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Spain was an undisputed European Power throughout the 16th century, thanks to Emperor Charles V, who had inherited the territories of four houses – those of Burgundy (1506), Austria (1519), Aragon and Castile (1516) – and his son Philip II, who in 1581 had added the territories of Portugal to the Crown’s domains. The historical-political context would allow the Spanish Empire to maintain its status as Europe’s first Great Power, thanks to the continuous struggle between the German states and the long and exhausting religious wars in France – a series of eight conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that took place between 1562 and 1598. However, with Philip III Spain knew the beginning of its decline.
Philip III had many faults, but perhaps the most important one was that he did not know how to judge people: the Duke of Lerma was one of them. He signed agreements with England (1604) granting them numerous commercial privileges towards the New World, in exchange for an undertaking not to finance revolts in the United Provinces (Holland), but in 1609, when he could have exploited these agreements, he signed a twelve-year truce recognising Dutch independence.
The story I am going to tell today unfolds in Rome, the political centre of Europe, first as the capital of the Roman Empire and later as the papal seat. For centuries, diplomats from Europe’s most important states vied for the favours of cardinals, hoping that if one of them was elected pope, they would remember who had financed them. With the Protestant Reformation, Rome lost its centrality and became almost subject to the control of the Spanish Crown. Now Pope Clement VIII was trying to regain his independence and in the early 1600s, most of the cardinals were loyal to the Pope and his idea of keeping Rome independent.
After twelve years as a diplomat to the Holy See, the Duke of Sessa Antonio Fernández de Córdova y Cardona asked King Philip III for permission to retire. The King accepted his resignation and decided to put his trust in his ‘luminary’ Prime Minister, the Duke of Lerma, and chose as his new diplomat Juan Fernández Pacheco de Villena, who willingly accepted the post in the hope that he would later be able to rise to the position of Viceroy of Naples. Even before reaching Rome, Villena managed to insult a nephew of the Pope in Genoa by calling him ‘Your Lordship’ instead of Your Excellency’. He further aggravated his already limp situation by arriving late and unannounced in Rome, forcing the Duke of Sessa to transfer, in a few hours on the dock, twelve years of work as a diplomat. In Rome, Villena continued to arrogantly refuse to recognise the proper title to Italian nobles, antagonising them, while many cardinals were turning away from the Spanish cause. A few months later, the Pope decided to write a letter to Philip III, in which he begged him to intervene.
Once this first problem was solved, another one immediately arose: when he met a French diplomat, who on paper was supposed to be his first adversary, Villena behaved in a very polite manner; in fact, he believed he could deceive him and convince some cardinals to change sides. The French diplomat, who perhaps knew his job, then decided to share a modified story claiming that Villena had even recognised him as a superior, thus ridiculing him. After a few months, Villena went from being a rude and undesirable character to a ‘sketch’, with the Roman nobles and cardinals beginning to treat him blatantly as a fool.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the one thing we cannot blame him for. Gerolamo Frachetti, a man of letters and a supporter of the former diplomat, seeing Villena in difficulty, decided to help him by providing him with a list of all the important people in the Roman curia with their weak points and their secrets to exploit. Shortly afterwards, in circumstances yet unknown, this writing became public knowledge; it forced Frachetti to take refuge in Naples and made Villena’s position even worse, if possible.
Juan Fernández Pacheco de Villena was recalled to Madrid after only three years of service (1603-1606), earning him the title of one of the worst diplomats in history. Needless to say, he never became Viceroy of Naples.