In the middle of the 17th Century, an Italian noblewoman brought her five daughters to Paris, where her brother had acquired a position of enormous political power, with the intention of finding them all illustrious husbands. They were pretty, educated, noble, wildly intelligent and gracious good company, so this wasn’t a difficult task in itself. A good marriage on paper, however, bears so little relationship to what the experience of it will be. The five Mancini sisters and their two cousins, nieces of the highly influential Cardinal Mazarin, were collectively referred to at court as “Les Mazarinettes”, which tells us how little France appears to have changed in four hundred-odd years. Hortense Mancini was her uncle’s favourite, and was made his heir. She was married at fifteen to one of the richest men in Europe, who turned out to be an obsessive, violent, controlling abuser.
After seven years, four children, and two rejected petitions to the courts to be permitted to live separately from her husband, Hortense bolted for Rome, and the protection of her older sister. She was forced to leave her children behind. When her sister Marie began to suspect that her own husband, Prince Lorenzo Colonna, was trying to poison her (the Colonna men were famous for murdering their wives), the two of them took flight again. Travelling on horseback, in men’s attire, they arrived in France “with an abundance of jewels but no clean linen”.
Hortense devoted the rest of her life to hosting salons for artists and philosophers, and having a string of high-profile affairs. She was King Charles II’s primary mistress for a time, which brought her a pension to live on. Even after her other affairs (including with one of his daughters) demoted her from her position as his favourite, they remained on good terms. She spent her last twenty-five years in England, dying at fifty-three. She seems to have been captivating to innumerable people, to the very last. Her other known lovers included the Duke of Savoy and the playwright Aphra Behn.
The most extensive online biography of Hortense I could find is actually on a site devoted to the history of Monaco, as their Prince Louis was madly in love with her. Here is an account of her friendly duel with her lover, the Countess of Sussex.
Many portraits were painted of her. This one of her as Diana she commissioned herself.
If you would like to see a fictionalised adaptation of the lives of Hortense and Marie, drawn from their memoirs and letters, you can come and see this show I’ve been helping out with:
28, 29 March & 3, 4, 5 April
King Street Theatre, 644 King Street, Newtown, Sydney
Tickets $25, $15 concession, available at the door
There will be a Q&A panel, which includes yours truly, after the show on the 3rd