“In Rome (or possibly Subiaco), to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and Vannozza Catanei, wife of Giorgio di Croce, a daughter, Lucrezia.”
That’s the way the announcement could have read in the local rag in 1480, if they had such things then. The problem was that Rodrigo belonged to that cadre of men who weren’t supposed to sire children – not that that stopped him or any of his fellow fornicating men-of-the-cloth. Everyone knew they did it, but for form’s sake, the polite world went along with the polite fiction that the children of popes, cardinals, bishops, et al, were (in public) ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’.
[No, children. Lucrezia and her siblings were not the first or only children of the highest Catholic prelates. There were others, fore and aft.]
|Rodrigo as pope|
Lucrezia’s father, Roderigo Borgia, was born into the Catalan (Spain) family of Lanzol. His mother’s brother, Alonso de Borja, Bishop of Valencia, had risen to power in the court of Alfonso V of Aragon (Spain). When Alfonso finally ascended to the throne of Naples, his diplomatic bishop accompanied him, and by dint of reconciling his sovereign and his pope in a serious quarrel, received the cardinal’s hat. Elected in 1455 as a compromise candidate for the Chair of Peter, the former cardinal – now Callixtus III – raised two of his nephews to the position of cardinal – one of them being Roderigo, who by now had taken his uncle’s name of Borja (Borgia in Italy).
Twenty-six year-old Rodrigo was created a cardinal in 1456; a year later, he was made vice-chancellor of the Church of Rome. Even after Uncle Callixtus’ death in 1458, when the jealous Italians drove out the Spaniards who had swarmed in on the heels of a Spanish pope, Rodrigo managed to maintained his wealth and position. He built a handsome palace for himself and indulged his sensual nature – collecting art, holding orgies, setting out on romantic adventures… the usual leisure-time occupations of Cardinals.
So NOT in accordance with the life of a Christian prelate was his conduct, that he earned a written rebuke from Pope Pius II: “Our displeasure is beyond words, for your conduct has brought the holy state and office into disgrace… This is the reason the princes and the powers despise us and the laity mock us; this is why our own mode of living is thrown in our face when we reprove others. Contempt is the lot of Christ’s vicar because he seems to tolerate these actions… We leave it to you whether it is becoming to our dignity to court young women, and to send those whom you love fruits and wine, and during the whole day to give no thought to anything but sensual pleasures… A cardinal should be above reproach and an example of right living before the eyes of all men… “ And, as Rodrigo no doubt yawned, ‘blah blah blah’. He promised to amend his ways, but then a dark eye full of ‘come hither’ was flashed at him, and off the straight and narrow went the cardinal.
Looking at his picture, one might find it hard to believe that he could lead the life of Don Juan, but descriptions of him gave him an elegant figure and a serene countenance: “He is handsome; of a most glad countenance and joyous aspect, gifted with honeyed and choice eloquence. The beautiful women on whom his eyes are cast he lures to love him, and moves them in a wondrous way, more powerfully than the magnet influences iron.” “… tall and neither light nor dark; his eyes are black and his lips somewhat full. His health is robust, and he is able to bear any pain or fatigue; he is wonderfully eloquent and a thorough man of the world.”
|Vannozza in later years|
Around 1466 or 67 (perhaps even earlier), Cardinal Borgia attracted a woman of Roman or possibly Mantuan family, Vannozza Catanei, age 24 or 25. Rumor has it that she might have been the beautiful 17-year-old wife of a clueless husband in Mantua, who was seduced by a handsome but unnamed Cardinal when Pius II took his Court to Mantua in 1459. Cardinal Borgia did assuage his boredom while in Mantua with parties and what could be coyly termed ‘romantic adventures’, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that this was the start of the liaison between the two. Probably very beautiful, passionate, and intellectually vigorous, she was an excellent businesswoman and administrator, who owned and managed several properties including inns and a large-scale pawnbroking business, by which she amassed a tidy fortune – apart from the generosity of Rodrigo. At the time of Lucrezia’s birth, she was 38, had possibly been widowed twice, was currently married to Giorgio di Croce, an apostolic secretary (thanks to his wife’s lover), and living in Rome in a house near the Cardinal’s palace on the Piazza Pizzo di Merlo.
Lucrezia had several siblings, beside the three brothers who were also children of Rodrigo and Vannozza. By another woman, Rodrigo had sired a son, Pier Luigi and two daughters, Girolama and Isabella, all three at least a decade older than Lucrezia. Her eldest full brother, Giovanni (from whom descended Saint Francis Borgia) was born in 1474, Cesare followed in 1476, and her youngest full brother, Giuffre, was born in 1481 or 1482. Since Rodrigo didn’t give up his way of life, even after becoming Pope, there were at least a couple more half-siblings to follow.
How long Lucrezia lived with her mother is unknown, as is the age at which she was entrusted to her father’s cousin Adriana del Mila Orsini and went to live in the Orsini palazzo on Monte Giordano (near her father’s residence). She was living with Madonna Adriana at age 9, when young Giulia Farnese (soon to be Rodrigo’s mistress) arrived to marry Adriana’s son Orsino. Here, Lucrezia received a perfect education in style, manners, culture, religious piety, and all the social graces. She learned to speak and write fluently in French, Spanish and Italian, less fluently in Greek and Latin, composed elegant poetry in these languages, took lessons in music, drawing, embroidering, and classic literature, and had access to the greatest philosophers and humanist thinkers who attended her father’s court. With Giulia as her father’s mistress and Adriana promoting the liaison, Lucrezia also learned a few things about the seamier side of life.
Descriptions of Lucrezia always mentioned her beautiful golden hair and pleasant countenance: “She is of medium height and slender figure. Her face is long, the nose well defined and beautiful; her hair a bright gold, and her eyes blue; her mouth is somewhat large, the teeth dazzlingly white; her neck white and slender, but at the same time well rounded. She is always cheerful and good–humored.”
Rodrigo was always looking for ways to advance his family, legitimate or otherwise. At age 11, Lucrezia was contracted to marry (the following year) Don Cherubino Juan de Centelles, a nobleman of Valencia in Spain, with a huge dowry in money, jewels, and other valuables. At the exact same time, another betrothal contract with a different Valencian noble was signed. Neither one was fulfilled. Before she could be sent off to Spain as a bride to either of these men, Pope Innocent VIII died, and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was elected in his place (or, to quote Gregorovius, “To him, the highest bidder, the papacy had been sold”), taking the name Alexander VI.
Lucrezia’s life changed rapidly. For a start, Alexander acquired and furnished a residence for her near St. Peter’s called Santa Maria in Portico, where the 12-year-old girl held court, accompanied by her governess and preceptress, Adriana Orsini, and her good friend, Giulia Farnese Orsini. And since the daughter of a pope could look much higher for a spouse than a mere nobleman, the previous marriage contracts were nullified, while scions of the ruling houses of Italy offered themselves or their relatives. In June 1493, age 13, the Pope’s ‘niece’ (as she was referred to publicly) celebrated her first wedding, marrying the 26-year-old Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro – a relative of Lodovico il Moro of Milan – in the Vatican with all the ostentatious pomp and publicity that her father delighted in.
You know the rest of the story. Or think you do.
Cristofano dell’Altissimo, [posthumous] Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, mid-16th c. Corridoio Vasariano Museum, Florence. Swiped from Wikipedia.
Vannozza dei Catanei, a contemporary portrait, 16th century.
Pinturicchio, Lucrezia Borgia as Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1494, The Vatican. Swiped from Wikipedia.