The very name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up everything that was sinister and corrupt about the Renaissance: incest, political assassination, papal sexual abuse, poisonous intrigue, unscrupulous power grabs. Yet, as bestselling biographer Sarah Bradford reveals in this breathtaking new portrait, the truth is far more fascinating than the myth. Neither a vicious monster nor a seductive pawn, Lucrezia Borgia was a shrewd, determined woman who used her beauty and intelligence to secure a key role in the political struggles of her day. Drawing from a trove of contemporary documents and fascinating firsthand accounts, Bradford brings to life the art, the pageantry, and the dangerous politics of the Renaissance world Lucrezia Borgia helped to create.
I think the main thing I came away with after reading this is that Lucrezia Borgia, she of rampant rumors of poisoning, incest and other sins, was not nearly as interesting as historians have generally made her out to be! That’s actually a compliment to the author, in a way, thanks to her de-construction of the Borgia mythos. The legend around Lucrezia is that she went through three husbands, had incestuous relations with both her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother Cesare, and engaged in enough sexual exploits to earn her the tag of Rome’s ‘greatest whore’, but this has been mostly exaggerated dramatics typical of Renaissance Italy’s colorful and competitive historians.
Exaggerations are always tipped with truth, of course, which is what makes them so believable. Lucrezia did go through three husbands in a scandalously fast-paced fashion, but it was due more to her father’s and brother’s ambitions than her own. Her first husband was forced to falsely claim impotence in order to have their marriage annulled when Alexander felt he was no longer politically useful. The second husband, also once favored and then deemed to be a hindrance, was rather spectacularly murdered at the behest of Lucrezia's brother Cesare. Her third husband, Alfonso d’ Este, lasted the longest, knocked her up quite a bit, and even managed to outlive her. As for the incest speculations that have long swirled around the Borgias, most legitimate Renaissance scholars put no stock in them whatsoever. While it’s true that Alexander was close to his daughter and very carefully orchestrated her personal life, he did so purely out of personal ambition. Unpleasant, perhaps, but certainly the norm of that period. Daughters were little more than political tools and pawns. Turns out that accusing someone of incest in those days was one of the worst insults one could deliver about another, so Alexander’s and Cesare’s many enemies enjoyed flinging that one out there, much like a modern “yo momma!” epithet.
Bradford is meticulous in her description of this time of enormous upheaval in the region, with Venetians fighting Florentines and the French taking sides, and nobles and politicians rubbing each other out on a regular basis (hey, there’s a reason Italy is the birthplace of the Mafia!). Lucrezia’s life story is told primarily through her correspondence – to family, children, friends, and lovers – and while it’s a valuable and fascinating firsthand glimpse into her life, it tends to come off a little dry and dull. Still, for any collector of Renaissance history it’s a solid addition and I would recommend it for that reason.
Lucrezia (b. 1480) was the sixth of nine illegitimate offspring of Rodrigo Borgia. It was not, of course, unusual for men to have illegitimate children at that time, although the fact that her father was a Cardinal and later (1492) bought his way into being Pope Alexander VI did cause some minor comment. (The previous Pope, Innocent VIII, had sixteen children, so nine was probably not seen as excessive). Her father quickly used her as a political tool; she was betrothed at 10 and again at 11 to minor Spanish nobles, but after Rodrigo became Pope he began aiming higher. She was married at 13 to Giovanni Sforza, Count of Pessaro; however, the Pope quickly decided that the Sforzas were not sufficiently important for an alliance and annulled the wedding on the grounds of nonconsumation. (Giovanni was highly insulted by this and offered to perform with any woman of the Pope’s choice in front of a Papal legate, but this was rejected). While waiting for her next marriage (to Alfonso d’Aragona, Duke of Bisceglie and member of the royal family of Naples) she became involved in one of the situations that tarnished her reputation; she apparently had an illegitimate son of her own. The father of this child was variously reputed to be a Papal officer, Pedro Calderon; or her brother Cesare; or her father the Pope. Calderon was unable to confirm or deny the rumor, since he had meanwhile died in a tragic accident after going swimming in the Tiber inside a sack with his wrists tied to his ankles. This apparently didn’t bother Alfonso, since he married Lucrezia anyway; however, Alfonso somehow got on the bad side of Cesare and was ambushed by bandits on the Vatican steps. Alfonso turned out to be handier with a rapier than the bandits expected, and although badly wounded, managed to drive them off. He was carried to a room in the Vatican and seemed to be recovering, when one of Cesare’s lieutenants showed up with a warrant for Alfonso’s arrest. Lucrezia, faithfully at her husband’s bedside, ran off to get the Pope; unfortunately, when she returned with him only a few minutes later Alfonso had fallen out of bed, all his wounds had reopened, and he’d bled to death. This gave the Pope an opportunity to set up another marriage, this time to Alfonso Este, heir to the Duchy of Ferrara. Lucrezia initially demurred, complaining that her husbands were very unlucky, but the wedding eventually came off and Lucrezia spent the rest of her life as Duchess of Ferrara. She and Alfonso apparently got along well enough, since they had seven children, four of which survived; however Lucrezia was constantly sickly (possibly because Alfonso, who had a taste for coarse prostitutes, gave her syphilis) and died in childbirth in 1519.
So where did Lucrezia’s reputation as a seductress and murderess come from? All her contemporaries, even the ones that hated her, described her as beautiful and graceful; none ever accused her of murder or even cruelty (although, admittedly you had to be pretty vicious to qualify as “cruel” in Renaissance Italy; one of the favorite spectator sports in Ferrara was watching blindfolded men attempt to beat a pig to death). The accusation of incest was made repeatedly by many, including her ex-husband Giovanni Sforza; and Lucrezia did seem quite devoted to Cesare, even after he killed her second husband (when Cesare died in a minor battle she was inconsolable and her ladies reported she repeated his name all night). She may have engaged in some extramarital dalliances while Duchess of Ferrara; candidates include the poet Pietro Bembo, the poet Ercole Strozzi, and Francesco Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. There’s no evidence that any of these went beyond “courtly love”, although Strozzi did turn up deceased on a street corner in Ferrara from twenty-nine stab wounds, possibly a subtle hint from the Duke that he had gone a little too far with the Duchess.
Of the two biographies, Sarah Bradford’s is the most recent. Bradford includes a handy map of Italy, genealogical charts of the Borgia, Este, and d’Aragona families, and pictures of the main characters. Bradford previously wrote a biography of Cesare Borgia, and he and other members of the Borgia family besides Lucrezia figure prominently in her book. Unfortunately, like most historical figures of the Renaissance, contemporary documentation for Lucrezia is sparse. Lucrezia was sort of the Princess Diana of her time, and much that was written about her concerned the way she dressed, the jewelry she wore, and the ladies-in-waiting she picked. Thus Bradford is often reduced to whole paragraphs describing Lucrezia’s costume:
“Lucrezia wore a robe of drawn gold garnished with crimson satin with sleeves in the Castilian style and a cloak slashed with mulberry satin lined with sable, and a necklace of large pearls with a pendant spinel, pierced with a pendant pear-shaped pearl.”
Some of Lucrezia’s letters are extant, but they are mostly straightforward reports to the Duke while he was away campaigning, without much personal material. Bradford limits her speculation about Lucrezia’s personal feelings, emotions, etc., which makes for correct history but dull reading.
The biography by Maria Bellonci is older, originally written in Italian in 1939 and translated to English in 1953. Since the original was published at the high tide of Mussolini’s Italy, I was curious to see if there were any concessions to Fascist ideology. I couldn’t find any, other than some minor bits about the “national characteristics” of the French, Italians, and Spaniards; perhaps there was more that was edited out for the English edition. Unlike Bradford, Bellonci is not above speculating about Lucrezia’s emotions, attitudes and motives, and likes to use “romance novel” language while doing so. Consider, for example, Bradford’s description of Lucrezia’s death:
“Lucrezia died that night “at the fifth hour” just over two months past her thirty-ninth birthday”
And now Bellonci’s
“Perhaps with that magic chime, coming from such a remote past, a human eternity, there came serenity; perhaps her terrors dissolved and gave place to an infinite weariness, like peace. The moment had come when fear was over. … And she gave a sigh, as she had sighed when told it was time to leave.”
Like Bradford, Bellonci also resorts to elaborate descriptions of Lucrezia’s outfits, but her language makes them more readable; her entire book is more readable than Bradford’s but her interpolations are so great that it’s almost a historical novel rather than a history. The two books together provide a pretty good “look and feel” for Renaissance Italy; both authors do the best they can with their approaches.
Interesting and amazing!