On this day - 18th Apr 1480: Lucrezia Borgia born

In a time when blood meant everything and a patriarchal society held sway over the courts of Europe, what could an illegitimate girl ever hope to achieve in the world. An illegitimate girl moreover born to a father who sought position in a country that was not his own. Even to a girl of unusual beauty, intelligence and wit, to achieve anything more in life than to be a mistress of a moderately great man seems far too much to expect. And then, she came along
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Lucrezia Borgia. 


Lucrezia Borgia
Pinturicchio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

535 years ago today Lucrezia was born to a Spanish father, Cardinal Rodrigo, and an Italian mother, Vannozza dei Cattanei. Cardinal Rodrigo was certainly no stranger to having mistresses and lovers but his passion for Vannozza was something special. He acknowledged four children by her to be his and stayed with her a good deal longer than with any of his other women. When she died, though he himself was already dead, she was buried with extensive honour almost as though she had been his widow. Quite a feat for a mistress and surely a testament to his lifelong regard. Perhaps, had he not been a Cardinal he would have married her but, by turn about, if he had not craved an ambitious life in the church, perhaps we would not remember their names. For this man was no ordinary man. He traveled across the seas to forge a career in Rome that would ultimately see him reign over it as master, as no lesser a person in fact, than Pope Alexander VI. 

Facsimile-signature "Lucretia de Borgia" under a letter to her sister-in-law Isabella Gonzaga, March 1519. Original Archives Gonzaga Mantova (Italy) 
By Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-1891) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucrezia was suddenly no more, an illegitimate girl of no consequence. She became overnight, the openly acknowledged daughter of a Pope. A Pope, moreover, who was not adverse to bending the rules. Through a series of unashamed nepotism he built up the powers and riches of his family to an extent which disgusted his successors and enemies. His sons were given land and titles, and Lucrezia, the beautiful little girl who on paper should have had nothing, was married to some of the most powerful men in the country. 

The Borgia Family by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Borgia Family (non contemporary)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But here comes the historian's dilemma - was Lucrezia innocent of her father and brothers’ power mongering and simply a pretty girl who did what she was told and married where she was ordered, or was she the ruthless demon who poisoned numerous enemies with a hollow ring on her little finger. I know which version sounds more appealing to sensationalists. Still, whichever parts she played in the early turbulent stages of her life, Lucrezia’s life certainly settled down somewhat after her third marriage to Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara in early 1502.

Coin of Lucrezia Borgia Duchess of Ferrara

Coin of Lucrezia Borgia as Duchess of Ferrara
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Her father’s death the following year (rumoured to be on account of accidental poisoning by his son - this family is never boring I assure you) quietened her life even more as there was now far less danger of her husband being threatened with execution or murder, as had her previous two husbands. Instead, she set herself to the task of producing children, being a wonderful renaissance duchess and having affairs. She was remarkably accomplished at all three producing no less than ten children, becoming widely admired and renowned as Duchess of Ferrera and having several passionate affairs including a lasting affair with her husband’s brother in law. Never a dull moment.


Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia
Bartolomeo Veneto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucrezia Borgia, however she is painted, is a fascinating woman and I would love to write more about her, perhaps one day I will. The Italian Renaissance is always a period which has fascinated me. Perhaps something to do with the heat and the riches and, of course, the tantalising prospect that the person about whom you are reading could be bumped off at any time. With families like the Borgias at hand, in fact, why read novels? 

© Isla Robertson 2017