Lucrezia Borgia: Incest, Poison and Sexual Scandal?

Lucrezia Borgia’s reputation precedes her, as the debauched daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, more commonly known as Pope Alexander VI. The Borgia family dominated Renaissance Italy, and some describe them as Italy’s original crime family. What an iconic bunch. Lucrezia gets a lot of attention, especially in relation to her three marriages, and reputation as an avid poisoner. Were these rumours true? As juicy as the details may sound, most historians agree that they weren’t, and that she was in fact the target of slander… but then again… although the theories have never been proved… they have never been disproved… see what I did there?

One of the most heinous crimes she is accused of is committing is incest with her brother Cesare, and her father. The accusations came from her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, whom she married in 1493. The marriage was a political one, and originally helped Alexander forge some powerful ties with the Duke of Milan, Giovanni’s uncle. Here, Lucrezia appears as more of a political pawn than a femme fatale, as she was thirteen at the time, and Giovanni was twenty-six. This marriage was annulled in 1497, much to Giovanni’s anger, because Alexander, in a political move, decided to back a French candidate to become the King of Naples. The Sforzas were the enemies of the royal family of Naples, and Giovanni was not happy, so Alexander sent him packing. In an attempt to preserve Lucrezia’s chastity, Alexander argued that Giovanni was impotent.

This was not true, as his first wife died in childbirth. Top marks, Alexander. In response to the whole situation, Giovanni accused Lucrezia of incest with her father and brother. The family weren’t much liked anyway, especially as they had come from Spain, and Italy was automatically suspicious of any outsiders. Enemies of the influential family lapped up the incest rumours, and rumours about Lucrezia’s general sexual discordancy and diabolical nature were rife. Freud would be having a field day. This is ironic, as she was named after the Roman noble woman Lucretia, who killed herself after she was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, in order to preserve her dignity and chastity.

Her reputation as a poisoner was tied to all the mysterious deaths that occurred around the Borgia family, including her own brother, Juan. It was rumoured she wore a hollow ring, containing poison, which she would deploy at parties to bump people off. Poison was popular in Renaissance Europe, as it left a lack of evidence, and was therefore difficult to trace. That’s why it’s popular with Shakespeare. It was probably tied to Lucrezia because poison was tied to women in general. It’s not as violent, subtle or ‘manly’ as thrusting a sword into someone, so a female poisoner was doubly scary, as a woman had easy access to all realms of the domestic sphere.

Gross sexual indecency continued to follow Lucrezia, even after the death of her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon. He was attacked and strangled in his bed, by an agent of her brother, Cesare in 1500. This only bolstered the incest rumours. Then, cue, Eastenders ‘duff duff,’ an illegitimate Borgia baby rocked up in 1501, whose parents were never officially disclosed. Who’s the mummy? Who’s the daddy? Was he Lucrezia’s, with her rumoured lover Perotto who mysteriously died two years before? Was the boy the son of Alexander and Lucrezia? Was it the son of Cesare and Lucrezia? Two Papal Bulls were issued, one saying that Alexander was the father, the other stating that Cesare was. Lucrezia acknowledged him as her half-brother. [1]

The rumoured Banquet of Chestnuts also spread of rumours of sexual discordancy within the family, as Johann Burchard describes:

“On the evening of the last day of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with “fifty honest prostitutes”,called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrets, and other things.[2]

… I have no words… which I know is rare.

Lucrezia’s reputation, and status as a mother, caught up with her by her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este in December 1501. It took a large dowry of a hundred thousand ducats to secure the marriage, because of said reputation. She was reluctant to marry again, telling her father that her ‘husbands had been very unlucky.’[3] A bit of an understatement, Lucrezia.

Alexander also paid a medical practitioner to attest that Lucrezia was a virgin. The presence of her son Rodrigo, by her second husband, may have been a slight giveaway. Lucrezia was forced to leave her son behind when moving to Ferrara for her third marriage. She would never see him again. Although this was a political move, Lucrezia was slated for it, with people claiming that she was a child abandoner devoid of maternal affection. I mean, she had eight children with her third husband so… Her image also wasn’t helped by the fact that she allegedly had affairs with poet Pietro Bembo, and her brother in law, Francesco Gonzago.[4]

Apparently, Alexandre Dumas, author of ‘The Three Musketeers’ weighed in, stating that Lucrezia:

“… had a wild imagination, was an unfaithful woman by nature and was the daughter and mistress of her father while also engaging in intimate relations with her brother”

I mean… how would he know? It’s not like they ever met.

Even poet legend Lord Byron had a thing for her, stating that her love letters were the ‘prettiest in the world,’ in 1816. He also claimed that he stole a lock of Lucrezia’s hair which was on display in the Ambrosian Library of Milan, calling it the ‘prettiest and fairest imaginable.’ For goodness sake, Byron.[5]

If we take all of these rumours as fact, we would have a woman who murdered people, committed incest, and discarded her child. She literally would be antithetical to anything found in the Bible, and more importantly the Virgin Mary. People probably classed her as a she-Devil, as the crimes she was accused of were of the most heinous. All this comes with the added irony that her father was the Pope! It’s not hard to understand why Lucrezia, and the Borgias, had such an infamous image. Even though it is believed that all of the rumours surrounding Lucrezia are untrue, even if they can ever be proved or unproved, it still makes for gripping reading.

Hope you thought so too! Thanks!


[1] All information from:

History Extra: ‘Lucrezia Borgia: Is Her Bad Reputation Deserved?’

Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/renaissance/lucrezia-borgia-reputation-adulteress-pope-alexander-vi/

[2] Found in J. Burchard, Pope Alexander VI and His Court – Extracts from the Latin Diary of John Burchard (ed.) F.L Glaser (New York, 2018).

[3] A. A. Berger, The Art of the Seductress: Techniques of the Great Seductresses from Biblical Times to the Postmodern Era (Indiana, 2002) p. 59.

[4] All information from:

History Extra: ‘Lucrezia Borgia: Is Her Bad Reputation Deserved?’

Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/renaissance/lucrezia-borgia-reputation-adulteress-pope-alexander-vi/

[5] ‘Letter from Byron to Augusta Leigh,’ Milan, 15 October 1816, in. Lord Byron’s Letters and Journals, Chapter 5: Separation and Exile.

Available at:

https://web.archive.org/web/20080509081118/http:/engphil.astate.edu/gallery/byron6.html

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: