12th March 1507: The Death of Cesare Borgia

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On 12th March 1507, Cesare Borgia was killed just outside of Viana in the Kingdom of Navarre (now part of modern day Spain). I have written on his death before, and you will also be able to read more about it in my upcoming book. But this year, to honour the passing of this intriguing Renaissance bad-boy, I thought I’d do something a little different. Below is a little piece of fiction that I threw together on Cesare’s final moments in the world. Enjoy!

The rain poured from the sky in inky black sheets, soaking his skin as he lay on the forest floor. His eyes were starting to glaze over with the agony of the wounds that had been inflicted on him, blood seeping from the stab wounds that covered his bare chest and mingling with the freezing rain that trickled from his skin. Oh, how he regretted riding off with his vision so tunnelled by rage. Now he was alone, naked and cold as his life blood trickled away.

Every breath felt like torture, the sort of torture that he had inflicted on so many others during his time. A cough crackled through his chest then and he felt the sticky warmth of blood on his lips, tasted the metallic tongue upon his tongue. If he were a God-fearing man, he would be praying for his soul in this instance. But Cesare Borgia was not a God-fearing man – even when he had been forced to wear the crimson robes of a cardinal, he had never feared God nor had he believed. Fortuna was the goddess that he believed in. Fortuna was the one who had guided each and every one of his decisions since he was a young man – her hand had taken him from the College of Cardinals to ruling the Romagna. She had also overseen his downfall. He imagined her standing over him then, but her face was the face of his dear sister, Lucrezia. The rain soaked her beautiful golden hair and her normally beautiful face was stretched in a macabre grin as wicked laughter escaped the confines of her chest.

Oh Lucrezia. What will you do when you find out I am gone? I have done so much wrong by you. Please forgive me.

Because of his actions his sister had suffered. She had lost and she had grieved, and it had all been his fault. At the time he had cared little, but it was only when they had started to grow apart because of it that he had started to feel the smallest twinge of guilt. She had been his light, one of the few women that he had ever truly loved. And it was that closeness that had made their enemies spit spurious rumour.

He started to shiver then, the ice-cold rain hitting his skin and allowing the cold to get into his bones. The bastards who had done this to him had stripped him of his armour and left him completely naked, exposed to the elements, with just a red tile to cover his modesty. He supposed it was because they had no idea who he was. If they had any sort of idea, he would be in irons now rather than about to breath his last.

It was coming. Oh he knew it was coming. The pain was starting to numb now, and the cold was getting heavier. The cold wings of death were starting to shroud him. Cesare Borgia, he who had wanted to be King of all Italy was no longer for this world. He tried to think on his sister as his eyes dimmed, but the thought was cut off as death claimed him…

Simonetta Vespucci – The Florentine Beauty.

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Portrait of a woman, said to be Simonetta Vespucci, by Piero de Cosimo.

Simonetta Vespucci is a name commonly associated with both the Medici family of Florence and the artist Sandro Botticelli. For years, people have believed that Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is actually a painting of Florence’s most beautiful woman – she was said to have stunned Botticelli with her beauty which is why the same face pops up over and over again in his paintings. These days many art historians say that this is actually because Botticelli’s workers (is that the word for them?) actually painted them based on the portrait of the ideal woman – whether or not that’s the case, I quite like the idea that the artist was so taken with her beauty that he wanted to get her in as many of his paintings as possible.

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Birth of Venus detail. Photo by me.

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Could this be Simonetta Vespucci? Detail of Boticelli. Photo by me

But who was Simonetta Vespucci, and what was it about her that seemed to have the people of Florence either wanting to BE her or to BE WITH her?

Simonetta was born in the mid 1450’s to Gaspare Cattaneo and Cattochia Spinola although her exact place of birth is unknown. Some say she was born in Genoa whilst others say that she was born in Portovenere, where Venus herself appeared from the waves – this may be due to the belief that she was indeed the model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But wherever she was born, at the age of around sixteen she was married to Marco Vespucci and the two moved to Florence.

It wouldn’t be long until the young woman caught the eye of the Florentine populace – she particularly caught the eye of both Giuliano de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s ill fated younger brother) as well as many local artists including Botticelli. In the January of 1475, Giuliano held a joust in the Piazza Santa Croce which he dedicated to her. For his banner he carried a painting of the beautiful young woman painted by none other than Sandro Botticelli himself. When Giuliano won the tournament, Simonetta was crowned Queen of the Joust. It is said that Simonetta became Giuliano’s mistress, although given the fact that Marco Vespucci was close to the Medici family it seems somewhat unlikely that the two had a sexual relationship.

Just one year later, however, tragedy struck during the Spring of 1476. Simonetta Vespucci was struck down with a life threatening illness. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was in Pisa at the time, insisted on receiving daily updates about the state of her health and sent his own personal physicians to her when he found out her health was on the decline. But his efforts came to little and the great Florentine beauty passed away on April 26th. It is said that the entire city was struck down in grief at her passing. Following her death, Simonetta’s father in law sent Giuliano some of the gowns that she had worn – a sign of just how much the young Medici felt about her, perhaps?

It was a sad end for a young woman cut down in the prime of her youth and beauty. Her open coffin was paraded through the streets of Florence for the populace to be able to see her beauty for one last time. She was buried in the Church of Ognissanti, the parish Church of the Vespucci and perhaps somewhat tellingly, Sandro Botticelli requested to be buried there upon his death.

Further reading

Miles J Unger – Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici

Claudio Angelini – The Mystery of Simonetta

Christopher Hibbert – Florence: The Biography of a City

Christopher Hibbert – The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici

Paul Strathern – The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance