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The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia by…

The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia (1939)

by Maria Bellonci

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (7)  Italian (1)  All languages (8)
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Il fatto che senta a scuola le varie materie su cui poi devo semplificare per attuare il mio ruolo di prof di sostegno mi ha aiutato a finire il libro che è interessante perchè incrocia la storia della Chiesa, i comuni, la vita degli artisti e dei prepotenti. Una donna che deve essenzialmente procreare non ha una vita normale e deviazioni penso siano sempre in agguato. Molto più difficile accettare, oggi, le azioni dei Borgia masculi! ( )
  Ste1955 | Apr 24, 2019 |
You can’t get very deep into a history of the Borgia family without thinking “Mario Puzo should have written this book.” (Apparently Puzo thought so, too, because he was working on a Borgia novel when he died). The Borgias have always been convenient villains for novels, plays, operas and movies about the Italian Renaissance, and certainly Lucrezia’s older brother Cesare (supposedly the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince) and her father Rodrigo were nasty pieces of work. However, Lucrezia herself seems more villainized than villainess.

Lucrezia (b. 1480) was the sixth of nine illegitimate offspring of Rodrigo Borgia. It was not, of course, unusual for men to have illegitimate children at that time, although the fact that her father was a Cardinal and later (1492) bought his way into being Pope Alexander VI did cause some minor comment. (The previous Pope, Innocent VIII, had sixteen children, so nine was probably not seen as excessive). Her father quickly used her as a political tool; she was betrothed at 10 and again at 11 to minor Spanish nobles, but after Rodrigo became Pope he began aiming higher. She was married at 13 to Giovanni Sforza, Count of Pessaro; however, the Pope quickly decided that the Sforzas were not sufficiently important for an alliance and annulled the wedding on the grounds of nonconsumation. (Giovanni was highly insulted by this and offered to perform with any woman of the Pope’s choice in front of a Papal legate, but this was rejected). While waiting for her next marriage (to Alfonso d’Aragona, Duke of Bisceglie and member of the royal family of Naples) she became involved in one of the situations that tarnished her reputation; she apparently had an illegitimate son of her own. The father of this child was variously reputed to be a Papal officer, Pedro Calderon; or her brother Cesare; or her father the Pope. Calderon was unable to confirm or deny the rumor, since he had meanwhile died in a tragic accident after going swimming in the Tiber inside a sack with his wrists tied to his ankles. This apparently didn’t bother Alfonso, since he married Lucrezia anyway; however, Alfonso somehow got on the bad side of Cesare and was ambushed by bandits on the Vatican steps. Alfonso turned out to be handier with a rapier than the bandits expected, and although badly wounded, managed to drive them off. He was carried to a room in the Vatican and seemed to be recovering, when one of Cesare’s lieutenants showed up with a warrant for Alfonso’s arrest. Lucrezia, faithfully at her husband’s bedside, ran off to get the Pope; unfortunately, when she returned with him only a few minutes later Alfonso had fallen out of bed, all his wounds had reopened, and he’d bled to death. This gave the Pope an opportunity to set up another marriage, this time to Alfonso Este, heir to the Duchy of Ferrara. Lucrezia initially demurred, complaining that her husbands were very unlucky, but the wedding eventually came off and Lucrezia spent the rest of her life as Duchess of Ferrara. She and Alfonso apparently got along well enough, since they had seven children, four of which survived; however Lucrezia was constantly sickly (possibly because Alfonso, who had a taste for coarse prostitutes, gave her syphilis) and died in childbirth in 1519.

So where did Lucrezia’s reputation as a seductress and murderess come from? All her contemporaries, even the ones that hated her, described her as beautiful and graceful; none ever accused her of murder or even cruelty (although, admittedly you had to be pretty vicious to qualify as “cruel” in Renaissance Italy; one of the favorite spectator sports in Ferrara was watching blindfolded men attempt to beat a pig to death). The accusation of incest was made repeatedly by many, including her ex-husband Giovanni Sforza; and Lucrezia did seem quite devoted to Cesare, even after he killed her second husband (when Cesare died in a minor battle she was inconsolable and her ladies reported she repeated his name all night). She may have engaged in some extramarital dalliances while Duchess of Ferrara; candidates include the poet Pietro Bembo, the poet Ercole Strozzi, and Francesco Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. There’s no evidence that any of these went beyond “courtly love”, although Strozzi did turn up deceased on a street corner in Ferrara from twenty-nine stab wounds, possibly a subtle hint from the Duke that he had gone a little too far with the Duchess.

Of the two biographies, Sarah Bradford’s is the most recent. Bradford includes a handy map of Italy, genealogical charts of the Borgia, Este, and d’Aragona families, and pictures of the main characters. Bradford previously wrote a biography of Cesare Borgia, and he and other members of the Borgia family besides Lucrezia figure prominently in her book. Unfortunately, like most historical figures of the Renaissance, contemporary documentation for Lucrezia is sparse. Lucrezia was sort of the Princess Diana of her time, and much that was written about her concerned the way she dressed, the jewelry she wore, and the ladies-in-waiting she picked. Thus Bradford is often reduced to whole paragraphs describing Lucrezia’s costume:

“Lucrezia wore a robe of drawn gold garnished with crimson satin with sleeves in the Castilian style and a cloak slashed with mulberry satin lined with sable, and a necklace of large pearls with a pendant spinel, pierced with a pendant pear-shaped pearl.”

Some of Lucrezia’s letters are extant, but they are mostly straightforward reports to the Duke while he was away campaigning, without much personal material. Bradford limits her speculation about Lucrezia’s personal feelings, emotions, etc., which makes for correct history but dull reading.

The biography by Maria Bellonci is older, originally written in Italian in 1939 and translated to English in 1953. Since the original was published at the high tide of Mussolini’s Italy, I was curious to see if there were any concessions to Fascist ideology. I couldn’t find any, other than some minor bits about the “national characteristics” of the French, Italians, and Spaniards; perhaps there was more that was edited out for the English edition. Unlike Bradford, Bellonci is not above speculating about Lucrezia’s emotions, attitudes and motives, and likes to use “romance novel” language while doing so. Consider, for example, Bradford’s description of Lucrezia’s death:

“Lucrezia died that night “at the fifth hour” just over two months past her thirty-ninth birthday”

And now Bellonci’s

“Perhaps with that magic chime, coming from such a remote past, a human eternity, there came serenity; perhaps her terrors dissolved and gave place to an infinite weariness, like peace. The moment had come when fear was over. … And she gave a sigh, as she had sighed when told it was time to leave.”

Like Bradford, Bellonci also resorts to elaborate descriptions of Lucrezia’s outfits, but her language makes them more readable; her entire book is more readable than Bradford’s but her interpolations are so great that it’s almost a historical novel rather than a history. The two books together provide a pretty good “look and feel” for Renaissance Italy; both authors do the best they can with their approaches. ( ) ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 31, 2017 |
The Borgia's have been vilified in popular history as abusers of power, murderers and worse during the renaissance in Italy, perhaps the only one of the family that did not commit murder was Lucrezia, but her name has been inextricably linked with poison although there is no evidence linking her with any such deed. It is interesting that Lucrezia has become the most infamous of the Borgias, when it would seem from Maria Bellonci’s biography that she was very much a victim of the machinations of her family.

Maria Bellonci’s biography was published in 1939 and translated into English in 1953. It very much sets itself to put the record straight. Bellonci was at pains to point out the amount of research into original documents that she carried out and although there are no details of her researches in the bibliography, she refers to them in her text especially when she challenges one of the more spurious myths that have grown up around her subject. Make no mistake this is a biography aimed at the general reader, but it has a feeling of authenticity about it, that plunges the reader into the life and times of the Borgia family.

Lucrezia remains the main subject of the book, but her father Roderigo Borgia,who became Pope Alexander VI and her brother Cesare Borgia loom large. Lucrezia’s fortunes were so closely linked with her family that it could not be otherwise. Roderigo Borgia was typical of many of the men who managed to get themselves elected as Pope during the renaissance. Their driving force was their personal ambition and desire to increase the fortunes of their family. Unlike other tyrants that ruled the city states around them in Italy at the time there was no possibility of them passing on the Papacy to their children and so the only way to achieve their ambitions was to carve out territory or dependencies for themselves or to marry off their children advantageously to noble or even royal families. Lucrezia a beautiful and accomplished young women in her own right was therefore seen as a major investment to achieve those ends and much time and energy was spent in arranging the best marriage for her. Alexander VI is portrayed as a ruthless seeker of power, but the dichotomy was his love for his family. There was therefore a continual tension between his need to use his children for the good of the family and his prestige, and his undoubted affection for them as individuals. Bellonci makes no excuses for the actions of the Borgia family, but she does put them in the perspective of the times in which they lived.

Alexander VI worked hard to get Lucrezia’s first marriage annulled, because there were better prospects as the power of the Papacy increased and the need to ally themselves with the Neapolitans. Lucrezia’s second marriage was to Alfonso of Aragon Duke of Bisceglie. This proved to be short lived owing to the murder of Alfonso for political reasons. Bellonci describes the events in some detail because it was on Cesare Borgia’s orders that Alfonso was murdered and certainly Lucrezia was very much involved, because she was ostensibly trying to protect her husband after a first abortive attack on him. Bellonci’s reading of the chronicles at the time leads her to believe that Lucrezia was not party to the murder, but was tricked by her bothers accomplices. Clearly Alfonso’s murder benefited the Borgias who were seeking to ally themselves with the French, rather than the Spanish influence in the court of Naples. Lucrezia was free to marry again and her final marriage was to Alfonso of Este, Duke of Ferrara. This marriage freed Lucrezia to some extent from the Borgia families influence but the family that she married into were hardly any different from the Borgia's, with intrigue and murder being not unusual.

Lucrezia Borgia emerges as very much a woman of her times, no better or worse than many women of noble birth. Her life to a large extent was controlled by the powerful men in her family, but she was also a competent person in her own right, able and willing to take on the affairs of the state in her fathers and husbands absences. She was able to indulge in her own love affairs and proved to be as adept in these intrigues as the men around her in theirs. She was certainly a victim of the times in which she lived (she died after giving birth to her eight child) and this is the overwhelming portrait that Bellonci presents to us.

Lucrezia Borgia’s life and turbulent times has enough incidents to make an exciting story in it’s own right and Bellonci tells her story very well. It is the background material, the descriptions of the pageantry, the fabulous clothes and jewellery, the trappings of power, that could only have come from researches into the chronicles of the times that lift this biography out of the ordinary. The book seems to drip with renaissance life; albeit the life of the powerful and the privileged. The historical background, which is essential to the story is integrated well within it and I found it an absorbing read. This is perhaps not the last word on Lucrezia Borgia as I suspect that Bellonci may be accused of believing too much in the sources at her disposal and there will have been further researches and opinions since it was published in 1939, however it will do for me. As a portrait of a life in renaissance Italy, I think it would be hard to beat and therefore a recommended read. ( )
4 vote baswood | Jul 14, 2012 |
This is probably the most accurate biography of Lucretia Borgia. (Yes, she spelled her name Lucretia, not Lucrezia.) The author accessed many primary sources—official documents, Vatican archives, contemporary letters and diaries. It is not an easy read, as there are many characters and titles to keep track of. The political alliances are complicated and keep changing. It is worth the effort, but I could have done without the detailed descriptions of wardrobes, pomp, and ceremony.

This book will surprise you if you are expecting a notorious poisoner putting arsenic and henbane into drinks right and left. Lucretia’s sinister reputation is myth, mostly guilt by association. I haven’t seen any evidence that she ever poisoned anyone. She can be faulted for aiding and abetting her brother Cesare, but what choice did she have against such a monster? She was a pawn in the power games of her father and her brother. Deep down, she was a pious fan of poetry and poets.

The Borgias are enshrouded in mystery and “the mystery is insoluble,” says Maria Bellonci. This book may not answer all your questions, but it will give you authentic glimpses into Renaissance Italy. ( )
  pjsullivan | Aug 22, 2011 |
Wonderful. Very well written yet easy to read. I knew very little about this period in history, but the author explains not only Lucrezia's life but the area around her. Lucrezia was used as a pawn throughout her life by her father and brother, but at the end her life takes a turn for the better by falling in love. The author does a good job of clearing up many rumors about the Borgia family but also acknowledges the unknowable aspects of the Borgia family. ( )
  BritZombie | Jul 13, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Maria Bellonciprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wall, BarbaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wall, BernardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Di notte, fra il 25 e il 26 luglio 1492, moriva a Roma papa Innocenzo VIII Cibo, genovese. Su quel vecchio benigno che sembrava aver portato la sua canizie di patriarca come segno manifesto di chiarezza d'animo, si erano abbattuti per anni, più o meno palesemente, biasimo ironia e disprezzo degli uomini di governo, tutti d'accordo a giudicare peggiore di un vizio la sua abbandonata debolezza.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 184212059X, Paperback)

Although she was a daughter of Pope Alexander VI and chiefly remembered as a raven-haired poisoner, Bellonci depicts a passionate woman moving uncertainly through the Papal court and the intrigues, ambitions and political chicanery that swirled about her. Winner of the Viareggio Literary Award and the Galante Prize in Italy in 1953.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:48 -0400)

Maria Bellonci depicts Lucrezia as a passionate, womanly figure moving uncertainly through the Papal court and through the intrigues, ambitions and political chicanery that swirled about her. Married three times for her family¿s political advantage Lucrezia also entertained, for her own pleasure, a long list of eminent lovers, particularly the poet Pietro Bembo. Her father, Pope Alexander VI, emerges as a fiercely devoted parent while the catlike and sinister Cesare Borgia is seen as a relentless and unscrupulous power-seeker.… (more)

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