Lucrezia Borgia – a pawn in her family’s political games?

I’m sticking with the theme of infamy this week. Lucrezia Borgia was born in 1480, the daughter of the future Pope Alexander VI and one of his mistresses, and her name has become synonymous with scandal. But history may have been hard on her. Her father and brother were the true family villains.

Her father Rodrigo, a man of huge ambition and no morals, was arranging Lucrezia’s marriage to an influential nobleman when she was just eleven, but the nobleman broke the contract. A year later, Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI and abused the position from day one. He made Cesare, Lucrezia’s 17 year-old brother, an archbishop, soon afterwards a cardinal; her other brother became a Duke. And at thirteen, Lucrezia was married off to Giovanni Sforza, an older man and member of one of the most powerful families in Italy. But within four years, the marriage ended acrimoniously, after the Borgias decided they no longer needed an alliance with the Sforzas. So they tried to get Giovanni to divorce her, and arrange a more profitable marriage . Giovanni refused, and started spreading rumours that Alexander and Cesare were having incestuous relationships in Lucrezia. There’s no actual evidence of this, even though Cesare seems to have been a little too fond of his sister.

Even though Giovanni claimed that he’d had sex with Lucrezia over a thousand times, he agreed to have the marriage annulled on the ground of nonconsummation due to his impotency. In return, Giovanni kept Lucrezia’s dowry. He was lucky to get out of the marriage alive; the same year, Cesare had his brother murdered and his body thrown in the Tiber to inherit his title. Lucrezia also participated in a Vatican ceremony that attested that she was a virgin. It wasn’t the best time for her to announce she was pregnant. It was rumoured that Cesare or Alexander was the father, but a Spaniard, Pedro Caldes claimed paternity. His body was the next to be fished out of the river, along with that of a chambermaid who’d helped them conduct their affair. 

Lucrezia was soon married off again, this time to the 17 year-old prince of Aragon, Alfonso. Although Lucrezia and Alfonso were blissfully happy, this marriage was even less successful, not helped by the jealousy of Cesare and Alfonso outliving his political usefulness. Having survived a stabbing the month before, hubby no 2 was strangled on the orders of Cesare. Soon after this, Lucrezia became papal secretary, and it was around this time of the sex parties at the Vatican that gave the Borgias their infamy. But most historians agree that Lucrezia didn’t take part. In 1501 her family arranged let another marriage for her, to the son of a duke in Ferrara.

In 1503, Alexander died of malaria, putting an end to the Borgia’s power. But the job of the wife of a duke’s heir was to make babies, and Lucrezia was a dutiful wife (well, mostly; she did have an affair with a poet). She spent most her remaining years pregnant, having several miscarriages, at least one stillbirth and two children that died in infancy, as well as five children that survived infancy. She was a patron of the arts and a businesswoman and in later years devoted herself to helping to poor. When she died after childbirth aged 39, she was mourned by the whole city of Ferrara. So it seems to me, there may be two sides to this story. Perhaps she was guilty of not much more than excessive loyalty to a pretty appalling family.


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