The very name Borgia is associated with sex, cruelty, power and immorality – and Lucrezia Borgia has not escaped these associations. Often called a poisoner, adulteress and villain, the truth about this notorious duchess is much less concrete and somewhat more complex. Here are 10 facts about the most infamous women in Renaissance Italy.
1. She was illegitimate
Born on 18 April 1480, Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia (who would later go on to be Pope Alexander VI) and his chief mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. Importantly – and unlike some of her half-siblings – Rodrigo acknowledged her as his child.
This meant she was permitted an education, and not merely a convent one. Lucrezia grew up in Rome, surrounded by intellectuals and members of the court. She was fluent in Spanish, Catalan, Italian, French, Latin and Greek by the time she was a teenager.
2. She was only 13 at the time of her first marriage
Lucrezia’s education and connections meant she would marry well – in a way that was advantageous to both her family and her prospects. At the age of 10, her hand was officially in matrimony for the first time: in 1492, Rodrigo Borgia was made Pope, and he cancelled Lucrezia’s existing engagement in order to create an alliance through marriage with one of Italy’s most important and well-connected families – the Sforzas.
Lucrezia married Giovanni Sforza in June 1493. Four years later, in 1497, their marriage was annulled: the alliance with the Sforzas was deemed not advantageous enough.
3. Lucrezia’s annulment was tainted with accusations of incest
Giovanni Sforza was furious about the annulment – particularly given it was to be on grounds on non-consummation – and accused Lucrezia of paternal incest. Rumours also swirled that Lucrezia was in fact pregnant at the time of the annulment, hence why she retired to a convent for 6 months during the proceedings. The marriage was eventually annulled in late 1497, on the condition that the Sforzas kept Lucrezia’s original dowry.
Whether there is any truth in this remains somewhat unclear: what is known is that the body of her father’s chamberlain, Pedro Calderon (with whom Lucrezia was accused of having an affair) and one of Lucrezia’s maids were found in the Tiber in early 1498. Similarly, a child was born in the Borgia household in 1497 – a papal bull was issued which formally recognise the child as being of Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare.
4. She was extremely beautiful by the standards of her day
Lucrezia’s allure came not just from her wealthy and powerful family. Contemporaries described her as having long blonde hair, white teeth (not always a given in Renaissance Europe), hazel eyes and a natural grace and elegance.
5. Her second husband was murdered – possibly by her own brother
Lucrezia’s second marriage was short-lived. Her father arranged for her to marry Alfonso d’Aragona who was Duke of Bisceglie and Prince of Salerno. Whilst the match conferred titles and status on Lucrezia, it also proved to be something of a love match.
It quickly became clear that shifting Borgia alliances were making Alfonso uneasy: he fled Rome for a period, returning in early 1500. Shortly afterwards, he was brutally attacked on the steps of St Peter’s and later murdered in his own home, probably on the orders of Cesare Borgia – Lucrezia’s brother.
Most believe that if Alfonso was murdered on Cesare’s orders, it was purely political: he had made a new alliance with France and getting rid of the family alliance with Naples that had been forged through marriage was a blunt, if easy, solution. Gossip suggested that Cesare was in love with his sister and was jealous of her blossoming relationship with Alfonso.
6. She was Governor of Spoleto
Unusually for the time, Lucrezia was granted the position of Governor of Spoleto in 1499. The role was usually reserved solely for cardinals, and for Lucrezia as opposed to her husband to be appointed was certainly controversial.
7. Rumours began to taint the Borgias
One of the most lasting rumours that has stuck surrounding Lucrezia was her ‘poison ring’. Poison was viewed as a woman’s weapon, and Lucrezia was said to have a ring in which she stored poison. She could open the catch and quickly drop poison into their drink whilst they were turned the other way.
There is no evidence for Lucrezia poisoning anyone, but the Borgias’ power and privilege meant their enemies were prone to disappearing mysteriously, and they had plenty of rivals in the city. Starting gossip and slander about the family was an easy way to discredit them.
8. Her third marriage was considerably more successful
In 1502, Lucrezia was married – for political reasons – again, this time to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The pair produced 8 children, 4 of whom survived until adulthood. Brutal and politically astute, Alfonso was also a great patron of the arts, commissioning work by Titian and Bellini most notably.
Lucrezia died in 1519, aged just 39, after giving birth to her 10th and final child.
9. Lucrezia embarked on passionate affairs
Neither Lucrezia nor Alfonso was faithful: Lucrezia embarked on a feverish affair with her brother-in-law, Francesco, Marquess of Mantua – their ardent love letters survive to this day and give a glimpse into their desires.
Later, Lucrezia also had a love affair with the poet Pietro Bembo, which appears to have been somewhat more sentimental than her fling with Francesco.
10. But she was a model Renaissance duchess
Lucrezia and Alfonso’s court was cultured and fashionable – the poet Ariosto described her ‘beauty, virtue, chastity and fortune’, and she won the admiration and respect of the citizens of Ferrara during the excommunication crisis of 1510.
After the unexpected death of Rodrigo, the son from her first marriage to Alfonso d’Aragona, she withdrew to a convent for a period of time, overwhelmed by grief. When she returned to court, she was said to have been more sombre and pious.
The earlier rumours and scandal attached to Lucrezia simply melted away during her lifetime, helped by the death of her scheming, powerful father in 1503, and she was mourned intensely by the people of Ferrara on her death. It was only in the 19th century that her supposed ‘infamy’ and reputation as a femme fatale were constructed.