Lucrezia Borgia, Infamous Murderess Or Political Pawn?

Lucrezia Borgia was considered the most ruthless of Italian Renaissance noblewomen. But were father, Rodrigo, and brother, Cesare, the creators of her black reputation?

Historical record portrays Lucrezia Borgia as a beautiful, manipulative creature who participated in incest and sexual orgies with her father and brother. She thought nothing of carrying out cold-blooded murders, some masterminded by herself others by her equally ruthless relatives. Swords, daggers, garrotting and poison were only a few of the Borgias favoured methods of disposing of those who'd displeased them or stood in the way of their political or material gain. The fact that one of Lucrezia's 3 husbands and various lovers died under mysterious or gruesome circumstances is no secret. But was Lucrezia solely responsible for their deaths, or were her jealous brother Cesare, and her father, Rodrigo, the actual masterminds?

The Borgias were a handsome and intellectual family of Spanish descent who relocated to Italy during the late Renaissance. In the latter 1400's Italy was a country of disassociated city states and rival fiefdoms. Dukes, princes, kings and cardinals were constantly waging war or committing murder for land, wealth and power. Other countries routinely invaded, creating an Italy rife with political intrigue. Enter one Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. Nephew of Callixtus III, one of only 2 Spanish popes, Rodrigo himself became Pope Alexander IV in 1492 through bribery. While a cardinal, and then later as Pope, his conduct was most unbecoming to his saintly station. He openly kept a string of mistresses, fathered many children, and orgies were said to be commonplace within the papal residence. Cesare and Lucrezia were often seen taking part in their father's licentious exploits. Nor was it a secret that she had carnal relations with both men on numerous occasions. Indeed, Cesare's love of his sister was often called unnatural.

As a young girl Lucrezia led a pampered life while her father began investigating beneficial marriage alliances. Rodrigo arranged and cancelled two betrothals to Spanish nobleman before finally deciding Giovanni Sforza, Count of Pesare, was a suitable match. Lucrezia was 13 when she and Sforza were married. Unfortunately for Sforza, Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia decided they'd sold Lucrezia in haste, that she could be better utilised to gain them entrance into the powerful house of Aragon. Rather than committing outright murder, they publicly declared that Lucrezia's husband was impotent, that his marriage to her had not been consummated. Sforza was outraged and humiliated, maintained the Borgias were liars, and swore revenge against their house. Lucrezia, while apparently in love with her husband, chose not to go against the machinations of her father and brother. Sforza was forced to sign a confession of impotence, left Rome and eventually annulled his marriage. Lucrezia was dispatched to a nunnery while her father and brother made arrangements for her next marriage.

By February of 1498 rumours were flying that Lucrezia was pregnant. Pedro Calderon, a Spanish gentleman who had been visiting her father's Papal court, was named as her lover. Cesare Borgia was furious and threw the unfortunate young man in prison. Days later his body was found floating in the river. That he had been murdered was obvious. Who had ordered the young Spaniard killed was also obvious, yet none spoke out against Cesare Borgia, whose power and ruthlessness was already firmly established.

Lucrezia bore a son, Giovanni, in March of 1498 - a child that she always referred to as her "Ëślittle brother". Rodrigo Borgia announced that Giovanni was the result of a liaison between Cesare and one of his mistresses. This news only inflamed suspicions that Lucrezia had indeed had incestuous relations with her father and brother and that either man could have been the boy's father. Giovanni died half a century later in relative obscurity and without title.

Rodrigo successfully forged an alliance with the House of Aragon and before the end of the year Lucrezia married Alfonso, 17 year old nephew of the King of Naples. Political alliances between the two houses disintegrated as quickly as they were forged, however. Cesare, jealous that Lucrezia obviously loved her latest husband, arranged an attack by armed men. When his thugs failed to dispatch Alfonso, Cesare and his phalanx of body guards visited the young Duke and finished the job as he lay in his sick bed. Lucrezia, though heartbroken over the murder of her second husband, and knowing full well who was responsible, once again bowed to the whims of her family. She left Rome to mourn alone while her father and brother set out to arrange another profitable alliance.

Lucrezia's third husband, Alfonso d'Esta, wanted no part of an arranged marriage with so notorious a widow as Lucrezia Borgia, particularly after hearing rumours of how she was amusing herself while in still in mourning. The lurid Roman orgies Cesare arranged were supposedly never attended by Lucrezia, but this did not appease the cautious Alfonso. After continuing pressure from his father and the promise of a priceless dowry from the elder Borgia, Alfonso d'Esta grudgingly agreed to marry Lucrezia.

Lucrezia and Alfonso's alliance endured and she bore him four children. Despite their supposed happy marriage, Lucrezia carried on numerous affairs. One ended in another messy scandal when the young poet, Ercole Strozzi, was discovered gruesomely murdered. Whether Lucrezia had him killed or whether Cesare succumbed to another fit of jealous rage has never been proven. Poisoning plots against other political adversaries came to light as well. One of them would eventually back-fire, killing Rodrigo at age 77 and leaving Cesare grievously ill. He recovered and returned to his life of ruthlessness and political and military intrigue until his death in 1507. Lucrezia's remaining years were uneventful and she died after childbirth in 1519 at the age of 38.

Borgia descendants would influence European history for many generations, in the church and politically, but none would gain as much notoriety as Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia. Authors like Machiavelli, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas wrote accounts and treatise of their lives that are still popular today. Movies, plays, operas and television series continue to characterise the Borgia triad as licentious, bloodthirsty and power hungry. Some modern historians believe Lucrezia's evil reputation is exaggerated, that she was simply a victim of her father's and brother's ruthless machinations. Whatever the case, Lucrezia Borgia's name remains synonymous with material and carnal excess and cold-blooded murder.

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