Today is the birthday of Lucrezia Borgia, she was born in 1480 in Subiaco near Rome. She was said to be very beautiful, with golden hair that fell past her knees. There aren’t any contemporary paintings that we definitely know are of her, but of the likely candidates, the one on the right is my favourite. Historically, she has been seen as a dreadful person. A depraved incestuous poisoner and general worst person ever. You can find stories about how she carried poison hidden inside a ring, and how she attended a party at the Vatican where fifty prostitutes were made to crawl around on a floor that was strewn with lit candelabra and chestnuts (don’t know why). Although she was certainly a member of a very ruthless and power hungry family, she may have been completely innocent of the crimes of which she was accused.
Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of a Cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia, and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. This sounds like a pretty shocking thing to us, but it really wasn’t. It was quite normal for men of the cloth to have mistresses, they just weren’t allowed to marry. As with any daughter of a powerful family, her value was that she could be married off to someone who could provide them with political advantage. Rodrigo arranged for her to be married at the age of ten, but then he changed his mind and betrothed her to someone else. When she was twelve, her father was made Pope. As Pope Alexander VI, he could arrange a much more advantageous marriage for her and he broke of her second engagement. At thirteen, she was married to Giovanni Sforza.
Two years later though, the marriage ceased to be of political advantage to the Borgia family. The easiest way to have got rid of him would have just been to have him killed, and it seems this is what Alexander and Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare planned to do. But Cesare warned Lucrezia and she told Giovanni to leave Rome. Next, Alexander wanted their marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Giovanni was understandably upset by this and launched a counter attack. He accused both the Pope and Cesare of committing incest with his wife. It all got pretty nasty but Giovanni eventually agreed to be thought of as impotent if he could keep her huge dowry. It is possible that Lucrezia was pregnant at this time and later gave birth to a son. A child was certainly born in the Borgia family, but no one is sure of his parentage. The Pope issued two separate Papal Bulls. One claiming that Cesare was the father the other claiming that the child was his. There is no mention of the mother’s name, but it certainly fuels the rumours of incest. Lucrezia herself may have been having an affair with Alexander’s chamberlain, Pedro Calderon. It wasn’t very long before Pedro’s body washed up in the Tiber.
Her first husband was probably lucky to escape with his life. Her second, Alfonso d’Aragon was not so lucky. When his family fell out of favour he was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica and stabbed several times. This was not what killed him though. Lucrezia, who seems to have genuinely cared for him, was nursing him as he recovered from his wounds when someone strangled him. Suspicion fell very heavily in the area of one of her brother Cesare’s trusted servants.
It is not surprising that Lucrezia’s next prospective father-in-law, Ercole I d’Este, was a bit uneasy about the match. He had seen how badly her first marriages had turned out and he had heard the rumours of incest. In fact, he sent a spy to the Vatican to see what Lucrezia was really like. He received a report that she seemed like a sweet and lovely girl, who was not at all depraved. Also, a combination of a large dowry and a threat to unseat him as Duke of Ferrara helped secure her marriage to his eldest son and heir. Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este remained married until she died after complications in her last pregnancy. It doesn’t seem like they were in love as they both had loads of affairs. She had a long affair with her brother-in law. Also, in the Ambrosian Museum in Milan, there are a number of love letters that she sent to a court poet, Pietro Bembo, along with a lock of her hair. Lord Byron visited the museum in 1816 and declared them to be ‘the prettiest love letters in the world. He also made off with a strand of her hair. What remain is now encased in glass, to keep it safe from poets.
Lucrezia’s third marriage probably stood the test of time because her scheming father, Pope Alexander VI and her awful brother Cesare Borgia both died, releasing her from their machinations. Free to live her own life, she made an excellent Duchess of Ferrara. She was a patron of the Arts. She bought up marshy land and had it drained for agricultural use and she gave much of her wealth to fund the building of hospitals and convents. When she died, people were truly sorry.
So, her evil reputation seems ill-deserved. It really began with rumours started by her spurned first husband and continued after the next Pope, Julius II, seriously fell out with her third husband. There was an incident where a bronze statue of the Pope was toppled and broken into pieces. Alfonso had the bits melted down and made into a cannon. Macchiavelli repeated the rumours as fact, so did a historian called Guicciardini. Then, in 1833, Victor Hugo wrote a stage play about her which got turned into an opera by Donizetti. Which is probably what led Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint this picture of her, cavorting with her father and brother.