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Saint of the week

The saint who must have inspired the Brideshead teddy bear

St Aloysius Gonzaga (June 21) is the patron saint of youth

By on Thursday, 20 June 2013

A detail from St Aloysius Gonzaga in Glory by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

A detail from St Aloysius Gonzaga in Glory by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

St Aloysius (1568-91) is the patron saint of youth, as Sebastian Flyte must have recalled when he named his teddy bear in Brideshead Revisited.

The real Aloysius was quite as aristocratic as Sebastian. He was born Luigi Gonzaga, into a branch of the family that ruled Mantua. His father Ferrante Gonzaga was Marquis of Castiglione, a small town near Mantua.

His mother belonged to the della Rovere family which had produced popes Sixtus IV and Julius II. They had met and married at the court of Philip II of Spain. Their eldest son would seem rather more Spanish than Italian in temperament. Indeed, several of Luigi’s ancestors had been called Aloysio, the Spanish form of his name.

In 1528 another Castiglione had published The Book of the Courtier, a manual of snobbery which places intense emphasis on appearances. Aloysius’s life might have been lived as a rebuttal of that work. “I am a crooked piece of iron,” he declared, “and am come into the world to be made straight by the hammer of mortification and penance.”

His father, by contrast, was determined that his son and heir should be a soldier. At five, Aloysius was taken to a military camp, where he imbibed language which made his tutors blush: their reproaches covered the boy with shame.

At nine he attended the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, where the loose moral tone only confirmed his devotion to chastity. Aloysius resolved never to look at a woman, a policy which left him incapable of recognising his female relations.

In 1579 he was sent to the court of his godfather, the Duke of Mantua, where he suffered from a kidney disease from which he never really recovered.

The Duke, alarmed by Aloysius’s attraction to the Jesuits, explained that a bishopric could certainly be arranged for him if he insisted on taking religion so seriously. Pope Sixtus V, informed of the problem, asked Aloysius if he really understood how hard the religious life was.

Aloysius understood perfectly, and a two-year sojourn with his parents in Madrid confirmed his determination. His father threatened to have the boy flogged, and on their return to Italy marshalled troops of Gonzagas, Medicis, della Roveres and d’Estes to lecture him.

All to no avail. Aloysius entered the Jesuit novitiate in November 1585, aged 17. In Rome, he irritated his fellow novices by saying “Hail Mary” on every step of the stair; they called him “the Censor”. He seemed happiest when contemplating in an attic.

But when plague broke out, Aloysius ministered to the victims until he died of the disease himself. His life, in fact, seems far removed from Brideshead – even if Sebastian did end up as a porter in a Moroccan monastery.