Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Lucrezia Borgia

Episode Summary

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was one of the most controversial women of the Italian Renaissance. She was the daughter of an infamous Pope, a member of one of the most notorious Italian families in history, and a muse for artists and writers. Though she has traditionally been remembered as the archetypal femme fatale, modern historians have begun to reevaluate her story, questioning if she was a perpetrator or a victim.

Episode Notes

Become a Womanniac!: https://glow.fm/womannica

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s legend was one of the most controversial women of the Italian Renaissance. She was the daughter of an infamous Pope, a member of one of the most notorious Italian families in history, and a muse for artists and writers. Though she has traditionally been remembered as the archetypal femme fatale, modern historians have begun to reevaluate her story, questioning if she was a perpetrator or a victim. Please welcome Lucrezia Borgia.

Lucrezia was born on April 18th, 1480 in Subiaco, a town outside of Rome. Her father was the powerful Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and her mother was Vannozza Cattanei, one of his mistresses and mother to his sons, Cesare and Giovanni. The Borgia clan was known for violence, political corruption, and ruthlessness. 

Lucrezia lived during the Italian Renaissance and received a well-rounded education befitting the era. She was fluent in Italian, Latin, Greek and French. 

In 1492, when Lucrezia was 12, her father was elected Pope Alexander VI. Just a year later, Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza, the Lord of Pesaro and Count of Catignola, who was nearly 15 years her senior. This marriage followed two earlier arranged engagements that Lucrezia’s father had broken off for more advantageous matches. 

By the time Lucrezia was 17, her marriage to Sforza held much less political value for her father than it once did. As a result, Pope Alexander decided to annul the marriage so that he could marry the beautiful Lucrezia off to a more strategically valuable husband. The reason given for the annulment was that the marriage was never consummated. 

Over the course of the annulment negotiations, Lucrezia stayed in a convent in San Sisto. Rumors ran rampant through Roman high society that she was secretly pregnant and that the baby was the product of incest, the son of either Lucrezia and her father or Lucrezia and her ruthless, violent brother, Cesare. 

At first the Borgias refuted the rumors, but it was later confirmed that a baby was born in the Borgia household that year. Two papal decrees were eventually issued in 1501 regarding the baby, known to history as the “Infans Romanus.” The first claimed that the baby was the son of Cesare, and the second claimed it was Pope Alexander’s son. Neither decree mentioned Lucrezia. 

To this day, the parentage of the baby is unclear. He certainly could have been Lucrezia’s son, and there are many theories about who the father was, but he also could very reasonably have been the child of another family member. The Borgia men were well known for their many mistresses and children. 

In 1498, Lucrezia was married off to Alfonso of Aragon, the son of the late King of Naples. The two had a child together in 1499 named Rodrigo. That same year, Lucrezia was also named governor of Spoleto. 

But by 1500, Pope Alexander and Cesare were looking to form a new alliance with France and against Naples. Lucrezia and Alfonso’s marriage was thus seen as a major impediment to this politically expedient alliance. Alfonso had to go. 

On July 15th, 1500, Alfonso was stabbed multiple times in an attack, but managed to survive his injuries. Three days later though, Alfonso was strangled in his bed while recovering from the stab wounds. It was widely rumored at the time, and is generally believed today, that his murderers were hired by Cesare Borgia.  

After Alfonso’s murder, Lucrezia was pushed by her father into a third marriage, this time to the powerful Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este. Alfonso initially balked at the match because of the Borgia’s ruthless reputation and the fates of Lucrezia’s first two husbands, but he apparently came around and the two were married in early 1502. 

In what would prove to be a life changing move, Lucrezia and her new husband soon left Rome to live in Ferrara where Lucrezia was no longer constantly under the thumb of her father and his political scheming. There, life for Lucrezia improved dramatically. She finally had the opportunity to shrug off her previous reputation and the reputation of her family. Pope Alexander died in 1503, further stabilizing his daughter’s settled situation. 

Over the subsequent 17 years, Lucrezia and her husband had 8 children, though sadly many of them died young. Lucrezia also cultivated a new reputation for herself as a respected and accomplished duchess, and as a great patroness of the arts whose largesse helped to build Ferrara’s famous artistic community. 

In 1512, Lucrezia decided to take a step back from public life in order to focus on religious pursuits. Many believe this was in response to the death of her son, Rodrigo of Aragon. Much less is known about her life during this period.

Seven years later, on June 24th, 1519, Lucrezia died ten days after giving birth to a stillborn baby. She was 39 years old. 

Lucrezia’s historical legacy, which includes rumors of everything from intrigue to incest, has inspired numerous great works of art and literature over the centuries. Many modern historians have begun to reframe Lucrezia’s story. Historians now question whether Lucrezia was an active participant in her family’s crimes, or whether she was simply stuck in an untenable position with much more limited agency than we imagine. Though she was willing to accept the fruits of her family’s crimes and corruption, she may very well have been one of their longest-suffering victims.

Tune in tomorrow to hear the story of another famous maverick or Legend!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!