533 years ago this week, a girl was born whose life would prove to be so full of drama and scandal that it has been turned into a play by Victor Hugo, an opera by Donizetti (read the libretto, see the printed sheet music and handwritten music, or listen to a song), a famous painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, more than 20 films for the big and small screens, and a character in the video game Assassin’s Creed.
This painting ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Veneto is traditionally thought to depict Lucrezia Borgia, but scholars have not officially accepted this. Image: ‘Bartolomeo Veneto, Lucrezia Borgia’, Bartolomeo Veneto, Federico Zeri Foundation, public domain
Lucrezia Borgia was born on 18 April 1480 in the province of Rome, Italy. Google her and you’ll find her described with words like ‘femme fatale’, ‘infamous’ and ‘scheming’. All of this and she was the daughter of a Pope, albeit the illegitimate daughter of a Pope!
History has certainly cast Lucrezia in the role of ‘femme fatale’, but it is also possible to interpret her life and actions differently, seeing her as a girl used as a pawn in the power games of the Renaissance papacy. It seems that Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), and her brothers Cesare, Giovanni and Gioffre, arranged marriages for her in order to further their own political ambitions, no doubt taking advantage of her widely acknowledged good looks and figure.
‘Ritratto di Lucrezia Borgia’, anonymous, Federico Zeri Foundation, public domain
Aged just ten years old, Lucrezia was engaged to a Lord, but this arrangement was scrapped in favour of an engagement to a Count, which in turn was dissolved so that Lucrezia could marry a man who was both a Lord and a Count – Giovanni Sforza. The wedding took place when Lucrezia was 13, in Rome. When Sforza’s political influence proved to be insufficient, Lucrezia’s father did all he could to destroy the marriage, allegedly trying to have Giovanni murdered, then cajole him into a divorce. For his part, Giovanni fled Rome, then claimed Lucrezia was victim to fraternal and paternal incest, then finally signed documents confirming he was impotent, which was grounds for an annulment of the marriage.
Some histories tell that at the time of Lucrezia and Giovannia’s annulment for non-consummation, Lucrezia was pregnant. She retired to a convent to have the baby. The father of the child could have been her father’s chamberlain, Pedro ‘Perotto’ Calderon, a man found dead a couple of years later.
Aged 18, Lucrezia married again. This time, her husband was 17-year-old Alfonso d’Aragon (Duke of Bisceglie) from Naples. The couple had one son, Rodrigo, but spent less than two years together because Alfonso was murdered in 1500. It is thought that Lucrezia’s brother arranged Alfonso’s demise (first by stabbing, then by strangling) as he had recently allied himself with France, against Naples, and therefore against Alfonso.
‘”Lucrezia Borgia e Famiglia”. Dosso Dossi.’, anonymous, Federico Zeri Foundation, public domain
So, two husbands and two children by the age of 20. Surely that’s enough? But no, two years after the death of husband number two, Pope Alexander VI arranged a third marriage for Lucrezia. Another Alfonso, this one Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. This marriage produced several children and lasted for the rest of Lucrezia’s life (perhaps because her father died in 1503 and with him many of the family’s scheming ways), but she wasn’t the one-man type, and he wasn’t the one-woman type. Both of them had affairs. Lucrezia’s included an affair with a poet, Pietro Bembo, to whom she wrote a series of love letters.
Perhaps the passionate affairs she had whilst married to Alfonso number two could justify her description as a ‘femme fatale’, but the rest of the scandal is either rumour (such as the stories that she frequently poisoned people at parties) or can be attributed to her power-hungry family rather than to the lady herself.
Away from ‘family life’, Lucrezia became a patron for the arts in Ferrara, where the artistic community was thriving. However, in 1512, Lucrezia turned to religion, possibly in response to the death of her son, Rodrigo. Lucrezia died aged just 39, not long after suffering a still-born birth.
Want to know more? Read her biography, ‘Lucrezia Borgia: Duchess of Ferrara’ by William Gilbert.