Among the leading women of the Italian Renaissance, the name of Lucrezia Borgia, who died 24 June 1519, brings to mind scandal and corruption. Born 18 April 1480, Borgia was accused in her own lifetime and by subsequent biographers of ruthless self-promotion, incest and murder. She subsequently inspired numerous works of literature, music, and film, such as the French writer Victor Hugo’s play Lucrèce Borgia (1833) and the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia.
In reality, Lucrezia was far from the ultimate fifteenth-century femme fatale, instead a political pawn in her father and brother’s scheming for power. Born the illegitimate daughter of the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503), her father’s election in 1492 as Pope Alexander VI began a papacy notorious for its sexual licentiousness, nepotism and excessive endeavors to secure wealth and power.
Together with Lucrezia’s equally power-hungry brother Cesare, the pair arranged all three of Lucrezia’s marriages, occurring before she had reached 22 years old. The first in 1493 at age thirteen was to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. This was forcibly annulled when a Sforza alliance proved no longer useful, the Borgias claiming on the grounds of ‘impotence’ on the part of the groom. Humiliated, Sforza circulated rumours that Lucrezia conducted incestuous liasons with her father and brother.
Now Lucrezia was free to marry the more politically-advantageous Alfonso d’Aragona, Duke of Biscieglie in 1498. Genuinly enamoured with her second husband, Lucrezia only enjoyed two years of marriage when Alfonso’s usefulness to the Borgias expired and he was brutally murdered on the orders of Cesare.
Finally, Lucrezia’s third marriage occurred in 1501 to Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara. In order to downplay the scandal that followed from her previous marriages, Lucrezia’s only child with Alfonso d’Aragona, her infant son Rodrigo, was sent to Naples to be taken care of by his Aragonese relatives.
When Alexander VI died in 1503 and Alfonso and Lucrezia became Duke and Duchess of Ferrara in 1505, Lucrezia finally managed to secure some agency of her own. As a condottiere,Alfonso was frequently away on military campaigns. However, Lucrezia was highly competent as a representative of the duchy, conducting her social, political and administrative affairs in a manner that won over the citizens of Ferrara. Poets such as Pietro Bembo and Lodovico Oriosto dedicated works to her and she invited artists like the Garofalo and Bartolommeo Veneto to her court.
In her later years, she withdrew from courtly life and devoted herself increasingly to religion. Lucrezia died aged 39 from fever.
Bellonci, Maria. Lucrezia Borgia. Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1939.
Bradford, Sarah. Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy. London: Viking, 2004.
Norman, Diana, Hellmut Wohl, and Luca Leoncini. “Borgia family.” Grove Art Online. 14 Apr. 2018. http://0-www.oxfordartonline.com.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000010128.
Dario Fo, The Pope’s Daughter, Europea Editions 2015 – highly recommended reassessment of Lucrezia Borgia’s life told from her own point of view.
Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Woman (thought to be Lucrezia Borgia), 1520-25, tempera and oil on poplar panel, 44 x 35 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.
Engraving after silver reliquary panel by Giannantonio da Foligno, showing the 32 year old Lucrezia presenting her son and heir, Ercole (b. 1508), to San Maurelio, protector of Ferrara, c. 1514, Church of S. Giorgio Fuori le Mura, Ferrara.
Dosso Dossi, Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, 1587-5, 74.5 × 57.2 cm, oil on wood panel, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Pinturicchio, The Disputation of Saint Catherine from the Borgia Apartments, Vatican, said to depict Lucrezia Borgia as Saint Catherine, 1492-94.