The Borgias – Were they really incestuous?

The Borgia Family, from Showtime’s The Borgias.

You all know how much I love the Borgia family, and sometimes I think that love sometimes borders on a strange obsession somewhat akin to my obsession with the Stuart family. In fact I’d say the love I have for these two families goes hand in hand, skipping through the daisies. Or something. Anyway, moving swiftly on, you all know that I have a bit of a thing for Showtime’s TV show “The Borgia’s” despite its historical inaccuracy and its time line mix ups – it may have something to do with the very very pretty people. The show and interesting conversations both online and in real life have brought the same thing up again and again: “The Borgia family were murderers and involved in incestuous relationships with each other”

I suppose that we can’t help but think that way about the Borgia family, after all these things have been said since their own times, and nowadays any media that even mentions the family makes a big deal about the so called incestuous relationship between Lucrezia and Cesare – the perfect example is of course from the recent videogame Assassins Creed Brotherhood.

Cesare and Lucrezia in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

For those of you who have played the game, the Borgia family are the main antagonists and Cesare Borgia aims to completely take over Rome, and the rest of Italy at the head of the Templar Order. And at the same time, he is involved in a rather heavy incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrezia, promising her that when he has taken over the country she will be his Queen. Now I know, I know, there is very little historical fact here (despite the fact that the game *is* based around history and historical events; Cesare Borgia wasn’t a Templar and believe it or not there was no Apple of Eden…) but this game has honestly made people believe that these two siblings were incestuously involved with each other. The Borgias, whilst nowhere near as in your face (and much more historically accurate) has begun to show the siblings as incredibly close. And when I say close I mean closer than a brother and sister should be…and let’s just say that tumblr erupted after a certain scene from the second season. However, I honestly feel that the show is much more closer to what happened historically – that they were close, and for want of a better word in love with each other, but they never crossed that line that many throughout history said they did.

But where on earth did these rumours come from? Why has the slur come down through so many centuries and why does it still stick even today? I have written previously on the life of Lucrezia Borgia, and how she has been vilified throughout history but in that post mentioned little about the incest rumours other than the fact that it was said her brother murdered her lover and her husband.

 Pope Alexander VI

After marrying Giovanni Sforza in 1493, Lucrezia became Countess of Pesaro. It was a marriage of politics as these things always were. Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) wanted the Sforza’s on side and despite the fact that Giovanni had little power himself, his family were powerful. And by marrying Lucrezia to Giovanni he was publically thanking the family for his election as Pope (Cardinal Ascanio Sforza had played a huge part in Rodrigo’s election) and he was also punishing the Sforza’s enemy, Ferrante King of Naples for a hostile move against him the previous year. Yet the Pope soon tired of the Sforza family and needed other, more politically powerful allies and so began to arrange an annulment of the marriage. When Giovanni refused to agree to the annulment a good ground had to be found. And so, Pope Alexander VI told Giovanni that the marriage was to be dissolved on the grounds that the marriage was never consummated due to the fact that Giovanni was, in fact, impotent.When accused with this, Giovanni denied it saying he had known her “an infinite number of times” and the Pope was taking her away from him in order that he could have her to himself. And thus, the incest rumours were born.

Not only was Lucrezia accused of incest with her father, but also with her brother Cesare – and it is these stories that come down to us nowadays and creep their way into modern media. Do I believe in the stories? No, I do not believe that they were sexually involved. But I do believe that they were exceptionally close and, for want of a better word, in love with each other in a kind of platonic love. After all, Lucrezia was able to forgive Cesare despite all the wrongs he did to her (the apparent murder of her second husband Alfonso at his hands, or the hands of his execution Michellotto). Yet he would rush to her side when she was unwell, make her laugh so she would feel better – there are so many stories that show how close these two were, stories that told on their own merits could well end up as a series of posts (Oh well there’s an idea!!) – and of course the deep mourning that Lucrezia fell into upon learning of the death of her beloved brother. Yet despite the stories swarming Italy of their alleged incest, I have yet to come across a decent shred of evidence to say that these two were involved romantically. Sarah Bradford’s biographies on both Cesare and Lucrezia mention very little on the possibility that this happened, and when she does mention it it is to say that there is so little solid evidence to even give the stories credence.

Could it have happened? Yes. Did it happen? We will never know for sure, at least not until reliable evidence is brought to light instead of vicious rumours sparked by the anti Borgia faction. Sadly, the whole thing will keep being told in TV shows, books and video games because it makes for good entertainment, and makes the Borgia family seem inherently evil. As I have mentioned, I don’t believe it and won’t until someone can prove to me that it did actually happen because for me, the Borgia family were a family who have been tarred with the paintbrush of vilification – murderers, power hungry and incestuous? Power hungry? yes, murderers? It depends what way you look at it but you know, I can see Cesare demanding Alfonso’s death because he was jealous that Lucrezia was showing her husband more attention. But incestuous? Na – to me they were a close family who loved each other deeply, it’s just that their enemies, and time have blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

Further reading

Bradford, S, 1976, Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times, Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London
Bradford S, 2004, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love & Death in Renaissance Italy, Penguin: London
Hibbert, C, 2008, The Borgias And Their Enemies, Mariner: New York
Strathern, P, 2009, The Artist, The Philosopher And The Warrior, Vintage: London

3 thoughts on “The Borgias – Were they really incestuous?

  1. The Borgia was MUCH better than some of the other Popes who left some really bad effects on history, but were revered in their times. Alexander was more practical and only scandalised people because he had sex… with women! :O

    Sarcasm apart, I feel the same as you about the Borgias. They were interesting, and in my opinion, hardly any worse than most other powerful families of the day. It was a do or die era.

  2. I've always been curious about the love between Cesare/Lucrezia. People who say they didn't commit incest always incest they were really just close and I would be so so so interested in a post about the stories of him rushing to her side etc.

    I love all your posts about the Borgias:)

  3. Like you I have seen lots of different series about the infamous family and many history shows. I enjoy learning about this family and enjoy how they lived and achieved so much during an unstable time. I watched the Showtime series and well acted and great characters I too agree about the time line of events and who really did what. Now that I read your opinions I agree and enjoy them.

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