a beauty. She believed that he intended to marry her and perhaps he did for a while, but if so Mazarin changed his ideas by dangling the huge Spanish possessions before his eyes. France has always wanted frontiers at the Rhine, the mountains, and the sea—the Spanish Netherlands and the Franche Comté would have rounded off Louis XIV’s inheritance. If he were to marry his cousin the Spanish Infanta, who had no brother, these lands might well devolve upon him. (In the event, her father, Philip IV of Spain, so delicate that he was said to live on human milk, married a second wife and produced an heir, to the general amazement.)…

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