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

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 rumors dogging the Borgias is incest. Johann Burchard wrote that ‘in the home of the Pontiff… acts of incest are countless’. Most of the rumors 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 rumor 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 the 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 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 rumor have suggested Lucrezia conspired with Cesare to murder her second husband. As we’ve seen, evidence strongly suggests the opposite. The poisoning rumor 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 well-being. 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 others 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 canonized 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 canonized 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, rumors 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 immortalized 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 Donizetti’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 skeptically. As foreigners rose to the top of Renaissance Italy, the Borgias made many powerful enemies. Most of the rumors 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.

Alexander VI: Demon or Angel? Jason Rodarte. Medium. Dec 7, 2020

Sinister Facts About Cesare Borgia, The Dark Lord Of Rome. Kyle Climans. Fascinate. May 21, 2020

The Banquet of the Chestnuts — The Pope’s Halloween Party Turned Orgy. Carlyn Beccia. History of Yesterday. Oct 29, 2020

The Pope Who Threw Orgies And Tortured His Enemies. Melissa Sartore. Ranker. September 23, 2021

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