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Lucrezia Borgia and her marriage to Alfonso d’Este

By Samantha Morris

After two failed marriages, one of which had ended in the murder of Alfonso Duke of Bisceglie, Lucrezia Borgia was once more on the marriage market in the year 1500. She was a pawn, a chess piece for her father and brother’s political plans. This time, the Borgia family were looking to tie their family to the Estes of Ferrara – a proud and ancient House.

Except the Estes were no fan of the Borgia family, and when it was suggested to Ercole d’Este that his son marry the daughter of the Pope, he did everything he could to stop the marriage. Ercole, however, was backed into a corner by the political games played by the Borgia family. Both sides used trickery and lies to get what they wanted out of the suggested marriage – Ercole tried desperately to worm his way out of the Borgia match, holding out hopes for a French bride for his son, but the Borgias piled on the pressure. Letters were sent to the Duke of Ferrara, reminding him that by allying himself with the Borgia family he would have protection from Cesare, Duke of Valentinois, against his enemies. Personal envoys of the Pope were sent to Ferrara to place more and more pressure upon the Duke, envoys putting forward the case for Lucrezia.

But Ercole still held out – he was particularly enraged when he received a letter stating that the French King now agreed with what the Borgia Pope was doing, he wanted the King to write on his behalf to the Pope stating that his refusal to have Lucrezia married to his son was all down to him. The French King, Louis XII, refused but stated in a letter to Ercole that if he truly didn’t want to have the match go ahead then he should make such demands of the Pope that physically couldn’t be met. He was encouraged by the French envoy to the Borgias, Louis de Villeneuve to demand 20,000 ducats for Lucrezia’s dowry, absolution from the Papal census, and estates for his son.

The marriage negotiations stretched on and on until Ercole realised he was backed into a corner and had no choice but to accept that his son would be marrying Lucrezia Borgia. But he still tried to use trickery to gain what he wanted and said he wanted it made clear that his son, Alfonso, was going into the marriage completely unwillingly. With the negotiations now concluded, a dowry was agreed of 100,000 ducats and the marriage contract was finally drawn up on 26 August, 1501. The marriage itself was completed at the Belfiore on September 1, 1501, without Alfonso being present. In the end, Ercole got a rather nice amount of money and land out of the marriage – 100,000 ducats for Lucrezia’s dowry in cash and the castles of Centro and La Pieve.

It was evident still, however, that Ercole was not at all happy with the match made evident in a letter sent to Lucrezia to congratulate her on the marriage and joining his family, yet it must have been easy for her to read between the lines. Lucrezia herself must have felt as if she were being pushed into a political marriage and it is likely that she did not want it at all – it had been less than a year since her second husband had been murdered upon the orders of her brother. Yet this was her duty, whether her new family wanted her to join them or not.

Celebrations in Rome now took precedence. The news was announced in early September and the parties began in earnest. The constant dancing and partying left Lucrezia exhausted, but she had managed to win over the Ferrarese envoys particularly with her constant talk of how she wished to be in Ferrara with her new husband. One of the main problems that had to be addressed between the Ferrarese and Borgia marriage was the issue of Lucrezia’s young son by her previous husband. It was decided that little Rodrigo Bisceglie would remain in Rome whilst her mother began her new life in Ferrara – it would not be seemly for Alfonso d’Este’s new wife to show up with a child in tow. She had to give the impression that she was still virginal, even though it was known that she was no such thing.

Lucrezia Borgia left Rome for Ferrara on January 6, 1502 – she would never see Rome, or her father, again. When she left Rome, accompanied by her brother, she was dressed in a robe of curled gold with crimson thread and as she left, her father went from window to window of his palace in order to catch one last glimpse of his beloved daughter. A long journey lay ahead of Lucrezia. On January 31, 1502, her new husband surprised her at Bentivoglio. It was an incredibly romantic gesture on Alfonso’s part, who had apparently been “unwilling” to marry the young woman, and Lucrezia must have been charmed by the gesture.

Portrait of Alfonso d’Este by Titian, done between 1530 and 1534.

Alfonso, however, wasn’t the sort of man that Lucrezia would have been attracted to and was certainly the opposite of her previous husband. He was incredibly well built and very intelligent. More so, he was practical and liked to work with his hands – he had his own foundry in which he made canons. It was a hobby that his father did not like. Alfonso had little time for courtly gestures for the most part, although he was an exceptionally gifted musician. Lucrezia and her entourage made their way to Ferrara and arrived on February 2, 1502. Lucrezia immediately stunned the citizens of Ferrara as she wound her way through the streets with the welcoming procession, dressed in a French style robe lined with ermine and a diamond and ruby necklace hung about her neck. Following the procession, it did not take long for Alfonso and Lucrezia to be left alone where they finally consummated their marriage.

Even in these early days in Ferrara, despite the love of the populace, Lucrezia did not find herself made wonderfully welcome at the Este court. Her new Sister-In-Law, Isabella d’Este, made her dislike of the Borgia girl quite obvious. Isabella d’Este was a prideful woman and believed that a woman of Lucrezia’s station should not be in what had been her own mother’s place (Ercole’s wife had died, leaving the position open for his eldest heir’s wife). She even had spies located in Lucrezia’s rooms, reporting on her every move. Isabella complained about Lucrezia constantly, writing letters about how long it took for Lucrezia to get ready and the time she spent washing her hair. There seemed to be little that Lucrezia could do to gain Isabella’s friendship.

Her life certainly wasn’t made easy either. Despite the fact that Ercole d’Este wrote friendly letters to Pope Alexander, singing Lucrezia’s praises, he made her life more difficult than it needed to be. Ercole made a show of dismissing the majority of Lucrezia’s staff only to replace them with Ferrarese women, instead. It was reported that of her original Spanish staff, only two were left – Adriana del Mila, and Angela Borgia. However, many more than that still remained with her as well as over twenty from her male household. More difficulty came when Ercole and Pope Alexander VI clashed over just how much money Lucrezia should be allowed for her annual allowance – Ercole started the bidding at a miserly 8000 ducats whilst Alexander demanded his daughter be given 12,000. It was an ugly and difficult business that had Lucrezia retreating to a convent, away from the arguments. But by the end of March, it was reported that Lucrezia might be pregnant after her appetite had lessened and she began feeling increasingly unwell. The Pope was not informed of the pregnancy until April 21, perhaps out of fears that Lucrezia was simply just unwell rather than carrying the wished for Este heir. But pregnant she was. When she returned to Ferrara after staying at the local convent, and then moving to the Este villa of Belriguardo, her health only continued to deteriorate.

It was likely exacerbated by stories that reached her of her brother, Cesare’s, military manoeuvres in the Romagna. Cesare, one-time cardinal but now a feared warlord, had taken Urbino completely by surprise. The Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, had expected Cesare to attack Camerino and so had very little time to escape. It was a particular blow for Lucrezia, having been given a wonderful welcome by the Duke and Duchess of Urbino whilst on her way to Ferrara – the Duchess, Elisabetta, being the sister in law of Isabella. It must have been an embarrassing moment for Lucrezia which only made Ferrarese suspicions of her even worse.

By July, Lucrezia was overcome by a fever and suffered from multiple seizures. Her husband, who had been away with the King of France, returned to her bedside. He made sure to spend every night in the room next to hers, and was there each time her doctors tried to make her eat. Doctors were ordered to her side not only by Alfonso, but by Ercole, the Pope and Cesare also. She told Ercole that she would do her best to get well with the help of the doctors, for the sake of her unborn child. Yet politics was brought into Lucrezia’s sickness even by her father – he began haggling with Ercole over her dowry money once more, still demanding 12,000 ducats a year for his daughter and saying that her illness had been caused by worry over how she would pay her debts with so little an allowance.

But her condition worsened, despite receiving warm-hearted letters from her brother. It was expected that she would die and so both Alfonso and Cesare rushed to her bedside – their visit cheered her, but once they left two days later she suffered another relapse with fever and flux. On September 5, 1502, Lucrezia gave birth to a stillborn daughter after more seizures, before coming down with Puerperal fever. Cesare, worried for his sister’s life, arrived back at her side on September 7. He held her foot and told her jokes whilst the doctors bled her, but again after he left her condition deteriorated. It was just one of many difficult pregnancies that would plague Lucrezia up until her death.

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto, about 1500-10

She recovered, and set out now to enjoy her life at the Este court. Her illness had even made Ercole agree to give her the 12,000 ducats annual allowance that her father had been insisting on. Her husband, however, was now rarely seen at court so she surrounded herself by literary young men. Happiness came for her in the guise of the poet, Pietro Bembo. By April of 1503, the two, encouraged by others within their group, began to exchange love letters and poems. The relationship likely remained platonic although it should be noted that whilst Pietro was incredibly unwell with a fever, Lucrezia made the decision to go to his bedside despite the danger. Despite the love and friendship of the poet, she was about to come face to face with abject misery once more. On August 18, 1503, Alexander VI died having suffered from malarial fever contracted whilst at a party just a few days before.

Lucrezia grieved intensely for her beloved father, who had been a constant in her life. But at the same time she would have been incredibly aware of how suddenly isolated she was in a world that would very likely turn on her for her very name.

Self-control became her forte in such a situation – she had to make sure she was ready for anything. Lucrezia showed her resilience by acting quickly to help her brother – in Rome, he had the ability to sway the vote of the next conclave, and she would help. She even raised troops to help Cesare keep his hold on the Romagna.

Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara – portrait by Battista Dossi

Lucrezia Borgia certainly led a life that was full of unhappiness during her early days in Ferrara. Even after she became Duchess of Ferrara on January 25, 1505, she was beset with a number of failed pregnancies, each of which seemed to make her more unwell.

The hardship and heartache was relieved by moments of happiness, with the birth of children who went on to live great lives, such as Ippolito d’Este who would go on to become a Cardinal in later life, and Leonora d’Este who would go on to become a nun and was a talented musician.

Misery once revisited Lucrezia when her brother, Cesare, was killed in battle on 12th March 1507 – the two had always been close, even after he had orchestrated the murder of her second husband. One can only imagine the grief that she felt, and the terrible loneliness at being one of only two Borgia children left alive.

In 1519, after giving birth to her tenth child she suffered horrendously with ‘bad material that had built up in her womb and not been purged’. Suffering from fits, the doctors bled her and cut off her hair in an effort to save her life. But it was to no avail – she died on June 24, 1519. her Alfonso was heartbroken. Although they may not have loved each other, and neither of them were faithful to one another, they certainly held a deep seated respect for one another.

Lucrezia was buried in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, where her body was later joined by Alfonso, and two of her children.

Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University off Winchester where her interest in the history of the Italian Renaissance began. Her first published book, Cesare Borgia in a Nutshell, is a brief biography which aims to dispel the myths surrounding this infamous member of the Borgia family. Her second book is Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher.

For more information about Samantha’s work, please visit her website or follow her on Twitter @TheBorgiaBull

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Detail from Idealized Portrait of a Courtesan as Flora by Bartolomeo Veneto –  the woman is believed to be Lucrezia Borgia



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