40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History's More Scandalous Dynasties
40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties

Tim Flight - October 27, 2019

Life was tough in Renaissance Italy. Unlike today’s country, it was not united, and instead numerous kingdoms fought among each other for supremacy. Kings, aristocrats, and clergy all vied with one another for land and political dominance. The resulting wars brought economic misery and suffering to everyone. To survive, let alone prosper, you had to be ruthless and even murderous. That the Borgia family rose from minor nobility to the papacy gives thus you an idea of what follows. If you thought politics today was corrupt and vicious, you ain’t seen nothing yet…

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The town of Borja, Spain, from which the Borgias took their name. Magallon

40. Although best-known for their time in Italy, the Borgias were originally Spanish

The name ‘Borgia’ is an Italianised version of de Borja, meaning ‘from the town of Borja’. Borja is a town in the Zaragoza province in northern Spain. The kings of Aragon ruled Borja, and the Borgias were amongst many nobles who served the crown. Borja dates back to the 5th century BC, and grew under Roman and Muslim rule. Little is known about the early days of the Borgia family, because they were not especially important. Instead, the Borgias found fame and fortune in the Eternal City, where our story really begins.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The coat of arms of the Kings of Aragon, from whom the Borgias claimed to be descended. Wikimedia Commons

39. There was much debate about their genealogy

As they increased in power, the Borgias had to establish a noble ancestry to match. Everyone knew them as Spanish newcomers in Rome, so they claimed descent from the Spanish royal House of Aragon. In Pedro de Atarés (c.1083-1151), they found just the right royal ancestor. He never became king, but importantly had noble blood in his veins. Alas, however, he actually died childless, so whichever genealogist they hired must have been having a bad day. Political rivals alternatively suggested the Borgias had Jewish ancestry, perhaps to slight the validity of the two Borgia popes.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Alfonso Borgia, as Pope Callixtus III, Valencia, c.1568. Wikimedia Commons

38. Alfonso de Borja rose from middling origins to become a diplomat for the Kings of Aragon

Alfonso de Borja (1378-1458) founded the most successful and notorious branch of the Borgia family. Alfonso earned a doctorate in civil and canon law at university, and lectured for a number of years at Lleida. At Lleida, his legal flair attracted the church. After impressing at ecclesiastical councils where he represented the Lleida Diocese, he became Rector of San Nicolas, Valencia. Thoroughly impressed, King Alfonso V of Aragon appointed him as his private secretary, which involved important diplomatic work. Under King Alfonso, he worked closely with the Vatican, and was instrumental in arranging the abdication of Clement VIII, the anti-pope.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The Virgin Mary appears to Pope Callixtus III in a 15th-century Italian manuscript. Wikimedia Commons

37. He became Pope Callixtus III, and unlike his descendents was a pretty decent chap

Alfonso impressed the Vatican again when peacefully representing the king’s territorial interests in Italy, and was made a Cardinal in 1444. Alfonso lived his life austerely and charitably, and his skill in diplomacy made him a popular figure in Rome. So much, in fact, that when a new pope was elected in 1455, Alfonso was the only candidate everyone could accept. Though riddled with gout, and in his seventies, he became Pope Callixtus III, and served for just over 3 years until his death in 1458.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Rome in the late 15th century, depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle, c.1493. Wikimedia Commons

36. Nonetheless, the first Borgia Pope was guilty of terrible nepotism

Despite his age and poor health, Pope Callixtus III showed remarkable energy during his pontificate. He launched a crusade to recapture Constantinople, becoming very unpopular because of its great financial cost to Catholic Europe. He took the job very seriously, and also absolved Joan of Arc of witchcraft. However, he also named two thoroughly unsuitable nephews as Cardinals, and installed another as Prefect of Rome. This nepotism aroused such hatred that he had to garrison the Papal State with Catalan soldiers. When he died, riots broke out against the Spaniards he so publically indulged.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Pope Pius II, Rodrigo’s new patron, depicted on an early 16th-century fresco in Siena. Wikimedia Commons

 

35. Pope Callixtus’s nephew, Rodrigo, showed political nous after his uncle’s death

One of those targeted by the mob was Callixtus’s nephew, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. His reckless and libertine way of life was bad enough, but he was also a foreigner, born in Xàtiva, Spain. Vulnerable to nobles and fellow Cardinals bitter about Callixtus’s nepotism alike, Rodrigo took a big gamble. He backed Enea Piccolomini, a Siennese scholar made a Cardinal by Callixtus, in his bid to become the next pope. Thankfully for Rodrigo, if not anyone else, Piccolomini became Pius II, and the unpopular Spaniard was safe.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
A 16th-century portrait of a woman thought to be Rodrigo’s chief mistress, Vannozza Cattanei, by Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola. Wikimedia Commons

34. Despite being a Cardinal, Rodrigo was a notorious womaniser, and had many illegitimate children

Rodrigo was Vice-Chancellor to the Holy See through the reigns of 4 popes, a lucrative position widely coveted. But even though Cardinals were meant to be celibate, Rodrigo simply carried on with his main occupation of whoremongering. He fathered numerous bastards with several mistresses, and behaved so scandalously that his friend Pius II had to rebuke him. Pius read Rodrigo the riot act after he hosted an orgy in a garden in Siena. The men escorting women to the party were forbidden entry, and Siena was outraged by the Cardinal’s appalling behaviour. Rodrigo didn’t care.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Rodrigo’s coat of arms on Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Wikimedia Commons

33. He secured his way to influence through corruption and buying up vast estates and castles

Though being Vice-Chancellor was already a lucrative gig, Rodrigo made it even more profitable through corruption and accepting bribes. Forging documents and granting divorces brought in vast sums of cash and left the bribers in Rodrigo’s pocket. He spent much of his ill-gotten gains on decorating his many homes and buying new ones that held authority. Rodrigo was also careful about which papal candidates he backed. In exchange for his backing, he expected money, privileges, and promotions for his relatives. Such political nous and corruption made him one of the most powerful men in Italy.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
16th-century portrait of Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo Borgia, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo. Wikimedia Commons

32. Incredibly, Rodrigo was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492, allegedly through bribery

Despite his appalling corruption and disdain for the office of Cardinal, Rodrigo was soon in the running to become Pope. He failed to succeed Sixtus IV, but when Innocent VIII died in 1492, the 61-year-old Rodrigo seized his chance. As a Spaniard, and a notoriously corrupt one, he was a rank outsider, but he was also very rich. According to most historians and contemporaries, Rodrigo paid dozens of bribes left, right, and centre. He even paid his main rival to drop out of the race. Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier shows Pope Alexander VI with three of his illegitimate children. Wikimedia Commons

31. Alexander VI shocked everyone by acknowledging his illegitimate children

Although his sexual misconduct was widely-known, the least the new pope could do was attempt to bury his past. Oh, no. Perhaps deciding that the cat was out of the bag anyway, he publically acknowledged his illegitimate children. His contemporaries, and especially enemies, were shocked by Alexander’s carefree attitude to the reputation of the papacy. But despite his unholy lifestyle, Alexander was a great administrator, having governed such a vast collection of estates. Sorting out numerous problems neglected by his predecessor, Innocent VIII, soon hushed most wagging tongues.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The Borgia Apartments in the Apostolic Palace, which took their current form under Alexander VI’s direction in the late 15th century. TrekkMarket

30. Alexander is said to have hosted prostitutes at the Apostolic Palace

Alexander VI also refused to give up his love of women. During his reign, prostitutes roamed the Vatican, and he even hosted them at the Apostolic Palace. In 1501, the Banquet of the Chestnuts saw ‘fifty honest prostitutes’ crawl naked on all fours to pick up chestnuts. An all-night orgy followed, attended by Alexander. The account only exists in the diary of Johann Burchard, the papal master of ceremonies, and is disputed. Prostitutes however had been welcome at the Vatican long before Alexander, and in this era popes were frequently sexual deviants.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lady with a Unicorn, painted by Luca Longhi in 1535-1540, is thought to be a portrait of Giulia Farnese. WGA

29. Alexander had a high profile affair with Giulia Farnese, and made her brother Cardinal

In 1489, a beautiful young girl named Giulia Farnese married Orsino Orsini in one of the then-Rodrigo’s palaces. Almost immediately, she became Rodrigo’s mistress, and her politically-motivated husband went home. Giulia’s beauty was famous in Rome, and people referred to her as La Bella, making this a very public arrangement. When Giulia returned to her husband, apparently ending the affair, Cardinal Rodrigo threatened to excommunicate her, and she duly returned. But such loyalty – however under duress – meant a lot to Rodrigo. When he became Pope Alexander VI, he made Giulia’s brother a Cardinal.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c.1498. WordPress

28. Alexander didn’t care how corrupt he was, and laughed when Savonarola publically accused him

In the early 1490s, the firebrand Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola whipped Florence into a pious frenzy. His calls for ecclesiastical reform and claims that God was angered by Italy’s debauchery drew additional gravitas from the French invasion of 1494. Unfortunately for Pope Alexander, Savonarola especially hated corruption in the church, and soon the two were on a collision course. First hearing of Savonarola’s public denunciations, Alexander apparently laughed out loud, and refused to reform himself or the Church. Alexander excommunicated Savonarola, and gave his permission for him to be burned alive in Florence in 1498.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Christopher Columbus lands in the New World, Spain, 1601. WordPress

27. One of Alexander’s Papal Bulls endorsed slavery in the New World

In 1493, Alexander attempted to quell tensions between Portugal and Spain over territory in the New World. He issued a Papal Bull called Inter Caetera, which divided the new lands up between the two nations. However, it also endorsed slavery in the New World. Alexander ordered them to conquer lands so that ‘barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith [Catholicism] itself’. Alexander explicitly legitimised slavery, giving Spain and Portugal permission ‘to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants’.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Valencia in 1563, painted by Anton van der Wyngaerde. Medievalists

26. Alexander’s bastard son, Cesare, became a canon at age 7, and Archbishop of Venice at 17 through his father’s influence

Like his uncle, Pope Callixtus III, Alexander VI was guilty of outrageous nepotism. In 1493, he made his violent and debauched son, Cesare, a Cardinal, at 18. But at least Cesare had experience of church office. He became Canon of the Cathedral of Valencia aged 7 via a Borgia relation, and Archbishop of Valencia at 17. Despite these achievements, Cesare (1475-1507) was by far the most unpopular name on the list of Cardinals. In response to vociferous opposition, a furious Alexander vowed to ‘show them who is pope!’

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Portrait of Cesare Borgia, after Bartolomeo Veneto, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons

25. Cesare had at least 11 illegitimate children

Cesare Borgia was a man after his father’s own heart. In all, he fathered a confirmed 11 illegitimate children, with others no doubt lost to history. He had many mistresses and one, Sancha de Aragon, was also his sister in law. But also like his father, Cesare did not abandon his illegitimate kids. Many, such as Girolamo and Lucrezia, went on to have good marriages and lives, and kept the Borgia family name. Humorously, Lucrezia became Abbess of San Bernardino, following in her father’s (unwillingly) ecclesiastical footsteps.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Cesare Borgia Leaving the Vatican by Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

24. Cesare was the first man in history to resign as Cardinal

As you’ve probably guessed, Cesare wasn’t all that keen on being a Cardinal. In 1498, King Louis XII of France wanted to divorce his wife, and found a willing ear in Alexander VI. Alexander agreed to the split in exchange for lots of money, a duchy, and a politically-important wife for Cesare. Louis also named Cesare a member of the French Royal chivalric Order of St Michael and promised him a garrison. To accept this mighty bribe, Cesare became the first man in history to resign as Cardinal. Cesare became a fearsome soldier, acquiring wealth and power by force.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Possible portrait of Cesare Borgia by Altobello Melone, first quarter of the 16th century. Wikimedia Commons

23. Cesare may have had his brother, Juan, murdered, to take all his possessions

In 1497, Juan Borgia was riding back to the Vatican with his brother Cesare from dinner at their mother’s house. Cesare decided to ride off to continue his evening, and Juan was never seen alive again. The following day, fishermen dragged his body from the river. Juan’s corpse had numerous stab-wounds, but curiously a purse containing 30 ducats was still strapped to his belt. Juan was Alexander VI’s favourite son, and suspicion soon fell on Cesare. Although his guilt has never been established, Cesare almost immediately succeeded Juan as Head of the Papal Army. Hmmm…

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
16th-century tomb of Charlotte of Albret, Cesare’s wife, at La Motte-Feuilly. Archives36

22. On his wedding night, Cesare allegedly took a laxative rather than an aphrodisiac by accident

The bride promised by the King of France was Charlotte of Albret (1480-1514), the King of Navarre’s French sister. The wedding was glorious as fitting such an alliance, but things otherwise didn’t get off to a good start. Court gossips reported that on their wedding night, Cesare asked an apothecary for an aphrodisiac to consummate his marriage. Somehow or other, Cesare was given a powerful laxative, and ‘never ceased going to the privy the whole night’. This was a sign of things to come, for the couple only managed to produce one daughter, Louise Borgia.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The Ducal Palace and Cathedral at Urbino, one of the many places conquered by Cesare. Wikimedia Commons

21. Cesare used his position as Head of the Papal army to conquer lands for himself

Cesare was a far better soldier than Cardinal. Two months after his wedding, he helped the French defeat the Sforza family of Milan. King Louis gave him command of a battalion of French troops, and Cesare rode north to conquer lands for himself. Alexander and Cesare claimed that this was to reassert Papal authority, but both knew this was really a campaign for Borgia gain. Cesare was desperate to become a prince of independent means before Alexander’s death. Aut Caesar, aut nihil (‘either Caesar or nothing’) was his motto. Many cities fell to Cesare between 1499 and 1502.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Engraving of a syphilitic man by Albrecht Durer, 1496. Science Photo Library

20. Cesare contracted syphilis at the age of 22, and had to wear a mask later in life to hide his disfigurement

One of Cesare’s final acts as Cardinal was crowning the King of Naples. According to Machiavelli, after carrying out his duty the 22-year-old Cesare hired a prostitute. Shining a lamp on the woman after having sex, the horrified Cesare discovered she was a grotesque, toothless crone. He instantly vomited on his lover, but she left him with more than just nausea. The prostitute gave Cesare syphilis, a horrible STD that rots the flesh and causes hideous disfigurement. Cesare was never cured, and in later life wore a mask in public to hide his mutilated face.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
1550 edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Wikimedia Commons

19. Niccolo Machiavelli’s notorious political tract, The Prince, was based on Cesare’s outrageous life

During his victorious campaign over Senigallia, Cesare met a Florentine ambassador named Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli was so impressed with Cesare’s ruthlessness and political instincts that he wrote a political treatise based on his life. Il Principe (‘The Prince’) instructs the reader to emulate Cesare’s tyrannical use of power and political cunning. Machiavelli taught that Cesare’s opportunism, aggression, and ruthlessness were vital qualities for anyone wishing to become a prince. Machiavelli’s text was crucial in establishing Cesare’s posthumous reputation. The famous term for someone like Cesare may be ‘Machiavellian’, but ‘Borgian’ would be far more accurate.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Leonardo da Vinci’s plan of Imola, drawn to impress Cesare in 1502. Wikimedia Commons

18. Cesare hired Leonardo da Vinci as his military architect and engineer

Cesare’s success in his campaign in northern Italy came from smart delegation as well as his ruthlessness. Helping Louis destroy the Sforza family not only gained Cesare an army but made the great Leonardo da Vinci unemployed. This ultimately proved an unexpected boon for Cesare. Meeting da Vinci in Cesena, Cesare hired da Vinci as his military architect and engineer. During his year working for Cesare, Leonardo built the canal between Cesena and Porto Cesenatico and produced plans of cities to attack. It’s an intriguing thought that Cesare, Leonardo, and Machiavelli were once in the same room together…

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The altar of the Church of Santa Maria in Viana, Spain, next to which Cesare was originally buried. VinTurismoRioja

17. Cesare died horribly, after losing his temper one too many times

People were so scared of Cesare that whole cities sometimes surrendered without a shot being fired. But just as he set his sights on Tuscany, where he could become an independent prince, Alexander VI died. The next pope was a Borgia nemesis who made Cesare surrender all his conquered cities and threw him in prison. He escaped, but was rearrested and taken to Spain. There he escaped again, and joined his brother-in-law (the King of Navarre)’s army. Besieging the castle of Viana, Cesare was furious to see several enemy knights escaping. He foolishly gave chase alone, and was butchered.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Cesare and Lucrezia get a little too close for siblings in the TV series, The Borgias. Chicago Tribune

16. Cesare and his siblings were accused of incest

One of the most famous rumours dogging the Borgias is incest. Johann Burchard wrote that ‘in the home of the Pontiff… acts of incest are countless’. Most of the rumours concerned Cesare and his sister, Lucrezia, but all of Pope Alexander’s illegitimate children were implicated. There is no real evidence to support this accusation, however. It may have been inspired by the love-triangles arising from the Borgia brothers having the same mistresses. Another cause could be the Borgias’ loathed nepotism. Most importantly, though, they were very unpopular, and held much-coveted positions of power.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Possible portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto, c.1520-30. Wikimedia Commons

15. Lucrezia Borgia was both beautiful and formidably intelligent

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Italy. ‘Her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her neck is slender and fair, and the bust is admirably proportioned’, noted one contemporary. But what made her most unusual was her education. Lucrezia was schooled in Latin, Greek, Italian, and French, by Alexander VI’s cousin, Adriana Orsini. Whenever Alexander encountered a new intellectual, he ensured that they taught Lucrezia. This was very unusual for a girl in 15th-century Italy. Most women would be lucky to be taught basic scripture by a group of nuns.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
c.1498 coin bearing the profile of Giovanni Sforza, Lucrezia’s first husband. VCoins

14. Her first marriage was annulled once her husband was no longer useful to the Borgias

Most of Europe’s most prominent families wanted to marry their children to the pope’s 13-year-old daughter. In 1493, Alexander identified Giovanni Sforza as the most useful political alliance, and he married Lucrezia. But when the Sforza family sided with France against the pope in 1494, Giovanni was no longer a desirable match. He escaped before Cesare could murder him, but was forced into publically proclaiming his impotency to dissolve the marriage. This meant that the marriage hadn’t been consummated and was thus dissolvable. After the annulment, Lucrezia was still legally a virgin and a prize to be coveted.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, by Frank Cadogan Cowper, c.1908-14. Twitter

13. Her first husband accused Lucrezia of paternal incest

Giovanni’s public announcement of his impotency came at the cost of keeping Lucrezia’s dowry. And he wasn’t content with that. Hoping to save face, Giovanni spread a rumour that Lucrezia was guilty of incest with her father. He said the marriage was annulled because the pope wanted his daughter all to himself! Again, like the claims of Cesare and Lucrezia sleeping together, this is baseless. Giovanni was pressured into ‘admitting’ his impotence by the Sforzas, who wanted to keep the dowry. Though the incest-gossip was probably just his parting, vengeful shot at the Borgias, it found a receptive audience.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia (in a red gown, right) depicted in the late 15th-century Borgia Apartments at the Apostolic Palace. Flickr

12. Her second husband was probably murdered by Cesare

At 18, Lucrezia married again. Her second husband was Alfonso of Aragon, son of Alexander VI’s close ally against the French, the King of Naples. But when the French bribe that made Cesare quit as Cardinal came, the Borgias were allied with King Louis against Naples. Alfonso had to go, and Lucrezia warned him that Cesare planned to murder him. After dining with the pope in 1500 a group of assassins near-fatally stabbed him. When he’d recovered, Cesare’s men arrested Alfonso, who ‘tragically’ fell and died of the old injuries en route to prison. Lucrezia was heartbroken.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Spoleto, Italy. San Gemini Travel Hub

11. Lucrezia ruled Spoleto alone, despite being a woman

Lucrezia’s education, and close observation of her father, made her a very capable ruler. When Alexander VI left Rome on papal business, he’d often leave Lucrezia in charge of the Vatican in his absence. In 1499, when Alfonso had sensibly fled Rome after the French bribe, Alexander named Lucrezia as governor of Spoleto. Though this would be normal for a son, to put a daughter in such a position of power was unheard of. But Lucrezia was no ordinary woman, and happily ruled Spoleto whilst pregnant. No doubt such ‘masculine’ abilities helped inspire many of the slanderous tales about her.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Portrait of Alfonso I d’Este, Lucrezia’s third husband, by Battista Dossi, c.1530. Wikimedia Commons

10. She had 8 children with her third husband, but simultaneously had numerous affairs

After Giovanni’s death, Lucrezia was inconsolable. She retreated from Rome, and signed her letters La Infelicissima (‘the saddest one’). But scheming Alexander and Cesare didn’t care – they married her off for a third time in 1501. Lucrezia’s third and final husband was Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534), the Duke of Ferrara’s heir. Ferrara lay in northern Italy, where Cesare was busy conquering cities, and so the alliance was very useful. Lucrezia bore Alfonso 8 children, but also had many high-profile affairs. Notable lovers included the famous poet Petro Bembo and the legendary knight, the Chevalier de Bayard.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Francesco II Gonzaga, Lucrezia’s lover and brother in law, 16th century. Pinterest

9. She even had a love affair with her own brother-in-law

Most scandalous of all, Lucrezia had a long sexual relationship with Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua (1466-1519). What made this particular infidelity unacceptable was the fact that Francesco was her brother in law. He was married to Isabella d’Este, Alfonso d’Este’s sister. Isabella and Lucrezia did not get along at all well, though their ill-feeling predated the affair. Francesco also had syphilis, though Lucrezia doesn’t seem to have caught it. The two bonded over their love of culture, which for Lucrezia dated from her unusual schooling as a girl.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Portrait of Lucrezia by Battista Dossi, c.1519-30. Wikimedia Commons

8. Lucrezia has been remembered as a prolific poisoner by history

Incest aside, Lucrezia is best-remembered as a murderer with a penchant for poison. Lucrezia’s enemies claimed that she manipulated others through her beauty and intelligence, resorting to murder when charm failed. However, there is no evidence that she poisoned anyone. Perhaps the legend was a literal version of reports of Lucrezia poisoning the minds of others through her charm. Additionally, people believing the fraternal-incest rumour have suggested Lucrezia conspired with Cesare to murder her second husband. As we’ve seen, evidence strongly suggests the opposite. The poisoning rumour seems to have been brewed from these diverse strands, but has proved indelible.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia Borgia portrayed by Holliday Grainger in The Borgias TV series, with prominent rings. Pinterest

7. Both Cesare and Lucrezia are alleged to have kept poison in a ring

Cesare didn’t escape the smear of poison, either. One night, he and Alexander VI dined at Cardinal Adriano Castellesi’s villa, and everyone at the feast fell sick. Even though Cesare was dangerously ill, and Alexander died of the sickness, Cesare has been blamed. Alexander probably died of malaria, but gossips immediately claimed the Borgias had accidentally quaffed their own poison. Perhaps this ‘fact’ also implicated Lucrezia. Either way, popular legend held that Cesare and Lucrezia kept poison in a hollowed ring. The ring’s wearer could poison wine at short notice, and anyone who respectfully kissed the ring would die.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia Borgia. Biography.

6. Lucrezia was a very popular ruler in her time

However history has remembered her, Lucrezia was actually a very popular ruler in her day. Alfonso d’Este inherited the dukedom of Ferrara in 1505, and as duchess Lucrezia really flourished. Her court was a seat of Renaissance learning, music, and culture. She hosted jousts, and invited intellectuals to Ferrara from far and wide. Like her father, Lucrezia was a very effective ruler, too. She listened to her people, and got things done to improve their wellbeing. In turn, the people of Ferrara adored her, praising her beauty and ‘inner grace of personality’.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia and her third husband were buried together under this slab at the Corpus Domini Convent, Ferrara, Italy. Find A Grave

5. She died after giving birth to her 9th child aged just 39

Lucrezia’s later life was full of grief. By 1518, both her parents, her firstborn son with Giovanni, all of her siblings, and Francesco were all dead. Aged 39, her health was very poor, and she was wracked with sadness. She fell pregnant again, and her health worsened. On June, 15, 1519, Lucrezia gave birth prematurely to a little girl, who died within hours. 9 days later, Lucrezia herself passed away. Duke Alfonso was so inconsolable that he passed out at her funeral. He lived for another 15 years, and was buried alongside his beloved wife in 1534.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
16th-century portrait of Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, one of Lucrezia’s many children. Wikimedia Commons

4. Without Papal influence, the family fell into decline

Cesare fell on hard times as soon as Pope Alexander VI died, and other didn’t fare well either. In fact, after the death of Lucrezia, the whole Borgia family went into steady decline. Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este protected her from the many Borgia enemies, but subsequent generations weren’t so lucky. They hardly lived impoverished lives, but never reached the pinnacle of power that Alexander and his children managed. Without a scheming, corrupt Pope on their side, later generations were at the mercy of other powerful Machiavellian figures. By the middle of the 18th century, the Borgias were extinct.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Saint Francis Borgia by Alonso Cano, 1624. Wikimedia Commons

3. Francis Borgia was unusually pious, and was canonised in 1670

The most notable Borgia after Lucrezia was St Francis Borgia (1510-74). He was the great-grandson of Pope Alexander VI via the murdered Juan Borgia’s son. Francis is famous for the most un-Borgia reason: he was such a good Christian that he became a saint. Although Duke of Gandia, Francis renounced his titles and devoted himself to religion, becoming a Jesuit. He did missionary work in the New World, and founded numerous colleges in Spain and a university in Rome. Pope Clement X canonised him in 1670, after Francis conducted numerous post-mortem miracles. For Catholics, Francis redeemed the Borgia name.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Thérèse Tietjens portrays Lucrezia Borgia in the opera named after the latter, 1870. Wikimedia Commons

2. The reputation of the Borgias has been a vast cultural influence

Once Lucrezia was dead, rumours about the Borgias spread like wildfire. They’d already been fermenting during Alexander’s reign, but with no one powerful to quash them the family’s popular image developed. Cesare’s reputation was secured by Machiavelli’s The Prince, published after both men died. Lucrezia and Alexander’s evil repute was immortalised in Barnabe Barnes’s 1606 play, The Devil’s Charter. Lucrezia’s legendary deeds also inspired Victor Hugo’s 1833 play, Lucrèce Borgia, which in turn became Donizietti’s 1834 opera. The 20th century produced numerous Borgia books and films, and the recent TV series further popularised the historic allegations.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Pope Alexander VI in prayer, depicted on a fresco in the late 15th-century Borgia Apartments. Wikimedia Commons

1. But much of the above may be false…

How bad were the Borgias? We will never know, but allegations of incest and poison-rings must be viewed sceptically. As foreigners rising to the top of Renaissance Italy, the Borgias made many powerful enemies. Most of the rumours are unsubstantiated, and the products of envy and malice. But there is no doubt that the Borgias were corrupt, sexually promiscuous, and did bump off rivals. They did what was necessary to achieve power, and were hardly unusual in this. Renaissance Italy was a place of murder, corruption, and political intrigue. The Borgias were just the most successful at it.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bradford, Sarah. Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Bradford, Sarah. Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy. London: Viking, 2004.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Borgias. London: Constable, 2011.

Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Mallett, Michael. The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Family. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969.

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. San Francisco: Harper, 2000.

Meyer, G. J. The Borgias: The Hidden History. New York: Random House, 2013.

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