Chapter 12

Another Husband for Lucrezia


LUCREZIA RECEIVED THE NEWS of her brother's horrific murder in her rooms in the Dominican convent of San Sisto, a tranquil place situated on the Via Appia, opposite the Baths of Caracalla, surrounded by orchards and vineyards, and some distance from the centre of Rome. She had taken refuge here on June 4, ten days earlier; when, shortly after she arrived, papal guards came to conduct her to the Vatican, the abbess assured them that Lucrezia was staying in the convent at her own request and persuaded them to leave her in peace.

Her desire had been to escape the stories that were spreading like wildfire through the city to explain why she had been abandoned by her husband, Giovanni Sforza. One report mentioned that she had "left the palace and gone to a convent," adding ominously, "Some say she will turn nun, while others say many other things which one cannot entrust to a letter." Rumours of her incestuous relationships with her brothers and even her father, the pope, abounded; within days of the murder, Giovanni was suspected of committing the crime "because the Duke of Gandía had had commerce with his wife."

At the time of Juan's murder, however, Giovanni was not in Rome. The alliance between the Borgias and Milan, which had seemed such an excellent idea three years before, had now lost its appeal, and the pope was determined to end it. Threatened and taunted by the Borgia brothers, fearful for his very life, and worried that he might be obliged to repay the 31,000 ducats he had received as Lucrezia's dowry, the lacklustre Giovanni had fled Rome on Good Friday, March 24, for Pesaro. His fears had grown when, after begging Lucrezia to join him, she—encouraged by both Cesare and the pope—had refused to do so. These fears had been realized at the end of May, a fortnight before Juan's brutal murder, when Alexander VI's lawyer had arrived in Pesaro to serve him with a writ for divorce.

At first it had been thought that since Lucrezia's first betrothal to Gasparo di Procida, the Count of Aversa, had not been formally dissolved at the time of her marriage to Sforza, it would be possible to use these grounds to claim that the marriage was invalid. But this weak excuse proved unacceptable to the wily lawyers involved in the case. So it was decided instead to argue that the marriage, which had taken place in 1493 when Lucrezia was just thirteen years old, had never been consummated, thus leaving her a virgin and free to take another husband more to her father's political taste.

Lucrezia duly signed a declaration to the effect that "after three years of marriage ... without sexual relations or carnal knowledge, she was prepared to swear on oath to this and to submit herself to the examination of midwives." Alexander VI now insisted that Giovanni make a public declaration that he was impotent, a humiliating prospect and a cruel one.

The unfortunate Giovanni was understandably furious, dismissing the allegation as absurd. He was far from impotent, he protested; he had, he insisted, made love to his wife on countless occasions. Moreover, he pointed out that his first wife had died in the course of giving birth to their child. Finally he approached his uncle Ludovico Sforza for help, but the duke did not take him seriously. He suggested Giovanni should prove his virility with Lucrezia, somewhere outside Rome, with witnesses who could observe the event; or a public demonstration could be arranged with some complaisant lady in Milan, with the papal legate, the cardinal of Monreale, who was one of Alexander VI's nephews, as a witness.

Giovanni now declared that the pope wanted to get him out of the way so that he could enjoy his daughter's body more conveniently himself. Moreover, he hinted that while he had not been allowed to share a bed with Lucrezia, now aged seventeen, both her father and her brother Cesare had done so. The rumours of incest, a sin as offensive then as it is now, spread like wildfire through Rome and all of Italy. Born out of Giovanni's desire for revenge on the family who were taunting him so unfairly, the story stuck.

Many who saw Lucrezia in public, smiling in the company of her adored and adoring family, found the sensational rumours easy to believe, as they did when the pope left her in charge of papal affairs while he was absent from Rome. Yet it was unusual for a daughter to be given this responsibility, though not because she was a lady—the rulers of Italy's courts regularly left their wives in charge of their affairs while they were fighting, earning their livings as mercenary soldiers, and the pope was doing no more than leaving the reins of power in the hands of the person upon whose loyalty he could rely utterly. And those who saw her in the circle of her household found the persistent talk of incest difficult to credit. She seemed too demure, too innocent.

Cesare, meanwhile, had official duties to perform. A week before Juan's assassination, the pope had nominated his son, still a few months short of his twenty-second birthday, to the prestigious position of papal legate "to anoint and crown the most serene Federigo of Aragon" as king of Naples. He arrived in Capua, where the coronation was to take place, in good time for the event, which was planned for August 6, 1497, entering the city with an imposing cavalcade that included seven hundred horses as well as numerous servants, guards, prelates, and a straggling crowd of camp followers. Unfortunately he was suddenly taken ill soon after his arrival, and the coronation had to be postponed. He recovered quickly, however, from this illness, which was rumoured to be some sort of venereal complaint, and on August 11, gorgeously attired in red velvet and cloth-of-gold, he was carried in one of his father's papal chairs to the cathedral, where he played his part in the delayed ceremony with dignified composure.

Cesare obviously enjoyed his stay in Capua and Naples, where he walked about the city in his splendid clothes, clearly relishing the attentions of an admiring and envious populace; and, so it was said, casting lascivious eyes on the daughter of the Conte d'Aliffe, on whom he spent the enormous sum of 200,000 ducats with a careless extravagance that had by now become customary. He fell ill again, soon after his return to Rome, and this time the gossips were quick to identify his complaint as syphilis, the French disease, so Isabella d'Este was informed by her agent, Donato de' Preti, who wrote to her from Rome to say that "Monsignor of Valencia has returned from Naples after crowning King Federigo and he is now sick with the morbo gallico." Cesare's personal physician, Gaspar Torella, would gain enough experience of the disease to write a treatise on it, which he dedicated to his patient.

Cesare had returned to Rome on September 5 and had ridden directly to the Vatican, where he and his father spent several hours closeted in private discussion. While in Naples, Cesare had persuaded King Federigo to make an offer of a new bridegroom for Lucrezia, in the shape of Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie. This amiable and handsome eighteen-year-old youth was Sancia's brother, and though he was, like her, illegitimate, this offer to reinforce the links between Rome and the royal house of Naples, not to mention Spain, was greeted by the pope with enthusiasm.

More complicated, however, was the issue of Cesare's own future. With Juan dead and the fifteen-year-old Jofrè showing no signs of fathering an heir, it was up to him to secure the future of the Borgia dynasty, something he could not do while still a cardinal. Moreover, although his father was hale and hearty, he was now approaching his sixty-seventh birthday, and time was not on their side. Cesare himself was eager to concentrate upon "warlike undertakings" and to take over Juan's position as commander of the papal armies, but the pope advised caution and the need to find him an appropriate wife before making any rash decisions.

The choice of a wife for Cesare, indeed, had quickly become the talk of Rome. One rumour had it that Sancia was prepared to overlook her suspicions of Cesare's involvement in his brother's murder and marry him, while her young husband, Jofrè, would be appointed a cardinal in his place. It was soon clear, however, that both the pope and Cesare had more ambitious plans, and that while he was in Naples, Cesare had approached King Federigo about the possibility of arranging a marriage between himself and the king's daughter, Carlotta of Aragon, who was currently living in France at the court of the French queen Anne of Brittany.

King Federigo might have been prepared to offer the illegitimate Alfonso as bridegroom for Lucrezia, but he fought shy of agreeing to a marriage between his own legitimate daughter and the licentious, power-hungry Cesare, who clearly had an eye on the Neapolitan throne. Anxious not to offend the pope, Federigo temporized: "It seems to me," he was reported by the Venetian ambassador to have said, "that the son of a pope, who is also a cardinal, is not the ideal person to marry my daughter. If the Pope can make it possible for a cardinal to marry and keep his hat, I'll think about giving him my daughter." Nor was his daughter happy with the proposed match; not only was Carlotta in love with a Breton nobleman, but she was also determined not to marry "a priest who was the son of a priest."

With the issue of a wife for Cesare temporarily in abeyance, the pope now concentrated his efforts on finalizing the annulment of his daughter's marriage. Under pressure from his uncles Duke Ludovico and Cardinal Ascanio, Giovanni Sforza finally gave way. "If His Holiness wants to create his own kind of justice," he declared, "there is nothing I can do about it; let the Pope do what he likes, but God watches over all things." On November 18 he reluctantly put his signature to the humiliating declaration: "I never knew her."

A month later the marriage was dissolved. The demure Lucrezia was present at the ceremony in the Vatican on December 22 that formally declared her to be virgo intacta and, as such, legally able to contract another marriage. She gave a short speech of thanks in Latin, which the Milanese ambassador praised for its elegance: "If she had been Cicero himself," he mused, "she could not have spoken with more grace." But most of Rome, still buzzing with the rumours of her incestuous relationships with her father and brother, agreed with the Perugian chronicler Francesco Matarazzo, who thought the declaration that Lucrezia was a virgin to be a proposition so outlandish that it "set all Italy laughing," since it was, he explained with characteristic hyperbole, "common knowledge that she had been and still was the greatest whore there had ever been in Rome." She was, in fact, by this time, six months pregnant, though her ladies-in-waiting had dressed her carefully, to ensure that there were no visible signs of her condition.

In the convent of San Sisto, while her husband was being pressed to sign the required admission of his impotence, Lucrezia had received regular visits from a good-looking young Spaniard, a valet in her father's service, one Pedro Calderon, to whom she seems to have become passionately attached; and on March 15, 1498, according to the reports of the Ferrarese ambassador in Venice, she gave birth to a boy.

When Cesare heard of Calderon's guilt, so it was rumoured, he was determined to punish the valet for what he took to be his intolerable presumption. Finding him one day near Lucrezia's room in the Vatican, after her return from the convent, he rushed at the man, brandishing his sword. Calderon ran away, seeking to escape the violent Cesare by throwing himself into the arms of Alexander VI, who threw his papal robe about the young man. But Cesare slashed at him with his sword, splashing his father's robes with blood. A month before the boy was born, the body of Calderon was fished out of the Tiber, together with that of Lucrezia's maid, Pantiselia. As the papal master of ceremonies Johannes Burchard recorded, he "fell, not of his own free will, into the Tiber and was fished up today in that river."

Lucrezia's baby seems to have been stillborn or to have died soon after birth, in what would become a sad and familiar end to her pregnancies. At about this time, confusingly, another Borgia child appeared in the Vatican and was christened Juan, in memory of the murdered Duke of Gandía. Endeavouring to explain Juan's existence, the pope issued two bulls, one of them secret. The official bull declared that the child, delicately described therein as "the Roman infant" (infans Romanus), was the son of Cesare Borgia by an unnamed spinster; the secret bull, on the other hand, maintained that the child was that of Alexander VI himself by the same unnamed spinster. The child was undoubtedly his, conceived while he was pope, but it was the identity of the spinster that caught the imagination of the Roman gossips; given the widely believed rumours that incest was rampant among the Borgias, it was perhaps inevitable that she was quickly identified as the pope's own daughter (though Lucrezia herself would always consider Juan as her half-brother, as would later historians).

Meanwhile, arrangements for Lucrezia's Neapolitan marriage went ahead, and Alexander VI agreed to provide the sum of 40,000 ducats for his daughter's dowry, a third more than he had paid for her marriage to Giovanni Sforza. On July 21, 1498, Lucrezia and Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, were formally pronounced man and wife in a private ceremony, held "without pomp," according to Burchard, in Lucrezia's palace at Santa Maria in Portico, where, in the presence of various ecclesiastics including several bishops and three cardinals, a sword was held over the heads of the bride and bridegroom.

The couple—he a good-looking, lively young man, she still a pretty, high-spirited girl—consummated their marriage and spent the next few days feasting and dancing. A fight between Cesare's servants with those of Sancia marred the decorum of the wedding festivities but did not altogether spoil them. Cesare himself, still a cardinal, caused considerable surprise and, no doubt, ironical amusement by appearing with his brothers and courtiers in a masque dressed in the guise of a unicorn, the horned emblem of female chastity.

However, even while the Neapolitan alliance was being celebrated in Rome, the storm clouds were gathering on the Italian horizon. On April 7, 1498, the young King Charles VIII had died, very suddenly, after striking his head on a door lintel at the château of Amboise. He was just over a month short of his twenty-eighth birthday and had been married for over six years; his wife, Anne of Brittany, had borne him four children but none had survived infancy, and so the crown passed to his cousin, the thirty-six-year-old Louis, Duke of Orléans.

Eight days before he died, Charles VIII had seen a great serpent in his dreams, and when asked what this meant, his astrologers had replied that it was a sign that he would return to Italy. But after his death, reported the Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo, "the said astrologers changed their minds, saying that the serpent meant that he would be succeeded by the Duke of Orléans, as has happened, because the Duke carries this emblem on his coat-of-arms." The serpent on his shield was the Visconti viper: Louis was the legitimate heir of the old regime that had ruled Milan before the Sforzas had seized power, and he intended to enforce his claim.

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