Tho', happy Muse, thou know my Digby well,
Yet read him in these lines: He doth excell
In honour, courtesie, and all the parts
Court can call hers, or Man could call his Arts.
Hee's prudent, valiant, just, and temperate;
In him all vertue is beheld in State:
And he is built like some imperiall roome
For that to dwell in, and be still at home.
An Epigram to my Muse, the Lady Digby, on her Husband, Sir Kenelme Digby.
--Ben Jonson, 1635
Peter Oliver, 1615-1633
The Victoria & Albert Museum
This miniature of watercolor on vellum, set into a case of ivory and tortoiseshell, is one of a group of early Seventeenth Century portraits, evidently of the same young woman--traditionally identified as Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby.
Now, who is this Venetia Stanley that she should inspire so many artists. Venetia Stanley was the childhood sweetheart of Sir Kenelm Digby (a philosopher, scientist, adventurer and leader of the Catholic Church in Britain who later converted to Anglicanism after becoming associated with the Privy Council of King Charles I). Venetia was considered to be of rare beauty and great intellect. She was also rumored to be a courtesan and the concubine of the Earl of Dorset (as well as the mother of several of his illegitimate children).
Given the latter bit of Venetia’s reputation, Digby's mother opposed her son’s relationship with Venetia, stating that such a woman was not a suitable match for her boy. Sir Kenelm’s mother insisted that her son go abroad in 1620, stating that he should continue his studies, but hoping that he’d meet a more acceptable young woman.
And, then, came to pass a kerfuffle of Shakespearean proportions. While abroad, Sir Kenelm, in 1623, met Maria de Medici who fell madly in love with her. Unable to shake thoughts of the lovely Venetia, Sir Kenelm rebuffed de Medici—never a good idea. And, so, soon news of Sir Kenelm’s early death flooded home—sending Venetia into hysterics and contributing to her ongoing condition of persistent, nagging headaches.
While Venetia medicated herself with “viper-wine” (a concoction of wine and snake venom) to treat her headaches, Sir Kenelm—who was not dead at all—was on his way home. The couple was reunited in 1625 and married in secret.
|Reverse of the miniature case.|
So, you’d think that after such a soapy trial, the couple would have been happily married. Right? Nope. Digby, who truly did love Venetia, just couldn’t remain faithful. And, it’s thought that Venetia couldn’t change her ways and continues to share her affections with others in court. Nonetheless, they remained married until Venetia’s mysterious death in 1633.
Surely you didn’t think that Venetia would have had a run-0f-the-mill death. No. On April 30, 1633, Venetia went to bed—alone. Digby who was up to other things decided to sleep in a different room. When Venetia’s maid went to awaken her the next morning, she found her mistress dead.
More rumors. Did Digby murder his wife in a fit of jealousy? Did he kill her because she was preventing his relationship with another woman? Did one of her other male friends take her life? The woman was in good health—except for those headaches. Perhaps she had one too many sips of “viper-wine.” Did she kill herself because of Digby’s cruelty or because she was in love with another man?
Curious for 1633, an autopsy was performed before Venetia’s burial. Hoping to find the cause of her death, Venetia’s doctor opened her skull and found her brain atrophied. She had, “little brain at all.” And, so, it was concluded that all those years of headaches had led up to some sort of hemorrhage. But, still, the rumors persisted.
Nonetheless, Digby mourned deeply. Despite his philandering, he did love the woman. His loss met with the sympathy of his peers and was a source of inspiration for countless artists and poets, including Ben Jonson.
A host of paintings and miniatures were produced, adding to the already large number of representations of Venetia. Let’s study this image. The miniature shows Venetia as a young woman. Yet, there is some debate about when it was painted. We know it to be the work of Peter Oliver (1589-1647). The style of the painting matches Oliver’s later work—soft brushstrokes and a lack of adherence to linear planes. Yet, Venetia is clearly young and dressed in the style of about 1615. Could this have been a posthumous. idealized tribute or was it painted from life? We’ll never know. So, we’ll say this was painted between 1615 and 1633.