Rodrigo Borgia Part 4 – His Relationship with Women

Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and Lotte Verbeek in The Borgias

Rodrigo Borgia, best known as Pope Alexander VI, was famous for being a man who wouldn’t let his religious calling get in the way of his women. He had at least 8 children, all of whom were illegitimate as he was a man of the cloth and really shouldn’t have had kids anyway, and was famous for his so called banquet of chestnuts. He had mistresses, two of the most famous being the mother of his children Vanozza dei Cattanei, and the young Giulia Farnese – often known as La Bella. There were also disturbing rumours that he also enjoyed a relationship with his daughter Lucrezia that stretched beyond a father and daughter relationship. And these relationships lasted until his death. In today’s post about Rodrigo, I will go into his relationships with the three main women in his life.

Vanozza De Cattanei

Joanna Whalley as Vanozza in The Borgias

The relationship that Rodrigo had with Vanozza is really quite fascinating. Her relationship with him lasted longer than with any of his other mistresses, and she was the mother of Rodrigo’s most famous children: Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan and Joffre (and OK, so Joffre didn’t really do that much. But we at least know his name whereas Rodrigo’s other kids by other mothers aren’t really known all that well at all). Vanozza and Rodrigo met when he was in Pisa in 1473. She was a courtesan – that is to say “an upmarket prostitute” – and had been born into a family of lesser nobility. She was full of charm and captivated Rodrigo from the get go. And because of Rodrigo’s captivation and his wish to maintain a long and loving relationship, a marriage was organised for Vanozza. The marriage was to Domenico da Rignano and he was incredibly compliant and its seems could be relied upon to make demands on his new wife. This of course left Rodrigo and Vanozza to pursue their relationship. In 1475, Vanozza gave birth to a little boy. They named him Cesare, and Pope Sixtus legitimised the boy as the son of Rodrigo Borgia as a mark of his approval. Not so long after this Domenico died and Vanozza gave birth to two more children – Juan, and just four years after that a girl, Lucrezia. Vanozza was married twice more after the death of Domenico, and gave birth to a further two children; Joffre and Ottaviano (both of whom were rumoured not to be the children of Rodrigo).

Due to having such a relationship with Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (as he was known at the time), Vanozza certainly profited and was able to live in a very comfortable house, and was able to build another big house near the baths of Diocletian. Her third husband Carlo Canale was also rewarded handsomely for keeping quiet and was made governor of the Torre Nueva, Rome’s prison, and he made a pretty penny from charging the inmates for privileges that they could afford.

In around 1489, Rodrigo’s eye was drawn towards a young woman commonly known as “La Bella” – her name was Giulia Farnese. She was the wife of Orsino Orsini and took the place that Vanozza had held for so long – that of Rodrigo Borgia’s mistress.

From the time that Rodrigo took La Bella as a mistress, his passion for Vanozza lessened and she led a fairly retired life in Rome until her death in 1518. She had always been spoken of with respect in Rome. She was buried with great ceremony at Santa Maria Del Popolo, at the grand age of 76.

Vanozza’s tombstone in Santa Maria del Popolo

Giulia “La Bella” Farnese

A Lady (possibly Giulia Farnese) by Raphael Sanzio

Giulia “La Bella” Farnese became an obsession for Rodrigo Borgia. She was young and thought of as one of the most beautiful women in Rome. She was married to Orsino Orsini in 1489 in Rodrigo’s own palace, at the age of just 19. And she became Rodrigo’s mistress not long after. She became his obsession – she was young and carefree and more so, she lived in the same house as his children (they were looked after by Adriana da Mila, his cousin). And it was during his relationship with Giulia that Rodrigo showed himself as capable of intense jealousy. He often wrote to Giulia complaining that she was spending too much time in her husbands company when she had sworn to him that she wouldn’t go anywhere near him. Obviously, Orsino was alarmed at his wife receiving letters from the Pope threatening “eternal damnation” and sent his wife back to Rome quick sharp.

The thing that always gets me, is that Rodrigo was considerably older than Giulia. And when I say considerably, I mean CONSIDERABLY. There was almost 40 years between them but it seems that Rodrigo’s sexual appetite was as good as ever. He put this down to his “healthy” living, and Hibbert mentions “he ate sparingly himself, often contenting himself with a single course. And while other cardinals were carried about Rome on litters or carriages, he preferred to walk. He hunted; he wrestled; he enjoyed falconry; he took pride in having ‘the slender waist of a girl'”.

What I also love about Giulia Farnese is that she developed a very close relationship with Rodrigo’s daughter Lucrezia. So much so that she led a train of over 150 Roman Women at Lucrezia’s wedding to Giovanni Sforza in 1493. There are also stories of the two ladies escaping boring sermons and sitting together giggling.

Giulia also used her closeness to the Pope to get her brother Alessandro made a cardinal. Johanne’s Buchard writes of the event in his memoirs and writes of Alessandro and other electees; “brother of Giulia, the Pope’s concubine”.

In 1494, Giulia found herself prisoner to the French army who were busy trying to invade Italy. With her was Adriana de Mila, and they were on their way back from visiting Giulia’s husband in the country. A messenger was sent to King Charles VIII of France when the women were captured. He replied that they did not fight against women but Yves de Alegre, Captain of the French Guard, demanded a ransom for the women. 3000 ducats were demanded for their release. The Pope of course paid this and the women returned to Rome escorted by 400 French soldiers.

In around 1500, Giulia fell out of favour with the Pope, likely due to her age. The split seems amicable though and was likely helped by Adriana de Mila. Following this Giulia moved just outside of Rome, and returned to Rome in 1505 for the wedding of her daughter. This was two years after the death of Rodrigo. From 1506 to 1522 Giulia lived in Carbognano where she was governor of  the castle – as she was a very able administrator. In 1522 she returned to Rome, where she died at the age of 50 in the house of her brother Alessandro.

Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia in the Borgia Apartment Fresco (picture by me)

You may think it strange for me to include Rodrigo’s daughter in a post where I talk about his mistresses. However, Rodrigo was very close to Lucrezia. And there are also many rumours (totally unsubstantiated I might add) that their relationship went beyond the normal father daughter relationship. I’ve written in depth about Lucrezia and her life before so won’t go into too much detail here. As mentioned, she and her father were close, and many say that she was having an incestuous relationship with him. In fact, having a quick search on the internet has shown SO MANY SITES THAT SAY THE SAME THING. Including this one – and I shall quote:

“He openly kept a string of mistresses, fathered many children, and held orgies within the papal residence. Lucrezia and her brothers participated in these functions. In fact, she was having sexual relations with her father and her brothers Cesare and Juan.”

No. No. No. No. Dear people of this website: This is all hearsay and rumour. It has never been proven that this happened. The rumour actually comes from the annulment proceedings between Lucrezia and her first husband Giovanni Sforza. And to put it bluntly (and it short because I’ve written about it before!), Giovanni was pissed because the Pope and Lucrezia were saying he was impotent, and that’s why the marriage had to be annulled. At the end of the proceedings Giovanni turned around and said the only reason the annulment was happening was because the Pope wanted Lucrezia for himself. And the rumour stuck. Now I know that website is one of those websites that anyone who is widely read on the Borgia family wouldn’t trust with a bargepole but there are still many out there who believe the rumours that have come down to us. And it’s websites like this as well as games such as Assassins Creed Brotherhood and TV shows like Borgia, that keep the rumours going. In all my readings on the Borgia family I have never come across anything that can be called proof about these so called incestuous relationship and until I come across substantiated proof I will always defend the family from these malicious rumours. But anyway, I am ranting again, which you’re probably all fed up of because I’ve ranted about this before.

To me, it seems Rodrigo’s relationship with his daughter was just that of an adoring father towards his daughter. In fact, biographies of both Lucrezia and her father are littered with anecdotes of how devoted he was to his daughter. For instance at the end of June 1494, Rodrigo was beside himself with grief at rumours going around Rome that Lucrezia was dead. When he found out the rumours were false, he wrote a letter to her;

“Truly you have given us four or five days of grief and grave worry over the bitter news that has spread throughout Rome that you were dead or truly fallen into such infirmity that there could be no hope for your life. You can imagine how such a rumour affected my spirits for the warm and immense love that I have for you. And until I saw the letter which you wrote in your own hand, although it was so badly written that it showed you were unwell, I have enjoyed no peace of mind. Let us thank God and Our Glorious Lady that you have escaped all danger. And thus we will never be truly content until we have seen you in person”.

Another rather poignant moment that shows just how he felt for his daughter came at the end of 1501, just before Lucrezia was to leave for Ferarra to live with her third husband Alfonso D’Este. On the evening before Lucrezia was due to leave, Rodrigo said in a meeting with Gian Luca Pozzi that he was anxious of how his daughter would be treated once she was in Ferrara with her new husband. Pozzi then brought up the issue of Cesare’s marriage to Charlotte D’Albret but Rodrigo brushed it off, saying Cesare would do nothing about that until he had the goodwill of the French King, and that he had already discussed this with Lucrezia. He then went on with a rather moving speech, saying that he loved “the aforesaid Madonna far more than he did the Duke because she was virtuous and prudent and had always been most obedient to him: and that if she would be well treated in Ferarra, nothing they could ask him would ever be in vain”.

Thus, to conclude; Rodrigo Borgia certainly loved his woman. As Pope of Rome, he should have really kept his vows of chastity but let’s face it, at the time the Roman Catholic clergy were renowned as men who broke their vows often. He respected his own women, as shown with his relationship with Vanozza (they remained close friends even after he had moved on) and with Giulia also. And despite the vicious rumours that are still circulating today about his relationship with his daughter, it is clear that he loved and respected her and that he wanted the best for her. A corrupt man of the church he may have been, but he was certainly no different from his colleagues in the college of cardinals and even Pope’s who had preceded him. Yet he loved and respected his women, that much is clear from any good biography you can pick up on the Borgia family.

Further reading

Burchard, J, 1963 (translated from original), At the Court of the Borgia, The Folio Society: London
Bradford, S,1976, Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times, Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London
Bradford, S, 2004, Lucrezia Borgia, Penguin: London
De Roos, 1924,  Material for a history of Pope Alexander VI:
Hibbert, C, 2009, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner Books: Boston
Hollingsworth, M, 2011, The Borgias: Histories Most Notorious Dynasty, Quercus: London

1 thought on “Rodrigo Borgia Part 4 – His Relationship with Women

  1. Fascinating! I never got around to watching the show though I really should catch up on it. I know the family has more than enough to fill a TV drama…

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