Monday, February 21, 2011

Lucrezia Borgia, by Sarah Bradford

I reached for this biography in part to address my paltry knowledge of Renaissance Italy and in part because it received glowing reviews.

My admittedly limited impression of the Borgia clan was that of  scheming, murderous, and over-sexed Italians.  The sort of villains you love to see in plays and films but not necessarily in the villa next-door.  As applied to Roderigo (who became Pope Alexander VI) and his illegitimate son, Cesare (who was the model for Machiavelli's Prince), this stereotype is dead on.  Lucrezia (1480-1519) -- Cesare's sister -- is quite another story.  A virtuous Borgia??  It seems she was, more or less.

This is not historical fiction. Sarah Bradford gleaned all her details from original documents; her bibliography consumes only slightly fewer pages than her text.  (I hate to admit this, but it would have been a more entertaining read if she'd tarted it up a bit with some sordid inventions.)  As the daughter of a Pope and the wife of  Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (her 3rd marriage), Lucrezia led an exceptionally well-documented life for a woman of the time.  Her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, also gained renown as a patron of the arts, but they were exceptional.  Most women were beneath notice.

Roderigo and Cesare inspired hatred and fear in many, so I was startled at the number of chroniclers who sang Lucrezia's praises throughout her life.  Her father and brother pointedly used her as a political pawn, arranging three marriages, disposing of husbands #1 by annulment and #2 by murder when their usefulness had reached its end.  Lucrezia, however, appears to have played no role in these shenanigans apart from dutiful daughter, sister and wife.  The Pope exerted great force to arrange her 3rd marriage to a son of the Este clan in Ferrara, yet her reluctant father-in-law and husband both grew to love and admire her deeply.  When Alfonso, her husband, was fighting wars with anyone and everyone to maintain his grasp on Ferrara, he left Lucrezia in charge -- communicating with ambassadors and envoys, dispatching troops here or there, selling her jewels to finance his cavalry.  After the deaths of her father, Pope Alexander, and her feared brother, Cesare, her position at the Ferrara court might have been very tenuous had she not won the respect of the Este and, in fact, the people of Ferrara, who appeared to revere her.

Bradford's source material was primarily letters written to, by, or about Lucrezia.  Her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, always regarded Lucrezia with a certain amount of disdain and envy.  Isabella's spies fed her great detail about Lucrezia's every move, writing in almost unbelievable detail about her attire:  The design of her gowns and caps, the fabrics, the jewels, the shoes...  Her wardrobe was surely one of the most documented aspects of her life, and the descriptions lend a lot of color and richness to her story -- 15th-century bling, I suppose.

Isabella d'Este, as it turned out, had reason to be suspicious of her lovely sister-in-law.  Isabella's husband, Francesco Gonzaga, conducted an illicit love affair with Lucrezia for years.  In the end, this may have proved a blessing for Lucrezia's husband.  Italy at this period was a snakes' nest of shifting alliances, but Gonzaga stolidly refused to take up arms against Ferrara for love of Lucrezia.   This affair appears to be the extent of Lucrezia's duplicity; she never came close to the treachery of her brother and father.  Bradford sums it up well:
Lucrezia's dealings with men were as deft as the neat steps with which she executed the complicated choreography of the torch dance. She managed to keep the affection and respect of her husband while retaining the lifelong love of Gonzaga under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances, seemingly occupying a special place in the hearts of two men who were generally not known for their respect for women.  

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