Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Lucrezia Borgia—victim of her times

George Dunea


Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia
The only confirmed Lucrezia portrait painted from life. Attributed to Dosso Dossi, c. 1519, National Gallery of Victoria. Via Wikimedia.

For five hundred years, society has unfairly blackened the name of Lucrezia Borgia—in history, literature, even in opera. Living at a time when girls could be disposed of at their parents’ whim, she became a child-bride at eleven, was contracted to be married five times, had a least ten pregnancies, and died from puerperal fever at age thirty-nine. She has been mispresented in the works of Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, and Gaetano Donizetti; described as a seductress, a poisoner, and a witch; and supposed to have killed her husband, slept with her brother, and committed incest with her father.

Lucrezia was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI Borgia and his mistress Vannozza. A Catalan from the area of Valencia in Spain, Borgia was made a cardinal by his uncle Pope Callixtus III in 1456 and was unanimously elected Pope in the year when the soldiers of Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas.

Alexander Borgia was intelligent and shrewd, devious and ruthless, and avid for money and possessions. Charming and possessing a great sense of humor, he had a limitless lust for beautiful women and great sexual power. He fathered some eight or nine children. He devoted himself to enlarging the territory of the papal estates, promoting his relatives, and carving a kingdom out of the scattered states of Northern Italy. Stories of his debauched activities at the Vatican are legion, though some need to be taken with a grain of salt. He died of malaria in the middle of the heat of summer in 1503, an illness particularly fatal to overly corpulent people. In the confusion that followed his death, his body was left unburied for several days. It turned horribly black, the tongue was grotesquely swollen, the stench unbearable, and the cadaver so huge that it could not be fitted into the coffin.

Born in 1480, Lucrezia Borgia received a humanist education, speaking Italian, Catalan, French, Latin, and understanding Greek. She was familiar with the works of Dante and Petrarch, wrote poetry and music, was instructed in eloquence, and danced with considerable skill. Graceful and of middle height, she had golden hair, brilliant white teeth, and was always gay and smiling. As a teenager she lived in a palace near the Vatican in an atmosphere of male sexual power and dominance. From early on her father and brother used her to further their political and dynastic ambitions. Alexander canceled two early contracted marriages when he no longer saw his daughter’s future in Spain. At age twelve she was married by proxy to Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, in a hostile move against the King of Naples, but as that relation improved Alexander canceled the marriage on alleged grounds of the bridegroom’s impotence. In 1498 she was betrothed to the Duke of Bisceglie in southern Italy, but when her brother Cesare decided to strengthen his relations with France, he had her young husband strangled.

At twenty-two she was betrothed to Alfonzo D’Este, son of the Duke of Ferrara. Though reluctant to associate his family with one below him and associated with recent scandals, the Duke needed money and also yielded to the combined pressure of the Pope and the king of France. He drove a hard bargain, even considered marrying Lucrezia himself if his son Alfonso did not agree to do so. He received 300,000 ducats (some 30-million-pound sterling) as well as other inducements, and in 1501 Lucrezia married Alfonso by proxy at the Vatican, then left Rome to never see it or her father again.

She traveled to Ferrara riding partly on a donkey and partly in a handsome litter provided by her father, accompanied by a retinue of 500 people including friends, relatives, three bishops, Alexander’s favorite doctor, majordomo, cup bearer, master of the horse, man in charge of knives, and many others. Wherever she went she was met with huge acclaim and rejoicing. In an unexpected romantic gesture Alfonzo met her part of the way, and she was married in Ferrara in another luxurious ceremony. Her husband was four years older, well-built and intelligent but of few words, more interested in artillery, tournaments, dogs, and horses. He soon dismissed most of her attendants and replaced them with Ferrarese women. At first Lucretia had a difficult time, neglected by her husband and treated with suspicion by her sister-in-law, the famous Isabella d’Este.

Initially the pair were not faithful to each other. Lucrezia had a passionate relationship with her brother-in-law, which ended when he allegedly contracted syphilis. This was followed by a probably platonic love affair with the famous poet Pietro Bembo. In 1510, she was much admired by Chevalier Bayard, the commander of the French allied troops in Ferrara, but how much she returned his admiration is not known. She proved to be a good wife and mother and bore ten children. Her social graces charmed both Ferrarese citizens and foreign dignitaries. Devout and intelligent, she had a natural talent for administration, a necessary quality since condottiere princes like Alfonso were often away for long periods

Lucretia became a patron of the arts, surrounding herself with a circle of artists, intellectuals, poets, courtiers, and poets. She helped make Ferrara a center of culture and was adored by its people. She acted in place of her husband when he was away and skillfully administered the affairs of state. In times of war and plague she oversaw the defense of the city and administered justice equitably. As a shrewd businesswoman, she built up her own fortune and used some of her wealth to build hospitals and convents, investing in marshy land, then draining it and recovering it for agriculture.

Though her marriage with Alfonso was no love match, the two became close over time. When she developed a febrile illness with convulsions, he spent every night in the room next to hers and was there each time her doctors tried to make her eat. He was heartbroken when in 1519 she became ill after giving birth to her tenth child. Reports indicate that she suffered horrendously with “bad material that had built up in her womb and not been purged.” She developed convulsions; her doctors bled her and cut off her hair in a vain effort to save her life—she died on June 24, 1519. She lived in a time when women were often treated like chattel and she received a reputation that she does not appear to have deserved.


Further reading:

Sarah Bradford, Lucrezia Borgia: life, love, and death in Renaissance Italy. Published in Penguin Books, 2005



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief



Summer 2021  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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