Think of Lucrezia Borgia, and the majority of people will say that she was a seductress who had a ring filled with deadly poison and committed incest with her brother. They certainly would not think of an innocent young lady in love. But that is exactly what happened to Lucrezia Borgia in 1498 when she married the handsome young Alfonso of Aragon. The match was, of course, a political one but it was soon very clear that the couple were very much in love with each other. Few could have realised that this seemingly perfect marriage would soon end in tragedy for Lucrezia.
At the end of 1497, Lucrezia was divorced from her first husband Giovanni Sforza. The two had been married since 1493 as a political arrangement between the Borgia and Sforza families but Pope Alexander VI soon tired of the match between them and began to look for other avenues that would help bring the Borgia family more power. The Sforza match had been one big let down for him from the start. And so, the marriage was dissolved on the grounds of Sforza’s apparent impotence. The news was unwelcome throughout Italy, everyone knew that the alleged impotence was a falsehood conducted by Alexander so he could dissolve his daughters marriage. And besides how could Sforza be impotent when his previous wife had died in childbirth? And as previously mentioned, Sforza was so angry at the allegations that he said the only reason Alexander was dissolving the marriage was so he could sleep with his daughter himself! According to Bradford, the Italian chronicler Matarazzo wrote that the idea of Lucrezia being a Virgin was:
“a conclusion that set all Italy laughing…it was common knowledge that she had been and was then the greatest whore there ever was in Rome.”
Not exactly the most favourable of assessments on the situation, but Matarazzo was hugely anti-Borgia. At any rate, the marriage was annulled on the basis of impotence and non consummation, leaving Lucrezia free to marry again. The only problem with that was that Lucrezia managed to bring her reputation into disrepute not long afterwards – she became involved with a handsome young groom in the Papal household by the name of Pedro Calderon (more commonly known to history as Perotto). On the 14th February 1498, his body was pulled from the Tiber and according to Johannes Burchard he “fell, not of his own will, into the Tiber”. It is said that the body of one of Lucrezia’s serving girls called Pantisilea was found with Perotto. Shortly before his body was found, Perotto’s disappearance was muttered to be because he had been locked up for getting Lucrezia pregnant and it seems likely that this could be why Lucrezia went into seclusion at the convent of San Sisto. Many associate Cesare’s name with the murders of Perotto and Pantisilea and if I’m honest (in this case at least) he does seem the most likely to have done it. The affair would get in the way of the plans he and his father had for Lucrezia, and anyone with knowledge of the affair had to go.
Following the affair with Perotto, Alexander began looking into getting a new husband for his daughter and his eyes fell on the Kingdom of Naples, and in particular the illegitimate son of the Duke of Calabria. Alfonso was also the brother of Sancia, Princess of Squillace who was married to the youngest Borgia son – Jofre. King Federigo of Naples began making life difficult having gotten what he wanted out of the Pope and wasn’t exactly all that eager for any more Borgia marriages. The Pope decided to pretend that Lucrezia would be marrying an Orsini and then, Federigo capitulated. On 15th July 1498, Alfonso of Aragon arrived in Rome. The visit was supposed to be a secret but everyone knew he was there. On the 16th, Cesare Borgia invited his future brother in law up to his apartments and greeted him affectionately with a meeting on the 17th between Alfonso, Pope Alexander, Cesare and Lucrezia. Four days later, the two were married in a private ceremony and the marriage was consummated that very night, with celebrations continuing on for days afterwards. During one of the celebrations, held in the Borgia apartments, seven dancers walked in dressed as different animals and danced about the room. One of them was Cesare, dressed as a Unicorn – the symbol of chastity. The other celebrations included dancing and bullfights.
By the time Cesare renounced his cardinal’s vows in 1498 and left to go to Spain for his own marriage, Lucrezia was pregnant. In February 1499 she miscarried and although she was pregnant again soon after she had no idea that the internal goings on in her family would stop her from living a long and happy life with the husband whom she was so in love with. News came to Rome from France that Cesare had consummated his marriage with his wife (six times!) and was on his way back…and he would be accompanying King Louis of France. This was the start of a new pro-french alliance that sent those who were more of a Spanish mindset fleeing from the city of Rome. This alliance could also seriously affect the Kingdom of Naples, the French King believing he was the rightful heir. In a panic, Alfonso fled the city leaving Lucrezia heavily pregnant and it is said, in floods of tears. He wrote her letters from his exile, but these fell into the Pope’s hands and he forced Lucrezia to write back, demanding Alfonso’s return. He also sent spies and emissaries to try and convince the King of Naples to send his son in law back to Rome. In September the young couple were reunited and joined the rest of the family at Nepi, returning to Rome in the October. All of this was conducted in the background of some huge political manoeuvres in Italy, particularly King Louis of France and his taking over of Milan.
On the 1st November, Lucrezia gave birth to a little boy whom she named Rodrigo. And at this point, her husband was still held in high favour by the Pope and Cesare was too busy in the Romagna. But throughout the first half of 1500, something obviously changed. Cesare had started to become successful in his Romagna campaign and had helped bring about a French alliance, and it was something that would have made Alfonso and his Aragonese family and sympathies somewhat unwelcome. Could it be that, like with Giovanni Sforza, Alfonso had ‘outstayed his welcome’?
On Wednesday 15th July, Alfonso was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s by an unknown group of people. According to a report sent back to Florence he was stabbed three times. Burcard reported that as the men attacking Alfonso fled, they were surprised by the city guards, and other reports state that they were caught trying to drag Alfonso’s body to the Tiber. The wounded Alfonso was taken to apartments above the Pope’s own where he was nursed, and by all reports Lucrezia found herself with a fever the next day thanks to the worry. Rumours once more flooded the city, as they had when Juan had been found murdered and yet again Cesare’s name was mentioned. Thankfully, Alfonso began to recover and within a few days he was sat up in bed. Still, Cesare’s name kept being mentioned and he apparently said:
“I did not wound the Duke, but if I had, it would have been no more than he deserved.”
If these words were true, then it seems somewhat obvious that Cesare had some sort of ill feeling against his brother in law. However, had Cesare himself ordered this attack then it is likely that Alfonso would be already dead. His men, and particularly Micheletto, did not fail. Lucrezia was leaving nothing to chance however – she made his food herself in case his food was laced with poison, and allowed only the doctor sent from Naples to attend him. Just one month after the initial attack he was almost fully recovered and as he was sat up talking to his wife and sister, the doors to his rooms burst open and a group of men entered headed by the infamous Micheletto de Corella. Lucrezia and Sancia demanded to know from Micheletto what on earth he was playing at and Micheletto responded by saying that he was only obeying the will of others and if they wanted an answer then they should go to the Pope to get a reprieve for Alfonso and the others who had been arrested. The two of them rushed to the Pope, but when they returned to the apartment they found armed guards outside the doors who refused to let them in, stating that Alfonso was dead. There was no doubt who had committed the deed – Micheletto, Cesare’s finest executioner. And there is really no doubt at all who ordered the murder…Cesare himself, determined that the Aragonese faction within the Vatican should be dealt with as it would affect his own plans with France. Not only that but Cesare was exceptionally close to his sister (one of the reasons it is said they were involved incestuously) and never seemed to love as a woman as much as he loved his sister. Was it jealousy that drove him to it? Did he see how in love the couple were and want it stopped?
The excuse was given that Alfonso died because he had tried to shoot Cesare with a crossbow and it was the excuse used to persuade the Pope that Alfonso had to be gotten rid of. Alexander had initially been very upset when Alfonso was attacked, yet accepted this excuse when no one else in the family, or even the city did.
Lucrezia went into deep mourning for the handsome husband whom she doted on, and disbelieved her father and brother when they told her the reason for the killing of Alfonso. Her grief and upset against them irritated her father and he packed her off to the castle at Nepi, Alfonso was buried with almost indecent haste and following the funeral (at which Lucrezia was not present), Cesare visited his sister at Nepi. Did she forgive him straight away? Whatever the case, the two still remained exceptionally close for the rest of their lives.
For me, the marriage of Lucrezia and Alfonso is one of the saddest parts of Lucrezia’s life. It is obvious that she doted on him, and he on her. That her brother could not see past this, caring only for his politics and his own jealousy is utterly heartbreaking. Whilst he may have loved his sister unequivocally, I honestly believe that the fact he could hurt his beloved sister so much shows that he believed politics and his own path to power was more important than her happiness. Whatever the case though, the murder of Alfonso only cemented the belief that Cesare Borgia was well on his way to becoming the most feared man in the whole of Italy.
Sarah Bradford – Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love & Death in Renaissance Italy
Sarah Bradford – Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times
Johannes Burchard – At The Court Of The Borgia
Mary Hollingsworth – The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty
Christopher Hibbert – The Borgias & Their Enemies