Lucrezia Borgia (or "Lucrecia Borgia") (April 14 or April 18, 1480 - June 24, 1519) was the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, the powerful Renaissance Spaniard who would later become Pope Alexander VI. Her brother was the notorious despot Cesare Borgia. Lucrezia's family later came to epitomise the ruthless Machiavillian politics and sexual corruption alleged to be characteristic of the Renaissance Papacy. In this story Lucrezia was cast as a femme fatale, a role she has played in many artworks, novels and films. No authentic portrait of Lucrezia is known, though several paintings, such as Bartolomeo Veneziano's fancy portrait (see illustration) have been said to depict her. Often these images are simply part of Lucrezia's myth.
Not enough is known about the historical Lucrezia to be certain whether any of the stories about her active involvement in her father's and brother crimes are true. Her father and/or brother certainly arranged several marriages for her to important or powerful men, in order to advance their own political ambitions. Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza (Ruler of Milan), Alfonso V of Aragon (Duke of Bisceglie), and Alphonso d'Este (Prince of Ferrara). Tradition has it that the middle of those husbands was an illegitimate son of the King of Naples and that Cesare may have had him murdered after his political value waned.
Was she a "monster of cruelty and deceit"? Or a pawn of her power-hungry father and brother? Was she a poisoner or simply the victim of some very bad press? Once again, the differing perceptions of history are fascinating.
Lucrezia was the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress, Vannozza de Cattanei. By the time she was eleven, she had been betrothed twice, but both times her father had called off the engagements.
Marriage to Giovanni Sforza
After Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI, however, he had Lucrezia marry Giovanni Sforza in order to establish an alliance with that powerful Milanese family. The wedding was a scandalous event but was not much more extravagant than many other Renaissance celebrations.
Before long, the Borgia family no longer needed the Sforzas, and the presence of Giovanni Sforza's in the papal court was superfluous. The Pope needed new, more advantageous political alliances, so he may have covertly ordered the execution of Giovanni. Lucrezia was informed of this by her brother Cesare, and she warned her husband who then fled Rome. Or perhaps the Pope have never made such an order, and it was a plot on the part of Cesare and Lucrezia to drive her boring husband away. Whichever way it was, Alexander and Cesare were pleased with the chance of arranging another advantageous marriage for Lucrezia. But before that could occur, they needed to get rid of Giovanni Sforza.
Alexander asked Giovanni's uncle, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, to persuade Giovanni to agree to a divorce. Giovanni refused and accused Lucrezia of paternal and fraternal incest. Since the marriage had not been consummated, the Pope said that the marriage was not valid, and he offered Giovanni all of Lucrezia's dowry to agree. The Sforza family threatened to withdraw their protection of Giovanni if he refused Alexander's offer. Having no choice, Giovanni Sforza signed both a confession of impotence and the documents of annulment before witnesses.
Affair with Perotto
During the prolonged process of the anullment, Lucrezia did consummate a relationship with someone, probably Alexander's messenger Perotto. The result was that she was actually pregnant when her marriage was annulled for not having been consummated, and this is one of the facts her detractors have cited to support their derogatory view of her character. The child was born in secret before Lucrezia's marriage to the 17-year-old Alfonso V of Aragon.
After Lucrezia's marriage to Alfonso, Lucrezia's father, Pope Alexander VI, wanted to arrange a third marriage, and it is said Cesare had his servant(s) strangle Alfonso while he recovered from an attack by possible assassins. She was then married to her third husband.
Legends and Rumors
Several legends and rumors have persisted throughout the years, primarily speculating as to the nature of the extravagant parties thrown by the Borgia family.
Plays, Operas, and Films
Victor Hugo's tragedy, loosely based on Lucretia's myth, was transformed into a libretto by Felice Romani for
Donizetti's opera, Lucrezia Borgia (1834), first performed at La Scala, Milan, 26 Dec 1834. When it was produced in Paris, in 1840, Hugo obtained an injunction against further productions. The libretto was then rewritten and retitled La Rinegata, with the Italian characters changed to Turks, and the performances were resumed. The first English-language production was in London on 30 Dec 1843.
The 1949 film Bride of Vengeance (or Mask for Lucretia) starred Paulette Goddard as Lucretia (and Macdonald Carey as Cesare) in a fictionalized portrayal of her as her brother's tool who went straight once she had the chance, a view many historians endorse.
There is also a 1926 silent movie entitled Lucrezia Borgia (see photo).