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The Borgias

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Sinners on Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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This edited article about the Borgias originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 757 published on 17th July 1976.

Lucrezia Borgia, picture, image, illustration

Lucrezia Borgia by Tancredi Scarpelli

They were brutal, bloodthirsty but brilliant, and they burst upon Europe with a speed and suddenness that was to take the civilised world by storm. Their name was Borgia, the most notorious, the most despised, the most envied, the most spectacular family of the Italian Renaissance.

In their sinister chess game of political intrigue there moved one pawn: the beautiful Lucrezia, daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI), and sister to the infamous Cesare whose name has become synonymous with treachery, cruelty and corruption.

Throughout her early life, Lucrezia was caught up in a web of intrigue so intricate, so savage and so cold-blooded, that she emerges as one of the most tragic figures of the exciting, turbulent era in history which we call the Renaissance.

She was born on April 18th, 1480, and taken from her mother at a very early age to be entrusted to the care of a young cousin of her father’s, Adriana Orsini. She grew up, surrounded by the cream of Rome’s nobility, and received a perfect education in style, manners, culture and religious piety.

At the age of 13 she was married to the middle-aged widower, Giovanni Sforza, Count of Cotignola and Lord of Pesaro, whose uncle was the Duke of Milan.

The wedding took place just ten months after her father had secured the Papacy.

From his obscure origins in Spain, Rodrigo Borgia was able to raise himself to this position of supreme power by means of bribery and promises of rich rewards. The gifts with which he was able to tempt people who were in a position to help further his aims, were rich indeed.

It is perhaps a little difficult for us to realize just how great was the power of Popes during this time in history. Besides acting as head of the Catholic Church, the pontiff was a ruler of land. Apart from Rome, he ruled Urbino, Ferrara, Bologna, Siena, Perugia and numerous other smaller cities. And when Rodrigo became Alexander VI his one object was to advance the power of his children, at whatever cost to the Papacy.

Of all his children, it was Lucrezia he loved the most. But he knew that only a son could achieve his ambitions for him. It was upon his second son, Giovanni that all his hopes rested. His eldest son, Cesare, he treated with a coldness that puzzled many, and instead of planning a career in politics for him, Alexander decided that Cesare should enter the Church.

Three years after Rodrigo became Pope, there descended upon Rome a cloud of such black terror that its citizens quaked with fear. In December the River Tiber overflowed its banks, turning the city into a land of mud. After 36 hours the waters subsided to leave the streets filled with corpses of men and animals. The people of Rome believed that it was a punishment from God for their evil ways.

Just six months later another body was discovered in the river. Nine terrible knife wounds were found on it. The throat was cut, the hands were tied together and a heavy stone hung from the neck. It belonged to Giovanni Borgia, the twenty-year-old son of the Pope. Suspicion fell on various enemies of the Borgia family, but it was not until a year later that rumours spread claiming that the murderer was the dead man’s brother: Cesare. No direct proof of Cesare’s guilt has ever been unearthed, and the crime is an enigma which has remained unsolved to this day.

With the death of Giovanni, the task of forging the Borgia dynasty fell to Cesare who at once revealed his powers of leadership, and a ruthlessness that would strike terror into the hearts of all his enemies.

It was in his hands that Lucrezia became a useful tool with which he could build up marriage ties with the most powerful families in Italy. Her marriage to Sforza was annulled in order to make her free to marry a man who would be much more useful to Cesare’s political aims. His name was Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, a handsome 18-year-old when he came to visit Rome in the summer of 1498 to meet his bride-to-be.

Though it was one of the coldest, most calculated political unions ever made, it soon became obvious that it was also going to be a love-match.

But Lucrezia’s happiness with the Duke of Bisceglie was to be short-lived. His presence in Rome had proved to be an embarrassing obstacle to Cesare’s plans for the kingdom of Naples. On July 15, 1500, the Duke was attacked by a gang of cut-throats and left for dead. His skull was split open and knife wounds covered his body. Lucrezia nursed him day and night, fearing that the murderers would strike again. And they did. A month after the attack, she found her husband strangled in his bed.

There was only one man in Rome who could commit such a deed and escape the consequences, Cesare Borgia.

The grief-stricken Lucrezia was banished to Nepi but returned later to take up her old life in Rome. There existed between this strange brother and sister a curiously close relationship. Despite the murder of the man she loved, Lucrezia was to remain Cesare’s most loyal ally and constant admirer.

It was not long after the tragedy that Cesare found another useful husband for his sister to marry, this time Alfonso of Ferrara. With this marriage, Cesare felt that his position in Italy was at last secure.

But the tide of fortune which had raised the Borgias to such spectacular heights was about to turn.

When Alexander VI died, Cesare was in Tuscany and became so ill that he was unable to return to Rome to influence the election of the next Pope. This man, Pius III, lived only a few months and it was his successor, Julius II, who was to prove such a dangerous rival to the family he hated, the Borgias.

Cesare fled at once to Naples where he was arrested and put into prison. He escaped two years later and was then killed while fighting in Spain for his brother-in-law, the King of Navarre.

His death brought about the collapse of Borgia power in Italy.

Lucrezia became Duchess of Ferrara and presided over a court of great culture, earning high praise for her intellectual abilities. Capable of sustaining the most learned discussions, able to converse in French, Italian and Spanish, a scholar of Greek and Latin, and an accomplished poet, Lucrezia was, at the age of thirty a remarkable and still beautiful woman. She spent a great deal of her time helping the poor and supporting convents with her charity and was able to spend the rest of her life in surroundings that gave her a peace which she had never known before. In her last years she turned more and more to religion for comfort and solace. The death of her son, the child of her beloved Duke of Bisceglie, filled her with a grief that was almost impossible to bear.

She died before her fortieth year, in 1519. The dynasty that had been built to last forever was dead.

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