Review: Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford

The name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up all that was sinister and corrupt about the Renaissance – incest, political assassination, papal sexual abuse, poisonous intrigue. Yet, as Sarah Bradford reveals in this new portrait, the truth is more fascinating than the myth. Neither a vicious monster nor a seductive pawn, Lucrezia Borgia was a shrewd, determined woman who used her beauty and intelligence to secure a key role in the struggles of her day. Drawing from historical documents and first-hand accounts, Bradford brings to life the art, pageantry and dangerous politics of the Renaissance world Lucrezia Borgia helped to create.

When I saw this book on the shelves of Waterstones I got rather excited. As I had already read Bradford’s biography of Cesare Borgia I had been looking out for a copy of this to run alongside it and after a tough day at work, perusing the shelves, I saw it. It may have been one of the most expensive paperbacks I have ever seen (£14.99!) but really worth it. I will start out by saying that this is the perfect companion to “Cesare Borgia” and Bradford does a wonderful job of showing Lucrezia as a beautiful, intelligent woman – so far from the evil, tyrannical woman that we all think she is. Although I must say, I found Lucrezia’s earlier life much more interesting than her later life.

Bradford goes through the life of Lucrezia in a very step by step fashion, detailing each event as it happens and giving us huge insights into the wider world at the time also. We are told of how Lucrezia’s life was influenced by the political intrigue of her father Alexander VI and even her own brother and how Lucrezia was more often than not used as a pawn in these games of power. It did make me feel insanely sorry for the young Lucrezia as I read how she was pawned off to various suitors for political gain. We are then taken through each major event of Lucrezia’s life, how they affected her and those around her.

As I found with her biography of Cesare, I found Bradford’s writing style to be very easy to read. She has this wonderful way of pulling the reader in with her brilliantly descriptive paragraphs, so much so it makes the reader feel like they are immersed in the world of Renaissance Italy. It got to the stage with this book where I just couldn’t put it down; I was snatching every available opportunity to read it at work, in the bath, on the train, in the hospital waiting room. And as I was reading I felt an inexplicable pull towards this wonderful woman from history. I won’t lie here, Lucrezia Borgia is fast becoming my favourite woman from history, and it is books like this that draw me in even more. More so over the fact that in this book, Bradford seeks to dispel the myths of Lucrezia’s life and turn her from the vilified woman we all love to hate into the much more fascinating real life character that she is.

Bradford starts her book by examining the world into which Lucrezia was born. We are given a brief overview of the layout of Italy, and how it was divided up into states rather than being one big country ruled by one ruler. And we are shown how each of these states are ruled by an individual, or individuals, who each often war with each other. And at the centre of it all is Rome, the centre of Christendom on earth and a world to which Lucrezia Borgia was inexorably linked. We are then given a section entitled “The Pope’s daughter”, an account of Lucrezia’s early life through her first and second marriages, all of which was controlled by the politics of her father Pope Alexander VI. This part was probably my favourite part of the whole book as in it we learnt about how close Lucrezia was to her brother Cesare and also her father Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), and also her total lack of a relationship with her mother Vanozza Da Cattanei. In 1493 Lucrezia was married off to Giovanni Sforza, the marriage completed by proxy and Lucrezia sent off to live with her new husband in Pesaro whilst she was still a child. This was a marriage of politics, tying the Borgia family to the powerful Sforza family all for power. However once the Borgia’s tired of the Sforza connection and wanted out, Pope Alexander VI arranged for a divorce for the pair based on the fact that Giovanni was “impotent”. This story is both sad, yet rather funny all at the same time, for Giovanni certainly wasn’t impotent – he had children by his first wife and he stated firmly that he had known Lucrezia hundreds of times. Yet the College of Cardinals would not take his word for it, and asked him to prove it publically in front of them. Sforza refused, and the marriage was annulled. Lucrezia Borgia was once again back in the hands of her father. Bradford also mentions that this incident may have been what set off the rumours that Alexander and Lucrezia were in an incestuous relationship, as Giovanni stated that Alexander wanted Lucrezia all to himself! It was shortly after this that Lucrezia was pulled further into sexual scandal (all around the time of her remarriage to her second husband) when a man known as Perotto was found drowned in the Tiber. This man’s name was linked with Lucrezia’s and many said that the two of them were having an affair, and rumour sparked that it was Cesare himself who killed Perotto. This was a pattern that Cesare would repeat in the murder of Lucrezia’s second husband also.

Lucrezia’s second marriage to Alfonso Biscleglie seemed to be a happy one, but one that would soon be surplus to the Borgia’s political requirements and it would end in disaster. Lucrezia would, early in her marriage suffer her first miscarriage (an event that would happen over and over throughout her life) after she was running down a hill and fell ill, and one of her ladies fell on top of her. However on 15th July 1500, Alfonso was attacked publically in Rome and badly wounded yet he began to recover, being looked after by Lucrezia and only one trusted doctor (after the attack there was a huge fear of poisoning) and on 18th August Alfonso was sat up in bed, chatting away happily to his wife. Yet on this day, after Michelotto burst into the room with such violence stating that Alfonso’s uncle had been taken prisoner and the two women (Lucrezia and Sancia) should go and petition the pope. When the two women returned, they found Alfonso had been strangled and was lying there, dead. Rumour was rife again that this was done on the orders of Cesare, insanely jealous of the love that was between his sister and Alfonso. This does seem likely, considering as how Michelotto was known as Cesare’s butcher and often carried out assassination work for him. Lucrezia mourned the death of her husband so much after this tragic incident that her father ended up sending her away whilst he worked out another marriage for her. She was soon to become, in 1502, Duchess of Ferrara and she would soon say goodbye to Rome forever.

After this I felt that the most exciting period of Lucrezia’s life was finished and I certainly didn’t enjoy the chapters on her life in Ferrara as much as I had her life in Rome. However, over half of the book was taken up with these chapters so they are an important time in Lucrezia’s life. She lived a comfortable life in Ferrara with her new husband Alfonso D’Este, and even though the two did not love each other they developed a mutual respect for each other. Lucrezia was far from faithful to her husband, conducting a variety of affairs with other men, but they were happy for their part and it even lead to a kind of love from her husband’s side. After all, Lucrezia often conceived children by her new husband the Duke of Ferrara (despite losing many of them) and they often wrote letters to each other whilst her husband was away worrying for each other’s safety. Probably the biggest event in these years of Lucrezia’s life was the death of her beloved brother Cesare. He had previously been imprisoned in the Medina Del Campo in Spain, and after escaping to fight with his brother in law the King of Navarre he was killed in a battle at Vianna. When Lucrezia found out much later that her brother had been killed she once again grieved heavily, although on the outside she made sure that she did not show it. This was a sign of the Borgia strength that she so often exhibited in the past and was an asset to her personality.

Lucrezia Borgia died in June 1519, having suffered huge complications after giving birth to her eighth child. She clung to life for days after the birth of her child, yet remained very unwell. Her doctors believed it was caused by the accumulation of menstrual blood during her pregnancy which had become infected. She began to fit, had nose bleeds and her doctors cut off her hair believing this would help as well as bleeding her. But nothing worked. And just two months after she turned thirty nine, Lucrezia Borgia had died. She was buried in the chapel within Ferrara where her grave can still be seen today.

As I said originally, I loved this book from start to finish and I really believe that Bradford has done a wonderful job of showing the true story of Lucrezia’s life. There is no mention within the text that Lucrezia was a horrible woman who poisoned people from a ring, no mention of the fact that she would definitely have been involved in incestuous relationships with her brother and father. Bradford instead shows us that these are nothing more than rumours, based on reports from the anti-Borgia factions of the time and the enemies of Pope Alexander VI. It is a sad fact that these rumours have filtered down to today, only made worse with popular media jumping on the bandwagon and vilifying Lucrezia even more. One such instance that I can think of is in Assassin’s Creed brotherhood whereupon Lucrezia (and her brother Cesare) are shown as evil, and incestuous. The sad fact is that people will believe this, and if media keep on spinning out these tales then Lucrezia Borgia will always be seen as something she is not. Lucrezia Borgia is far from this vilified woman of legend, and Bradford does a fantastic job of showing that she was a beautiful, intelligent and strong woman who was nothing more than a pawn in her families political plans, and a woman who knew how to love intensely and make the best out of the situations that she found herself in. I certainly have a huge amount of respect for Lucrezia and intend to do a lot more reading around her life, and hopefully to one day visit her grave in Ferrara as she has captured my imagination more than any other historical figure ever has.

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