Lucrezia Borgia

The incredible life of a woman from Italy’s most infamous family

The Borgias and the Medici are among the few families of the Renaissance whose names and notoriety possess a space, however small, in the public imagination. It is easy enough to conjure up the adjectives with which they are associated: ruthless, despotic, treacherous, greedy, lascivious. Though not wholly true, the judgement of history remains unchallenged in its agreement of them as sinister, power-hungry, even depraved creatures, especially in the Borgia case, whose reputation remains in shadow.

Yet even with the enormous condescension of posterity, to read any account of the lives of the three most famous Borgia members, Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his children Lucrezia and Cesare, is to recognise something unmistakably modern. Our nearest equivalent – at least in terms of celebrity if not in all matters – is the continual familial drama that is the Windsors: the sordid speculation, the private life played out in public, the gawping fascination, the scrutiny, the gossip, the scandals – the Borgias excited and endured these indignities as intensely, and with more justification.

Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI), in a fresco by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Thomas Gunn]

It makes trying to grasp the character of Lucrezia Borgia amid the distortion and hearsay a singular task. Despite the lurid stories told about her, Lucrezia is the Borgia least deserving of the dirt that sticks so resolutely to that name. Her busy life – at 21, she was celebrating her third marriage, by 39 she was dead – is emblematic of how the daughters of rulers at the time could be auctioned off like cattle, and the lack of options available to elite women save for marriage, childbearing or a convent. Despite the dead weight of these duties, she seems to have been lively, intelligent, charming, clever and good company.

She was born on 18 April 1480 at Subiaco, near Tivoli. Her father Rodrigo was at this point still a cardinal, and therefore ostensibly committed to a life of celibacy; Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza de’ Catanei, with whom the young cardinal was obsessed, was actually married to another man, a passive, older gentleman handpicked by Rodrigo’s advisor. Vannozza would marry twice more, but would bear Rodrigo four children: Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia and Gioffre. Rodrigo’s infatuation with Vannozza petered out over time, but Vannozza remained close to Lucrezia and her brothers, despite the fact that they were removed from her care and raised by Adriana da Mila, Rodrigo’s cousin, whose blue blood made her better suited to raising a cardinal’s kids.  

Lucrezia’s education was enviable. Fluent in Italian, Spanish, French and Catalan, she also knew Latin and Greek. The humanist literature so cherished by Renaissance patrons and scholars also formed part of her learning, along with poetry, which Lucrezia read and wrote with pleasure. At 13, and not unusually for a woman of her background, she married the Lord of Pesaro Giovanni Sforza, whose cousin Ludovico Sforza was ruler of Milan. Giovanni was in his twenties, and was for Lucrezia the first of three husbands chosen solely, as was the custom, for dynastic and political purposes. On June 12, 1493, Giovanni and Lucrezia’s marriage ceremony took place at the Vatican. Giulia Farnese, Rodrigo’s mistress known as la bella, led a train of 150 noble Roman women behind the teenage bride. The party that followed was, in typical Borgia style, ‘lively and lascivious’.[1]    

Her father Rodrigo had become pope the year before as Alexander VI. His pontificate is (rightly) held up as a paragon of papal abuse of office. He was no fool. Politically astute, with a solid grasp of diplomatic and political matters, Alexander was also good humoured and never happier than when hosting a party. On the one hand, such qualities make Alexander VI a welcome antidote to some of the dreary ascetics who have held the pontifical keys. But his open attempt to carve out a realm for his awful son Cesare, his sale of indulgencies, his inability to stop inviting his mistresses into the Apostolic Palace and his lavish spending taint his otherwise positive features.

Above all else, Alexander adored his children, especially Lucrezia (which generated rumours of incest, likely based on Alexander’s intense devotion to her and giving her positions of authority reserved for men rather than firm evidence) and it was his enduring mission in life to put before his sons and daughter the advantages that being pope provided him. Whilst this wasn’t as unusual at the time as it appears to us now, what was unusual was the scale with which Alexander went about this task. Cesare was made a cardinal at 18; Giovanni the Duke of Gandia and Captain General of the Church. Cesare’s appointment to the college of cardinals was particularly controversial, being promoted to one of the most sought after and senior positions within the Church whilst barely a man. The pope, with typical determination, when informed of some cardinals’ opposition to this decision, said he would ‘show them who was Pope’.[2]

Lucrezia, meanwhile, was living in Pesaro with her husband. This was a tumultuous time in Italian politics. The patchwork of states that made up the peninsular – Milan, Venice, the Papal States, Florence and the Kingdom of Naples chief among them – were under threat not just from each other but from the kingdoms of France and Spain, and each formed shifting alliances amongst themselves and these kingdoms to achieve their aims. France, for instance, and its king Charles VIII, invaded Italy at the urging of Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, in 1494. Ludovico knew that Charles had a legitimate claim to Naples, which was in the possession of the Spanish, and wished to protect his own shaky position in Milan. In September 1494, Charles arrived in Italy with his enormous and powerful army, placing Alexander in an awkward position (Naples was a Papal fief). In the end, Alexander shrewdly ducked the issue of crowning Charles King of Naples but allowed him to pass through Rome.

Charles VIII of France, described by one commentator as ‘tiny, deformed, with the most appalling face that ever man had’ [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Jean Perréal]

In entering Italy and seizing Naples, Charles and his army had terrified the Italian city-states, who recognised an enemy that was better equipped, more numerous and far more disciplined. As he and his troops began their slow march home to France, they were harassed by a newly formed Venetian League, made up of Venice, the Papal States, Mantua, Florence and Spain. Even Ludovico Sforza, the man who had stirred up Charles’ ambitions to take Naples, added Milan to the League, disturbed by the brutality that Charles’ troops had dished out to obstinate cities. The League and the French eventually met in Lombardy at the Battle of Fornovo, with both sides claiming victory, but French gains were lost and Naples again fell to the Spanish.    

The invasion had demonstrated the inherent problem of Lucrezia’s (and any) political marriage. Her husband, being a cousin of Ludovico Sforza, had secretly supported Charles’ claim to Naples. Nevertheless, in 1496, now aged 16 and widely lauded for her beauty, Lucrezia returned with her husband Giovanni to Rome. The following summer, on a sultry July evening, her brother Juan went missing having had dinner with Cesare at their mother Vannozza’s villa. Cesare and Juan had left their mother’s together and were heading toward the Vatican, when Juan told his brother that he wanted to extend his nocturnal adventures. Cesare left for the Vatican. The next day, the battered body of Juan’s footman was discovered. Locals were grilled on whether they had seen anything, and one merchant revealed he had seen a body dumped in the Tiber by several men at around midnight. The spot where the merchant had seen this was trawled by fisherman and Juan’s body, covered in stab wounds, was brought up.

John Collier’s nineteenth century ‘A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia’ revels in the posthumous reputation of the Borgias: sinister, deceitful, scheming, duplicitous [Image: Wikimedia Commons, John Collier]

Understandably, Lucrezia, staying at a convent near the Baths of Caracalla when informed of her brother’s murder, was distraught. Suspects were myriad, including Cesare, who was already well known to be unscrupulous and malevolent when crossed. Another was Giovanni Sforza, Lucrezia’s husband, who had recently argued with Juan. Giovanni, however, was not in Rome at the time, having left for Pesaro in March. Their physical separation, and probably the murder accusations attached to Giovanni’s name, were due to Alexander’s issuing of a writ for annulment of the couple’s marriage in May. The Papal-Milan alliance was no longer attractive to the pope, and he wanted to forge a new pact for his family through Lucrezia. To obtain this wouldn’t be straightforward. Alexander’s lawyers got Lucrezia to sign a document stating that the marriage had never been consummated. Alexander then demanded Giovanni publicly proclaim that he was impotent. For obvious reasons, Giovanni really did not want to do this, but Alexander insisted. Desperate, Giovanni tried a very dangerous tactic. He spread the word that Lucrezia was being taken from him so that she could return to her father’s bed.

This repellent and very serious accusation was a bold move against a family that contained Cesare Borgia. Eventually, Ludovico Sforza pressured Giovanni to give in, and he reluctantly signed the document stating he had never slept with Lucrezia. ‘There is nothing I can do about it’, the humiliated Giovanni said. ‘Let the Pope do what he likes, but God watches over all things’ (another reason Giovanni hadn’t wanted the annulment was his fear of losing Lucrezia’s dowry – he managed to keep it). In December 1497, Lucrezia attended the formal recognition of the annulment at the Vatican. She spoke in Latin to those assembled (with some panache, according to those present) and had her virgo intacta officially proclaimed. Most in Rome knew this to be an absurdity – she was actually pregnant whilst at this event – and talk of her incestuous relations continued, though in her public appearances she was as light-hearted and good-natured as ever.

Though such slander was common in the politics of the time, its root in the case of Lucrezia is not difficult to discern. She was very close to her father, and he close to her. When Pope Alexander was out of Rome, Lucrezia would stand in for him. It would be easy to dismiss this as Alexander merely ensuring he had someone in charge he could trust. This is true, but it’s clear that she was highly capable and effective when acting in this capacity, and it is doubtful Alexander would have given her such responsibilities, even if she were his daughter, if he didn’t think she would make a good job of it. Further oxygen was given to the rumours in the weeks that followed Lucrezia’s annulment ceremony in December. In March 15, 1498, Lucrezia gave birth to a boy. The infant died shortly after, the first in a long line of miscarriages for Lucrezia. Pedro Calderon, a Spaniard in the employ of Alexander, was the suspected father. Complicating matters further, another Borgia baby appeared at this time. Officially, this was Cesare’s son by an unknown woman, but in a secret papal bull, Alexander declared the child to be his own. The anonymous woman was in Rome thought to be Lucrezia. Meanwhile, Calderon, shortly before Lucrezia gave birth, was found dead in the Tiber, murdered, many suspected, at the hands of Cesare for impregnating his sister.

A woman in a fresco by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments that is thought to depict Lucrezia. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Shakko]

Chaotically, the teenage Lucrezia was at this moment on the verge of her second marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, the 17-year-old illegitimate son of the King of Naples. Lucrezia and Alfonso were reportedly fond of each other, and both were renowned for their good looks, but Alfonso suffered the same fate as Lucrezia’s lover Calderon, being strangled at the Vatican when recovering from a violent assault. Yet again, Cesare was the main suspect. At 20, Lucrezia was now a widow and husbandless, and travelled to Nepi with her son Rodrigo in mourning. At this time, her letters were signed La Infelicissima (‘most unhappy woman’). Nevertheless, the restless Alexander was planning a new husband for his daughter: Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and member of one of the most aristocratic families in Italy. Lucrezia did not want to marry again, understating the case when pointing out that her former husbands had been ‘very unlucky’.[3]

Alexander got his way. Lucrezia left Rome for Ferrara in January 1502, never to return nor see her father again. Despite the traumas Lucrezia endured in Rome, by all accounts she never fell into melancholy or despair, and led as full a life as a noblewoman could in Renaissance Italy. She continued to get on well with her father and brother. In Ferrara, she had eight children, not all of whom survived. She had a string of passionate love affairs, continuing to enjoy the good life and was by all accounts a person whom people wanted to be around. As a young woman, she had been scorned as a harlot and smeared with the most terrible conjecture and rumour. When she died, shortly after giving birth aged 39, she was lauded as the ideal, childbearing woman. Amid these fickle shifts in popular opinion, she remains a captivating and alluring woman.      


References

[1] Hibbert 2011: 47.

[2] Hibbert 2011: 51

[3] Hibbert 2011: 184.


Bibliography

Hibbert, C. 2011. The Borgias. London.


Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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