Painting by Bartolomeo Veneziano
Twenty-eleven was a good year for the Borgias, who were depicted in not one but two television shows. In fact, I was bored at home with Netflix one night when I decided to watch Jeremy Irons play Rodrigo in Showtime’s The Borgias, only to discover that the show on Netflix was not The Borgias but Borgia, an entirely separate show produced by Canal Plus.
Neither show is for the faint of heart, as stories about the Borgia are generally told with a sneer or a blush. Lucrezia’s life was none too pious and, as with many women of the era, she was played like a chess piece by the men in her family. This is not to say, of course, that Lucrezia didn’t have a few tricks of her own—namely the rumored empty ring on her hand she often filled with poison.
The Fairest of All
Rumors riddle Lucrezia’s biography, but certain things are clear: she was born in 1480 an illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, later the corrupt Pope Alexander VI.
Pope Alexander VI
She bedazzled onlookers with her hazel eyes, perfect complexion, and waves of golden hair that fell past her knees as she walked gracefully down the aisle with her first husband Giovanni Sforza.
Condottiere and Lord of Pesaro and Gradara
The marriage was more an alliance—when Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI, he needed strong allies like the Sforza family, even if it meant annulling Lucrezia’s previous engagement to a lord in Valencia.
The Unconsummated Marriage
Eventually, the pope no longer needed the Sforzas. While many theories abound regarding the divorce, it is generally accepted that when the pope ordered Giovanni’s quiet execution, Cesare informed his sister and Lucrezia convinced her husband to flee Rome.
Another popular (and perhaps juicier) rumor, however, is that Cesare and Lucrezia were having an incestuous affair and Giovanni simply needed eliminating, even if it meant putting words into the pope’s mouth. Either way, the pope claimed the marriage had not been consummated, that it was invalid, and that his daughter was free to “choose” her next husband, never mind that she was supposedly pregnant at the time of the annulment.
The Fruit of Said Unconsummated Marriage
Lucrezia awaited the divorce at the convent of San Sisto and there, before her marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, allegedly gave birth to a son named Giovanni, known today as Roman Infante. It was not long before two papal bulls were issued concerning little Giovanni, neither of them mentioning Lucrezia as his mother—one, that he was Cesare’s child from an affair before his marriage, and another that Giovanni was Pope Alexander’s child. It was assumed at the time that Giovanni’s was Cesare’s brood, but Giovanni later stayed with Lucrezia in Ferrara, where he was accepted as her half-brother.
A Pearl Among Women
When her second husband died, Lucrezia was handed to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, with whom she had numerous children and besides whom she had many extramarital affairs.
These included her married brother-in-law, who later contracted syphilis and kindly ended matters with Lucrezia, as well as the noted French soldier, the Chevalier Bayard, who described her as a “pearl among women.”
Lucrezia died in October 1519 at the age of 39 after the complicated birth of her eight child and buried in the convent of Corpus Domini. Her legacy—beauty, incest, murder, passionate affairs, and perhaps above all courage, or rather nerve—is one that fascinates historians, storytellers, and gossips alike. She did, after all, survive the fall of the Borgias after Pope Alexander VI’s death. The same cannot be said for everyone.
About the author:
Amanda Tradwick is a grant researcher and writer for CollegeGrants.org. She has a Bachelor's degrees from the University of Delaware, and has recently finished research on college grants for minorities and vermont education grants.