15. Lucrezia Borgia was both beautiful and formidably intelligent
Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Italy. âHer 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.
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.
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 âadmitting’ 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.
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 âtragically’ fell and died of the old injuries en route to prison. Lucrezia was heartbroken.
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 âmasculine’ abilities helped inspire many of the slanderous tales about her.
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 (âthe 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.
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.
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.
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 âfact’ 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.
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 âinner grace of personality’.
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.
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.
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.
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, LucrÃ¨ce 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.
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: