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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Lucrezia Borgia

b. 1480, Subiaco, Italy; d. 1519, Ferrara, Italy

Lucrezia Borgia has been characterized in art, literature, and film as depraved, extravagant, guilty of incest and murder; however, scholars assert that there is in fact insufficient proof of Lucrezia’s alleged bad acts or her active involvement in the crimes of her notorious family. She was the illegitimate daughter of Vannozza dei Cattanei and Rodrigo Borgia—who later became Pope Alexander VI—and sister of Cesare Borgia. Politically ambitious, corrupt, and licentious, Alexander and Cesare ruthlessly advanced themselves through bribery, nepotism, murder, and the strategic marriage alliances of Cesare and Lucrezia. Her first marriage, to Giovanni Sforza, ended in annulment when the Borgia family no longer needed the Sforzas, while her second marriage, to Alfonso of Aragon, ended with his death, probably at the hands of Cesare. In contrast to the depiction of Lucrezia as the hapless pawn of her father and brother, it has been suggested that she was often left in charge of the papal court during her father’s absences from Rome, a unique measure of power for any woman. In 1501, she married Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara. Lucrezia proved herself a capable and popular duchess, acting as a patron to a flourishing arts community, skillfully administering affairs of state with her brother-in-law, Cardinal Ippolito, whenever d’Este was away, and devoting herself to acts of piety and charity in her later years.