Lucrezia Borgia and the entire Borgia family are quite infamous. Lucrezia wasn’t exactly undeserving of her reputation, but her story is crazier than we think.
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18th, 1480. She was an illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and one of his mistresses, Vannozza dei Cattanei. Rodrigo probably had a lot more children than the five he acknowledged, including Lucrezia. Four of those five children (Lucrezia and her brothers, Giovanni, Cesare, and Gioffre) were the children of Vannoza, Lucrezia’s mother. Sure, Rodrigo was a Cardinal and was supposed to be celibate, but he really didn’t care. The Borgias were a close-knit family, despite what we might think of them.
Lucrezia was probably given a great education and grew up near her father. She was very beautiful according to many of her contemporaries. Her father was obviously very eager to get an alliance out of her. She was betrothed to tons of different weird old men before she was even in her teens, but she was never married to either of them.
Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, ended up becoming Pope Alexander VI, so he didn’t need to marry Lucrezia off to some regular old noble, she could get a really good husband. And he was quick to get Lucrezia married. She was married off to Giovanni Sforza, an illegitimate son of Costanzo I Sforza. He was related to a lot of powerful people, so thirteen-year-old Lucrezia became the wife of someone more than twice her age.
And then, just after Lucrezia got married, her whole family regretted it. Basically, the French tried invading Naples, and the Sforzas supported the French while Lucrezia’s father supported Naples. And poor Giovanni was literally scared for his life at the time. The Borgias were scary, and they all wanted to get rid of Giovanni, so he couldn’t expect to live much longer.
The Borgias did indeed want to kill Giovanni, and Lucrezia found this out from her brother Cesare and had Giovanni flee Rome. According to Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia’s father, the marriage was invalid since it’d never been consummated. If Giovanni said that he was impotent and the marriage was never consummated, he could keep Lucrezia’s dowry. He reluctantly did, and the marriage was over. Lucrezia was just seventeen, and her first husband was out the window. Giovanni said that Pope Alexander VI only wanted him out of the way so he could have his daughter to himself, which is absolutely disgusting.
Lucrezia ran off to a convent to try and catch a break from her family, but nothing ever stops happening with them since they’re the literal Borgias, and this time, it was the death — probably murder — of her brother Giovanni. Some think that it was Lucrezia’s ex-husband, Giovanni Sforza, who did it.
And then the rumors started flying around about Lucrezia being pregnant, because why else would a Borgia go to a convent? Lucrezia gave birth to a boy, allegedly, in 1498. There were weird rumors that it was the child of Lucrezia and her father, Pope Alexander VI, or that it was the son of Lucrezia and her brother Cesare. The least weird idea is that Lucrezia’s son, Giovanni Borgia, was the son of Lucrezia and her father’s chamberlain, Perotto Calderon (who was found dead soon after, so this definitely seems probable: killing Lucrezia’s lover seems like something the Borgias would do). And yes, people did think that Lucrezia’s father and brother were her lovers.
The Borgias, for a while, didn’t even reveal whose son this new kid was, so people just called him Infans Romanus, “the Roman Child”. Eventually, though, the Pope issued two papal bulls. The first one said that the child, Giovanni Borgia, was the illegitimate son of Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare Borgia, but the other one said that Giovanni Borgia was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI. Lucrezia still raised Giovanni Borgia, even after she remarried.
Once again, Lucrezia was married off to Alfonso of Aragon, the son of the King of Naples, who truly became a Borgia. Alfonso and Lucrezia were fond of each other at first, and there was also the added benefit that Alfonso wasn’t a weird old man. Alfonso was the half-brother of Lucrezia’s brother Gioffre Borgia’s wife, so they probably already knew a lot about each other.
Lucrezia became pregnant, but miscarried. She did become pregnant again, but before she could give birth, Alfonso ran away. For valid reasons, actually. Remember how they’d gotten rid of Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza, because the Sforzas were allied with the French against Naples, while the Borgias were allied with Naples against France? Well, Alfonso’s family ruled Naples, so great, right? Well, the Borgias were doing a bunch of Borgia stuff, and now, they were allied with France. And the Borgias were planning on invading Naples with their new French BFFs.
Alfonso fled Rome, leaving Lucrezia alone and six months pregnant. Around this time, Lucrezia also became Governor of Spoleto, so that’s amazing for her. Lucrezia asked Alfonso to come back to Rome, so he came, but little did he know that Lucrezia’s father, the Pope, was behind the little invite. But once Alfonso came back, Lucrezia’s father decided not to murder his son-in-law for a change, and Alfonso got to meet his son, Rodrigo of Aragon.
Lucrezia, Alfonso, and baby Rodrigo were just having fun being a family, and then Lucrezia’s brother Cesare just had to mess everything up for them. Cesare accused Alfonso of trying to kill him, and while Alfonso was on the steps of the Vatican, he was stabbed (I don’t think I have to say that Cesare did it). Alfonso survived and was taken to Lucrezia, who tried to protect him, but that did not happen at all.
A bunch of guys just stormed into Alfonso’s rooms, where they strangled the teenager. We don’t know exactly who did it, but if we put together the accusation of Alfonso trying to kill him and the rumor that he was in love with his sister, Lucrezia, we’ll find that it’s definitely Cesare. Cesare was also friends with the guy who led the warriors into Alfonso’s rooms to murder him, so yeah, it was Cesare.
Lucrezia was actually really devastated that (maybe) her brother murdered her husband. She would’ve been happy to just sit around all day as Alfonso’s widow, but her father had another Alfonso lined up to marry her, just two years after the other Alfonso died.
Sidenote: allegedly, Lucrezia had a ring that appeared normal, but was hollow inside, where she’d hide poison. You know, just in case someone was getting on her nerves at dinner. Seriously, though, she just kept some poison in her ring to mix into people’s drinks, just in case she wanted someone out of her way.
The new Alfonso that her father had planned for her to marry was Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The new Alfonso’s father was not enthusiastic about his son marrying Lucrezia, because she was Lucrezia, and Lucrezia too didn’t want to get married. So what did Lucrezia’s father (whom she was also maybe sleeping with) do? Well, what all sensible fathers do. He would force Alfonso to marry his daughter.
Lucrezia’s father was the literal Pope, so he could do whatever he wanted. He basically told Alfonso’s family that he’d ruin them if Alfonso didn’t marry Lucrezia. So they got married. It was a happy-ish marriage, just like Lucrezia’s second one, and they had eight children who survived past infancy.
Lucrezia’s father died in 1503, and her brother Cesare was gravely ill, so the powerful Borgia family wasn’t that powerful anymore. The next Pope liked Cesare, but that Pope died about a month later, and his successor was not fond of any of the Borgias at all.
Luckily for Lucrezia, her husband still had a super-powerful family, and even better, he didn’t seem to mind her being unfaithful. She had a relationship with Francesco II Gonzaga, her brother-in-law, and that lasted until (most historians think) he caught syphilis. One of Lucrezia’s sons was named Francesco, so that son was maybe illegitimate? She also had a relationship with a poet named Pietro Bembo. A few centuries later, Lord Byron described their love letters as “the prettiest love letters in the world.” Lucrezia also probably had affairs with a bunch of other people because she does whatever she wants, what else did you expect?
Sidenote: Lord Byron was quite obsessed with Lucrezia, and he literally stole a lock of her hair that was on display and described it as “the prettiest and fairest imaginable.” At least he complimented Lucrezia.
Lucrezia also managed her money well. She invested in marshland so that it could be drained and farmed on. She also helped build convents and hospitals, so not a lot of people really hated her. Lucrezia had a lot of difficult childbirths, and only a few of her many children with Alfonso survived to adulthood.
After her second marriage, Lucrezia no longer had custody of her son with the first Alfonso, Rodrigo, and was distraught once she heard of his death in 1512. She turned to religion and even began wearing a hairshirt under her dresses. The Duchess of Ferrara aged, and, in 1519, she was pregnant for the last time.
The birth of this daughter was a hard one just like Lucrezia’s other ones, and, ten days after the birth, Lucrezia died on June 24th, 1519, at the age of 39. Even though she and her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, were very unfaithful to each other, Alfonso was still very saddened by Lucrezia’s death.
Remember Infans Romanus, Giovanni Borgia, that illegitimate child that everyone thought was Lucrezia’s with her father or Cesare? Well, he was around for about thirty more years after Lucrezia’s death. Even after the Borgias were gone, a living embodiment of a small scandal stuck around.