Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lucrezia Borgia: Was she really wicked?


Today marks the 532nd anniversary of the birth of Lucrezia Borgia, the reputed femme fatale of the Italian Renaissance.  Born in the town of Subiaco, near Rome, on April 18, 1480.  Lucrezia was the daughter of a cardinal of the Church and his concubine.  Her father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, became Pope Alexander VI on August 11, 1492 when Lucrezia was 12 years old.  It has been alleged that he used bribery to win his election to the papacy.

The Borgias were of Spanish origin and Rodrigo Borgia was born at Xactiva, near Valencia.  His birth name was Roderic Llancol de Borja but it was later changed it to its Italian form.   Rodrigo's parents were Jofre Lancol and Isabella Borja, sister of Cardinal Alfonso Borja,   In 1455, Alfonso Borja was elevated to the papacy as Pope Callixtus III, making Rodrigo the nephew of a pope.

Rodrigo studied law in Bologna and after his uncle became pope, the young man was ordained a deacon.   His rise in the ecclesiastic ranks was rapid.  In 1456, at he age of 25, he was created Cardinal-Deacon of San Nicola in Carcera.  The following year, in an act of shameless nepotism, he was appointed vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church.  Rodrigo was ordained a priest in 1468 and by 1471, he was consecrated bishop and appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Albano.

Although a man of the cloth who had taken a vow of celibacy, Rodrigo was a notorious womanizer.and he sired many children.  One of his mistresses, Vannozza dei Cattanei, was Lucrezia's mother.  Vanozza was an Italian noblewoman, born in 1442 in In Mantua.  She moved to Rome where she was the landlord of several inns.  Her connection to Rodrigo Borgia, with whom she also had three sons (Giovanni, Cesare and Gioffre) began in 1470.  Rodrigo openly acknowledged the children as his own and devoted himself to them.

Alexander VI's family meant everything to him.  He loved his children very deeply.  All the historians agree on that about him.  His love of his children was so excessive that it led him to many of his worst mistakes, particularly with Lucrezia, certainly his favourite.

- Richard Drake, Ph.d,, University of Montana

Pope Alexander VI  (Rodrigo Borgia)

Before she was three years old, Lucrezia Borgia was removed from her mother's house and raised by a cousin of her father.  The young, golden-haired Lucrezia received an education in music, poetry and the reading of the classics.  She later lived for a time with her father's mistress, Giulia Farnese, who had replaced Vanozza in his affections. Giulia gave birth to a daughter, Laura, half-sister to Lucrezia, in 1492, the year Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI.

Many believe Lucrezia was a depraved and nefarious woman.  She was alleged to have spiked the wine of her enemies with poison at elaborate dinner parties.   It was even rumoured that she possessed a hollow ring in which she stored the poison.  There was also speculation that she had incestuous relationships with both her brother Cesare and her father.  Was she the personification of evil or was she the victim of slander?  Were the tales about her really true?

It can be argued that Lucrezia was merely a pawn.  Her defenders contend that her family took advantage of her loyalty and used her to further their ambitions.  She married three times, each time to to advance the political and territorial agenda of the power-hungry Borgias.  Her fist husband was Giovanni Sforza of dAragona, Lord of Pesaro.  Alexander VI arranged the marriage in order to forge an alliance with Sforza's powerful Milanese family.  The couple were married by proxy on June 12, 1493 and the official nuptials took place in a lavish ceremony at the Vatican in 1494.  Lucrezia was a child bride of just 13 years old and the groom, born in 1466, was 26 or 27 years old.

This union with Giovanni Sforza eventually became a political liability to the Borgias.  They no longer needed any ties to the Sforza family of Milan.  In search of a more favourable union, Alexander allied himself with Naples while Milan joined forces with the French.  A frightened Giovanni fled Rome in disguise.  Alexander then declared that his daughter's marriage had not been consummated and was, therefore, invalid.  He sought an annulment on the grounds that Sforza was impotent and offered Giovanni all of Lucrezia's dowry as part of the agreement.  Sforza responded by accusing Lucreza of incest with her father and brother.  The Sforza family urged him to accept a deal, threatening to withdraw their protection of his life if he refused.  In December of 1497, having little choice and  fearing the loss of his fiefdom of Pesaro, Giovanni Sforza signed both a confession of impotence and the documents of annulment.

In June of 1497, while waiting for the annulment to be finalized, Lucrezia secluded herself in a convent San Sisto for a time.  Her retreat to a convent only served to intensity the scandal and there were rumours that Lucreza had hidden there to conceal a pregnancy.  It is known that a child named Giovanni Borgia was born in 1498.  The parentage of the mysterious child, known to historians as the "infans Romanus" (Child of Rome). remains unclear to this day.  It was thought by some that the Giovanni was the result of a liaison between Lucrezia and Pope Alexander's messenger, Pedro Caleron, also known as Perotto.

In February of 1498, Perotto was murdered.  His body and that of a maid, Pantasilea, were found in the Tiber River.  In 1501, two contradictory papal bulls were issued.  The first recognized Giovanni as the son of Cesare Borgia, conceived prior to his marriage (Cesare wed in 1499 and the child was born in 1498)..  The second papal bull, which remained secret for several years, declared him to be the child of Pope Alexander VI.  After Alexander's death, Giovanni stayed with Lucrezia for awhile and was acknowledged as her half-brother.

Soon after the annulment of Lucrezia's marriage, Pope Alexander VI arranged a second marriage for his daughter, this time to 17-year-old Alfonso of Aragon, an illegitimate son of Alfonso II of Naples.  The young Alfonso was Duke of Bisceglie, an important principality within the Kingdom of Naples.

Lucrezia and Alfonso wed in 1498.  Although the marriage had been arranged, Lucrezia was clearly content with her new husband.  She gave birth to a son on November 1, 1499 and named him Rodrigo, after her father.  The couples' happiness, however, was short-lived.  Their problems began when Lucrezia's brother, Cesare, allied himself with France through his marriage to the French princess Charlotte d'Albret on May 10, 1499.  This alliance did not bode well for Alfonso as King Louis XII of France had claims on both Naples and Milan.  Cesare Borgia became one of the French king's prominent generals and a commander of the papal armies.  He used French force to capture the lands of Romagna, located near the Papal States.

In July of 1500, while visiting Lucrezia's family, Alfonso was wounded on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica by a group of armed men.  He was brought into the Vatican apartments where a distraught Lucrezia tended to him.  While recovering from the assassination attempt, he was strangled to death, allegedly by one of  his brother-in-law Cesare's henchmen.

After Alfonso's assassination, Alexander left Rome to campaign against the Colonnas, a powerful Italian noble family.  During his absence, 21-year-old Lurezia was left to administer the Vatican and the Church.  It is fascinating to think that this young woman was the de facto ruler of the Holy See.  Upon his return, the Pope was anxious to marry off Lucrzia again.  This time Cesare Borgia made the selection for his sister's third and final husband.  He chose 24 year-old widower Alfonso d'Este, Prince to the duchy of Ferrara, a city-state bordering on Cesare's province of Romagna.  Ferrara is located in present-day northern Italy,

Alfonso d'Este agreed to the union in return for a sizable dowry and the revocation of his papal tax.  He wed 21-year-old Lucrezia Borgia on December 30, 1501 and they settled in a luxurious palace in Ferrara. where Alfonso was a great patron of art.  It was for him that Giovanni Bellini painted his magnificent The Feast of the Gods in 1514.  Bellini's student, the artist Tiziano Vecelli (known in English as Titian), also created portraits for the Duke of Ferrara..  In 1529, about a decade after Lucrezia's death, Alfonso created the most impressive art gallery of his era.  It was referred to as his camerino d'alabastro (small alabaster room).

The union of Lucrezia and Alfonzo endured for over 18 years and the couple had six known children together.  Neither partner, however, was faithful to the marriage.  Lucrezia had an affair with her brother-in-law, Francesco Il Gonzago, Marquess of Mantua, as well as a relationship with the poet Pietro Bembo, although it is not known for certain whether the relationship with Bembo was more than platonic. What is known is that they exchanged some very beautiful love letters to each other.

Lucrezia's affair with brother-in-saw Francesco ended abruptly when he contracted syphilis.  As for the poet Bembo, he left Ferrara for Venice and by 1505, his association with Lucrezia had ended.  Although they continued to correspond with each other from time to time until the final years of Lucretia's life, their letters became more formal and there is no evidence that they ever saw each other again.

During her latter years in Ferrara, Lucrezia Borgia was well-liked and respected.  There is every indication that the Duchess was a model citizen.  Her flamboyant and controlling father, Pope Alexander VI, died on August 18, 1503 at the age of 72.  He and Cesare became ill with fever a few days after dining with Cardinal Adriano Corneto (on August 6).  Although Cesare recovered, Alexander did not.  He made a confession and the last rites were administered to him.  He was apparently quite repentant before his passing.

Despite Alexander's misdeeds, Lucrezia stood by her father and never denounced him.  Neither did she denounce her brother Cesare.  She suffered another loss when her son Rodrigo passed away in August of 1512 at the age of 12.  Lucrezia herself did not enjoy a long life.  She was only 39 years old when she died in the city of Ferrara.  Her death, on June 24, 1519, came from complications giving birth to her last child, Isabella Maria d'Este.  Isabella Maria died on June 14, 1519, ten days before the passing of her mother. Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara outlived his wife by many years and died on October 31, 1534 at the age of 58.

There is not enough knowledge of the historical Lucrzia to categorically confirm or deny whether she was complicit in the criminal activities of her father and brother.  The allegations of poisoning, of which centred on Lucrezia, were made by enemies of the Borgias and have never been substantiated.  Lucrezia Borgia was certainly no saint but neither was she evil incarnate.  It must also be remembered that she lived at a time when women were expected to remain in the background and they were considered inferior and untrustworthy.  According to Professor Richard Drake of the University of Montana, Lucrezia was not the most depraved woman who ever lived, but the most unfortunate.

- Joanne

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