Stubborn, beautiful, sexually promiscuous and by reputation ruthless, Lucrezia Borgia was said to have rivaled her brother Cesare and her father Pope Alexander VI in jealousy, intrigue, and murder. But was Lucrezia as bad as historians have made her out to be? Or was she simply an innocent pawn used by her family to reinforce alliances?
Lucrezia Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, future Pope Alexander VI, and Vanozza dei Cattanei born April 18th 1480 at Subiaco, near Rome. Lucrezia was described as being absolutely stunningly beautiful, with long, heavy blonde hair, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes and a perfect figure and she had the ability to move with such grace that it seemed as if she was floating on air. Apparently she had all of the qualities that were valued in Rome at that time of a perfect woman. Lucrezia spent her childhood at first in her mother’s home and later in the household of Giulia Farnese, her father’s mistress. Lucrezia was educated as most young ladies were, in the arts of needle work and other ladylike tasks and Lucrezia was used as most daughters of powerful men were – as a pawn in their father’s quests for power by being married off to other men who would only increase their own power and wealth. In Lucrezia’s case, this was done on three occasions and since her father was the all-powerful Pope Alexander VI of Rome, he sought to be allied with the most powerful and founding dynasties of Italy.
Lucrezia’s first marriage was to Giovanni Sforza on the 12th of June 1493 when she was only 13 years old. The marriage was not a happy one, Giovanni often abused his young wife and before long Alexander no longer needed the Sforzas – he required much more advantageous political allies – and Lucrezia would soon be freed of her husband, much to her relief. Alexander ordered Giovanni’s execution however Lucrezia found out about the plan from her older brother Cesare and informed her husband who then fled to Rome. Why she would tell him after all of the abuse at his hands, who knows, perhaps it was her conscious that saved the monster she called a husband. Anyways, Alexander would not be deterred and along with Cardinal Ascanio Sforza they attempted to persuade Giovanni to agree to a divorce. Not surprisingly Giovanni did not consent – he, an illegitimate son was married to the daughter of the Pope of Rome, never would he give up his position of power, and he in turn accused Lucrezia of paternal and fraternal incest. This wasn’t this first accusation of incest among the Borgia family and it would not be the last. The Pope then tried a different tactic – he then claimed that the marriage had never been consummated and was therefore invalid. When Giovanni protested this claim he was challenged to “prove his manhood” by taking Lucrezia in front of the Borgia and Sforza families, he could not “rise” to the occasion. Alexander then offered to pay Giovanni all of Lucrezia’s dowry and the continued protection from the Sforza family in exchange for the divorce and signed confessions of impotence. Reluctantly Giovanni finally agreed and the annulment was granted.
Everything appeared to be going as planned however Lucrezia threw an unexpected wrench into the plans – she was pregnant. Now, how could she be pregnant if the marriage was never consummated? Turns out that Lucrezia was having an affair with the Pope’s messenger Perotto while she was still married to Giovanni. Lucrezia retired to a convent to wait out the long months of pregnancy until Lucrezia was required to stand before the papal court to prove that she was virgin and that the marriage was in fact never consummated. Even though she was about six months pregnant at the time her brother Cesare still declared her a virgin. Maybe he thought that she had simply put on a ton of weight while living in the convent but when he discovered the truth after the trial he reacted in anger and attacked Perotto with a sword, and although wounded, the servant survived. Not for long however as the body of Perotto was discovered in the Tiber along with a maid six days later. Lucrezia supposedly gave birth to a baby boy, Giovanni, in March of 1498. In order to protect Lucrezia’s innocence two papal bulls were issued that recognized Giovanni as the son of Pope Alexander VI and a mistress and that he was not Lucrezia’s child but rather her half-brother.
|Alfonso of Aragon|
After her divorce Lucrezia was soon married off to Alfonso of Aragon, the half-brother of Sancha of Aragon, wife of her younger brother Gioffre, in 1498. The marriage produced one son, Rodrigo who was born the 1st of November 1499. Alfonso was essentially a non-functioning consort but he was enraptured by his beautiful wife. Unfortunately the marriage would not last long as Alfonso’s family soon fell out of favour with the Pope and he would be murdered in 1500. Not long after the birth of their son, Alfonso was attacked by Cesare’s henchmen and although he was wounded he did not die . . . at least not right away. He was taken to Lucrezia’s chambers where she attempted to nurse him back to health, playing the role of devoted and loving wife until her brother Cesare ordered her out of the rooms. When Lucrezia was allowed to return she discovered that her beloved had been strangled to death, most likely by her brother Cesare.
Poor Lucrezia, widowed twice by the time she was 20 years old. Her third and finally marriage was quick orchestrated and she soon became betrothed to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The two, both widowed, married in 1502 in Ferrara. Lucrezia proved to be a respectable and accomplished Renaissance duchess and the two lived happily in Ferrara. Their marriage produced six children: Erole II d’Este (1508), Ippolito II d’Este (1509), Alessandro d’Este (1514), Leonora d’Este (1515), Francesco d’Este (1516) and Isabella Maria d’Este (1519). Though their marriage was happy, neither Alfonso nor Lucrezia were faithful. Lucrezia enjoyed a long relationship with her brother-in-law Francesco II Gonzaga, an affair that continued until Francesco contracted syphilis and was forced to end the relationship. It is said that their affair was extremely passionate and that it was more sexual than it was sensual. Throughout the affair Lucrezia attempted to maintain a friendship with her lover’s wife Isabella . . . oh what a friendship that must have been. Lucrezia was not satisfied with only having one lover in addition to her husband, she was also having an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo.
Lucrezia died in Ferrara from complications after giving birth to her eighth child, Isabella Maria, who died hours after being born. Lucrezia died 10 days later on the 24th of June 1519.
There were many rumours about Lucrezia; alligations of incest, adultery, poison, murder to name a few. It was suggested that she not only had an incestuous affair with her brother Cardinal Cesare Borgia but also with her father Pope Alexander IV. Eww! In fact it is unknown who the biological father of her son Giovanni was … was it Perotto? Or Cesare? Or even Alexander? It is also said that Lucrezia possessed a hollow ring that contained cantarella that she frequently used to poison her lovers as well as her families political enemies. Though she was devoted to her family the image of Lucrezia Borgia remains that of a woman rampant with ambition, cruelty and selfishness with the poison ring firmly placed on her finger.