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Painting by John Collier, "A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia," depicting Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Pope Alexander, and a young man holding an empty glass. The painting represents the popular view of the treacherous nature of the Borgias: the implication being that the young man cannot be sure that the wine is not poisoned. 		Source: John Collier / Public domain

Lucrezia Borgia: The Misunderstood Femme Fatale of the Renaissance

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Women of the Middle Ages were often sadly lacking in rights. Across the world, this period was dominated by a patriarchal society, where the might and prowess of Lords, knights, Kings, warriors, and feudal landowners dictated the tides and trends of the society. Women were often limited to a set of roles that were vital for medieval society - to be married to a suitable husband, and with him secure an offspring and the furthering of their family. Alas, even though such a position was always limiting, it continued in the following centuries, even as the Middle Ages progressed into the Renaissance and beyond. Today we are touching upon this topic through the story of one notable woman - Lucrezia Borgia. Born into an affluent family, she was destined to numerous marriages and plenty of children. But some sources proclaimed her a true “ femme fatale ” of her age. Who was she? And was she merely a pawn of her family or a true beauty that dazzled the men of her time?

The only confirmed Lucrezia Borgia portrait painted from life, attributed to Dosso Dossi, circa 1519. (Dosso Dossi / Public domain)

The only confirmed Lucrezia Borgia portrait painted from life, attributed to Dosso Dossi, circa 1519. (Dosso Dossi /  Public domain )

Lucrezia Borgia and Her Powerful, Infamous Family

Lucrezia Borgia was born on the 18th of April 1480, into the prominent Spanish-Italian noble family of Borgia. The  House of Borgia  was a Spanish-Aragonese noble house, and would come to play a crucial role in the Italian Renaissance and the affairs of that time. Their origins are found in the town of Borja, in Zaragoza in Spain, from which they also take their name (Borja - Borgia). This noble family was fairly young at this time, being founded around 1455 AD, but even so, the family quickly rose to prominence, and became the biggest “player” in the intrigues and political affairs that were numerous during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Across the decades, this family acquired quite an infamous reputation: they were almost synonymous with incest, affairs, murders, treason, bribery, adultery, political intrigues, and poisoning. In simpler terms, the House of Borgia was the symbol of sin and immorality.

Whether or not such claims are overly harsh remains a subject of debate. There is no doubt that the family was very much centered on intrigues and affairs - and all the nefarious aspects that come with them - but the overall image of sin could have been shaped by their adversaries. There is evidence that suggests that this image is largely biased and one-sided, and that the Borgias - although undoubtedly immoral and corrupt - were not so diabolical and evil after all.

Still, if we study the story of one of the family’s most notable persons - Lucrezia Borgia - we can nonetheless catch a glimpse of actions and decisions driven only by the lust for power, wealth, and status. But all can agree that whatever the claims say, the Borgias were not the only one’s that had descended to depravity at this time - their rivals were not far off either!

 

Possible portrait of Lucrezia Borgia as St Catherine of Alexandria in a fresco by Pinturicchio, in the Sala dei Santi in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican, circa 1494 AD. (Pinturicchio / Public domain)

Possible portrait of Lucrezia Borgia as St Catherine of Alexandria in a fresco by Pinturicchio, in the Sala dei Santi in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican, circa 1494 AD. (Pinturicchio /  Public domain )

As mentioned, Lucrezia Borgia was born in 1480, in the city of Subiaco close to  Rome. She was the daughter of a prominent man -  Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia , who would later become  Pope Alexander VI , and one of his mistresses, Giovanna Vannozza dei Cattanei. She was not the only child from this union: Vannozza Cattanei gave birth to her two older brothers as well, Giovanni and Cesare Borgia.

As a daughter of this influential man, Lucrezia enjoyed a learned upbringing, even at a time when women were seldom given the chance to study. She was taught many languages, amongst them Spanish,  Latin, French, Italian, Catalan, and Greek. She also studied Humanities, academic disciplines dealing with society and culture. From the early age, she was surrounded by the prominent intellectuals of her father’s social circle, and thus received a high degree of  education.

A Life of Arranged Marriages and Schemes

There was, of course, a reason for this focus on her education, as her father wanted to make her a desired and suitable match for some of the most prominent men of the time. A learned, intelligent, and literate princess such as Lucrezia was undoubtedly a powerful and useful future wife. What is more, at the time of Lucrezia’s youth, the  Italian Renaissance  was in full bloom. This meant that she was in contact with the leading architects, painters, sculptors, and other learned people of her age.

It was a time that offered the perfect backdrop for intrigues, political affairs, passionate relationships, and treacherous betrayals - many of which became the characteristics of the Borgia family. It was an era where Italy was rife with  noble houses  and familial clans that bitterly fought for wealth and prominence.

Much of Lucrezia Borgia’s life was centered on marriage. Her father did not shy away from repeatedly offering her hand to prominent noblemen whose political alliance he desperately needed. Thus, Lucrezia was for her father a simple commodity, a valuable trading object that was his shortcut to political stability.

It was a ruthless period, unjust for many women. Lucrezia’s first marriage happened even before she was entering her teenage years. She was roughly eleven years old when her father engaged her to a prominent man from  Valencia, Don Cherubino Joan de Centelles, the Lord of  Val D’Ayora.  However, her father soon found a better political ally, annulling that engagement after just two months. This time, he gave his daughter’s hand to the wealthy count of Procida, Don Gaspare Aversa.

However, this engagement was also annulled. Because Lucrezia’s father became the Pope, he needed an even better ally, and he found one in Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Count of Catignola. The Sforzas were the ruling noble house of Renaissance Italy, and the marriage was a clear advantage for the newly elected Pope. At the time, Lucrezia Borgia was just 13 years old, and her new husband was fifteen years older than her. However, the Borgias were quick to rise to prominence, and soon enough, the alliance with the Sforzas was no longer needed. Pope Alexander VI needed new and more powerful allies. Thus, he secretly ordered the murder of Lucrezia’s husband Giovanni Sforza. The story states that she got news of this, warning her husband who then had to flee  Rome.

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia. (Bartolomeo Veneto / Public domain)

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia. (Bartolomeo Veneto / Public domain)

Murder and Intrigue at Every Step

Sometime later, a series of intrigues surrounded this first marriage. The Pope gave up on murdering Sforza, and instead tried persuading him to accept an annulment of the marriage. He claimed that the marriage was not consummated, stating that Giovanni Sforza was impotent. Giovanni was adamantly refusing to do so, but was soon opposed by even his family. In the end, he was almost forced to sign the annulment of the marriage, the reason for which was his alleged  impotence.

At the time when this marriage was being annulled, Lucrezia is said to have had an affair, supposedly with the chamberlain of the Pope - Pedro Calderon Perotto. Rumors began circulating that Lucrezia was pregnant with a child from this affair, although the truth of the matter was never revealed. A child was indeed born on the Borgia court, likely under secrecy, but it was never known if Lucrezia was the mother. An interesting cliam points out that she might have had the affair with Pedro Calderon after all - since the man’s body was soon discovered floating in the  Tiber River. He had been murdered.

In February 1498, the dead bodies of Pedro Calderon, with whom Lucrezia Borgia supposedly had an affair, and a Borgia maid were found in the Tiber River. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / CC BY 3.0)

In February 1498, the dead bodies of Pedro Calderon, with whom Lucrezia Borgia supposedly had an affair, and a Borgia maid were found in the Tiber River. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT /  CC BY 3.0 )

A new marriage loomed on the horizon, and Lucrezia was again to be given off. This time, her new husband was the young Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie, Prince of Salerno, son of the late King of  Naples, and all of 17 years old. The two married in 1498, but their union was extremely short-lived.

Under a great veil of intrigue and affairs, the young Alfonso was murdered in 1500, allegedly at the orders of both Pope Alexander (Lucrezia’s father), and her brother Cesare. The reason was political - the Borgia’s sought to ally themselves with France, a nation in conflict with Naples. Alfonso, the young son of the Naples’ King, was thus a major obstacle here, and was unwanted. Thus, after just two years, Lucrezia’s second marriage was over. Still, the couple had one son - Rodrigo.

Lucrezia Borgia’s third marriage was to this man, Alfonso I D'Este, portrayed in this painting by Battista Dossi. (Battista Dossi / Public domain)

Lucrezia Borgia’s third marriage was to this man, Alfonso I D'Este, portrayed in this painting by Battista Dossi. (Battista Dossi /  Public domain )

Again, a new marriage was soon arranged for Lucrezia. Her father found yet another valuable match. This time it was  Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara.  The two married in 1502, and this time, the marriage would be longer and more fruitful. Together, the couple had eight children, even though neither spouse was faithful. Over the course of their marriage (Alfonso died in 1534) both were known to have had extramarital affairs. Either way, the marriage proved almost lucky for Lucrezia. Firstly, she moved with her new husband to the city of Ferrara, away from Rome and the endless scheming and plots of her father and her brother. Secondly, she managed to thrive in her new family thanks to her intellect and education. She became a successful and prominent duchess, managing to fix her stained reputation and to survive the downfall of the Borgia family.

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, a painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper. (© The estate of Frank Cadogan Cowper)

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, a painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper. ( © The estate of Frank Cadogan Cowper )

Finding Love in a Loveless World

After her father died in 1503 after allegedly contracting a disease, and her brother Cesare dying in battle in 1507, the influence and the scheming of the Borgias in Rome came to a halt. Their enemies, like the  Medici family , were quick to take over and rise above them in prominence. However, Lucrezia remained untouched in her new position. She became free from the plots of her father, and enjoyed a more stable life, filled with passionate affairs, poetry, and parties. She became a known patron of the arts, but was also known as a powerful political player. In her husband’s absence, she ruled as the Duchess of Ferrara, and was highly successful in this governmental role.

It is known that during this time she had an affair with her brother-in-law, Francesco II Gonzaga. Numerous love letters that the two exchanged survived, and they show a glimpse into a very passionate, sexual love affair that had a deep dimension. She also had a love affair with the poet Pietro Bembo. The love letters from this affair were deemed the “ prettiest love letters in the world ” by the English poet Lord Byron.

Lucrezia’s marriage with Alfonso was marked by their many children. She gave birth numerous times and had several miscarriages. On top of that, several of the children died early on. On June 14th 1519, when she was roughly 39, she gave birth to her tenth child. The infant died the same day, and the complications at birth seriously weakened Lucrezia. She died ten days later.

It was a sad and early end of a distinguished and intelligent woman, one that suffered so much in life. A life filled with political maneuvering and scheming.

Was Lucrezia a Scheming Duchess or a Pawn of her Family?

After her death, Lucrezia Borgia became known for her fearsome reputation. Accounts floated to the surface, and her true character became almost a myth. She was dubbed a  femme fatale , a classic villainous Borgia, whose life was marked by political intrigues. Some sources state that she was an expert poisoner, and was the killer of many political opponents of her family. But more recently, history is accepting a more reasonable and logical picture of Lucrezia. She is understood as a pawn of her scheming family and a passionate and beautiful woman at the same time.

She was sentenced to a life of servitude to her father, repeatedly used as political leverage in many marriages. But even so, she is now known as one of the remarkable women of the Italian Renaissance, a passionate femme fatale that sought love and arts despite her many arranged marriages and a lot of misfortune over the years. In the end, history agrees that Lucrezia Borgia was a woman of her times - neither good nor bad, but rather somewhere in between. She was a learned woman, finding means to thrive in a ruthless and dangerous world.

Top image: Painting by John Collier, "A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia," depicting Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Pope Alexander, and a young man holding an empty glass. The painting represents the popular view of the treacherous nature of the Borgias: the implication being that the young man cannot be sure that the wine is not poisoned. Source: John Collier /  Public domain

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Bradford, S. 2005.  Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy.  Penguin Books Limited.
Gregorovius, F. 2020.  Lucrezia Borgia: Daughter of Pope Alexander VI.  Vita Histria. 
Lucas, E. 2014.  Lucrezia Borgia.  New Word City.
Morris, S. 2020.  Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History's Most Vilified Family.  Pen and Sword History.
Williams, S. E. 2019.  Lucrezia Borgia: Is Her Bad Reputation Deserved?  History Extra. [Online] Available at:
https://www.historyextra.com/period/renaissance/lucrezia-borgia-reputation-adulteress-pope-alexander-vi/

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