For Lucrezia Borgia, 20 year-old illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, August 8, 1500 was a day she would remember as long as she lived. It began in a sickroom at the Vatican where she was nursing her second husband Alfonso back to health after a murderous and wholly unprovoked knife attack. She left the sick-room, returning after a five minute absence to find him dead in bed - strangled, she had good reason to believe, at the command of her own brother.
It has never been proved conclusively that Cesare Borgia was responsible for his brother-in-law's murder. But the political climate of the time, together with his own violent nature, make it almost certain that it was he who disposed of his sister's husband to rid the Borgia family of an alliance no longer useful. And although Lucrezia mourned her husband at first - everyone knew that she had adored the young Alfonso of Bisceghe, the nephew of King Frederic of Naples - within a few weeks she had completely recovered her spirits and was seen to be as cheerful and outgoing as ever. To outside observers this was proof - if proof were needed - that Lucrezia was as much a Borgia as the rest of her family, that she entered wholeheartedly into their macabre world of poison, intrigue, lust, and murder. But did she?
The accusations levelled against Lucrezia Borgia over the centuries have been as grave as they are repellent. Historians have regularly argued that she was promiscuous; that she committed incest with her brother Cesare and her father the pope; that the other men in her life were liable to die violently, gruesomely, and without warning; and that her idea of entertainment was to watch 50 Vatican servants and 50 naked prostitutes competing sexually for prizes. She was no angel, certainly, but much of the grosser evidence against her owes more to anti-Borgia propaganda than to the truth.
The gravest charge against Lucrezia - that she went to bed with her own blood relations - is also the easiest to refute. The charge arose from two different sources, neither of which can stand up to close examination. The first to accuse her of incest was Giovanni Sforza, her first husband, to whom she had been married at the age of 13, and he made the accusation purely as a form of self-defence. Their marriage had been a political union, with no love on either side, and when the time came to dissolve it, the Borgia family used Sforza's alleged impotence as the excuse. They claimed that Sforza had never been able to consummate the marriage. This was blatant nonsense, for Sforza had undoubtedly fathered a child by his previous wife, and himself insisted that he had made love to Lucrezia at least 1,000 times during their marriage - a proud boast, since they never lived together for anything like 1,000 days. But Sforza's pride was hurt, especially when people chose to believe the Borgias' story rather than his own. It was in this frame of mind that he accused the pope of wanting to get rid of him so that he could sleep with Lucrezia himself. The accusation was a wild one, conceived in anger and humiliation, and there was never the slightest evidence to back it up.
It is easy to see, however, why the story so quickly gained currency. During the break-up of her first marriage, Lucrezia seems to have had a love affair with a Spanish page, a handsome young man whose body was discovered in the River Tiber soon after Lucrezia became pregnant. To protect the child by giving it a Borgia name and at the same time preserving Lucrezia from any disgrace, the pope issued a public declaration that the child was Cesare Borgia's by an undisclosed Roman woman. In private, however, for reasons that have never been explained, the pope named himself as the father. When it began to be rumoured that the undisclosed woman was Lucrezia, the rumours of incest began to expand and multiply until at length they reached the historians Francesco Guicciardini and Niccolo Machiavelli, who recorded them for all time as a well-established fact.
Lucrezia was never as black as she has been painted. She had her failings, admittedly, but she was no worse than many other ladies of her time, and by the standards of the rest of her family she was positively well-behaved. It is significant that when the time came for her third and last marriage, to the future Duke of Ferrara, his ambassador - with no illusions about the Borgias - assessed her character and reported secretly that 'She is of incontestable beauty and her manners add to her charm. She seems so gifted that we cannot, and should not, suspect her of unseemly behaviour. Apart from her perfect grace in all things, she is a Catholic and shows her fears of God.' The ambassador was a diplomat, of course, and knew that one day the future duchess might read what he had written about her - but his assessment rings true, nevertheless, for it was echoed in many details by several other contemporary accounts.
Lucrezia was just 21 at the time of this marriage, and when she left the Vatican for Ferrara she was never to see either Rome or her father again. She abandoned the vicious world of the Borgias for good, to become, in due course, Duchess of Ferrara and a lady much loved for her good works, especially the building of convents and hospitals. A list of the books she took with her to Ferrara reveals her strong piety, as well as the scholarship of a woman who could write poetry in three languages - French, Spanish, and Italian. Her past was behind her, with nothing more sinister in it than a few youthful love affairs and a tendency to look the other way when her family was on the rampage. She did not deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the rest of the Borgias. For the remainder of her life, apart from one short-lived indiscretion with a Venetian poet, she devoted herself to being a good wife and mother, a patroness of the arts, and a strong influence on the court of her adopted state. When she died in childbirth in 1519, worn out after her 11th pregnancy, she was mourned by everyone who knew her. Her husband, whose early indifference to her had given way to a deep love, was so moved by her death that he fainted at the funeral and had to be carried out. The condolences that flooded in to Ferrara from all over Italy were widespread and heartfelt. Lucrezia had been genuinely loved. It was not until later, when historians began to rewrite the Borgia story for their own purposes, that she was misunderstood and the legend of Lucrezia the Infamous was born.
page last updated 27 AUGUST 2000