Lucrezia Borgia, Passionate Poisoner or Virtuous Victim
Say the name Lucrezia Borgia, and you get an immediate reaction, even if they don't know the whole story, they know that Lucrezia Borgia was though to be scandalous in some way. Some will tell you that she poisoned her lovers with a special ring and her families political enemies, as the Borgia's clawed their way to the top in Renaissance Italy. Others consider the Borgias to be the first crime family, even deadlier than the Medicis in Florence, for their ability to eliminate anyone who got in their way. But was Lucrezia Borgia as bad as the histories have made her out to be? Or was she an innocent pawn used by her families to cement alliances and to raise money to wage war?
Many recent biographies have taken a revisionist tact with Lucrezia. While it's certain that her father Rodrigo also known as Pope Alexander IV and her brother Cesare were ambitious men, who were more than willing to murder their enemies, Lucrezia seems to have been a good woman who was subject to the whims and power mongering of her relatives.
The Borgia family weren't even Italian. They were of Spanish origin, originally from Valencia, the family used the Valencian language amongst themsevles for privacy. Rodrigo moved to Italy when his uncle Alfons de Borja became Pope Callixtus III in 1455. Rodrigo studied law at Bologna, and after his uncle's election as pope, was made a bishop, a cardinal and then finally vice-chancellor of the church.
All the while however, despite the fact that priests were supposed to be celibate, he kept a mistress Vanozza dei Cattani, the mother of Cesare, Giovanni, Gioffre, and finally Lucrezia who was born in 1480. She was twelve when her father was elected Pope Alexander VI after the death of Pope Innocent VIII. Her father, due to his great wealth, succeeded in buying the needed number of votes, in order to take the papal seat.
Lucrezia was apparently a good-humoured, good-natured girl with blonde hair, who enjoyed wearing fine clothes and good conversation. She bathed daily, an eccentricity in the 16th century when people were more apt to take a bath perhaps once a month if even that. Not much is known about her early childhood but she must have been well-educated because her father, during his absences from the Holy See, had no problems leaving her in charge.
Renaissance women were still subject to the whims of men. They were controlled first by their parents, and then passed over to the control of their husbands. They had no political power, and most of those who were heiresses found their estates given over to their husband's control. Women who did not marry were either forced to take vows in a nunnery, or were forced to live with male relatives on sufferance. Women were also discouraged from participating in the arts and sciences. For the most part, wives of powerful men were relegated to cooking, sewing and entertaining.
Lucrezia was married for the first time at the tender age of 13 to a member of the power Sforza family. Her father and brother had already made and broken two bethrothals as they strived to make the best match that would further their interests. Italy, during the Renaissance, was made up of feudal city states like Ancient Greece. Princes, Kings and Dukes jockeyed for position while other countries tried to take advantage of the constant state of chaos by invading.
By all accounts, Giovanni Sforza was a nervous, lackadaisical sort, he may even have been spying for Milan against the Borgias. After awhile the Borgias no longer needed the Sforzas in their quest for even more power. The Pope wanted new, more advantageous political alliances, so Giovanni had to go. There is a possibility that he may have ordered Sforza's execution. The story goes that when Lucrezia was informed of the imminent murder of her husband, she warned him and he then fled Rome.
Instead of execution, The Pope decided to just have Lucrezia's marriage anulled instead. Sforza refused. He accused Lucrezia of sleeping with both her father and her brother. While Cesare may have been a little too fond of his sister, there is no evidence that anything untoward was going on. More likely it was just sour grapes on Sforza's part since he was asked to lie and say that the marriage with Lucrezia had been unconsummated. Sforza refused even thought the Pope offered him all of Lucrezia's dowry to agree. The Sforza family put pressure on Giovanni to agree. With no choice, Sforza signed the confession of impotence and the annulment, and then proceeded to blacken his former wife's name.
While Lucrezia awaited the annulment of her marriage, she may have begun an affair with her father's messanger, Pedro Calderon known as Perotto. Pedro like Rodrigo Borgia was from Spain, and a favorite of the Pope. However he was later found murdered, his body floating in the River Tiber. Was he killed because he dared to not only love Lucrezia, but to father a child with her? All that is known is that the child was named Giovanni. Some suspected that the child was fathered by her brother, others by her father. Adding to the confusion in 1501, a papal bull was issued recognizing him as the Pope's son! The second bull was kept secret for a number of years and it was finally revealed, it stated that the child was Cesare's! Who was the mother of Giovanni, was it Lucrezia or someone else? No one knows for sure but the rumors had been started and would follow Lucrezia for the rest of her life.
Lucrezia's second marriage was to Alfonso of Aragon, another political marriage, as her father sought to ally himself with the house of Naples. Like Lucrezia, he was the natural son of Alfonso II. Handsome and intelligent, he aroused the jealousy of her brother Cesare, who had been thwarted in his desire to marry the daughter of the current King of Naples. While married to Alfonso, she began to gather a court of intellectuals around her. By all accounts they were highly devoted to one another. But once again, her husband had outlived his usefulness. Now married to a French princess, Cesare had allied himself with the King of France, Louise XII, who claimed the duchy of Naples which was in the hands of Alfonso's family. This time, instead of another annulment, Alfonso was murdered on her brother's orders. Again, Lucrezia had fallen in love with her husband, and once again she was left broken-hearted.
No matter how much she may have loved him, Lucrezia's first loyalty was always to her family. Still by the age of 19, she had already two marriages behind her. At the age of 21, she was married to her final husband, Alfonso d'Este, son of the Duke of Ferrara. The d'Este family were the rulers of one of the most important duchies in Italy, with a lineage that far surpassed the Borgias. Alfonso initially was reluctant to marry Lucrezia given the rumors swirling around her. The Pope however persisted and offered the d'Este family a dowry of over 200,000 ducats and the a threat that if he were refused, war might ensue.
Within two years of her marriage to Alfonso, her father died, and Cesare was ruined. However, Lucrezia flourished in Ferrara. She gave birth to six children, and proved to be a respectable and accomplished duchess, the antithesis of her scandalous reputation. She was a generous and gracious patron of the arts, attracting visits by all of the greatest poets and arts of the time. After a time, she became known as "the good Duchess."
She was even left to administer the affairs of state with her brother-in-law whenever Alfonso was away, and given the duty of heading a court for citizens' petitions. The historians of Ferrara gave her the highest praise for her beauty, modesty, virtuousness, and understanding. If you to to the web-site for Ferrara, Towards the end of her life, she devoted herself to works of piety and charity. She died in 1519, after a difficult pregnancy with her last child, Isabella Maria. She was 39 years old.
The worst that can probably be said about Lucrezia is that she was a devoted to her family, despite their rather rampant ambition, cruelty, and selfishness. Still, the image of Lucrezia Borgia, with her poison ring, lives on.