On June 24, 1519, Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, and Vannozza dei Cattanei, passed away. Lucrezia’s family later came to epitomize the ruthless Machiavellian politics and sexual corruption alleged to be characteristic of the Renaissance Papacy. Lucrezia was cast as a femme fatale, a role she has been portrayed as in many artworks, novels, and films. The extent of her complicity in the political machinations of her family is unclear, but she had to obey to several arranged marriages to important or powerful men in order to advance their own political ambitions.
The Daughter of a Roman Cardinal
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, at Subiaco, near Rome. Her mother was Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of the many mistresses of Lucrezia’s father Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI. By the age of eleven, she had been betrothed twice, but both times Rodrigo had rescinded the betrothals. When Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI he was eager to be allied with powerful families and founding dynasties of Italy. As being the Pope, Rodrigo was able to call off Lucrezia’s previous engagements and arranged for her to marry Giovanni Sforza, a member of the House of Sforza, a powerful Milanese family, on 12 June 1493 in Rome. Thus, the girl already faced her third husband at the age of merely thirteen. The marriage was by proxy, and for four months after her marriage, until the arrival of her new husband in Rome, Lucrezia lived in a handsome palace next to the Vatican with the Pope’s new mistress, Guilia Farnese.
Marriages and Political Alliances
While in Rome, Lucrezia served as her father’s hostess at diplomatic receptions. When the Borgia family no longer needed the Sforzas at the papal court, he was looking for new, more advantageous political alliances, so he may have covertly ordered the execution of Giovanni. The generally accepted version is that Lucrezia was informed of this by her brother Cesare, and she warned her husband, who fled Rome. Thus, Rodrigo turned to Giovanni’s uncle, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, to persuade Giovanni to agree to a divorce, which he refused. Instead, Giovanni accused Lucrezia of paternal and fraternal incest. In return, Rodrigo applied the only valid argument for annulment of the marriage and asserted that his daughter’s marriage had not been consummated and was thus invalid. In the end, Giovanni signed confessions of impotence and documents of annulment before witnesses in return for Lucrezia’s dowry. Actually, it is reported that Lucrezia was delighted to be rid of her boring husband. So much for husband number one.
During the bargaining over the divorce, Lucrezia retired to a nearby convent. However, Lucrezia consummated a relationship with someone, perhaps Rodrigo’s chamberlain Pedro Calderon, also named Perotto, who served as her only communication with her father during her enforced stay. Six months later and pregnant from the liaison with Perotto, Lucrezia participated in a ceremony in which Vatican judges attested that she was ‘intacta’, that is, a virgin. In March 1498, the Ferrarese ambassador claimed that Lucrezia had given birth, but this was denied by other sources. However, one month earlier in February 1498, the bodies of Perotto, and a maid, Pantasilea, were found in the Tiber. Next, Lucrezia was married to the 17-year-old Neapolitan Alfonso of Aragon, to forge another alliance with a second important kingdom. The marriage was a short one, lasting from 1498 until Alfonso’s murder in 1500. It is widely rumored that Lucrezia’s brother Cesare was responsible for Alfonso’s death. This was husband number two, who did not have the luck to get away alife…
Next Husband and Death at Childbirth
Now, Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI, arranged a third marriage with Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in early 1502 in Ferrara, who should become Lucrezia’s final husband. She gave her third husband a number of children and proved to be a respectable and accomplished Renaissance duchess, effectively rising above her previous reputation and surviving the fall of the Borgias following her father’s death. But, this did not mean that Lucrezia – nor her husband – were faithful to each other. Both had affairs and lovers. In 1503, Lucrezia allegedly enjoyed a long relationship with her brother-in-law, Francesco II Gonzaga as well as a love affair with the poet Pietro Bembo. Lucrezia Borgia died in Ferrara on 24 June 1519 from complications after giving birth to her eighth child. When the Romantic poet Lord Byron visited the Ambrosian Library of Milan in 1816, he was delighted by the letters between Borgia and Bembo. He considered them “the prettiest love letters in the world“) and claimed to have managed to steal a lock of her hair held there on display.
The Borgia Legend
Lucrezia was married three times as an object of dynastic business and for the further advancement of the family. After Lucrezia’s death, the enemies of her family told her of a number of affairs, such as with Pietro Bembo and Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, the husband of her sister-in-law Isabella d’Este, all of which belong to the realm of legends and cannot be proven by historical sources. The idea that she was a kind of early modern Messalina is one of the best-known stories about the Borgia family. The actual Borgia legend probably originated both in earlier demon tales circulating about the papacy of the first centuries and in superstitions and propaganda in the age of witchcraft and inquisition. Lucrezia came to the centre of these reports, because such misconduct, according to Christian ideas, had to emanate from a woman. Shortly after Alexander’s death, the papal master of ceremonies Johannes Burckard took over the interpretation of the legend. Alexandre Dumas  with his novel Les Borgia and Victor Hugo with his play Lucrèce Borgia shaped the image of Lucrezia as a woman with a debauched lifestyle and an unscrupulous poisoner.
References and Further Reading:
-  Russel Aiuto: The Borgias from The CrimeLibrary
-  Ferdinand Gregorovius: Lucretia Borgia – According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day, eBook at Project Gutenberg
-  Lucrezia Borgia’s family tree
-  Lucrezia Borgia at Scandalous Women
-  Wicked Lord Byron’s Wonderful Poetry, SciHi Blog
-  Adventure Time with Alexandre Dumas, SciHi Blog
-  Nothing is Stronger than an Idea whose Time has come – The Life of Victor Hugo, SciHi Blog
-  Lucrezia Borgia at Wikidata
-  Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction | Quentin Skinner | Talks at Google, Talks at Google @ youtube
-  Wagner, Curt (28 April 2013). “Francois Arnaud talks sibling love in ‘The Borgias’“. Chicago Tribune.
-  David Jays (24 October 2004). “Observer review: Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford”. The Guardian.
-  Timeline of the House of Borgia, via DBpedia and Wikidata