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Was Lucrezia Borgia a political pawn or Machiavellian villain?

Rodrigo de Borja (1431-1503) was born into a Spanish nob­le fam­ily in Aragon.  He moved to Italy where the Borg­ia family enjoyed great success - Rod­rig­o's uncle was made bish­op of Valen­cia. Uncle Alonso became the first Bor­gia Pope Callixtus III in 1455, ensur­ing nephew Rodrigo worked his way up through bis­h­op­rics. In 1456 Alonso promptly made his young nephew a cardinal.

So how did a man who openly made a fort­une out of his family connect­ions in the papacy, and who op­enly fathered 3 children early on, brib­e his way through the entire college of card­inals! Later his lov­ed mist­­ress Van­ozza dei Cattanei had four more children with Rodrigo.

The second Borgia pope, Pope Alexander VI

In 1492 Pope Innocent VIII died, leaving disorder and insolvency. Our Borgia man was elected the next pope, Pope Al­ex­ander VI (1492-1503). He may have risen to St Peter's throne by dubious means, but Alex­an­der VI did have some important achieve­ments. To make Rome a fitting centre of world Chris­t­endom, he became a prin­ce­ly pat­ron of architecture and monuments.

Nepotism was already common in the pap­acy; af­t­er all, a pope could trust his own family marg­in­al­ly more than strangers. But the Borg­ias rais­ed nepotism to NEW heights. His children did very well: Juan (1474-97) was made a Duke and marr­ied into the King of Castille's family; teen­age Cesare (1475-1507) was given the Spanish Archbish­op­ric of Valen­za; Lucrezia (1480-1519) was regent whenever the Pope left Rome; and Joffre (1482-1517) was mar­­r­ied to a Neapolitan princess.

In 1497, Juan Borgia rode to the Vatican with his brot­her Cesare, but was never seen alive again. The weeping pope called his beloved Juan “the centre for his dyn­astic hopes”, but Cesare denied killing his brother.

Renaissance Italy was made up of city states, most at risk of in­vas­­ion. In 1499, Cesare led a force of foreign and papal troops into Italy. Cesare was sent by his father as a delegate to papal cities, to re­turn law and order to large parts of Italy. This more military role suit­ed Ces­are per­fectly, so in 1498, he gave up his cardinal's hat and became a French Duke. France was allying itself to the pap­acy, a link the Borgias wanted to foster.

Lucrezia was well-educated in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, music and poetry. But Renaissance women had to be obed­ient to their fathers and then their husbands. Even those who were heiresses saw their estates given over to their husband's control. The Borgias were determined to arrange a mar­­riage for Lucrezia that would fur­ther their territorial interests. Her first proxy wedding at 13 was to some Spanish grandee. But when that political alliance no longer serv­ed a pur­p­ose, Pope Al­ex­ander dissolved the un­ion and married her off to more imp­ort­ant families.

In 1493 she married Giov­anni Sforza, nep­hew of the power­ful Duke of Mil­an. Their wedding was a splendid, lavish wedding at the Vatican Palace. Surprisingly this turned out to be a very good marriage.

But again, the Borgias found they no longer needed the Sforzas! The Pope wanted advantageous polit­ical allian­ces, so Giovanni had to go. The Pope decided to have Lucrezia's marr­iage annulled but young Sforza was forced to signed a confession of impotence and annulment. In revenge, he blackened his former wife's name so her much loved second husband was strangled by Cesare’s men.

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia 
painted by Bartolomeo Veneziano, c1500

Lucrezia's next marriage (in 1498) was to Duke Alfonso of Aragon, son of King of Naples. This was another polit­ical arrangement as her papal father needed to ally himself with Nap­les. Luckily Alfonso and Lucrezia fell in love.

Now mar­ried to the King of Navarre’s sister, Cesare had just allied him­self with the King Louis XII of France. King Louis was planning another inv­as­ion of Italy, to recl­aim his inher­it­ance of Milan and Naples, and needed Cesare. Town after town fell to Cesare in the 1490s.

Later in 1502, the bride was married off again. Her third husband was Al­f­onso d'Este, son of Duke of Ferrara, an Italian family with a superior lineage to the Borgias. Alas Ercole d'Este had impov­erished his duchy by providing huge dow­ries to his daught­ers Is­abella and Beat­r­ice d'Este, as well as building ex­tensive arch­itecture. So the Pope persisted, giving the d'Este family a HUGE dowry. Within 2 years of her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, Lucrezia’s father died. Ce­s­are was arrest­ed, fled Rome in 1507 and died in a Spanish war at 31 .. or was murder­ed.

Lucrezia flourished in her Ferr­ara court. As a patron of art­ists, musical and lit­er­ary men, she loved poet-scholar Pie­t­ro Bem­bo and painter Dosso Dossi most. And the relat­ives Fran­cesco Gon­zaga and Isabella d'Este of Fer­rara gave her great praise for her virtue and charity. How amazing! This was the anti­th­esis of her scan­d­alous reputation! However after a long history of comp­lic­at­ed pregnancies, Lucrezia died birthing her 10th child in 1519, at 39.

Strangely Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in his book The Prince that Cesare was the model statesman for It­aly. He was most impressed with Ces­are's sup­erb library, patr­onage of art­ists and in­vitations to scholars to live in the court.  Once Cesare’s conquest of central and northern Italy was comp­l­ete, he im­posed good government on the captured cities. Machiavelli said that Borgia’s rule was the best Italy had seen for ages. Band­itry ended, taxation was balanced and roads were improved. But remember he had the total backing of his father, the Pope, and his monarch King Louis XII of France.

The Este Castle, Ferrara, 
the amazing home of Lucrezia Borgia

Even more strangely Lucrezia Borgia supposedly poisoned her lovers via a ring in her bed­room, slept with her brother and had a baby with her father. Being a woman, she was a particular target for every sexist hist­or­ian, politician and cleric, becoming the dumping ground for the criticisms that would have otherwise been directed at the men.

Despite Lucrezia's sup­erb library, patr­onage and in­vitations to scholars to live in the court,  women of significance were always judged more harshly than men when they deviated from their path. But mainly it was because other famous papal dynasties eg the Medicis & Farneses, behaved in much the same way as the Borgias – all promoted undeserving sons and nephews, most ignored celibacy and all were accused by their enemies of nasty crimes. However the Borgias were foreign and, unlike the local dynasties, had no descendants to reinvent their historical image. Poor Lucrezia.

Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day was written by Ferdinand Gregorovius and first published in 1874. Now on Kindle.


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