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Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy (2004)

by Sarah Bradford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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851925,052 (3.42)7
Discusses the infamous Renaissance woman's origins as the illegitimate child of Pope Alexander VI, forced first marriage at the age of thirteen, increasing power during two subsequent marriages, and role in the era's political struggles.

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English (8)  Spanish (1)  All languages (9)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Very well done biography. ( )
  auldhouse | Sep 30, 2021 |
I have no doubt this book is well researched. However, the writing style left much to be desired. Many paragraphs were composed of lists of family members and their relationships to each other. There wasn't enough description of events and the period to keep me interested. ( )
  bcrowl399 | Feb 9, 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 |
Lucretzia Borgia is a name known by many. Portrayed throughout history as a villain, the real story is much deeper and complex. Overall, this book was a bit dry. It was written more like a textbook than a story. This is definitely not a casual read. ( )
  JanaRose1 | May 18, 2015 |
The very name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up everything that was sinister and corrupt about the Renaissanceincest, political assassination, papal sexual abuse, poisonous intrigue, unscrupulous power grabs. Yet, as bestselling biographer Sarah Bradford reveals in this breathtaking new portrait, the truth is far more fascinating than the myth. Neither a vicious monster nor a seductive pawn, Lucrezia Borgia was a shrewd, determined woman who used her beauty and intelligence to secure a key role in the political struggles of her day. (google books overview)
Interesting and amazing! ( )
  mpontius | Mar 28, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sarah Bradfordprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cossa, Francesco delIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dossi, DossoIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Greenhill, SusanPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Melone, AltobelloIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
PinturicchioIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
RaphaelIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Veneto, Bartolomeo daCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vinci, Leonardo daIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Rome, 26 August 1492.
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Discusses the infamous Renaissance woman's origins as the illegitimate child of Pope Alexander VI, forced first marriage at the age of thirteen, increasing power during two subsequent marriages, and role in the era's political struggles.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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