On This Day – 24th June 1519 – Death of Lucrezia Borgia {500th Anniversary}

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Portrait of a woman, said to be Lucrezia Borgia, by Bartolomeo Veneto

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.

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The tomb of Lucrezia Borgia

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.

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Tile featuring Lucrezia Borgia, purchased from the Castello Estensi in Ferrara

Further reading

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

 

[Review] The Vatican Princess by C.W.Gortner

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For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, bestselling author C. W. Gortner effortlessly weaves history and drama in this captivating novel about one of the world’s most notorious families. Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias fascinated and terrorized fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy, and Lucrezia Borgia, beloved daughter of the pope, was at the center of the dynasty’s ambitions. Slandered as a heartless seductress who lured men to their doom, was she in fact the villainess of legend, or was she trapped in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and survival?

With the ascension of the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, a new era has dawned in Rome. Benefitting from their father’s elevation are the new pope’s illegitimate children–his rival sons, Cesare and Juan, and beautiful young daughter Lucrezia–each of whom assumes an exalted position in the papal court. Privileged and adored, Lucrezia yearns to escape her childhood and play a part in her family’s fortunes. But Rome is seductive and dangerous: Alliances shift at a moment’s notice as Italy’s ruling dynasties strive to keep rivals at bay. As Lucrezia’s father faces challenges from all sides, the threat of a French invasion forces him to marry her off to a powerful adversary. But when she discovers the brutal truth behind her alliance, Lucrezia is plunged into a perilous gambit that will require all her wits, cunning, and guile. Escaping her marriage offers the chance of happiness with a passionate prince of Naples, yet as scandalous accusations of murder and incest build against her, menacing those she loves, Lucrezia must risk everything to overcome the lethal fate imposed upon her by her Borgia blood.

Beautifully wrought, rich with fascinating historical detail, The Vatican Princess is the first novel to describe Lucrezia’s coming-of-age in her own voice. What results is a dramatic, vivid tale set in an era of savagery and unparalleled splendor, where enemies and allies can be one and the same, and where loyalty to family can ultimately be a curse.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, mulling over just how I would put it into words. As you will all know, mainly because I keep harping on about it, I’ve been delving into Borgia novels (and television adaptations) as part of my ongoing research into the Borgia family and how they are portrayed in the modern day media. I was recommended this book on twitter and set about reading it, hoping that it would be a tale that would wow me as much as Sarah Dunant’s fantastic novels.

Suffice to say I was hugely disappointed.

The story itself is a coming of age tale – it’s the story of how Lucrezia Borgia grows from a young, naive girl into a mature and confidant young woman. It goes through her trials and tribulations of growing up in the public eye and her disappointing first marriage. It goes through her relationship with her family – how she was close to her brother Cesare, and her father, Rodrigo; how she was not close with her mother or her other brother Juan. And I will give it one thing – it’s well written in many ways, making it a quick and easy read.

However, the research that went into this novel is utterly non existent in my opinion. Gortner portrays many characters who were not villains as villains in their own right. Take for example her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. We know from the history that he was a bit of a weak man who proved himself to be less than useful to the Borgia family, but he was certainly no villain. But Gortner makes him out to be an awful human being – and it’s boring. It’s boring and it’s repetitive and it started to become a chore to get through the parts of the story that involved him. And then there is the character of Vanozza who is made out to be a nasty piece of work who cares nothing at all for her family, only for herself. Her character was boring and really quite one dimensional.

And then there are the rumours of incest. Rather than trying to write a novel based on the TRUE story and how the incest was nothing more than rumour, Gortner wrote the rumours into the story. And not in a good way. Not to spoil it for anyone, but there is a rather horrendous scene in which Juan forces himself upon his sister. That and he twisted the existence of the Infans Romanus into being fathered by Juan. Many of you will probably say “It’s just a novel, what does it matter?” but in all honesty it made me feel really quite sick to read it.

Novels such as this are often stepping stones into history but, like with television dramatisations, they are often treated as fact. It doesn’t help that in the authors notes at the back, he says that Rodrigo Borgia was killed by poison. This has never been proven and in fact was more likely to be malarial fever, which was rampant in Rome at the time of his death. To make out such things are fact is incredibly sloppy.

Despite this book being well written, I would not recommend this novel at all. It turns Lucrezia’s story into a rather trashy soap opera, twisting the rumours to suit the plot of the story. It’s certainly not one I’ll be going back to.