Monday, December 15, 2014

Lucrezia Borgia: Depraived or Unfortunate

Lucrezia Borgia remains of the most vilified women in history. To the French novelist, Victor Hugo, she was the most hideous, the most repulsive, and the most complete moral deformity. To some she walked with the night, to others she has been misunderstood, but to most she is remembered as history’s most notorious poisoner. But what drove Lucrezia Borgia to kill? Did she do so on the orders of her father and brother? Did she kill out of feelings of jealousy and lust? A women who craved love , obsessed with poetry and arts. Was she portrayed as evil by people and she did not kill anyone at all. Or was she the most unfortunate women in modern history.Historians claim that Lucrezia have been more an instrument for the ambitious projects of her brother and father than an active participant in their crimes. Her three successive marriages into prominent families helped augment the political and territorial power of the Borgias.

She was born in Subiaco, Italy, on 18 April 1480, the illegitimate daughter of the Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his long-time mistress Vanozza dei Cattanei.Her early life appears to have been idyllic. She was raised away from the family home by a distant relative Adriana de Mila under whose tutelage she blossomed acquiring an inquisitive mind and a deep love of the arts but she was also inculcated with the Borgia family loyalty. The demands made on her were negligible at first and she was little troubled in her early years when her greatest pleasure was in dressing up and spending days on end trying on and swapping clothes with her friends.

Life for Lucrezia was fun but all this was to change on 11 August, 1492, when her father bullied and bribed his way to the Papacy. From now on she would be a pawn in the intricate machinations of Renaissance politics. She had been betrothed at the age of 11 but the engagement had been cancelled following her father’s elevation to be Pope Alexander VI.Similarly another betrothal to the Spanish nobleman Don Cherubin do Centelles was also cancelled and a later marriage to Don Gasparo de Procida annulled.All such engagements were now considered politically inadequate as the young Lucrezia was touted around the great families of Europe.Despite being keen to make the most politically advantageous marriage possible for his daughter Rodrigo could also not bear to see her leave.He doted on his pretty young Lucrezia and their relationship was a close and intimate one. It was said that he had a special corridor constructed that led from the Pope’s bedchamber to hers and they certainly spent a great deal of time in each other’s company. Her brother Cesare was also besotted with his sister and Lucrezia similarly with her other brother, Juan. They were as inclusive as a family as they could be, possibly incestuously so, and Lucrezia was a pivotal part of all that.But were incest rumors really true?

In February, 1493, her father settled upon Giovanni Sforza, Duke of Pesaro, as Lucrezia’s future husband and they were married in June the same year. The wedding celebrations were as lengthy, extravagant, and joyous as befitted a Borgia even if the marriage itself was not.It was first and foremost a political marriage and as Sforza’s political cachet diminished so the marriage began to disintegrate.

Lucrezia Borgia in a fresco by Pinturicchio, in the Sala dei Santi the Borgia apartments in the Vatican .

Lucrezia had little time for her dullard husband .Pope soon tired of the Sforza family and needed other, more politically powerful allies and so began to arrange an annulment of the marriage. Together Pope and Cesare conspired to get rid of him.The Borgia family demanded that the marriage be annulled but Giovanni refused. He loved his wife, he declared, even if that love was not reciprocated. When Alexander allied himself with Naples, and Milan with the French, Giovanni, fearing for his life, fled from Rome and became an enemy of the Borgias.Lucrezia visited her husband in Pesaro and using her unquestioned charm managed to persuade him to return to Rome. There, with Cesare threatening menacingly he was coerced into signing the divorce papers.The Borgias began the process of annulling the marriage, charging Giovanni with impotence and nonconsummation of the marriage. Giovanni, who had a child from his first marriage, began spreading accusations that Alexander and Cesare had incestuous designs on Lucrezia. Eventually, the frightened Giovanni reluctantly agreed to admit to impotence in exchange for keeping Lucrezia's dowry, which normally would have reverted back to the family in the event of an annulment.The marriage was annuled in 1947. The angry Giovanni then accused Lucrezia of having slept with both her father and her brother.And thus, the incest rumours were born.During the divorce proceedings Lucrezia had been made to appear before the College of Cardinals to prove her virginity and thereby confirming Giovanni’s sexual inadequacy. Despite the fact that she was heavily pregnant she was found to be virgo-intacta.

"Contrary to what people think, Lucretia never poisoned anyone, even though poisoning was all the rage at the time. She did kill with a sword, though.Nor were claims that she had had an incestuous relationship with her own father true, probably. Her first marriage, to Giovanni Sforza, was annulled and to protect his name Giovanni probably spread the rumor of incest."
    Clara Alfano

Permitted to veil her face to preserve her dignity the likelihood is that another woman substituted for Lucrezia during the physical examination.Immediately the physical examination was completed Lucrezia, her continued presence in Rome proving an inconvenience, was ushered off to a convent. Her time in the convent was not one isolation neither was it spent in religious devotion instead she began an affair with a handsome young Spaniard Pedro Calderon, a popular messenger of the Pope’s who went by the nickname of Perotto.Lucrezia was later to claim that the child she was carrying was his, though it would appear that the pregnancy was well advanced long before she ever met Perotto.Perotto, who had also claimed that the child was his, perhaps to protect Lucrezia, though rumors were that either Cesare or Alexander was the actual father. Pedro Caldes and one of Lucrezia's maids were killed and thrown into the Tiber; rumors blamed Cesare.Lucrezia’s maid who probably knew too much and need to be silenced.The child in question was to become the notorious “Roman Infant” and the origins of the latest edition to the Borgia family were to be shrouded in mystery.An official announcement from the Vatican declared the child to be Cesare’s by an unknown mistress.

A Papal Bull never made public and discovered later declared the child to be Pope Alexander’s. It was a murky affair that has still not been fully cleared up to this day.Is it possible that a Pope fathered a child by his own daughter?The scandal would have rocked Christendom to its foundations and done much to destroy the credibility of the Catholic Church. Lucrezia perhaps provided a hint as to the real father of "Roman Infant" when she named the child, the child was named Giovanni.

Roman Infant and future Duke of Nepi, had been born in 1498, a short time before Lucrezia's secound marriage. He has been variously identified as the son of Lucrecia and a servant,the son of Cesar or Alexander and some unknown woman (as stated in two papal bulls issued in 1501, but Lucrezia's name was not mentioned in either of  papal bulls), or the incestuous offspring of Lucrecia and her father.

In July, 1497, tragedy struck the Borgia family when Lucrezia’s brother Juan was murdered. His body had been found floating in the Tiber riddled with stab wounds.Juan, who had not just been Lucrezia’s favourite but also her father’s, had been showered with honours over and above his older and abler brother, Cesare.They had both vied for their father’s favour, Cesare by working hard, Juan simply by being charming.Cesare was known to be insanely jealous and there is little doubt that he murdered his own brother. Lcrezia was hurt deeply by her brother's death.She was again sent away to a convent until she learned to control her grief.Upon her return to Rome, Cesare took her under his wing and she was rarely seen out except in his presence. She was even with him when he executed prisoners with a crossbow from the Vatican walls.It did nothing for her reputation.

A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier, from left: Cesare Borgia (pouring wine), Lucrezia  Borgia, Pope Alexander and a young man holding an empty glass.

Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia was both admired and feared in equal measure. That she was beautiful by the fashionable standards of her day there could be little doubt. It was said that her golden hair fell beneath her knees, that her eyes were hazel but appeared to change depending on the light, that her complexion was clear and pale, and that she had a natural grace as if walking on air.
A courtier at the time Niccolo Cagnolo described her thus:
“She is of middle height and graceful of form; her face is rather long, as is her nose, her hair is golden, her eyes grey, her mouth rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her bosom smooth, white, and admirably proportioned. Her whole being exudes gaiety and humour.”

But there was also a darker side to Lucrezia.She regularly attended the many dinner parties that the Borgia’s were so fond of throwing that were little more than drunken orgies.She liked to organise them and would often greet the guests as they arrived.But a dinner invitation from the Borgia family was not something to be taken lightly. For many it would be a last supper.Lucrezia however was always the perfect hostess. Nothing was too much trouble and it was said that she was rarely seen without a smile. It was also said that she wore a ring that was hollowed out in the middle where was hidden a phial of poison. Whether this was true we do not know but it was certainly a rumour current at the time, and her presence at those dinner parties was to blacken her reputation for all time. 

Despite often appearing to be at war with themselves Lucezia’s devotion to the Borgia family loyalty was unquestionable and had she been ordered to kill there seems little doubt that she would have done so.On 21 July 1498, Lucrezia married yet again this time to Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie, a strikingly handsome young man, intelligent, sophisticated, and charming. Even Cesare was impressed by his sister’s new husband but this admiration soon changed to intense hatred when he discovered Lucrezia had fallen in love and his affection for his sister once again reared its ugly head.

As Lucrezia paid him less and less attention Cesare’s jealousy ate away at him like a cancer.Cesare was always envious to anyone who would come close to her sister, he envied Lucrezia's first husband as well. For he too had once been considered handsome in his youth but his face had long since been scarred by sustained bouts of syphilis and he now wore only black in mourning for the loss of his good looks, and even took on occasions to wearing a mask.Alfonso’s handsome features only deepened his enmity. Aware of the peril he was now in Alfonso fled Rome but was persuaded by Lucrezia, who was six months pregnant with his child, to return. On the night of 15 July 1500, Alfonso was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s. He was stabbed repeatedly and so badly beaten that he barely survived.Rescued by his attendants he was taken to his private chambers where Lucrezia and her sister-in-law Sancha remained at his bedside day and night.

Slowly they nursed him back to health.In the days that followed some of Alfonso’s men believing that Cesare was responsible for the attack on their master ambushed him in a crossbow attack but the assassination attempt failed.A furious Cesare was determined to finish the matter.On 18 August he visited Alfonso in his bedchamber where he told him in a whisper:“What was not finished at breakfast will be completed by dinner.”Later that same night Lucrezia and Sancha were lured away on a false errand and ushered into a room where Alfonso’s doctors were already being held. Left unattended and alone Alfonso was helpless.One of Cesare’s more brutal henchmen, Michelotto, strangled him to death in his bed.Cesare bragged about murdering Alfonso in a party.A hysterical and utterly distraught Lucrezia could neither be calmed nor placated and had to be sent away from Rome to live in the town of Nepi in the Etruscan Hills.

Devastated though she was by the murder of the man she loved it was not to be long before that old Borgia loyalty resurfaced. Even though the whole of Rome knew that Cesare was behind Alfono's death but Lucrezia's love for Cesare never waned. On 30 December 1501, Lucrezia was married once more this time to Alfonso d’Este, heir to the Dukedom of Ferrara. Such was Lucrezia’s frightful reputation that the marriage proposal was initially declined but a dowry of 200,000 ducats, a position in the church for Alfonso d'Este, some additional lands and a spy's report on Lucrezia's character revealed that she is a kind hearted women and all rumors about her are untrue, and so the marriage proposal was accepted. Despite this unpromising start these were to be the happiest days of Lucrezia’s life. She had been full of trepidation about her reception in Ferrara but her graciousness and charm soon won the people over. She had a lovely nature, they said.

 Not only was Lucrezia accused of incest with her father, but also with her brother Cesare.Many historians have rejected these rumors.But the leading historian of that time Francesco Guicciardini and Niccolo Macchiavelli stated in his writings that charges of incest were fact.Many writers claim that Lucrezia and Cesare exceptionally close and, for want of a better word, in love with each other in a kind of platonic love. After all, Lucrezia was able to forgive Cesare despite all the wrongs he did to her (the apparent murder of her second husband Alfonso at his hands) and Cesare would rush to her side when she was unwell, make her laugh so she would feel better - there are so many stories that show how close these two were.

"The Borgias are the victims of biased historical accounts, based on malicious rumour, Lucretia poisoned no one. She was poisoned by the pen of history and 19th century romanticism. Lucretia was instead a gifted stateswoman, she even ran the Vatican in her father's absence."
Learco Andalo, one of the world's leading experts on the Borgias.

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by the great Leonardo Da Vinci.

Lucrezia's son Rodrigo from her marriage to Alfonso d'Aragon was raised in his father's family, heir to Alfonso's title as Duke. Lucrezia took a very active role, though from a distance, in his upbringing. She selected staff (governesses, tutors) who would take care of him and the duchy he was heir to.Giovanni, the infamous "Roman infant," came to live with Lucrezia a few years after her marriage. She supported him financially; he was officially recognized as her brother.

  In the beginning of 1503, Lucrezia enjoyed a long relationship with her brother-in-law, Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua as well as a love affair with the poet Pietro Bembo.As she was having love affair with Bembo , Pope Alexander died. After Lucrezia heard about her father's death she went in soltitude and later ceased to play a political role and wanted to create her own identity.She led a more normal life at the brilliant court of Ferrara, which became a centre for the arts and letters of the Italian Renaissance. 
 On 15 October 1816, the Romantic poet Lord Byron visited the Ambrosian Library of Milan. He was delighted by the letters between Borgia and Bembo and said "the prettiest love letters in the world." Byron also saw the lock of Lucrezia's hair (which Lucrezia sent to Bembo in a love letter) and remarked in delight "the prettiest and fairest imaginable."

In 1505, the old Duke Ercole died and Lucrezia became Duchess of Ferrara.She was a woman of substance at last and moreover free of her family. She went on to become an admired and successful Duchess. Despite Alphonso’s coldness towards her she busied herself in refurbishing the Royal Palace and cultivating Court life. She surrounded herself with artists and poets, including the painter Titian, but she also took a string of lovers. One of whom, the courtier Ercole Strozzi, was murdered on the orders of her furious husband.
Lucrezia’s reputation in Ferrara survived her entanglement in yet another brutal murder and she was looked upon with affection as an able administrator, an impartial dispenser of justice,a businesswoman and a generous patron of the arts.She used some of her wealth to build hospitals and convents, winning the respect of her subjects.Later on Alfonso developed affection for Lucrezia because of her services to Ferrara and for being a good mother. 

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by Dosso Dossi, painted in 1508.

The last few years of Lucrezia’s life were not so happy and she was to endure sustained bouts of depression. She had not aged well and for a woman who had always taken great care over her appearance this hurt her deeply. She was also prone to periods of reflection and regret.In 1512, Lucrezia withdrew from public life and turned to religion. It is speculated that her withdrawal was in response to the news that Rodrigo, her son by Alfonso of Aragon, had died. She turned more to her religion, spending more time at convents, and even began wearing a hair shirt (an act of penance) under her fancy gowns. Visitors to Ferrara commented on her melancholy, and that she seemed to age rapidly. In 1518, she wrote, in one of her surviving letters, to her son Alfonso who was in France. Ironically as Lucrezia made peace with her life , on June 24, 1519, ten days after giving birth to a stillborn girl, Lucrezia Borgia died at the age of 39.Her time in Ferrara, speaks to what was likely her personal religious and ethical orientation during the time of her last marriage, once she was out of the control of her father and brother. When she was being burried her husband Alfonso fainted and had to be carried back home. Her death was much mourned by the people of Ferrara who knew her the best but not elsewhere. 

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