lucrezia borgia

Not that innocent

Look, I was ready to do a really nuanced piece on Anna Wintour. It was going to contain great lines like “British people aren’t so great, they’re just like really cranky Americans.” I don’t know. Stuff like that, but much wittier. I was going to play with that sentiment and turn it into a silk purse of a bon mot just in time for fashion week.

Not anymore.

I crowdsourced and Lucrezia Borgia won with 94% of the vote.

I guess you people don’t like ladies being quick tempered with their assistants so much as you like ladies who supposedly poison everybody.

But did she? The Jeremy Irons Showtime spectacular The Borgias seems to indicate that Lucrezia was just a nice teenager used by her family. There is, of course, debate about that. I’m reluctant to think that she was just an innocent, unknowing pawn in her family’s dealings. She was incredibly close to her family! And it would be pretty hard to stay innocent around them, as her family, was, legitimately, a tough bunch of cookies.

I guess I’m initially reluctant to assume that Lucrezia Borgia was just a nice, virtuous victim.

A lot of people are inclined to point out that whenever women are said to have done bad things in history it’s a case of misogyny running rampant. There will always be people who claim that, when it comes to historical women, other people try to discredit them because they couldn’t handle the existence of powerful women. Certainly, some people are apt to say that about, say, Elizabeth Bathory. The thing is, Elizabeth Bathory kept a personal diary keeping a record of the girls she bit to death and fed to her male servants. So, that seems to be a pretty effective counterargument to the notion that people just made up mean lies about her.

And I think this argument is actually the opposite of progressive. Women aren’t saints.Women can do bad things. Men can do bad things. And both men and women are more likely to do bad things when they have massive amounts of power and no laws in place to stop them from doing very bad things.

And the Borgia family was the most powerful family in Italy in one of Italy’s most glorious periods. Francesco Guicciardini, the 16th century historian who lived during the Borgia’s reign (which began around 1492) claimed that:

Italy had never enjoyed such prosperity, or known so favorable a situation as that in which it found itself so securely at rest in the yearo f our Christian Salvation 1490, and the years immediately before and after. The greatest peace and tranquility reigned everywhere… dominated by no power other than her own, not only did Italy abound in inhabitants, merchandise and riches, but she was also highly renowned for the magnificence of her princes.”

It’s worth knowing that during this era each major territory in Italy existed as a kind of city-state controlled by its own princes – for instance, the Medici family held sway over Florence, the Sforzas ruled the Duchy of Milan, etc.

But Rome. Rome was the greatest city of them all.

And the Pope ruled Rome, which made the position as much a governmental one as it was religious.

Lucrezia’s dad, Pope Alexander VI, bought the election. He had tons of money, and a good deal of influence, and he just straight up bought it, like some kind of 16th century Joe Kennedy. He paid for a landslide.

He also had a mistress, Vanozza dei Cattani, who gave birth to Lucrezia in 1480.

What kind of kid was Lucreiza? A pretty happy one, apparently. I think it’s fun to know that Lucrezia loved long baths. I mean, I know every lady magazine will tell you that is the number one thing you should be doing to relax and that you probably ought to be in a bathtub right fucking now, but at the time, it was seen as the height of eccentricity. I like this fact because it seems to indicate that she wasn’t afraid to be different.

She was certainly better educated than most women of the era – she studied music, poetry and the classics. She was also said to be somewhat flighty – she loved dresses and conversation. And she was also a stone fox, with long blonde hair that went to her knees. Though almost every woman from a powerful family during this period was said to be a beauty, in Lucrezia’s case it was probably true.

And she adored her father. She called him Papa, and was raised by his cousin. While it was considered okay for Alexander to have children even though he was a Cardinal in the church at the time, it was not considered appropriate for Lucrezia to be raised by his mother. However, every historian seems to agree that Alexander adored his children and he visited them constantly.

However, it is speculated that the lack of female role models in her early life, and being forcibly separated from her mother, could have troubled Lucrezia and contributed to her unusually close relationship with her father and brother.

And it made her sleep with her father.

Or not.

Loved trees too much

She was expected to sleep with someone at a shockingly early age, though.

Lucrezia was engaged at 11, shortly before her father became Pope, to to Giovanni Sforza, a man related to the ruling family in Milan.

In the Showtime series, Giovanni’s defining trait seems to be “being rape-y” (does it seem like there is at least one rape-y character on every TV show right now? Do I just watch the wrong shows? I feel like this wouldn’t happen with such frequency if I watched New Girl more) but this seems somewhat unlikely.

That marriage was awful, though. Lucrezia was, even as a child-bride of 13, used to the court of Rome. She had a difficult time adjusting to life on a country estate. That doesn’t necessarily mean Giovanni was a monster, he just liked trees and avoiding court intrigue.

Shortly after her marriage that Borgia family decided that they disliked Giovanni very passionately. This was for a lot of reasons, one of which – I want to add my own rumor into the historical mill – was probably because the Borgias hated trees.

And they had sex with trees. Also, that.

No, really, most of their reason for hating him seems to be because the engagement was agreed upon before Alexander became Pope. Once he did become Pope Alexander realized that he might have married Lucrezia to someone more influential if he’d just waited one more year.

By all accounts Giovanni Sforza was a nervous, fidgety, charmless, talentless man – something of a Barney Fife type. Nobody says anything terrible about him. He’s just a dork. I do not associate these traits with being super rapey, but, goodness, that will certainly make Andy Griffith re-runs a lot more interesting.

The Borgia family’s concerns about the marriage aren’t commonly reported to be attributed to his ill treatment of Lucrezia – though Alexander was outraged when Giovanni asked that Lucrezia lived with him at his country estate rather than in Rome where Alexander could see her regularly. They’re supposed to have more to do with the Borgias’ suspicion that he was spying against the Borgias for the Milanese.

He was spying against the Borgias for the Milanese. They were right.

And so the Borgias tried to kill him. Supposedly, anyway. In 1497 when he was visiting Rome he fled the city in disguise – supposedly because Cesare, Lucrezia’s brother, was trying to poison him. Lucrezia either warned him of it or he read a letter from Cesare to Lucrezia informing him of it in advance, and thus escaped.

When they failed to kill him the Borgias demanded that Giovanni’s marriage to Lucrezia be annulled. Giovanni was reluctant.  He pointed out that his late wife – prior to Lucrezia – had died in childbirth, so he could not be impotent. Giovanni asked to be given the opportunity to prove that he was not impotent at trial with a group of women. The trial never went forward, either because Giovanni decided that was a terrible idea, or since Alexander never agreed.

Either way, standing up to the Borgia family on this point was probably the boldest thing Giovanni ever did, and it does make you realize how terrible it would be to be accused of impotence in the 15th century.

Giovanni then went on the offensive and publicly accused Lucrezia of sleeping with her brother Cesare and her father. Now, he may have just been angry, or he may have had a very legitimate, if fairly uncomfortable, point. I do think a lot of things happen between Lucrezia and her brother, in particular, that seem very unusual.

However, what’s super weird is that this is how Lucrezia came to be associated poisoning people.

Rumors of the possibility of depravity within the Borgia family spread. Lucrezia, possibly because of her youth and beauty, was singled out. The stories about their supposed sexual antics soon spiraled into tales of their other illicit actions – it was suggested, for instance, that they poisoned their enemies. I mean, this is certainly true. They did. But it was also suggested that Lucrezia had a hand in this.

Literally. People claimed that Lucrezia had her own special poison recipes, and that she carried around poison in a hollow ring. In some accounts the ring is said to have a needle in it which she could use to stab people. Just like a James Bond villain!

But more practical!

It’s a particularly horrifying idea because it means you’d be stabbed when she was stroking you, or patting your back, or hugging you, or otherwise engaging in acts that would be considered affectionate. Again, this could have been tied to the idea that Lucrezia was so seductive that members of her own family couldn’t resist her (and this was blamed on her, because being a woman at the dawn of the 16th century was a nightmare).

These rumors didn’t help Giovanni’s case. His own family pressured him to agree to the Pope’s proposal and annul the marriage, saying that they would withdraw their protection if he didn’t. Giovanni finally, reluctantly, agreed to.

He finally pleaded impotence, saying that the marriage had never been consummated. Given that Giovanni had supposedly fathered several illegitimate children, and as he pointed out, his former wife died in childbirth, this seems unlikely. It seems even more unlikely when you consider that Pope Alexander reportedly followed Lucrezia and Giovanni into the bedroom on the night of their nuptials to insure they consummated the marriage.

So, that’s odd.

During the period where the marriage was being annulled Lucrezia withdrew to a convent, where she was visited only by a papal attendant named Perotto. Reader, although I find it impossible to read his name without envisioning a man in a parrot costume, she slept with him. This is almost absolutely certain.

Just take a moment to imagine with me:

Okay, that was fun for all of us.

Lucrezia was six months pregnant at the conclusion of her trial, which made it extra bizarre when a group of Vatican judges conducted a really uncomfortable examination to insure that her hymen was intact. By this point Giovanni seemed pretty glad to be out of the whole thing, and he withdrew entirely from the Borgia saga – though if you’re interested, he later remarried and had an heir. He wasn’t impotent! Just like he’d been saying all along! I think that’s nice for him.

Lucrezia’s heir likely wasn’t his, though it was named Giovanni. Three different men were thought to have birthed it.

Gonna stab you

The first, fairly obviously, was Perotto. Cesare apparently found out that Perotto had slept with Lucrezia and attempted to stab him while Perotto was kneeling in front of the Pope. Blood splashed on the papal steps.

Was this a filial action or the jealous rage of a lover? I am an only child. I seriously don’t know. If a papal attendant slept with you, would your brother try to kill him? Discuss!

Two papal bulls were issued on the subject of Giovanni’s parentage. The first claimed that his father was Cesare Borgia. The second claimed that the father was Alexander himself. Both claimed that he was fathered by an unknown woman.

Now, there are, again, two ways of thinking about this. It’s possible that her family wanted to cover up Lucrezia’s indiscretions and decided to take responsibility for the child themselves. That’s nice, but then why did they do it twice? Why was simply saying it was Cesare’s not enough? That would have allowed Lucrezia to easily visit him as an aunt.

The second interpretation – and one widely circulated – was that Lucrezia had slept with both her father and brother and was unsure who the child belonged to.

No matter. She was betrothed again, shortly after. And her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, was so much better than the first. The historian Gregorovius claimed that:

“the youthful Alfonso was fair and amiable…a Roman chronicler pronounced him the handsomest young man ever seen in the Imperial city. According to a statement made by the mantuan agent in August, Lucrezia was really fond of him.”

Really, really fond of him. Lucrezia was still a teenager, and Alfonso was only 17. And Alfonso was just great. In addition to looking a lot like Rufus Sewell, he had a good personality! Here’s a picture of Rufus Sewell, just so you can see what I’m talking about there:


Seriously, Alfonso was just this super charming gorgeous sensitive 16th century guy.

However, sadness is coming!

Shortly after their marriage, while Lucrezia was pregnant, her brother Cesare was engaged to a political enemy of Alfonso’s. Lucrezia realized that she could no longer be married to Alfonso, and, fearing for his life, Alfonso fled. Lucrezia was heartbroken, but begged her father to assure her new husband’s safety.

Remarkably, it worked. The couple was re-united! And Lucrezia gave birth to a boy named Rodrigo.

Does this make you happy? This made me so happy. I seriously expected Alfonso to almost certainly get stabbed. And he totally did not!

He did get stabbed though. I was happy too soon. He got stabbed in 1500 outside the steps of St. Peter Cathedral. Everyone was getting stabbed in those days. Lucrezia’s own brother (Juan, not Cesare) got stabbed to death and was tossed into a river. Alfonso was carried back to the Vatican, and Lucrezia nursed him day and night. That seems like some serious devotion for a woman who was supposed to be posioning everybody.

Then some assassin came into his room and strangled him.

Cesare. Cesare, Lucrezia’s brother, did it.

Again, many accounts say this was because he was driven mad by jealousy. Seriously, again, I’m an only child – why would you murder your sibling’s beloved husband? I’m not saying that to prove they had an incestuous relationship, I’m saying that as a conversation starter? Why would you? I mean, I bet having to follow them on twitter and listening to their weird stories at family gatherings are annoying, yes?

Basically, yes, I think the relationship between Lucrezia and Cesare was off. I don’t know that it was incestuous, but I do not think it was quite normal.

Lucrezia’s grief afterwards was almost beyond words. She sank into a deep despair. Her friend, noblewoman Barbara Torelli, wrote this poem for her:

Why may I not go down to the grave with thee?

Would that my fire might warm this frigid ice,

And turn with tears, this dust to living flesh,

And give to thee anew the joy of life!

Then would I boldly, ardently confront

The man who snapped our dearest bond, and cry

“O cruel monster!  See what love can do!”


And then she had to get married again.

Her newest husband was to be Alfonso D’Este. Though he was initially skeptical about the marriage, after he sent an envoy to the Vatican and heard good reports of her, and they discoursed on all manner of pleasing subjects, he agreed to marry her. Lucrezia wasn’t enthusiastic, but Alfonso did seem like he had a pretty good personality.

I can’t provide you with a Rufus Sewell picture this time, but here is what I mean when I say he had a good personality:

He loved music, and played the viola.

He was a patron of Bellini and Titian.

He loved pottery and made all the plates and vases for his own table.

I love that he made his own plates. However, he also really liked whoring. Lucrezia was a woman who wanted devotion, perhaps in an attempt to recreate the devotion she’d known from her father and brother (she continued to write her father weekly). Lucrezia, still depressed over her second husband’s death, began to have affairs of her own. She took heart learning that her father was soon to visit her, but he died a week before his intended journey.

It was thought that after the death of the Pope Alfonso might seek a divorce, but he never did. Lucrezia seemed relieved by this, and she even began to find happiness with her husband. I don’t think they started making dinner table vases together, but she bore him 6 children. She died in childbirth at 39. Alfonso was at her side, and when she was buried, he fainted and later claimed in a letter “I cannot write this without tears, knowing myself to be deprived of such a dear and sweet companion.”

And I think he’s right. Lucrezia seems pretty sweet.

Frankly, I went into this shelved dolls thinking that I would find some crazy, Elizabeth Bathory style stuff, but there isn’t that much. I do think there’s a pretty good chance that Lucrezia and her brother had an incestuous relationship, but I don’t see much to indicate that she was a malicious poisoner.

I don’t want to say that she was entirely virtuous and just falsely maligned by history – obviously, she went along with some of her family’s tendency towards killing people, and they did kill a bunch of people – but it actually seems like she tried to protect her husbands most of the time. Her first loyalty was towards her father and brother, but, especially if she tried to warn Giovanni that her dad was going to kill him (at the age of 13!) she seems like she acted in a pretty admirable way whenever possible.

Really, the worst thing you can say about her was that she wasn’t chaste, which, okay, was a big insult in the 16th century. But not now. Given that times have changed in that regard, it’s surprising that we’re still inclined to think of her as unbelievably evil.

Oh, God. I guess she was innocent after all. I told you we should have done Anna Wintour.

Additional reading:

Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Bradford

Biography: Lucrezia Borgia

In His Name by E. Christopher Reeves

Scandalous Woman: Lucreiza Borgia, Passionate Poisoner or Virtuous Victim?