Known for: illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) by one of his mistresses, Lucrezia Borgia gained a reputation as a poisoner and plotter. She was more likely a victim of malicious gossip that exaggerated her actual misdoings, and likely was not an active participant in her father's and brother's infamous plots. Accusations of incest with her father and/or brother are suspect. She had three political marriages, arranged for her family's advantage, and likely had several adulterous alliances including, probably, one illegitimate child. She was also for a time a papal secretary, and her later years were spent in relative stability as the "Good Duchess" of Ferrara, sometimes acting as de factor ruler in her husband's absence.
Mother: Vannozza dei Cattanei, also mother of two older full siblings of Lucrezia: Giovanni and Cesare, and a younger full sibling Gioffre (though Rodrigo Borgia apparently harbored some doubts he was the father).
Father: Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), a nephew of Pope Callixtus III, and member of a Catalan (Spanish) family rising in power. He had other children by several other mistresses; the total is sometimes given as eight and sometimes nine. A son, Gioffre, may also have been Vannozza's. The name of an earlier mistress, mother of three of his children (Pere-Lluis, Girolama and Isabella) is not known. A later mistress, Giulia Farnese, was the mother of Orsino Orsini and Laura Orsini, thought to be Rodrigo's children (she married Orsino Orsini).
Siblings: her older full siblings (Rodrigo's children by Vannozza de Cattanei) were Giovanni (Juan) and Cesare
Titles: Lady of Pesaro and Gradara, 1492 - 1497; Duchess consort of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, 1505 - 1519.
We know of Lucrezia's life mostly through tales told by others, some of them enemies of her family. She is mentioned in some letters by others -- again, some of the mentions are possible exaggerations or misrepresentations, given the power struggles around her. Lucrezia left a few letters, but some of these were likely written knowing that they would be intercepted and read, so most don't give us any deep insight into her motivations or even details about her activities. Other sources of information include such records as account books. Her will does not survive, though references to it in some other documents do survive.
Also see: Lucrezia Borgia Timeline
Lucrezia Borgia lived in the last half of the Italian Renaissance period. Italy was not a united kingdom, but had many rulers of city-states, republics, and other jurisdictions. Alignments shifted, including with French or other powers, in attempts by each local ruler and their family to build and maintain power. Murder was not an uncommon way of dealing with enemies.
The Roman Catholic church of that time was part of these power struggles; having control of the papacy meant control of many appointments, including lucrative bishoprics and other offices. While celibacy rules kept married men from the priesthood, it was common to have mistresses, often quite openly.
The Borgia family was from Valencia in what later became unified into Spain. Alfons de Borja was elected as Pope Callixtus III in 1455; his sister, Isabel, was the mother of Rodrigo who adopted the Italianized version, Borgia, of his mother's name, Borja.
Lucrezia's father Rodrigo was a Cardinal when she was born. He was a nephew of Pope Calixtus III. Lucrezia's mother was his mistress of some years, Vannozza Cattanei, who was also the mother of two older children by Rodrigo, Giovanni (in Spanish, Juan) and Cesare. After Rodrigo became Pope as Alexander VI, he advanced the career within the church of many Borja and Borgia relatives.
A daughter's value in such a time was primarily to cement political relationships, and to add to the family's power. Certainly Lucrezia's life reflected the family's shifting alliances.
What Did Lucrezia Borgia Look Like?
Lucrezia Borgia was described as beautiful, with long, flowing golden hair which, as an adult, she spent a long time grooming, and bleached to keep it light. Unlike for her sister-in-law Isabelle d'Este, we don't have portraits that we are certain are of Lucrezia, other than on a bronze medal. In 2008, an art historian announced that he was convinced that a portrait long known merely as "Portrait of a Youth" by an unknown painter, was painted by Ferraro-based Dosso Dossi. Several other paintings have long been thought to have been based on Lucrezia Borgia, notably Pinturicchio's Disputation of Saint Catherine and Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto.
Lucrezia was born in Rome in 1480. Not much is known about her childhood, but by about 1489, she was living with her father's third cousin, Adriana de Mila, and her father's new mistress, Giulia Farnese, who was married to Adriana's stepson. Adriana, a widow, had care of Lucrezia, who was educated at the nearby Convent of St. Sixtus. As an adult, she was able to write in French, Spanish and Italian; this was likely part of that early education.
Already in 1491, Lucrezia's father was arranging her marriage with a Valencian noble, with a dowry set at 100,000 ducats. Two months later, Rodrigo broke that contract, with no reason give, but presumably he had other ideas for her marriage. Rodrigo then arranged a marriage for Lucrezia with a son of a count in Navarre, and then that contract was also annulled.
When Cardinal Rodrigo was elected Pope in 1492, he began to use that office to his family's advantage. Cesare, one of Lucrezia's brothers who was at the time 17 years old, was made an archbishop, and in 1493 was made a cardinal. Giovanni was made a Duke and was to head up papal armies. Gioffre was given lands taken from the kingdom of Naples. And a new marriage alliance was arranged for Lucrezia.
The Sforza family of Milan was one of the most powerful families in Italy, and had supported the election of Pope Alexander VI. They also were allied with the French king against Naples. A member of the Sforza family, Giovanni Sforza, was lord of a small Adriatic fishing town, Pesano; he was the illegitimate son of Costanzo I Sforza and thus a nephew of Ludovico Sforza who was the ruler of Milan. It was with Giovanni Sforza that Alexander arranged a marriage for Lucrezia, to reward the Sforza family for their support and to bind their families together.
Lucrezia was 13 when she married Giovanni Sforza on June 12, 1493. The wedding was elaborate, including 500 ladies in attendance. Lavish gifts were given. And scandalous behavior was noted.
The marriage was not a happy one. Within four years, Lucrezia was complaining of his behavior. Giovanni also accused Lucrezia of misconduct. The Sforza family was no longer in favor with the Pope; Ludovico had provoked an attack by the French that had almost cost Alexander his papacy. Lucrezia's father and her brother Cesare began to have other plans for Lucrezia: Alexander wanted to switch alliances from France to Naples.
Early in 1497, Lucrezia and Giovanni separated. Some reports have Lucrezia warning Giovanni that her father had ordered his execution. Giovanni went to Pesaro, presumably to escape any plans Cesare or Alexander might have to eliminate him; Lucrezia went to the Convent of St. Sixtus where she had been educated.
End of First Marriage
The Borgias began the process of annulling the marriage, charging Giovanni with impotence and nonconsummation of the marriage. Giovanni, who had a child from his first marriage, boasted of having had sex with Lucrezia at least 1,000 times in their short marriage. He also began spreading accusations that Alexander and Cesare had incestuous designs on Lucrezia. The Pope enlisted the aid of the powerful Cardinal Ascanio Sforza (who had been his rival at the papal election) to persuade Giovanni to agree to annul the marriage; the Sforza family pressured Giovanni to end the marriage, as well.
Eventually, Giovanni agreed to the annulment. He agreed to acknowledge impotence in exchange for keeping the substantial dowry Lucrezia had brought to the marriage. He may also have feared the consequences of further resistance. In mid-1497, Lucrezia's brother Giovanni Borgia was killed and his body dumped in the Tiber river; Cesare was rumored to have had his brother murdered in order to inherit his titles and land. The marriage of Lucrezia Borgia and Giovanni Sforza was officially ended on December 27, 1497.
In the meantime, the Pope and his son, Cesare, had been arranging a second marriage for Lucrezia. This time, the husband was Alfonso d'Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie, who was 17 years old. He was said to be the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. A Spaniard, Pedro Caldes, was in charge of the negotiations for the marrriage.
By the time of the annulment of her first marriage on grounds of nonconsummation of the marriage, Lucrezia was pregnant. Pedro Caldes admitted being the father, though rumors were that either Cesare or Alexander was the actual father. Pedro Caldes and one of Lucrezia's maids were killed and thrown into the Tiber; rumors blamed Cesare. Some scholars doubt that Lucrezia was pregnant or had a son at this time, though her giving birth was mentioned in a letter of the time.
Lucrezia, age 21, married Alfonso d'Aragon by proxy on June 28, 1498, and in person on July 21. A feast much like that at her first marriage celebrated this second marriage.
In August, Lucrezia's brother Cesare became the first person in church history to renounce his cardinalate; he was named the Duke of Valentinois on the same day by the French king Louis XII.
The second marriage soured more quickly than the first. Only a year later, other alliances were tempting the Borgias. Alfonso left Rome, but Lucrezia talked him into returning. She was appointed as governor of Spoleto. On November 1, 1499, she gave birth to Alfonso's son, naming him Rodrigo for her father.
On July 15 of the next year, Alfonso survived an assassination attempt. He had been at the Vatican and was on his way home when hired killers stabbed him repeatedly. He managed to make it home, where Lucrezia cared for him and hired armed guards to protect him.
About a month later, on August 18, Cesare Borgia visited Alfonso, who was recuperating, promising to "complete" that which had not been finished earlier. Cesare returned later with another man, cleared the room, and, as the other man later recounted the story, had his associate strangle or smother Alfonso to death.
Lucrezia was reportedly devastated at the death of her husband. Her father and brother were so upset by her constant grieving that they sent her to Nepi in the Estruscan hills on a kind of retreat.
The Roman Infant
Lucrezia, at this time, appeared in the company of a three year old -- many believe this was a child she gave birth to after her first marriage ended. The Pope, probably to try to protect Lucrezia's reputation, issued a public papal bull stating that the child was Cesare's by an unnamed woman, and thus Lucrezia's nephew. For unknown reasons, Alexander privately published, at the same time, another papal bull, naming himself as the father. The child was named Giovanni Borgia, also known as the Infans Romanus (Roman child).
The presence of the child, and these acknowledgements, added fuel to the fire of the incest rumors begun by Sforza.
Back in Rome, Lucrezia began to work in the Vatican at her father's side. She handled the pope's mail and even answered it when he was not in town.
Rumors about Lucrezia were fed by her work with her father, as well as by the presence of the child. Cesare held scandalous parties at the Vatican, with reports of such antics as 50 male servants and 50 nude prostitutes entertaining the party with sexual play. Whether the pope and Lucrezia attended these parties or not, or left before the most scandalous parts, is debated by historians. Some at the time commented on her piety and called her virtuous; was that genuine? Historians disagree, but most today lean towards the view that Lucrezia was not the active participant she was portrayed as by earlier historians.
During these years, Cesare served as commander of the papal armies, and several of his enemies were found dead in the Tiber. In one campaign, he defeated and unseated Giovanni Sforza, Lucrezia's former husband.
Third Marriage Negotiated
A still-young daughter of the pope remained a prime candidate for an arranged marriage to solidify Borgia power. The eldest son, and presumed heir, of the Duke of Ferrara was a recent widower. (This son's first wife was related to Lucrezia's first husband.) The Borgias saw this as an opportunity for an alliance with a region that was physically between their current power base and another they wanted to add to the family's lands.
Ercole d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara, was understandably hesitant to marry his son, Alfonso d'Este, to a woman whose first two marriages had ended in scandal and death, or to marry their more established family to the newly-powerful Borgias. Ercole d'Este was allied with the King of France, who wanted the alliance with the Pope. The Pope threatened Ercole with loss of his lands and title if he did not consent. Ercole drove a hard bargain in consenting, at last: a very large dowry, a position in the church for his son, some additional lands, and reduced payments to the church. Ercole even considered marrying Lucrezia himself if his son, Alfonso, did not agree to the marriage -- but Alfonso did.
Lucrezia apparently welcomed the marriage. She brought a large and expensive trousseau with her, as well as jewels and other valuable goods -- all of which Ercole d'Este carefully inventoried and inspected.
Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d'Este were married by proxy at the Vatican on December 30, 1501. In January, she traveled with 1,000 in attendance to Ferrara, and on February 2, the two were married in person in another luxury-ridden ceremony.
Death: the Pope and the Duke
The summer of 1503 was oopressively hot in 1503, and mosquitos rampant. Lucrezia's father died unexpectedly of malaria on August 18, 1503, ending the Borgia plans for solidifying power. (Some accounts have Cesare accidentally poisoning his father with a potion intended for someone else.) Cesare was also infected but survived, but he was too ill at his father's death to move quickly to secure treasure for his family. Cesare was supported by Pius III, the next pope, but that pope died after 26 days in office. Giuliano Della Rovere, who had been a rival of Alexander and long an enemy of the Borgias, tricked Cesare into supporting his election as pope, but as Julius II, he reneged on his promises to Cesare. The Vatican apartments of the Borgia family were sealed by Julius who was revolted by the scandalous behavior of his predecessor. They remained sealed until the 19th century.
The main responsibility of a Renaissance ruler's wife was to bear children, who would in turn either rule or be married into other families to cement alliances. Lucrezia was pregnant at least 11 times during her marriage to Alfonso. There were several miscarriages and at least one stillborn child, and two others died in infancy -- syphilis infecting either the father or both parents is blamed by some historians for these reproductive failures. But five other children survived infancy, and two -- Ercole and Ippolito -- both survived to adulthood.
Lucrezia's son Rodrigo from her marriage to Alfonso d'Aragon was raised in his father's family, heir to Alfonso's title as Duke. Lucrezia took a very active role, though from a distance, in his upbringing. She selected staff (governesses, tutors) who would take care of him and the duchy he was heir to.
Giovanni, the infamous "Roman infant," came to live with Lucrezia a few years after her marriage. She supported him financially; he was officially recognized as her brother.
Politics and War
Lucrezia, meanwhile, was relatively safe in Ferrara. When her husband became embroiled with a war with Pope Julius II and with Venice from 1509, Lucrezia pawned her jewelry in order to help finance the effort. At the end of the war, when Julius II died, she began a rather ambitious effort to reclaim agricultural lands as well as to reclaim her pawned property.
Patron of the Arts, Businesswoman
In Ferrara, Lucrezia associated with artists and writers, including the poet Ariosto, and helped bring many to the court, distant as it was from the Vatican. Poet Pietro Bembo was one of those she patronized, and from the letters surviving to him, it's clear that their relationship was more than friendship.
Recent studies have shown that during her years in Ferrara, Lucrezia was a shrewd businesswoman, building up her own fortune quite successfully. She used some of her wealth to build hospitals and convents, winning the respect of her subjects. She sometimes inspected her husband's property for him. She invested in marshy land, then drained it and recovered it for agricultural use.
Lucrezia also was reported to have had several affairs, including that with Bembo. Her husband Alfonso d'Este was also not faithful. Lucrezia had, early in her marriage, tried to make friends with her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, and Isabella was at first welcoming towards Lucrezia. But Cesare Borgia overthrew Isabella's sister's husband, and Isabella became quite cool towards Lucrezia. Isabella's husband, Francesco Gonzaga, was not cool towards Lucrezia, and the two had a long affair beginning as early as 1503 that ended only when Francesco realized that he had syphilus.
Lucrezia received word in 1512 that her son Rodrigo d'Aragon had died. She withdrew from most social life, though she continued her business enterprises including investing her inheritance from her son in livestock, canal construction and drainage of wetlands. She turned more to her religion, spending more time at convents, and even began wearing a hair shirt (an act of penance) under her fancy gowns. Visitors to Ferrara commented on her melancholy, and that she seemed to age rapidly. She also pursued her brother Giovanni's inheritance in Spain, and continued her effort to retrieve her jewelry she had pawned during the war, before 1513. She had four more pregnancies and perhaps two miscarriages from 1514 to 1519. In 1518, she wrote, in one of her surviving letters, to her son Alfonso who was in France.
Death of Lucrezia Borgia
On June 14, 1519, Lucrezia gave birth to a daughter who was stillborn. Lucrezia contracted a fever and died ten days later. During this illness, she sent a letter to the Pope commending her husband and children to him.
She was mourned genuinely by her husband, family and subjects.
Some of the most outrageous charges against Lucrezia come from
- her first husband, when he was responding to charges that he was impotent and did not consummate their marriage in four years
- Pope Julius II, who followed Alexander VI and against whom Lucrezia's husband fought
- Niccolo Macchiavelli, who stated the charges of incest as fact
- Francesco Guicciardini, historian, who also reported the incest and other scandalous rumors as fact
- Victor Hugo's play, Lucrezia Borgia
- Donizetti's opera, Lucrezia Borgia
In 1505, already in Ferrara, Lucrezia had a bronze medal cast with her likeness on one side. On the other was portrayed Cupid bound in an oak tree, a "bound cupid," representing the need to control physical passions. That, and her more circumspect behavior for most of her time in Ferrara, speaks to what was likely her personal religious and ethical orientation during the time of her last marriage, once she was out of the control of her father and brother.
Also: Lucrezia Borgia Timeline
More women's history biographies, by name:
More about the Borgias, from About.com's European History Guide: The Borgias
About the series beginning in 2011: The Borgias