Women of Royalty

Lucrezia Borgia

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the italian femme fatale lucrezia borgia
On April 18, 1480, Lucrezia Borgia was born to the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia, Vannozza de Cattanei. A Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia had studied law in Bologna and became a bishop, cardinal and vice-chancellor of the church when his uncle was elected. A handsome and fascinating man, Rodrigo was also very scandalous with a pornographic history and loved many women. He doted on many mistresses, but his most passionate affair was with Vannozza de Cattanei. Vannozza had given Rodrigo two other children before Lucrezia: Giovanni, born in 1474, and Cesare, born in 1476. One year after Lucrezia's birth, Vannozza gave Rodrigo one more child, a son named Goffredo, born in 1481. Rodrigo loved each of his children, but his passion for Vannozza ran out and she left for a retired life, leaving a young woman named Giulia Farnese to fill the spot of Rodrigo's mistress.
Scandals in the Papacy
Rodrigo spoiled his children dearly, lavishing them with large sums and honors. Lucrezia was brought up in Giulia's household, where the mistress gave birth to a daughter, Laura, in 1492 when Lucrezia was 12. By this time, young Lucrezia had been betrothed twice but both engagements were called off. That same year, Pope Innocent VIII died. Three candidates were elected for the Holy See: Ascanio Sforza, Giuliano della Rovere, and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. With the Borgia wealth, Rodrigo bought his way into the papacy, bribing many to collect votes including the vote of his rival in the race, Ascanio Sforza. On August 10, 1492, Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope Alexander VI. None but his closest friends or enemies knew of his scandalous behavior that could very well have torn down the church, yet surprisingly, Alexander's reign as pope began smoothly and orderly. However, his delight in adding to the family powers was aroused again, no matter the expense. In this case, Alexander VI was ready to put the church and the Italian states at stake. Alexander VI elected his son, the mere sixteen-year-old Cesare, then studying in Pisa, to the station of archbishop of Valencia. Likewise, Alexander VI elected his nephew, Giovanni, to the position of a cardinal. His behavior shocked many officials and citizens across Europe, but Alexander VI continued to turn the papacy upside-down. Next, Alexander VI decided to carve out fiefs from the papal states and the kingdom of Naples, planning to hand them over to the duke of Gandia and Giuffre. The Duke of Gandia was aimed at receiving Cervetri and Anguillara, both carved from Naples, but instead the plan backfired and Virginio Orsini, an Italian in league with the king of Naples, Ferdinand of Aragon of Castile y Leon, acquired the lands. Alexander was furious and was determined to seek revenge on Ferdinand of Aragon. He made allies with Ferdinand's enemies, including the lords of Milan and the Sforza families. Meanwhile, Ferdinand allied himself with Florence, Milan, and Venice. Finally, in the spring of 1493, Alexander began preparations for war alongside his formed league against Naples. However, Ferdinand's appeals for help were dismissed for the Spanish were set on keeping good terms with Pope Alexander VI in hope of receiving a title for the New World that Queen Isabel I had recently invested money in.
Marriage, Incest, and Adultery
As part of his alliance with the Sforza families, Alexander married Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro. After the proxy marriage, Lucrezia lived for four months in a palace beside the Vatican with her father's mistress, Giulia Farnese. Her father often visited the two women, which later added to suspicions of incest between father and daughter. The wedding itself took place at the Vatican. Lucrezia had 500 ladies in her train, the most important being Giulia Farnese. An opulent affair, the wedding was complete with banquets and a performance of one of the Roman playwright Plautus' works about libertines, mistresses, and pimps. Though extravagant, the event was scandalous and shocked many outside of the papacy, signaling that the papacy was falling apart.
Lucrezia spent two years living in Pesaro as countess of the region of the same name. Alexander had sent his son-in-law to the Italian region on a military expedition and after the two years he called them back to Rome. In 1493, after the war between Ferdinand of Aragon and Alexander VI did not take place, the alliance with the Sforza family was no longer needed by the papacy. Needing new political alliances, Alexander is said to have ordered the execution of Giovanni to pave the way for Lucrezia to be used for another political advantage. Lucrezia was informed of the plot by her older brother, Cesare, and secretly told her husband to flee, which he later did, to Rome. Giovanni was out of the picture for the time, but in order for Lucrezia to marry again, Giovanni had to be ridden of.
Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the uncle of Giovanni, was asked by Alexander to persuade his nephew to agree to a divorce. But Giovanni continued to refuse and even widely accused Lucrezia of incest with her father and two brothers after his family suggested that he prove his 'manhood' by sleeping with Lucrezia in front of the Borgias and the Sforzas. But Alexander discovered a way out of Giovanni and Lucrezia's marriage: it was never consummated. Alexander brought this before the Sforza family and offered Giovanni his daughter's entire dowry if he would just agree to a divorce. Giovanni was stubborn and with their eye on the papal monies, the Sforza family threatened Giovanni with the withdrawal of their protection of him if he did not agree to a divorce. Regretfully, Giovanni signed the documents declaring his marriage to Lucrezia void.
While the papal feud was heating up, Lucrezia retired to a nearby convent. She continued communication with her father through his servant by the name of Perotto. Perotto and Lucrezia had committed adultery while in the convent, but this was not discovered until six months later when Lucrezia was to stand before the papal court to prove she was a virgin. Her father's fight against her marriage to Giovanni was that it was never consummated, which would aid the way to annulment. At the time, Lucrezia was pregnant with Perotto's child, yet her brother, Cesare, still declared her a virgin. However, behind the backs of the court, Cesare fumed with rage for he had discovered the opposite: that Lucrezia was not a virgin. He attacked Perotto with a sword and though Perotto was wounded, the servant lived. Cesare had him thrown in prison and a few days later it was reported that Perotto had fallen into the Tiber River. In reality, Perotto had been drowned alongside a maid who was said to have known of Perotto and Lucrezia's love and supported it. Their bodies were found six days later.
After Lucrezia's marriage to Giovanni was over, Alexander and Cesare rejoiced and in no time, Lucrezia, then seventeen, was married again to the seventeen-year-old Alfonso V of Aragon, the prince of Naples and the duke of Bisceglie, an important province in Naples. The two were happy together, much more so than Lucrezia was in her first marriage. However, not much after their marriage, Alfonso's family fell out of the pope's favor who turned his attention towards supporting the enemies of Alfonso's family. Alfonso was assured by Pope Alexander himself that he was still in his favor, rewarding him with castles and Nepi, but Alfonso sensed betrayal.
cesare borgia with Lucrezia
During this time, Lucrezia's illegitimate child by Perotto was born in secret, named Giovanni. The child was hidden away and did not surface until three years later.
Meanwhile, Alfonso continued to sense uneasiness. Lucrezia was awarded the governorship of Spoleto and Foligno, meaning that Alfonso was a non-functioning consort. The couple was nineteen at the time and surprisingly Lucrezia administered the city well, unaided by her husband. While still uneasy, Lucrezia and Alfonso returned to Rome for the birth of their first child a few months later.

The relationship of Lucrezia and Cesare depicted in the TV series "The Borgias"

And then tragedy struck the family. Not long after the birth of their son, Rodrigo, Alfonso was crossing St. Peters Square when he was attacked by a group of Cesare Borgia's henchmen. Badly wounded, he was hurried to Lucrezia's apartments where she keened endlessly over her suffering husband. Lucrezia tended to him with all the care and love she could give and just as he was recovering, Cesare arrived at the apartments and ordered Lucrezia and the servants from the room. Alexander found his daughter, Lucrezia, screaming in terror for she knew of Cesare's heartless ways, and quickly sent his chamberlains to prevent Cesare from harming Alfonso. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, Alfonso had been strangled.
Lucrezia had been through two husbands in only a few short years. Not long after Alfonso's murder, Alexander left Rome to support Cesare's military exploits and raise money for Lucrezia's dowry, hoping to marry her into royalty. While gone, Alexander left the church in Lucrezia's hands. At twenty-one, Lucrezia was acting as the head of the entire Christendom. But this did not shock many for by this time even the strict papal courts were used to Alexander's scandalous ways. The same year, Lucrezia's brother, Cesare, decided that Lucrezia would marry Afonso d'Este, the prince of Ferrarra. Ferrarra was a province that lay next to Cesare's own province of Romagna, a beneficial alliance. At twenty-four, Afonso had been married and widowed and decided that Lucrezia would be perfect for him. And so he agreed to marry Lucrezia Borgia.
Though Afonso loved to visit brothels, he was captivated by his new wife. Not just he, but many others found Lucrezia an unusual beauty with long, golden pair, perfect white teeth, gray eyes, and a graceful form. Content, Afonso and Lucrezia led a happy and romantic marriage.
Giovanni Borgia
A year before their marriage, Lucrezia's illegitimate son, Giovanni, surfaced. But Giovanni's life was surrounded by mysteries. Though he is assumed to be Perotto's son, Alexander named Giovanni the infans Romanus, the child of Rome, and claimed that Giovanni was the song of Cesare and another woman, not of Lucrezia. This was supported by a papal bull, which was followed by another that claimed that Giovanni was the offspring of Alexander and another woman. It is believed that Alexander attempted to name the child as either his or his son's child so that he could have an heir to the duchy of Nepi, a very important Borgia property. The bulls later led people to believe that the unnamed woman in both cases was Lucrezia, leading to the idea that Lucrezia had committed incest with her father and/or her brother. It was even later decided that Lucrezia could not decide which of the two was her son's father and had the two bulls released. Giovanni was passed from household to household, eventually ending up with Lucrezia and her third husband in Ferrarra. But rumors of his production through incest lived on, and Giovanni never acquired titles, only living at the Vatican and French court until his obscure death in 1548.
An Admired and Adulterous Mother
Afonso and Lucrezia lived a happy life in Ferrarra and Lucrezia had four children by her husband. She mended her ways somewhat and became an admired and loved woman by many. But her past constantly revisited her, especially when she began a relationship with the poet Pietro Bembo. Though her husband loved her, his suspicions were roused when he began to catch onto the affair between the two, though it is not known whether the affair was physical. Another tragedy shocked the family in 1503. Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia's father, died on August 18 at the age of seventy-two. Cesare and Alexander had both taken ill with malaria, but Cesare survived and sent his chief bravo to seize the pope's treasures.
By 1505, the affair between Bembo and Lucrezia was over. Bembo had left for Venice and his letters became less and less intimate over time, until finally the love diminished.
Over the next two years, Lucrezia began to preoccupy herself with aiding her brother, Cesare's, military exploits. Cesare had been imprisoned in a Spanish prison in 1503. The next year, he escaped with the help of his brother-in-law, Jean d'Albret of Navarre. In 1507, Cesare Borgia died at the siege of Viana at the age of thirty-one, and although he was a bloody and heartless man yet cultured man and the murder of her second husband, Lucrezia grieved deeply.
Back at Ferrarra, Lucrezia brought her son, Rodrigo, by her second husband, Alfonso, and also the mysterious infans Romanus, her presumed son, to live with her family. Deciding they needed a further education, Lucrezia sent the two boys to Isabella of Aragon. But by 1512, Rodrigo had died at the age of thirteen. Grieved, Lucrezia entered a convent but rejoined her household not soon after.
In 1519, Lucrezia went into labor with her fifth child in Ferrarra. Not long after it's birth, the child died. Not much later, Lucrezia fell ill with puerperal fever and died on June 24, 1519 at the age of thirty-nine.
The Borgia Legacy
The Borgia family is remembered today as one of incest, adultery, sin, murder, scandal, and extravagance. Lucrezia, Cesare, and Alexander's lives circulated around them all and although the family did complete much in their lives, today they all live on as sinners, and Lucrezia as a murder and a jezebel. But the Borgia family lived on after their deaths. Two of Lucrezia's sons held high positions. Ercole became the Duke of Ferrarra and Ippolito became a cardinal. An extravagant family, the Borgias live on as history's first criminal family.