Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara

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Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was Duchess of Ferrara, a renowned poisoner and political schemer who, in actuality, was a pawn in the intrigues of her father and brother.

Lucrezia Borgia was born into the Renaissance world of Italy (1320-1520), a time when artists, sculptors, architects, scientists, and others rose to prominence. She was also born into one of the most notorious families in world history. Reputed to be evil, violent, and politically conniving, the Borgias were interested in claiming as much control of Italy as they could. And they were very successful.

Their prosperity was facilitated by the fact that Italy was not a unified nation but rather a collection of papal states, republics, duchies, and kingdoms organized around an urban center and the surrounding countryside, each with its own ruler. Although these individual states were powerful, their rulers were more inclined to fight each other than to band together against such enemy countries as France or Spain.

Italy desperately needed to unify and strengthen itself. Having lost much of its sea trade to France, Spain, and England, the Mediterranean was no longer the main site of commercial activity. Through the right political maneuvers, influential alliances could be formed and a great deal of power gained. It was a time of political turmoil and lethal intrigue; many political problems were solved by killing the person seen as the source of irritation. The males in the Borgia family followed the trend.

Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later to become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza Cattanei, who was also the mother of Lucrezia's two older brothers, Cesare and Giovanni. The job of raising Lucrezia, however, was given to Rodrigo's cousin, the widow Adriana daMila. While living in a palace in Rome, Lucrezia was educated at the Convent of St. Sixtus on Via Appia. Described as being slender, she was of medium height, with light-blue/green eyes and golden hair, which she later bleached to maintain its goldenness. A painting by Pinturicchio, "Disputation of Saint Catherine, " is said to be modeled after her, depicting a slender young woman with wavy, blonde hair cascading down her back.

The young girl was no more than 11 when she was first affected by the political ambitions of her father, Rodrigo, and her brother, Cesare. Desiring an alliance with Spain, they arranged a marriage contract between Lucrezia and the lord of Val d'Agora in Valencia; her dowry was set at 100, 000 ducats. But two months later, the contract was mysteriously annulled without explanation. Historians assume that Rodrigo, who had instigated the annulment, had formed a new alliance involving his dynastic ambitions; he then arranged a marriage contract with another Spaniard, 15-year-old Don Gaspare, son of Count Averse in the Kingdom of Naples. This too was annulled that same year. The vacillating Rodrigo had decided it was more important to be aligned with the Sforza family of Milan.

The groom-to-be was the conceited, well-educated Giovanni Sforza, a 27-year-old with a fierce temper. He, too, stood to profit. Prior to his marriage to Lucrezia, Giovanni was only the lord of an insignificant Adriatic fishing town. Afterward, he would be a close relation to one of Italy's most powerful families. Having been elevated from cardinal to Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo, the prospective father-in-law, had become even more powerful. During the Italian Renaissance, the papacy was treated as a lucrative and powerful prize for any family that could gain control of it. Marrying the pope's daughter would strengthen Giovanni's hold on his inheritance over the state of Pesaro. In addition, Giovanni's uncle, Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, took note of Giovanni after his engagement and offered him a lucrative command in the Milanese army. Through his generosity, Ludovico hoped to gain an ally in the Borgia camp.

The 13-year-old Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza on June 12, 1493, in a sumptuous wedding with a retinue of 500 ladies. The wedding feast featured poetry readings and comedy performances, followed by gifts of jewels, gold and silver objects, brocade, rings, and gold table settings. The pope and other religious leaders reportedly threw food into the ladies' low-cut bodices, but bawdy behavior was not unusual in that time.

By the time she was 17, Lucrezia was said to be tired of her husband, claiming he often neglected her. Giovanni had his own grievances. Reportedly weary of the political intrigue of the Vatican and the arrogance of Lucrezia's brothers, he may also have heard that Cesare Borgia was considering ways to eliminate him. Now preferring a closer alliance with Naples than Milan, Lucrezia's father and brother made plans to have the marriage annulled, claiming that Giovanni was impotent, that the marriage had never been consummated. Giovanni implored his uncle to intercede, but Ludovico, who had brought about the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France—an invasion that almost toppled Rodrigo from the papacy—was unwilling to do anything that would further provoke the pope. Sensing danger, Giovanni fled to Pesaro in the spring of 1497; Lucrezia withdrew to the Convent of San Sisto in Rome.

During the annulment process, statements from both camps served to hold the litigants up for social ridicule. Indignant over the charges of his impotency, Giovanni insinuated that Lucrezia's father and brother wanted Lucrezia for themselves. These accusations led to rumors about possible incestuous behavior that haunted Lucrezia throughout her life. In return for the right to keep the sizable dowry his wife had brought to the marriage, Giovanni reluctantly capitulated and signed a confession of impotency.

Cesare and Rodrigo then chose 17-year-old Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie and son of the late king of Naples, as Lucrezia's next husband; Rodrigo sent his trusted Spanish chamberlain Pedro Caldes to carry out the marriage negotiations. But by the time her first marriage was officially annulled on December 27, 1497, Lucrezia was six months pregnant. This created more grist for the Italian rumor mill. Some speculated that Pedro Caldes was the child's father, others pointed to Rodrigo or Cesare. As a result of this scandal, Pedro was stabbed to death and thrown into the Tiber River along with one of Lucrezia's maids. Three months later, she gave birth to her son Giovanni, who was later legitimized by Rodrigo. Some scholars believe that Giovanni was actually a brother of Lucrezia's, although his parentage will probably never be known.

Alfonso of Aragon was reputed to be a handsome youth, with fine manners. The proxy wedding occurred on June 29, 1498, with the actual wedding on July 21. A wedding feast, similar to that of Lucrezia's first marriage, was celebrated with plays and masquerades, but the marriage was brief. Only a year later, political changes were once again stirring. Sensing that his alliance with the Borgias was no longer needed, Alfonso fled from Rome but was persuaded by Lucrezia to rejoin her and the pope at Nepi, where she was invested as governor of Spoleto. Lucrezia was again pregnant, and on November 1, 1499, gave birth to a son, naming him Rodrigo after her father.

On the evening of July 15, 1500, while returning home to the Vatican, Alfonso was attacked by hired killers and stabbed in the head, right arm, and leg. Lucrezia cared for him, called for doctors, and arranged for armed guards both day and night; she even prepared his food, fearing that someone might poison him. But on August 18, as Alfonso was still recovering, Cesare reputedly came to him and whispered in his ear that "what was not finished at breakfast would be complete by dinner." Returning to Alfonso's room later that day, Cesare ordered everyone out and directed his strongman to strangle Lucrezia's young husband. Alfonso's executioner later confessed that Rodrigo had ordered the murder, but few believed his story.

Left a widow at the age of 20, Lucrezia spent most of her time weeping over the loss of her husband. Tired of watching her mourn, her father and brother sent her to Nepi in the Etruscan Hills. On her return to Rome in November 1500, she began assisting her father as a sort of papal secretary, often opening and responding to his mail when he was not in residence.

Italian society continued to feast on Borgia gossip at Lucrezia's expense. There were rumors that she frequently danced until late at night with her brother Cesare at his infamous parties at the Vatican. Whether or not she deserved this speculation is debatable, since many contemporaries commented on her reserve and piety. Some historians have suggested that she and Pope Alexander were guests at dinners her brother hosted but left before revelries began. Others feel she may have been an innocent victim of the hatred directed toward her father and brother.

Casting about for new alliances, Cesare and Rodrigo's attention now turned to the 24-year-old widower Alfonso d'Este, eldest son of Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Cesare wanted to conquer the Romagna region, and therefore needed an alliance with the duchy of Ferrara—an important military power strategically placed between the Romagna and the Venetian Republic. Not surprisingly, neither Alfonso d'Este nor his father was too happy at the prospect of a wife whose first husband had been ridiculed as impotent and whose second husband had been murdered. In addition, the d'Este family was the oldest ruling family in Italy and considered the Borgia family upstarts, not in the same class.

But politics once again determined Lucrezia's married life. While the main powers of Italy, fearing the control it would give Rodrigo's papacy, roared in opposition, King Louis XII of France advised his ally, Ercole, to consent to the marriage. Further prodding came from another quarter. Rodrigo, as Pope Alexander VI, threatened to depose Ercole if he did not consent to the marriage. Ercole finally agreed, but in return he demanded a large dowry; reduction of his annual tribute to the Church; the position of archpriest of St. Peter's for his son, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este; and receipt of the cities of Cento and Pieve, along with the harbor of Cesenatico.

Lucrezia was eager for the marriage, for she regarded Rome as a prison and thought she would have a better chance of leading her own life away from her ambitious father and brother. She wrote often to her future father-in-law, who at one time was considering marrying her if Alfonso did not. Since this was clearly an arranged marriage, Ercole's envoys checked at court to ensure that Lucrezia's trousseau would bring to this third marriage as much as the dowry of 100, 000 ducats accompanying her first marriage. With one dress alone costing 15, 000 ducats, the envoys were assured that the total value of the trousseau would easily equal 100, 000 ducats. In addition, Lucrezia would be taking along jewels, furniture, and a table service of silver and gold.

On December 30, 1501, the proxy marriage was held at the Vatican, and in early January, Lucrezia left Rome on her approximately 220-mile trip to Ferrara, adorned in her colors of yellow and brown, with 150 mules carrying her baggage carts. She and her retinue of 1, 000 were entertained at every city along the way. As the bridal party approached Ferrara, a disguised Alfonso rode out to catch a glimpse of Lucrezia; he was so pleased that he spent several hours in conversation with her, then returned home for the official welcome.

On February 2, 1502, the actual wedding ceremony was held with both Lucrezia and Alfonso in full regalia. Lucrezia wore black velvet with a cape of gold brocade trimmed with ermine, a net of gold and diamonds on her hair, and a necklace of rubies and pearls. Alfonso was dressed in red velvet, with even his horse attired in crimson and gold. Lucrezia had married a man who not only was interested in artillery, tournaments, dogs and horses, but who also played the viol and made pottery. He was also known for his cruelty, stinginess, and eccentricity.

The people of Ferrara adored Lucrezia, praising her for her beauty and "inner grace of personality." Avoiding political machinations, she became a notable patron of the arts. Content to socialize with artists, courtiers, poets, and citizens of the Renaissance court, she helped make Ferrara a center for artists and writers. A lock of golden hair, given by her to the poet Pietro Bembo, can today be found in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, along with letters she wrote to him in the gallant manner of the day.

In 1503, Rodrigo died, along with many of Cesare's plans. Since Lucrezia had not yet borne any children for Alfonso, the king of France suggested to Ercole that he should seek an annulment of the marriage. The idea was discarded because both Ercole and his son Alfonso were by this time fond of Lucrezia; in addition, they did not want to repay her dowry. Finally, some stability appeared in Lucrezia's life. When Ercole died in 1505, she and Alfonso became the reigning duke and duchess of Ferrara. She requested that Giovanni, her illegitimate son, come live with her. When he was old enough to come to court, he was always introduced as her brother.

Lucrezia had several children by Alfonso d'Este. Although two died in infancy, one was stillborn, and there were at least two miscarriages, the couple had five children who survived infancy: Ercole II (b. 1508), Ippolito (b. 1509), Alessandro (b. 1514), Eleanora (b. 1515), and Francesco (b. 1516). Of these, only Ercole and Ippolito survived into adulthood.

In 1512, Lucrezia began to lead a retired life, perhaps caused by news of the death of Rodrigo, her son by Alfonso of Aragon. Though separated from her son, she had made sure he was well taken care of, selecting his governess, his tutor, and the stewards to oversee his duchy of Bisceglie (which he had inherited from his father). She began to spend more time in her apartments or in nearby convents, becoming withdrawn and ill-humored. Turning more and more to religion, piety, and charitable works, she took to wearing a hairshirt under her embroidered gowns as a form of penance. As the years progressed, her body thickened, and she was said to age greatly. She was also plagued by spells of melancholy. On June 14, 1519, while giving birth to a stillborn girl, she developed a debilitating fever. She died ten days later at the age of 39. A few days before her death, she wrote a letter to Pope Leo X asking his blessing and commending her husband and children to him.

Lucrezia Borgia was often accused of being frivolous and heartless, yet an examination of her life reveals that such assessments were not always deserved. Indeed, much of the innuendo about her illegitimate child and alleged incestuous behavior may have been in retaliation for the evil deeds committed by her father Rodrigo and brother Cesare (who also murdered their brother Giovanni). Many historians view her as a political pawn whose marriages were used to further the ambitions of both her father and her brother. Lucrezia was very much a product of her times, accepting these ambitions and their consequences for the good of the family.

Further Reading

Chamberlain, E. R. The Fall of the House of Borgia. Dial Press, 1974.

Cloulas, Ivan. The Borgias. Translated by Gilda Roberts. Watts, 1989.

Fusero, Clemente. The Borgias. Translated by Peter Green. Praeger, 1972.

Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Translated by Sidney Alexander. Macmillan, 1969.

Latour, Anny. The Borgias. Translated by Neil Mann. Abelard-Schuman, 1966. □