Lucrezia Borgia: is her bad reputation deserved?

She is renowned as a poisoner and an adulteress, and may have had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Are any of these rumours true? Writing for BBC History Revealed Emma Slattery Williams tries to unpick the fiction

Lucrezia Borgia with her father Pope Alexander VI

Borgia – no name conjures up more images of depravity, cruelty and immorality. Described by some as the original crime family, they exerted a vice-like grip on Renaissance Rome. The main female presence in this ‘debauched’ clan – Lucrezia – has been tarred with the brush of incest and murder, yet later historians cast her aside as a hapless and weak-minded pawn, used in the scheming of her father and brothers. Who was this famed beauty whose name lives on through the centuries – was she a villainess or simply an instrument in her family’s games?

Advertisement

Lucrezia Borgia was the third child of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his favourite mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. At her birth, her father consulted an astrologer who foretold of a remarkable future. Born in 1480, her name and that of her family would be vilified down the centuries. The Borgias originally came from Spain and were seen by the Italian noble families as outsiders – which made them natural targets of suspicion and rumour.

Rodrigo, later Pope Alexander VI, is considered to be one of the most controversial pontiffs, his reign dogged by numerous mistresses, illegitimate children, nepotism and scandal. He was made a cardinal in 1456 by his uncle, Pope Calixtus III, and was elected as pope in August 1492. A contemporary account described the attitude towards this man, who lived more like a prince than a member of the clergy: “These are the days of the Antichrist, for no greater enemy of God, Christ and religion can be conceived.” Lucrezia was one of five children that Alexander acknowledged as his own – even though sexually active popes were not unknown, this was a controversial act for God’s representative on Earth.

A prize and a pawn

Lucrezia was brought up in the household of her cousin, Adriana Orsini, where she was educated in Latin, Greek, Italian and French. She was a lover of music, poetry and dancing. She could easily move in the highest circles of society, and was so trusted for her political judgement that she was often left in charge of papal affairs while her father was away. !is concerned the clergy, who did not believe a woman should be involved in the papacy – let alone the Pope’s illegitimate daughter.

She was also well known for being one of the precious few who truly held sway and influence over her father. Growing up, Lucrezia would be closest to her brother, the ruthless Cesare – a closeness that was gossiped about by Roman society who loved sexual innuendo.

On her father’s accession she became a useful pawn for cementing alliances. Described as a ‘graceful’ beauty with golden hair, the suggestion of a marriage attracted many noble families amongst the Italian states. Alexander forged and broke numerous betrothals for Lucrezia until her first marriage was settled on.

Lucrezia Borgia's brother Cesare
Lucrezia’s brother Cesare was rumoured to be both the murderer of her second husband and her lover. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

Alexander wanted to gain a powerful ally in northern Italy so he chose Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and nephew of the Duke of Milan, as Lucrezia’s first husband. She was married in 1493 to the 26-year-old (she was 13) and contemporary reports recorded extravagant celebrations that went on long into the night.

Johann Burchard, chronicler and papal Master of Ceremonies during the papacy of Alexander, commented on how the family was already becoming the talk of the city after the wedding festivities for the wrong reasons: “Many other things are being said, but I am not reporting them because they are not true, and if they were true they would, in any case, be unbelievable.” Burchard would later write an account of the sordid Banquet of the Chestnuts – an infamous orgy that the Borgias supposedly attended – though whether they were present is questioned.

Used to the opulence of the Vatican, Lucrezia found it a struggle adjusting to the provincial life in Pesaro with her husband. As time went on, the relationship with Milan became less valuable to Alexander – meaning that Giovanni was no longer needed, and his marriage to Lucrezia no longer useful. In February 1497, during a stay in Rome, Giovanni fled in disguise to Pesaro: a popular, but unproven, reason for this is that Alexander and Cesare plotted to kill him, but he was warned by Lucrezia.

Alexander decided to annul his daughter’s marriage to allow him to forge a more beneficial alliance. He did so by claiming that Giovanni was impotent and that the marriage hadn’t been consummated, to the Duke’s embarrassment and anger. It was a blatant lie: it was well known that Giovanni’s first wife had died in childbirth.

Renaissance Italy

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Italy was not a unified nation – that would not happen until 1870 with the final addition of Rome. Instead, it was divided into city states that were ruled by noble families. These included Milan, Venice and Florence. The Papal States were territories with the Pope at the head. The Kingdom of Naples – later known as the Kingdom of Sicily – was constantly fought over by the French and Spanish monarchies. Despite these divisions, between the 14th and 17th centuries, Italy was at the forefront of developments and innovation in the arts, music, literature, philosophy and science. It would produce some of the greatest minds including the poet Dante, polymath Leonardo da Vinci, scientist Galileo Galilei and painter Michelangelo.

The talk of the town

The annulment proceedings brought the discussion of Lucrezia’s virginity into the public eye. Her sex life would be a continuing topic for the gossips of Rome, few of whom believed the marriage had not been consummated. When asked to agree to the ending of the marriage, Giovanni accused Lucrezia of incest with both her father and brother – an idea with no basis in fact but which would shadow the Borgia family for centuries.

Lucrezia was sent to a convent while the negotiations took place and enemies of her family whispered tales of her being pregnant, while her father pleaded her virginity. Giovanni was eventually persuaded to agree. He was permitted to keep Lucrezia’s dowry.

Scandal continued to follow Lucrezia as, around the same time, a boy was born into the Borgia family with unclear parentage. Alexander issued two papal bulls – one declaring the boy, named Giovanni, an illegitimate son of Cesare’s and the other that he was a child of the Pope himself.

Neither prevented the rumours that the newborn was Lucrezia’s, and perhaps the product of an incestuous relationship. !en, in February 1498, the body of one of Alexander’s valets – Pedro Calderon – was found on the banks on the Tiber. He was whispered to be a favourite of Lucrezia’s and was another contender for the father of her rumoured child. The death remains a mystery, but Lucrezia’s brother Cesare was assumed to be Pedro’s killer.

In July 1498, Lucrezia was married to Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie and the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. They seemed to have enjoyed a happy yet brief marriage. She may have been married off for politics, but she found love – even taking her husband’s side against her father during a dispute on the legality of the marriage of Alfonso’s cousin Beatrice, Queen of Hungary.

Alfonso and Lucrezia had a son in 1499, named Rodrigo for his grandfather. It wouldn’t be long, however, until her family’s scheming would wreck her happiness. !e mood shifted against Naples as an alliance with France began to develop – thanks to Cesare’s marriage in May 1499 to Charlotte d’Albret, a cousin of the French king. Alexander realised he could gain much more from an improved relationship with France – which was threatening Naples. Another of Lucrezia’s husbands had run their course of usefulness.

Alfonso had sensed the mood against him had changed and fled Rome for a short period. In July 1500, he was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. The would-be assassins were fought off by his guards, but he still suffered severe wounds. Lucrezia personally nursed her beloved husband as the rumours flew about who could have been behind the assault.

Alfonso had attracted many enemies but apparently suspected Cesare, as did many others. A month later, while he was still recuperating, Alfonso was strangled to death by a servant of Cesare’s. Cesare was never officially accused of ordering his death, but the Borgias were now seen as a family to fear. This left a devastated Lucrezia a widow at 20. The desired break with Naples was achieved and Lucrezia was again free to serve her family’s interests.

It was around this time that Lucrezia developed a reputation as a poisoner – enemies of her family enjoyed inventing new scandalous tales to spread. According to the rumours, she would store toxic substances in a ring she wore. Poison was a popular method of murdering someone in Renaissance Europe and has often been described as a women’s weapon of choice.  It became inexplicably associated with Lucrezia, who is not known to have poisoned anyone – though it is known that enemies of her family often disappeared mysteriously. The third marriage arranged for Lucreziawas to Alfonso d’Este, heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, in December 1501.  This was a match that

Lucrezia herself was actively involved in, as it would propel her into an advantageous position she could only dream of. A hard bargain was struck as Lucrezia’s supposed tainted reputation – rumours of incest, poisoning and the grisly death of her last husband – had spread far and wide and a high dowry of 100,000 ducats was finally agreed on. At the request of her new husband’s family, Lucrezia had to leave her son Rodrigo behind to be raised by his relatives – she would never see him again.

Este Castle in Ferrara
Este Castle in Ferrara, the seat of her third husband and the city that would become her final resting place. (Image by Getty Images Plus)

Free at last

In 1503, Pope Alexander died – again suspicion was never far away. There were whispers that he had been poisoned accidentally by Cesare as part of a plot to kill a cardinal, but his death was probably caused by a fever or malaria. With his death, Cesare’s power diminished and Lucrezia was able to leave the deadly world of politics behind.

This was a mostly happy marriage – though Lucrezia is believed to have had an affair with her brother-in-law at some point. When her husband became duke in 1505, she became a respected duchess and a patron of the arts. Her court was full of the most renowned poets and artists of the day – including the poet Pietro Bembo, who has often been described as the greatest love of Lucrezia’s life. Rumours of her scandalous life began to diminish – or her subjects gave them no credence. Lucrezia and Alfonso’s court was held in high esteem and they would go on to have eight children – though only four of them would survive to adulthood.

Lucrezia played an active role in the defence of her new home, Ferrara. In 1510, Pope Julius II excommunicated Alfonso as part of his machinations to add Ferrara to the Papal States.

The city was placed under interdict – banning the participation in rites and sacraments. Lucrezia was praised for her courage and calm during the crisis, entertaining the French troops who had come to Ferrara’s aid and pawning her jewels to raise money for Ferrara’s defence. Though her family were vilified for their cruelty, Lucrezia showed her merciful side by refusing the orders of her husband to torture arrested men.

The poet Ariosto was one of those who wrote warmly about Ferrara’s beloved duchess: “Lucrezia Borgia? Who, from day to day, shall wax in beauty, virtue, chastity, and fortune, that like youthful plant will shoot, which into yielding soil has struck its root.”

In 1512, Lucrezia learned the news of the untimely death of her 12-year-old son Rodrigo, whom she had not seen for many years. She reportedly ran away to a convent for some time, overwhelmed by grief and from then on, lived a more pious and withdrawn life.

After suffering complications during childbirth in 1519, Lucrezia died at the age of 39. She was mourned greatly by the people of Ferrara, but she had ensured that the Borgia line would live on in her descendants in both the clergy and nobility – her son Ippolito would become a cardinal and Ercole took on the role of Duke after the death of his father.

Ask the expert: MARY HOLLINGSWORTH

British historian specialising in medieval Italy, whose works include books on the Borgias and Medici.

Q: Why was the Borgia family singled out and vilified?

A: Other famous papal dynasties, notably the Medici and the Farnese, behaved in much the same way as the Borgias – all promoted undeserving sons and nephews, most ignored the rule of celibacy and all were accused by their enemies of equally lurid crimes. The difference is that the Borgias were foreign and, unlike the homegrown dynasties, had no descendants to embellish and reinvent their historical image to gloss over their past.

 

Q: Do you believe Lucrezia deserved her reputation as femme fatale or innocent pawn?

A: She was neither – the images belong to the history of the family. A cardinal had the status of a prince in Renaissance society, and as the daughter of a cardinal she had a particular status in the marriage market.

 

Q: How should history view her?

A: As an example of how an intelligent and educated woman could survive in a world run by men. One of the great things about the Borgia story is that, because it has not been reinvented, we have the opportunity to see a Renaissance woman behind the mask.

 

Q: What was life like for a woman in Renaissance Italy?

A: That depended on her class and also on where she lived. The wife of a modest craftsman in Venice or Florence lived reasonably well, but life in a village in the mountains must have been very harsh. Lucrezia was lucky, brought up in the lap of luxury in Rome and married to a succession of lords. She had her own household of ladies-inwaiting, courtiers and menial servants. She was highly educated, she loved music and poetry, and she loved parties. She was also entrusted with the reins of government, first for her father in Rome and then as Duchess of Ferrara when her husband was away.

Infamy in death

After her death, her reputation was reassessed and the idea of her as a villainess reappeared. The 19th-century writer Victor Hugo wrote a play about her that was later turned into an opera – this fuelled the legend of the murderous, incestuous seductress who complied with the deeds of her depraved family.

Her character suffered a similar fate to Richard III after Shakespeare’s renowned play about the ‘evil’ king became popular. This is how many came to hear of Lucrezia and in death she struggled to shake off her stained reputation. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was another who chose to represent her in the arts – in his painting of her, she is seen washing her hands after poisoning her second husband. Lucrezia’s blemished marriage record fanned the flames of those who set out to defile her name – the mystery surrounding her second husband’s death left speculation open as to Lucrezia’s involvement.

Her reputation has swung between dangerous femme fatale to a pawn used by men – though Italian Renaissance historian MaryHollingsworth says she is neither. Perhaps she was somewhere in between – Lucrezia’s is a story of a woman who did what she had to in a dangerous world.

Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer on BBC History Revealed.

Advertisement

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed