Alexander admired, perhaps feared, his son, but he loved his daughter with all the emotional intensity of his nature. He seems to have taken profounder pleasure in her moderate beauty, in her long golden hair (so heavy that it gave her headaches), in the rhythm of her light form dancing,95 and in the filial devotion that she gave him through all contumely and bereavements, than he had ever derived from the charms of Vanozza or Giulia. She was not particularly fair, but she was described in her youth as dolce ciera,sweet face; and amid all the coarseness and looseness of her times and her environment, through all the disillusionments of divorce and the horror of seeing her husband murdered almost before her eyes, she kept this “sweet face” to her pious end, for it was a frequent theme in Ferrarese poetry. Pinturicchio’s portrait of her, in the Borgia apartment of the Vatican, agrees well with this description of her in her youth.
Like all Italian girls who could afford it, she went to a convent for her education. At an unknown age she passed from the house of her mother Vanozza to that of Donna Adriana Mila, a cousin of Alexander. There she formed a lifelong friendship with Adriana’s daughter-in-law Giulia Farnese, alleged mistress of her father. Favored with every good fortune except legitimacy, Lucrezia grew up in a gay and joyous girlhood, and Alexander was happy in her happiness.
This carefree youth was ended by marriage. Probably she was not offended when her father chose a husband for her; that was then normal procedure for all good girls, and produced no more unhappiness than our own reliance on the selective wisdom of romantic love. Alexander, like any ruler, thought that the marriages of his children should advance the interests of the state; this too, doubtless, seemed reasonable to Lucrezia. Naples was then hostile to the papacy, and Milan was hostile to Naples; so her first marriage bound her, at the age of thirteen, to Giovanni Sforza, aged twenty-six, lord of Pesaro and nephew to Lodovico, regent of Milan (1493). Alexander amused himself paternally by arranging a handsome home for the couple in Cardinal Zeno’s palace, close to the Vatican.
But Sforza had to live at Pesaro part of the time, and took his young bride with him. She languished on those distant shores, far from her doting father and the excitement and splendor of Rome; and after a few months she returned to the capital. Later Giovanni joined her there; but after Easter of 1497 he stayed at Pesaro and she at Rome. On June 14 Alexander asked him to consent to an annulment on the ground of the husband’s impotence—the only ground recognized by canon law for annulling a valid marriage. Lucrezia, whether in grief or in shame, or to circumvent scandalmongers, retired to a convent.96 A few days later her brother the Duke of Gandia was slain, and the delicate wits of Rome suggested that he had been murdered by agents of Sforza for attempting to seduce Lucrezia.97 Her husband denied his impotence, and hinted that Alexander was guilty of incest with his daughter. The Pope appointed a committee, headed by two cardinals, to inquire into whether the marriage had ever been consummated; Lucrezia took oath that it had not, and they assured Alexander that she was still a virgin. Lodovico proposed to Giovanni that he should demonstrate his potency before a committee including the papal legate at Milan; Giovanni forgivably refused. However, he signed a formal admission that the marriage had not been consummated; he returned to Lucrezia her dowry of 31,000 ducats; and on December 20, 1497, the marriage was annulled. Lucrezia, who had borne no offspring to Giovanni, bore children to both her later husbands; but Sforza’s third wife, in 1505, gave birth to a son presumably his own.98
It was formerly assumed that Alexander had broken the marriage in order to make a politically more profitable marriage; there is no evidence for this assumption; it is more likely that Lucrezia told the pitiful truth of the matter. But Alexander could not let her remain husbandless. Seeking a rapprochement with the papacy’s bitter enemy, Naples, he proposed to King Federigo the union of Lucrezia with Don Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, the bastard son of Federigo’s heir Alfonso II. The King agreed, and a formal betrothal was signed (June, 1498). Federigo’s proxy on this occasion was Cardinal Sforza, uncle to the divorced Giovanni. Lodovico of Milan also had encouraged Federigo to accept the plan.99 Apparently Giovanni’s uncles felt no resentment at the annulment of his marriage. In August the wedding was celebrated in the Vatican.
Lucrezia facilitated matters by falling in love with her husband. It helped that she could mother him, for she was eighteen now, and he was a child of seventeen. But it was their misfortune to be important; politics entered even their marriage bed. Caesar Borgia, rejected in Naples, went to France for a bride (October, 1498); Alexander entered into alliance with Louis XII, the declared enemy of Naples; the young Duke of Bisceglie was increasingly ill at ease in a Rome filling up with French agents; suddenly he fled to Naples. Lucrezia was brokenhearted. To appease her and heal the breach, Alexander appointed her regent of Spoleto (August, 1499); Alfonso rejoined her there; Alexander visited them at Nepi, reassured the youth, and brought them back to Rome. There Lucrezia was delivered of a son, who was named Rodrigo after her father.
But again their happiness was brief. Whether because Alfonso was uncontrollably high-strung, or because Caesar Borgia symbolized the French alliance, Alfonso took a passionate dislike to him, which Borgia disdainfully returned. On the night of July 15, 1500, some bravos attacked Alfonso as he was leaving St. Peter’s. He received several wounds, but managed to reach the house of the Cardinal of Santa Maria in Portico. Lucrezia, summoned to him, fainted on seeing his condition; she soon recovered, and, with his sister Sancia, tended him anxiously. Alexander sent a guard of sixteen men to protect him from further injury. Alfonso slowly convalesced. One day he saw Caesar walking in a nearby garden. Convinced that this was the man who had hired his assassins, Alfonso seized bow and arrow, aimed at Caesar, and shot to kill. The weapon narrowly missed its mark. Caesar was not the man to give an enemy a second chance; he called his guards and sent them up to Alfonso’s room, apparently with orders to slay him; they pressed a pillow upon his face until he died, perhaps under the eyes of his sister and his wife.100 Alexander accepted Caesar’s account of the matter, gave Alfonso a quiet burial, and did what he could to console the inconsolable Lucrezia.
She retired to Nepi, and there signed her letters la injelicissima principessa, “the most miserable princess,” and ordered Masses for the repose of Alfonso’s soul. Strange to relate, Caesar visited her at Nepi (October 1, 1499) only two and a half months after Alfonso’s death, and stayed overnight as her guest. Lucrezia was malleable and patient; she seems to have looked upon the killing of her husband as the natural reaction of her brother to an attempt upon his life. She does not appear to have believed that Caesar had hired the unsuccessful assassins of Alfonso, though this seems the most probable explanation of another Renaissance mystery. During the remainder of her life she gave many proofs that her love for her brother had survived all trials. Perhaps because he too, like her father, loved her with Spanish intensity, the wits of Rome, or rather of hostile Naples,101 continued to accuse her of incest; one synoptic scribe called her “the Pope’s daughter, wife, and daughter-in-law.”102 This, too, she bore with quiet resignation. All students of the epoch are now agreed that these charges were cruel calumnies,103 but such libels formed her fame for centuries.*
That Caesar killed Alfonso with a view to remating her to better political result is improbable. After a period of mourning she was offered to an Orsini, then to a Colonna—matches hardly as advantageous as that with the son of the heir to the Neapolitan throne. Not till November, 1500, do we hear of Alexander proposing her to Duke Ercole of Ferrara for Ercole’s son Alfonso;104 and not till September, 1501, was she betrothed to him. Presumably Alexander hoped that a Ferrara ruled by a son-in-law, and a Mantua long since bound to Ferrara by marriage, would in effect be papal states; and Caesar seconded the plan as offering greater security for his conquests, and an elegant background for an attack upon Bologna. Ercole and Alfonso hesitated, for reasons already retailed. Alfonso had been offered the hand of the Countess of Angoulême, but Alexander topped his offer with the pledge of an immense dowry, and practical remission of the annual tribute that Ferrara had been paying to the papacy. Even so, it is hardly credible that one of the oldest and most prosperous ruling families in Europe would have received Lucrezia as wife to the future duke had it believed the lurid stories bandied about by the intellectual underworld of Rome. As neither Ercole nor Alfonso had yet seen Lucrezia, they followed customary procedure in such diplomatic matings, and asked the Ferrarese ambassador in Rome to send them a report on her person, her morals, and her accomplishments. He replied as follows:
Illustrious Master: Today after supper Don Gerardo Saraceni and I betook ourselves to the Illustrious Madonna Lucrezia to pay our respects in the name of Your Excellency and His Majesty Don Alfonso. We had a long conversation regarding various matters. She is a most intelligent and lovely, and also an exceedingly gracious, lady. Your Excellency and the Illustrious Don Alfonso—so we were led to conclude—will be highly pleased with her. Besides being extremely graceful in every way, she is modest, lovable, and decorous. Moreover, she is a devout and God-fearing Christian. Tomorrow she is going to confession, and during Christmas week she will receive communion. She is very beautiful, but her charm of manner is still more striking. In short, her character is such that it is impossible to suspect anything “sinister” of her; but on the contrary we look for only the best… Rome, December 23, 1501.…
Your Excellency’s servant,
The Excellent and Illustrious Estensi were convinced, and sent a magnificent body of knights to escort the bride from Rome to Ferrara. Caesar Borgia equipped two hundred cavaliers to accompany her, and supplied musicians and buffoons to amuse the arduous travel hours. Alexander, proud and happy, provided her with a retinue of 180 persons, including five bishops. Vehicles especially built for the trip, and 150 mules, carried her trousseau; and this included a dress valued at 15,000 ducats ($187,500?), a hat worth 10,000 and 200 bodices costing a hundred ducats each.106 On January 6, 1502, having privately taken leave of her mother Vanozza, Lucrezia began her bridal tour across Italy to join her fiancé. Alexander, after bidding her good-by, went from point to point on the line of procession to catch another glimpse of her as she rode on her little Spanish horse all caparisoned in harness of leather and gold; he watched until she and her retinue of a thousand men and women were out of sight. He suspected that he would never see her again.
Rome had probably never witnessed such an exit before, nor Ferrara such an entry. After twenty-seven days of travel, Lucrezia was met outside the city by Duke Ercole and Don Alfonso with a superb cavalcade of nobles, professors, seventy-five mounted archers, eighty trumpeters and fifers, and fourteen floats carrying highborn ladies sumptuously dressed. When the procession reached the cathedral two ropewalkers descended from its towers and addressed compliments to Lucrezia. As the ducal palace was reached all prisoners were given their liberty. The people rejoiced in the beauty and smiles of their future duchess; and Alfonso was happy to have so splendid and charming a bride.107