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.
Timeline: Pawn in the Family Fortunes
1480—Lucrezia Borgia is born near Rome, the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia—the future Pope Alexander VI—and his lover, Vannozza Cattanei.
1493—The marriage of Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, nephew of Ludovico, Duke of Milan, provides the Borgias with a powerful ally in northern Italy.
1494—France’s Charles VIII allies with the Duke of Milan against the Borgias, who then plot to kill Lucrezia’s husband. Three years later, their marriage is annulled.
1498—After years of being cloistered in a convent, Lucrezia marries Alfonso of Aragon, son of the king of Naples, briefly an ally of the Borgias.
1500—Alfonso is attacked. Lucrezia cares for him, but one month later he is found strangled, on the orders—it is rumored—of Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare.
1501—A new marriage is arranged between Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este, heir to the Duke of Ferrara, in whose court Lucrezia will enjoy a degree of autonomy.
1519—After nearly two decades of life at the center of the refined Ferrara court, Lucrezia Borgia dies at age 39.
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.”
A Model Woman
All through her life, Lucrezia’s bearing inspired those who met her, most enduringly the painter Bernardino di Betto—better known as Il Pinturicchio—who used Lucrezia, then 12 years old, as a model for his depiction of Saint Catherine (above) in the frescoes he painted for the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican in 1492. In the section “St. Catherine’s Disputation,” Lucrezia embodies the fourth-century saint, deep in discussion with the Emperor Maximus and 50 pagan philosophers. She stands at the center of the scene, golden hair framing her clear, white complexion, with a bearing both solemn and courtly. The story goes that Saint Catherine defended her arguments with wisdom and eloquence against the pagans who surrounded her. Perhaps Lucrezia drew on the saint’s guidance when, in December 1497, when she was 17, she attended the ruling at the Vatican annulling her marriage to Giovanni Sforza. According to an ambassador, Lucrezia made a speech afterward in Latin “with such elegance and gentility that not even Cicero could have spoken with more precision and grace.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sex, Lies, and the Vatican
A WOMAN AMONG CARDINALS
The presence of Lucrezia in the Vatican scandalized the clergy and the many enemies of Pope Alexander VI. One chronicler of the period vented his indignation that Lucrezia and her ladies-in-waiting were allowed into Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was said that when the pope went away he left his daughter in charge of official duties. Others went further, claiming that she attended wild parties and even orgies.
Lucrezia’s history of relationships with men was indisputably colorful, beginning with the Spanish suitors who bid for her hand when she was barely a teenager. Her three marriages—and the violence and intrigue associated with the first two—stoked the myth of Lucrezia as a lust-crazed murderess. In reality, she was more of a passive pawn in the hands of her ambitious male relatives.
AN INCESTUOUS UNION
The most serious allegation leveled at Lucrezia Borgia was that of having committed incest with her brother Cesare, and with her father, Pope Alexander VI. This accusation was undoubtedly nothing more than a malicious lie, elaborated by her first husband Giovanni Sforza, who argued that the pope had annulled his marriage to Lucrezia “to have the freedom to enjoy himself with his own daughter.”
A SECRET SON
In 1498 a rumor spread that the pope’s daughter had an illegitimate son. Some years later, the pope issued two contradictory papal bulls: the first named Cesare as the father, and the second, himself—a confusion that only fueled rumors of Borgia incest. Some historians believe the child was the issue of Lucrezia’s affair with a Spanish servant. Others argue the child was the son of the pope and a Roman woman.
Although the Borgias were no saints, the majority of the lurid tales told about them were invented by their many enemies. Later in her life, at the court of Ferrara, Lucrezia was regarded as the model of good breeding. It was only later that she took a role in the increasingly fantastical set of myths about the Borgias, many centering on her use of poison and other fanciful execution methods to murder her husbands and other rivals. Lucrezia resorted to such brutality, the rumors went, to maintain her crazed grip on power—a ludicrous notion, unsupported by any evidence, but which has proved enduring. Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, did much to popularize this image with his 1833 play Lucrezia Borgia, in which the pope’s daughter ponders the various ways she will dispatch her rivals: by hanging, strangling, or poisoning a communion wafer. Based on Hugo’s play, Gaetano Donizetti’s 1833 opera of the same name also portrayed Lucrezia as a murderer, a libel that spread to 19th-century artistic representations of her, such as the picture (above) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, depicting Lucrezia having just poisoned her husband.
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.”
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.
La Bella Vita
The arrival of Lucrezia in Ferrara in 1502 as the new wife of Alfonso d’Este caused a stir. Several observers wrote of the impact she made on them, and eulogized her grace and beauty. The Marquis of Crotone said that “had the bride made her entrance by torchlight she would have outshone them all.” The chronicler Bernardino Zambotto was deeply impressed by her “adorable eyes, full of life and joy.” He wrote glowingly of her refinement: “She has great tact, is prudent, very intelligent, lively, and most pleasant.” Nicolo Cagnolo of Parma wrote that “her whole being radiates good humor and joy beyond words.” Lucrezia was surrounded by poets and artists in Ferrara. Of these, the most notable was Ludovico Ariosto, the poet who coined the term “humanism,” and whose epic poem, Orlando Furioso, is a landmark text of Renaissance humanism. Despite tensions over Lucrezia’s intense, but apparently platonic, friendship with the poet Pietro Bembo, the relationship between Lucrezia and her husband seems to have been harmonious. In 1519, when she died, Alfonso is said to have cried bitterly at the loss of his “sweet companion.”