21 January 2020

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.


Joseph said...

Pope Alex­an­der VI did have some very important and positive achieve­ments. His son Cesare did not.

Dr. F said...

There is a very good nineteenth century biography of Lucrezia by Ferdinand Gregorovius that did much to restore her reputation. But little can be said in justification of her father or brother.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The noted early 20th century singer Lucrezia Bori was related to and named after the original Lucrezia Borgia. The Bori part of her name was originally Borja, the Spanish form of Borgia. She claimed to change it because Lucrezia Borgia was too "obvious" a name for an opera singer (don't forget that Lucrezia Borgia is also a very popular opera by Donizetti).

Bori's many records are staples among collectors, and she was known for a fundraising effort that saved the Metropolitan during the Depression.

Hels said...


historians' and clerics' views of Pope Alexander VI are very mixed, as you would expect. He had a worryingly active sex life, simony and lavish spending the power grabs for his family, But he reformed the Papacy, ensured the Papal States were ruled properly and introduced a fair system of justice. He also introduced new ceremonies that were much appreciated.

From my perspective Alexander VI was a wonderful patron of the arts, with a new style of architecture in Rome and he commissioned great works by Raphael and Michelangelo.

Cesare's contribution was smaller. He was asked to regain control of the Papal States - and succeeded, brutally :(

Hels said...

Dr F

many thanks. I will add the book to the blog post.

Hels said...


a great opera to listen to, but I am a bit afraid that the words and behaviours suggested that all the old horrible qualities of the "real" Lucrezia Borgia were true - that she was vengeful, cruel and tricky. And that death was just a tool to be used whenever convenient.

I don't know of Lucrezia Bori, but I will look around.

Andrew said...

I've always thought of her as a scarlet women. In can be very hard to correct fake news. It seems Pope Innocent VIII did not live up to his name.

Hels said...


It seems IMPOSSIBLE to correct fake news *nod*.

I like the description that said the femme fatale was a seductive, man-eating, ruination machine. Only havoc lay in her wake. But most of history’s truly great femme fatales (Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Lola Montez, Mata Hari and others) were simply adventurous women living in very difficult times. It was through their own behaviours, or through the particular meanings of their times, that such women found themselves at the eye of a swirling storm of deceit, intrigue and deadly situations.

mem said...

Yes I suspect that she was significantly better morally that her appalling male relatives who seem to have been cynical psychopaths.Its hard to-know of course,Maybe the Renaissance psychopath was worse that a modern one , Maybe its a term which was irrelevant to a very violent time?It does sound though, as if 2 husbands genuinely loved her and she them and that someone held her in high esteem so I recon that she was yet another victim of male repudiational abuse of a strong woman,.

Hels said...


I used to think that powerful men used whatever tools they needed to achieve their goals, including exploiting their wives and daughters as necessary. But the femme fatale archetype existed in our culture as early as the Biblical figure of Jezebel, so she was my best example. The name Jezebel came to be associated with false prophets, and then with fallen women. In Christian lore, a comparison to Jezebel suggested that a person was a pagan pretending to be a servant of God. With her promiscuity, she misled the saints of God into sins of idolatry and sexual immorality.

So the comparison with Lucrezia was a strong one. As you noted, Lucrezia was another victim of male abuse of a strong woman's health, income, family and reputation, so my use of the world "exploitation" does not seem a strong enough.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I know the names ... but not the detail and really should investigate more - at some stage. Thanks for another excellent post - with some good commentary - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


Although we all keep on reading throughout middle age, it was the history we learned at school and university that seemed to have the most long term impact. I did a lot of Italian History and Italian Art History back then, and thought I knew everything there was to know about the Borgias. So I am very grateful for more recent published analyses and for bloggers' commentaries.

bazza said...

The notion of Lucrezia Borgia as a poisoner is now etched into history although I believe I'm right in saying that there is no evidence for it. Tales of the behaviour of the Pope's in the fifteenth century are hair-raising!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s currently comfortable Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Machiavelli has a lot to answer for in permanently etching history, yes.

However "Renaissance Issues" suggests that modern films will have more of an impact today than Machiavelli. In the Name of the Family, Sarah Dunant searches into the motivations that drove the actions of Pope Alexander, his brilliant but erratic son Cesare, and the much maligned but superbly vindicated Lucrezia Borgia. In the Name of the Family suggests a sense of obligation, loyalty and honour informing the actions and decisions made by the three Borgias. It evokes Pope Alexander as the anti-Christ of his generation, and condemns Cesare and Lucrezia as devil and whore. Dunant discusses the struggle between ambition and delusion, integrity and corruption, that has shaped so much of the literature on this Renaissance dynasty.

bazza said...

The truth is so much more interesting than the rumours!

Hels said...


Spot on! Machiavellian language is cunning, scheming and unscrupulous. So in politics, you will probably never know what was truthful and what was rumour-based.