Lucretia Borgia

According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day

John Leslie Garner
The Project Gutenberg

From a portrait attributed to Dosso Dossi, in the possession of Mr. Henry Doetsch, London.




First published New York 1904
Reissued 1968 by
Benjamin Blom, Inc. 10452

Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-20226

Manufactured in the United States of America


 My honored Duke: I am induced to dedicate this work to you by the historical circumstances of which it treats and also by personal considerations.

 In it you will behold the founders of your ancient and illustrious family. The Borgias were mortal enemies of the Gaetani, who narrowly escaped the fate prepared for them by Alexander VI and his terrible son. Beautiful Sermoneta and all the great fiefs in the Maremma fell into the maw of the Borgias, and your ancestors either found death at their hands or were driven into exile. Donna Lucretia became mistress of Sermoneta, and eventually her son, Rodrigo of Aragon, inherited the estates of the Gaetani.

 Centuries have passed, and a beautiful and unfortunate woman may be forgiven for this confiscation of the appanages of your house. Moreover, it was not long before your family was reinstated in its rights by a bull of Julius II, which is now preserved—a precious jewel—in your family archives. To your house has descended the fame of its founders, but to yourself is due the position which the Gaetani now again enjoy.

 The survival of historical tradition in things and men exercises an indescribable charm on every student of civilization. To recognize in the ancient and still nourishing families of modern Rome the descendants of the great personalities of other times, and to enjoy daily intercourse with them, made a profound impression on me. The Colonna, the Orsini, and the Gaetani are my friends, and all afforded me the greatest assistance. These families long ago vanished from the stage of Roman history, but the day came, illustrious Duke, when you were to make a place again for your ancient race in the history of the Imperial City; the day when—the temporal power of the popes having passed away, a power which had endured a thousand years—you carried to King Victor Emmanuel in Florence the declaration of allegiance of the Roman populace. This episode, marking the beginning of a new era for the city, will live, together with your name, in the annals of the Gaetani, and will preserve it forever in the memory of the Romans.


Rome, March 9, 1874.


 Lucretia Borgia is the most unfortunate woman in modern history. Is this because she was guilty of the most hideous crimes, or is it simply because she has been unjustly condemned by the world to bear its curse? The question has never been answered. Mankind is ever ready to discover the personification of human virtues and human vices in certain typical characters found in history and fable.

 The Borgias will never cease to fascinate the historian and the psychologist. An intelligent friend of mine once asked me why it was that everything about Alexander VI, Caesar, and Lucretia Borgia, every little fact regarding their lives, every newly discovered letter of any of them, aroused our interest much more than did anything similar concerning other and vastly more important historic characters. I know of no better explanation than the following: the Borgias had for background the Christian Church; they made their first appearance issuing from it; they used it for their advancement; and the sharp contrast of their conduct with the holy state makes them appear altogether fiendish. The Borgias are a satire on a great form or phase of religion, debasing and destroying it. They stand on high pedestals, and from their presence radiates the light of the Christian ideal. In this form we behold and recognize them. We view their acts through a medium which is permeated with religious ideas. Without this, and placed on a purely secular stage, the Borgias would have fallen into a position much less conspicuous than that of many other men, and would soon have ceased to be anything more than representatives of a large species.

 We possess the history of Alexander VI and Caesar, but of Lucretia Borgia we have little more than a legend, according to which she is a fury, the poison in one hand, the poignard in the other; and yet this baneful personality possessed all the charms and graces.

 Victor Hugo painted her as a moral monster, in which form she still treads the operatic stage, and this is the conception which mankind in general have of her. The lover of real poetry regards this romanticist's terrible drama of Lucretia Borgia as a grotesque manifestation of the art, while the historian laughs at it; the poet, however, may excuse himself on the ground of his ignorance, and of his belief in a myth which had been current since the publication of Guicciardini's history.

 Roscoe, doubting the truth of this legend, endeavored to disprove it, and his apology for Lucretia was highly gratifying to the patriotic Italians. To it is due the reaction which has recently set in against this conception of her. The Lucretia legend may be analyzed most satisfactorily and scientifically where documents and mementos of her are most numerous; namely, in Rome, Ferrara, and Modena, where the archives of the Este family are kept, and in Mantua, where those of the Gonzaga are preserved. Occasional publications show that the interesting question still lives and remains unanswered.

 The history of the Borgias was taken up again by Domenico Cerri in his work, Borgia ossia Alessandro VI, Papa e suoi contemporanei, Turin, 1858. The following year Bernardo Gatti, of Milan, published Lucretia's letters to Bembo. In 1866 Marquis G. Campori, of Modena, printed an essay entitled Una vittima della storia Lucrezia Borgia, in the Nuova Antologia of August 31st of that year. A year later Monsignor Antonelli, of Ferrara, published Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara, Sposa a Don Alfonso d'Este, Memorie storiche, Ferrara, 1867. Giovanni Zucchetti, of Mantua, immediately followed with a similar opuscule: Lucrezia Borgia Duchessa di Ferrara, Milano, 1869. All these writers endeavored, with the aid of history, to clear up the Lucretia legend, and to rehabilitate the honor of the unfortunate woman.

 Other writers, not Italians, among them certain French and English authors, also took part in this effort. M. Armand Baschet, to whom we are indebted for several valuable publications in the field of diplomacy, announced in his work, Aldo Manuzio, Lettres et Documents, 1494-1515, Venice, 1867, that he had been engaged for years on a biography of Madonna Lucretia Borgia, and had collected for the purpose a large mass of original documents.

 In the meantime, in 1869, there was published in London the first exhaustive work on the subject: Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, a Biography, illustrated by rare and unpublished documents, by William Gilbert. The absence of scientific method, unfortunately, detracts from the value of this otherwise excellent production, which, as a sequel to Roscoe's works, attracted no little attention.

 The swarm of apologies for the Borgias called forth in France one of the most wonderful books to which history has ever given birth. Ollivier, a Dominican, published, in 1870, the first part of a work entitled Le Pape Alexandre VI et les Borgia. This production is the fantastic antithesis of Victor Hugo's drama. For, while the latter distorted history for the purpose of producing a moral monster for stage effect, the former did exactly the same thing, intending to create the very opposite. Monks, however, now are no longer able to compel the world to accept their fables as history, and Ollivier's absurd romance was renounced even by the strongest organs of the Church; first by Matagne, in the Revue des questions historiques, Paris, April, 1871, and January, 1872, and subsequently by the Civiltà Cattolica, the organ of the Jesuits, in an article dated March 15, 1873, whose author made no effort to defend Alexander's character, simply because, in the light of absolutely authentic historical documents, it was no longer possible to save it.

 This article was based upon the Saggio di Albero Genealogico e di Memorie su la familia Borgia specialmente in relazione a Ferrara, by L. N. Cittadella, director of the public library of that city, published in Turin in 1872. The work, although not free from errors, is a conscientious effort to clear up the family history of the Borgias.

 At the close of 1872 I likewise entered into the discussion by publishing a note on the history of the Borgias. This followed the appearance of the volume of the Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter, which embraced the epoch of Alexander VI. My researches in the archives of Italy had placed me in possession of a large amount of original information concerning the Borgias, and as it was impossible for me to avail myself of this mass of valuable details in that work, I decided to use it for a monograph to be devoted either to Caesar Borgia or to his sister, as protagonist.

 I decided on Madonna Lucretia for various reasons, among which was the following: in the spring of 1872 I found in the archives of the notary of the Capitol in Rome the protocol-book of Camillo Beneimbene, who for years was the trusted legal adviser of Alexander VI. This great manuscript proved to be an unexpected treasure; it furnished me with a long series of authentic and hitherto unknown documents. It contained all the marriage contracts of Donna Lucretia as well as numerous other legal records relating to the most intimate affairs of the Borgias. In November, 1872, I delivered a lecture on the subject before the class in history at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich, which was published in the account of the proceedings. These records cast new light on the history of the Borgias, whose genealogy had only just been published by Cittadella.

 There were other reasons which induced me to write a book on Donna Lucretia. I had treated the political history of Alexander VI and Caesar at length, and had elucidated some of its obscure phases, but to Lucretia Borgia I had devoted no special attention. Her personality appeared to me to be something full of mystery, made up of contradictions which remained to be deciphered, and I was fascinated by it.

 I began my task without any preconceived intention. I purposed to write, not an apology, but a history of Lucretia, broadly sketched, the materials for which, in so far as the most important period of her life, her residence in Rome, was concerned, were already in my possession. I desired to ascertain what manner of personality would be discovered by treating Lucretia Borgia in a way entirely different from that in which she had hitherto been examined, but at the same time scientifically, and in accordance with the original records.

 I completed my data; I visited the places where she had lived. I repeatedly went to Modena and Mantua, whose archives are inexhaustible sources of information regarding the Renaissance, and from them I obtained most of my material. My friends there, as usual, were of great help to me, especially Signor Zucchetti, of Mantua, late keeper of the Gonzaga archives, and Signor Stefano Davari, the secretary.

 The state archives of the Este family of Modena, however, yielded me the greatest store of information. The custodian was Signor Cesare Foucard. As might have been expected of Muratori's successor, this distinguished gentleman displayed the greatest willingness to assist me in my task. In every way he lightened my labors; he had one of his young assistants, Signor Ognibene, arrange a great mass of letters and despatches which promised to be of use to me, lent me the index, and supplied me with copies. Therefore, if this work has any merit, no small part of it is due to Signor Foucard's obligingness.

 I also met with unfailing courtesy and assistance in other places—Nepi, Pesaro, and Ferrara. To Signor Cesare Guasti, of the state archives of Florence, I am indebted for careful copies of important letters of Lorenzo Pucci, which he had made for me.

 The material of which I finally found myself in possession is not complete, but it is abundant and new.

 The original records will serve as defense against those who endeavor to discover a malicious motive in this work. No such interpretation is worthy of further notice, because the book itself will make my intention perfectly clear, which was simply that of the conscientious writer of history. I have substituted history for romance.

 In the work I have attached more importance to the period during which Lucretia lived in Rome than to the time she spent in Ferrara, because the latter has already been described, though not in detail, while the former has remained purely legendary. As I had to base my work entirely on original information, I endeavored to treat the subject in such a way as to present a picture truly characteristic of the age, and animated by concrete descriptions of its striking personalities.

The First——Lucretia Borgia In Rome

Chapter I: Lucretia's Father
Chapter II: Lucretia's Mother
Chapter III: Lucretia's First Home
Chapter IV: Lucretia's Education
Chapter V: Nepotism—Giulia Farnese—Lucretia's Betrothals
Chapter VI: Her Father Becomes Pope—Giovanni Sforza
Chapter VII: Lucretia's First Marriage
Chapter VIII: Family Affairs
Chapter IX: Lucretia Leaves Rome
Chapter X: History and Description Of Pesaro
Chapter XI: The Invasion of Italy—The Profligate World
Chapter XII: The Divorce and Second Marriage
Chapter XIII: A Regent and a Mother
Chapter XIV: Social Life of the Borgias
Chapter XV: Misfortunes of Catarina Sforza
Chapter XVI: Murder of Alfonso of Aragon
Chapter XVII: Lucretia at Nepi
Chapter XVIII: Caesar at Pesaro
Chapter XIX: Another Marriage Planned for Lucretia
Chapter XX: Negotiations with the House of Este
Chapter XXI: The Eve of the Wedding
Chapter XXII: Arrival and Return of the Bridal Escort

The Second——Lucretia in Ferrara

Chapter I: Lucretia's Journey to Ferrara
Chapter II: Formal Entry into Ferrara
Chapter III: Fêtes Given in Lucretia's Honor
Chapter IV: The Este Dynasty—Description of Ferrara
Chapter V: Death of Alexander VI
Chapter VI: Events Following the Pope's Death
Chapter VII: Court Poets—Giulia Bella and Julius II—The Este Dynasty Endangered
Chapter VIII: Escape and Death of Caesar
Chapter IX: Murder of Ercole Strozzi—Death of Giovanni Sforza and of Lucretia's Eldest Son
Chapter X: Effects of the War—The Roman Infante
Chapter XI: Last Years and Death of Vannozza
Chapter XII:Death of Lucretia Borgia—Conclusion


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