Lucrezia Borgia, by Sarah Bradford
Lucretia Borgia 'not incestuous sex-mad poisoner'
By Bruce Johnston in Rome
Lucretia Borgia did not poison anyone and probably did not have an incestuous affair with Pope Alexander VI, her father, art experts and historians said yesterday.
Spanish gentry controlled the Papacy through intrigue, murder and marriage in the 15th and 16th centuries and latest claims are part of an effort to rehabilitate one of the most notorious members of the Borgia dynasty.
They coincide with the opening this week of "The Borgias, the Art of Power", an exhibition at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome of 234 works from 54 museums.
The family included the popes Calixtus III and Alexander VI, Lucretia's father, along with many cardinals, and spawned legends of plots, murders and incest.
"The aim of the show is to put the record straight," said Learco Andalo, one of the world's leading experts on the Borgias, who organised the exhibition.
"The Borgias are the victims of biased historical accounts, based on malicious rumour," he said yesterday. "Lucretia poisoned no one. She was poisoned by the pen of history and 19th century romanticism."
"Lucretia was instead a gifted stateswoman," Mr Andalo said. "She even ran the Vatican in her father's absence."
Clara Alfano, the show's curator added: "Contrary to what people think, Lucretia never poisoned anyone, even though poisoning was all the rage at the time. She did kill with a sword, though.
"Nor were claims that she had had an incestuous relationship with her own father true, probably. Her first marriage, to Giovanni Sforza, was annulled because he was declared impotent, and to protect his name he probably spread the rumour of incest."
Born in 1480, Lucretia was married three times, the first time before she was a teenager. After the marriage was dissolved she went on to be impregnated by her father's emissary while she was staying in a nunnery, but was nonetheless later declared a virgin by the Vatican.
Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
421pp, Viking, £25
at diplomacy and dancing
Sarah Dunant reviews Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford.
Just before the papal election of 1492, a train of mules loaded with silver was seen leaving Roderigo Borgia's palace for the home of Cardinal Sforza, whose support was to prove decisive in the election conclave. Alexander VI, as Roderigo became, was a man who attracted women "more powerfully than the magnet influences iron" and already had six children when he took over the papacy. In an age when blood was thicker than holy water, he immediately set about using his family to create a temporal empire to go with his spiritual one. The timing was perfect. His favourite son, Cesare, was smart and already pathologically ambitious, while Cesare's sister, Lucrezia, was beautiful, well-educated, and – most important of all – almost 13 years old, and so of marriageable age.
It is a sad but accurate reflection of the life of Lucrezia Borgia that the first part of Sarah Bradford's biography is so obsessed with the fortunes and ambitions of her family that the young woman herself barely comes out of the shadows. History has largely exonerated Lucrezia from the more outrageous accusations of contemporary gossip: she didn't sleep with her father (there would barely have been room in the bed), she didn't poison anyone and, though she may have had an illegitimate child around the age of 20 (Bradford is coy about this), she was certainly not "the greatest whore there ever was in Rome", as one malicious chronicler labelled her.
Lucrezia was a high-class pawn on the political chessboard of Renaissance Italy, a piece in a game that was complex and devious. Amid shifting allegiances, Lucrezia's first two marriages had early sell-by dates: one was annulled on grounds of non-consummation, the other ended by murder at the instigation of her brother. Our knowledge of Lucrezia's feelings on all this are sketchy, not least because she had a tendency to retire to a convent whenever things got too hot around her – Bradford argues that the inclination was politically astute.
Cesare Borgia (whom Bradford knows a lot about since she has been his biographer, too) makes a good villain. His only real champion was Machiavelli, who saw in him the archetype for his own pragmatically ruthless prince. For others, there will always be too much of the Renaissance godfather about him for historical rehabilitation; witness the moment of mobster chic when, in the spirit of conciliation, he invited a set of conspirators to visit him and proceeded to whack them before they whacked him.
After her father's and brother's deaths, Lucrezia comes to life. By now she is Duchess of Ferrara (the result of her third and final marriage) and a political player in her own right. Despite its shaky beginnings – the Borgias were seen as upstarts and the Este family had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the union – the marriage was happy. Lucrezia delivered three heirs and proved herself an energetic, capable and clever consort, as adept at diplomacy as she was at dancing. As befits the family legend – and even Bradford can't resist seeing Lucrezia's sensuality as hereditary – she took lovers: first the humanist Pietro Bembo, then the coarse but apparently magnetic Francesco Gonzago, the ruler of nearby Mantua. This affair was spiced up by the fact that not only was Gonzago's wife Lucrezia's sister-in-law but the vagaries of Italian politics later found Gonzago leading an army against Ferrara.
Bradford mixes great dollops of Renaissance court glamour into her book: rich wardrobes, fabulous retinues, bizarre cosmetics (face creams made from the innards of white doves mixed with mercury and cabbages) and extravagant lists of dishes from state banquets. Yet despite all this colour, it is the darker threads of illness, murder, infant death, the politics of brutality and the dynastic poison of syphilis which dominate this tapestry of Renaissance Italy.
One incident in particular sums this up brilliantly. Lucrezia's brother, Juan, is murdered and his body discovered in the river. In the orgy of revenge that follows, someone finds a local tradesman who spotted the body being dumped. When the tradesman is asked why he hadn't reported it earlier, he replies: "Over various nights I've seen more than a hundred bodies thrown into the river right at this spot and never heard of anyone troubling themselves about them."
While Lucrezia Borgia may have walked a tightrope between power and terror, fame and infamy, she was still luckier than many.
Andrew Fenner , "Heart of Darkness"
Light on Lucrezia
Lucrezia the infamous
Pietro Bembo and Lucrezia Borgia
The Unhappy Life of Lucrezia Borgia
Lucrezia – The Crime Library
October 10, 2004
Biography: Lucrezia Borgia: Love, Life and Death in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Bradford
REVIEWED BY MIRANDA SEYMOUR
LUCREZIA BORGIA: Love, Life and Death in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Bradford
Viking £25 pp421
Twenty-eight years ago, Sarah Bradford, the respected biographer, wrote a well-received life of Cesare Borgia, the brilliant and sinister son of Pope Alexander VI, and brother to Lucrezia. Why has she waited so long to return to the period? A tribute to her husband for his help in translating “thousands of manuscript pages” suggests that there was undiscovered material about Lucrezia. This, while it would explain the delay, is hardly the case.
Few letters survive, notably a handful to Lucrezia’s lover, Pietro Bembo, and her brother-in-law, Francesco Gonzaga. None is new. Bradford’s richly detailed book is unlikely to change the contemporary view about a pretty, submissive and, latterly, pious young woman who died at just 39.
This was how Lucrezia was seen at the time when Byron, reading her letters in Milan, surreptitiously removed a strand of her golden hair from the locket she had sent to her lover. Passionately attached to his own half-sister, the poet felt kinship with a girl who was, in the 19th century, assumed to have had a sexual relationship with Cesare and to have played a role in the notorious celebrations which the more scurrilous Renaissance chroniclers loved to describe.
It has long since been established that Lucrezia’s main claim to fame is through her third marriage, to Alfonso d’Este, heir to the powerful Duke of Ferrara. Bradford has no quarrel with the modern view of Lucrezia; she portrays a woman whose life was directed by her ruthless family. Lucrezia’s first marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation; her husband was lucky to escape with his life. Her second husband, a Neapolitan chosen as part of a papal strategy to gain a foothold in the South, was murdered by Cesare’s henchmen when Pope Alexander changed alliances and lost interest in Naples. Cesare’s claims of provocation weren’t disputed; nobody quarrelled with Cesare Borgia at the height of his power.
Lucrezia’s distress about this brutal introduction to widowhood is not in doubt; nor is the fact that she was as keen as her father to marry again. Her love for Cesare was passionate and unswerving; her feelings for the Pope are harder to discern. He is said to have run weeping from window to window as he watched her depart for Ferrara; there are no reports of Lucrezia’s tears.
Bradford writes authoritatively on the politics of the time, but this was a period of fierce internecine fighting that many readers will find hard to follow. She writes well, too, on the years in Ferrara, when Lucrezia was in competition with the brilliant Isabella d’Este, with whose husband, Francesco Gonzaga, she became closely involved. Bradford presents the relationship as passionately sexual; others point out that many of their coded letters were written when she was heavily pregnant and Gonzaga was almost destroyed by syphilis. It is possible that many of the letters concerned the protection of Ferrara; one, for example, told Gonzaga that Lucrezia placed a value of 25,000 ducats on his coming to the besieged city. This does not sound much like love. Gonzaga was a celebrated military man; this, not sexual services, may have been his value.
Bradford clearly likes Lucrezia. She dwells on her charming manner, love of clothes, loyalty to her brother and, in later life, to her adoptive city. Yet the personality eludes her; elaborately informative in its descriptions of feasts, courts and costumes, the book offers only glimpses of Lucrezia herself, gay, smiling and remote as a figure in a Renaissance tapestry. She remains — and perhaps always will — unknowable.
10 October 2004
Lucrezia Borgia has become one of the greatest icons of female monstrosity in the Western imagination, her name indelibly associated with murder, incest and all manner of decadent depravity. In the 19th century, Victor Hugo and Donizetti turned her into a melodramatic anti-heroine. Byron stole one of her long golden hairs from an archive in Milan where it had survived folded up in a letter. Yet according to Sarah Bradford, the real Lucrezia never murdered anyone.
Why, then, has her notoriety come to exceed that of her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother Cesare, whose bloodthirsty ruthlessness is so well documented that it cannot be denied? The reason, one infers from this fascinating biography, has to do less with historical fact than with cultural assumptions about gender. Women who kill have always exerted a peculiarly powerful, misogynistic, fascination. If the collective cruelty of the Borgia family has been imaginatively centred on Lucrezia, it is simply because she was female.
While sweeping away the homicidal maniac of myth, Bradford does not pretend that Lucrezia was a wide-eyed innocent. Instead, she presents us with a strong-willed, intelligent woman, highly educated and highly sexed. Rooted in archival research - for the period, it is extraordinary how many letters survive and how revealing they are - this biography tells a story more complex than the legend but in many ways no less colourful.
Lucrezia was born in 1480, the illegitimate daughter of the rapaciously ambitious Rodrigo Borgia, whose subsequent election as Pope raised him to a position of unparalleled power in Christendom. At the age of 13, she was married off to a Sforza lord for political purposes. Four years later, when the alliance ceased to be useful, she was made to divorce her husband on the grounds, unflattering to him, of non-consummation. Insulted, he spread the rumour that she was having a sexual relationship with her father, a story which seemed to gain credence when she gave birth to a son a few months later.
Sceptical of such lurid Renaissance gossip, Bradford suggests instead that the baby, which died, was the result of an affair with a young courtier who was found dead in mysterious circumstances, possibly killed on the orders of Lucrezia's brother Cesare. If this is so, it may not have troubled Lucrezia too much. Her next husband, the Duke of Bisceglie, was undoubtedly strangled at Cesare's command, but her love for her brother was such that she forgave him.
By the time she was 21, then, Lucrezia had already had two husbands. Though she had clearly been married off on both occasions as a political pawn, her father was not without respect for her abilities, making her governor of Spoleto in her teens. Yet she did not truly come into her own until she married for the third time, into the famous Este family, and became Duchess of Ferrara in 1501.
Among the luxurious items - which mainly consisted of opulent clothing such as a violet satin cape lined with ermine and decorated with 84 rubies, 29 diamonds and 115 pearls - Lucrezia took with her to her new home on her third marriage was her private library of extravagantly bound volumes, including Dante and Petrarch. Brought up in the tradition of the Renaissance learned lady, she was fluent in Italian, Catalan, French and Latin, and, in addition to the other courtly arts such as dancing, she had been taught to compose verse. She also had some knowledge of Greek, which would have been unusual even for a man at the time. In Ferrara, she promoted the arts vigorously, while secretly conducting an intense romantic affair with the humanist Pietro Bembo. It was from one of her passionate letters to Bembo that the trophy-hunting Byron extracted one of her hairs.
Bembo in the end retreated, probably afraid of what might happen to him if the relationship were made known. Lucrezia, however, seems to have thrived on risk-taking, as she subsequently pursued an even more dangerous liaison with the husband of her sister-in-law Isabella d'Este.
Sarah Bradford gives every indication of how exciting it must have been immersing herself in the Borgia papers. Despite a vast cast of characters, Bradford keeps the thread of her narrative untangled and provides a portrait of a woman who, while not exactly likeable, emerges as an impressive figure full of human contradictions.
Beauty, not a beast
BORGIA: LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH IN RENAISSANCE ITALY
Penguin/Viking, £25, pp.421, ISBN:0670913456
Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most notorious women in history. Fabled as a poisoner and sexual temptress, her reputation is so fearsome largely because she was unjustly associated with the misdeeds of her brother, the truly appalling Cesare Borgia. Lucrezia has had her defenders, but even these have done her few favours. They tend to be dismissive of her, exonerating her of serious crimes on the grounds that she was an utterly passive figure, manipulated by her male relations. Having already written a biography of Cesare Borgia, Sarah Bradford is well qualified to ensure that Lucrezia is no longer unfairly overshadowed.
In her own lifetime Lucrezia was dogged
by controversy and scandal. She was the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal
Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. The following year,
13-year-old Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza whose family ruled Milan.
Before very long this union became politically inconvenient, so the Pope
annulled it on the grounds of non-consummation. Lucrezia was declared to be
still a virgin, but the claim ‘set all Italy laughing’, not least because she
was rumoured to be having an affair with her father. That report was probably
false, but it seems likely that she had been sleeping with one of Alexander’s
servants, a handsome young Spaniard named Perotto. When his body was fished out
of the Tiber, it was universally assumed that he had been murdered on the orders
of Cesare Borgia, himself suspected of incest with his sister.
Her second husband, the Duke of Biseglie, was still more unfortunate than his predecessor. He was a member of the Neapolitan ruling dynasty, but when his family fell from power Cesare Borgia decided that the marriage must be terminated. Poor Biseglie was attacked and wounded by an unknown assailant on the steps of St Peter’s, but survived this first attempt on his life. Lucrezia nursed him back to health, preparing all his food as a precaution against poison, but ultimately proved unable to protect him. Cesare arranged for her to be called out of the room, and then had his brother-in-law suffocated by a henchman. Since Lucrezia had been fond of her husband she was naturally upset that he had been dispatched in this manner. However, the incident does not seem to have shaken her affection for Cesare, to whom she remained devoted until he predeceased her, aged 30.
Within months of Biseglie’s murder the Borgias were trying to negotiate a more advantageous match for Lucrezia, this time with Alfonso d’Este, eldest son of the Duke of Ferrara. Her prospective father-in-law was understandably reluctant to ally his heir to a woman ‘stained with great infamy’, but he dared not insult Cesare Borgia by rejecting the proposal. Accordingly the marriage went ahead, and proved surprisingly successful. One visitor to Ferrara enthused that Lucrezia was ‘a pearl’, who did her husband ‘great service’ by being ‘beautiful and good, gentle and amiable’.
One of the few people not won over by Lucrezia was her supercilious sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco Gon- zaga, Marquis of Mantua. Irked that Lucrezia was her superior in both rank and glamour, she criticised her brother’s new bride for oversleeping and spending too much time washing her hair. Lucrezia revenged herself by becoming Francesco Gonzaga’s mistress, conducting an affair lasting several years while remaining on good terms with her own husband.
Sarah Bradford writes with cool authority and her research in Italian archives is exemplary. No other biography is likely to bring us closer to Lucrezia, even if some aspects of her personality remain indistinct. The sources are wonderfully full on matters such as Lucrezia’s taste in clothes, food and interior decoration, but do not always afford more intimate insights. Even Lucrezia’s letters to her lover Gonzaga are (understandably, given the risks of adultery) so circumspect that they are less revealing than one might wish. To the end, therefore, Lucrezia retains an air of mystery, but Bradford is wholly successful in showing that she was far from being the monster of legend, and much more than a vacuous blonde.
Sarah Bradford sticks to the personal in her biography of Lucrezia Borgia, but sadly can't bring her to life, says David Jays
Sunday October 24, 2004
Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
by Sarah Bradford
Viking £25, pp421
The most compelling thing about Lucrezia Borgia are the lurid rumours that eddied around her. They whispered that she committed incest with her father Alexander, and maybe her brother. Rumour maintained she had a hand in the poisonings which removed unwanted rivals. Sarah Bradford, returning to the Borgias after biographies of the Windsors and Kennedys, is keen to confer respectability on her Renaissance heroine.
The Borgias moved through a fog of intrigue and bottom-line alliances. Princelings test poisons on cats and doves; brothers are blinded and assassinated; there's a particularly revolting scam involving olive oil and syphilis. In general, Bradford wrinkles her nose at this Renaissance unpleasantness and returns to inking in the family trees.
Bradford has clearly never met a list she didn't like: she catalogues in-laws, menus, masques and wardrobes. Page after page is devoted to Borgia bling.
Each of Lucrezia's marriages was made for strategy, and was plotted for maximum political and financial gain by her family. First betrothed at 10, she married husband number one at 13, in 1493. When a better prospect was in view, her husband was bullied into accepting a divorce on grounds of non-consummation.
The second got on the wrong side of Alexander and Cesare, Lucrezia's brother, whose henchman had him suffocated.
Husband number three was heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, a practical man, handy with a lathe, who built foundries in the gardens. His second marriage was not without passion. The new couple made love three times during their first night together. Neither partner was faithful: Lucrezia enjoyed a romance with a poet and a long relationship with her bisexual brother-in-law, Francesco: rugged, violent, fond of sex and horses.
Lucrezia and her kin were close enough to corruption to become disenchanted, but she appears to have maintained a faith that grew as she got older. Even in her youth, she would retreat to the nearest convent and wait for awkward family conflicts to unknot themselves.
How deep was her faith? Perhaps it operated as a sideways bet against damnation. Her third father-in-law collected nuns, preferably sisters who displayed stigmata, and his opposition to the marriage was mollified when Lucrezia helped him add to his collection.
Despite all this potential colour, Lucrezia remains monochrome: a canny survivor, nobody's fool. It's hardly enough to justify this slab of biography. Sarah Bradford's study sticks to the personal: she isn't interested in economics or ideology. History, for her, is about people, which is why it is doubly disappointing that she's unable to make them live.
The bad girl of
Kathryn Hughes appreciates Sarah Bradford's reappraisal of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia
Saturday October 23, 2004
Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
by Sarah Bradford
368pp, Penguin, £25
It says something about the reputation of the Borgia family that when, one hot day in 1503, two of them went down with violent nausea, everyone immediately assumed that they had somehow managed to poison one another by mistake. In fact, on this occasion it looks as though Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare may simply have been the victim of some bad seafood or a nasty bout of malaria, but the point was that, as far as the talking, writing, worrying classes of Renaissance Italy were concerned, the Borgias were a byword for the dark arts of realpolitik.
No one's reputation has been damaged more by belonging to this first family of pantomime evil than Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander and sister of Cesare. Her casual reputation has been that of a murderous vamp who had only to sleep with someone before slipping something nasty into their post-coital wine. She was whispered to have had non-fraternal relations with her brother, which was the cause, 300 years later, of Lord Byron developing a perverse crush on her (he, too, was hazy about how far you could go with your own flesh and blood). Byron's thrill-seeking - he stole some of Lucrezia's golden hairs from a locket she had sent to her lover - was part of the 19th century's more general desire to turn Lucrezia into the embodiment of every kind of female transgression. By the time Victor Hugo and Donizetti had finished with her, Lucrezia Borgia could barely stand for the burden of evil that was slung around her fiendishly beautiful shoulders.
Sarah Bradford's job, then, is to dust down Lucrezia and help us to see her for what she really was - a young woman (she died at 39) who was trying to play the best game she could with the uneven hand she had been dealt. The first dud card, of course, was the business of being born a girl, which meant that from the age of 13 she was being handed round like a parcel to suit her father's political game. Divorced at 17, remarried and widowed soon after (Cesare, her brother, stepped in to strangle the second husband), Lucrezia was 20 when she took up the job that was to be the making of her. As the wife of Alfonso d'Este, heir to the Duke of Ferrara, she became an accomplished stateswoman, deftly running a green and golden wedge of Adriatic Italy during her husband's many absences.
Bradford's problem is that of all biographers working in the early modern period: the stories may be there, but the characters aren't. Personal letters, which to us are carriers of private thought and feeling, were to the Borgias public documents, to be dictated to scribes. Contemporary chron iclers, meanwhile, were interested in the what and where of the story rather than the why. Even those witnesses who wrote apparently for their own eyes, such as the diarist Johannes Burchard, the Pope's master of ceremonies, seem to have thought in terms of spectacular set pieces rather than deep structure. His account of the "Chestnut Orgy" in the Vatican - where naked courtesans scrabbled for chestnuts and prizes were offered to the man who could have sex with the most women - has probably done more to blacken Lucrezia's reputation than any other event. But did Lucrezia laugh at these ghastly sights, did she squirm, or turn away, or was she at the party simply for the dancing, which she loved? None of these Burchard sees fit to tell us, so neither, alas, can Bradford.
In many places these public narratives deliver delicious detail, which Bradford makes the most of. One of Lucrezia's main duties as a Renaissance princess was to cut a bella figura wherever she went, sending a loud message about her menfolk's worth and status. Getting dressed was both a competitive sport and a political act, and the chroniclers linger with disbelieving pleasure over Lucrezia's cloak of crimson satin lined with ermine, or her sleeves of cloth of gold which hung to the floor. Even her mule would not appear in public without a wide cloth of mulberry velvet and a harness of beaten gold.
The political background to Bradford's book is a cat's cradle of intrigue and quickly shifting alliances that requires you to keep your historical wits about you at all times. Whether the end result - the conclusion that Lucrezia was quite nice really - is sufficiently new or startling to justify keeping faith with nearly 400 dense pages of plotting is unclear. The problem does not lie in Bradford's treatment or research, which is immaculate, but is part of the larger problem of how to deal with biographical subjects who lived at a time when to be a sentient human being meant something very different from what it does today.
Kathryn Hughes is writing a biography of Mrs Beeton.
29 October 2004
Lucrezia Borgia has been much maligned over the centuries, charged with poisoning, incest and complicity with her father, Pope Alexander VI, and brother Cesare in their political assassinations. The blackening of her name began with the enemies of the Borgias in 16th-century Rome and was enthusiastically endorsed by the prurient Victorians.
It has taken a long time to rehabilitate the woman who, as her biographer Sarah Bradford admits, by the age of 20 had a shocking past. Born in 1480, she was forced into a first marriage at 13 for political reasons, and made to divorce aged 17. She had an illegitimate child by a lover who was murdered and thrown into the Tiber.
Her second husband was assassinated on orders of her brother, motivated by politics and jealousy. Unsurprisingly, the Duke of Ferrara fought against the proposal for his eldest son to become Lucrezia's third husband, sending anguished appeals to the King of France, who had an interest in Italy, to save him from this fate.
Bradford, returning to the Borgias after biographical forays into the dynasties of the Windsors and Kennedys, makes it clear that Lucrezia, while aware of her father and brother's infamy, was brought up in a world where male dominance was taken for granted. "She shared the curious mixture of piety, sensuality and complete indifference to sexual morality that was a feature of her family," Bradford writes, "but, when she was in a position to express herself, she would prove to be a good, kind and compassionate woman."
It must have been a trial to have such a father, "the most carnal of men", who at 70 was reported to grow younger every day and demanded that everyone join him in partying till the early hours. After the murder of her second husband, Lucrezia sought refuge in a convent, not only to give way to her grief - the Pope hated to see gloomy faces around him - but also to establish control of her life.
As it happened, her aims and those of her father coincided. Her marriage to the heir of Ferrara would remove her from her overwhelming relatives in the Vatican hothouse, and give her a new standing as the future duchess of the oldest, most aristocratic family in Italy.
The duke conceded, in the process incensing the Pope by bargaining "like a tradesman" over the dowry. Borgia, touchingly, ran from window to window at the Vatican to catch a last glimpse of his beloved daughter as she rode away.
Lucrezia charmed her widowed father-in-law on her arrival. As is evident from her portrait, she had a seductive beauty and believed in high maintenance, spending hours washing her long blonde hair. There followed a series of miscarriages and still births until Lucrezia gave birth to their first son. Bradford suggests Lucrezia's difficult pregnancies were in part due to her husband's syphilis, an occupational hazard for a virile Renaissance prince.
As Duchess of Ferrara, Lucrezia came into her own, ably managing the state while her husband was away fighting the wars endemic in 16th-century Italy. The marriage lasted until Lucrezia's death, at 37, in childbirth. Bradford sees it as becoming a happy and equal partnership. A previous biographer, Maria Bellonci, suggests Alfonso's jealousy blighted their relationship. He had cause, as Lucrezia's roving eye chanced first on Pietro Bembo, the poet, and later on Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, her brother-in-law.
Bradford claims he, rather than Bembo, was the love of her life. Gonzaga enticed her to Mantua, but his wife, the formidable Isabella d'Este, may have been an impediment. Cryptic letters went to and fro as Lucrezia tried to engineer another meeting. After their trusted messenger was found dead, with 22 stab wounds, Gonzaga went decidedly cool on the idea. Once again, Lucrezia's charms had been fatal.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Arrow
Reviewed by James Reston Jr.
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page BW08
Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
By Sarah Bradford. Viking. 421 pp. $27.95
In her essay on the art of biography, Virginia Woolf observed that the skillful biographer should focus only on "creative facts" (as opposed to all facts) if the work in question is to aspire to the level of notable historical literature. Woolf means those facts that elucidate character, and it is, after all, the character of extraordinary people that interests us most.
This is a high standard and one particularly hard to achieve with figures of medieval history. Material about their private lives, and often even their public, character-revealing lives, is hard to find or nonexistent. Researching women's lives in those male-dominated realms is an especially daunting task for the biographer. This is at the core of Sarah Bradford's problem in her book about Lucrezia Borgia.
Borgia is an interesting subject. She is sometimes considered a woman ahead of her time: ruthless, resilient, ambitious and cunning, ready to use feminine wiles, her body and even the poison cup to get what she wanted. Bradford sets out to make her subject far less interesting than her mythology. "She shared the curious mixture of piety, sensuality, and complete indifference to sexual morality that was a feature of her family," Bradford writes early in the book, "but, when she was in a position to express herself, she would prove to be a good, kind, and compassionate woman."
Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish pope, the second and most outrageous of the Borgia popes, who reigned as Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503. Alexander had captured the papacy through a disgraceful campaign of simony in which he bought off the voting cardinals with gold, castles and townships, and then, as "the most carnal of men," turned the Vatican into a bawdy house. (On page 120, we are treated to a description of a papal orgy in which 50 naked prostitutes crawl around the floor lapping up chestnuts that the pope has strewn around the Apostolic apartments.) Along the way he dealt with important affairs of state. After Christopher Columbus discovered the new world, it fell to Alexander VI to divide the world between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. And after encouraging Charles VIII of France to invade Italy and capture Naples, the pope spent much of his reign dealing with the wreckage.
But his children, Caesare, Juan and Lucrezia (not to mention a passel of lesser bastards), were a major preoccupation for Alexander. Caesare Borgia is a monster of history; he wreaked havoc throughout Italy, garroted a slew of opponents (including a husband and lover of his own sister, Lucrezia) and became his father's instrument of terror toward any who threatened to challenge Alexander's election. Juan, for whom the pope purchased the wealthy Spanish province of Gandia, ended up in the Tiber River, the victim of an assassination of which his own brother was suspected. And yet, Bradford tells us, the pope loved his children very much.
Thus, scandal, intrigue, murder and mayhem in the Holy City were the backdrop to Lucrezia Borgia's early life. She was married at the age of 13 to Giovanni Sforza, a minor, illegitimate prince and relative of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, to whom Alexander VI was indebted for his simonial election. But this marriage ended badly when Sforza associated himself with the French designs on Naples and charged that Lucrezia and her father had an incestuous relationship. (Bradford also mentions possible incest with Caesare, but neither confirms nor denies the rumors.) Alexander annulled the marriage, but Lucrezia had acquired the reputation of being "the greatest whore there ever was in Rome." Thereafter, marrying well became a problem.
Her second marriage was to another illegitimate scion of a distinguished Italian family, the Duke of Bisceglie. But Caesare Borgia took a dislike to this in-law as well and assassinated him. Bradford portrays Lucrezia as quite upset about this insult. But within two years, she arrived at a turning point in her life, when she tired of being a pawn and became ready to take control of her own life.
The last half of Bradford's biography deals with Lucrezia's turn as the Duchess of Ferrara from 1502 to her death in 1519. For this, her third marriage, the Borgias joined forces in a fascinating, arm-twisting campaign to turn this 22-year-old woman of ill repute into a paragon of virtue and gain her acceptance into the important house of Este. After this campaign succeeded, Lucrezia was welcomed with "huge acclaim and rejoicing" in Ferrara, though the reader may wonder why. We learn a lot about Lucrezia's jewels and gowns, her sumptuous surroundings and entertainments, her difficult pregnancies and her affairs, her grief over her father's death and her brother's assassination.
In her foreword, Bradford claims to have relied on thousands of papers in archives across Italy. "I have let Lucrezia speak for herself," she writes. In fact, Lucrezia speaks seldom, and when she does, she says very little of a revealing nature. With her evil shown to be reflective rather than congenital, she comes off in the end as rather ordinary for the aristocracy of the time. Absent Caesare's monstrosity and Alexander's corruption, why should we pay attention to Lucrezia?
This biography is packed with enough minor and forgettable personages to fill a small stadium and enough sidetracks to confuse even the most attentive Renaissance scholar. One is left with the impression of a writer rummaging through medieval archives, but then neglecting to do the careful sifting and discarding that Virginia Woolf would have admired.
James Reston Jr.'s new book, "Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors," will be published in the fall of 2005.
THE TLS n.º 5303 November 19, 2004
Non – toxic shock
Life, love and death in Renaissance Italy
421 pp. Penguin. £ 25
0 67091345 6
US: Viking. $27.95 0 670 03353 7
Thomas V. Cohen
Love and death in Renaissance Italy
264 pp. University of Chicago Press. $27.50
distributed in the UK by Wiley. £ 19.50
0 226 11258 6
In a “Mr Mulliner” story, P. G. Wodehouse describes the disciplinarian Nurse Wilks as “a blend of Lucretia Borgia and a Prussian sergeant-major”. Lucrezia Borgia has continued to exert an extraordinary fascination among historians and their readers. Gregorovius’ s account of Lucrezia (1874) concentrated on her Life in Rome, while the imaginative Italian biography of Lucrezia by Maria Bellonci (1939) teetered on the edge of fiction: despite immersing herself in the documents, Bellonci tended to fill the gaps a Little too creatively. She can still be recommended, even in the truncated English translation (recently reprinted), for her awareness of wider events. In her new biography of Lucrezia, Sarah Bradford shows Less mastery here, sending Columbus to America too early and giving the King of Naples Sicily as well as Southern Italy; her great strength is that she brings her subject fully into focus, - using her subject’s own words.
The longstanding obsession with the Borgia family reflects a fundamental feature of their behaviour. They were a tightly knit family; they made their way from a respectable Valencian background to the papacy, lands and titles in Romagna, France and Naples, by supporting one another in the face of determined enemies. Twice in the fifteenth century, Borgias were elected to the papal throne, and twice the death of the Pope cheated them of their chance to win permanent power in Italy. Under Alexander VI, the Pope’s daughter was a significant instrument of papal policy, but Lucrezia had little choice concerning her three marriages. She played a largely passive role in the complex politics of Italy during the tumultuous period after the French invasion of Naples in 1494. Eventually, she tried to transcend internal rivalries when, as Duchess of Ferrara, she befriended the Marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, who often found himself on the opposite side in the Italian wars. Her first marriage, to the Count of Pesaro, a minor member of the great Sforza family, was made and unmade as a result of the papacy’s diplomatic needs; it was Lightly annulled, for alleged non-consummation, once Giovanni Sforza was no longer useful. Her second husband, Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, was murdered with the encouragement of her brother Cesare. Yet Lucrezia showed no resentment at this treatment: she was prostrate with grief at the news of her father’s death, and she worked hard to free Cesare from imprisonment in Spain. The Borgias, in a crisis, turned to one another. Their distrust for others was matched by distrust for them: they were derided as Marrani, secret Jews, though they claimed descent from Aragonese kings. This intimacy among the Borgias not surprisingly gave rise to rumours of incest, that Lucrezia had an unholy love for her father and/or her brother.
Lucrezia also depended on male support when her family was absent; but her intimacy with the Venetian man of letters Pietro Bembo and with the Marquis of Mantua has been interpreted as a sexual relationship. Sarah Bradford cannot prove that Lucrezia and Francesco were lovers; she simply remarks that, given their earlier history, it seems most likely that they were (without suggesting that Francesco fathered any of her many children, and without proving rumours of a love child attributed to the young Lucrezia).
So, while she easily demonstrates that Lucrezia was no Renaissance poisoner, Bradford leaves her with her reputation as an adulteress. Yet one of the great strengths of her book is her reliance on the correspondence with and about Lucrezia in the archives of Modena and Mantua, cited at length in careful translation. And this seems to prove Lucrezia’s constant need to depend on the advice and support of powerful men. Secret correspondence, the language of love, even public caresses, were of great psychological importance to her, but they were also an expression of the courtliness later brilliantly described by Baldassare Castiglione in his Cortegiano; his stage set was Urbino, but a principal character was Pietro Bembo.
Sarah Bradford provides a very full, readable and soundly based account of Lucrezia Borgia’s years in Ferrara. Several Lucrezias also appear in Thomas V. Cohen’s series of microhistories from late sixteenth-century Rome, tales of vengeance, crime, rape and prostitution involving cardinals, nuns and common people. Like Maria Bellonci, he grapples with the problem of how a historian can dare to fill the gaps: “nothing added and, meanwhile, so much taken away!”. He is tempted to add the smell of marjoram to his narratives, but (unlike Bellonci) is reluctant to make the imaginative leap. He confesses that his tales may not have a weighty point, but “God is in the details”. He also tells us how to find the best bar near the Rome archives, and where to buy olive bread. The lively, eccentric style lifts Love and Death in Renaissance Italy above antiquarianism; but, like Lucrezia Borgia, Cohen’s women have to endure a mainly passive role in history.
15th century temptress just had bad press
Sunday, December 19, 2004
Life, Love and Death
in Renaissance Italy
By Sarah Bradford
VIKING; 421 PAGES; $27.95
Lucrezia Borgia is long overdue for a makeover -- six centuries overdue, to be exact. Born the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI and married off by the time she was 13, the 15th century temptress has been synonymous in the history books with murder, incest and High Renaissance papal intrigue. But was Lucrezia the woman truly as notorious as Lucrezia the myth?
British author Sarah Bradford tackles her story, determined to overturn centuries of bad press for the villainess, emphasizing that young Lucrezia was raised in a world rife with Machiavellian maneuverings. Rome in the rinascimento was a place where sexual intrigue and vendettas were an accepted fact of everyday life, where children were frequently betrothed in marriage while still in the womb.
Therefore it was not so unusual for Pope Alexander to marry his barely teenage daughter to the well-connected Giovanni Sforza, only to dissolve the union as soon as it no longer advanced his political interests. His reason for the church-sanctioned split? He claimed Lucrezia's husband was impotent. Eager to defend his sexual prowess, the spurned Sforza was the man responsible for starting the Borgia incest rumors; he insisted that the real motive behind the divorce was the lusty pontiff's desire to keep Lucrezia all to himself.
Bradford is quick to point out that there's little concrete evidence to support this claim, but still, the biographer proves she can dish with the best of them when necessary. Even as she's denying some of the more salacious rumors clinging to Lucrezia's legend, she faithfully includes the deliciously slanderous bits she stumbled across in her research. (One chronicler wrote that the pope's daughter was "the greatest whore there ever was in Rome," which would have been no small feat considering the number of courtesans in the city.) And when Lucrezia's second husband met with a violent end, many blamed her for the murder, though it was more likely attributable to her scheming brother, Cesare.
Still, a nagging question may begin to plague readers: Was Lucrezia only a mere pawn in an increasingly bloody game of chess, as Bradford would have us believe? The author insists that Lucrezia came into her own as a political dynamo only when she married her third husband, Alfonso d'Este, assuming the title Duchess of Ferrara. Far away from the Roman imbroglios of the troubled Borgia clan, Lucrezia became a doting mother, patron of the arts and, most notably, protector of Ferrara's Jewish citizens.
In a biography that reads with all the swift intrigue of a novel, Bradford touches upon Lucrezia's court rivalries with women, including her long-standing competition with her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, but reserves far more of the narrative for her subject's amorous liaisons. In this regard, Lucrezia the subject delivers more than ample fodder for her enthusiastic biographer. After charming Ludovico Ariosto with her legendary beauty, Lucrezia won herself a role in the author's epic poem "Orlando Furioso" before securing the love of Pietro Bembo, another great Renaissance poet who sang the praises of the duchess. (" 'If during this period you chance to find your ears are ringing it will be because I am ... writing pages about you that will still be read a century after we are gone.' ") Bradford shrinks from speculating about the true nature of the relationship between Lucrezia and Bembo, insisting that it's possible their romance was in the tradition of courtly -- not carnal -- love. Whatever their bond, the emphasis Bradford places on their friendship proves that the poet's longing missives achieved their desired effect on both their original recipient and her 21st century biographer.
But Bembo was hardly the last in a long line of Lucrezia's illustrious loves. She began a dangerous connection with her brother-in-law, the notorious womanizer Francesco Gonzaga, husband of the loathed Isabella. All of these romantic imbroglios must have served as a pleasant distraction for Lucrezia; when she wasn't shuttling to her country house to avoid the plague, she suffered from being nearly perpetually pregnant from the time she married d'Este until her death.
If Lucrezia's troubled pregnancies are heart wrenching, they offer modern readers an unexpected account of medicine in the cinquecento, particularly in the area of obstetrical care. Though attended by some of the most learned doctors in Renaissance Italy, she was still treated with largely medieval techniques and suffered several difficult deliveries, miscarriages and stillbirths before experiencing the tragedy that ultimately claimed her life at the age of 39.
The chief triumph of "Lucrezia Borgia," however, is the sheer magnitude of new research involved in the work; the author used private letters, diaries and even long-secret Vatican files, lending the portrait a tone far more credible than the sensationalized work of previous biographies. This new approach toward the life of a misunderstood woman proves that even long- despised historical figures can be rendered heroines in the end. •
Andrea Hoag is a writer and Italian translator in Lawrence, Kan.
Rachel Erlanger, Lucrezia Borgia: A Biography (E. P. Dutton, 1978)
Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most notorious women in history. She reportedly had sex with her father and brother, and poisoned people left and right to achieve her political goals and those of her family. Her name has become synonymous with murder and scandal down to the present day.
But is this reputation deserved? Rachel Erlanger thinks not. In her biography of Lucrezia Borgia she makes a compelling case for Lucrezia as a gentle, God-fearing woman who was ruthlessly used as a pawn by her scheming father, Pope Alexander VI.
The fact that Lucrezia's father was a pope speaks volumes about the time in which she lived. She was born in 1480, at a period in history when church leaders were as worldly and corrupt as any secular politician today. Cardinals and popes lived openly with mistresses and had many illegitimate children, whom they claimed proudly. They owned vast properties and lavish homes, and were blessed with enormous personal wealth. Some of them were also cursed with syphilis, "the French disease," damning proof of their licentious lifestyles.
Lucrezia's father, Pope Alexander VI, loved her dearly, and missed her terribly when she was away from him. But that love didn't prevent him from trading and selling her to whatever man could further his own political aims. She was married three times, but apparently only loved one of her husbands, who was murdered (not by Lucrezia). She fled to a convent in an effort to avoid one of the marriages, but was forced out by her father and had to accept the marriage against her will. She had many children, but was only allowed to see her oldest son at the pleasure of her husbands or father; he wasn't allowed to live with her on a regular basis.
Erlanger argues that Lucrezia never killed anyone, never schemed on her own behalf, and was not promiscuous. She certainly never had sex with members of her own family, and any extramarital affairs she may have had were prompted by loneliness and the desire to love and be loved. Erlanger argues that Lucrezia's reputation was viciously blackened by her father's and brother's political enemies. She presents much evidence from Lucrezia's own letters, as well as letters and diaries of others, and historical documents, to prove her contention.
I found this a very interesting book. A reader can learn a great deal about the customs and political climate of Italy, and can get a clear idea of the place of women in that society. Lucrezia is a sympathetic character, and, in some ways, so is her ambitious father. Erlanger's defense of Lucrezia is much more convincing than other defenses of notorious historical figures I have read, such as Mary Renault's novels about Alexander the Great, or Sharon Kay Penman's compelling, but ultimately unbelievable, whitewashing of Richard III's character.
Familiar historical figures appear in this biography, such as Michelangelo, and Pope Julius II, who commissioned the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Kings, poets, politicians are all players in this narrative. We do, however, get virtually no information about most of them except as it relates to Lucrezia. This is disappointing, considering the many fascinating people alive during her lifetime.
I have other complaints about the book as well. We get almost no information about what is going on in the rest of the world, or even the rest of Europe, except as it pertains to Lucrezia. This makes it difficult to place the events of Lucrezia's life, and the political life of Italy, in their proper context historically. For example, King Henry VIII is mentioned as taking sides in a war, but we are not told if this is before or after he broke completely with the Catholic Church and created the Church of England.
Similarly, although Erlanger often gives the season or month in which an event happens, she seldom gives the actual year, making it almost impossible to keep the chronology in one's head, and frustrating those readers who, like myself, would like to match the events in Italy with contemporaneous events in England or some other country whose history they are more familiar with.
Because of these omissions, I didn't find this book as well-rounded as many biographies I have read. I believe it helps a reader understand a historical person better when she is given information about how the political and social milieu has been formed, and how it differs from the political and social life of nearby countries.
This is a book about Lucrezia Borgia, however, not a European history, and Erlanger must be given credit for her attention to detail in that area. She remains tightly focused on her main character, and gives such telling details as what kinds of cribs Lucrezia had built for her babies, and her reactions to public spectacles in which animals were tormented and killed. This is a lively and sympathetic biography, very readable, and its subject is a fascinating woman who is in many ways representative of noblewomen of her time.