Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia 1860-1 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Presented in memory of Henry Michael Field by Charles Ricketts through the Art Fund 1916

The Borgias were one of Renaissance Italy’s most notorious families.   Today they are seen as a precursor to the modern Mafia, or a proto-Mafia if you will.   Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia who would become Pope Alexander VI.   

Lucrezia Borgia’s story is one filled with intrigue, poisoning, sex, and even incest.   She was married in political marriages three politically advantageous marriages by her powerful father (all by the age of 22).    Many historical accounts state that she was in an incestuous relationship with her brother Cesare Borgia.    Whether they ever actually had sex is up to debate, but what is known in absolute certainty is that Lucrezia and Cesare were incredibly close.

She was famously said to wear a ring with a secret compartment filled with poison.   She is one of the original femme fatales!      There are even those who believed that she would kill her lovers and bathe in their blood.   These famous stories are most likely just that.   Most modern historians believe she was not a murderess or an incestuous lover of her brother.    Today she is often seen as more of a woman who was a victim of circumstances and used by her powerful family. 

Lucrezia’s mother was a married noblewoman named Vannozza Cattanei, who was the long time lover of Rodrigo Borgia!   Rodrigo would become pope when Lucrezia was 12, and she was married off the first time at only 13 to Count Giovanni Sforza.    When she was 17 Rodrigo made the decision to have the marriage annulled because there was a more advantageous marriage on the horizon.   He did this by claiming that Sforza was impotent and the marriage never consummated.   It was during this time that Lucrezia found herself pregnant after an ill-fated affair with a young Spaniard who was in service of her father, and his name was Pedro Calderon.   

Calderon would lose his life due to this dalliance.   Historical legend has it that Cesare murdered him in a fit of jealous rage, and had in fact stabbed him in the Vatican at the feet of the Pope!   At this time gossips in Rome were calling her the “greatest whore there ever was in Rome.”    

Her second marriage was to  Alfonso of Aragon, who was Duke of Bisceglie (bastard son of the King of Naples).   It seems that Lucrezia Borgia was by all accounts very much in love with her second husband.   She was pregnant with their son within six months of the marriage.   Alfonso was attacked one day in St.Peter’s Square, and had to be nursed back to health.   He was strangled in his sickbed and Cesare knew that he was the main suspect.   Cesare would claim that his brother-in-law tried to kill him with a crossbow, and deserved to die.    Lucrezia was left devastated by her husband’s death.    Due to the fact that though she loved her husband, but loved her brother even more, meant that she forgave him.

Lucrezia’s final marriage was to Alfonso d’Este, who was Duke of Ferrara.   This match was tricky as Lucrezia did not want to remarry.   Alfonso’s family did not have any trust for the Borgias, making it more complicated!   Of course Lucrezia’s charm, ambition, and large dowry sealed the deal on this last walk down the aisle!   During this marriage she stayed loyal to Cesare, even as he became more loathed by many.     She was also in a perilous situation in her new family due to a still birth of a daughter.

The Borgia downfall that would ensue can be seen as a saving grace to Lucrezia, as she was distanced from them and bore her new husband four sons.    It was her final pregnancy at age 39 that ended up being the cause of her death!   

Lucrezia has gone down in history as a wicked witch who poisoned and murdered for her own gain.   Her tale of being sexy, incestuous, adulterous, and a muderess ended up making her famous.    Her own brother killed her husband, her lover, and one of their other brothers.   Her father was one of the most infamous Pope’s Rome ever saw.    Lucrezia herself is likely just a misunderstood woman who happened to live in a very powerful family.   Whether she is the legend, the victim, or something in between, she will forever be remembered!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Lucrezia Borgia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.   The original is owned by the Tate, and I found the image on their website   

Further Reading/Watching

  • Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
  • Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford
  • The Borgias (2011-2013)