Five hundred years ago to the day – on 24th June 1519 – the infamous Lucrezia Borgia died in Ferrara.
Lucrezia Borgia has long been assumed to be a villainess of the worst kind – accused of incest, murder and multiple affairs – and in more recent times the idea that she was this evil harpy seems to have come more to the forefront. In the name of telling a ‘good’ story television shows, video games and novels have once more cottoned on to the rumours that surround her life and, unfortunately, many are once more believing that these ideas are based in fact. It is a shame as Lucrezia Borgia was nothing of the sort. Rather than a wicked woman she was little more than a pawn in her father and brother’s political games and a deeply pious woman who spent much of her time (in periods of grief etc) closeted away in convents.
It is well documented that Lucrezia suffered from incredibly difficult pregnancies, and it was a pregnancy that would ultimately end her life in 1519. She died on 24th June at the age of 29, which for that day and age was a relatively old age for pregnancy. Although she gave birth to a daughter, named Isabella, the child was sickly. Alfonso d’Este, the child’s father and Lucrezia’s husband, feared that little Isabella would not survive so had her baptised quickly. Alfonso was correct and the child passed on 14th June 1519. Following the birth Lucrezia became seriously unwell to the point that her life was despaired of. Her doctors bled her and, in a last ditch attempt to save her life, cut off her beautiful blonde hair.
Just eight days after the death of her child, Lucrezia wrote a final letter to the Pope. She herself knew that she was dying, even though it was hoped that she was over the worst of things:
MOST HOLY FATHER AND HONORED MASTER: With all respect I
kiss your Holiness’s feet and commend myself in all humility to
your holy mercy. Having suffered for more than two months, early on
the morning of the 14th of the present, as it pleased God, I gave
birth to a daughter, and hoped then to find relief from my
sufferings, but I did not, and shall be compelled to pay my debt to
nature. So great is the favor which our merciful Creator has shown
me, that I approach the end of my life with pleasure, knowing that
in a few hours, after receiving for the last time all the holy
sacraments of the Church, I shall be released. Having arrived at
this moment, I desire as a Christian, although I am a sinner, to
ask your Holiness, in your mercy, to give me all possible spiritual
consolation and your Holiness’s blessing for my soul. Therefore I
offer myself to you in all humility and commend my husband and my
children, all of whom are your servants, to your Holiness’s mercy.
In Ferrara, June 22, 1519, at the fourteenth hour.
Your Holiness’s humble servant,
LUCRETIA D’ESTE. (Gregorovius 1904, 357)
On the night of June 24th, Lucrezia passed away with her husband Alfonso at her side. Alfonso was heartbroken at his wife’s death – although their marriage hadn’t initially been one of love, the two had grown to respect one another and perhaps even love each other. He wrote a letter to his nephew and it really shows how heartbroken he was:
ILLUSTRIOUS SIR AND HONORED BROTHER AND NEPHEW: It has
just pleased our Lord to summon unto Himself the soul of the
illustrious lady, the duchess, my dearest wife. I hasten to inform
you of the fact as our mutual love leads me to believe that the
happiness or unhappiness of one is likewise the happiness or
unhappiness of the other. I cannot write this without tears,
knowing myself to be deprived of such a dear and sweet companion.
For such her exemplary conduct and the tender love which existed
between us made her to me. On this sad occasion I would indeed seek
consolation from your Excellency, but I know that you will
participate in my grief, and I prefer to have some one mingle his
tears with mine rather than endeavor to console me. I commend
myself to your Majesty. Ferrara, June 24, 1519, at the fifth hour
of the night. (Gregorovius 1904, 357)
Lucrezia was buried in the Convent of Corpus Domini, a place where she spent much of her time during her last years of life. She would later be joined by her husband Alfonso and two of her children and today her grave is marked with a simple stone slab – I recently had the honour of being allowed inside Corpus Domini to view Lucrezia’s tomb, and the tomb of other members of the Este family including her eldest son and her granddaughter. The convent itself is an incredibly peaceful place and is still a working convent and as you stand before the tombs you can really understand just why Lucrezia Borgia spent so much of her time there.
Here’s to Lucrezia Borgia, a woman who has inspired me in many ways. I’ll always fight her corner and aim to show the world that she wasn’t the villainess many make her out to be. I’ll be raising a glass to you tonight, Lucrezia.
Ferdinand Gregorovius: Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day
Sarah Bradford: Lucrezia Borgia – Life, Love & Death in Renaissance Italy
Maria Bellonci: Lucrezia Borgia
Leonie Frieda: The Deadly Sisterhood