Category Archives: Italian Renaissance

Documentary Sunday – Niccolo Machiavelli


Documentary Sunday – Medieval Murders; Juan Borgia


Documentary Sunday – The Crypts of the Medici


Royalty Most Cruel – Cesare Borgia

I have made several posts about the infamous Borgia family, but I realize I never actually created one for Cesare himself.  Lucrezia got her turn last year I believe, so today, I turn the spotlight to her elder brother.  Many have heard of the man who supposedly murdered both his brother and brother-in-law, the “Prince In All But Name” who is said to have romanced his own sister, but how much truth is there in the slandering?  

The date of Cesare Borgia’s birth is debated upon, but the popular consensus is that he was born on the 13th of September in 1476.  His mother was Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of many mistresses to Cesare’s father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia.  By his father, Cesare was of both Spanish and Italian descent, born in Rome as the first of the couple’s four children – behind him were Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffredo.  However, the children were not openly acknowledged as Rodrigo’s until years later, perhaps because Vannozza was married during her affairs with him, thus he claimed to have been their uncle before his election as Pope in 1492 allowed him to legitimize the brood.  Still, he doted on his children, allowing them all to have a good education, but Cesare was given a special upbringing.  As a boy, Cesare was groomed to have a career in the Catholic Church just like Rodrigo.  He studied law at the Universities of Perugia and Pisa before he was given his status as a Cardinal at the age of just eighteen.

Image result for cesare borgia vatican mural

Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI

But Cesare was restless with a fierce temper.  It soon became clear that the life of a clergyman was not what he desired, especially when his younger brother Giovanni was given the Dukedom of Gandia.  Giovanni even took a royal bride, Maria Enriquez de Luna, the niece of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Sicily and Isabella I of Castile.  Cesare was a handsome man and, like his father, had an insatiable appetite for sex, as is evidenced by the fact that he fathered at least eleven illegitimate children in his lifetime, all of whom he took a great risk in acknowledging while a member of the Church.  There is no question that he felt jealousy for his younger brother, which came from the fact that Giovanni had been given title while he, the elder brother, was given a life he did not want nor enjoy.

Soon, in 1497, Giovanni Borgia’s murdered corpse was pulled from the Tiber River with his gold and silk clothes still in place.  Though the killer was never caught, rumors began to circulate through Rome that Cesare had his brother murdered in cold blood, either by one of the mercenaries he kept by his side or his own hand.  Whatever the case, Giovanni was not yet dead a year when Cesare became the first man in history to resign from the position of Cardinal and became a soldier in the Papal Army.  This would not be the last familial murder he would be accused of either.  In August 1500, rumors began to circulate that Cesare had been responsible for a vicious attack on his brother-in-law Alfonso that took place on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.  A few nights later, while he was still recovering from his wounds, Alfonso was strangled in his bed, leaving Cesare as one of the only suspects in his murder; Cesare’s French marriage was threatened by Alfonso’s presence since the nineteen-year old prince was the son of the King of Naples and both countries were at war.  When questioned, Cesare claimed that Alfonso that threatened him with a crossbow and that any action he may or may not have taken would have been in self defense, yet witnesses claimed that the man who carried out the prince’s murder was Michelotto Corella, captain of a mercenary free company and one of Cesare’s close confidantes.

Cesare had a reputation for his military prowess, especially while fighting with the French.  The King of France gave him the title of Duke of Valentinois just before he gained his military status, when he assisted in granting the king a divorce from his wife.  Cesare even gained a wife out of the deal – Charlotte d’Albret, sister to Jean III of Navarre.  Despite his victories at Naples, Capua, Rimini and Forli, his hold on power depended heavily on the influence of his father.  Author and historian of the time Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that had Cesare succeeded in getting into the papacy’s good graces after Pope Alexander VI died, he would have remained in power, but this was not meant to be.

In the summer of 1503, both Cesare and his father grew deathly ill from what many believed to have been poison.  While Cesare recovered, the Pope died at the age of seventy-two and Cesare’s enemies made their moves to depose him.  The new Pope’s reign barely lasted a month and the next elected pontiff was Giuliano della Rovere, an enemy of the House of Borgia who took the name Julius II.  His lands were retaken and Cesare was forced to leave Italy, but he was later captured and imprisoned in Spain.  When he escaped, he took his place at his brother-in-law’s side as military commander of the Navarran forces.


Cesare’s death as depicted in the Netflix series Borgia: Faith and Fear (2014)

He was fighting in Navarra when on 7 March 1507, he was killed by knights who did not realize who he was.  Stripped of all valuables and armor, Cesare’s body was left to rot with no less than twenty-five stab wounds in it.  When the identity of the man they had killed was discovered, the knights’ employer, Luis de Beaumonte – a man loyal to Jean III’s enemy Ferdinand II and held the town of Viana on the latter’s behalf – erupted into a rage at having lost the high bounty on Cesare.  He was only 31 when he died.

Image result for cesare borgia grave

The entrance to the Church of Santa Maria in Viana.  You can see the simple plaque commemorating Cesare’s burial on the walkway.

Cesare’s body recovered by Jean III and buried in the Church of Santa Maria, the epitaph reading “Here lies in a little earth he whom everyone feared, he who held peace and war in his hand.”  The marble tomb was later demolished by a bishop who did not want a murderer buried in the church and he was reinterred under the street there so everyone who walked by would step on “that degenerate”.  In 2007, on the 500th anniversary of his death, Cesare’s remains were brought back inside the church and reburied.

Since his death, Cesare has been the subject of much scorn, portrayed as an incestuous killer with a lust for power and blood.  Whatever he may have been, his story continues to fascinate.  He has been the subject of many books – including, most famously Machiavelli’s The Prince – television shows, and even video games.  Whatever crimes he may or may not have committed, he has earned his place among Royalty Most Cruel.


Posted by on September 26, 2016 in Italian Renaissance, Royalty Most Cruel


Sept. 13 – Cesare Borgia is born

At last, I have returned to ThornsOfTime!   Although it is late, I wanted to mark off my return by honoring Cesare for his birthday.

The article I wrote on the Borgia Family has received more views than any other post on this site so far, which I think merits a mention, maybe even a second article.  I have already posted on Lucrezia, which means that soon, Cesare himself will get his turn in the spotlight.  For now though, as I stretch my fingers again, this will have to do.

Cesare began his life in Rome, the son of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI) and his beloved mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei.  Born in 1476, he became a Cardinal at the young age of eighteen, though he cast his red robes aside soon after his brother Giovanni was murdered in 1497, taking his elder brothers place in the Papal Military.  He was the first person in history to resign from the position of Cardinal, which he traded in for a sword and the title of Duke of Valentinois.  He gained a reputation for cruelty and outstanding military prowess before he fell from grace soon after the death of his father, becoming a fugitive of Rome with a hefty price on his head.  He died on 12 March 1507 fighting in Navarre, Spain, at the age of thirty-one and was buried in Vienna.  His marble tomb was destroyed by the Bishop of Calahorra twenty years later, as the Bishop was outraged that a murderer was buried in the consecrated grounds of a church.  He was ultimately reburied in the Church of Santa María in 2007, where he rests today.


Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Italian Renaissance


Light on Lucrezia – The Tragic Tale of a Papal Princess

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.

LucreziaLucrezia 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.

Lucrezia and Sforza's wedding as depicted in  The Borgias

Lucrezia and Giovanni Sforza’s wedding as depicted in The Borgias

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.

Lucrezia and Cesare in Borgia - Faith and Fear

Lucrezia and Cesare in Borgia – Faith and Fear

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.

Alfonso of Aragon

Alfonso of Aragon

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.

Alfonso d'Este

Alfonso d’Este

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.

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Posted by on February 13, 2014 in Italian Renaissance


Scandal in the House of Borgia

Today is December 29th.  Since the first day of the new year is upon us and I will be busy as a result, I thought I would post my next article a bit early, though New Years Day would be much more fitting to do so, because on 1 January 1431, one of Italy’s most controversial figures was born in Xatvia, Spain near Valencia; Pope Alexander VI, more commonly known by his true name – Rodrigo Borgia.

Most people know the Borgia family by the legends that the notorious family have left behind; rumors of murder, incest, poisoning, lust, and much more surround them relentlessly.  Rodrigo himself and two of his children in particular stand out; Cesare and Lucrezia.  Their supposed story has been told in novels, films, video games, and plays, but what is the truth behind them?

Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo in The Borgias (2011-2013)

Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo in The Borgias (2011-2013)

Borgia, or Borja for the correct Spanish spelling, is actually not Rodrigo’s true family name, but his mother’s maiden name;he adopted his mother’s name upon his elevation to the papacy during the rule of his uncle Alonso de Borja (Pope Callixtus III).  He studied law at Bologna and was ordained, created Cardinal-Deacon the the age of twenty-five, and in 1457, was named vice-chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church and later became Bishop of Albano and of Valencia.  He served under five Papal heads, and in doing so, acquired enormous influence, wealth, and power.

In 1470, Rodrigo began a passionate affair with a noblewoman named Vannozza dei Cattanei, whom would be mother to four of his children; Giovanni, called Juan; Cesare; Lucrezia; and Gioffre, or Geoffredo.  By the time of his elevation in the papacy, the passion died out, and Vannozza’s life became more relaxed, though Rodrigo dotted heavily on his children and spoiled them.  All four would eventually become pawns in Rodrigo’s political game of intrigue.

On 11 August 1492, Rodrigo was elected Pope of Rome, allegedly by bribing the Cardinals with silver in order to obtain votes.  Cesare studied at the University of Perugia and later the University of Pisa, gaining degrees in cannon and civil law, but he was always being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Rodrigo wanted Cesare to have a career in the Church, while Giovanni, Cesare’s older brother, was given title of Duke of Gandia in Spain and became head of the Papal Army, a position that Cesare was said to have coveted.  While Giovanni held titles such as Grand Constable of Naples, Governor of St. Peter’s, and Captain General of the Church, Cesare became Bishop of Pamplona at age fifteen and, at eighteen, a Cardinal. 

Lucrezia, on the other hand, had been betrothed twice, but both engagements were called off by her father.  Finally, on 12 June 1493 at the age of thirteen, she was married to Giovanni Sforza, a member of the powerful and wealthy Sforza family and a man nearly twice her age, though before long, Sforza’s importance began to dwindle and rumors spread that the Pope would soon order his death.  In fear, Sforza fled for his life.  Soon, Rodrigo decided to try and have Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the groom’s cousin, convince him to agree to a divorce, but he refused.  On grounds that the marriage had not been consummated, the marriage was declared invalid, and Sforza, in a rage, accused Lucrezia of having committed incest with both her father and brother Cesare, with whom she was very close.  Nevertheless, he was convinced to sign the annulment papers before witnesses and, for a short time, Lucrezia was free to do as she pleased, though she would never quite rid herself of the scandalous stain her first husband had placed upon her.

Juan (Stanley Weber) and Cesare (Mark Ryder) in Borgia: Faith and Fear

Juan (Stanley Weber) and Cesare (Mark Ryder) in Borgia: Faith and Fear

Soon after, however, a crushing blow was delivered to the Borgia family.  On the evening of 14 June 1497, Giovanni and Cesare had dinner at their mother Vannozza’s house and the two went their separate ways late that night.  Two days later, Giovanni Borgia’s mutilated corpse was dredged from the Tiber River, dressed in his fine clothes and with his gold still in his pockets and nine knife holes in his arms, legs, neck, and face.  The Pope was devastated.  A search was carried out for the murderer, but nothing turned up.  The murder has long been a highly speculated mystery, but most believed it to be the work of Giovanni’s own brother Cesare, who was said to be jealous of not only Giovanni’s position in the military, but of the fact that the two shared a mistress.  The fire was fueled when Cesare became the first person in history to resign as Cardinal, exchanging his church robes for a suit of armor and was granted the Dukedom of Valentinois by King Louis XII of France the same day, from which his nickname “il Valentino” is derived.  Maria Enriquez de Luna, Giovanni’s widow and mother of two of his children, believed so strongly in these rumors that after Rodrigo’s death, she tried to have Cesare charged with her husband’s murder, even asking her aunt Isabella I of Castile for assistance, however, she was unsuccessful.  His true involvement in the crime is unknown and it is also suspected that Giovanni was the victim of a jealous husband or lover, as he was known for his amorous affairs, but again, nothing was proved and there were no arrests and within a year, the investigation was called off.  Thus the myth of the Borgias grew more sinister.

Lucrezia and Alfonso in Los Borgia

Lucrezia and Alfonso in the Spanish film Los Borgia

The same year, Lucrezia married again, this time to the Prince of Salerno and Duke of Bisceglie, seventeen-year-old Alfonso of Aragon.  The couple was said to have fallen in love almost instantly and the marriage, which took place in July 1498, would be a short one.  Alfonso was the son of the King of Naples, and Rodrigo wanted to ally himself with France.  The problem was that France was an enemy to the Kingdom of Naples.  The French alliance was cemented when Cesare married the sister to the King of Navarre and poor Alfonso, who was no longer needed, deserted Rome in 1499, leaving behind a distraught and pregnant Lucrezia, whom he wrote to constantly, begging her to join him.  Soon, the couple reunited in the town of Nepi and returned to the Vatican in September.  In late October or early November, Lucrezia gave birth to a son, whom she named Rodrigo after her father.  The couple’s happiness would be cut short when Alfonso was attacked by mercenaries at the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica in July 1500.  Gravely injured, he was cared for by his wife, half-sister, and many doctors, and slowly began to recover from his stabbing wounds, but nothing could help him when he was strangled in his bed by an unknown assassin in the night.  Again, rumors began to circulate that Cesare had ordered the murder or had even killed the boy himself, but again, nothing could be proven.  Either way, Alfonso was out of the way and the Papacy allied with France.  Two years later, Lucrezia was married off again, this time to the Duke of Ferrara.   She would never see Little Rodrigo again and the sickly boy died at the age of twelve.

Cesare Borgia

Cesare Borgia

Before the scandal of Alfonso’s murder took place, Cesare, hoping to marry the beautiful Carlotta d’Aragona, struck a deal with the King of France; if he granted him a divorce from his wife, Louis would support him in his anticipated marriage.  Cesare went to France, spending his money wildly in an attempt to impress the court as well as his intended bride, who was Lady-in-Waiting to the French Queen.  However, Carlotta rejected him immediately, not caring for his arrogance.  Instead, the king proposed a new bride, Charlotte d’Albret, sister to the King of Navarre and a woman of reportedly great beauty.  Cesare was pleased and, after nearly two months of negotiations, the two were married on the 12th of May.  They spent their honeymoon in Blois and Cesare lavished her with gifts, but soon, he was called back to Italy, and in July, he left his wife behind, never to see her again, nor their only child, a daughter named Louise.

In 1503, both Cesare and Rodrigo dined together and both fell gravely ill.  Cesare, who was already suffering from syphilis, eventually recovered, though for some time he “lay in bed, his skin peeling and his face suffused to a violet color.”  Rodrigo, however, was no match for the disease and died on 6 August at the age of 72.  Some say the cause of death was poison, but it is thought to be malaria or a similar pestilence that was also plaguing Europe at the time.  Cesare, his handsome face heavily scarred from the disease, wore a mask for the rest of his life.

With his father’s death came Cesare’s downfall; it is remarked by historian Niccolò Machiavelli that his one weakness was that he depended too much on his father’s Papal rule for protection.  Now that Rodrigo was dead, his enemies sought him out and the greatest known of them, Giuliano della Rovere, who next became Pope Julius II, retook his lands and he was forced to flee from Rome.  He sought aid in Naples, but was imprisoned and later taken to Spain, managing to escape his confinement with assistance.  He went to Navarre and took on the position of commander of the troops of its king, John III, his wife’s brother.

On 12 March 1507, during a skirmish with soldiers of the Constable of Navarre, Cesare Borgia died fighting in Vienna at the age of 31.   Upon his death, unaware of who he was, the attacking soldiers had him stripped of his armor and clothes and left him naked in the weeds with twenty-five stab wounds and a simple rock to protect his modesty.  When they at last discovered his identity, the Constable erupted in a fit of rage, because the price on Cesare’s head was high, and he would have been a valuable prisoner had he been left alive, but the damage was done.  John had his brother-in-law’s body carried back to Vienna, where he was buried.  Charlotte would never remarry, and instead entered a convent with little Louise and became a nun.

The only confirmed portrait of Lucrezia Borgia in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia in the Vatican

Finally, Lucrezia was the last Borgia left alive.  Her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este made her Duchess of Ferrara in 1502.  Together they had a total of six children and in addition, she was also caretaker to at least one of Cesare’s illegitimate children and possibly mother to another son named Giovanni of Rome (however the child’s parentage is uncertain.  It is not even known if Lucrezia was really his mother or if he was a product of one of her brothers’ many liaisons.)  On 14 June 1519, at the age of thirty-nine, Lucrezia gave birth to her final child, a stillborn daughter named Isabella Maria, and ten days later, she too died of complications following the birth.

The history which I have provided here is short, mostly because of the facts being shrouded in legend and scandal that cannot be proved, as stated earlier.  The myths surrounding the Borgia family are still quite fascinating and have been told and retold by writers such as Machiavelli, whom famously used Cesare as his model in his book, The Prince.

Particularly Cesare seems to be known for his extreme cruelty both inside and outside the field of battle.  He was a brilliant military leader, having in his term ruthlessly captured towns such as Forli and Rimini.  It was even recorded by Rodrigo’s papal master of ceremonies that Cesare once had a group of prisoners rounded up in St. Peter’s Square, where from a high balcony perch, he proceeded to shoot them down with rifles until all were dead, allthewhile the Pope and his sister looked on.  In the French court, he showed off by bullfighting on horseback, and in one day killed eight bulls.  Yet despite his brutal ways, he was still said to be handsome and charming, always armed and dressed in fine silk.  He was highly intelligent, but his temper was fierce to the point where even his own father was said to have feared him.  Even his original epitaph read “Here lies the man whom all the world feared, who held peace and war in his hand.”

Cesare as portrayed in the Assassin's Creed video game franchise

Cesare as portrayed in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise.

Rodrigo is known best perhaps for his promiscuous love affairs and was one of the only Popes to acknowledge his illegitimate children.  His relations were subject to the gossips of the time, namely his mistress Giulia Farnese, sister to the man who would become Pope Paul III and with whom he had a daughter named Laura.  She was slandered with the epithet “the Pope’s Whore” before she was cast aside in 1500 due to her age.  Rodrigo loved women.  He was also said to have rid himself of rivals with use of poison, most notably one called Cantarella, which may in itself be mythical, as no recipe for such a poison has ever been found.

This toxic myth also concerns Lucrezia, who was famously said to have been in possession of a hollow ring that she used to poison drinks.  However, modern historians are beginning to look at her in a more positive light.   Her beauty is also remarked on, namely her heavy long blond hair, which fell past her hips, a lock of which is on display. What is known is that she too had several affairs in her lifetime, most notably with the poet Pietro Bembo, with whom she exchanged several love letters that still survive.  Lord Byron dubbed them “the most beautiful love letters in the world”.

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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Italian Renaissance