Imperia Cognati (also called Imperia La Divina, meaning Imperia The Divine, or The Queen of Courtesans, 3 August 1486 – 15 August 1512), was a Roman courtesan. She has been considered the first celebrity of the class of courtesans, which was created in Rome in the late 15th century.
In the 15th century, the courtiers of the Papal court begun with the habit of hiring female escorts to accompany them in court life. As the Papal courtiers were clerics who were banned from marrying, the women they consorted with could not be marriageable, but at the same time, they must be educated and know their etiquette to be able to converse and participate in formal court life. This was the development of a new class of prostitutes in Christian Europe: the courtesan, which then spread from Rome to other parts of Europe, and Imperia was to become the first famous representative of this new type of prostitute. Courtesans by custom kept a main client as a steady supporter, while in addition openly entertaining others as temporary clients.
Imperia was born the daughter of Diana di Pietro Cognati (other sources: Cugnati, Corgnati), a Roman prostitute. Her father was called Paris, either by given name or "De Paris" as a toponymic surname. It has thus been speculated that Paris de Grassis, the later master of ceremonies of Pope Julius II, could have been her father when he was young. Imperia called herself in documents Imperia (di Pietro) Cognati, while in her will she referred to herself as Imperia de Paris. She has been later referred to by the name of Lucrezia, which was the name of her daughter and probably not her own given name.
There are further uncertainties about the year and place of her birth. Besides 1486, there are sources claiming her being born on 3 August 1481, five years earlier. The place of her birth is commonly claimed to be Rome, or more specific the Via Alessandrina in the district of Borgo. However, it is also said she hailed from Ferrara.
She either chose the name of Imperia early on as her business name or only started offering her body after the birth of her daughter. Either way, soon after her entrance into the business, she was considered the archetype of a courtesan. Contemporary sources praised her charm and intelligence. The banker Agostino Chigi was the regular and main client of Imperia, at this point called the richest banker in the world. He financed Imperia to maintain what was called a royal standard of living, and she kept both a palace in Rome and a country villa outside the city.
As was the custom for courtesans, she spent her days by the window, where she displayed her appearance to passers by. She was known to be courted by the men of the Papal court, but her tactic was to remain exclusive and accept only few clients, while she still surrounded herself with courtiers from noble families. Those friends included Raphael, for whose paintings Imperia acted as a model more than once. Several anecdotes survived showing her salacious wit: Above her doorstep was an inscription inviting only those who would bring esprit, wit and good mood and who would leave money or a considerable present when leaving. There was also the saying that Rome was blessed by the Gods twice: Mars gave them the Imperium Romanum while Venus gave them the Imperia.
Legends surround Imperia's death. It was said she poisoned herself on 13 August 1512, prepared her will and died two days later, despite Chigi bringing the most skilled physicians to her deathbed. Several reasons for her committing suicide are rumored: She had been genuinely in love with Angelo del Bufalo, her longtime client with whom her contact had ended. Another states she felt replaced by Chigi's younger mistress, yet others allude to an affair of honor involving Pope Julius II demanding her death.
Author Pietro Aretino, her contemporary, claimed however that Imperia died rich, venerated and dignified in her own house.
Agostino Chigi financed a stately funeral in Rome, which was sensational for a prostitute. Her monument in San Gregorio al Celio didn't survive to the present day.
At the age of 17 or 14 she gave birth to the daughter Lucrezia. The paternity of the child is unclear but many historians suppose Chigi to be Lucrezia's father; he also claimed it himself. In Imperia's will of 1512, Lucrezia was named heir with the cantor of the papal chapel Paolo Trotti as her stepfather.
Imperia made Agostino Chigi, Ulisse Lanciarini da Fano as well as Paolo and Diana di Trevi the executors of her will and asked Chigi to arrange a marriage for her daughter. Lucrezia grew up in Siena or in the convent of St. Mary in Campo Marzio, leading a sheltered and virtuous life before marrying Arcangelo Colonna and having two sons. Until 1521, there was a court battle with her grandmother Diana who was given only 100 ducats from the will of Imperia. On 9 January 1522, Lucrezia poisoned herself as the only way of fending off the advances of Cardinal Raffaele Petrucci. She survived the suicide attempt and was considered an even more virtuous woman.
Existence of Imperia's second daughter by Chigi, Margherita, hasn't been proven in documents and is doubted by historians.