The Year of Lucretia d'Este, Duchess of Ferrara

This year, the city of Ferrara is celebrating the "Year of Lucretia", the 500th anniversary of the arrival in Ferrara of Lucretia d'este. She was the very model of a dedicated wife and a solicitous mother. Her two sons with Duke Alfonso d'Este became his worthy successor and a respected Cardinal. She led a pious and quiet life keeping a respectfully subdued court separate from her husband's. She was a patron of literature, music, and the fine and practical arts. She was very well educated, speaking and reading at least six languages and writing poetry in three of them -- French, Italian, and Spanish. Her social and administrative skills had been established in her father's court, which she sometimes ran, at an early age, in his absence, and they were perfected in her husband's and her own courts in Ferrara. She was a dutiful daughter and corresponded regularly with her mother until the mother, who eventually became a prosperous hotelkeeper, died in Rome. Parents and guardians used her as an exemplar in explaining to their own daughters what they wanted them to become.

Who was this paragon? How had her upbringing made her so different from that other scandalous Lucretia -- that Borgia woman -- who had lived in Rome only a few years before? Well, in fact, they were the same person.

Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, the third of four illegitimate children of Pope Alexander VI and his favorite early mistress, Vanozza Catenei. Vanozza Catenei had been Roderigo Borgia's (Pope Alexander's)  mistress since around 1473 AD when she was in her early thirties. She remains a somewhat shadowy figure, but it is known that she was quite beautiful and from a family which was rather poor. She was the pope's mistress for at least ten years and through several of her own marriages.

Lucretia led a sheltered life until she was eleven years old, which was considered to be old enough to be nominated for political marriages. She was betrothed sequentially to the sons of two Spanish grandees, but the Pope canceled both betrothals when better opportunities arose. At thirteen, Alexander married her to the first of her three husbands. Pope Alexander himself performed the splendid ceremony attended by the Curia and local and foreign nobility. A sumptuous entertainment and feast followed, but no honeymoon.

Lucretia went back to her guardian, the Pope's cousin and fellow Spaniard, Adriana de Mila, for at least another year in accordance with the marriage contract. The husband, twice her age, was Giovanni Sforza, and was something of a fool. He was a lackluster spy in the Pope's court for the Sforzas -- a fact known by the Pope -- and simply wasn't able to deliver any political or diplomatic currency to the Pope's family. Sensing that he was not really wanted, by either Lucretia or the Pope, Giovanni fled back to his family seat in Pesaro and then sent for Lucretia. Lucretia refused to follow, and the Pope initiated annulment proceedings on the grounds of Giovanni's supposed impotence. Enraged, Giovanni accused the Pope and Lucretia of incest -- a totally baseless charge, but one that soon became part of the Borgia legend.

Lucretia went to a convent, apparently without telling her father the Pope, in the first of her periodic temporary rebellions against his maneuverings. But soon she was back in the papal court. But while she was in the convent, here oldest brother, Juan, was murdered and tipped into the Tiber. And the next brother in line, the infamous Cesare Borgia, was a prime suspect -- he was, in fact, such a rascal that he was the prime suspect for any crime committed in Rome in his time, but Juan also had plenty of extra-familial enemies.

By 1498, at age 18, she was again available for marriage: her first marriage was annulled and she was officially certified to be still a virgin. Lucrezia was wed to Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, the illegitimate son of a former king of Naples and full brother of Sancia, the beautiful wife of Lucretia's younger full brother Jofre. This marriage, unlike her first, was initially happy, but Lucretia's family put an end to their joy abruptly when political changes made her marriage to Alfonso no longer useful to the Pope or to Cesare, who had become very powerful after the death of Juan. Alfonso fled leaving the pregnant Lucretia in the care of her the papal court.

She would have followed him into exile, but the Pope had his letters intercepted and instead sent her to Spoletto. Eventually, they both returned to Rome, and it wasn't long before their folly played out. In mid-July of 1500 Alfonso was accosted and seriously wounded on the steps o St. Peter's church. It was universally accepted that Cesare's thugs had been the attackers. Alfonso survived the initial attack and was being nursed back to health by Lucretia and Sancia. The story become extremely murky at this point. Some say Alfonso accused Cesare of the being behind the plot and that he physically attacked Cesare when Cesare visited Alfonso's sickroom. Some say there was a second unprovoked attack against Alfonso. Everyone agrees that the two women left on an errand proposed by Cesare. Then Cesare left, leaving his bodyguards behind. The bodyguards left and the women returned to find Alfonso dead, possibly strangled. Marriage two had lasted less than two years. A grief stricken Lucretia went into seclusion, but again eventually returned to the papal court

And early in 1502, five hundred years ago, Lucretia arrived in Ferrara. The Ducal family had resisted the Pope's initial request for a match between his daughter and Alfonso (yes, another Alfonso), but he made them the proverbial offer they couldn't refuse -- 200,000 gold ducats and continued survival of the Ferrarese duchy in return for one gold wedding band. The old Duke, Ercole d'Este, of course had sent spies to Rome to check out the young lady before the wedding and was pleasantly surprised by their glowing reports. Her bad rep was a fabrication of a coalition of the enemies of the Borgia family and of anti-papal anti-religious propagandists. Lucretia was a good girl after all.

It only took Lucretia a few months after her arrival as Alfonso d'Este's new bride to win the hearts and minds of the Ferrara court. That was a good thing for her, because in 1502, her father the Pope was dead and her brother Cesare was in flight. In many ways, at least for posterity, it was the minds she captured that were most important. Lucretia actively assembled a coterie of intellectuals that included the greatest artists and particularly the greatest writers of the day. Her patronage was clearly a strong germinating influence on Italian letters. One only needs to remember the great humanist Venetian poet Pietro Bembo and Ludovico Ariosto, whose Orlando Furioso is the Italian language retelling of the chivalric legends or the French hero, Roland. Both did their groundbreaking work in the Ferrarese court.

In Ferrara, Lucretia was "the Good Duchess" -- exactly the opposite of her Roman image as "the evil daughter". Titian, a sometimes Ferrarese court artist, painted her as the model of Sacred Love in his masterpiece, Sacred and Profane love, and that give some idea of how she was regarded in the later years of her life.

Unlucky Lucretia's bad rep: As noted above, it was the many enemies of her father and her brother Cesare who initially maligned Lucretia's name. Probably the worst of these in terms of lasting inaccuracies was Stefano Infessura, who was a creature of the Colonna family. Infessura was part of a failed "republican" conspiracy which aimed at overthrowing the Popes (and turning the follow-on "republic" over to the nobility.) His "Diario della citta di Roma" ("Diarium urbis Romae") purports to be to be a history of Rome from 1294 to 1494 and includes scurrilous commentary on the doings all the Popes of that period. Many of those popes were, in fact, scoundrels, but Infessura reported as fact any accusation against them. No legitimate historians would think of citing Infessura about anything: his "Diary" is so erroneous that it would taint any work in which it were cited. But, despite his innumerable inaccuracies and outright lies -- some of them about Lucretia -- he has often been cited as a "primary source" by later authors, playwrights, librettists, and religious propagandists looking for sales and/or reinforcement of their own politico-religious agendas. If you read anything about Lucretia (or anyone else) that cites Infessura as a source, just remember that you have in hand rehashed propaganda. If, on the other hand, the author cites Johannes Burckardt (or Johann Burchard, Burcardus, or Borcardo, etc.) you probably have legitimate scholarship.

The city of Ferrara is not averse to perpetuating the "evil Lucretia" myth. Although the city cautiously debunks the myths on its "Year of Lucretia" Internet site ( it can't resist enumerating them all first, and one of the centerpieces of the year-long celebration (ends February 2003) will be a May 5 concert performance of the Gaetano Donizetti-Felice Romani opera which is about -- you guessed it! -- the evil Lucretia. (The Romani Libretto, in Italian, is at

There are, as they say, gazillions of Borgia Internet sites, but, unfortunately, many of them are just rehashes of all the inaccuracies of the past legends. One of the best Borgia texts available on line is the classic bio of Cesare (that really covers the whole close knit clan) by Rafael Sabatini at A gist of the lives of the Borgia Popes and Lucretia and Cesare, a mere taste, but enough to give the flavor, is at Info on Burckardt is at Infessura is not much on the web -- the Catholic Encyclopedia item on him is predictably dismissive, but it also represents the view of academic researchers -- a rare concordance:

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