Portrait of a woman, traditionally said to be Lucrezia Borgia. By Bartolomeo Veneto
The name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up images of a harlot killing her enemies via use of a poison ring, committing incest with her father and brother. But the truth is, this image is one that has been pushed on us by enemies of the Borgia family who wished the sully the name of the daughter of the Pope. And the truth of this woman is much more complicated than the rumours and stories try to tell us. And the fact is that Lucrezia Borgia is a woman more sinned against than she is a sinner.
Born in the April of 1480 to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and Vanozza Cattanei, Lucrezia found herself as the only daughter amongst a family of boys – Cesare, Juan and Gioffre. As such, she was considered as the “darling of the family”. In 1492, her father was elected as Pope Alexander VI after wheeling and dealing within the locked Vatican following the death of the last Pope. Now, as the daughter of the Pope, Lucrezia would become nothing more than a pawn in her father’s political machinations.
Lucrezia’s first marriage happened in 1493. She was married to Giovanni Sforza – a marriage simply of politics, nothing more. Shipped off to Pesaro, Lucrezia did not last long there – her father tired of the alliance with the Sforza family and arranged a divorce. A divorce that was scorned by Giovanni. The marriage was dissolved on the grounds of Giovanni Sforza’s impotence. Sforza was certainly not impotent – his first wife had died in childbirth! He also stated that he had known his wife (Lucrezia) hundreds of times, but that it was obvious to him that the Pope only wanted Lucrezia for himself. It seems likely that it was this moment that started the incest rumours that plagued the Borgia family – rumours persisted that Alexander slept with his daughter and that Cesare slept with his sister also. Whilst incest was something that happened a lot during these times, spreading such rumours was the perfect way to vilify the names of those in the Holy Family.
Following her divorce from Sforza, Lucrezia became involved in an affair with a young man named Perotto, who worked for the Pope. His body was later found floating in the Tiber. Many said it was Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare, who arranged the killing to save his sister’s name being dragged any further into scandal. It wouldn’t work.
Lucrezia’s second marriage was to Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Biscelie, and seemed to be a happy one but yet again this would end in disaster. Cesare soon became jealous that Lucrezia was giving the handsome Alfonso all her attention. Early in the marriage Lucrezia suffered her first miscarriage (a pattern that would manifest throughout her life) and on 15th July 1500 her husband was publicly attacked in Rome and was badly wounded. Yet he began to recover, being looked after by Lucrezia and one of her trusted doctors. Cesare was blamed for the attack, yet it was bungled. Had Cesare been behind it, then there is no way that Alfonso would have survived. It was more likely an attack orchestrated by the Orsini family as revenge for the slights that the Borgia had given their family. On 18th August when Alfonso was sat up in bed talking to his wife Michelloto de Corella burst into the room stating that Alfonso’s uncle had been taken prisoner and that Lucrezia must petition the pope for his release. When she returned Alfonso was found strangled, dead in his bed. Rumour sparked yet again that this was the deed of Cesare, which seemed likely considering that Michelloto was known to be Cesare’s henchman and assassin. Cesare even spun a story that Alfonso had been planning on killing that. In truth, it was because Cesare (and the Pope) were aware that the alliance with the Aragon family wasn’t working for them – Cesare was working closely with the French by this point, and Alfonso was a Spanish inflience that the Papal court did not need. Lucrezia mourned the loss of Alfonso heavily, so much so that her father sent her away whilst her father began to get her back on the marriage market. She was soon to become Duchess of Ferrara.
Lucrezia married Alfonso D’Este in around 1502 and lived a comfortable life with her new husband. Whilst the two of them often committed adultery they ended up developing a mutual respect for each other, despite not loving each other. Lucrezia though gave Alfonso many children, and they were happy enough. The mutual respect may have even made way to a kind of love from her husbands side, and they often wrote letters to each other whilst her husband was away, the both of them concerned for each others safety. During this time, the biggest event in Lucrezia’s life was to happen: the death of her brother Cesare. He was killed in a battle at Vianna after escaping imprisonment at the Medina Del Campo in Spain, and Lucrezia found out much later. Once again she grieved heavily and despite all the wrongs he had done to her, she still cherished him. On the outside though Lucrezia did not show her grief, it was as if through all her hardships she developed a tough outer shell and was determined not to look weak, a sign of the Borgia strength that she so often exhibited and an asset to her personality.
In July 1509 Lucrezia passed away after developing complications giving birth to her eighth child. Despite clinging to life for ten days she remained very unwell and her doctors were of the opinion that her illness was caused by a buildup of menstrual blood that had become infected. The doctors tried everything for her, from bleeding to cutting off all her hair yet nothing worked. She had just turned 39 when she died, and was buried in Ferrara.
At the end of her life, Lucrezia Borgia had survived the intricate play of Italian politics, and she had survived it with a dignity that many would not have if they had been faced with the constant rumours and attacks on their person. Lucrezia Borgia may not have been a Saint – none of us are – but she certainly was not the incestuous harridan that the enemies of the Borgia want us to believe. It is, sadly, something that has still stuck within the public imagination. With television shows such as The Borgias showing Lucrezia as a woman who poisons her enemies and who conducts illicit affairs with her own brother, is it any wonder that even now, over five hundred years since her death, the public imagination is fixed upon Lucrezia Borgia being evil?
Sarah Bradford – Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love & Death in Renaissance Italy
Sarah Bradford – Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times
Christopher Hibbert – The Borgias & Their Enemies
Ivan Cloulas – The Borgias