Lucrezia Borgia 1480-1519
( Originally Published 1907 )
OF all the famous women of the Renaissance, Lucrezia Borgia is, in one sense, though in one sense only, the most disappointing. There are a great number of books dealing with her personality, but little real information. Few personal friends reveal more of themselves than Margaret D'Angoulême, Anne of Brittany, or Beatrice D'Este. What is evasive about them is pleasantly evasive, since every woman should retain a little that is inexplicable. But Lucrezia Borgia evades altogether. There is nothing, from beginning to end, comprehensible to seize upon. All the facts of her life are ascertainable, but never a word concerning the temperament that to a certain extent gave life to them. The events of the first half of her existence are begrimed with evil, but the evil is so involved and extraordinary, so little in keeping with the second half of her existence, and in many instances so dubious, that it scarcely adheres to her. In the end she emerges with such inherent calm, such effulgent gentleness, that the whole story of her Roman days has an air, not only of inapplicability, but of extraneousness. The actions of that early period seem to cling to her little more than the unconscious proceedings of a sleep-walker.
To disarm once and for all any preconceived prejudice, it is only necessary to look at the supposed portrait of her as St. Catherine, painted by Pintorricchio. In that she is adorable. To believe in the absolute baseness of a creature with such an expression is not possible. Looking at it, do we see anything save a child, nearly grown up in years, but with a little brain absolutely muddled and unreasonable ? Exquisitely plaintive and helpless, the figure seems surely as if its youth appealed against it knew not what. The creature is all prettiness, weakness, and grace. Standing with slender hands in a useless attitude, her expression appears destitute of any vital understandings, but conveys instead the very essence of the sweetness and dependence possible to femininity. The little mouth is weak but endearing, the little chin weak but tender-hearted. The whole face, framed in its loose and volatile hair, exhales a gentle, childish passivity. Only in the eyes lurks an unconscious wistfulness, as if they knew or foreboded being involved in many tragic contemplations. There is no evil anywhere there is no parti pris, in fact, of any sort. A soft perplexity is perhaps the strongest impression given.
The other likeness of her, stamped upon a medal, and known incontestably to be a portrait, is not so lovable. But no woman's charm could be conveyed in the few hard lines of a profile struck upon a medal. There is no possible opportunity to convey more than an accentuated impression of nose, chin, and forehead. In the medal Lucrezia's gift of gaiety, here almost saucy, is the chief characteristic visible.
This power to be continuously gay, which was so markedly to distinguish her all her life, was perhaps the only good quality Alexander was able to transmit to his daughter ; but by this one quality alone, almost, Lucrezia finally lifted herself away as if it had been solely a cloak thrust about her by the brutality of others —from the darkness of her original reputation. Now one is chiefly conscious of a creature courageously cheerful ; a creature continuously desirous to please, to convey gentle impressions, to smooth out everything into pleasantness. Having carefully and repeatedly read the various books upon her, the feeling left is actually of a woman who understood, up to a point, her woman's business uncommonly well, but who suffered sore mishandling during the early crucial years of her existence. The moment they took her out of the undesirable surroundings in which she had been reared, nothing but brave, becoming laughter and comfortable domesticity Ruskin's demand that a woman should bring "comfort with pleasantness "—issued from her. Obviously there were no roots of evil to renew themselves ; at the worst there had been only a nature over-adaptable to outside forces, and a temperament not forceful in powers of resistance.
Born in 1480, she was the daughter of Alexander, then known as Cardinal Rodriquez, and Vanozza Cataneri, a woman whose origin is obscure, but who was certainly educated, and who had two husbands, Giorgio di Croce, and later, when Alexander had turned to younger idols, a certain Carlo Canali, an author of some reputation in his day. During her babyhood Lucrezia remained with her mother in a house close to the cardinal's. But later, though why or when is not known, she was taken from Vanozza and given into the care of Madonna Adrienne, a widow, and a connection of the cardinal's, said by Gregorovius to be also " very deep " in the Spaniard's confidence. The atmosphere of Madonna Adrienne's house could not have created for Lucrezia early impressions of delicate or winning conduct she had no groundwork afterwards of moving ideals to fall back upon. There is one incident which lets in all the daylight necessary upon the character of Lucrezia's guardian. Julia Farnese was her son's wife, and it was with her mother-in-law's complete acquiescence that the girl became Alexander's acknowledged mistress. There is something, therefore, under the flagrant circumstances of the case almost offensive in the fact that Adrienne had the child carefully instructed in religious observances, though, for that matter, they were all religious, these women of undesirable conduct. Vanozza, for instance, built a chapel, and was looked upon as deeply devout long before Alexander's death.
Lucrezia's intellectual education took the same surface quality as her spiritual one. The Renaissance ideas of culture for women had not penetrated to Rome, and the child underwent a very different schooling from the D'Estes, the Gonzagas, and so many others. Her chief facility appears to have been in the matter of languages. Bayard, in 1512, said of her, " She speaks Spanish, Greek, Italian, and French, and a little and very correctly Latin ; she also writes and composes poems in all these languages." Moral sense must have remained absolutely sheathed. None of the set who brought her up would have dared to instil so dangerous and disturbing a quality. In Pintorricchio's portrait there is no sign of a living conscience, though she might well from her expression be wistfully looking for it, aware of something wanting.
When Lucrezia was eleven years old, besides, a new impropriety was added to the number already submersing ordinary moral comprehension. It was then that Julia Farnese, aged sixteen, became Alexander's mistress. There was no concealment, and Lucrezia became unhesitatingly involved in the new arrangements. To her the circumstance wore no more unnatural air than marriage. The child had never been in an atmosphere of customary domesticity since she was born ; her playfellows were almost aII the children of other cardinals, and in thinking of her life it should be remembered that few minds question easily the standards of conduct grown familiar since early childhood.
She was herself already engaged to two people. Alexander, looking at this time to his own country for a good match for his daughter, had formally promised her hand to a Spaniard. In the same year, considering it a better bargain, he also affianced her to a certain Don Gasparo ; so that the child had actually two prospective husbands at one time. Nothing came of either. In 1492, Innocent VII. died, and Rodriguez Borgia was elected Pope in his place, assuming the name of Alexander. He had always notably pleasant manners, but Giovanni de Medeci, looking at the new Pope, remarked, nevertheless, under his breath, " Now we are in the jaws of a ravening wolf, and if we do not flee he will devour us," He devoured a good many, though his primary policy was widespread propitiation.
For Lucrezia, her father's elevation from cardinal to Pope proved immediately significant. The two previously chosen husbands were dropped ; neither was good enough for a Pope's daughter. And in 1493 they married her to Giovanni Sforza, who was an independent sovereign, and a relation also of the powerful Ludovico Sforza of Milan. She was then thirteen years of age, and was to remain, after the marriage, one more year in Rome before her husband took her away to his own possessions. Ostensibly, however, they made a woman of her immediately. She received a house of her own close to the Vatican, Madonna Adrienne passed from governess into lady-in-waiting, and the whole weariness of formal social life became a part of the child's ordinary duties. She had to receive all important visitors to Rome, and behave with the effortless dignity of a great lady. Alphonso of Ferrara, come to render homage to the new Pope, had also to pay his court to this thirteen-year-old bastard, whom he was himself later to marry. He brought her, in fact, as a wedding present from the duke his father, two large and beautifully worked silver washing jugs and basins.
Curiously enough, in the comments made about the marriage, there are none at all concerning the girl herself. At that age she had clearly no distinguishing precocities. The Ferrarese ambassador dismissed her with a phrase, and that referring more to Alexander than the newly made bride. He wrote that the Pope loved his daughter in a superlative degree. It may have been so : it is a fact most biographers lay stress upon. Nevertheless, almost every single known incident tells against much affection, and it is very certain that he sacrificed her whenever it was necessary, either for Caesar's ambition or his own purposes.
Another brief reference made to her at this time is in the well-known letter by Pucci, From his statement it would almost seem as if Julia Farnese and Lucrezia were housed together. For he mentioned going to call upon Julia at the Palace of Santa Maria in Porlica, and wrote, " When we got there she had just been washing her hair. We found her sitting by the fire with Madonna Lucrezia, the daughter of his Holiness, and she welcomed both my companions and myself with every appearance of delight. . . . She desired me to see the child, who is already quite big and as like the Pope adeo ut vere ex ejus semine orta dici pssit.
" Madonna Julia has grown fatter, having developed into a very beautiful woman. While I was there she unbound her hair and had it dressed. Once loose it fell to her feet ; I have never seen anything to compare with it. Truly she has the most beautiful hair imaginable. She wore a thin lawn head-dress, and over it the lightest of nets interwoven with gold threads, shining like the sun. . . . Her dress was made after the style of the Neapolitans, and trimmed with fur. So was Madonna Lucrezia's, who after a while went and changed hers, coming back in a gown made of purple velvet."
The reference to Lucrezia is singularly meaningless, but the letter itself is interesting. The child of fourteen and the deliberate wanton were evidently, at least, in constant companionship. "Wanton " is a strong expression, but Julia Farnese belonged to the type for whom no other word is equally applicable. She was young, fresh, beautiful, and Pope Alexander was an old corrupt man of sixty. But she became his mistress with the same tranquil publicity with which a woman might become the consort of a reigning sovereign. The fact of her soiled youth and abandoned domestic decencies weighed no more upon imagination, than the casual discarding of an uncared-for garment.
Pintorricchio, in his series of frescoes at the Vatican, is said to have painted her as well as Alexander and Lucrezia. There is, above the door of the Hall of Arts, a madonna and child, the madonna of which is supposed to have been Julia. If so and it looks essentially like a portrait she was very interesting as well as exquisite. There is character and a sort of intelligent carelessness about the face the kind of carelessness that suggests an intuitive consciousness of the insignificance of most minor occurrences. The error made by Julia was in including ethics among the non-important contingencies.
As regards the question whether she and Lucrezia were really painted by Pintorricchio, there seems little doubt that, since the portrait of Alexander is incontestable, those of the two girls would have been included somewhere in the series of frescoes. Alexander must so certainly have desired them painted, and both would have been about the ages they look in the frescoes at the time Pintorricchio was at work upon the private apartments of the Pope. As a matter of fact, Pintorricchio laboured quietly for years in the rooms through which Lucrezia was constantly passing, and he must have become so much part of unchanging daily impressions, that one imagines all her after memories of life in Rome held as a sort of background the consciousness of the wonderful pictures in which the painter expressed, with perhaps more completeness than anywhere else, his special sense of loveliness.
Lucrezia must have known Pintorricchio from the time when she was little more than a child until her third marriage, though it is probable that she was at this period too engrossed and light-headed to take much notice of the wistful-looking man making beauty upon every side of her. Certainly the complicated nature of her own domestic drama was in itself sufficient to absorb anybody. Not long after her marriage 11 Moro had drawn France into the Neapolitan adventure. Alexander VI. was vehemently opposed to this invasion, and was, besides, close friends with the King of Naples. Instantly the situation became difficult for Lucrezia's husband ; the policy of his house and that of his father-in-law had grown brusquely antagonistic.
Giovanni himself was acutely alive to the awkwardness of his own position. In 1494 he wrote to Ludovico that he had been asked by the Pope what he had to say to the situation, and had answered, " Holy Father, everybody in Rome believes that you are in agreement with the King of Naples, who is the enemy of Milan. If it is so, I am in a very difficult position, for I am in the pay of your Holiness and of the last-named state. If things are to follow this course, I do not see how I can serve the one without abandoning the other, though I desire to detach myself from neither." He concluded the letter by a statement very unflattering to Lucrezia. " If I had known, monseignor," wrote the distracted Sforza, " that I should find myself in my present position, I would sooner have eaten the straw of my bed than have made this marriage."
As a young girl, Lucrezia obviously arrested nobody's notice. This alone suggests that she was not wicked : wickedness always at least produces attention. To her first husband, when he wrote the above letter, she could have held no kind of significance. Shortly after sending it, however, Giovanni left Rome for his own town, Pesaro, taking the girl he so much regretted marrying with him. He was not yet openly on bad terms with the Vatican : in addition to his own wife, he had been given charge of quite a collection of the Pope's ladies. Julia Farnese, Madonna Adrienne, and Madonna Vanozza were all included, an outbreak of the plague in Rome having terrified Alexander as to the safety of the two younger women. Giovanni, probably, would have preferred Lucrezia to have been less accompanied. Involved always in this crowd of feminine connections, she must, as a young girl, have worn almost a mechanical air of manipulation have seemed little better than a mouthpiece for the Vatican opinions. While they were at Pesaro, however, husband and wife went through the momentarily uniting experience of falling equally under the Pope's displeasure. They had, it seems, permitted Madonna Julia and Madonna Adrienne to leave them. Julia's brother was seriously ill, and the two women had gone to nurse him. Upon this matter, Alexander, who could be very petulant when thwarted, wrote himself, and not at dictation, to Lucrezia. He wrote that he was much surprised at not having heard more often from them, and in a tense and irritated sentence ordered the girl to be more punctilious for the future. But this was not the real grievance, and he passed instantly to the departure of Julia and her mother. Lucrezia and Giovanni were both held to have behaved equally inexcusably in letting them go without permission from Alexander. He wrote as if they had been two disobedient children, whose deliberate frowardness had resulted, as they must have known perfectly from the beginning, in great annoyance to him personally. At the end of exasperated remonstrance, they were warned that for the future they would never again be trusted. A letter like this, including both in mutual disgrace, might easily have fugitively roused a slight bond of friendliness between so young a couple. The general opinion is, notwithstanding, that they were never sympathetic. At Pesaro, besides, though Lucrezia remained there a year, they were very seldom together. Giovanni held the position of officer in the Pope's army, and it was a year of sharp anxiety for Alexander. It required Charles VIII.'s feeble return journey to France before the papal ground felt once more solid under the pontiff's feet.
Then Lucrezia was recalled to Rome, and the old wayward existence at her palace near the Vatican was taken up once more. From this time onwards the Borgia scandals thickened with extraordinary rapidity, becoming the interested gossip of every other court in Italy. Alexander's youngest son, Jofre, had married a Spanish girl several years older than himself, and upon the return of political quietude brought her back with him to Rome. This Madonna Sancia alone piled up a staggering accumulation of scandals for Italy to gasp at. She had a passion, in her most innocent moments, for the less tranquil pleasures of life. Her arrival whipped up the gaiety of social Rome into an extremity of worldliness. She was openly flagrant : the word " wickedness " seemed to have no more unpleasant meaning to her than another. Both her husband's brothers, Giovanni and Caesar Borgia, were said to be among her lovers. Giovanni Borgia's subsequent murder, in fact, was looked upon by many people as the outcome of her lack of moral reasonableness, Caesar's jealousy, it was thought, driving him to thrust the other prematurely upon eternity. Between the gorgeous wickedness of Sancia and Julia Farnese, Lucrezia was trailed like some insignificant and unconsidered appendage. She is mentioned constantly as in the society of Sancia, but no impropriety is even suggested concerning her, until the divorce with Giovanni involved her in the hate universally nourished against the rest of the family.
This divorce had been shaping ever since the French invasion had rendered the Sforzas politically useless to Alexander. One day Giovanni Sforza was bluntly requested to abandon Lucrezia. Should he refuse, extreme measures were threatened, and no man so intimate with the family could possibly have been unacquainted with the kind of coercion likely to be employed should he maintain obduracy. For a few days he went about hoarding rather more bitterness than he knew how to deal with. Then a dramatic urgency brought indecision to an abrupt conclusion. According to most accounts of the story, Jacomino, cameriere to Giovanni Sforza, was in Lucrezia's room one day when they heard Caesar Borgia's footsteps outside. Lucrezia had already been made cognizant of the pending divorce. Alexander and Caesar never regarded the soft and pliant creature as likely to need concealments. She was to them obviously the perfect tool, childlike, flightly, inherently docile, and moved by the least enticement to new anticipations. But Lucrezia even then had some instincts her people did not know of, and to deprive a man of the delight of living was not endurable to her. She must have suspected some sinister communication, for on hearing Caesar's footsteps she thrust Jacomino behind some tapestry. In the course of conversation, Caesar stated that the order to assassinate her husband had already been given. It sounds incredible, but then the whole Borgia history has the same quality of impossible melodrama. The moment he had gone Lucrezia rushed to the curtains: the man must go at once and save his master. Twenty-four hours later Giovanni Sforza reached Pesaro. His horse fell dead as he arrived.
Gregorovius states that Lucrezia was not agreeable to the divorce. It fits in pleasantly with one's conception of her to believe that this was true. The Lucrezia of recent discovery would have been bound by a light and gentle affection to any one not unkind to her, and all her instincts would have been against giving pain to anybody. Certainly, after Giovanni's escape, she felt the weight of some unpleasantness at the Vatican. And shortly afterwards she either went, or was sent in disgrace, to the convent of San Sisto on the Appian Way. I n a letter written that June by Donati Aretino to Cardinal Hippolyte D'Este, he says : " Madonna Lucrezia has left the palace insalutato hospite, " and has gone to stay at a convent called San Sisto, where she still is. It is rumoured by some that she desires to become a nun herself, but there are a number of other rumours as well, of a nature not possible to trust to a letter."
These "other rumours " are presumably the scandals which leapt into belief after the divorce, and which Giovanni, embittered to the marrow of his bones, is credited with having started.
But the divorce obtained, a new marriage was instantly negotiated for the girl, whose ideas of customary conduct must have been so piteously topsy-turvy. The new match of possessing awkward spouses. In this second crisis Lucrezia, however, did not wait to be warned of danger, and one day Alphonso disappeared. A Venetian writer in Rome remarks : "The Duke of Biseglia, husband of Madonna Lucrezia, has secretly fled, and is gone to Genazzano, to the Colonnas. He has left his wife six months enceinte, and she does nothing but cry." The statement is at last a lifting of the veil for a second from the girl's character. She loved this second husband ; at the hint of danger she sent him away, but once gone she cried for him all day. This is the whole conduct-sheet of any normal, tender woman.
Alphonso wrote and urged her to follow him, but Alexander, it is said, forced her to beg Alphonso to return instead. There is some confusion at this point. Certainly, in the end, Lucrezia was sent away into the country to Spoleto and here, after a little while, Alphonso joined her. It was dangerous, but they were at the age when evil anticipations are sustained with an effort. It is not natural in one's teens to hold for ever a problematical foreboding. Death in fulness of physical well-being is a dark midnight possibility, not a permanent obsession for broad and cheerful daylight. Foolishly, and yet so naturally, their fears gradually fell away, and Caesar Borgia being at Forli, fighting, by the following October they were back in Rome, where Lucrezia gave birth to a son, and where, for another year, they lived undisturbed, while Michelangelo was at work upon his Pieta Copernicus, and Pintorricchio continued to make pictures round the walls of the Vatican.
In 1500, the year of Alexander's jubilee, Caesar returned, and the calamity, which had practically been a foregone conclusion for a year, came upon the Biselli household. Before it occurred, however, an incident occurred which is another strong testimony to gentleness of heart in Lucrezia. A chimney feII upon Alexander, and during his brief illness it was not his mistress, nor any of the many persons whose business it was more or less to attend to him, who under-took the nursing, but the girl Lucrezia herself. It is said the old man refused to have anybody else about him. Clearly, then, she had more tender ways, more naturally capable and patient methods, than the rest, and to a patient made herself the comfortable embodiment of motherliness, sympathy, control, and unselfishness. No woman would be clamoured for in a sick-room who did not possess all the finer and warmer qualities of character.
Soon after this the inevitable happened. Alphonse, walking up the steps of the Vatican, was set upon by a group of masked men with daggers. Grievously wounded, he managed to tear past them into the Pope's own apartments, where Lucrezia was sitting with her father. As the bleeding man staggered into the room she fainted dead away. So would any normally tender woman, dragged suddenly from the trivial conversation into this new horror of desolation.
The dying man was put to bed, and joyfully given the Iast absolution. But Lucrezia, ill herself with a fever brought on by shock, made a desperate struggle to save the life belonging to her. Here again she shows as a perfectly natural woman. Driven at last into revolt by those she dared not openly defy, and heartsick, shaken, burning with terror, impotence, and distress, she yet fought them with all the pitiful means at her disposition. Nobody but herself or his sister Sancia were allowed to attend the wounded man ; all his food these two cooked between them, probably with their hearts racing in perpetual fearfulness. It is said and there seems always a vague suggestion behind these circumstances that Alexander was a weak man in the power of Caesar that the Pope himself sided with the two aching, troubled women, and helped to keep dangerous persons out of the sick-room. But Alphonso once convalescent, Caesar could not be refused admittance. He had no recognized hand in the crime ; none could openly accuse him. Nevertheless, his visit accentuated sinister anticipations. After making it he re-marked grimly, " What was unsuccessful at noon may be successful at night."
He took every care that it should. One evening the two women why is difficult to understand, for both were soaked in heart-breaking suspicions left the room for a moment. Caesar himself must surely have seen to their absence, for instantly afterwards he slipped in with his throttler Michelletto, and in a minute or two Lucrezia was a widow. The agony, sharp enough, had at least been brief.
This time, though there is not a single intimate statement written about her, Lucrezia must have made some primary outcry, some first plaint against the cruelty of such a widowhood. The Venetian ambassador refers to trouble between Lucrezia and her father. He writes : " Madonna Lucrezia, who is generous and discreet, was formerly in high favour with the Pope, but he seems no longer to care for her." The girl was then at Nepi. What had previously occurred no one knows, but she and her father would certainly not have fallen out if her meekness had remained predominant. Something must have overstrained docility and sent her once more out of Rome, either in a spirit of bitterness or because she exasperated those who controlled her existence.
But negotiations for a third marriage were not allowed to linger. When Caesar had subdued the plucky and intensely wicked Catherine Sforza, and taken the town of Pesaro, Collenuccio mentions at the end of a letter, "The Pope intends to give this town as a dowry to Madonna Lucrezia, and to secure her an Italian husband who will always keep on good terms with the Valentinois. I do not know if this is the truth, but it is at least generally believed to be." In the same letter there is a sketch of Caesar himself. Collenuccio says, " He is looked upon as brave, powerful, and generous, and they say he takes care to make much of wealthy people. He is pitiless in his vengeances ; many people have told me this. He is a man with a great spirit, and set on greatness and glory, but it seems he prefers to conquer provinces than to pacify and organize them."
Nevertheless, because the Borgia was a man with an unrelaxed purpose, he stood, even for a good many of his enemies, as a type of greatness. Machiavelli actually made him the ideal of governing princedom the subtle combination of the lion and the fox.
Machiavelli himself so extraordinarily interesting belongs to the history of Florence and not to that of Rome and Alexander. He never came actually into contact with Lucrezia, but the following description of his days, when he was living on his own small estate, given in a letter to a friend, is so luminously expressive of the spirit of the age in which he and Lucrezia lived that there seems more than sufficient reason for including it. He wrote that he got up at sunrise, and after a couple of hours in the woods, where he examined the work of the previous day and chatted with the wood-cutters, he walked to a certain grove with a volume of Dante, Petrarch, or one of the Latin poets, to read. Subsequently he strolled to the inn, gossiped with the people there, and by direct intercourse with many kinds of temperaments studied human nature. For dinner, which he spoke of as being very simple fare, he returned home ; but the meal over, he made his way back to the inn, where he passed the afternoon playing at cricca and tric-trac with the host or any one else who happened to be there. It was not apparently desired to be a peaceful recreation. Machiavelli states, with a sort of cheerful glow, that they quarrelled incessantly, and shouted at each other like infuriated lunatics. But this boisterousness was for the day. When the evening came he once more went home-wards, and this time, having discarded his muddy country clothes, and having dressed himself with as much care as if he were at court, he retired to his library till bedtime, and became absorbed in the works of past writers. This was in reality the intense portion of his days ; all his nature, he wrote, became immersed in the joy of this intellectual companionship, everything else, every care, every thought for the present or the future, slipping away from him while he read.
Machiavelli's day contains the whole substance of Renaissance behaviour absolute immersion of personality in fine art or good literature, and along with it the extreme of physical tempestuousness. These people almost panted with vitality ; they were not yet subdued and wearied through the evil and sorrows of too many past generations.
Lucrezia, like the rest, responded to life far too instinctively to hold grief for any period. She took the interest of a giddy child in the suggestions for her third marriage, and this time Alexander had chosen Alphonso of Ferrara as the person essentially desirable. It was aiming ambitiously. The besmirched, divorced, and widowed daughter of a Pope did not constitute a suitable bride for the future Duke of Ferrara. In fact, the proposal created nothing less than a panic when laid before the chosen bridegroom and his father. Lucrezia's reputation was unspeakable.
The charge of incest was among others laid against her. It has been repeated by Macchiavelli, Guicciardini, and the poets Sanozzo and Pontanus. Nevertheless, nobody now believes it. Neither Alexander nor Caesar's conduct makes it supposable. Secondly, all those who spread it had either personal animosity against the Borgias or repeated it solely from hearsay. The two poets, besides, were friends and subjects of the house of Aragon, and in Naples, after the murder of Alphonso, the word " Borgia" stood for abomination.
But in Ferrara the accusation was unquestioned, and Alphonso immediately and violently refused to entertain the idea of the suggested marriage for a second. The old Duke Ercole, though no less nauseated than his son, was even more harassed and more fearsome. To offend Alexander involved the security of his duchy. To make matters worse, when the Pope's proposal reached Ferrara, other wifely negotiations had already been started with France. And suddenly all pleasant plans were made parlous and uncertain. Distressed out of circumlocution, Ercole wrote plainly and rather piteously to the French ambassador, begging that the French king would not take the side of the Pope, but would write and support him by stating, which would have been almost the truth, that another marriage had already been arranged for. The whole letter was full of stress and pleading, and though ending with the statement that consent to the union would in any case never be wrung out of him, and that in addition nothing would induce his son to take the lady, it showed in every line the anguish of a revolt that knows its own futility.
Ercole found no friend to help him. His letters, after Louis had slithered out of the responsibility of abetting him, revealed the agitation this acceptance of a virtueless future duchess caused at Ferrara. Exasperated and miserable, he showed openly that he regarded the kings conduct as a mean refusal of good-fellowship. He gave in finally, as he was bound to do, but spoke of it with a tragic veracity as an act " postponing" the honesty of his most ancient house.
The news caused an almost outrageous joy at the Vatican, though Lucrezia's delight is perhaps the most inexplicable of the abundantly inexplicable facts of her existence. She could not have believed herself welcome, and she could not have conceived Alphonso as a genial, heart-stirring companion. He was emphatically a man satisfied with men's society. His appearance, besides, was in itself sufficient to terrorize a woman of light reputation. Lucrezia had seen him and the remorseless type of the straight, down-reaching nose, the tip almost touching the upper lip. Physically he was a fine creature, but cold suspicion glared out of him, and only excessive courage or excessive obtuseness would have dared to be wholly at ease in his presence. True, the marriage offered Lucrezia the great opportunity of her life the opportunity to retrieve, which should follow everybody's primary misdemeanours. She rose, moreover, magnificently to the occasion, and through that fact alone made her life of deep and touching value. For no past human backsliding should be allowed to blur the smoothness of a changed and nobler future. There is no object in life if improvement is to be hindered by cast-off failings. But though Lucrezia wiped out a bad beginning by the finest possible maintenance of contrary behaviour, she was not the woman to think of this beforehand, or to plan deeply and carefully the development of a new character. She possessed too strongly the wisdom of living in the moment, and her retrievement came, not from any long-considered purpose, but naturally when once removed from the constant, forceful on-thrust of evil people.
The instant the engagement had been brought about, a correspondence began between her and Ercole. Certainly men were practised liars in those days. When Ercole wrote to Cesar Borgia accepting the proposed marriage, he stated that he did so "on account of the reverence we feel for the holiness of our Lord, and the admirable character of the most illustrious Madonna Lucrezia, but even more for the great affection we have for your Excellence."
When the marriage by proxy had taken place, he further wrote to Lucrezia herself that not only was the marriage a great happiness and comfort in his old age, but that he had loved his new daughter-in-law from the first, both because of the exceptional goodness of her character, and because of her relationship to the Pope and to Caesar Borgia. Just at the end a grain of truth slipped in, when he stated that he hoped that posterity through her would be assured to his house in Ferrara.
In spite of these protestations of affection, the D'Estes were anything but comfortable. What they feared is clear from a letter of the Ferrarese ambassador, written after a long interview with Lucrezia. He wrote that she showed nothing but excellent qualities, and appeared extremely modest, gracious, and decorous, as well as fervently religious. He adds, " She is very pretty, but doubly so through the charm of her manners.
To be brief, her character seems to me to warrant no evil anticipations, but to raise rather the most pleasant expectations." Another writer says of her at this same period that though she was not regularly beautiful, her golden hair, white skin, and gentle manners made her a most attractive person.
Also he mentions, She is very joyous and light-hearted, and is always laughing." The radiance of a sunny temperament was in reality one of the best things she brought to her reluctant husband.
At Ferrara, Isabella of Mantua came to help her brother to receive the Roman widow. Her letters to her husband give a graphic description of the first days of Lucrezia's third marriage. Isabella a keen lover of admiration was a little put out by rivalry with the new-comer. Every reference to Lucrezia holds the suspicion of a sting. Even the simple phrase, "I need not describe Lucrezia's appearance, as you have already seen her," placed in Isabella's context, conveys an unfavourable impression,
The irritation of a certain insecurity acidified opinion. Isabella was an acknowledged beauty ; from babyhood she had been accustomed to be looked upon as a pearl among women. This disreputable Borgia, with hair equally as golden and with her incomparably magnificent clothes and jewellery, might produce a division of opinions. Even Isabella's own lady-in-waiting mentioned to the Marquis of Mantua that the bride was sweet and attractive in appearance. At any rate, the marchesana wrote : " Your Excellency enjoys more pleasure in being able to see our baby son every day than I am able to get out of these festivities. .. . Bride and bride-groom slept together last night, but we omitted the usual morning visit, since, to be frank, this is a very chill marriage. I think that both my suite and I compare favourably with the rest here, and we shall, at any rate, win the prize for card-playing, Spagnali having already won 500 gold pieces off the Jew. To-day there is dancing till four o'clock, after which another play is to be given. . . ." She wrote again next day, and jealousy had evidently not been alleged in the interval. "We passed yesterday shut up in our rooms until four o'clock, as, being Friday, there was no dancing, and Madonna Lucrezia, in order to outdo the Duchess of Urbino and myself, insisted upon spending all these hours over her toilet.. . . Your Excellency has no cause to envy my presence at this wedding, for never was a more spiritless and unemotional an affair."
Isabella was a great, lusty creature, and Lucrezia a frail, slight woman, just arrived from an exhausting journey, after having been overtired before she started. If she could not charm, besides, in these first crucial days, her case was lost. Who cares at any time to champion an ugly woman with every fragment of evidence against her ? But a fresh, smiling, child-like creature disarms antagonism through sheer contagion of joy. And Lucrezia, as one knows, could be like sunshine itself in her soft urbanity and good humour. She did her best to create a pacifying impression, and succeeded. Nevertheless, the marriage remained, as Isabella had said, a cold one. The bride was so lightly thought of that not even a pretence of affection could be asked from Alphonso. Alexander himself only required that he should actually be her husband, and, satisfied upon that point, remarked to the Ferrarese ambassador, It is true that being young he wanders here and there after pleasure during the day, but he does well."
From the first, however, Lucrezia proved herself wonderful. She had no sooner reached Ferrara than she shed the soiled Roman personality, as she might have done a dirty garment. Without slow gradations, she showed herself a pleasant, sober housewife, lacking even the self-assurance to make demands upon fidelity. Intellectually, she could not compete with Isabella of Mantua or Elizabeth of Urbino ; but she had, at least, sufficient vitality of character to turn her back in one bound, as it were, on her entire past life, as if she were trying to prove herself an alien personality.
Ercole she conquered immediately. He was old, and this girl, whose coming had so agitated him, possessed a very graceful attitude towards her elders. Also he was tired, and those nearing the tragic termination of existence are always fugitively warmed by the presence of attentive youthfulness. These two, at least, got on excellently. Once she fell ill, and had to go away for the sake of her health. During her absence the old man insisted upon receiving daily notes of her condition. They are the simplest, most disarming little letters imaginable. Of all things about Lucrezia, artfulness appears the most conspicuously absent. Her sins could never have been of the deliberate, prearranged order. She must have stumbled into them, more than anything, as a strayed, unshepherded Iamb falls over a precipice.
Presently came the customary baby. It was a girl, thus thwarting the wishes of everybody. But Lucrezia knew some comfort, notwithstanding. For a time she was dangerously ill, and during this period Alphonso could hardly be drawn from her bedside. Evidently he had grown aware that she suited him, and the weak girl in her stuffy bed must have experienced an inflow of pleasure. She had not been good for nothing.
Her recovery brought her to one of the most fateful events of her fateful and dramatic existence. Alexander suddenly died. He and Cesar had fallen ill simultaneously. Every one spoke of poison, but Alexander's symptoms were perfectly consistent with apoplexy. His death, however, placed the new Ferrarese lady in the utmost social peril. She had become Don Alphonso's wife solely because he and Ercole deeply feared her father. Now that he was dead, nothing could be easier than to draw upon the hoard of former scandals and to repudiate her upon the strength of them. Alexander was no sooner buried, in fact, than Louis XI I. remarked diplomatically to the Ferrarese ambassador, " I know you never approved of this marriage. Madame Lucrezia has never been, in fact, the wife of Don Alphonso."
Lucrezia must have grown cold with terror ; but nothing calamitous occurred. Fortunately she had been given sufficient time to show how good she could be. By now neither Ercole nor Alphonso desired to change the gentle-mannered woman, who was needed to give an heir to the family. Her placid, light urbanity suited both, and the danger that threatened for a moment to overwhelm her drew off quietly like calm, receding waters. But in connection with it one of the principal friendships of Lucrezia's life at Ferrara comes into prominence, Bembo, at the time of her mourning a year after her marriage had become intimate enough to give the advice no man troubles to offer to a woman entirely in-different to him. He wrote, referring to Alexander's death, that having been informed that her sorrow was terrible and extreme, he had called the day before in the hope of being able, in some small degree, to comfort her. But he owned regretfully that his visit had proved useless, for he had no sooner seen her than her forlorn unhappiness, and her piteous, black draperies, had stricken him with such an overwhelming heartache, that he had been literally unable to utter a single coherent sentence. He then went on to beg her and he wrote with a kind of tender directness to try and control her misery, for fear, the circumstances being evidently not absolutely straightforward, it should be thought she wept less for her father than for the possible insecurity of her present position. He reminded her gently that this was not the first dire calamity that a harsh fate had thrust upon her, and in some admirably sincere phrases he practically beseeched her, for her own sake, to show a brave and composed demeanour. He closed the letter by an almost ingratiating apology for having said so much, and with the request so customary with a man in love that she should take every care of her health.
Apart from the distress at seeing Lucrezia unhappy, the second part of the letter shows a man who had received confidences. Lucrezia's version perhaps the true one of the turbid past, was to some extent in his keeping, and he gave her what warning he could to save her from adding to her present precarious position in Ferrara.
The friendship of these two is another of the uncertainties in which everything intimately concerning Lucrezia lies. It has been dragged unnecessarily into a false appearance of shadiness. A Iock of her hair was found among a packet of her letters to him, and though it is extremely doubtful that the hair could have been hers even, the intimacy because of it was immediately regarded as having passed the bounds of virtue. Yet why should a lock of hair incriminate anybody ? The desire to soften the pains they see is strong in all mothering women. Lucrezia wore her hair about her shoulders ; scissors must have been conveniently near owing to the amount of needlework done at that period. Bembo, then a young man, was also for a time very much in love, therefore capable of little sentimental comforts. A woman's hair is a fragment of her very personality. To grant a boon like that, under circumstances of such facility, would need merely a softened or impulsive moment. Lucrezia, besides, with a husband absorbed in the manufacture of explosives, may reasonably have been a Iittle grateful that somebody at least loved her.
There is no habit so pernicious as that of deducing evil from trivial whimsicalities No judgment that is unaware of the inner subtleties the whole complex growth of any given circumstance does aright to suppose harmfulness. A lock of hair may be the result of sheer frowardness, or it may be the outcome of the most unaccompanied compassion : it may be the meaningless consequence of sudden unconsidered laughter, or the proffered comfort of a heart with nothing else to offer. But in all cases it is entirely destitute, by itself, of anything justifying a condemnatory construction.
Bembo is too well known among Renaissance celebrities to need personal explanations. Vasari says of him : "The Italians cannot be sufficiently thankful to Bembo for having not only purified their language from the rust of ages, but given it such regularity and clearness that it has become what we see." Few men have known a life of more sustained triumph. At the time of his friendship with Lucrezia he was young a good-looking man of about twenty-eight but already he had attained a widespread appreciation.
He was not the only clever man in the duchess's society at Ferrara ; the traditions of the house were intellectual. Lucrezia, at last, had fallen into excellent hands, and was being formed in the best school possible. Men, notable not only for genius, but for serious qualities of temperament, educated her by companionship. Bembo, Castiglione, Aldo Manuce, were all men who thought with some profundity and breadth. Ariosto, from 1503 in the service of Hippolyte D'Este, was another man of genius she must have known intimately, and among minor intellects the two Strozzi poets, as well as Tebaldeo and Callagnini, sang her praises from personal acquaintance.
It was not altogether, however, an easy-minded society. Alphonso, though he mixed little with his wife's entourage, formed a constantly dangerous background to it. His suspicions were always alert. The murder of the poet Strozzi is put down to him, and in 1505 Tebaldeo wrote to Isabella : " This duke hates me, though I do not know why, and it is not safe for me to stay in the town." Even Bembo, in his relations to his friend, had to be girded with the uttermost caution, and finally for him also it became unadvisable to remain longer in Ferrara. With his going one of the most delicate affections of Lucrezia's life fell to pieces. And yet not altogether ; Bembo, though he took mistresses he loved to distraction, continued for fifteen years to correspond with his Ferrarese duchess. Unless their friendship had been very real and very rich in sincerities, it would have crumbled into nothingness within a year.
Lucrezia's intimacy with Castiglione was a slighter affair. He had no importance in her life, save as being among those who helped to give her culture. That she should have known him is interesting, however, because in his great book Castiglione expressed with a limpid particularity the Renaissance ideal of womanhood. On the whole it was an unimaginative conception —at least expressed as Castiglione expressed it. For no book ever avoided more completely than " The Courtier " any obliqueness or any individual frankness of idiosyncrasy. Tact, according to Castiglione, was the essential mainspring of feminine fascination tact and the art of conversation. One wise point he insisted upon suavity, That, he said, should be inseparable from every woman's society. The remark lingers in the memory, suavity, a soft and soothing composure, having so nearly passed out of even the conception of good manners. Scandals, especially of her own sex, it was unpardonable for a woman either to utter or to attend to. Dancing and other accomplishments he urged as a necessary part of education ; but, on the other hand, he did not encourage naturalness. He wrote : "When she cometh to dance or to show any kind of music, she ought to be brought to it with suffering herself somewhat to be prayed, and with a certain bashfulness that may declare the noble shamefastness that is contrary to headiness." The early Victorian code of good manners was therefore only a return to a former fashion, and a fashion instigated by men and not by women at all.
Castiglione wrote at length upon the question of dress. Here his common sense is unimpeachable : "Women ought to have a judgment to know what manner of garments set her out best, and be most fit for the exercise she intendeth to undertake at that instant, and with them array herself." He urged keenly that lean and fat should pay attention to their peculiarities. Every woman, he insisted, ought to do all in her power to keep herself " cleanly and handsome."
Upon the subject of morality, Castiglione possessed no grave feelings. He advocated virtue, but not because conduct is vital, far-reaching, touching momentarily the character and fate of so many besides the doer, but almost entirely on account of the greater safety attaching to circumspection. Intrigue involved so many dangers. Consequently, he urged women " to be heedful, and remember that men with less jeopardy show to be in love than women." He begged a woman to " give her lover nothing but her mind when either hatred of her husband or the love he beareth to others inclineth her to love." Words were so much vapour, but a definite action was perilously apt to produce definite consequences. Husbands had a knack of revenging in their own wives what they asked from the wives of others.
A quaint and almost subtle stipulation ends the list. The perfect lady, according to Castiglione, must not only be learned, but able to devise sports and pastimes." All active brains need rest. The desirable woman should know, in consequence, how to relax the tension of absorbing thoughts, as well as how to tender the encouragement of sympathy. Health demands some intervals for relaxation and foolishness.
Castiglione himself married a child called Ippolyta Torelli, whose life was tragically brief. As a husband, nothing is known of him except that he was a good deal away from home. His wife wrote one exquisite letter one loves her because of it and that is practically all that remains of their domestic existence. The note was written just before her death, which took place through the birth of her third child. She lay in bed, and put on paper
" MY DEAR HUSBAND,
" I have given birth to a little girl, which I do not think you will be displeased to hear. I have suffered this time much more than before, and I have had three bad bouts of fever. But now I am better, and hope to suffer no more pain. I will not write more to you lest I overtax my strength. But with all my heart I commend myself to your lordship.
" In Mantua, the 20th of August, 1520.
" Your wife, who is a little weary with pain."
The caressing prettiness of the last phrase is like the feel of a tired child's hand slipped into one's own. Castiglione felt her death acutely, and wrote that he never dreamt his wife, whom he referred to with great tenderness, would have died before him, and all he now prayed for was that the AImighty might not leave him long before he followed her.
Lucrezia needed friends at Ferrara. Her life was one almost without respite from harassments, internal troubles and political insecurity being always present. Plague and famine devastated the well-being of the duchy. Twice Lucrezia was left in charge of a famine-stricken district, and twice proved herself capable, resourceful, self-forgetting. On the first occasion she was ill, but, notwithstanding, absolutely refused to leave the town as ordered by the doctors. She worked for the unhappy people starving about her, in a flaming rush of pity. Jews and Christians were alike to Lucrezia; her protection of Jews was strenuous in a period when the mere name roused men's ferocity. That her heart throbbed in response to the right instincts is proved by the whole compassionate fabric of her later Iife. Any human being, intuitively conscious that pain equalizes all things, cannot be encased in the callousness of the really bad or cold nature. During all the years Lucrezia lived in Ferrara her care for charitable institutions was personal and active.
And it should be remembered that philanthropy had not yet become a fashionable occupation ; sympathy of attitude by those in high places was still unusual and undemanded. The management of the few existing charitable houses during the Renaissance was deplorable. But Alphonso and Lucrezia not only built a new and improved hospital for infectious diseases, but took, besides, sufficient personal interest in its patients to dismiss a man for neglecting the invalids entrusted to his care.
This phase of Lucrezia's life ought to be dwelt upon at length. It lifts her from a flighty extravagance and immorality into positive goodness of behaviour. Depth she probably had not —deep, brooding persons are not necessary in great abundance and the woman who left her only child, the son of the murdered Don Alphonso, could not have been fiercely tenacious of heart. In all Lucrezia's life, in fact, this is the worst incident this abandonment of her baby. So much was thrust upon her ; this surrender itself was so to a certain extent. But not the manner of it, the effortless blitheness, the impulsive acquiescence. It is this one revealing episode that chiefly keeps her from the region of supremely wronged and tragic persons.
In 1507 her brother Caesar died. Alphonso was away at the time, fighting with Louis XI I. A letter, despatched at once, told him how she took the news. According to the writer, " she showed great grief, but with constancy and with-out tears." This phrase " without tears " carries a certain poignant implication. Surely the hearer was at last sinking through shallowness to find some deep places in her nature. Shallowness can always shed tears. Had Lucrezia even been indifferent to Caesar's death and indifference is the least likely sensation shallowness would have dropped a few tears of excitement, silliness, shock. There is a moving weariness of grief in any tearless conduct.
Isabella D'Este, who was with her at the time, wrote as well, She said that Lucrezia " immediately went to the monastery of the Corpo di Cristo, to offer up prayers for his soul. At the monastery she remained for two nights, and having left it, she found herself so much indisposed that her physician, for security, insisted on her keeping her bed, to which she is still confined."
Lucrezia had several children after her third marriage, and in the year following Caesar's death she gave birth to the desired heir, Ercole, afterwards to marry the poor, cheerless Rende of France. But she had been a delicate, frail creature all her life, and when, in 1519, she gave birth to a dead child, the case immediately became hopeless. As a Roman Catholic, she was told at once how near Death loomed, though the information seems a cruel thing to give to any person not yet old enough to have wearied of existence. But Lucrezia, who had never yet made a fuss about anything, did not make a fuss over the last great unpleasantness of all. This composure at dying touches all her past serenity with something almost effulgent. It makes her suddenly full of strange wisdom and singular comprehensions ; as if unconsciously she under-stood the real value of individual mortality, and knew it just sweet enough for smiles and laughter, but at the same time too slight, unstable, and finite for great commotions or disturbances.
Having been told that she could not live any longer, and seeing Alphonso suddenly attentive, the exhausted woman wasted no strength contesting the unalterable, but simply lay quietly in her bed and tried to think of God, the Virgin, and the world beyond. A few days before her death she wrote to Pope Leo X. Her letter is sedateness itself and courage. Nothing was further from its utterance than discomposure or demur. If forlornness reached her at leaving the lovely homeliness of mortal life, she was too magnanimously courteous to burden another person with a private sorrow. She wrote
" MOST HOLY FATHER AND WORSHIPFUL LORD,
" With all reverence I kiss your Holiness's feet, and humbly commend myself to your good will. Having been in great pain for more than two months, early on the morning of the 14th day of the present month, according to the will of God, I gave birth to a little daughter. I hoped then to get alleviation from my sufferings, but the contrary took place, and I have to pay my debt to nature. And through the grace of God I am conscious that the end of my life is near, and that in a few hours, having received the holy sacraments of the Church, I shall have passed away. And having came to this state, as a Christian, although a sinner, I beseech your Holiness in your goodness to give me from the heavenly treasures spiritual consolation and your holy benediction for my soul. This I most devoutly pray for, and to your great mercy I commit my husband and my children, who are all faithful servants of your Holiness.
" In Ferrara, the 22nd of June, 1519, at the fourteenth hour.
" Your Holiness's humble servant,
" LUCREZIA DA ESTE."
No braver letter, nor one more touching in its noble staidness of expression, was ever written by a woman, knowing that in a few hours life would have ceased for her. Two days after writing it she died, and Alphonso wrote after her death that it was hard to face the loss of so sweet a companion, the gentleness of her conduct having made the bond between them a very close and tender one. No single individual can possess the whole round of virtues a fact too often ignored in current judgment of character but every writer lingered upon Lucrezia's gentleness. There is no more winning thing than a gentle woman. Persistent gentleness not only excludes harsh thoughts, but is a force constantly wooing men out of turbulent bitterness and acrimony of spirit.
Alphonso fainted at his wife's funeral, and nothing could protest more eloquently against assertions of her wickedness. Grim men of Alphonso's fibre do not, after nine years of marriage, faint for a woman who has not known how to bring to life the softer undergrowths of character. Lucrezia must have possessed a more than normal degree of conciliatory seduction. And she charms still, in spite of much calumniating gossip, not only because she ex-pressed undeviatingly the heartening value of good cheer, and set so fine an example of how to discard bad yesterdays, but to a certain extent because, as far as one knows, she babbled nothing for biographers to seize upon, and so Ieft herself perpetually among the engrossing enigmas of European history.
Queens Of The Renaissance:
Catherine Of Siena 1347-1380
Beatrice D'este 1475-1497
Anne Of Brittany 1476-1514
Lucrezia Borgia 1480-1519
Margaret D'angouleme 1492-1549
Renee, Duchess Of Ferrara 1510-1575