Who is Lucrezia Borgia?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Lucrezia Borgia was a member of the notorious Borgia family that enjoyed extensive political power in Renaissance Italy. She was the illegitimate daughter of pope Alexander VI and the sister of Cesare Borgia, known for his political intrigues and corruption. The family is said to have gained much of its power through poisoning its enemies, and Lucrezia Borgia is popularly believed to have been instrumental in this activity, but there is no concrete historical support for this claim. Lucrezia Borgia was certainly a pawn used by her father and brother to gain political advantage, but this was mostly effected through marriage deals rather than murder.

Lucrezia Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of pope Alexander VI and the sister of Cesare Borgia.
Lucrezia Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of pope Alexander VI and the sister of Cesare Borgia.

Lucrezia was born on 18 April 1480. Her family began to use her as a political tool early in her life, as she was betrothed twice before being married at the age of 13 to Giovanni Sforza, the Lord of Pesaro and heir of a powerful family. According to the wedding contract, Lucrezia Borgia was to remain in Rome for a year after to ceremony, until which time the marriage was not to be consummated.

When she finally joined Giovanni in Pesaro, Lucrezia found herself unhappy in the new city, and her father simultaneously began to have doubts in Giovanni's ability to increase the Borgias' power. In 1497, Giovanni and Lucrezia visited Rome, and Lucrezia did not wish to return with her husband to Pesaro. Alexander VI consequently began divorce proceedings. Non-consummation was the reason provided for the divorce, and Giovanni was forced to his chagrin to sign papers attesting his impotence. In his anger, he accused Lucrezia Borgia of incest with her father, a suggestion that soon spread to include two of her brothers, Cesare and Juan.

During her divorce, Lucrezia Borgia lived in the convent of San Sisto in Rome, where she fled without telling her family. Rumors emerged that Lucrezia's seclusion was the result of a pregnancy that she wished to hide, although this theory has never been confirmed. The father of her child is widely believed to have been Alexander's messenger, Pedro Calderon. The fact that Calderon was murdered shortly after this scandal contributed to the rumor.

A Borgia baby of dubious origins, named Giovanni, appeared around this time, and two papal bulls, or decrees, were issued in 1501 regarding his identity. The first claimed he was Cesare's illegitimate child from a pre-marital affair, and the second named him as Alexander's son. To this day, no one knows the baby's true parentage.

Lucrezia Borgia married for a second time in 1498, this time to Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie. Like her first husband, Alfonso was chosen by Lucrezia's relatives because of the political connections offered by the union. Unlike her first marriage, however, Lucrezia's marriage to Alfonso was happy, and the two developed a genuine love for each other. The couple had a child, Rodrigo, who died in 1512 at the age of 13.

Alfonso, like Giovanni before him, eventually became politically useless to the Borgias. Alfonso was attacked by a large group of men on the steps of St. Peter's one night in 1500. He nearly died as a result of the attack, which was probably orchestrated by Cesare, and became bedridden. Lucrezia and her sister-in-law diligently nursed Alfonso, but Cesare contrived to find him alone in his room and finished him off by strangulation. Lucrezia was heartbroken over the death of her second husband.

Lucrezia's third and final marriage was to Alphonso d'Este, the Prince and later Duke of Ferrara. As Duchess of Ferrara, Lucrezia Borgia earned the love of her people and her reputation was effectively redeemed, although people continued to remember the more sensational tales about her after her death. Her exemplary behavior as Duchess allowed her to survive the collapse of her family after the death of Pope Alexander VI. Lucrezia and Alphonso had six children, four of whom survived into adulthood. Lucrezia herself died a few days after a difficult pregnancy, on 24 June 1519.

During her marriage to the Duke of Ferrara, Lucrezia Borgia also had an affair with poet Pietro Bembo, with whom she exchanged letters and poetry even past the duration of their love relationship. Despite the fact that she died a pious and beloved Duchess, Lucrezia Borgia has gone down in history as one of the most notorious of the Borgia clan. Many recent historians have tried to set the record straight.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Somehow, over the years, I missed the fact that Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of a pope! Although, it looks like Alexander was elected pope several years after Lucrezia was born.

It's interesting how history records people. Was Lucrezia really a noted poisoner? I guess it depends on which version of history you believe. She may have been like many women of her era and just been a political pawn.

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