Born: April 18, 1480
Died: June 24, 1519
Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, earned a reputation as a political schemer in fifteenth century Italy. In actuality, she was simply used by her father and brother to further their own political goals.
Lucrezia Borgia was born during Italy's Renaissance period (1320–1520), a time when artists, architects, and scientists rose to world appreciation. She was born into one of the most well-known families in world history: the Borgias, who sought to control as much of Italy as they could. The Borgias legacy, however, is not one to be desired, as they earned a reputation for being evil, violent, and politically corrupt.
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (c. 1431–1503), later to become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza Cattanei, who was also the mother of Lucrezia's two older brothers, Cesare and Giovanni. The task of raising Lucrezia, however, was given to Rodrigo's cousin, the widow Adriana daMila. While living in a palace in Rome, Lucrezia was educated at the Convent of St. Sixtus on Via Appia. Lucrezia was slender with light blue-green eyes and golden hair, which she later bleached to maintain its goldenness. A painting by Pinturicchio (1454–1513), "Disputation of Saint Catherine," is said to be modeled after her. It portrays a slender, young woman with wavy, blonde hair cascading down her back.
Young Lucrezia was no more than eleven when she was first affected by the political ambitions of her father (who had by this time become Pope Alexander VI) and her older brother, Cesare. Her father annulled (can-celled) a marriage contract between Lucrezia and a Spanish nobleman. Instead he gave Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, a twenty-seven-year old with a fierce temper.
By the time Lucrezia was seventeen, Alexander and Cesare, were looking to align themselves with Spain and Naples against France and the Sforza family. Sensing he was losing favor with the Borgia family, Giovanni fled for his life. Soon Lucrezia's marriage was annulled and Giovanni was humiliated.
For Lucrezia's next husband, Cesare and Rodrigo chose seventeen-year-old Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie and son of the late king of Naples. But by the time her first marriage was officially annulled on December 27, 1497, Lucrezia was six months pregnant.
Alfonso of Aragon was reputed to be a handsome youth with fine manners, and by all evidence Lucrezia truly loved him. But only a year later, political changes were once again stirring. Alexander and Cesare now looked to align with France, and Lucrezia's marriage to Alfonso stood in the way. Fearing for his life, Alfonso also fled Rome. Lucrezia met up with her husband in Nepi and soon the two returned to Rome.
On July 15, 1500, hired killers attacked Alfonso, stabbing him several times. On August 18, as Alfonso was recovering, Cesare reportedly came to him and whispered in his ear that "what was not finished at breakfast would be complete by dinner." Returning to Alfonso's room later that day, Cesare ordered everyone out and directed his strongman to strangle Lucrezia's young husband.
Left a widow at the age of twenty, Lucrezia spent most of her time weeping over the loss of her husband. Tired of watching her mourn, her father and brother sent her to Nepi in the Etruscan Hills. On her return to Rome in November 1500, she began assisting her father as a sort of secretary, often opening and responding to his mail when he was not in residence.
Once again politics determined Lucrezia's marriage to the twenty-four-year-old widower Alfonso d'Este, eldest son of Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia was eager for the marriage. She regarded Rome as a prison and thought she would have a better chance of leading her own life in Ferrara, away from her ambitious father and brother.
On February 2, 1502, Lucrezia and Alfonso were wed. Lucrezia had married a man who not only was interested in artillery, tournaments, dogs, and horses, but who also played the viol (a musical instrument that was popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) and made pottery. On the other hand, he was also known for his cruelty, stinginess, and strange behavior.
The people of Ferrara adored Lucrezia, praising her for her beauty and "inner grace of personality." Content to socialize with artists, courtiers, poets, and citizens of the Renaissance court, she helped make Ferrara a center for artists and writers.
In 1503 Alexander died, along with many of Cesare's political plans. Finally, some stability appeared in Lucrezia's life. When Ercole died in 1505, she and Alfonso became the reigning duke and duchess of Ferrara. Lucrezia had several children by Alfonso d'Este. In 1512 Lucrezia withdrew from public life, possibly from the news that Rodrigo, her son by Alfonso of Aragon, had died. She began to spend more time in her apartments or in nearby convents, and turned to religion.
As the years progressed, her body thickened, and she was said to have aged greatly. She also suffered from spells of deep sadness. On June 14, 1519, while giving birth to a stillborn girl (dead upon birth), she developed a fever that caused her to lose much of her strength. She died ten days later at the age of thirty-nine.
Many historians view Lucrezia Borgia as a political pawn whose marriages were used for her family's political gains. Born into a vicious and greedy family, Lucrezia was very much a product of her times, and she accepted these ambitions and their consequences for the good of the family.
Bellonci, Maria. The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.
Chamberlin, E. R. The Fall of the House of Borgia. New York: Dial Press, 1974.
Cloulas, Ivan. The Borgias. Translated by Gilda Roberts. New York: F. Watts, 1989.