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Lucrezia Borgia, Predator or Pawn?

The illegitimate daughter of a pope and his mistress, Lucrezia Borgia was a famous beauty, notorious for the suspicious deaths and political intrigue that swirled around her and her family. But how much of the scandalous reputation was true, and how much was sheer invention?

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Renaissance Woman Bartolomeo Veneto’s 1515 refined portrait, believed to be of Lucrezia Borgia, is starkly at odds with her lurid reputation.
This story appears in the January/February 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.

On a spring day in 1480, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia ordered various astrologers to his home in Rome to tell him the future of a newborn child. Named Lucrezia, the baby girl was the daughter of Vannozza Cattanei, a Roman woman noted for her beauty. Nobody believed for one moment, however, that the child’s father was Vannozza’s husband, as Vannozza had been Borgia’s favorite mistress for many years. To the cardinal’s delight, the astrologers foretold a remarkable future for his illegitimate daughter. If their exact predictions came true, the world does not know, but Lucrezia did grow up to become one of the most infamous members of the powerful Borgia clan.

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The Borgia coat of arms conveys the power associated with Lucrezia’s family.

Throughout her short life, Lucrezia Borgia was considered beautiful. In her early 20s, a courtier described her as “of middle height and graceful of form; her face is rather long, as is her nose, her hair golden, her eyes of no particular color, her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, the bust admirably proportioned. Her whole being exudes gaiety and humor.”

Celebrated in a play by the French writer Victor Hugo, a major opera by Donizetti, and the inspiration for many movies, Lucrezia’s life has long fascinated storytellers, who have depicted her as a femme fatale—a seductive woman who poisoned those whom she could not manipulate and who attended orgies and had incestuous relations with members of her family. Most of these characterizations have little or no basis in fact, and many historians now see Lucrezia as a victim of her own family’s machinations for power. Her life serves as a vivid insight into the torrid world of papal politics at the height of the Italian Renaissance and during the tumultuous years leading up to the Protestant Reformation.

Growing up Borgia

Ambitious and worldly, the Borgias originated in Spain and were viewed with alarm and envy by native Italian families. Ascending to the papal throne earlier in the century, Pope Calixtus III was a Borgia. During Lucrezia’s infancy, her father continued to maneuver politically to promote the family’s interests.

Having spent her early years living with her mother, Lucrezia was later transferred by her father to the house of his cousin, Adriana Orsini, who taught Lucrezia the foundation of high culture: Latin, Greek, Italian, and French, as well as music, singing, and drawing, enabling her to move with ease in the highest court circles. Orsini’s approach to education was unequivocal: “Above all be sure you have something to say, and then express yourself with simplicity and frankness, avoiding affected words. I want you to learn how to think, not how to produce brilliant sentences.” This education would set her in good stead for a life that was soon to be turned upside down.

In August 1492, Rome appointed its second Borgia pontiff, when Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI. Her father’s accession changed Lucrezia’s life forever. From then on, her fate took on greater importance to the powerful men around her. Because Alexander was pope, his young daughter’s marriage prospects soon became the focus of immense interest in the upper echelons of Roman society. A year later, in 1493, Andrea Boccaccio, the Duke of Ferrara’s ambassador to Rome, described the 13-year-old Lucrezia as an exquisite, graceful young thing, whose education had been “full of Christian piety.”

The leading families in Italy were all keen to connect their fortunes with those of the powerful Pope Alexander, and many sought to strike an alliance. Cardinal Ascanio Sforza pointed out: “There are many who long to marry into the pope’s family via his daughter and he lets many think they have a chance. Even the king of Naples aspires to win her hand!”

No family, however, was better placed to put forward a suitor than that of the man who had played a decisive role in the election of Pope Alexander: Cardinal Sforza himself, whose brother was the powerful Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Cardinal Sforza proposed uniting their house by marrying 13-year-old Lucrezia to his nephew, Giovanni. The offer was accepted by the Borgias, who thereby gained a powerful ally in the north and center of Italy.

On June 9, 1493, Giovanni Sforza made his triumphal entrance into Rome through the Porta del Popolo, and three days later his marriage to Lucrezia took place. The city’s elite families, ambassadors, and other officials were invited to attend the ceremony. Accounts describe how the pope and the cardinals ate and danced all night long at the wedding reception. Then in the early hours, the pontiff accompanied the newlyweds to the palace of Santa Maria in Portico. The hopes and fears of Lucrezia, little more than a child herself, were of little consideration to the players involved. The young couple were barely allowed the briefest of domestic interludes before a political storm engulfed them.

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A Pope Under Siege When King Charles VIII of France entered Rome, Pope Alexander VI took refuge in the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Charles’s alliance with Lucrezia’s husband’s family doomed her first marriage.

Early in 1494, the troops of King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. Ludovico Sforza, uncle of Lucrezia’s husband, forged an alliance with the French against Lucrezia’s father. Trapped in Rome, Giovanni was in an impossible position—caught between the loyalties to his uncle on the one side and to his wife and the mighty Borgias on the other. In the end, he refused to turn against his uncle by supporting Lucrezia’s brothers, Juan and Cesare. After this decision, Cesare explained to Lucrezia that her husband would have to be killed.

Allegedly warned by Lucrezia of the plan, Giovanni fled to Milan disguised as a beggar. The Borgias then began the long process of trying to annul the marriage on the grounds that Giovanni was impotent and had never consummated the marriage. These whispers marked the beginning of centuries of lurid speculation about Lucrezia’s sex life, including rumors—spread by Giovanni himself—that Lucrezia had sexual relations with her own father and brother. Giovanni fought the annulment until Pope Alexander agreed to let him keep Lucrezia’s dowry in exchange for ending the marriage. After a public proclamation that her virginity was intact, Lucrezia officially became a single woman again in 1497.

The Second Time Around

During the annulment negotiations, Lucrezia retired to the convent of San Sisto in Rome. Even the cloister could not shield her from the exploits and misfortunes of her scheming family. In 1497, Lucrezia lost her brother Juan, who was found murdered in the Tiber. Meanwhile, her other brother, Cesare—who had been made a cardinal in his late teens by his father—was enjoying a meteoric rise to power, having recently been appointed military chief of the Papal States, the area of central Italy around Rome under direct papal control.

Lucrezia’s seclusion at San Sisto ended when the family, as ever pursuing its own interests, started to hunt for a new husband. This time, the suitor was Alfonso of Aragon, the illegitimate son of the king of Naples, the large kingdom that occupied southern Italy. His marriage with Lucrezia would smooth the way to the union of her brother Cesare with Carlotta, daughter of the Neapolitan monarch, who was a key adversary of the pope’s principal enemy, France.

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A Haven in the North Dominated by Lucrezia’s new home, the Castello Estense, Ferrara had long hosted painters such as Bellini and Piero della Francesca, making the city a cultural hub of the Renaissance.

In 1498, Lucrezia married her second husband in the Vatican. This time, the wedding seemed to have been genuinely desired by both the bride and groom. Lucrezia was 18, and her slightly younger consort Alfonso was considered both handsome and well educated. The union appeared a happy one, and Lucrezia gave birth to a son, named Rodrigo after his grandfather, in 1499. But the conjugal happiness was short-lived. Dynastic maneuverings soon poisoned the young couple’s prospects.

The pope’s negotiations to wed his son Cesare to Carlotta of Naples fell through. In a startling change of heart, he decided to throw in his lot with his erstwhile enemy, the new king of France, Louis XII. In 1500 Cesare married Charlotte d’Albret, daughter of the Duke of Albret and relative of the French monarch. The interests of the Borgias and those of France had now aligned in direct opposition to those of Naples. This meant that Lucrezia’s husband, Alfonso, as a Neapolitan, had become a political liability for the powerful Cesare and Pope Alexander.

In the days running up to the jubilee year of 1500, an astrologer warned Alexander that he should take particular care, as misfortune was destined to befall him. In June of that year, the blow fell. The pope was holding a meeting when a gust of wind knocked down the chimney above him. Three people died, and the pope, seated on the papal throne, was injured. Two weeks later on July 15, while Lucrezia was tending to her wounded father, her young husband and his entourage were attacked by a large group of knife-wielding henchmen on the steps of the Vatican. Seriously wounded, Alfonso was taken to recover in quarters within the Vatican itself.

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Saints and Sinners Lucrezia Borgia appears as the central figure in Il Pinturicchio’s 1492 fresco “St. Catherine’s Disputation,” in the Borgia Apartments at the Vatican. In another fresco, the artist is believed to have painted the Virgin Mary with the likeness of Giulia Farnese, a mistress of Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI.

For the second time in her short life, Lucrezia rallied to the aid of a husband. She decided to nurse him herself, personally taking on the task of preparing his food and giving orders for trusted doctors to be brought from Naples. Still not fully recovered, Pope Alexander ordered a dozen men to stand guard over Alfonso’s quarters. But rumors of a plot against him had begun to spread through the streets of Rome. The Florentine ambassador was in no doubt the ambush had been ordered from the highest level: “In this palace there is so much hatred, old and new, so much envy and jealousy ... that scandal is inevitable.”

Sensational rumors spread. Pamphlets produced in Naples recounted how Cesare, while visiting the convalescing Alfonso, whispered in his ear: “What didn’t happen at lunch could still happen at dinner.” A month later on August 18, Alfonso was strangled in his bed. By all accounts, Lucrezia was heartbroken.

Third Time’s the Charm

Devastated by the loss of her husband, Lucrezia retired to the city of Nepi, north of Rome. There she went into deep mourning, signing letters to her father and brother as La Infelicissima—the Extremely Unhappy One. But the two men had little regard for the 20-year-old widow and were soon in search of a third husband who would again satisfy the family’s strategic interests.

Between them, Alexander and Cesare came up with Alfonso d’Este. He seemed the perfect candidate: A 24-year-old widower without children, he was heir to the Duke of Ferrara and offered a very attractive alliance for the Borgias. His family seat was in the strategically vital Romagna in northern Italy, and the family had strong links with France.

In response to news of the impending marriage, the cannons of the Castel Sant’ Angelo and all the bells in Rome sounded. Soon after, the Duke of Ferrara’s delegation arrived in Rome and sent back reports to the duke reassuring him about the credentials of his son’s Roman bride, whose reputation had become somewhat tainted by the widely publicized exploits of her family. One of the ambassadors reported: “She is a wise lady, and it is not only my opinion, but that of the whole company.”

The pair were married in December 1501, and in January 1502, Lucrezia finally left Rome for Ferrara to join her new husband. Her father reminded her that his interests were above her happiness: “You will do more for me from afar, than you could have done remaining here.” In a letter to her father two months after leaving, Lucrezia writes: “I consider your Lordship my most precious possession in this world.”

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Rites of Passage The 13th-century Cathedral of Ferrara, scene of the solemn mass held to mark Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este’s betrothal. In 1505, Alfonso was proclaimed Duke of Ferrara here.

Out of reach of her powerful family, Lucrezia was at last able to enjoy some autonomy. Far away from Rome in northern Italy, she brought together some of the most glittering talents of the Renaissance in the court of Ferrara. She seemed to rise above the misfortune into which the rest of the Borgia family were falling.

Pope Alexander VI died a year later, in August 1503. Some sources suggest that he was accidentally poisoned, although the cause is more likely to have been malaria. But whatever caused it, the pope’s death drained power from his son Cesare. Pursued by his enemies, he fled to his wife’s home in northern Spain, where he died in 1507.

Meanwhile, Lucrezia had established herself in Ferrara. One of the most important texts of the Renaissance testifies to the esteem in which she was held in Ferrara: in Orlando Furioso, the poet Ludovico Ariosto affirms that Lucrezia ought to figure in the temple of honor to womanhood for her “beauty and honesty.” Even so, after her death on June 24, 1519, following a complicated childbirth, the image of Lucrezia started to come under attack. The many enemies of the Borgias smeared her name with allegations of lust, incest, and murder. No historical basis for these allegations has been found, and yet, in the popular imagination, they continue to distort the image of Lucrezia Borgia to this day.