Borgia, Lucrezia (1480–1519)
Borgia, Lucrezia (1480–1519)
Duchess of Ferrara, who has been known alternately as a monster, a pawn, a beauty, a loving mother, and a great patron of the arts. Name variations: Madonna Lucrezia; Lucrece Borgia. Pronunciation: Lu-CRE-jha BOR-jha. Born in Rome on April 18, 1480; died in childbirth in Ferrara, Italy, on June 24, 1519; daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (later named Pope Alexander VI) and Vannozza Cattanei; married Giovanni Sforza, in June 1493 (divorced 1497); married Alfonso di Biselli (Alphonso of Aragon), in 1498 (killed, 1500); married Alfonso I d'Este (1476–1534), 3rd duke of Ferrara and Modena, in November 1501; children: (second marriage) Rodrigo di Biselli (1499–1512); (third marriage) Ercole II (1508–1559), 4th duke of Ferrara and Modena (who marriedRenée of France ); Cardinal Ippolito II (1509–1572); Alessandro (1514–1516);Eleonora d'Este (1515–1575); Francesco d'Este (1516–1578).
Cattanei, Vannozza (1442–1518)
Italian noblewoman. Name variations: Vanozza dei Catanei; Rosa Vanozza. Probably born in Mantua in 1442; died on November 26, 1518; buried in Santa Maria del Populo with the highest honors; mistress of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) from c. 1468–1482; married Domenico d'Arignano (an officer of the church); married Giorgio san Croce (an Apostolic clerk and Venetian scholar), in 1480 (died 1486); married Carlo Canale (a protégé of the Gonzaga family), in 1486; children: (with Rodrigo Borgia) Cesare (1475–1507); Juan I (1476–1497), 2nd duke of Gandia;Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519); Geoffredo also known as Joffré (1482–1517); (second marriage) Ottaviano.
Because of her long and loving relationship with Rodrigo Borgia, Vannozza Cattanei lived in comfort. She saw her children of this union often but did not live with them. Except for short periods, she was married to others and lived a dignified and conventional life away from Rodrigo. During her marriage to Giorgio de Croce (1480–46), she lived in an imposing house in Rome, next to Rodrigo's, in Piazza Pizzo di Merlo. The house, which faced the piazza, was light and sunny, with many rooms, and her beloved garden. When Giorgio died, Vannozza remarried and went to live in Piazza Branca in the Arenula district. A large bequest to the Brotherhood of the Gonfalonieri ensured a splendid funeral when she died in 1518, age 76. "They decided to honor her 'with a proud and splendid monument,' writes Rachel Erlanger , 'and to celebrate a yearly mass on the anniversary of her death, as well as other ceremonies 'for the purpose of commending her soul's salvation to God.' For some unknown reason, the monument was never erected, but the masses were sung for over two hundred years, after which the soul of Vannozza was left to fend for itself."
Erlanger, Rachel. Lucrezia Borgia: A Biography. NY: Hawthorn, 1978.
Few people in history have achieved the level of notoriety that Lucrezia Borgia accumulated during her lifetime and for centuries afterwards. Born into a powerful and dangerous family, Lucrezia survived many scandals and intrigues before she finally made a place for herself at the court of Ferrara. Rumors begun by the rivals and gossips of her era survived well into the 19th century, providing a basis for Victor Hugo's play, Lucrece Borgia, and Gaetano Donizetti's opera by the same name. In those fictional accounts, Lucrezia Borgia is represented as a murderer and sexual fiend. Early in the 20th century, however, historians began working out the complicated details of her life. Biographies written in the 1930s and 1940s offer a more sympathetic representation of Lucrezia Borgia.
She was born on April 18, 1480, to Vannozza Cattanei and Rodrigo Borgia, who was then an acting cardinal in Rome. Vannozza was the favored mistress of the cardinal, and he used his position to make sure she was well cared for, providing her with a well-to-do husband and a large home on the Piazza Pizzo di Merlo. Vannozza had four children with Rodrigo; besides Lucrezia, there were Cesare, Juan, and Joffré. Like many others born to cardinals and bishops at this time, the children were raised with all the privileges of royalty. Each could look forward to a fairly secure position later in life and had the potential to gain great power. Lucrezia was to be a highly valued marriage partner, and several noble families would have been pleased to align themselves with the powerful Rodrigo Borgia by arranging a marriage with his daughter.
In early childhood, Lucrezia lived with Vannozza at her home. It is not clear how long she stayed with her mother, but at some point Rodrigo Borgia entrusted the care of his daughter to a cousin, Adriana Mila . Adriana saw to Lucrezia's education, probably in a respected local convent. There are no records indicating where
or how Lucrezia was educated, but noble girls at this time were usually taught classical literature, music, art, and some philosophy. It is known that Lucrezia could speak Spanish, Greek, Italian, French, and a little Latin. She enjoyed music, loved to dance, and is said to have tried her hand at poetry, though none of it survives. Much of her education was designed to make her a social success and a tribute to any family. Whatever else was said about Lucrezia, nearly all of the chroniclers and correspondents of the day remark on what a lovely and charming woman she was.
By the age of 13, Lucrezia had been betrothed twice. The first marriage contract, in 1491, was to a young Spanish noble named Don Juan de Centelles. The Borgia family had Spanish origins, and Rodrigo was content with finding a match for Lucrezia in that country. For unknown reasons, Rodrigo broke that contract within a year and signed a new one with another Spaniard, Gaspare de Procida, the Count of Aversa. That marriage would have gone on without a hitch were it not for a remarkable development in 1492, the same year Columbus landed in the West Indies. Rodrigo Borgia was elected pope, and all his plans were changed. Though Rodrigo's uncle had been named Pope Calixtus III, and Rodrigo certainly had dreams of grandeur, he had not expected to achieve his glory so early. As Pope Alexander VI, he could make an even better match for his daughter, one of national importance that had the potential to enhance the power of the Borgias. Gaspare was simply ignored, and Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza of Pesaro on June 12, 1493.
Italy at this time was not a single country but a series of related kingdoms and territories. Many of the personal alliances made by Pope Alexander, through Lucrezia or other family members, depended on the ever-changing balance of power. At this juncture, the pope and the regent of Milan were allied with the French king, Charles VIII, against the king of Naples. The Sforza family represented a strong connection with other potential enemies of Naples, and Giovanni Sforza was a good political catch despite his youth.
There is nothing to indicate what Lucrezia thought about her new husband or the politics that gave him to her. For some time before the wedding, Lucrezia had been living with Adriana Mila and Giulia Farnese , a new companion to the pope, in the palace of Santa Maria in Portico. It was a splendid place, provided and furnished by Alexander, located near enough to the Vatican so he could spend much of his time with his three favorite women. Giulia was his mistress and Adriana, his cousin, was a confidante and friend. The pope's affection for his daughter is legendary, and they corresponded enthusiastically whenever they had to be separated. This may be one of the reasons that later rumors of incest were started by critics of the Borgia family. Nevertheless, they were a fun-loving group and indulged in festivity when the occasion arose. Lucrezia's wedding was such an occasion, and the merrymaking that took place was the subject of much destructive gossip. Those chroniclers present tell only of excessive feasting, dancing, and parlor games, but none of the perverted activities hinted at by outside sources.
Mila, Adriana (fl. 1469–1502)
Italian noblewoman. Name variations: Adriana da Mila, Adriana Milo, Adriana Orsini. Probably born in Rome; died after 1502; daughter of Pedro de Mila (a Catalan); second cousin to Rodrigo or Roderigo Borgia; married Ludovico Orsini (died before 1489); children: Orsino Orsini.
Farnese, Giulia (1474–1518?)
Italian noblewoman. Name variations: Julia Farnese. Born in 1474; died after 1518; daughter of Pier Luigi Farnese; sister of Alessandro (Alexander) Farnese who later was elected Pope Paul III; married Orsino Orsini, on May 21, 1489; mistress of Alexander VI (Rodrigo or Roderigo Borgia).
While Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia were living at the Orsini palace with Adriana Mila, "the magnificent and unaffected" 15-year-old Giulia Farnese arrived on the arm of her new husband Orsino Orsini, Adriana's son. Giulia, known as "Giulia Bella," came from an ancient family belonging to the provincial nobility with estates around Lake Bolsena. By November 1493, Giulia was Rodrigo Borgia's favorite mistress. To show his favor, Borgia, who had been elected Pope Alexander VI a year earlier, made Giulia's brother Alessandro a cardinal. (Alessandro Farnese would later be elected Pope Paul III). A portrait of Giulia Farnese by Luca Longhi shows her with the mythical unicorn, a symbol of Chastity.
Giovanni stayed with his young wife in Rome for only one month before returning to Pesaro, while Lucrezia, only 13 years old, stayed on with Adriana and Giulia in Portico. The marriage had not been consummated, as is clear in a letter from the pope to Giovanni, offering him the entirety of the dowry money if he would return to Rome and see to this duty. No marriage was legally complete without consummation. Giovanni came to Rome briefly in November and again in January 1494. There are few details available about his visits, but, in May of that year, Lucrezia and her two companions left to join Giovanni in Pesaro. They may have left Rome in order to escape an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the city. Once having arrived in Pesaro, the three ladies entertained the local nobility but were not impressed with the town. In several letters to the pope, Lucrezia complained about the limited social occasions out in the province. Adding to her boredom, perhaps, was the fact that her new husband was often absent. Most of the year spent in Pesaro was monotonous, but at one point, there were rumors of Lucrezia suffering a mental breakdown. The pope did not rest until he received a letter directly from Lucrezia saying that she was fine.
She is a most intelligent and lovely, and also exceedingly gracious lady. … In short, her character is such that it is impossible to suspect anything "sinister" of her.
—Ambassador of Ferrara
Politics would intrude on what was, up to this point, a fairly normal arranged marriage. Pope Alexander's discreet participation in the alliance against Naples had placed him in a difficult position. The Sforza family was not doing well, politically, and the pope now worried that he had made a mistake in linking up with them. Meanwhile, Naples had successfully repelled the French army, and was now a force to be reckoned with. Deciding to cut his connection to Pesaro, Alexander began the process of divorcing his daughter from Giovanni. When Giovanni and Lucrezia returned to Rome in 1495, Alexander requested that his son-in-law agree to an annulment. It is not clear what Lucrezia's feelings for her husband were, though she was certainly respectful to him in public. Some sources say she may have saved his life, however, by convincing one of his grooms to hide in her room and eavesdrop on a conversation between her and an agent of her father's. According to the legend, the conversation made clear that Giovanni would be eliminated if he did not leave on his own, and the groom reported this to Giovanni. Whether or not this actually took place, Giovanni left Rome without warning in 1495.
The pope used his position to decree an annulment of the marriage based on non-consummation; he proclaimed widely that Giovanni was impotent. In response to this insult, Giovanni spread the rumor that Alexander had annulled the marriage because he wanted his daughter "for himself." The suggestion of incest was eagerly picked up by enemies of the pope. In the meantime, Lucrezia had retired briefly to the convent of San Sisto on the Via Appia, and new rumors declared that she was hiding because she had had an affair and was carrying an illegitimate child. A messenger named Pedro Calderon was the alleged lover, and he was reportedly murdered by Lucrezia's brother, Cesare Borgia. There is no mention of what happened to the supposed child.
Alexander's new choice for Lucrezia was Duke Alfonso di Biselli, a favored illegitimate son of the king of Naples. Alfonso was also the brother of Sancha of Aragon , a friend of Lucrezia's and the wife of Lucrezia's brother, Joffré. Lucrezia and Alfonso, both aged 18, took well to each other and were married some time in July 1498. They lived a rather gay life together in Rome, and within a year Lucrezia was pregnant. This was to be, unfortunately, one of many miscarriages. She recovered easily, however, and was pregnant once more when Alfonso was forced by her father and brother to leave Rome. Alexander and Cesare had renewed and strengthened an alliance with France, which was still an enemy of Naples. Cesare was ambitious and hoped to further his political career by pleasing the French crown. To do this, he needed to rid the Borgias of their inconvenient connection to Naples.
Lucrezia was heartbroken, so the story goes, and her father made her acting regent of Spoleto so he would not have to listen to her cry. He may also have hoped that giving her an official duty would make it more difficult for her to defy him and join her husband at Naples. She was also granted Sermoneta and Nepi, and retained as well her position of duchess of Biselli through her husband. As regent, she was entitled to all revenues from the territory, and she governed for several months. When her first child was born on November 1, 1499, she named the boy Rodrigo, after her father. In 1500, she returned to Rome with her new son and was joined there by Alfonso, who came at the pope's invitation. All was well until July 15, when Alfonso, after a friendly dinner with his wife and the pope, was leaving the Vatican. He and his companions were attacked by swordsmen in the street, and Alfonso, badly injured, was saved and brought back to the Vatican. Lucrezia and Alexander were horrified, and a carefully guarded sick room was set up in the pope's apartments.
Assisted by Sancha, Lucrezia took personal care of Alfonso, preparing his food by hand in his room to avoid any chance of a poisoning. One of them was always by his side. Cesare, with his well-known ambitions and willingness to use violence, was the obvious suspect in the attack. It is even said that he visited Alfonso's bedside and remarked: "What is not accomplished at noon may be done at night." Alfonso's tense recovery continued until, on August 18, Lucrezia and Sancha were tricked or forced into leaving his bedside. The young duke was strangled within minutes.
Once more, Lucrezia was sent away by her father to grieve in private. This time, at her own request, she worked as the governor of Nepi for several months. While there, Cesare came to visit in an attempt to right things between them. Lucrezia had always been in awe of her older brother, and they had been fairly close. Rumors had circulated for years, suggesting that the powerful brother and sister were a bit too close. According to some sources, however, Cesare understood what damage his sister suffered because of his political intrigues. Not knowing what reaction to expect from her after the murder of Alfonso, he was accompanied by armed soldiers when he visited her at Nepi. When facing Lucrezia, Cesare may have claimed that Alfonso was likely to have killed him, and that he only protected himself by moving first. Whatever passed between them at Nepi, their relationship was repaired. In later years, Lucrezia would become his greatest advocate, and he protected his sister with ferocity. He visited her often, even if it meant traveling days out of his way; on one occasion, when Lucrezia was suffering from a fever and had refused medical care, Cesare appeared at her bedside and convinced her to let the doctors bleed her.
When it came time to return to Rome, Lucrezia wrote to a trusted servant that she was filled with "misgivings and anxiety." It is said that when she last saw her father she had raged against his inability or unwillingness to protect her husband from Cesare. In truth, Alexander at the time had already started looking for her next husband—someone who would not upset the new alliance with the French. He was not likely to have stood in Cesare's way when the chance to be rid of Alfonso arose. Lucrezia had probably suspected this and accused her father of compliance in the murder. Now, Lucrezia cautiously returned to Rome to make up with her father and await new developments.
In 1501, Pope Alexander wished to travel and oversee some of the fighting in the never-ending territorial struggles. Cesare had recently invaded and confiscated Pesaro, and the pope saw the chance to expand his own territory. He left Lucrezia, who had been living with her infant son at the Palace of Saint Peter's, in charge of all papal correspondence. It was most unusual for a lay person, especially a woman, to handle such important business. She was to ask the respected Cardinal of Lisbon for guidance in matters of importance.
The next proposed match for Lucrezia was Alfonso d'Este, prince of Ferrara, a 24-year-old, childless widower, who stood to inherit a great dukedom. Though Alfonso was opposed to the marriage, his father, Duke Ercole, reportedly made the arrangements. Neither of them, however, was thrilled to be receiving such an infamous lady into such an old and respected family as the Estes. They sent ambassadors to Rome to meet Lucrezia and send back their opinions. The reports that came back were positive, and negotiations began.
In spite of the clear danger linked with marrying Lucrezia Borgia, Alexander had received many offers of marriage for his recently widowed daughter. So far, her husbands had suffered terrible fates. Alexander, on the other hand, was determined to win over the house of Este. Lucrezia, too, was eager for these arrangements to be finalized. Perhaps she was ready to leave Rome and start anew, hoping that a powerful enough match would remove her from the manipulation of her family. Many sources indicate that Lucrezia was pushing harder than anyone for this marriage to take place.
Sancha of Aragon (1478–1506)
Italian noblewoman. Name variations: Sanchia of Aragon. Born in Gaeta in 1478; died in Naples in 1586; illegitimate daughter of Alfonso also known as Alphonso II of Aragon (1448–1495), king of Naples (r. 1494–1495), andTrogia Gazzela; niece of Ferrante of Aragon, king of Naples; sister of Duke Alfonso di Biselli (husband ofLucrezia Borgia ); betrothed to Joffré Borgia in 1493.
Among the dowry demands being proposed by Este was that the people of Ferrara be released indefinitely from paying tithes to the church, and that the house of Este be guaranteed control of the duchy of Ferrara. These arrangements would ensure that the territory could not be taken over by the pope once he was a relative. Lucrezia began corresponding with Duke Ercole, promising her help in these matters. When he asked her to use her influence to have several nuns from Viterbo and Narni transferred to a newly established convent in Ferrara, she saw that it was done; she then offered the nuns as a gift to her new father-in-law. Ercole also expected religious posts for several of his relatives, which he eventually procured. The arrangements were made over the next few months, and the contract was signed. On November 5, 1501, festivities began in Rome. The marriage was performed in the Vatican on December 30, with someone standing in as proxy for Prince Alfonso. Lucrezia would join her husband later in Ferrara.
There was one last scandal before Lucrezia left Rome, and it concerned a party thrown in her honor by Cesare. There were reports of explicit sexual performances given by local prostitutes, with Lucrezia and the pope in the audience. Whether or not this actually happened is a mystery that will never be resolved; there are a number of conflicting stories. Nevertheless, there were many parties given for Lucrezia in the days before she left. Finally, she was prepared to leave with a Ferrarese escort and her own entourage on the morning of January 6, 1502. It had been decided that Rodrigo, Lucrezia's son by the duke of Biselli, would remain in Rome in the care of a relative. Lucrezia would provide for his care and education out of her own money so the Estes family would not have to take him in. Lucrezia said goodbye to her father at the Vatican; she was never to see him again.
Her departure from Rome is considered to be a major turning point in her life. The worst that was said about her after this day was that she spent too long on her hair and general toilet, a habit that held up the entourage as it traveled through Italy to Ferrara. A Ferrarese ambassador complained of her constant need for rest and washing, which delayed them in almost every city along the way. However, Lucrezia was passing through many cities now owned by her brother, and some that she had once governed herself. At each stop, she was welcomed and honored. It is likely that she was more concerned with making a good impression than with keeping to an arranged schedule. The group made progress, however, and on February 1, they met up with Isabella d'Este (1474–1539), the marchesa of Mantua and sister of Alfonso d'Este. Isabella finished the journey by Lucrezia's side, and they approached Ferrara together. Alfonso also rode out some distance to meet his new wife and lead her procession into the city.
The festivities in Ferrara were splendid, designed to impress the new duchess and her followers, as well as the representatives of France who were there to witness the event. During the weeklong carnival, Lucrezia established the nature of her new relationships. Alfonso was attentive and respectful in public and performed his husbandly duties each night with vigor. The pope was happy to receive the report that his daughter and her new partner consummated the match several times on the first night. During the day, however, Alfonso was free to pursue his favorite activities, alternating between military exercises and visits to brothels. Over the next several years, Lucrezia was to experience countless pregnancies, most of them ending in miscarriage.
Isabella and Lucrezia regarded each other as rivals for the position of the most admired woman at court. Their initial letters to each other and to friends are littered with cool, but catty, remarks about hair, dress, and conversation. Isabella and her companions were the primary critics of Lucrezia's habit of sleeping late and spending hours on her appearance. Over time, however, the two women became friendly, if not actually close friends. In later years, they corresponded regularly and with a certain affection. Although it is said that Lucrezia eventually had an affair with Isabella's husband, Francesco Gonzaga, it did not seem to affect the relations between the women. Isabella is widely considered to have been a stronger and more intelligent leader than her husband, the marquis, and it is possible she had little affection for him.
The most heated conflicts Lucrezia encountered in the first few years at Ferrara were with her father-in-law, Ercole. He gave her an allowance and the Castel Vecchio, at which she established her court. However, the money he offered was less than she was used to spending, and when direct arguments failed to get her a raise, she complained to her father. The pope gently convinced the duke to advance Lucrezia more money, but then tried to remain above the fray. Alfonso, perhaps wisely, also avoided getting involved in the issue. Their second conflict concerned the make-up of Lucrezia's court: Spaniards, personal favorites, and relatives. According to legend, their outlandish and wild partying offended the more somber Ferrarese. There were also several locals who had been hired by Ercole to serve Lucrezia; he preferred his own people over the "foreigners" that accompanied his daughter-in-law. Eventually, Ercole simply dismissed the Spanish attendants and ignored Lucrezia's tearful complaints of loneliness.
When Pope Alexander VI died on August 18, 1503, the fortunes of the Borgia clan changed abruptly. The newly elected pope, Julius II, was a rival of the family, and the king of France decided it was worth more to be in a pope's favor than to look out for alliances that had lost their meaning. Cesare was abandoned to fate, and, in 1504, he was taken out of Italy as a prisoner of Spain. Lucrezia faced potential danger, but the Estes decided to let her be. Within a few months, she had lost her father, seen her brother destroyed, and suffered another of many miscarriages. Her grief briefly overwhelmed her, but her personality and loyalty to her new family may have saved her. For whatever reason, she remained safe, and Ercole even indulged her in her petitions to get Cesare freed. Lucrezia tirelessly wrote to the new pope and to the king of France, hoping to save her brother.
In 1505, Ercole died, and Alfonso became the new duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia gave birth to a son, Alessandro, who died after only two months. Continued territorial skirmishes called Alfonso away from Ferrara to fight for the pope in a war on Milan. In 1506, Lucrezia acted as regent of Ferrara in conjunction with her brother-in-law, Cardinal Ippolito. A military man like his brother, Ippolito also left Ferrara for the war, and Lucrezia governed alone, on and off for the next few years. Between 1509 and 1513, Pope Julius II tried to seize Ferrara, and Alfonso and Ippolito again left Lucrezia in charge. She received praise in her governing abilities. It is said that in 1509 she passed one of the few laws in Ferrara protecting the Jews from persecution. Lucrezia also pawned most of her jewels and gowns to help finance the war, as well as to found a convent and a hospital.
For the last ten years of her life, Lucrezia enjoyed relative stability and content. She was pregnant almost constantly; when Cesare was killed in 1507, the news had been kept from her for almost a month while she suffered from a complicated pregnancy. In 1508, Alfonso returned to Ferrara and was temporarily in control of his territory. On April 4 of that year, Lucrezia gave birth to a son, and they named him Ercole. He would grow up to be the next duke of Ferrara. In 1509, while acting as regent of the city, she had another son, named Ippolito, who became a cardinal like his uncle and namesake. Unfortunately, in 1512, while Ferrara was fighting off the pope's armies, Lucrezia received word that Rodrigo di Biselli, her first-born son, had died of an illness in Rome. In 1514, a third son was born, named Alessandro, who lived only two years. Lucrezia's only daughter, Eleonora, was born in 1515, followed by another son, Francesco, in 1516. Only five of Lucrezia's children outlived her.
In addition to her political and maternal activities, Lucrezia Borgia had also successfully created a cultural center at her court. Alfonso had no care for intellectual pursuits, and Lucrezia happily replaced Duke Ercole as the city's greatest art patron. She enjoyed a close friendship with the poet Ercole Strozzi until his murder in 1508; the convent she founded was near the site of his death. Lucrezia had a more romantic friendship and correspondence with Pietro Bembo, a poet and later a papal secretary. Bembo dedicated his famous work, "Asolani," to Lucrezia in 1505. There are hints of passion in their flowery letters to one another, but it is unclear whether they had the opportunity or inclination for a physical relationship. Lucrezia funded painters and performers across the city and entertained at Vecchio whenever she could. A catalogue of her personal library reveals a preference for religious works and romantic prose, as well as some philosophy.
On June 15, 1519, Lucrezia Borgia collapsed during another difficult pregnancy. After giving birth prematurely to a girl who only lived a few hours, Lucrezia lingered for more than a week, in and out of consciousness. She dictated a letter to Pope Leo X, asking for the highest blessing and forgiveness as she faced death. She seemed comforted when she received word that he had granted it, and she died at the age of 40 on the night of June 24, with Alfonso at her side.
Bellonci, Maria. The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. Italy: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1939. Translation, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
Chamberlin, E.R. The Fall of the House of Borgia. NY: Dial Press, 1974.
Gardner, Edmund. Dukes and Poets in Ferrara. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1904.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand. Lucrezia Borgia: A Chapter from the Morals of the Italian Renaissance. NY: Phaidon, 1948.
Mallet, Michael. The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1969.
Shankland, Hugh, trans. The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo, 1503–1519. London: Collias Harvill, 1987.
Hugo, Victor. Lucrece Borgia: Oeuvres Completes de Victor Hugo. Paris: Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle, date unknown.
Nancy L. Locklin , Ph.D. candidate, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia
Born: April 18, 1480
Died: June 24, 1519
Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, earned a reputation as a political schemer in fifteenth century Italy. In actuality, she was simply used by her father and brother to further their own political goals.
Lucrezia Borgia was born during Italy's Renaissance period (1320–1520), a time when artists, architects, and scientists rose to world appreciation. She was born into one of the most well-known families in world history: the Borgias, who sought to control as much of Italy as they could. The Borgias legacy, however, is not one to be desired, as they earned a reputation for being evil, violent, and politically corrupt.
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (c. 1431–1503), 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 task 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. Lucrezia was slender with light blue-green eyes and golden hair, which she later bleached to maintain its goldenness. A painting by Pinturicchio (1454–1513), "Disputation of Saint Catherine," is said to be modeled after her. It portrays a slender, young woman with wavy, blonde hair cascading down her back.
The first marriage
Young Lucrezia was no more than eleven when she was first affected by the political ambitions of her father (who had by this time become Pope Alexander VI) and her older brother, Cesare. Her father annulled (can-celled) a marriage contract between Lucrezia and a Spanish nobleman. Instead he gave Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, a twenty-seven-year old with a fierce temper.
By the time Lucrezia was seventeen, Alexander and Cesare, were looking to align themselves with Spain and Naples against France and the Sforza family. Sensing he was losing favor with the Borgia family, Giovanni fled for his life. Soon Lucrezia's marriage was annulled and Giovanni was humiliated.
The second marriage
For Lucrezia's next husband, Cesare and Rodrigo chose seventeen-year-old Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie and son of the late king of Naples. But by the time her first marriage was officially annulled on December 27, 1497, Lucrezia was six months pregnant. Rumors swirled throughout Italy as to who the father was.
Alfonso of Aragon was reputed to be a handsome youth with fine manners, and by all evidence Lucrezia truly loved him. But only a year later, political changes were once again stirring. Alexander and Cesare now looked to align with France, and Lucrezia's marriage to Alfonso stood in the way. Fearing for his life, Alfonso also fled Rome. Lucrezia met up with her husband in Nepi and soon the two returned to Rome.
On July 15, 1500, hired killers attacked Alfonso, stabbing him several times. On August 18, as Alfonso was recovering, Cesare reportedly 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.
Left a widow at the age of twenty, 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 secretary, often opening and responding to his mail when he was not in residence.
A new husband
Once again politics determined Lucrezia's marriage to the twenty-four-year-old widower Alfonso d'Este, eldest son of Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia was eager for the marriage. She regarded Rome as a prison and thought she would have a better chance of leading her own life in Ferrara, away from her ambitious father and brother.
On February 2, 1502, Lucrezia and Alfonso were wed. Lucrezia had married a man who not only was interested in artillery, tournaments, dogs, and horses, but who also played the viol (a musical instrument that was popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) and made pottery. On the other hand, he was also known for his cruelty, stinginess, and strange behavior.
Life in Ferrara
The people of Ferrara adored Lucrezia, praising her for her beauty and "inner grace of personality." Content to socialize with artists, courtiers, poets, and citizens of the Renaissance court, she helped make Ferrara a center for artists and writers.
In 1503 Alexander died, along with many of Cesare's political plans. Finally, some stability appeared in Lucrezia's life. When Ercole died in 1505, she and Alfonso became the reigning duke and duchess of Ferrara. Lucrezia had several children by Alfonso d'Este. In 1512 Lucrezia withdrew from public life, possibly from the news that Rodrigo, her son by Alfonso of Aragon, had died. She began to spend more time in her apartments or in nearby convents, and turned to religion.
As the years progressed, her body thickened, and she was said to have aged greatly. She also suffered from spells of deep sadness. On June 14, 1519, while giving birth to a stillborn girl (dead upon birth), she developed a fever that caused her to lose much of her strength. She died ten days later at the age of thirty-nine.
Many historians view Lucrezia Borgia as a political pawn whose marriages were used for her family's political gains. Born into a vicious and greedy family, Lucrezia was very much a product of her times, and she accepted these ambitions and their consequences for the good of the family.
For More Information
Bellonci, Maria. The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.
Chamberlin, E. R. The Fall of the House of Borgia. New York: Dial Press, 1974.
Cloulas, Ivan. The Borgias. Translated by Gilda Roberts. New York: F. Watts, 1989.
Lucrezia Borgia was one of the most notorious of Italian noblewomen of the Renaissance. Her fame arose, not from her own ambitions but from those of her brother and father. Her father was a member of the Borgia, a noble family of mixed Spanish and Italian heritage, and in 1492, he became Pope Alexander VI. Her mother, Vannozza Cattanei, was her father's longtime mistress, and she bore him four children, including the famous Cesare Borgia, who became his father's right-hand man in the papal states during the 1490s.
Lucrezia was married three times to suit the changing course of the Borgia's political ambitions. The first marriage was to Giovannia Sforza, lord of a small territory of Pesaro. In 1498, when the opportunity presented itself, Lucrezia's father annulled this marriage and wed her to Duke Alfonso of Busceglie. Alfonso was the illegitimate son of the king of Naples, but in 1501, as a new opportunity beckoned, Lucrezia's brother Cesare had Alfonso assassinated. Finally, Lucrezia wed Alfonso D'Este, the powerful duke of Ferrara. In her capacity as duchess of Ferrara, Lucrezia presided over a brilliant court. Among those who were affiliated with Ferrara during her rule as duchess were the poets Pietro Bembo and Ariosto and the humanist and printer Aldus Manutius. Despite her previous marital difficulties, Lucrezia made her husband an admirable wife and bore him seven children. The people of Ferrara, too, affectionately held her in high regard because of her numerous charitable activities in the small state. She died young, though, as a result of complications from childbirth.
Long-standing rumors once linked Lucrezia with the suspicious deaths, not only of her second husband but of several other Italian nobles. Her notoriety, however, was largely the result of her relation to the ruthless figures of her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her grasping brother, Cesare. In her own time, though, Lucrezia was widely recognized in court circles for her style, and her dowry and trousseau were among the largest for a noblewoman of the early sixteenth century. Lucrezia came to Ferrara with one of the largest trousseau ever recorded up to this time, worth the princely sum of 15,000 ducats. While Lucrezia's impressive wedding ensemble was extraordinary, it points to the enormous role that clothes played in defining status and rank in the Renaissance world.
M. Bellonci, The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. Trans. B. Walls (New York: Harcourt, 1953).
R. Erlanger, Lucrezia Borgia: A Biography (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978).
J. Haslip, Lucrezia Borgia (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953).
M. Mallett, The Borgias (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1987).
Borgia, Lucrezia (1480–1519)
Borgia, Lucrezia (1480–1519)
The daughter of the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattani, Lucrezia Borgia was born in the Italian town of Subiaco. In 1492 Rodrigo Borgia was elected as Pope Alexander VI, and the Borgia family became one of the most powerful—and ambitious—in Italy. In the next year the pope arranged the marriage of Lucrezia, aged thirteen, to Giovanni Sforza, a scion of the ruling family of Milan. Sforza's usefulness to the pope soon declined, however, and he was pressured to annul his marriage. He eventually agreed to a divorce on the grounds of his own impotence, but not before spreading tales that the pope wanted Lucrezia for his own mistress. A faction opposed to the Borgia family took up the slander, also spreading the rumor that Alexander VI as well as Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia's brother, were having incestuous relations with her. The pope arranged a second marriage for Lucrezia with Alfonso of Aragon, a member of the dynasty that ruled the city of Naples. Out of jealousy or political ambition, Cesare Borgia ordered his henchmen to attack Alfonso in Rome and then strangle him in his bed. Lucrezia was then betrothed to Alfonso d'Este, the prince of Ferrara. As the Duchess of Ferrara, she presided at a renowned Renaissance court of artists and poets, and was praised by those who knew her as a gracious and intelligent woman. The political turmoil surrounding the Borgia family sullied the reputation of Lucrezia Borgia, who would go down in history as an ambitious, conniving, and evil woman. Modern historians question many of the misdeeds attributed to her, however, and believe her worst attribute was to have passively served her brother and father as a useful political pawn.
Borgia, Lucrezia (1480–1519)
Borgia, Lucrezia (1480–1519)
Duchess of Ferrara. Name variations: Madonna Lucrezia; Lucrece Borgia. Pronunciation: BOR-jha. Born in Rome, April 18, 1480; died in childbirth in Ferrara, Italy, June 24, 1519; dau. of Rodrigo Borgia (later named Pope Alexander VI) and Vannozza Cattanei; m. Giovanni Sforza, June 1493 (div. 1497); m. Alfonso di Biselli (Alphonso of Aragon), 1498 (killed 1500); m. Alfonso I d'Este (1476–1534), 3rd duke of Ferrara and Modena, Nov 1501; children: (2nd m.) Rodrigo di Biselli (1499–1512); (3rd m.) Ercole II (1508–1559), 4th duke of Ferrara and Modena (who m. Renée of France); Cardinal Ippolito II (1509–1572); Alessandro (1514–1516); Eleonora d'Este (1515–1575); Francesco d'Este (1516–1578).
Known alternately as a monster, a pawn, a beauty, a loving mother, and a great patron of the arts, was born into a powerful and dangerous family and survived many scandals and intrigues before she finally made a place for herself at the court of Ferrara. Rumors begun by rivals and gossips of her era survived well into the 19th century, providing a basis for Victor Hugo's play, Lucrece Borgia, and Gaetano Donizetti's opera by the same name; in those fictional accounts, she's represented as a murderer and sexual fiend; early in the 20th century, however, historians began working out the complicated details of her life, and biographies written in the 1930s and 1940s offer a far more sympathetic representation of her.
See also Women in World History.