Biography of Lucrezia Borgia, Daughter of Pope Alexander VI

Lucrezia Borgia with her father Pope Alexander VI
De Agostini Picture Library / DEA / L. PEDICINI /Getty Images

Lucrezia Borgia (April 18, 1480–June 24, 1519) was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) by one of his mistresses. She had three political marriages, arranged for her family's advantage, and likely had several adulterous alliances. Borgia was also for a time a papal secretary, and her later years were spent in relative stability as the "Good Duchess" of Ferrara, sometimes acting as de facto ruler in her husband's absence.

Fast Facts: Lucrezia Borgia

  • Known For: Borgia was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and an important Italian noblewoman.
  • Born: April 18, 1480 in Rome, Italy
  • Parents: Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) and Vannozza dei Cattanei
  • Died: June 24, 1519 in Ferrara, Italy
  • Spouse(s): Giovanni Sforza (m. 1493-1497), Alfonso of Aragon (m. 1498-1500), Alfonso d'Este (m. 1502-1519)
  • Children: Seven

Early Life

Lucrezia Borgia was born in Rome in 1480. Her father Rodrigo was a Cardinal when she was born. Lucrezia's mother was his mistress of some years, Vannozza Cattanei, who was also the mother of two older children by Rodrigo, Giovanni and Cesare. After Rodrigo became Pope as Alexander VI, he advanced the career within the church of many Borja and Borgia relatives.

Not much is known about Borgia's childhood, but by about 1489, she was living with her father's third cousin, Adriana de Mila, and her father's new mistress, Giulia Farnese, who was married to Adriana's stepson. Adriana, a widow, had care of Lucrezia, who was educated at the nearby Convent of St. Sixtus.

When Cardinal Rodrigo was elected Pope in 1492, he began to use that office to his family's advantage. Cesare, one of Lucrezia's brothers, was made an archbishop, and in 1493 was made a cardinal. Giovanni was made a Duke and was to head up papal armies.

First Marriage

The Sforza family of Milan was one of the most powerful families in Italy, and had supported the election of Pope Alexander VI. They also were allied with the French king against Naples. A member of the Sforza family, Giovanni Sforza, was lord of a small Adriatic fishing town, Pesano. It was with him that Alexander arranged a marriage for Lucrezia, to reward the Sforza family for their support and to bind their families together.

Lucrezia was 13 years old when she married Giovanni Sforza on June 12, 1493. The marriage was not a happy one. Within four years, Lucrezia was complaining of his behavior. Giovanni also accused Lucrezia of misconduct. The Sforza family was no longer in favor with the Pope; Ludovico had provoked an attack by the French that had almost cost Alexander his papacy. Lucrezia's father and her brother Cesare began to have other plans for Lucrezia: Alexander wanted to switch alliances from France to Naples.

Early in 1497, Lucrezia and Giovanni separated. The Borgias began the process of annulling the marriage, charging Giovanni with impotence and nonconsummation of the marriage. Eventually, Giovanni agreed to the annulment in exchange for keeping the substantial dowry Lucrezia had brought to the marriage.

Second Marriage

Lucrezia, age 21, married Alfonso d'Aragon by proxy on June 28, 1498, and in person on July 21. A feast much like that at her first marriage celebrated this second marriage.

The second marriage soured more quickly than the first. Only a year later, other alliances were tempting the Borgias. Alfonso left Rome, but Lucrezia talked him into returning. She was appointed as governor of Spoleto. On November 1, 1499, she gave birth to Alfonso's son, naming him Rodrigo after her father.

On July 15 of the next year, Alfonso survived an assassination attempt. He had been at the Vatican and was on his way home when hired killers stabbed him repeatedly. He managed to make it home, where Lucrezia cared for him and hired armed guards to protect him.

About a month later, on August 18, Cesare Borgia visited Alfonso, who was recuperating, promising to "complete" that which had not been finished earlier. Cesare returned later with another man, cleared the room, and, as the other man later recounted the story, had his associate strangle or smother Alfonso to death. Lucrezia was devastated by the death of her husband.

After returning to Rome, Lucrezia began to work in the Vatican at her father's side. She handled the pope's mail and even answered it when he was not in town.

Third Marriage

A still-young daughter of the pope remained a prime candidate for an arranged marriage to solidify Borgia power. The eldest son, and presumed heir, of the Duke of Ferrara was a recent widower. The Borgias saw this as an opportunity for an alliance with a region that was physically between their current power base and another they wanted to add to the family's lands.

Ercole d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara, was understandably hesitant to marry his son, Alfonso d'Este, to a woman whose first two marriages had ended in scandal and death, or to marry their more established family to the newly-powerful Borgias. Ercole d'Este was allied with the King of France, who wanted the alliance with the Pope. The Pope threatened Ercole with loss of his lands and title if he did not consent. Ercole drove a hard bargain in consenting, at last: a very large dowry, a position in the church for his son, some additional lands, and reduced payments to the church. Ercole even considered marrying Lucrezia himself if his son, Alfonso, did not agree to the marriage—but Alfonso did.

Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d'Este were married by proxy at the Vatican on December 30, 1501. In January, she traveled with 1,000 in attendance to Ferrara, and on February 2, the two were married in person in another luxurious ceremony.

Death of the Pope

The summer of 1503 was oppressively hot, and mosquitos were rampant. Lucrezia's father died unexpectedly of malaria on August 18, 1503, ending the Borgia plans for solidifying power. Cesare was also infected but survived, but he was too ill at his father's death to move quickly to secure treasure for his family. Cesare was supported by Pius III, the next pope, but that pope died after 26 days in office. Giuliano Della Rovere, who had been a rival of Alexander and long an enemy of the Borgias, tricked Cesare into supporting his election as pope, but as Julius II, he reneged on his promises to Cesare. The Vatican apartments of the Borgia family were sealed by Julius, who was revolted by the scandalous behavior of his predecessor.

Children

The main responsibility of a Renaissance ruler's wife was to bear children, who would in turn either rule or be married into other families to cement alliances. Lucrezia was pregnant at least 11 times during her marriage to Alfonso. There were several miscarriages and at least one stillborn child, and two others died in infancy. Five other children survived infancy, and two—Ercole and Ippolito—both survived to adulthood.

Patronage and Business

In Ferrara, Lucrezia associated with artists and writers, including the poet Ariosto, and helped bring many to the court, distant as it was from the Vatican. Poet Pietro Bembo was one of those she patronized, and from the letters surviving to him, it's possible the two had an affair.

Recent studies have shown that during her years in Ferrara, Lucrezia was also a shrewd businesswoman, building up her own fortune quite successfully. She used some of her wealth to build hospitals and convents, winning the respect of her subjects. She invested in marshy land, then drained it and recovered it for agricultural use.

Later Years

Lucrezia received word in 1512 that her son Rodrigo d'Aragon had died. She withdrew from most social life, though she continued her business enterprises. She eventually turned to religion, spending more time at convents, and even began wearing a hair shirt (an act of penance) under her fancy gowns. Visitors to Ferrara commented on her melancholy, and that she seemed to be aging rapidly. She had four more pregnancies and perhaps two miscarriages between 1514 and 1519. In 1518, she wrote, in one of her surviving letters, to her son Alfonso in France.

Death

On June 14, 1519, Lucrezia gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Lucrezia contracted a fever and died 10 days later. She was mourned by her husband, family, and subjects.

Legacy

Because of her scandalous reputation, Lucrezia Borgia has become a popular character in fiction, opera and drama. Her life has been dramatized in works such as Victor Hugo's "Lucrèce Borgia," the 1935 Abel Gance film "Lucrezia Borgia," and the BBC series "The Borgias."

Sources

  • Bradford, Sarah. "Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy." Penguin Books, 2005.
  • Meyer, G. J. "The Borgias: the Hidden History." Bantam Books, 2014.