Lucrezia Borgia – A New Assessment

Callum Scott-Doyle, Dickson College 2007


The Borgia family, in particular, Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia, have acquired a reputation as one of the most evil families in history. In popular history, Rodrigo (also known as Pope Alexander IV,) is portrayed as a merciless, lecherous nepotist who entered the church to further his own personal gain and Cesare as a merciless slaughterer and empire-builder. However, while historians tend to agree about the father and son, the personality of Lucrezia Borgia remains an enigma. While many are quick to make Lucrezia as evil as the rest of her family (a poisonous harlot of a woman who used her body and tongue to destroy reputations and families,) other historians have cast her as a weak-willed, unhappy woman who was bullied and forced into serving her father and brothers. But do either of these views truly represent Lucrezia Borgia?

In the first view, Lucrezia is portrayed as an incestuous, oversexed monster from an early age, starting with accusations that she slept with her father, Rodrigo Borgia, and her brothers Juan and Cesare, and frequently participated in the licentious dances Rodrigo organised for his own entertainment. According to Wykes, her first betrothed (Cherubio de Centelles) was said to have deflowered her at one of these very gatherings, and the young Lucrezia apparently enjoyed discussing the details of her sexual exploits in pornographic detail. As a young woman, Lucrezia is said to have used her body and her tongue as weapons in the court, spreading poisonous rumours about the enemies of her family and having affairs with any man who caught her fancy. In particular, she enjoyed playing members of her family off against each other. One of her favourite games was to write a letter informing either Juan or Cesare of the other’s sexual competence. This game caused many arguments and fights among the brothers, and is said to be one of the primary factors that contributed to Juan’s murder by Cesare. Lucrezia’s morals were also said to be horribly flawed: according to Hutchings (2000), after her second husband Alfonso of Bisceghe was murdered (again by a jealous Cesare,) Lucrezia mourned for a bare month before re-entering the Borgia court as cheerfully malicious as ever; many said she was sneaking back to her brother’s bed. In another display of heartlessness Lucrezia was seen on a balcony in the Vatican laughing and clapping as Cesare picked off criminals below with a crossbow! Lucrezia was also rumoured to have masterminded several murders of her own, with her favourite method of extermination being a ring on her finger that dispensed a poisonous powder with a flick of the wrist.

However, this version of Lucrezia Borgia can be easily refuted. The most damning accusation levelled against her, that of her incestuous relationship with her father and brothers, has no evidence to support it. As a matter of fact, Lucrezia was only associated with incest after the marriage to her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, was annulled on the grounds that he was impotent. Humiliated and outraged, Sforza defended himself with the statement that Alexander IV only wanted the marriage annulled so that he could have Lucrezia to himself, a wild accusation probably fuelled by stories of the Pope’s orgies. This was expanded upon by the scandal-loving public until it reached the ears of historians Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who wrote it down as fact.

It is likely that her game of ‘kiss and tell’ among her brothers was just another offshoot of the scandal-mongers. As for the murders she was said to have carried out, no specific case has ever been discovered and her preferred weapon, the ring, was never found. Her court life and maliciousness is, in fact, no worse then many other noble ladies of the period. According to Wykes and Burckhardt, having lovers as well as husbands was a common practice. However, as Lucrezia was born into the family of Alexander, the hated Spanish Pope, everything she did was blown out of proportion in order to make the Borgias look even more monstrous than they really were. The only truth to be found in this view was her somewhat questionable morals: the account of Cesare and the crossbow has many eyewitnesses, in particular the Vatican’s master of ceremonies, Johannes Burchard (Wykes.) This is understandable, as some of her family’s evils would have rubbed off on her. Unlike Cesare and Rodrigo, though, Lucrezia redeemed herself many times over during the course of her life: saving Giovanni Sforza from an assassination plot by Cesare, despite all the trouble he had caused her, and her amazing achievements as Duchess of Ferrara, are just two examples of this. But what of her quick recovery following her second husband’s death?

After Alfonso died, Lucrezia was heartbroken, and fled to the castle of Nepi with her attendants to grieve in secret. After a month, Alexander summoned her back to Rome and Lucrezia came, seemingly recovered. However, it must be noted that, at the time, there was no way Lucrezia could have grieved in public without danger. Cesare publicly admitted to killing Alfonso and was powerful enough to avoid consequence and, despite Lucrezia’s powerful relationship with her brother, to go against Cesare would have been futile. Her father Alexander was at this stage nothing more than a puppet of Cesare, and
anyone else she could have turned to were equally scared of him and the consequences that would have followed if they spoke up. So, Lucrezia was not indifferent to her husband’s death but forced to put on an act to avoid retribution from her elder brother. The second view, that Lucrezia was merely a manipulated pawn, carries a lot more weight. From an early age, Lucrezia was forced to act in ways that would benefit the Borgia family, and no example is more evident of this than her three marriages. Despite the fact she ended up loving her second and third husbands (indeed, her third husband
was her key to freedom,) all her marriages were arranged for her and in no way was Lucrezia ever consulted. Alexander and Cesare re-arranged her life as they saw fit, destroying her friendships (The murder of her lover Pedro Calderon is one example,) and depriving her of her free will. Because of this, Lucrezia has been termed the ‘unluckiest woman in history.’

However, this view still has its logic holes. While Lucrezia certainly played along with the schemes of her father and brother, it was not because she was forced to do so, and not because she was as debased as they were, but because she was a very acquiescent young woman who loved her family. And in the case of her arranged marriages, historians may have forgotten that Lucrezia was treated no differently than many other young ladies of the era: According to Burckhardt, marriage was used as a tool to obtain power by families all over Italy (not to mention the entire European world,) including the Sforzas (in the case of Caterina Sforza and Girolamo Riario,) and the Medici. Lucrezia was not even the only member of the Borgia family to be used as a pawn in this way: her brothers Juan and Joffre’ were both married off to further their father’s scheming. Furthermore, Lucrezia still had plenty of free will. She ran away from her family whenever things got too hard for her (much to the frustration of Alexander and Cesare,) first to a convent where she remained for a month and a half while the annulment of her first marriage was being carried out, and secondly to the castle at Nepi after Alfonso was murdered. She is known to have defied Cesare (warning her first husband Giovanni about Cesare’s plan to kill him is one example,) and showed herself to have a strong will and keen leadership skills when she took over regency of the Vatican for a short period while Alexander was recovering from an injury.

Both views have also failed to take into account Lucrezia’s temperament while she was Duchess of Ferrara. After Lucrezia married Alfonso d’Este and settled into her new home in Ferrara, thus liberating her from Alexander and Cesare, all scandal dropped away from her. She became a kind, compassionate, pious, strong-willed and passionate woman. During her reign as Duchess, she built hospitals and roads and was a fierce patron of the arts, in particular music and poetry. She became the intellectual heart of Ferrara. She did not display a hint of debauchery or decadence, and was “a lady of incredible virtue and charity” (Loughlin).

Indeed, the ambassador Ferdinand Gregorovius, who was sent to assess Lucrezia’s character before the marriage on behalf of Alfonso, stated that “she is modest, lovable and decorus...” In short, her character is such that it is impossible to suspect anything “sinister” of her.” The people of Ferrara loved her, as she was not afraid to walk amongst them as an equal and treated them with respect and concern and her husband grew to love her so much that, according to Hutchings, when she died after bearing their seventh child the normally staid man fainted and had to be carried away. The Este family archives are full of condolences that streamed in from all over Italy which were said by Hare to be “as sincere as they were numerous.” She lived in this manner, loving and loved by all, for twenty years, with her only fault being a quick affair with her court poet, Ercole Strozzi, which was ended by mutual agreement a few months after it began.

It is true that Lucrezia had some questionable tastes in entertainment and that she tended to look the other way when her family did something unorthodox to advance their cause, but she was neither a witless pawn or a sadistic murderer. Lucrezia was a beautiful, kindhearted (if mischievous,) woman whose reputation was blackened by the madness of the rest of her family and blown out of proportion by Borgia-hating historians. Once out of the shadow of her family, Lucrezia’s troubles stopped and she seemingly transformed into the virtuous Duchess: a clear indication that her true character had been concealed all along. Lucrezia never deserved to be placed in the same group as the rest of her family:
She was a survivor who grew past her sordid upbringing and became the pulcherrima virgo, most beautiful maiden, of Italy, not the evil or pitiable woman of popular legend.

Bibliography

Books:
- Wykes, Alan, Women who made History: Lucrezia Borgia, Heron Books,
Switzerland, year unlisted.
- Jacob Burckhardt, S.G.C. Middlemore (trans.), The Civilisation of the
Renaissance in Italy.
Websites:
- http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/famouspeople:
Bill Hutchings, Lucrezia the Infamous, St. George’s News: Waterlooville’s parish
magazine, September 2000.
Andrew Fenner, Heart of Darkness: The Borgia Family.
Martina Bexte, Lucrezia Borgia, Infamous Murderess or Political Pawn, Pagewise,
2002.
C. Raven, Light on Lucrezia: April 18th 1480-June 24th 1519.
- http://www.comune.fe.it/lucrezia.index_ing.htm
- http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/lucrezia_borgia
Journals:
- Nicholas Terpstra, Lucrezia Borgia, The Historian, 68, No.2, 377-8, summer 2006.