Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Lucrezia Borgia, a "Pearl among Women"

Lucrezia Borgia (death of her mother, Vannozza dei Cattanei on 24 November 1518)


Very few women have the kind of notoriety that attaches to the name of Lucrezia Borgia--I remember throwing around her name when I was just a girl and a friend accused me of having been mean to her: "Oh, yeah, I'm Lucrezia Borgia," I snarled. Of course I had no idea who Lucrezia Borgia was--just that she was somehow awful and evil.

Lucrezia Borgia, c. 1510,
portrait by Veneziano
But, while she was accused of poisoning her husband and of incest with both father and brother, Cesare, Lucrezia Borgia was probably guilty of neither. 

As the year nears its end and I'm scrambling to include women in the few remaining posts left in my daybook, I've had to explain more frequently about why I've selected to write about certain women on certain dates, and that is the case here as well. So, although we do know the days on which Lucrezia was born and when she died, I am posting about her on the date of her mother's death, 24 November. 

Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Giovanna dei Cattanei, known as "Vannozza."* Born on 18 April 1480, Lucrezia was raised in Rome, spending much of her girlhood in the household of Adriana del Mila, her father's cousin. 

She was noted for her educational achievements--a contemporary reported that she spoke Spanish, Greek, Italian, French, and Latin and that she could compose poetry in these languages as well. The household was joined by Giulia Farnese, who had married Adriana del Mila's son, Orso Orsini, in 1489; Giulia became Lucrezia's friend and companion, but she also became Rodrigo Borgia's mistress.

A portrait said to represent
Vanozza Cattanei,
mother of Lucrezia Borgia
Rodrigo looked to his native Spain for Lucrezia's future (and his own political needs), arranging her betrothal in 1491 to Don Juan de Centelles, lord of Val D'Agora in Valencia, and then, when the first contract was annulled, to Don Gaspare d'Aversa, who was also living in Valencia. But that betrothal was also broken when, after his election as pope in 1492, her father arranged for her marriage to Giovanni Sforza; their marriage was celebrated on 12 June 1493.

Unsettled by Charles VIII's threatened invasion of Italy and by "Vatican intrigues," the bridegroom left Rome after his marriage and returned, without his bride, to Pesaro for the summer and fall.

But Giovanni returned to Rome in November, no doubt to ensure his receipt of his thirteen-year-old bride's dowry. In 1494 Lucrezia finally left Rome for Pesaro, where she was living when Charles VIII's threatened invasion became a reality. 

She returned to Rome in the autumn of 1495, acting as hostess for her father at the papal court. But in the changed world of Italian politics, Alexander VI no longer had need of a Sforza alliance, and he decided that Lucrezia's marriage should be annulled on the basis of nonconsummation.

Giovanni angrily rejected the annullment, implying as it did his impotence, and appealed to his uncle Ludovico Sforza for aid. Ludovico was in need of papal support as he fought against Charles VIII, and, fearful that he could lose Milan to the French, proposed a test for Giovanni--he could prove the validity of his marriage if he consummated it, publicly, in the presence of members of both the Borgia and Sforza families.

After Giovanni rejected this proposal, Ludovico then suggested that Giovanni prove his virility in front of just one person, but again the proposal was angrily refused. Giovanni, for his part, reminded the pope and his uncle that his first wife, Maddalena Gonzaga, had died in childbirth; under those circumstances, he argued, there could be little question of his ability to consummate a marriage. He charged that Alexander wanted to dissolve the marriage because Alexander wanted his daughter for himself.

Giovanni's angry charge of incest was almost certainly untrue, but it has become an indelible part of the Lucrezia's unsavory reputation nonetheless. It is also interesting to note, here, that accusations of incest form a regular part of attacks on powerful women as a way of discrediting them--Eleanor of Aquitaine was accused of having such a relationship with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, for example, and Margaret Beaufort's intense emotional connection with her son drew criticism and suspicion as well. Marguerite of Navarre was also accused of incest with her brother, Francis I, again because of their emotional connections. (The frequency of such claims about women made by their political enemies puts such accusations against Anne Boleyn in an interesting context, doesn't it?)

If a woman failed to show her emotional connection to members of her family, a woman like Caterina Sforza could be constructed as an unwomanly monster, but intimate and loving demonstrations of affection could also be used against a woman, raising the suggestion of "neurotic" and "obsessive" attachment (in the case of Margaret Beaufort) or, as with Lucrezia Borgia, incest. 

Alexander, instead of expressing outrage at his son-in-law's accusations, replied to Giovanni with concern for the young man's "honorable" reputation: Giovanni could "admit" his impotence, even while everyone acknowledged it was just a temporary condition, perhaps one caused by an evil spell of some sort, or he could agree to an annulment wimply by claiming that his marriage was invalid because of Lucrezia's previous betrothals. 

Giovanni agreed to have the legality of his marriage examined, but a commission charged with the investigation found no irregularities, despite Alexander VI's obvious desire to have them found. The only remaining argument was nonconsummation, and under pressure from his uncle Ludovico and with financial inducements from the pope, Giovanni Sforza finally agreed. On 18 November 1497 he signed a "confession" of impotence, and on 22 December Lucrezia Borgia's first marriage was formally annulled. She was declared to be intacta, that is, a virgin. (Another good example of "traditional marriage," huh?)

Several new alliances were immediately suggested for her, including one with Ottaviano Sforza, Caterina Sorza's son. But on 29 June 1498 she was married by proxy to Alfonso of Aragon, the illegitimate son of Alfonso II, king of Naples, who made his son duke of Bisceglie. The formal ceremony took place in Rome in July. When Alexander VI and his son allied themselves with the French, who planned to invade Naples, Alfonso left Rome without his wife. Shortly thereafter, Alexander VI appointed his daughter governor of Spoleto and Foligno.

Just nineteen years old, Lucrezia took on the administrative tasks her new role demanded. Apparently reassured of his father-in-law's intentions, Alfonso reclaimed his wife, and the two returned to Rome, where Lucrezia gave birth to a son, whom she named Rodrigo after her father. In July of 1500 Alfonso was attacked by assassins in Rome. As he did not die (Lucrezia's ministrations are credited with his recovery), on 18 August he was strangled in his bed, probably under Cesare Borgia's orders. Lucrezia was dismissed from Rome, her letters from this period signed La Infelicissima--"the most unhappy of ladies."

By July of 1501 Louis XII of France and Ferdinand of Aragon had defeated Naples. While her father campaigned in Italy, Lucrezia returned to Rome to administer his affairs. But Lucrezia's remarriage could provide her father another political ally, and so a third husband was found for her, Alfonso d'Este, Isabella d'Este's brother, son and heir to the duke of Ferrara. After initially opposing the alliance, the duke was compelled to agree. Lucrezia and Alfonso d'Este were married on 30 December 1501. 
Lucrezia Borgia, 1518,
portrait by Dossi Dossi

Contemporary accounts of Lucrezia, just twenty-one years old at the time of her third marriage, counter the more salacious and vicious gossip that still surrounds her name. Her new sister-in-law viewed Lucrezia with suspicion; nevertheless, Isabella d'Este's agent reported to her that Lucrezia was "full of charm and grace," and one of Isabella's ladies-in-waiting, too, grudgingly admitted that if Lucrezia "is not noticeably beautiful, she stands out thanks to the sweetness of her expression." A chronicler in Ferrara reported, "She is full of tact, prudent, intelligent, animated, pleasing, very amiable. . . . Her quick mind makes her eyes sparkle."

Despite d'Este fears and Isabella's suspicions, Lucrezia proved to be an excellent wife--she promptly bore her husband four children, including his son and heir Ercole, who succeeded his father as duke of Ferrara in 1534. 

After Alexander VI's death, Lucrezia no longer played a political role in Italy, but she established numerous charitable foundations in Ferrara and, like her sister-in-law's court at Mantua, Ferrara became a center for artists and intellectuals. 

Lucrezia Borgia died on 24 June 1519, just ten days after giving birth to a stillborn daughter. Lucrezia was thirty-nine years old.

There is a great deal about Lucrezia Borgia in popular culture, from historical dramas like The Borgias to novels. But there are good biographies as well. Although it was originally published in Italian in 1939, I still like Maria Bellonci's The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia, trans. Bernard and Barbara Wall; it's out of print, but it has been reprinted so many times that there are lots of used copies available. I also recommend Sarah Bradford's 2004 Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy.

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).