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?

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.

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.

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