Who Was Lucrezia Borgia?
Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of future pope Alexander VI, and her three marriages into influential families helped build the political power of her own family. Historians debate whether or not Borgia was an active participant in her notorious family’s crimes, but interest in her has inspired countless works of art, books, and films.
Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, in Subiaco, near Rome. She was the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who would later become Pope Alexander VI, and one of his mistresses, Vannozza Cattanei, who was also the mother of Borgia's two older brothers, Cesare and Giovanni. Borgia reportedly spoke and wrote several languages, among them Italian, French, Latin and Greek.
Borgia was born during the Italian Renaissance, when artists, architects, and scientists were reaching new levels of accomplishment and transforming their world. While famous figures such as Leonardo da Vinci were innovating their way into history, the Borgia legacy, conversely, is one of violent political corruption involving a power-hungry clan who sought to control large parts of Italy.
Borgia was married for the first time before entering her teenage years. She was engaged to one nobleman and then another before her father had the engagements dissolved so that he could arrange for her to be married to Giovanni Sforza, 15 years her senior, who was Lord of Pesaro and Count of Catignola. Borgia’s father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, was named Pope Alexander VI in 1492, and Borgia was married a year later.
Four years later, Borgia's marriage became less politically advantageous, and Pope Alexander VI sought to have it annulled under the pretense of the relationship never having been consummated. While annulment negotiations were ongoing between the Borgias and the Sforzas, Borgia rested in a nearby convent. She had clearly consummated a relationship with some individual, however, because when annulment was officially granted on December 27, 1497, Borgia was six months pregnant.
Reports of her pregnancy were initially refuted, but in March 1498 a son, Giovanni, was born in secret (he wouldn’t be publically revealed until three years later). The child's paternity was never established, and Rome's gossips later wondered whether he was the product of incest, or whether Borgia was truly his mother. Two papal decrees were issued on the matter, the first stating that Giovanni was the illegitimate son of Cesare and the next stating that he was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander.
In July 1498, Borgia married Alfonso of Aragon, the 17-year-old Duke of Bisceglie and son of the late king of Naples, and they had a child together. Unfortunately for Alfonso, by 1500, Pope Alexander and Borgia’s brother Cesare sought a new alliance with France, and Borgia's marriage to Alfonso was a major obstacle.
On July 15, 1500, Alfonso was stabbed several times, but he survived. On August 18, his luck ran out, when, as is generally believed, Cesare’s hired men to strangle Alfonso to death as he lay recovering from his previous stab wounds.
After Alfonso’s death, Borgia's father arranged for her to be married to Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, in early 1502. Borgia's new husband was initially hesitant because of the Borgia reputation. The couple soon moved out of Rome to Ferrara, escaping the endless scheming of her father and brother, and the pair had several children (many of whom died young). With this marriage, Borgia managed to rise above her family’s reputation, and she thrived in her new surroundings.
In 1503, Borgia’s father, Pope Alexander, died, and with him many of Cesare's remaining plots died as well. Borgia's life became more stable, and when Alfonso’s father died in 1505, Borgia and Alfonso became the reigning duke and duchess of Ferrara. Over the next several years, Borgia gained a reputation as a patron of the arts, and she presided over a famed and flourishing artistic community.
In 1512, Borgia withdrew from public life and turned to religion. It is speculated that her withdrawal was in response to the news that Rodrigo, her son by Alfonso of Aragon, had died. On June 24, 1519, ten days after giving birth to a stillborn girl, Borgia died at the age of 39.
Borgia has primarily been remembered as a member of the scandalous Borgia family — the daughter of the corrupt and scheming Pope Alexander VI and the sister of the immoral and most likely murderous Cesare Borgia. Rumors of incest with Cesare have chased her through the centuries, and events such as the birth of her mysterious baby, the death of her second husband at the hands of assassins, and her attendance of the Banquet of Chestnuts (an orgy hosted by Cesare Borgia involving 50 prostitutes and countless members of the clergy) have only added to the persona.
But history has recently been kinder to Borgia, and she is now increasingly viewed as more of a pawn in the wicked games of her family than as a real participant. While she may have accepted the fruits of her family’s schemes, it is likely that her father and brother merely used her to advance their own political agendas. Borgia may have been as much a casualty of her family's machinations as anyone else who fell victim to them.
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