It was late January. I was holding a hot coffee between my thighs and a newspaper between my fingers. As per usual, I first leafed through the pages in search of the culture and art section. A Russian tycoon had won a painting by Sandro Botticelli paying 92 million euros at an auction: “Portrait of a young man holding a roundel”.
When I looked at the painting, I was utterly struck by it; a true masterpiece. In the days that followed, that was all anybody talked about. It almost seemed to have a double entendre, a bit of mysticism even. Botticelli was a rare and brilliant artist, one of the most famous Florentine painters of the Renaissance and discussed all over the world for his refinement. However, once purchased, the masterpiece would again fall into oblivion, in some mansion of Moscow’s countryside or who knows where.
So, before it was too late, I indulged my curiosity and decided to rediscover its history and retrace its steps. I wasn’t wrong. I came to learn that the events of the painting were shrouded in mystery. In tracing the sources I was helped by Valentina Aulizio, from Modigliana, who confirmed that the painting was linked to her city. The legend is part of the tradition itself, and is commonly known as “The Barter, Il Baratto”. To dive deeper in depth we interviewed Luigi Rivola and Giuseppe Baldini, both passionate experts on the matter.
The Origins of the Legend
It all started in Modigliana on the night of April 16th 1773, the eve of Good Friday. In the Borghi Palace, across from Palazzo Pretorio which was the town’s prison at the time, two women gave birth. Vincenza, a lady who worked for the Borghi family, gave birth to a baby boy. The other, who went by the name of Countess of Joinville, was a guest of the noble family along with her husband – she was believed to have given birth to a girl.
According to the legend, the two children were swapped. To what end?
In order to find out, we must specify that the two French counts were no other than the Dukes of Orleans who were traveling incognito under another name. They belonged to the powerful royal family of France, and were in line of succession. Therefore, to ensure the possibility of ascension to the throne, they needed a male heir. The Duchess of Orleans bartered her “red-haired and fair-skinned” girl in exchange for royalty and a boy that would permit it. Vincenza, the boy’s birth mother, and Lorenzo Chiappini, her husband and head prison guard, agreed to barter the children and named the girl Maria Stella for whom they swore absolute secrecy.
From that moment on, the life of the Chiappini family miraculously changed forever. As a result of the barter, Maria Stella had a ravishingly comfortable upbringing. From Modigliana, which was part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the girl was soon able to move to the heart of Florence, where she received an outstanding education and attended the best dance and singing schools as all noblewomen could. Given the humble origins of the Chiappini family, many questioned the sudden change in fortune. Did the royal family perhaps buy their silence?
The Painting’s First Appearance
When Maria Stella was just thirteen years old, an English Lord by the name of Lord Newborough asked her hand with great insistence after seeing her perform. Why would a lord be interested in marrying her? Was he aware of the blue blood that streamed through her veins? Despite the insistence of the lord and her father, she agreed to marry only after receiving Botticelli’s famous painting “The young man holding a roundel” as a gift, thus further demonstrating her noble ways and inclination for the arts. The two wedded and moved to Glynvillon Castle, where the painting resided until 1785 when the castle was sold at an auction. The same auction house that would sell the very same Botticelli painting over 250 years later.
On his deathbed Lorenzo Chiappini, Maria Stella’s father, gave her a letter in which he revealed that she was not his biological daughter, and that she was a French royal. By now Marquise of Modigliana, Maria Stella had to face the harsh reality of being swapped at birth. The gilded cage in which she had lived up until that moment, collapsed.
On a Mission
Maria Stella was taken aback by the news, but it hadn’t annihilated her desire to discover her birthplace and ancestry. Hence why she began to collect evidence and consulted the ecclesiastical court of Faenza. In 1824, the court certified the veracity of her story, but only in Italy. In fact, the French court paid her no mind and as time went on even her family slowly began to turn their backs on her so much as to call her crazy. Despite her attempts to plead her case in France, the royal family dismissed her as being ill. Let’s face it, how many crazy women has history silenced just because they didn’t want to submit to societal rules and conventions? Maria Stella’s tenacity and passion never died out. She was one of the wealthiest women in Europe and spent her life investing in her research and travels — in fact she owned the “bird island”, now a UNESCO heritage site.
She would compare the royal portraits at the time and notice clear similarities to the Orleans, indisputable proof of the truth. In fact, one can see a jaw-dropping resemblance with her sister. King Louis Philippe who went on to being King, was considered a black sheep for his darker features. Many refused to accept the barter as a fact, claiming the King’s birth date debunked the whole claim. However, it was fact that King Louis Philippe was the only royal that had no testimonies present at birth, thus thickening the mystery.
Upon Lord Newborough’s death, Maria Stella went on to marry a second time with Edward Von Ungern Sternbergh, a Russian noble. During this period of time she began writing dense pages of a diary which she then published and sold out immediately. In France three editions were issued but were removed from the market by order of King Louis Philippe himself as a result of the declarations contained therein. King Louis Philippe would live his life with the burden of being nicknamed “le Roi Bâtard” and some say this ordeal was in part the reason.
The world of the late eighteenth century, prone to gossip and scandals, loved this narrative, which over time took on the characteristics of a true oral epopee. The most popular writers and artists of the moment, such as Alexandre Dumas, discovered the story and became very fond of it. In fact, a French screenwriter decided to tell it in one of her works, thus starting a long correspondence with Maria Stella, encouraging the woman to further dive into her past. We can say that only art, the true protagonist of this story, was her ally.
The Unsolved Enigma
With Maria Stella’s passing, nothing more was discovered with certainty. The mystery remained too dense a skein to unravel, with little to nothing left from the Marquise of Modigliana’s wealth. Nothing but a beautiful and dying legend that only her descendants and the inhabitants of Modigliana know. To this day, grandparents tell the story to their grandchildren, who in turn tell it to theirs, in hopes of keeping Maria Stella’s efforts from fading in vain.
Translation by Valentina Aulizio