Lucrezia Borgia: A Bloodstain on the Canvas of History

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An exclusive from Sarah Dunant

Imagine history as an enormous pointillist painting, the whole swirling chaos of the past represented through millions of coloured dots. Close to, it makes little sense, but step back and your eye finds shape and meaning, an epic narrative that sets out to explore and explain the journey so far.

Except that for the longest time there was so much missing from it. And the most egregious absence was that of women. Up until as little as sixty/seventy years ago while there were queens, mistresses of kings, a few saints, witches, female revolutionaries and a clutch of heroines – usually nurses or troublemakers – the smell lifting off the paint was predominantly that of male sweat and male aftershave.

Now, thanks to generations of historians and writers (the majority of them women, and I include the work of Virago here) the picture is changing dramatically. It’s far from finished – you could make exactly the same argument from the perspective of race – but we’re getting there.

In the month of International Women’s Day though, I want to highlight a figure that’s been on the canvas for centuries, but a dot so badly painted that she is virtually unrecognisable from the truth.

Her name is Lucrezia Borgia.

You will almost certainly know her by the colourful insults that have dogged her throughout history: wicked, siren, lovely, lascivious, incestuous and murderous, with a predilection for poison. Some of that slander started in her life time, then rolled effortlessly on; a novel by Victor Hugo, an opera by Donizetti, sensational films by deservedly forgotten directors, right up to recent television series which painted her as a bright little vixen, pulled inexorably into the arms of her handsome brother.

But for the sake of truth, a beleaguered commodity in this time of Trumped up fabrications, I offer now a more nuanced, though no less extraordinary, story of her life.

Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, was a cardinal and vice chancellor of the church when she was born (the rules demanded celibacy, but word proved blurry when it came to chastity). His only daughter by a long-term mistress, she was adored, educated and protected, but her childhood ended in 1492 when he became pope and the Borgia project of dynasty building began in earnest with her marriage. She was thirteen years old.

By twenty-one she was onto husband number three. Number one lasted only a few years (they needed her for a new alliance), the marriage annulled on the grounds of his impotence, despite the fact that his earlier wife had died in childbirth. In furious revenge he announced that he had “known her an infinity of times and that the pope only wanted her back for himself.” Thus the slander of incest was born and sixteen-year-old Lucrezia became “the greatest whore in Rome.”

Number two was the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. Their union was sweet but violently short. She gave birth to a son and showed herself to be politically capable, acting as governor for two papal towns, even running the business of the Vatican while the pope was away. For a while her life lights up with joy. But Naples falls out of favour and since annulment can’t do the job this time, her jealous, psychopathic brother, Cesare, takes matters into his own hands. Her husband is attacked the streets and then, as he lays wounded in a Vatican bedroom, is finished off by Cesare’s bodyguard.

Engulfed by grief, the dutiful daughter now starts to rebel. To survive her family she needs to find a dynasty as powerful to protect her. When a union with the old house of d’Este in Ferrara is mooted, she does everything she can to make it happen, though she knows she will not be allowed to take her son with her. In 1501 she leaves Rome, never to return.

Her battles are not over. In Ferrara she finds a miserly father-in-law and an indifferent, philandering husband. She charms both, surviving malaria and miscarriage to become duchess of the city, securing herself a place long after the Borgia project fails. She alone carries on the family line; she runs a vibrant renaissance court, takes over the reigns of government when her husband goes to war and even manages a love affair or two of her own. Later she becomes quietly religious, protecting and endowing convents, and when she dies, painfully young (39) in childbirth, she is mourned by the whole city.

This then is the real Lucrezia Borgia; resilient, brave, clever adaptable: a woman for all seasons. No poison, no incest, no siren seduction (it’s as easy to damn women as ignore them), just a remarkable story of survival, proof that whatever life delivered many still triumphed over the huge odds of history. As we celebrate Women’s Day 2017, Lucrezia’s repainted dot, along with many others on the canvas, is evidence that not only is feminism changing the present, it is also changing the past.


Ⓒ Sarah Dunant 2017

In the Name of the Family is out now in hardback and ebook

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