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The Fear of the Almighty

The Italian Renaissance (1330-1550) followed hot on the heels of the Middle Ages and was spawned by the birth of the philosophy of humanism, which emphasised the importance of individual achievement in a wide range of fields. It was a time dominated by rich and powerful families whose reputations (some true and some monstrously false) have been shaped by the many dark and dastardly deeds they committed.

‘In quattrocento Florence, the Medici bought, bribed, and blackmailed their way to the top; in Rimini, the Malatesta flitted continually between self-destructive megalomania and near psychopathic brutality; and in Milan, the Sforza were every bit as infamous for their sexual proclivities as they were for their political ruthlessness.’ [1]

But, in this roll-call of infamous names, none put their fear of the Almighty into the people as much as the Borgias.

The Boria family were from Aragon, the surname being a toponymic from the town of Borja, then in the Crown of Aragon, in Spain.

Lucrezia Borgia: Duchess of Bisceglie, Princess of Salerno, Countess of Catignola. The only confirmed Lucrezia portrait painted from life (attributed to Dosso Dossi, c. 1519, National Gallery of Victoria
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL:

Lucrezia Borgia
Born on 18th April in 1480, Lucrezia Borgia’s reputation precedes her as the lustful and illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia. She was the love child of a liaison between the Roman Giovanna dei Cattanei (commonly known as Vannozza dei Cattanei), and the Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI[2]. Said to be his favourite, dei Cattanei was the Cardinal’s chief mistress, apparently kept discreetly outside the city of Rome.

Before Lucrezia had reached her teens, her family were busy trying to arrange her marriage. There was a long line of prospective suitors, each of whom might advance the political position of Lucrezia’s parents. The suitors included Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Gradara, Count of Catignola; Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie and Prince of Salerno; and Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Tradition has it that Alfonso of Aragon was an illegitimate son of the King of Naples and that her brother (Cesare Borgia) may have had him murdered after his political value waned[3]. Rumours about Lucrezia and her family cast her as a femme fatale[4], a role in which she has since been portrayed in many artworks, novels and films.

Lucrezia earned a reputation as a political schemer in 15th-century Italy, but the reality is she was simply used by her father and brother to further their own political goals.[5]

Lucrezia’s Marriages[6]
Before Lucrezia’s teens, marriage arrangements were planned, first with a Valencian noble, then with the Count of Procida. After her father became Pope Alexander VI, the arrangements were changed again to a second-rank count in the House of Sforza. Lucrezia married him when she was just 13 years old. Unluckily for the Sforza family, they soon became of no interest to the papal court, so the Pope ordered Lucrezia’s husband’s execution. Lucrezia warned him, which enabled him to flee, and the marriage to be annulled based on it not being consummated, which spared him his life. It is generally thought that, whilst awaiting the annulment, Lucrezia had an affair which resulted in her pregnancy and the birth of a son, Giovanni Borgia, although two papal bulls[7] were issued contradicting that claim.

At age 18, Lucrezia was married a second time. Alfonso d’Aragon, the Neapolitan half-brother of her brother-in-law, became her husband. Unluckily for Alfonso, in 1500, he was murdered, apparently on the orders of Lucrezia’s brother (Cesare), because of changing political allegiances. Her father, the Pope, then arranged a third marriage to another Alfonso, Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, which endured and produced eight children, despite both parties having several affairs. Lucrezia had a long and very physical affair with her brother-in-law Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquess of Mantua, which he had to terminate when his syphilis became too overt to hide any longer. Lucrezia also had an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo.

After a long history of complicated pregnancies and miscarriages, she fell seriously ill after the birth of her tenth child on 14th June 1519 and died ten days later. She was buried in the convent of Corpus Domini[8].

Was Lucrezia Borgia unfairly maligned with Fake News?
Lucretia Borgia is arguably one of the most maligned women in history. Rumours about her run rife, and none of them is complimentary; for example:

  • Lucrezia and her brother Cesare were lovers
  • Lucrezia and her father (Pope Alexander VI) were lovers
  • Although she is said to have poisoned her family’s enemies, there is no evidence that Lucrezia poisoned anyone, but the Borgias’ power and privilege meant their enemies often disappeared mysteriously, and they had plenty of rivals in the city. Fake news was an easy way to discredit them.

The History of Yesterday website[9] says that although there are several scandalous rumours about Lucrezia and the rest of her family, few are substantiated. The Italian nobles disliked the Borgias because they were Spaniards. They resented the fact that foreigners wielded so much power in their country. Jealousy, resentment, and retaliation for offences real and imagined were mostly responsible for the rumours, innuendo, and outright lies about the Borgias that survive today. Lucrezia Borgia has been characterised in art, literature, and film as depraved, extravagant, and guilty of incest and murder; however, scholars assert that there is insufficient proof of Lucrezia’s alleged bad acts or her active involvement in the crimes of her notorious family[10]. The Borgia family did many terrible things, but probably not as bad as some would have you believe.

Lucrezia’s Education and Her Early Life[11]
Unlike most educated women of her time, for whom convents were the primary source of knowledge, Lucrezia’s education came from within the sphere of intellectuals in the court and close relatives. She was a thoroughly accomplished princess, fluent in Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and French, which prepared her for advantageous marriage to any European monarch or prince.

She was also literate in Latin and Greek and became proficient in the lute, poetry, and oration. The biggest testament to her intelligence is her capability in administration, as later on in life, it is said that she took care of Vatican City correspondence and governance of Ferrara[12].

What did Lucrezia look like?

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia.
Public Domain.
File URL:

Lucrezia Borgia is described as having heavy blonde hair that fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes that changed colour, a full, high bosom, and a natural grace that made her appear to “walk on air”[13]. These physical attributes were highly appreciated in Italy during that period. Another description said, “her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her neck is slender and fair, and the bust is admirably proportioned.”[14]

One painting, Portrait of a Youth by Dosso Dossi at the National Gallery of Victoria, was identified as a portrait of Lucrezia in November 2008[15]. This painting may be the only surviving formal portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, but doubts have been cast on that attribution[16]. Several other paintings, such as Veneto‘s fanciful portrait, have also been said to depict her, but none has been accepted by scholars so far.

According to Mandell Creighton[17] in his History of the Papacy, “Lucrezia … was personally popular through her beauty and her affability. Her long golden hair, her sweet childish face, her pleasant expression and her graceful ways seem to have struck all who saw her.”

As the years progressed, her body thickened, and she was said to have aged greatly. She also suffered from spells of deep sadness. Towards the end of her life, Lucrezia withdrew from public life and spent more time in her various apartments or nearby convents and turned to religion for comfort.[18]

Lucrezia’s Brother – Cesare
Cesare Borgia[19] (in full Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois) was an Italian cardinal and condottiero (mercenary leader) of Aragonese (Spanish) origin whose fight for power was a major inspiration for The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli[20]. Cesare was an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and a member of the Spanish-Aragonese House of Borgia.[21]

Described by Richard Cavendish on History Today[22] to be:

‘… brave, daring and determined, he was insatiably power-hungry and entirely ruthless. Murder, bribery and deceit were all in the day’s work to him, and his pleasures were women, hunting and fashionable clothes.’

Cesare was considered the most handsome man in Italy. There were inevitably rumours of incest with his sister Lucrezia, and he had syphilis from his early twenties.

After initially entering the church and becoming a cardinal on his father’s election to the Papacy, he became the first person to resign a cardinalate after the death of his brother in 1498. He served as a condottiero for King Louis XII of France around 1500 and occupied Milan and Naples during the Italian Wars. At the same time, he carved out a state for himself in Central Italy, but he could not retain power for long after his father’s death. According to Machiavelli, this was not due to a lack of foresight but his error in creating a new pope[23].

Following the murder of his brother (allegedly his father’s favourite son) in 1497, Cesare Borgia became the sole Borgia heir. The problem was that he was a Cardinal, and Cardinals couldn’t have legitimate heirs. This was a problem for his father, Pope Alexander VI, who wanted his family to start a dynasty and make a mark in history. Realising this, Cesare and Alexander agreed that the former would be better off out of the Church and in a secular role – something that would have pleased Cesare as he had never liked being in the Church and wasn’t a big believer in God anyway.[24]

Possibly a copy of an original contemporary portrait painting by Bartolomeo Veneto
Attribution: After Bartolomeo Veneto, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL:,_Duke_of_Valentinois.jpg

Cesare’s death in March 1507 was as dramatic as his life:

‘He left this world in the way he always imagined: as a soldier, on the battlefield, fighting for his life to the last breath. He struggled alone, like a legendary knight, in his last fight against a small army. But he was thrown from his horse and was stabbed to death multiple times with lances and daggers. His armour and clothes were removed, and the body was abandoned. None of the assassins knew who he was.’

Lucrezia’s Father – the Pope

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo de Borja (1431–1503) (public domain)
Artist: Cristofano dell’Altissimo  (1525–1605)

The History of Yesterday website[25] describes Lucrezia’s father:

‘Lucrezia’s father – Rodrigo de Borja (changed to Borgia) – was born in Spain in 1431 and educated at Bologna, Italy, where he earned a law degree.

When his uncle was elected Pope Callixtus III, a life in the church afforded a sure path to success for Rodrigo, who quickly rose in the ranks. Nepotism was prevalent at that time, but Rodrigo, unlike many of his contemporaries, proved to be intelligent, a gifted speaker, and a talented administrator.

When Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI, he proved equal to the task. The leaders of the 15th-century Roman Catholic church tended to treat their vows of celibacy more as a guideline rather than a rule. Like today, priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes did not marry, but that didn’t mean that some of them didn’t have sex.

Lucrezia Borgia’s father was unique in that he acknowledged the children he fathered by several different women as his own, provided for them, and took a great interest in their education and development.’

Lucrezia Borgia: the Play, the Opera and the TV Series
Lucrezia Borgia: The Play 
Lucrezia Borgia (French: Lucrèce Borgia) is the 1833 play by the French writer Victor Hugo. It is a historical work portraying the Renaissance-era Italian aristocrat Lucrezia Borgia with her infamous history. The play (along with Angelo, Tyrant of Padua) is believed to have been a major influence on Oscar Wilde’s The Duchess of Padua (1891).[26]

Lucrezia Borgia: The Opera
Lucrezia Borgia: The Opera is a melodramatic opera in a prologue and two acts by Gaetano Donizetti. Felice Romani wrote the Italian libretto after the play Lucrece Borgia by Victor Hugo, in its turn after the legend of Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia Borgia was first performed on 26th December 1833 at La Scala, Milan. Several films about Borgia and her family have drawn partly on the play’s plot. Donizetti’s opera is an Italian period drama of intrigue, mystery, and murder, set against a beautiful bel canto score.

The Borgias: TV Series
Lucrezia Borgia’s life had become so notorious by the 19th century that Donizetti wrote an opera about her, including more outlandish rumours about her. The 2011 television series The Borgias,[27] starring Jeremy Irons, was inspired by her family’s exploits. The series is set in Renaissance-era Italy and follows the Borgia family’s scandalous ascension to the Papacy in 1492. Mercilessly cruel, defiantly decadent, and obsessively ambitious, the Borgias use bribery, simony[28], intimidation, and murder in their relentless quest for wealth and power, making them history’s most infamous crime family. In addition to Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI, the series starred François Arnaud as Cesare, Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia and David Oakes as Juan. Colm Feore also stars as Cardinal della Rovere (later Pope Julius II).

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Quoted from:
  2. In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus discovered America.
  3. Source:
  4. Femme Fatale, sometimes called a maneater or vamp, is a stock character of a mysterious, beautiful, and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, deadly traps. A femme fatale is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to enchant, entice and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as verging on the supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, seductress, witch, and having power over men. Source:
  5. Source:
  6. S:
  7. A papal bull in the Catholic Church is a type of official public decree, letters patent, or charter issued by the Pope. The name is derived from the lead seal (bulla) traditionally affixed to such documents in order to authenticate it. Source:
  8. See:,_Ferrara and “Ferrara 2002 Anno di Lucrezia Borgia”. Comune di Ferrara.
  9. At:
  10. Source:
  11. Source:
  12. Ferrara is a city and comune in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, capital of the Province of Ferrara.
  13. Source: George R. Marek The Bed and the Throne: the Life of Isabella d’Este, Harper & Row, 1976, ISBN 978-0-06-012810-4 p. 142
  14. Source: The Times Arts section page 14, 31 January 2011
  15. Sources: NGV’s Renaissance mystery woman revealed, The Age, Only known painting of Lucrezia Borgia discovered in Australian gallery The Times, London, 25 November 2008, Infamous Renaissance woman subject of mystery portrait – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Gallery unveils portrait of infamy, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2008, Portrait of Renaissance femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia found at NGV, The Age, 26 November 2008.
  16. Source: Art detective says the brother did it, The Age, 27 November 2008
  17. The British historian and a bishop of the Church of England. See:
  18. Source:
  19. Source:
  20. Machiavelli: the Italian diplomat, author, philosopher, and historian
  21. See: Fusero, Clemente. The Borgias. New York, Praeger Publishers, 1966.
  22. At:
  23. Source: Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VII
  24. Source:
  25. At:
  26. Source: Norbert Kohl p.46
  27. See details at:
  28. Simony: the act of selling church offices and roles or sacred things. It is named after Simon Magus, who is described in the Acts of the Apostles as having offered two disciples of Jesus payment in exchange for their empowering him to impart the power of the Holy Spirit to anyone on whom he would place his hands. The term extends to other forms of trafficking for money in “spiritual things”.


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