In my final post of 2013, I briefly touched on Lucrezia Borgia’s life. She interests me greatly and I have an immense respect for her; she was the only member of the hated Borgia family to lead a somewhat peaceful life – towards the end at least – and the only one to survive the family’s downfall after Rodrigo’s death in 1503. Above most things and despite the disgusting myths that surround her, I believe she has been grossly misunderstood for far too long. So this post is dedicated to her.
Lucrezia Borgia was born on 18 April 1480 in Subiaco, Italy, which is a small town in the providence of Rome known for the printing of the first books in Italy in the same century. Her mother was Vannozza dei Cattanei, mistress to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, whom was also father to Lucrezia’s older brothers, Giovanni and Cesare. Another son, Gioffre, would follow in 1482. All four children were spoiled by their father, and Lucrezia especially was the apple of his eye. She was beautiful, intelligent, and charming, with long and heavy blond hair and hazel eyes, her complexion clear and fair, and she was said to have a graceful walk, “as though she were walking on air” according to one source of the time. She had a keen eye for fashion and was always dressed to impress in rich colors, as were her Ladies in Waiting. Men were captivated by her and women idolized her as though she were indeed a Princess of Rome, which, in a way, she was.
When she was barely a teenager, her ambitious father had risen to the highest seat of power in the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name of Alexander VI when he was elected Pope on 25 July 1492. By this time, she had been betrothed twice, but both times, the engagements fell through. Then, finally, at the age of thirteen, her father married her off to the Sforzas, a powerful family of Italian warlords, to forge an alliance. Her chosen groom was twenty-eight-year-old Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Gradara, whose line held the Duchy of Milan. Her dowry was 31,000 ducats, which is close to $1 million in modern US currency. She and Sforza were married by written contract on June 12 of that year, but the actual wedding itself did not take place until a year later in the Vatican. It was a lavish affair and was a celebration fit for royalty.
Lucrezia and Sforza made their home in Pesaro, where they lived for two years before returning to Rome, but soon, the Sforza family’s importance began to dwindle as the Pope began to forge new alliances with the Kingdom of Naples. Sforza acted as a spy for the Milanese, but Alexander found out, and while Sforza left Rome on a military campaign, rumors began to circulate that the Pope had planned to assassinate Sforza; Lucrezia is said to have learned of the plot from her brother Cesare and warned her husband, who then fled Rome in disguise, though this theory has not been proven. Either way, Sforza deserted Rome in February 1497.
At this time, divorce was disallowed by the Catholic Church, and Alexander wanted to sever Lucrezia’s ties to the Sforzas. He petitioned on his daughter’s behalf for an annulment on grounds that the marriage had not been consummated and was thus never legal. Whether or not it was remains unclear, as are Lucrezia’s feelings on the matter. Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the groom’s cousin, was called in to negotiate the annulment proceedings, which took several months. When the Pope stated that he desired an annulment for his daughter, Sforza flew into a rage and accused Rodrigo of wanting the marriage annulled because he and Cesare wanted Lucrezia to themselves. Either way, he signed the annulment papers under force from both the Borgias and his own family, who threatened to disown him should he remain stubborn and continue to deny the Pope’s request, not willing to spark a feud. So Sforza went on trial and swore Lucrezia to still be a virgin and the annulment was finalized. Sforza was excommunicated, but married once more and died in Pesaro in 1510.
The rumors of incest, which began with Sforza’s accusation, were perhaps largely based on the closeness of the family. As stated earlier, Rodrigo doted on all his children, but Lucrezia most of all, as she was his only daughter. Cesare also was said to be especially close to her. He hardly refused her anything and was very protective, and, if the large number of children he fathered is any indication, he was also notorious for his sexual affairs (he had at least twelve children, only one of which was by his wife). At the same time, a child comes into the Vatican’s records, the “Infans Romanus”, Giovanni Borgia of Rome, whispered to be the son of Lucrezia by Cesare himself. However, modern historians dispute this, and the boy is thought instead to be a result of Cesare’s many liaisons and not Lucrezia’s child. The problem is that so many sources of the time are contradictory on the subject; one document states the boy as Rodrigo’s child and one claims it as Cesare’s, but rumors of the time still say he was Lucrezia’s baby, as at the time of her annulment she stayed in a convent to await the outcome of the trial and was said to have given birth there, though these rumors were denied at the time. At the same time, Lucrezia was said to have entered an affair with one of her father’s chamberlains, a boy called Perotto or Pedro Calderon. Later in the year, Calderon’s body was found dumped in the Tiber River along with one of Lucrezia’s maids. Whether the child’s birth was the result of Lucrezia and Calderon’s supposed affair or he was in fact one of Cesare’s many children or a product of Rodrigo’s many conquests, the child’s appearance only fuels the fires of the Borgia myths.
Once her divorce had been granted, Lucrezia was free once more, but soon she was to be wed again. She met her husband-to-be, Alfonso of Aragon, just shy of their wedding day. The attraction was instant. Alfonso was handsome, with long hair, full lips, and large almond-shaped eyes, as his portrait can detest, and a chronicler of the time called him “the most beautiful youth [that I have] ever seen in Rome”. The couple married on 21 July 1498 and took up residence in Rome. Soon, Lucrezia became pregnant, and was awarded the title of Governor of Spoleto in her own right.
The political situation in the Vatican changed quickly though. Giovanni “Juan” Borgia, the Pope’s eldest son, had been murdered in Rome, leaving his young son with the Dukedom of Gandia in Spain, and Gioffre, the youngest Borgia child,married Alfonso’s illegitimate half-sister, Sancia. The Pope then desired a French alliance, which bode ill for Lucrezia’s marriage, as the Kingdoms of Naples and France were mortal enemies since the French king Charles VIII ran Alfonso’s father, Alfonso II, from his kingdom in 1495, only to withdraw his troops from the Italian state when his cousin Ferdinand II of Sicily forced Charles out. When Cesare Borgia was married to his French bride, Charlotte d’Albret, the French alliance was fixed. With the news arriving that the French army was preparing to attack Naples once again or perhaps in fear of his ill-reputed brother-in-law Cesare, Alfonso left Rome. Lucrezia, then six months pregnant, stayed behind. The two exchanged letters, in which Alfonso begged his wife to join him in hiding in Genazzano. The papal spies tracked him through the letters and the Pope bade his daughter to bring her husband back to Rome, claiming that there was no danger. The couple reunited in the small town of Nepi in September 1499, and one month later, Lucrezia gave birth to a boy, Rodrigo of Aragon. Alfonso would be murdered soon after a band of mercenaries attacked him at St. Peter’s Basilica, when he was smothered in his bed before his wounds had time to heal. When the news came that her husband was dead, Lucrezia was devastated, and left Rome to mourn for some months before returning to the Vatican once again when Cesare, whom was the rumored murderer, bade her to return at their father’s command. Whether or not Lucrezia believed that her brother had killed her husband is unknown, as is the true identity of Alfonso’s attackers.
In 1502, Lucrezia was forced into marriage once again, this time to a widower, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. As Duchess of Ferrara, she survived her family’s fall. Her father the Pope died a year after her third marriage and was succeeded by Pius III, who died shortly after his election. He was followed by one of the Borgias’ great enemies, Giuliano della Rovere, who took the name Julius II, called the Warrior Pope. Her brother Cesare was killed in battle in Navarre in 1507, leaving Lucrezia as the last of the Borgia line. She gave her third husband six children, though only four survived to adulthood. Finally, on 14 June 1519, she had her final child, a daughter whom lived for only minutes, and due to complications following the difficult birth, ten days afterward, Lucrezia died at the age of thirty-nine. After death, she was buried in Ferarra in the Convent of Corpus Domini, where her third husband would also be laid to rest upon his death in 1534. To this day, her bloodline carries on through most of Europe’s royal families, including those of Austria, Bavaria, Saxony, and Brazil. Through her, notables figures such as American Civil War General P.G.T. Beaurigard and actress Brooke Shields can trace their lineage back to the Borgias.