Lucrezia Borgia: Fiend or Scapegoat?
C. W. Gortner
Centuries after their spectacular rise and fall, the Borgias continue to enthrall historians, filmmakers, and novelists alike. They are perhaps the most famous, if misunderstood, family in history—their grisly deeds and glamorous personalities giving rise to a myth that can be traced to the lack of information we have about what went on behind their closed doors.
Of the Borgias, Lucrezia’s plunge into a maelstrom of political intrigue in fifteenth-century Rome has arguably made her the most controversial. She is known as the quintessential femme fatale, luring men to death with her arsenal of poisons, and reputed to be the lover of both her father and her brother Cesare. How much of her sordid reputation is true? Was Lucrezia a fiend or a scapegoat?
Lucrezia was only twelve when her father, Rodrigo Borgia, ascended the Holy See as Pope Alexander VI. It was 1492: a pivotal year that witnessed Queen Isabella of Castile’s defeat of the Moors in Spain and the dispatching of Columbus to discover a new world. Like Isabella, the new pope was Spanish. The Borgias—or Borjas—were a prominent family from Valencia who’d fought for the Spanish Crown of Aragon during the Moorish crusades. Rodrigo Borgia, destined to enter the priesthood, earned a doctorate in divine law in Bologna. At the age of twenty-six, he went to Rome under the auspices of his maternal uncle Pope Calixtus III, who appointed him as vice-chancellor of the Church. Such nepotism was common in the hallowed halls of the Vatican, and Rodrigo proved adept, working for his uncle and subsequent popes while amassing a fortune and earning a reputation for genial ruthlessness before he finally won the See for himself.
The Borgias were detested by many, including the conspiring families who dominated Italy’s fractured landscape, all of whom craved the Vatican’s power for themselves. Rodrigo was envied for his suave political maneuvering and rapacious taste for opulence and women—he was one of the few popes who was open about his appetites—and of course, he was excoriated for his foreign blood. The fact that a Spaniard had won the papacy over various Italian-born cardinals—each as scheming as him—did not sit well among his rivals. But Borgia was adored by the people, and his favorite children, Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre, were allocated roles in his elaborate gambit to forge a dynasty that would succeed him. His ambitions were not uncommon to his era, yet these too were cited as proof of his venality. In his bellicose attitude and contemptuous disregard for propriety, Rodrigo sowed his own terrible reputation.
Lucrezia dwelled in the shadow of her father’s dominance. The scandals surrounding her mounted when her first marriage was abruptly annulled due to claims that her husband was impotent. He, in turn, fired off the accusation that the marriage was being annulled so the pope “could have her for himself.” It is true that Rodrigo adored his daughter, when it suited him, but no evidence has been found to prove that his love for Lucrezia was incestuous. However, the Borgias’ status and Spanish provenance, coupled with their public displays of affection and luxuriousness, worked against Lucrezia, who bore the brunt of the calumny. Her second marriage, by all accounts a loving one, ended at the hands of Cesare, already a suspect in the mysterious death of their brother Juan. By the time Lucrezia escaped Rome for her third marriage and the Borgia reign collapsed, she was dragging behind her the weight of her family’s sins.
In 1883, Victor Hugo wrote his play Lucrèce Borgia,
loosely based on stories about Lucrezia; it became the basis for Donizetti’s famous 1834 opera. These artistic, highly fictionalized accounts added to her dark reputation. But in their authors’ defense, rumors were mostly what they had to go by. The first scholarly account of Lucrezia did not appear until many years later; even then, little was left behind by the Borgias to shed light on this enigmatic woman who’d navigated the heart of familial chaos and survived it. And to this day, though we lack credible evidence that Lucrezia killed anyone, her legend persists—a story so fascinating, we find it nearly irresistible. We’ll never know who the Borgias truly were, which can account for their ongoing appeal, but it is inarguable that they were dangerous, even lethal at times; and, like many of their contemporaries, intent on securing their legacy at any cost.
It is the untold story of Lucrezia’s dramatic youth that inspired me to write The Vatican Princess
. Of all the novels I’ve written, this one was the most challenging. Years of research, including time spent in the Vatican Archives, yielded more questions than answers, despite ample documentation of pivotal events. In searching for Lucrezia, I had to rely on my inner understanding of how a privileged young girl may have reacted to the powerful people around her, none of whom had her best interests at heart. It is the story of how family defines and binds us, and how, ultimately, loyalty can be a curse.
The truth may never be ascertained, but one thing is clear: Lucrezia has become the Borgia scapegoat, though she did nothing to deserve it.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In The Vatican Princess, C. W. Gortner’s goal was to portray Lucrezia Borgia, one of history’s most infamous and maligned personages, as a multifaceted human being, beholden to the strictures of her era and her family. Does he succeed? Is Lucrezia sympathetic to you? If so, why? If not, why not?
2. History has condemned Lucrezia as a poisoner and incestuous with both her brother and her father. New research, however, challenges this centuries-long perception of her. How much of her reputation do you think she deserves? Why do you think history blackened her reputation?
3. Lucrezia opens the novel by saying that “Infamy is merely an accident of fate.” What does she mean? Discuss how she reaches this conclusion. What does it say about her personality and how she feels about her family, both at the start and at the conclusion of the novel?
4. Discuss how Lucrezia’s life transforms after her father is elected to the Holy See. What kind of childhood did she have and how do you think it shaped her? What are her expectations of her future compared to what actually happened? What kind of obstacles did she come up against and how does she react?
5. Lucrezia’s relationship with her brother Cesare is a key component in this novel. How would you describe their relationship? Do you think Cesare loved his sister, and how do his actions influence her? Do you feel as if you understand Cesare Borgia? If so, why? If not, why not?
6. Italy during the Renaissance was very different from the country of today. Discuss these differences. How do you feel about the Holy See and how a pope exercised power in Renaissance Rome? What are some of the differences that you found most interesting? Were you surprised by how the Vatican operated during this era? Do you see any parallels to today?
7. Discuss Lucrezia’s marriages. How much of a choice did she have? What are the differences between her first and her second marriage? Do you think she was in love with Alfonso of Aragon? How do you feel about her choice to keep secrets from him?
8. How does this novel present the dilemmas and limitations that Renaissance women faced? What surprised you the most about how women of this era lived?
9. Much is unknown about the Borgias’ private life. Do you think the author created a plausible scenario for events that remain a mystery, such as the murder of Juan Borgia and the paternity of Lucrezia’s illegitimate child?
10. Discuss Lucrezia’s relationships with the other women in her life. How did her relationship with her mother affect her? Was Giulia like a sister to her, as Giulia declares, and if so, did Lucrezia reciprocate? How do you feel about Lucrezia’s relationship with Sancia? Was Lucrezia’s life less difficult than these women’s or more so? Which female character did you most identify with? What are your impressions of motherhood in this era?
11. Lucrezia clearly loves her father. Discuss her relationship with him. Was Rodrigo Borgia a good father? How does their relationship evolve?
12. This novel is told in Lucrezia’s voice. Does she express any regret or doubt for actions she’s taken? How does she develop as a person from her early girlhood to the final denouement in the book? Do you think she was affected as much by her emotions as by the events around her? Discuss her choices and how she may have acted differently.
13. Do you think Lucrezia Borgia was a pawn or a conspirator? Does she show both facets in her personality? Of all the Borgias, whom do you feel was the most sincere?
14. What part of this book most surprised you? Which part did you find most engaging or interesting? What have you learned from reading The Vatican Princess about this period in Italian history, and about Lucrezia herself?