Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, in Subiaco, near Rome. Her father was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who would later become Pope Alexander VI. Her mother was Vannozza Cattanei, one of the Cardinal’s mistresses, who was also the mother of Lucrezia’s two older brothers, Cesare and Giovanni.
The Borgia family are remembered as one of the most scandalous families of the Italian Renaissance. Pope Alexander VI was corrupt, and his son Cesare Borgia was a murderer. Lucrezia has always been seen as similarly criminal, but in recent years historians have begun to think that she was merely used by her family to further their ambitions.
Before the age of thirteen Lucrezia had been engaged to a variety of different noblemen. Her father kept changing his mind as to who would provide the most beneficial marriage for his family. Eventually Lucrezia was married at the age of twelve, to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Count of Catignola. He was fifteen years older than her.
Only four years later, however, Lucrezia’s marriage became less politically advantageous to her father, who sought to have it annulled. By the time the marriage was dissolved on December 27, 1497, Lucrezia was six months pregnant. At first the fact of her pregnancy was denied, as it would have prevented the annulment, but in March 1498 her son, Giovanni, was born in secret. It was three years before Lucrezia was able to admit to having the child, and it was never firmly established who the baby’s father was.
Only five months after the birth of her son, Lucrezia was told she must marry Alfonso of Aragon, the 17-year-old son of the king of Naples. By 1500, however, Pope Alexander had decided that a stronger alliance with France was required to further the family’s power. He wanted Lucrezia free to marry a French noble.
On July 15 Alfonso was stabbed on the orders of Cesare, but he survived. Not to be denied though, on August 18, Cesare hired men who strangled Alfonso to death as he lay recovering from his wounds.
The Pope wanted Lucrezia to marry Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. However, given the wild reputation of the Borgia family, it took some time to persuade him. Eventually the Duke and Lucrezia married in 1502, and soon moved to Ferrara, to get away from Lucrezia’s dangerous family.
With the death of Pope Alexander in 1503, Lucrezia’s life improved, and when Alfonso’s father died in 1505, Lucrezia and Alfonso became the reigning duke and duchess of Ferrara.
Over the next several years Lucrezia became a patron of the arts, before she withdrew from public life and turned to religion in 1512. Lucrezia Borgia died at the age of 39, only ten days after giving birth to a stillborn girl.
Throughout her life it seems Lucrezia was as much a victim to the Borgia’s whims as many of the other people who had the misfortune of getting in the family’s way. She had little choice but to do what they demanded of her, whether it was legal or not.
Sometimes history will set reputations and events in stone even in the face of reasonable doubt. Whilst it may be that Lucrezia’s reputation improves among academic historians in the years to come, for most people that is less likely to be the case. It would be less interesting, after all.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.