Magazine article The Spectator

Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

Magazine article The Spectator

Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

Article excerpt

Beauty, not a beast LUCREZIA BORGIA: LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH IN RENAISSANCE ITALY by Sarah Bradford Penguin/Viking, £25, pp. 421, ISBN 0670913456 £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most notorious women in history. Fabled as a poisoner and sexual temptress, her reputation is so fearsome largely because she was unjustly associated with the misdeeds of her brother, the truly appalling Cesare Borgia. Lucrezia has had her defenders, but even these have done her few favours. They tend to be dismissive of her, exonerating her of serious crimes on the grounds that she was an utterly passive figure, manipulated by her male relations. Having already written a biography of Cesare Borgia, Sarah Bradford is well qualified to ensure that Lucrezia is no longer unfairly overshadowed.

In her own lifetime Lucrezia was dogged by controversy and scandal. She was the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. The following year, 13-year-old Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza whose family ruled Milan. Before very long this union became politically inconvenient, so the Pope annulled it on the grounds of non-consummation. Lucrezia was declared to be still a virgin, but the claim 'set all Italy laughing', not least because she was rumoured to be having an affair with her father. That report was probably false, but it seems likely that she had been sleeping with one of Alexander's servants, a handsome young Spaniard named Perotto. When his body was fished out of the Tiber, it was universally assumed that he had been murdered on the orders of Cesare Borgia, himself suspected of incest with his sister.

Her second husband, the Duke of Biseglie, was still more unfortunate than his predecessor. He was a member of the Neapolitan ruling dynasty, but when his family fell from power Cesare Borgia decided that the marriage must be terminated. Poor Biseglie was attacked and wounded by an unknown assailant on the steps of St Peter's, but survived this first attempt on his life. Lucrezia nursed him back to health, preparing all his food as a precaution against poison, but ultimately proved unable to protect him. …

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