Queens of Infamy: Lucrezia Borgia

History may have pigeonholed her as Renaissance Italy’s most notorious seductress, but it’s high time we give the Duchess of Ferrara a closer look.

Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2020 | 33 minutes (8,371 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

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Mention the Medieval period and people free-associate themselves right into visions of plague, violence, and shit-covered peasants. The term “Renaissance,” on the other hand, conjures up stuff like humanism, science, and paintings of people that actually look like people. But late 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century Italy consisted of more than just painters with Ninja Turtle names wanking their way from one Tuscan villa to another; it was also full of intrigue, murder, and complex intergenerational family drama. If there was one family that featured heavily in some of the most violent and licentious stories of the period, it was the Borgias — even today their name is a by-word for depravity. And at the center of many of the wildest Borgia stories was the beautiful, wily, thrice-wed Lucrezia.

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People have called Lucrezia many things over the years: seductress, murderess, femme fatale of the Borgia cabal. The attributes assigned to her didn’t come out of nowhere; as we shall see — and as Lucrezia noted herself — many of the men around her came to unfortunate ends. In portrayals where she escapes the villainess role, she’s often made out to be another hapless aristocratic daughter traded off into various political marriages, someone with no agency or ambitions of her own. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced. While Lucrezia was indeed married off several times to further her family’s agenda, as an adult she proved herself to be a skilled ruler loved and respected by her subjects.

LUCREZIA: women! we contain multitudes

LUCREZIA: and not just in a constantly-pregnant, heir-providing way

LUCREZIA: although, let’s be real, I also did that at the same time I was doing everything else

LUCREZIA: among other things, women invented multitasking

The Borgias — Borja in the dynasty’s hometown, Valencia — had shown up on the Roman scene in the early 15th century with Cardinal Alfonso de Borgia’s promotion to Pope Callixtus III in 1455. His election didn’t mean that he was particularly popular; the elites of the Italian city-states were notoriously hateful towards outsiders in general, and specifically loathed the fact that Borgia came from a former Moorish kingdom with a large Jewish population. Callixtus was chosen as a compromise candidate in a conclave divided by two powerful Roman families, and since he was an elderly foreigner, both factions assumed that a) they could manipulate him, and b) he would die soon. Even though Callixtus was pretty chill as far as Renaissance popes go, apparently even managing to remain chaste, he and his family were always viewed with suspicion. The Borgia family would go on to produce several popes, but their contemporaries would constantly deploy xenophobic and anti-Semitic slurs against them. This almost certainly contributed to the clannishness for which the Borgias became notorious (although Callixtus didn’t help matters by bringing a large contingent of Spaniards to the Vatican, including his nephew Rodrigo).

After Callixtus’ death in 1458, the Italians swore up and down that they would never tolerate another foreign pope. “Never again” turned out to be less than 50 years, since in 1492 the College of Cardinals elected Rodrigo de Borgia to the church’s highest office. On August 26 of that year he rode through the lavishly decorated streets of Rome to claim the Throne of Saint Peter as Alexander VI.

The fact that the name Lucretia was so strongly associated with an icon of feminine chastity would be the cause for much hilarity during Lucrezia’s lifetime, since she was often anything but.

The first thing you need to know about Alexander is that women apparently found him extremely, irresistibly fuckable. “[He] moves them in a wondrous way, more powerfully than the magnet influences iron,” wrote a former tutor. He wasn’t the type to let a pesky vow of celibacy get in his way, and over the course of his lifetime, he fathered between eight and ten illegitimate children. His favorites — Giovanni, Cesare, and Lucrezia — were with a twice-married Italian woman named Vannozza Cattanei. She also had a fourth child, Gioffre, whom Alexander acknowledged as his own, although he had his doubts and never afforded him the same affection as the couple’s other three children (in fact, he accused her of cheating on him with her second husband, which is… a reach).

As with so many of the other infamous women that I’ve written about in this series, the details of Lucrezia’s early life are hazy. But unlike, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Anne Boleyn, we do know the date and place of Lucrezia’s birth: April 18, 1480, in the fortress of Subiaco just outside of Rome. Her father placed her in the care of his relative Adriana de Mila at a young age; while Vannozza was fine as a mistress, he didn’t trust her in the business of raising his children. She was named after the Ancient Roman noblewoman Lucretia, who was said to have killed herself after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last king of Rome. The fact that the name Lucretia was so strongly associated with an icon of feminine chastity would be the cause for much hilarity during Lucrezia’s lifetime, since she was often anything but.

* * *

Alexander was a loving and attentive father — a real Renaissance Daddy — and Lucrezia and her siblings were much, much closer to him than they were to Vannozza, who seemed content enough with the child-rearing arrangement and milked whatever money and social climbing she could from her position as mother of the Pope’s children. Although it might seem somewhat counterintuitive for the pope to have children — literal evidence of sins committed! — it was actually pretty common. Most popes preferred to help their offspring through back channels rather than publicly promote them, but Alexander was a man who couldn’t help flaunting what he had. Lucrezia was 12 when her father ascended to the papal throne, and at that point she came much more directly into the public eye.

Lucrezia was a beautiful young woman, although, as contemporaries kept feeling the need to point out, not quite as lovely as her father’s new mistress, Giulia. Describing Lucrezia in her early 20s, Niccolò Cagnalo of Parma wrote that she was “of middle height and graceful in form.” He went on to praise her long golden hair, well-cut nose, and “admirably proportioned” bust, concluding that she was always “gay and smiling” — if he had only added that she had quirkily ordered a burger for lunch but only eaten the side salad, his letter would have read like a Vanity Fair celebrity profile. Her bearing was also striking, and she was said to carry herself in such a way that she barely seemed to move even as she crossed a room. (Gliding around like a nimble ghost was a big thing for Renaissance women.)

The Borgias were a tightly-knit group (a bit too tight according to some of their frenemies). Feuds and shifting alliances were common for prominent Roman families, but when it came to the Borgias, it was them versus literally everyone else. They dealt with this isolation by surrounding themselves with their countrymen — the only people they felt they could trust — and by segregating themselves from everyone else, hosting private parties and speaking Valencian when they were together.

Feuds and shifting alliances were common for prominent Roman families, but when it came to the Borgias, it was them versus literally everyone else.

Like any loving father who also happens to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, Alexander had big plans for his kids. He made Giovanni the Duke of Gandía and promoted Cesare to the position of Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15, grooming him for a life in the Church. He even managed to winkle a prestigious marriage for Gioffre: a young noblewoman named — wait for it — Sancia, pronounced san-chya (I see you, George R.R. Martin, flipping through the history of Europe like it’s a baby name book). When it came to Lucrezia, his plans were slightly more complicated. Her greatest value as a woman in Renaissance Italy lay in her ability to marry well, especially since her position as Vatican princess would last only as long as her father lived, but Alexander also recognized that she had talents that exceeded your basic snagging-a-rich-man-with-a-title needs.


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At the age of 12, Lucrezia was already on betrothal number three; her first engagement had fallen through, and her father ended her second engagement when he became Pope and her prospects improved. The third time was the charm, and her engagement to Giovanni Sforza, the illegitimate son of a count, managed to stick. They were married on June 12, 1493, Lucrezia having just celebrated her 13th birthday. The Sforzas had been powerful allies of Alexander and had helped him secure the papal throne, and so he wanted to reward them. But, unfortunately for Giovanni, it was not a union built to last.

ALEXANDER VI: I mean, I’m a pope who flagrantly has children

ALEXANDER VI: even Isabella of Castile told me to take it down a notch

ALEXANDER VI: obviously I have a, shall we say

ALEXANDER VI: less than traditional approach to the sanctity of marriage

Like everything else in her life, the collapse of Lucrezia’s first marriage was complex in both the political and personal arenas. But before we get to the juicy, a bit of backstory. Giovanni (Borgia, the brother, not Sforza, the husband), left Rome for Barcelona shortly after Lucrezia’s wedding, and Alexander made Cesare the Archbishop of Valencia. It’s not necessary to get into details here, but please know that the Borgia brothers were being fuckboys supreme while in Spain.

Meanwhile, back on the Italian peninsula, the King of Naples, Ferdinand I, died and the pope supported Ferdinand’s son Alfonso’s claim to the throne instead of the much more specious claim of King Charles VIII of France. This ticked off Lucrezia’s husband Giovanni, whose family — the Sforzas — were the traditional enemies of the royal family of Naples, and he politely asked Alexander what on earth he was thinking. The pope responded by telling him even more politely to fuck off. It was the beginning of the end of poor Giovanni’s relationship with the Borgias. History has left us plenty of information about what Giovanni and Alexander thought about this turn of events, but not much about how Lucrezia viewed it. Her behavior suggested that she felt humiliated by the public unraveling of her relationship, but she was too much under her father’s thrall to push back. After all, she’d been taught from the cradle that her duties to the Borgia family always came first.

Like any loving father who also happens to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, Alexander had big plans for his kids.

But, back to Charles VIII for now. He decided that if the pope wasn’t going to give him Naples, then he was going to take it, along with whatever else stood in his path. His army rapidly made their way through the north of Italy, and on December 31, 1494, they entered Rome. Lucrezia was in Pesaro with her husband and Giulia, Giovanni was still in Barcelona, and 12-year-old Gioffre was in Naples, all of which meant that the only family the pope had nearby was Cesare. Luckily, both brought out the Borgia craftiness in spades.

Alexander knew that Charles was a deeply religious man, and as the French entered the city, the pope proclaimed that if a single salvo was fired, he would mount the battlements himself and hold the Communion host above his head.

CHARLES VIII: what was I supposed to do?

CHARLES VIII: shoot at the Holy Sacrament?

CHARLES VIII: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a little thing called transubstantiation, but

CHARLES VIII: that little bread thing is literally Jesus’ body

CHARLES VIII: anyway, I just couldn’t

CHARLES VIII: so I went to some brothels instead, let my soldiers sack the city

CHARLES VIII: Christ-like, you know?

When Charles finally met Alexander, the king flung himself at the pope’s feet. The two spent the next few weeks together, Alexander offering Charles advice and referring to him as his first-born son. Eventually they formed a pact of non-aggression that would allow the French safe passage through the Papal States, although Alexander refused to provide a firm answer on the question of Naples. Charles left Rome on January 28 with Cesare as a hostage, but the pope’s son sneaked back to Rome by disguising himself as a groom. When he found out that he’d been Borgia’d, Charles furiously declared that all Italians were dirty dogs and the pope was the dirtiest of them all.

Charles took Naples in February of 1495, but a month later Alexander, along with the rulers of Venice, Milan, and the Holy Roman Empire, came together to form Team Fuck The French The League of Venice. Charles might not have been a brilliant strategist, but he was geographically savvy enough to know that, being in the south of Italy, he and his troops had to pass through the north — and The League — to get home. So he quickly peaced out of the peninsula, but not before he and his men bestowed the gift of syphilis upon Naples, where it would subsequently become known as the French disease.

* * *

The summer of 1496 was one long Borgia party. Lucrezia returned to Rome shortly after her father’s victory, Gioffre and Sancia made it back in May, and Giovanni joined the clan in August. 18-year-old Sancia allegedly began having an affair with either one or both of her husband’s brothers, probably because her 14-year-old husband wasn’t done with puberty yet. Sancia also became close friends with Lucrezia, and the two of them scandalized Rome by gossiping and giggling through boring sermons at St. Peter’s.

Meanwhile, annulment plans were afoot.

By early 1497, it was clear to everyone that the Borgias had collectively moved on from Lucrezia’s marriage, although their reasons were unclear. Was Alexander still angry that Giovanni Sforza had briefly stood up to him? Was he punishing him for the fact that the rest of the Sforza family had sided with the French against him? Had his recent military success convinced him that he could make a bigger and better match for this daughter? What we do know is that Giovanni left Rome — more like fled — at the end of March. He then began dropping hints that his in-laws had been making threats against him. Once again, it’s hard to know what (if any) role Lucrezia played in any of this; some people believe that she was the one who had warned Giovanni that Alexander and Cesare were out to get him, while others believe that she was in league with her family. Whatever the case was, the outcome was a separation.

GIOVANNI SFORZA: and then

GIOVANNI SFORZA: and THEN

GIOVANNI SFORZA: the pope said he wanted to annul my marriage

GIOVANNI SFORZA: on grounds of non-consummation

GIOVANNI SFORZA: DUE TO IMPOTENCE

GIOVANNI SFORZA: and I was like, bro, my penis works great

GIOVAANNI SFORZA: anyway, I told everybody that Alexander probably wanted his daughter for himself

GIOVANNI SFORZA: you know, incest-wise

17-year-old Lucrezia had checked out of the situation and retreated to a convent. Some claimed she was angry with her father over the annulment, while others confirmed that she and Giovanni had parted on “unamicable terms.” No matter how you slice it, it was clear Lucrezia was tired of the men in her life engaging in nonstop histrionics.

Less than two weeks after Lucrezia had ensconced herself in the walls of San Sisto, tragedy struck the Borgias. Giovanni Borgia disappeared after leaving a family dinner at his mother Vannozza’s house; his body turned up in the Tiber covered in stab wounds. Alexander was distraught at the loss of his favorite, and spent days shut in his room, weeping and refusing all food and drink. In a public statement given on June 19, he said that he would give up seven papacies if that could bring back his son. Rumors about the murderers’ identities flew around Rome. Was it a retaliatory move from Giovanni Sforza and his publicly maligned penis? Was it the Orsini family, who had an old vendetta against the Borgias? Was it, some whispered, Cesare, over the fact that he and Giovanni were allegedly competing for Sancia’s attention? The mystery deepened when, after just a week, all inquiries were suspended.

You can’t keep a good pope down for long, though, and within a month a grieving Alexander was scheming about Lucrezia’s next marriage. This one was going to be even bigger and better than the first, the prospective groom being Alfonso of Aragon, the illegitimate son of the now-abdicated King of Naples (and brother to Lucrezia’s old pal, Sancia). Lucrezia wasn’t the only papal child with new prospects; with the once-promising Giovanni dead, Alexander decided to pull Cesare, whom he’d made a cardinal, out of the Church and set him on a more secular path to power. This was fine with Cesare, who had inherited all of his father’s libertine qualities and none of his religious devotion.

In the midst of all the chaos around her, Lucrezia proved to be a competent leader and administrator, a role she would come to relish later in life.

In the middle of this hullabaloo, a wild infant Borgia appeared. Where did he come from? Whose child was he? Although the papal family acknowledged that the baby belonged to their ranks, none of them would disclose who the actual parents were. Rome, already awash with conspiracy theories about Giovanni’s death and Lucrezia’s annulment, buzzed with even greater fervor. The fact that Lucrezia had just spent several months out of the public eye did nothing to help the situation; it was rumored that the baby was hers by Giovanni Sforza, or hers by a chamberlain in Alexander’s household (a man named Pedro Calderon, whose body had also recently turned up in the Tiber). Some suggested that Cesare, or even the pope himself, had conceived the child with Lucrezia. Three years later Alexander would issue two separate bulls naming first Cesare and then himself as the boy’s father — a mother was never named — but for a while the baby was known only as the Infans Romanus (the child of Rome), adding yet another layer of dysfunction to Italy’s holiest family.

Lucrezia and Alfonso were married in the summer of 1498 in a sumptuous nuptial mass. The bride’s robe was made of golden brocade with crimson velvet; her sleeves and belt were studded with jewels, and she wore a rope of pearls around her neck. The bridegroom chose a semi-matching outfit of black brocade lined with crimson silk, and a cap topped with a brooch that his new wife had given him, featuring a unicorn and a cherub. After the ceremony, everyone feasted at the palazzo until, at Alexander’s signal, the group was escorted to a hall in the Vatican, where the real party began. At first it was pretty standard wedding stuff: drinking, dancing, gift-giving, more feasting. Later, a select few made their way to the Borgia apartments within the Vatican, where Cesare had organized a set of amusing tableaux, one of which involved him dressing as a unicorn with poor Gioffre relegated to the role of a sea-goose. The dancing and drinking continued until dawn, when a light meal was served and everybody went to bed. The festivities ended a week later with a lavish bullfight given in the couple’s honor.

LUCREZIA: if you think this is the height of obscene Borgia parties, wait til you hear about the Banquet of the Chestnuts

LUCREZIA: it allegedly involved 50 courtesans crawling around naked

LUCREZIA: and prizes for the guests who had the most sex with the courtesans

LUCREZIA: while my father and I watched

LUCREZIA: I mean, it probably never happened but, you know

LUCREZIA: allegedly

Not long after, Cesare officially resigned from his ecclesiastical role and set off to France, where he was determined to woo Alfonso’s cousin Carlotta. She presented the opportunity for a choice alliance, since her father had become the King of Naples when Alfonso’s father had abdicated during Charles VIII’s occupation (Neapolitan politics had hardly become less complicated since Joanna of Naples’ time a century earlier). His departure was so disgustingly splendid that jewels, precious metals, and other finery had to be imported from Venice — all the recent Borgia celebrations had put a dint in the Roman supply of luxury goods. Unfortunately, Carlotta was not impressed by Cesare, and in the summer of 1499 he wound up marrying Charlotte D’Albret, sister to the King of Navarre. Louis XII, the new King of France, wrote to tell Alexander in awed tones that the couple had sex eight times on their wedding day (twice before supper, and six times at night), which was four more times than he had managed on his special day.

Unsurprisingly, Alfonso and Sancia were not impressed that Cesare was associating with their enemies instead of marrying their cousin, an alliance which they’d hoped would strengthen both Rome’s support of Naples and their own position in Alexander’s family. They were even less impressed when Louis accompanied Cesare on his return to Italy, apparently intent on picking up where Charles had left off. Alfonso, fearing for his safety, fled Rome, leaving behind Lucrezia, who was six months into her second pregnancy of the year after suffering a miscarriage in February. He wrote to Lucrezia asking her to join him in Naples, but Alexander forced her to refuse. Instead of allowing his daughter to be with her husband, the pope appointed her Governor of Spoleto, a position usually held by a cardinal. In the midst of all the chaos around her, Lucrezia proved to be a competent leader and administrator, a role she would come to relish later in life.

Eventually Alfonso joined Lucrezia in Spoleto, and together they travelled to the fortress of Nepi, which Alexander had also put under her control. Meanwhile, King Louis and Cesare were riding across Italy, snapping up territories here and there; the pope did his part by relieving several lords of their states with the excuse that they were behind on their taxes. The Borgias had officially begun their long-anticipated conquest of the peninsula.

GIOVANNI SFORZA: it’s interesting how the Borgias were against the French until Cesare realized they could help fulfil his expansionist fantasies

GIOVANNI SFORZA: very interesting

GIOVANNI SFORZA: in conclusion, I’m still not impotent, from before

GIOVANNI SFORZA: I actually have an aura of potency, people tell me that all the time

GIOVANNI SFORZA: strangers see me on the street and say, there goes a potent man

GIOVANNI SFORZA: I bet his dick works great, they say, and they’re correct

GIOVANNI SFORZA: no, my divorce isn’t eating me up inside, why do you ask?

Lucrezia gave birth to a son, Rodrigo, on November 1, 1499. For a brief moment, it must have seemed to Lucrezia as if everything was going to be alright, with her father, brother, and husband united in their joy at the arrival of a son and heir. But as the new century dawned, Cesare drew Rome and his family deeper into chaos.

First, he and Louis took Milan. Then they set their sights on Naples. Louis, like his cousin Charles VIII before him, had a legitimate(ish) claim to those lands, but taking them meant unseating two powerful families — the Sforza, to which Lucrezia’s first husband belonged, and the Aragons of Naples, family of her current husband and sister-in-law. Needless to say, Alfonso and Sancia were furious over what was happening, and neither was subtle about their feelings. If Lucrezia had any thoughts on the matter, she prudently kept them to herself. More than anyone, she understood the importance of staying out of her father and brother’s way.

For a brief moment, it must have seemed to Lucrezia as if everything was going to be alright, with her father, brother, and husband united in their joy at the arrival of a son and heir.

On July 15, 1500, Alfonso was attacked on the steps of St. Peter’s by four heavily armed men. He barely survived, and had to be carried back to the Vatican. By all accounts, Alexander was shocked and dismayed, and had his son-in-law installed in apartments above his own, where Lucrezia and Sancia could care for him around the clock. Lucrezia was terrified that another attempt on her husband’s life would follow, and she insisted that he only eat meals that she had prepared for him and be treated by no one other than his personal physician from Naples.

Alas, her efforts were in vain. On August 18, Alfonso, Sancia, and Lucrezia were enjoying a visit from his uncle when Cesare’s chief assassin, Micheletto, burst into the room with his men. The intruders managed to get everyone but Alfonso out of the room under a false but urgent-seeming pretext, and then Cesare’s so-called ministro tristissimo strangled the young duke in his bed. When the pope’s daughter and her sister-in-law returned to Alfonso’s rooms and found his corpse, their screams filled the halls of the Vatican.

Alexander was distraught as well at first, but Cesare eventually convinced him of the necessity of the murder. Alfonso had, he said, tried to shoot him with a crossbow in the garden, so really, it was an act of defense. As improbable as the story was, the pope accepted it; the alternative was to believe that his most cherished and ambitious son was a monster. Lucrezia, though, was furious. Just a few weeks after her husband’s death, Alexander packed her off to their castle in the nearby town of Nepi, apparently irritated by her obvious grieving and worried that it would further stain his son’s reputation. Rumors of incest sprang up (again), this time asserting that Cesare had killed Lucrezia’s husband out of jealousy. Some even speculated that Lucrezia had been in on the crime. Meanwhile, the always forward-thinking Alexander began to plot a third marriage for his 20-year-old daughter.

* * *

Just as she had after the end of her first marriage, Lucrezia went into a complete retreat after Alfonso’s murder. She remained in Nepi for several months, writing letters signed “the most unhappy princess of salerno [sic],” which was the title she’d acquired through her marriage to Alfonso. She ordered oodles of black clothing and furnishings for her mourning and requested masses to be said for her dead husband’s soul. When Alexander began talking of another marriage, Lucrezia balked. The pope asked her why she didn’t want to marry again, and she replied acidly, “Because my husbands have been very unlucky.” Still, she eventually agreed to wed Alfonso d’Este, the son and heir of the Duke of Ferrara. (It’s kind of weird to marry someone with the same first name as your former partner, but if Ben Affleck could make it work, so can anyone else.) This match was even more advantageous than Lucrezia’s first two marriages, and if she was understandably reluctant, there was also a part of her that must have been eager to escape her father and brother’s poisonous clutches. Before, she had willingly participated in her family’s shenanigans, but now she saw the necessity of asserting her own will.

LUCREZIA: I mean, as much as one can assert one’s own will against the literal pope

LUCREZIA: the temporal and spiritual leader, direct line to God, etc

LUCREZIA: but, you know, I’d learned a thing or two from him during our years together

LUCREZIA: one was that you can never have too many jewels

LUCREZIA: another was how to work a situation to your advantage

Alfonso d’Este was a bit of an odd duck. His main passions in life were artillery, pottery, and brothels. His first wife, yet another Sforza, had died in childbirth, not that he cared much. Their relationship had been marked by deep mutual disinterest, which allowed him to look the other way when she began dressing as a man and sleeping with women. According to at least one source, Alfonso liked to march naked through the streets of Ferrara, a sword in one hand and his penis clutched in the other. You know, normal Renaissance stuff! Lucrezia’s third husband was a jumble of eccentricities, but, somehow, he would prove to be a good match for her.

An escort from Ferrara arrived in Rome in the fall of 1501, and we know exactly what Lucrezia wore to meet it because her future sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, had sent a spy among the retinue. He wrote that the bride-to-be was dressed in a mulberry gown banded with gold under a gold jacket lined with sable, a necklace of rubies and pearls, and a gem-encrusted snood. He also reported that Lucrezia was graceful and beautiful and a good Christian, much to Isabella’s dismay.

The proxy marriage took place on December 30 and just over a week later, Lucrezia set out for Ferrara with a large retinue. She had agreed to leave her 2-year-old son Rodrigo behind, and her parting from him must have been wrenching. Had she been a man, she most likely would have been able to bring him along, but as things stood, the Borgias wanted her to seem unencumbered by her dicey romantic past. Of course, the double-edged reality of womanhood meant that although she had been counseled to leave her son behind, the fact that she did so would be used for many years after her death as evidence that she was monstrously unmaternal. But she stayed as involved in his care as possible, sending him letters and gifts and arranging his education. She was distraught when he died at the age of 12 from a fever; in typical Lucrezia fashion, she retreated to a convent for a month to grieve in private.

Wedding no. 3 was yet another lavish affair.

The journey to Ferrara, way up in the north of the boot, was long and made longer still by Lucrezia’s frequent requests to stop and wash her hair. Her blond curls reached all the way to her knees and cleansing them — which she did every three days with a boiled mixture of vine stock ashes, myrrh, scrapings of horses’ hooves, and other assorted ingredients — was a time-consuming enterprise. “She [keeps] always to her room, to wash her hair but also because she is rather solitary and remote by nature,” wrote one envoy. Was she anxious about meeting her new husband? Or was she just exercising what little control she could muster over the situation?

Alfonso d’Este surprised her by meeting the convoy in the city of Bologna, bursting into his bride’s room while she was combing her damp hair, barely dressed in a muslin gown. This romantic gesture delighted Lucrezia, and the bridegroom, for his part, was surprised by his immediate attraction to his new wife. He had never had much interest in his first one, and hadn’t remotely expected to fall into deep smit with his second. The two traveled on to Malalbergo where they met Isabella d’Este, whose jealousy only deepened upon meeting her new sister-in-law. It probably didn’t help that Isabella’s own marriage to Francesco Gonzaga was an unhappy one; her main interests in life were collecting art and meddling in the lives of those around her. They arrived in Ferrara together, where Duke Ercole d’Este met them with great fanfare.

Wedding no. 3 was yet another lavish affair. Alfonso wore a tunic of gray velvet covered in beaten gold scales, a black velvet cap, and gray calfskin boots. Lucrezia wore an ermine-lined robe made of violet satin and cloth of gold; she had a diamond and ruby necklace and a headdress bedecked with still more diamonds, plus sapphires and other precious stones. The procession wound through the city to the piazza, where an acrobatic display had been arranged. Later, the happy couple retired to specially-prepared bridal apartments where, Isabella’s spy reported to her, they thrice boned. The remainder of Isabella’s letters home detail her disdain: Lucrezia slept in every morning, the plays and mock-battles arranged for the wedding were boring, the balls were too crowded to actually dance. “Your Lordship should not envy me for your not being here at this marriage because it is of such a coldness that I envy anyone who remained in Mantua,” she concluded one letter.

Machiavelli, who just happened to be on the scene, was suitably impressed; Cesare would serve as a major inspiration for The Prince, a classic on the art of political scheming.

Much to Isabella’s chagrin, the rest of the Este family adored Lucrezia. Ercole, who was a bit of an eccentric himself (he collected famous nuns, which were a bit of a tourist attraction at the time, and placed them in local convents), was almost as thrilled about her as his son. Alfonso d’Este’s brothers Ferrante and Ippolito were also charmed by their new sister-in-law. When Lucrezia became ill during the first pregnancy of her third marriage, it was Ferrante who accompanied her to the Este country estate at Belriguardo so that she could rest and get some fresh air.

Lucrezia’s illness continued throughout her pregnancy and, indeed, would affect her during all of her subsequent pregnancies. It’s not clear if it was a pregnancy-related disorder like preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome, or had to do with the fact that her husband likely had syphilis — the epidemiological effects of Charles VIII’s invasion were still rippling across Italy. She was further stressed by the behavior of her brother Cesare, who captured Urbino in June 1502; not only was her family’s continued warmongering upsetting for Lucrezia, but the Duke and Duchess of Urbino had become her friends after giving her a warm reception on her trek to Ferrara. Her condition continued to deteriorate over the summer, and by the end of July she was suffering from a fever and having seizures.

LUCREZIA: meanwhile Cesare wrote me a letter being like

LUCREZIA: “I know what will make you feel better, I’m about to invade Camerino!”

LUCREZIA: surprise, him being back on his bullshit didn’t fix my pregnancy problems

LUCREZIA: the things men know about women could fill a very small paragraph in a very small book

Lucrezia had returned to Ferrara at this point, and Alfonso slept in the room next to her and attended to her at every meal. But even with his thoughtful care she continued to decline until, on September 5, she suffered a seizure so severe that she went into preterm labor and delivered a stillborn daughter. Cesare rushed to his sister’s side and spent a day with her; she seemed to rally under his attention and even laughed at one of his jokes while her doctors bled her. Then, on September 13, she became so ill that when she tried to feel her own pulse, she couldn’t find it, exclaiming, “Oh good, I am dead!”

* * *

If Cesare’s visit to Lucrezia seems strangely brief, that was because he was hatching yet another scheme. He had his eye on Bologna, but several of his own followers — including members of the Orsini family — began plotting to bring him down. Hey, remember the Orsini? The ones who were suspected of orchestrating Giovanni Borgia’s murder? Alexander sure did, and when he and Cesare learned of their treachery, they began counter-plotting. Cesare and Micheletto did the dirty work of strangling the main conspirators, while Alexander arrested and incarcerated a bunch of lesser Orsini, including the Archbishop of Florence. Machiavelli, who just happened to be on the scene, was suitably impressed; Cesare would serve as a major inspiration for The Prince, a classic on the art of political scheming.

As Cesare’s powers waxed, Lucrezia embarked on an affair with a poet named Pietro Bembo (who would later multitask to become a linguist and a cardinal). Alfonso d’Este was still regularly visiting brothels, so he wasn’t exactly being a paragon of fidelity, and everyone knows that poets are irresistible (if often terrible). As much as Lucrezia was fond of her husband, his earthy ways weren’t exactly to her taste, and she missed the highfalutin artistic and philosophical circles she’d moved in at her father’s court. We’ve all been through our own “dating an artist” phase; we get it. (Speaking of bad artist boyfriends, the letters between Lucrezia and Bembo would one day drive Lord Byron into a horny frenzy, leading him to steal a lock of her hair from the archives in Milan. Oh, Byron!)

Hundreds of people died each day from disease and hunger, while the ruling class fled to their country estates.

In the summer of 1503, while illicit romantic tensions were mounting in Ferrara, catastrophe struck. On August 11, Alexander celebrated the 11th anniversary of his ascension to the papal throne; on August 12, he and Cesare both came down with an illness that caused vomiting and frighteningly high fevers. For a while it seemed as if the pope was recovering while his son got worse, but then things took a turn. Pope Alexander VI died on the evening of August 18; some said his last words were “I come; it is right; wait a moment.” The funeral was an objective fiasco, with the August heat bloating and putrefying Alexander’s body to the point where it could no longer fit in his coffin — attendants had to roll it up in a carpet and shove it into the narrow box. When Cesare learned of his father’s death, he knew his status was about to take a nosedive. Still recovering from his illness and barely able to stand, he sent his troops in to control the new conclave, forcing the election of a man he knew would support him. Unfortunately for Cesare, Pope Pius III would have one of the shortest pontificates in history — just 26 days.

Lucrezia was once more undone by her grief, but, given her family’s ongoing expansionist activities and general treachery, she wasn’t likely to find a sympathetic ear in Ferrara. Bembo counselled her to hide her mourning and display her famous aloofness, writing, “this is not the first blow which you have suffered at the hands of your cruel and malevolent destiny. Indeed your spirit ought to be inured to shocks of fate, so many and so bitter have you already suffered.”

LUCREZIA: things went downhill from there

LUCREZIA: after Pius, my father’s mortal enemy Giuliano della Rovere was elected pope

LUCREZIA: and then I had another miscarriage

LUCREZIA: then Cesare was captured and imprisoned

LUCREZIA: luckily, through it all I was surrounded by emotionally supportive men

LUCREZIA: hahaha omg obviously I am kidding

LUCREZIA: the men in this story are many things, but “emotionally supportive” is not one of them

In the middle of this personal and geopolitical rollercoaster, Lucrezia began another affair, this time with her brother-in-law Francesco Gonzaga. That’s right, Isabella’s husband, a man so wanton with his favors that a large number of children in Mantua bore a striking resemblance to him. Listen, we all make choices in this life!

Speaking of life, Lucrezia’s was about to be turned upside down once again. Duke Ercole d’Este died on January 25, 1505, making Alfonso the new Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia became pregnant once again, and must have felt that her spot was nearly secure: she had the title of Duchess and was hopefully carrying the Duke’s heir, all in spite of her family’s downfall. But if any year proved to be Lucrezia’s annus horribilis, this was it. Cesare, whose situation caused her great anguish, tried to escape from prison, only to be caught and sent to a better-fortified stronghold. The newly-minted duchess began a letter-writing campaign to free him, appealing to anyone and everyone she could think of. Then, as the weather warmed, an outbreak of the plague hit Ferrara, followed by a drought that spoiled the crops. Hundreds of people died each day from disease and hunger, while the ruling class fled to their country estates. Lucrezia was ill too — although it’s not clear if it was the plague, or pregnancy-related, or something else — but as the brutal season wore on she continued her borderline delusional campaign to secure her brother’s freedom. She even grew desperate enough to ask the new pope, Julius II, to release Cesare.

JULIUS II: lol

JULIUS II: just… lol

JULIUS II: one might even say, lmao

Shortly after this botched attempt, Lucrezia suffered another one of those “shocks of fate” that Bembo had described: after giving birth to a sickly son on September 19, her legs went numb and she was once again struck by a fever. Hoping that her baby might channel some of her father’s strength, she named him Alexander. But the newborn struggled to eat and, less than a month later, died. It was one more blow to Lucrezia’s emotional well-being.

LUCREZIA: meanwhile, trouble was brewing amongst my brothers-in-law

LUCREZIA: I’m not really going to get into it here, but it started with a fight over a musician

LUCREZIA: then turned into a fight over my slutty cousin Angela

LUCREZIA: then one of them stabbed the other in the eyes

LUCREZIA: then it somehow devolved into a plot to assassinate my husband

LUCREZIA: men call women dramatic, but really?

LUCREZIA: every single man in my life has been like this

In early 1507, Lucrezia miscarried yet again; this time Alfonso d’Este blamed her for carousing too much during carnival season. Two months later, Cesare, who had escaped prison once again in late 1506, was betrayed, stabbed, then stripped and left to die alone. Lucrezia, who only learned of his death a month after it happened, was distraught, wailing, “The more I try to please God, the more he tries me.” She shut herself away from the world once again, not knowing how else to cope with this fresh loss. Although Cesare and their father had manipulated her, used her to promote their own agenda, and (likely) killed her beloved second husband, they remained the two people to whom she felt the closest in the world. The bonds of abuse and trauma are strange things; while Lucrezia came to question how they had treated her, she still believed them when they swore that it was the Borgias versus the world. Now there was nobody left on her side.

* * *

Lucrezia became pregnant once again in the summer of 1507, and on April 4, 1508 gave birth to a healthy son who, according to Isabella D’Este’s spy, had “a most beautiful mouth but a little snub nose and eyes [which were] not very dark nor very large.” The boy was christened Ercole after Alfonso d’Este’s father, but even his birth didn’t fully pull Lucrezia out of her spiral. She wrote flagrant letters to Francesco Gonzaga, which she knew would infuriate her husband if he ever intercepted them. She was long past the point of caring, and begged her lover/brother-in-law to visit her. He refused on the grounds that his syphilis was flaring, which may or may not have been a convenient excuse.

The Italian Wars that Charles VIII had begun 15 years earlier were still ongoing, and Alfonso was absent from the end of 1509 until 1512. Lucrezia remained in Ferrara and once again flexed the muscles of leadership and administration that she’d first begun exercising all those years ago in Spoleto. Alfonso, meanwhile, proved to be an able soldier and tactician. Together, Lucrezia and Alfonso were a real, if unlikely, Renaissance Dream Team.

LUCREZIA: again, I don’t want to get into it, but we switched over to Louis XII’s side

LUCREZIA: and Julius II had some big feelings about that

LUCREZIA: he excommunicated us and tried to capture Ferrara

LUCREZIA: it was a whole thing

Alfonso managed to get his hands on a statue of Julius that Michelangelo had made, which he promptly melted down and forged into a cannon he called La Giulia — all except for the head, which he stuck on a pike. The fighting was near-constant, and both sides suffered heavy casualties. In the midst of all this, Lucrezia gave birth to another son, named Ippolito after his cardinal uncle. The war dragged on until Easter Sunday 1512, when a decisive battle took place outside Ravenna, at which an estimated 10,000 men were killed. It was a significant win for Alfonso d’Este, whose innovative approach to artillery carried the day.

ALFONSO: see??

ALFONSO: all those weird hobbies were worth it

ALFONSO: and during the war, when we had to sell all our fancy silver plates?

ALFONSO: that’s right, we ate off my pottery

ALFONSO: the brothel visits were probably also good for something, although I’m not sure what yet

The Duke’s re-entry into his city was a splendid victory parade, and Lucrezia was waiting for him at the Castello. Three months later Alfonso d’Este travelled to Rome, where Julius gritted his teeth and gave him absolution. Secretly, though, the pope was still determined to take Ferrara by hook or by crook (or, technically speaking, by ferula). Alas for him, he died on February 21, 1513, before any of his plots could come to fruition. Lucrezia and the Este family had won, and it was a victory that would shape the papacy for years to come: among those they took prisoner during the Battle of Ravenna was Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, the man who would soon be Leo X — as well as great-uncle to noted serpent queen Catherine de’ Medici. Soon enough he would begin orchestrating his own Borgia-like schemes, making the Medici name at least as infamous (if not more).

Together, Lucrezia and Alfonso were a real, if unlikely, Renaissance Dream Team.

In spite of her various indiscretions, Lucrezia had always had a pious bent — even after leaving Rome she would retreat to convents during difficult periods — and as she got older, she became even more devout. Her personal losses certainly played a big part in this progression; not only had she lost her father and brother, but Rodrigo, her son with the ill-fated first Alfonso, had died in 1512. In 1514, she gave birth to another son named after her father, but he died in 1516. She also gave birth to a healthy daughter in 1515, and another healthy son in 1516. Each pregnancy and birth was physically difficult, and it’s hard to imagine how worn out she must have been from, well, everything.

LUCREZIA: as an aside, I would just like to note that I named my youngest son Francesco

LUCREZIA: that’s right, as in Gonzaga

LUCREZIA: we were still kind of an item

LUCREZIA: it’s called misdirection, look it up

Shortly after little Francesco d’Este’s birth, Lucrezia received word that her brother Gioffre had died. Her mother Vannozza died in 1518. Lucrezia had never been particularly close to either of them — in fact, her main communication with her mother involved the latter constantly writing to ask her for money — but these deaths meant that she had now lost both her parents and all of her siblings. Vannozza being Vannozza, she had organized her own lavish funeral and had arranged to put all of her children’s names and titles on her tombstone, even though she had maintained almost no relationship with any of them (other than Cesare) since they were young children. It’s hard not to respect a baller move like that.

1518 was also the year Alfonso d’Este was summoned by the French king to attend a rapprochement between the French and English crowns. During his absence, Lucrezia, who was in the early months of yet another pregnancy, was left to govern Ferrara in her own name. Once again she did a superlative job. She and her husband had developed a powerful mutual admiration — by this point her relationship with Francesco Gonzaga was a thing of the past — and discovered that their strengths and talents complemented each other. When Alfonso d’Este returned home in early 1519, he went straight to Lucrezia’s chambers.

* * *

This final pregnancy was another difficult one. By June, Lucrezia was barely able to eat, and soon doctors decided to induce labor to save her life. They broke her water, and on June 14 she gave birth to a daughter so weak that Alfonso d’Este rushed to have her baptized; as was predicted, tiny Isabella Maria did not survive. At first Lucrezia seemed to improve, but on June 20 her health went into steep decline. She began to have seizures again and blood poured from her nose. The doctors cut off her hair and bled her, but she continued to worsen, losing the ability to see and speak. On June 22 she rallied, and those around her hoped she might make a full recovery, but Lucrezia knew the end was near. She dictated a letter to Pope Leo X asking him to pray for her. Two days later the seizures started again and that night, just two months after her 39th birthday, she died.

Alfonso d’Este had barely left Lucrezia’s side during her illness, and was inconsolable after her death. In a letter written shortly after, he described her as a “sweet, dear companion” and spoke of “the tender love there was between us.” In another he said that he was left “in the greatest imaginable anguish.” What began as a political match had turned into a loving marriage, and he could not imagine life without her.

How can we view female leaders as being fully human when we’ve spent so long fudging the history of powerful women to suit misogynist agendas?

Lucrezia is a rare case of a historical woman who was, against all odds, actually appreciated in her lifetime; her father, brothers, and husband all recognized her intelligence, administrative skills, and political acumen and, rather than being intimidated by those traits, allowed her to use them. Her story has been twisted into that of an incestuous man-eater who dabbled in murder, but when we look at (relatively) unbiased sources, there’s no evidence that any of this is true.

Many readers suggested that I write about Lucrezia when I first began this series, but for a long time I resisted covering her. My reasoning was pedantic: she wasn’t a queen (even if she was sort of a Vatican princess), and if I expanded my self-created rules then all would soon descend into chaos. But beneath that was another worry: there was too much scandal in Lucrezia’s story and not enough humanity. Like so many others before me, I let her reputation precede her and took it at face value. I should have known better. The way that historians and contemporary observers have twisted Lucrezia’s story over the years tells us a lot about how the Western world views women and power. We’re equally entranced by and terrified of the women who wield it, and those feelings — not the facts — shape their narratives to fit our beliefs. Sometimes this means creating sanitized versions of their lives in which they are indisputably virtuous heroines, but more often, as in Lucrezia’s case, it means arranging facts and rumors into the worst possible interpretation. This does an obvious disservice to the subjects of these biographies, but it also has a larger impact on contemporary politics. How can we view female leaders as being fully human when we’ve spent so long fudging the history of powerful women to suit misogynist agendas? Re-evaluating the stories of scandalous women from history is one place to start.

Long live Lucrezia! Long live the fucking duchess!

* * *

For further reading on Lucrezia:

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Previously:

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Ben Huberman
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy