There are few women in the Italian Renaissance more intriguing and more analyzed than Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI. She has been a controversial character for centuries, not only being written about by scholars and historians, but also becoming the subject of novels, operas, and films. Many portraits of her character are unflattering, but through the years she has undergone an evolution of sorts, and the common understanding of her has become much more sympathetic, not only from scholars but also from popular culture. In order to come to a more complete understanding of Lucrezia, one must categorize what has been written about her, what changes her character has undergone, and what she means to popular culture today. In analyzing her in this fashion, it is possible for one to come to a better understanding of her as a historical figure.
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress Vanozza Cattanei. Rodrigo Borgia was a powerful figure in the Catholic Church, the nephew of Pope Calixtus III, and in 1492, he was elected Pope Alexander VI. He unabashedly used his children as political pawns, marrying Lucrezia at the age of thirteen to Giovanni Sforza, nephew of the powerful Ludovico Sforza who was the ruler of Milan. Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni only lasted three years, when Alexander and the Sforza family forced him to sign a pledge stating he had never consummated the marriage. Lucrezia went to a convent to wait for the marriage to be annulled, and while there, she was found to be pregnant, most likely by a messenger of the Borgias by the name of Perotto. Her marriage was annulled, she was announced to be a virgin while she was still with child, and after giving birth, she was married to Alfonso of Aragon, who was the son of the King of Naples. They were married only a short time before her husband was murdered, most likely at the hands of her brother, Cesare Borgia. After a brief period, her father arranged another marriage for her, this time to Alfonso d’Este, the son of Duke Ercole and brother to the acclaimed Isabella d’Este. She remained married to Alfonso for the rest of her life, finally dying after giving birth to her eighth child in 1519.
Lucrezia Borgia was not treated kindly by many writers of her day, primarily because of who her father and brother were. Of the charges laid against her, many are spurious and were made without any evidence whatsoever, but they have been repeated both in a historical and cultural context so often that they have stuck, even growing immeasurably throughout the years. Of the most heinous, it was said that she had an incestuous relationship with both her father and her brother, that she was immoral, and that she was a master of poison. There is no real evidence to support any of these claims, but they have been made many times over in historical works, plays, and novels. To understand the growth of the Lucrezia Borgia mythology, one must examine the chronology of works about her and how she has been represented in them, to come to a complete understanding of how and why we view Lucrezia Borgia in the way we do today.
Much of what we know of her life, particularly from the time that her father became pope, comes to us from several sources, the primary one being the Vatican scribe Johann Burchard. Burchard was a German who acted as Master of Ceremonies under five different popes, including Alexander VI. His diary, entitled the Liber Notarum, is widely considered by many historians to be a mostly accurate description of events that occurred during the reign of the Borgia pope. However, there are still times Burchard must be looked at in a critical eye. Borgia scholar Ivan Cloulas writes “Everything was noted painstakingly in this veritable ‘sacristan’s book,’ but between these descriptions Burckard maliciously sneaked in accounts of the excesses and scandals, the Vatican gossip, and the verses and pamphlets that inundated Rome under Alexander VI.” Cloulas recounts the increasing importance that Burchard’s journal took on in any work done on the Borgia’s, noting that by the late 1600’s, “…nothing could be written about the Borgia’s without reference to the ‘bible’ which Burckard’s day-to-day jottings had become.” Ferdinand Gregorovius, one of Lucrezia’s many biographers, writes of Burchard and Lucrezia: “He must have called upon her frequently, but she could scarcely have foreseen that, centuries later, this Alastian’s notes would constitute the mirror in which posterity would see the reflections of the Borgias. His diary, however, gives no details concerning Lucrezia’s private life—this did not come within his duties.” Suffice it to say that Burchard is probably the primary chronicler of events that happened during the Borgia reign. Other chroniclers included Florentine author Francesco Gucciardini, who wrote The History of Italy and has an undoubted anti-Borgia bias, as well as Camillo Beneimbene, the legal advisor of Pope Alexander VI. Letters, diaries, legal documents, and other records of the day comprise a vast collection of information with which historical facts regarding Lucrezia Borgia can be gleaned. Given the controversial nature of the Borgia family and the apparent biases of many of their chroniclers, it is no wonder that many of the accounts of Lucrezia’s life have been tainted at times, and given that her brother and father both engaged in corrupt and immoral practices, it is also no surprise that some scholars have adopted an attitude of guilt by association.
Several early works were written about the Borgia’s in the century after their reign in the papacy ended, many of which were inspired by the Burchard journal and most of which recounted several of the salacious details within. Such early authors include Paolo Giovio, Onofrio Panvinio, Geronimo Zurita, and Theodore Godefroy. These all relied, to one extent or another, on the Burchard journal as a source of inspiration for their works. In 1696, a particularly sensational account of the Borgias was written by a scholar named Leibnitz, who published it under the title Specimen Historiae Arcanae, sive anecdotae de vita Alexandri VI Papae. Lebinitz wrote “there has never been a court more contaminated with crime than that of Alexander VI, where shamelessness, treachery, and cruelty were the rule—three capital vices, all three crowned by villainy and covered with the sacred veil of religion.” Following this account was one written by British historian Alexander Gordon, who wrote Lives of Pope Alexander VI and His Son Cesare Borgia in 1729. Of Lucretia he writes in the Preface “Lucretia, Alexander’s daughter…as famous for Lewdness, as the Roman Lucretia for Chastity.” Although he certainly personifies the anti-Borgia attitude of writings during that time, he did document his sources and his book is called by Cloulas “…the first example of a documented study on the Borgias.”
Following the Gordon book, a number of other scholars wrote works regarding the Borgia family. Continuing in the vein of the works that followed before them, they were far from unbiased. “If these writers aimed at objectivity in regard to their sources, their story was always told anything but dispassionately. In that philosopher’s age, each one was intent on denouncing the Borgia’s crimes and their scorn for public and private morality.” One of these chroniclers was noted French writer Voltaire, who in his 1756 work Essai sur les moeurs, questions the charges of poison against the Borgias, but “repeats the accusations of incest against Lucrezia as well as Cesare’s crimes.” This accusation, mentioned in almost every account of Lucrezia Borgia’s life, does not seem to have any evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to support it, but it is not uncommon that it should be repeated by even such a famous author as Voltaire.
But perhaps one of the most influential works in shaping the legend of Lucrezia as a corrupt and evil woman was introduced by another noted French author, Victor Hugo. In his 1833 play Lucrece Borgia, he wrote, “Who, actually, is this Lucrezia Borgia? Take the most hideous, the most repulsive, the most complete moral deformity; place it where it fits best—in the heart of a woman whose physical beauty and royal grandeur will make the crime stand out all the more strikingly…” Hugo, perhaps as much as any other author, is responsible for promoting Lucrezia to heights of villainy which no evidence shows that she deserved. Hugo made clear where his inspiration came from. “The author will remain silent in the face of criticism…He could, no doubt, answer more than one objection….To those who reproach him for exaggerating Lucrezia Borgia’s crimes he will say, ‘Go and read Tomasi, read Guicciardini and, above all, read the Diarium.’” The play depicts Lucrezia as a murderous villain who accidentally even poisons her own son. Lucrezia waxes eloquent in the play on her ability as a poisoner. “A dreadful poison, a poison, the very thought of which makes every Italian grow pale—everyone who knows the history of these last twenty years. And no one in the world knows the antidote to this terrible concoction, no one save the pope, the duke of Valentinois and myself.” Maria Bellonci, in her biography of Lucrezia, notes Hugo’s role in bestowing the reputation of poisoner upon Lucrezia. “This was the epoch of the famous Borgia poison which was for centuries to be synonymous with the family name, and with which even Lucrezia’s name was to be associated—the dark imagination of the Romantics, and especially Victor Hugo, turning her into a poisoner and evil genius.” Hugo’s play was adapted into an opera by Gaetano Donizetti and was first performed in December of 1833. The opera has been performed in famous concert halls around the world and helped to perpetuate the myth of Lucrezia as villain.
Other noted authors took up their pens to write of the crimes of the Borgia’s, lumping Lucrezia in with her brother and father. Alexandre Dumas, celebrated author of works such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote of the Borgia family in his popular series Les crimes celebres, published in the same decade as Hugo’s work. Of Lucrezia, he intimates that her relationship with her brother Cesare was incestuous, calling her “the mistress of his illicit affection.” Of Lucrezia, Rodrigo, and Cesare, he states that “…the three composed that diabolical trio which for eleven years occupied the pontifical throne, like a mocking parody of the Holy Trinity.” Noted historian Jakob Burckhardt, in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, stated of the Borgia family “Those who were not slain by the Borgias’ dagger perished by their poison.”
In the mid to late 1800’s, the Borgia reputation finally received somewhat of a defense. First came authors who felt the need to swing in the opposite direction, among them Abbe Ollivier and Father Leonetti, who attempted to deny everything that had been written about the Borgia name. They sought to clear the Borgias of all charges. This sparked an interest in a “documentary rediscovery of the Borgia story.” Guiseppe Campori released a study on Lucrezia in 1866 entitled Una vittima della Storia, based on documents taken from the Este family archives in Modena. This was followed by German scholar Ferdinand Gregorovius’ work in 1874 on the life of Lucrezia Borgia, which “set a date for the scientific approach to the history of the Borgia’s.” Gregorovius’s work sought to examine Lucrezia in a historical light, and represented her much more kindly than most previous works had done. In his final remarks, he states “The original sources from which the material for this book has been derived would place the reader in a position to form his own opinion regarding Lucrezia Borgia, and his view would approximate the correct one, or at least would be nearer correct than the common conception of this woman.” He certainly is not always kind, calling her “weak and characterless” and stating that she did not possess great qualities. But he deviated from most of the previous Lucrezia biographers in his attempt to portray her not as an evil genius or a corrupt and wanton woman, but rather he makes clear “We are endeavouring to represent her only as she actually was…a woman differentiated from the great mass of women, not by the strength, but by the graciousness, of her nature.” Gregorovius may not have been completely kind to the image of Lucrezia, but he separated himself from other biographers by attempting to portray her as she was.
Several more works on the Borgia family followed, and in the twentieth century several authors dedicated themselves to trying to use psychology to analyze the Borgias. Authors such as Louis Gastine, who wrote a historical novel on Lucrezia, and Milanese physician Giuseppe Portigliotti, who wrote a psychiatric analysis of the Borgia family, followed this approach. Then in 1939, Lucrezia found another biographer willing to champion her cause and in some measure, rehabilitate her image, in the form of Italian author Maria Bellonci. Bellonci published a biography of Lucrezia, defending her against many of the charges that had been laid against her. Bellonci’s work is perhaps one of the most important biographies in terms of rehabilitating the image of Lucrezia Borgia. Gregorovius may be responsible for establishing a method for analyzing Lucrezia in a more historical light, but Bellonci is perhaps more influential in allowing students of history to rethink the Lucrezia mythos. She offers explanations for the charges against Lucrezia concerning poison, incest, and the other accusations that she has so often faced. Further, she represents her as a lady of intelligence and also somewhat of a tragic figure who was subject to misfortune and grief in her life.
Following Bellonci’s work, many other authors and even filmmakers have come to regard Lucrezia Borgia in a new light, although the idea of her as a villain still exists in much of popular culture. The Abel Gance directed French film Lucrezia Borgia, released in 1935, represents Lucrezia in the much more sympathetic light of Bellonci and Gregorovius. Both it and the 1953 French film Lucrece Borgia are much more famous for their all nude bath scenes of Lucrezia than they are for any real groundbreaking work on the character herself, however. Following the Bellonci book, most biographies and non-fiction works on Lucrezia seem to take much the same view as Bellonci on the famous daughter of Pope Alexander. Rachel Erlanger, in 1978, published a somewhat sympathetic look at the life of Lucrezia Borgia. In it, she postulates, like others before her, that the incest rumors were the result of Giovanni Sforza and his anger at being forced to declare that he had failed to consummate his marriage. She presents Lucrezia as merely a pawn of her fathers, saying of her first marriage, “…the experience would leave her with a realization of how little voice she had in her own destiny.” She also defends Lucrezia against the charges of poison, saying of accusations that Lucrezia kept a poison ring, “…the only so called poisoned rings which have come to light belong to a much later period. So much for the poison of the Borgias.” Erlanger’s work is followed by a comprehensive look at the Borgia family by French author Ivan Cloulas, who published in 1989 his book, The Borgias, in which he attempts to tackle the Borgia mythos in a historical light, commenting in the prologue that “This caricature is the result of centuries of hostile writings.” He also treats Lucrezia in a much kinder light than her earlier biographers did.
The twenty first century has seen, in some respects, Lucrezia come full circle. One of the most recent biographers, Sarah Bradford, published her work on Lucrezia Borgia in 2004, and she again follows the vein of most modern historians in presenting Lucrezia as a somewhat sympathetic figure who was a pawn of her father and brother. She explains the incest as probably being due to the accusations of Giovanni Sforza, and believed because of the closeness of the Borgia family. Renaissance historian Christopher Hibbert, in 2008, released another comprehensive look at Borgia family and the conflicts they faced during their rise to power, entitled The Borgias and Their Enemies. In it, he also defends Lucrezia against the charge of incest, attributing it to Giovanni Sforza, stating “The rumours of incest, a sin as offensive then as it is now, spread like wildfire through Rome and all of Italy. Born out of Giovanni’s desire for revenge on the family who were taunting him so unfairly, the story stuck.” While he does not hold back from shedding further light on the crimes of Cesare and Alexander VI, Hibbert again treats Lucrezia as merely a puppet of their own power struggles.
However, contemporary popular culture sources have not always been so kind to Lucrezia. The author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo, wrote The Family in 2001, a fictional retelling of the Borgia mythos, in which the Pope not only sanctions but actually observes Lucrezia and Cesare consummating an incestuous relationship in order to maintain control over the loyalty of his family. Celebrated author Gregory Maguire placed Lucrezia in the role of antagonist in his 2003 work, Mirror, Mirror, which is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. In it, Lucrezia Borgia resumes the popular role of an incestuous poisoner. She is angered at the protagonist, Bianca, because her brother Cesare is attracted to her; “Her own brother, the tenderest swift soldier ever to enter her bed—groping at a child.” Later, Lucrezia ponders the long history of poison in her family. “So she fell back, at last, to the tradition perfected by her ancestors. What a library of recipes they’d amassed—poisons that had killed cardinals and princes, dukes and their wives, inconvenient lovers overstaying their welcome.” Other contemporary sources feature a different take, one much more in the Bellonci-Gregorovius mold. Roberta Gellis’s 2003 work Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons features Lucrezia in a sort of Renaissance Italian “who-done-it” murder mystery, where Lucrezia is forced to investigate someone else’s death by poisoning in order to defend her reputation. In 2006, a Spanish language film entitled Los Borgia, directed by Antonio Hernandez, was released and also portrays Lucrezia in a kinder light, showing her again to be a pawn of her father and brother.
So in the future, what can we expect of the Lucrezia Borgia mythos? It is unlikely that any new documentation will turn up exposing Lucrezia to be the poisoner and embodiment of evil that she is in legend, so future biographers will likely continue to follow in the Gregorovius and Bellonci form, since this seems to be the most likely interpretation of the character of Lucrezia Borgia. In terms of popular culture, new works seem to have flourished depicting Lucrezia in this more sympathetic light, and this trend is likely to continue. The latest screen depiction, Showtime’s series The Borgia’s, cast Lucrezia in a empathetic and not completely unfavorable light. However, the idea of Lucrezia as evil villainess is too delicious for many writers to ignore, so it is unlikely that the Lucrezia of legend will completely go away, either.
So what can the body of work done on Lucrezia Borgia tell us regarding her character? In her book, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, author Merry Wiesner-Hanks dedicates a chapter to talking about the subject of gender and power. In it, she discusses Niccolo Machiavelli’s work, The Prince, in which he praises the actions of Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia’s older brother. Says Wiesner-Hanks, “For Machiavelli, effective rulers—and effective men—had the ability to shape the world around them according to their will and used whatever means necessary to preserve order and security.” This is telling when taken in context with the vast body of scholarly work done on the Borgia family, because it seems evident, particularly in the works of authors such as Ferdinand Gregorovius, Maria Bellonci, and Rachel Erlanger, that Lucrezia was subject not to her own will, but rather to the will of her father and brother, who sought to use her as a pawn in their attempt to shape the world around them. Early works about Lucrezia generally put her in the position of a woman using any means possible to control her world, but through the scholarly efforts of historians, the common understanding of Lucrezia today is that she was not the Lucrezia of legend, but rather a woman who was used by her family in the great power struggles of fifteenth century Italy.
Bellonci, Maria. The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. Tr. Bernard and Barbara Wall. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953.
Bradford, Sarah. Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Cloulas, Ivan. The Borgias. Tr. Gilda Roberts. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.
Dumas, Alexandre. The Crimes of the Borgias. Lexington: Fearlesspublishing.net, 2009.
Erlanger, Rachel. Lucrezia Borgia. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand. Lucrezia Borgia: A Chapter from the Morals of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1948.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.
Maguire, Gregory. Mirror, Mirror. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.
Puzo, Mario. The Family. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
 Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 334
 Ibid., p.335
 Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 81-82
 Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 334-334
 Ibid., p. 335
 Ibid., p. 336
 Ibid., p. 337
 Ibid., p. 337
 Ibid., p. 337
 Ibid., p. 339-340
 Ibid., p. 340
 Ibid., p. 340
 Bellonci, The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia, p. 217
 Dumas, The Crimes of the Borgias, p.71
 Ibid., p. 27
 Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 340
 Ibid., p. 341
 Ibid., p. 341
 Ibid., p. 341
 Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia, p.231
 Ibid., p. 96
 Ibid., p. 96
 Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 342-343
 Erlanger, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 100
 Ibid., p. 104
 Ibid., p. 228
 Cloulas, The Borgias, p. vii
 Bradford, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 67
 Hibbert, The Borgias and Their Enemies, p. 113
 Puzo, The Family, p. 46-47
 Maguire, Mirror, Mirror, p. 121
 Ibid., p. 236
 Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, p. 293