The Origins of the Borgia Incest Myth

Recently I have come across more and more people “shipping” Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. That’s fine, do whatever you want but when these people insist that they “ship” these characters because it’s “historically accurate”? If I’m honest that’s more than I can deal with. I’ve written about this subject before, and my absolute despair when anyone comes to me and says “OH WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? CESARE AND LUCREZIA WERE IN A SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH EACH OTHER SO YOU’RE WRITING LIES ON YOUR BLOG!”

Lucrezia in Pintruccio’s murals: The Borgia Apartments (picture taken by me)
I would just like to point out, that in the years I have spent researching the Borgia family I have never come across a shred of credible evidence to suggest that Cesare and Lucrezia were ever involved sexually. Oh, they were close. The whole family was close, you can tell that from the evidence that does exist and the letters between the siblings but saying they were involved incestuously is really a step too far. These rumours are probably the most lingering about the family along with the whole Cesare killing his brother thing (which also is anti-Borgia propaganda by the way, please do swing over to this post on Juan’s death to find out why). And what do I blame for this? The anti-Borgia propaganda from those times, the fact that games such as Assassins Creed play up to these rumours and the fact that numerous television shows (Borgia for one – thankfully The Borgias hasn’t crossed that line yet) and Borgia novels (The Borgia Bride has a rather disturbing incestuous scene between Pope Alexander and his daughter). The problem is that this will make people believe the rumours are true and will just mean that the propaganda keeps being passed around – the vilification of this family needs to stop. Because they really weren’t all that bad. Ok, so they weren’t all kittens and rainbows but they certainly were not as inherently evil as many still make out.

Francois Arnaud and Holliday Grainger as Cesare and Lucrezia in “The Borgias”


So, where did the rumours come from?
The answer is really very simple. In 1493, Lucrezia married Giovanni Sforza – it was a marriage of politics, Pope Alexander VI believed that having the Sforza’s as his allies would help him in his political endeavours and it was a way of thanking the Sforza family for their help in electing him as pope. However, Pope Alexander soon grew tired of the Borgia/Sforza alliance, it was doing nothing for him politically and he needed more powerful allies. Annulment proceedings began and of course, Giovanni Sforza refused. Lucrezia was sent to a convent, and it is said that Giovanni begged the Pope to have his wife returned to him. Alexander refused on the basis that the marriage had never been consummated. 
Ronan Vibert as Giovanni Sforza in “The Borgias”
When Sforza was asked whether this was true he replied that no, he had known Lucrezia an infinite number of times. And that the only reason the Pope wanted the marriage annulled was so he could have her to himself.
Because he wanted her for himself.
And the rumours stuck. Giovanni Sforza, enraged at being made out to be impotent spread the rumours that his now ex-wife was involved incestuously with her own father and brother. These rumours would stay with Lucrezia for the duration of her life.
But can we put any faith in these stories? Can we believe the stories that so often get told in television, video games and novels even now? Quite frankly, no. The entire incest rumour is based on one man who disliked the way the annulment of his marriage was conducted and the lies about him being impotent. It helped that Lucrezia and Cesare were incredibly close, that Cesare loved her and was so loyal to her that many began to believe that they had crossed the line. His love for his sister and his jealousy even lead him to commit murder.  But did that mean they were involved sexually? No. Cesare loved his sister, that much is certain and he never looked on other women the way he saw Lucrezia. But the rumours of incest are completely unjustified and have to be looked on with scepticism. As Bradford says in her biography of Lucrezia:
“Cesare was the evil genius of Lucrezia’s life: their love and loyalty to each other was such that he, like his father, would be accused of incest with her; even that his obsessive love for her led him to commit murder. Accusations f incest at the time have to be viewed with a degree of scepticism: sexual innuendo was a favourite ingredient of Italian gossip”
Yet I know that I will keep coming across the whole Cesare Lucrezia incest thing. It saddens me deeply to think that people are still intent on vilifying this family and believing the anti-Borgia propaganda that still circulates. But until I am presented with credible evidence that this happened (and by credible I mean actual historic documents stating this happened; not some piece of historical fiction or TV show) then I will continue to fight the whole Borgia incest idea.
Further Reading
This entry was posted in cesare borgia, giovanni sforza, lucrezia borgia, pope alexander vi, renaissance italy, the borgias. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Origins of the Borgia Incest Myth

  1. The Editors says:

    Very well put, the show on showtime is just for entertainment nothing else

  2. Natalie Rose says:

    Do you have a facebook page? The Borgias have become my new Chocolate…a must have, only less calories. lol

  3. Erica says:

    The Borgias did cross that line.. and it was awful. It's my understanding that in the final episode of the series, Cesare cleans Alfonso's blood from Lucrezia after he's murdered and says something along the lines of.. you'll be cleansed of blood and you'll be mine. Just.. yuck.. it seems that one can get away from incest on television these days. So many people believe this stuff as historically accurate. It's a shame.

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