Wicked or Sinless? The Life of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia, as depicted in a contemporary painting
Lucrezia Borgia, as depicted in a contemporary painting

by Ray Setterfield

April 18, 1480Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia – who was to become Pope Alexander VI – was born on this day in history. Her mother, the cardinal's mistress, was also the mother of her two older brothers, Cesare and Giovanni.

This was the time of the Italian Renaissance when giant figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and other artists, architects, and scientists rose to world appreciation. By contrast, the power-hungry Borgia clan became known as evil, violent and politically corrupt. Their aim was to control as much of Italy as possible.

The family's dreadful reputation rubbed off on Lucrezia who was depicted as a femme fatale — a seductive woman who poisoned people that she could not manipulate, attended orgies and committed incest with both her brother Cesare and her father.

Many historians now say these allegations have little or no basis in fact and that Lucrezia was simply a pawn in the wicked games of her father and brother.

When she was just eleven years old her father – by this time Pope Alexander – and brother Cesare gave her in marriage to 27-year-old Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. He was a man with a fierce temper but Alexander was more interested in Giovanni's connections than his morals.

That was to change six years later when Alexander and Cesare began seeking a new political alignment. Giovanni sensed a change in the air and wisely fled for his life.

Alexander arranged for the marriage to be annulled on the supposed grounds of non-consummation and Lucrezia retired to a convent to await the outcome.

The rumour machine then went into full gear with Lucrezia being accused of having an affair and of being pregnant at the time her marriage was being annulled for non-consummation.

Reports of her pregnancy were denied, but in March 1498 a boy, Giovanni, was secretly born in the Borgia family, not to be publicly revealed for three years. Paternity was never established but rumours swirled throughout Italy and gossips in Rome talked of incest.

Two papal bulls were later issued. In the first, Giovanni was recognised as Cesare's child from an affair. Contradicting this, the second bull recognised the boy as the son of Pope Alexander. There was no mention of Lucrezia and it has never been proven that she was the mother.

Seeking to strengthen their ties with Naples, Alexander and Cesare next arranged for Lucrezia to marry 17-year-old Alfonso of Aragon, son of the late King of Naples. That lasted less than two years after the Borgias once more switched alliances and Alfonso was strangled to death, allegedly by Cesare's hit-men.

Another Alfonso was soon given the scheming Borgia stamp of approval and Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, became 21-year-old Lucrezia's third husband in 1501.

Pope Alexander died in 1503 and with him many of Cesare's remaining plots. When Alfonso’s father also died two years later, he and Lucrezia became the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara and presided over a flourishing artistic community. Lucrezia gained a reputation as a patron of the arts.

But her standing still suffers from rumours of incest, the birth of that mysterious baby, the murder of her second husband and her attendance at the Banquet of Chestnuts – an orgy hosted by Cesare involving 50 prostitutes and a large number of clergy.

Lucrezia turned to religion in her final years and in 1519, ten days after giving birth to a stillborn girl, she died at the age of 39.

Published: March 17, 2018

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