What Led to the Murder of Alfonso D’Aragona?

Samantha Morris

Early Modern Renaissance
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Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, married her second husband in 1498 following a rather public and humiliating divorce from her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. There had been no love lost between Lucrezia and Sforza, so when a marriage was arranged for her with the illegitimate son of King Alfonso II of Naples, it was expected to be a marriage of politics and little else.

Yet Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Aragona surprised everyone and, following their wedding in 1498, fell deeply in love with one another.

Lucrezia portrait
The only confirmed Lucrezia portrait painted from life (attributed to Dosso Dossi, c. 1519, National Gallery of Victoria).

The politics of marriage

Following this public divorce, in which Sforza was accused of being impotent, Alexander began looking into getting a new husband for his daughter and his eyes fell on the Kingdom of Naples, and in particular the illegitimate son of the Duke of Calabria.

Alfonso was also the brother of Sancia, Princess of Squillace who was married to the youngest Borgia son – Jofre. King Federigo of Naples was not keen on the match, having gotten what he wanted out of the Pope with Sancia’s marriage and was not exactly all that eager for a Borgia daughter-in-law.

Alexander decided to pretend that his daughter would be marrying an Orsini – Federigo capitulated. He could not have a Pope’s daughter marrying a lesser man, after all.

Family unity

On 15 July 1498, Alfonso of Aragon arrived in Rome. The visit was supposed to be a secret, but everyone knew he was there. On 16 July, Cardinal Cesare Borgia invited his future brother-in-law up to his apartments and greeted him affectionately with a meeting following on 17 July between Alfonso, Pope Alexander, Cesare and Lucrezia.

Four days later, the two were married in a private ceremony and the marriage was consummated that very night, with celebrations continuing on for days afterwards. During one of the celebrations, held in the Borgia apartments, seven dancers walked in dressed as different animals and danced about the room.

One of them was Cesare, dressed as a Unicorn – the symbol of chastity. The other celebrations included dancing and bullfights.

By the time Cesare renounced his cardinal’s vows in 1498 and left to go to Spain for his own marriage, Lucrezia was pregnant. In February 1499 she miscarried and although she was pregnant again soon after she had no idea that the internal goings on in her family would stop her from living a long and happy life with the husband whom she was so in love with.

Cesare Borgia
Profile portrait of Cesare Borgia in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, c. 1500–10.

A Borgia heir

News came to Rome from France that Cesare had consummated his marriage with his wife (six times!) and was on his way back – and, he would be accompanying King Louis of France.

This was the start of a new pro-French alliance that sent those who were more of a Spanish mindset fleeing from the city of Rome. This alliance could also seriously affect the Kingdom of Naples – the French King believed, after all, that he was the rightful heir.

In a panic, Alfonso fled the city leaving Lucrezia heavily pregnant and it is said, in floods of tears. He wrote her letters from his exile, but these fell into the Pope’s hands and he forced Lucrezia to write back, demanding Alfonso’s return. He also sent spies and emissaries to try and convince the King of Naples to send his son in law back to Rome.

In September, the young couple were reunited and joined the rest of the Borgia family at Nepi, returning to Rome in the October. All of this was conducted in the background of some huge political manoeuvres in Italy, particularly King Louis of France and his taking over of Milan.

On 1 November, Lucrezia gave birth to a little boy whom she named Rodrigo. And at this point, her husband was still held in high favour by the Pope and Cesare was too busy trying to carve out a Kingdom in the Romagna to pay much attention to his brother in law. But throughout the first half of 1500, something obviously changed.

Changing alliances

Cesare had started to become successful in his Romagna campaign and had helped bring about a French alliance, and it was something that would have made Alfonso and his Aragonese family somewhat unwelcome. Could it be that like Giovanni Sforza, Alfonso had outstayed his welcome from the Borgia family?

On Wednesday 15 July, Alfonso was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s by an unknown group of people. According to a report sent back to Florence he was stabbed three times. Burchard reported that as the men attacking Alfonso fled, they were surprised by the city guards, and other reports state that they were caught trying to drag Alfonso’s body to the Tiber.

The wounded Alfonso was taken to apartments above the Pope’s own where he was nursed, and by all reports Lucrezia found herself with a fever the next day thanks to the worry. Rumours once more flooded the city, as they had when Juan had been found murdered and yet again Cesare’s name was mentioned.

Thankfully, Alfonso began to recover and within a few days he was sat up in bed. Still, Cesare’s name kept being mentioned and he apparently said:

“I did not wound the Duke, but if I had, it would have been no more than he deserved.”

If these words were true, then it seems somewhat obvious that Cesare had some sort of ill feeling against his brother-in-law. However, had Cesare himself ordered this attack then it is likely that Alfonso would be already dead. His men, and particularly Michelotto, did not fail.

St Peter's Basilica
Main façade and dome of St. Peter’s Basilica seen from St. Peter’s Square. Image credit: Alvesgaspar / CC

Murder most foul

Lucrezia was leaving nothing to chance however – she made his food herself in case his food was laced with poison and allowed only the doctor sent from Naples to attend him. Just one month after the initial attack he was almost fully recovered and as he was sat up talking to his wife and sister, the doors to his rooms burst open and a group of men entered headed by the infamous Michelotto de Corella.

Lucrezia and Sancia demanded to know from Michelotto what on earth he was playing at and Michelotto responded coldly, stating that he was simply obeying the will of others and if they wanted an answer then they should go to the Pope to get a reprieve for Alfonso and the others who had been arrested.

The two of them rushed off to see Alexander who knew absolutely nothing about what they were talking about – when they returned to the apartment they found armed guards outside the doors who refused to let them in, stating that Alfonso was dead. There was no doubt who had committed the deed – Michelotto, Cesare’s finest executioner.

And there is really no doubt at all who ordered the murder… Cesare himself, determined that the Aragonese faction within the Vatican should be dealt with as they would affect his own plans and alliance with France.

Not only that but Cesare was exceptionally close to his sister (one of the reasons it is said they were involved incestuously) and never seemed to love as a woman as much as he loved her. Was it jealousy that drove him to it? Did he see how in love the couple were and want it stopped?

cesare-borgia-leaving-vatican
Cesare Borgia leaving the Vatican (1877) by Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri.

Suspicious circumstances

The excuse was given that Alfonso died because he had tried to shoot Cesare with a crossbow as the Borgia heir had been walking in the gardens, and it was the excuse used to persuade the Pope that Alfonso had to be gotten rid of.

Alexander had initially been terribly upset when Alfonso was attacked outside St. Peter’s, yet accepted this excuse when no one else in the family, or even the city did. What could be the reasoning behind this? Did Pope Alexander agree that Alfonso had outstayed his welcome, or was he beginning to become afraid of his increasingly volatile son?

Lucrezia went into deep mourning for the handsome husband whom she doted on and disbelieved her father and brother when they told her the reason for the killing of Alfonso. Her grief and upset against them irritated her father and he packed her off to the castle at Nepi.

Alfonso was buried with almost indecent haste and following the funeral (at which Lucrezia was not present), Cesare visited his sister at Nepi. Did she forgive him straight away? Whatever the case, the two still remained exceptionally close for the rest of their lives.

Widowhood

This time in Lucrezia’s life comes across as one of the saddest in a life full of very sad and traumatic moments. At this stage in her life she was still so very young but with this marriage to the young Alfonso, had found something that many never got in an arranged marriage at this time – love. And it was something she would never have in a marriage again.

Whilst her third and final marriage ended up being one of mutual respect and affection, there is little doubt that love did not come into it. She was simply a pawn on the political chess board that belonged to her father and brother and, when it just so happened that the husband who gave her what she had so ardently wanted became too much of a liability, it was all snatched away from her.

She would spend the rest of her life longing for such a love as she had had with Alfonso d’Aragona, and it was something she would never find again. But she would also spend the rest of her life dealing with loss just as devastating, from the loss of her father and brother to the deaths of many of her children.

Hers was a life of pain in which she often tried to be a positive and shining light, yet a life that would be twisted and vilified for centuries to come and for very little reason.

“Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester and it was there, whilst working on a dissertation about the battlefield archaeology of the English Civil War that her interest in the Italian Renaissance began. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia is her first book for Pen & Sword.”

Samantha Morris