Chapter 19

The Duke and the Borgia Girl

"IF I COULD OVERCOME MY DISTASTE
FOR THESE BORGIA UPSTARTS"

LUCREZIA HAD RETURNED to Rome from her self-imposed exile at Nepi in time for Christmas in 1500 and to the news that Alexander VI had started to consider whom she should marry next. She did not want to marry again, she told her father, according to a report sent by the Venetian ambassador, adding that she said "my husbands have been very unlucky" and "she left in a rage." She was, however, to have little say in the matter.

The pope carefully considered the merits of alliances with various Italian families before deciding on Alfonso d'Este, the eldest son of Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. The twenty-four-year-old prince was a widower, his wife having died in childbirth three years earlier. The lineage of the Este family was honourable, their possessions enviable. One of the oldest noble dynasties in Italy and undisputed masters of Ferrara and its surrounding territory since 1240, their state was not so large as either Venice or Milan, but it benefited from the lush soils of the Po plain, was well and profitably administered, and Ferrara itself was a lively centre of the arts. It was, moreover, just to the north of Cesare's duchy of the Romagna, and the alliance, so the pope thought, would benefit both of his beloved children.

The proposal, however, was not at all welcome in Ferrara, where the Borgias were considered socially inferior and morally corrupt. The Este family may have had many skeletons in their own cupboard, and Alfonso was far from being a model of propriety himself. He was said to have but two interests in life; one was the casting of cannons in his own foundry; the other was walking the streets of Ferrara at night, a drawn sword in one hand, his erect penis in the other. His dead wife had also been the subject of scandalous talk; neglected by her husband, she had shared her bed with a young Negro girl with whom she took male parts in the theatricals for which the Ferrarese court was renowned.

Nevertheless, when the offer was made in the spring of 1501, Duke Ercole and his family were horrified, not least at the prospect of an alliance between themselves and the man currently under suspicion of abducting and raping the pretty young bride Dorotea Malatesta. That Cesare was guilty of the crime, despite his protestations of innocence, no one in Ferrara doubted. And Alfonso's sister, Isabella d'Este, wife of the Marquis of Mantua, had a special interest in the case; the unfortunate Dorotea had been a protégée of her sister-in-law the Duchess of Urbino.

Moreover, Duke Ercole I was currently pursuing the prospect of royal connections, hoping for the niece of Louis XII as a bride for his son. When the pope's envoy Cardinal Gianbattista Ferrari proposed a union between the Borgias and the Estes, he was haughtily informed by the duke that it would be "impossible to countermand the plans already in process of settlement with His Majesty of France: one does not snatch from the consideration of a king plans which it pleases him to consider, as a wilful child might tease a cat by hiding its bowl of milk."

Undeterred, indeed provoked, by this rebuff, the pope hinted at the consequences that might ensue upon Duke Ercole's continued refusal of a Borgia marriage, going so far as to suggest through his envoy that the "advantage" of such a marriage would be that Duke Cesare would "no longer be a threat to the south of his Excellency's dominions" and that Lucrezia would bring to Ferrara a dowry of no less than 200,000 ducats: "I strongly urge you," the pope's envoy was instructed to say, "to make a bond with His Holiness." Alexander VI also made direct overtures to Louis XII, who responded by informing him that nothing would induce him to "unravel the skeins of love" that linked his niece with Alfonso d'Este, who would soon become her husband.

The king, however, needed the help of the Borgias to further his own ambitions in Italy and, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to call a halt to the negotiations for the proposed marriage between Alfonso and his niece, and to press Duke Ercole instead to accept Lucrezia as his new daughter-in-law. And so it was to be.

In a letter to his son-in-law Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, Duke Ercole explained his change of plan:

We have recently decided, owing to practical considerations, to consent to an alliance between our house and that of his Holiness—in short to the marriage of our eldest son, Alfonso, and the illustrious lady Lucrezia, sister of the illustrious Duke of Romagna and Valence, mainly because we were urged to do so by his Most Christian Majesty [the king of France] and on condition that His Holiness would agree to everything stipulated in the marriage contract. Subsequently His Holiness and ourselves came to an agreement and the Most Christian King persistently urged us to approve the contract.

The duke, however, declined to give way without a struggle; he demanded an increase in the dowry with another 20,000 ducats worth of precious stones; he demanded that the 4,500 ducats he was obliged to pay each year to the Vatican be rescinded. He also demanded, without much hope of being granted them, the territories of Cento, Pieve, and Cesenatico, as well as various benefices for his younger son, Ippolito, who had been made a cardinal by Alexander VI in 1493. Unwilling to commit himself to the proposed marriage of his son into a family he considered upstarts, he had raised objection after objection, stipulated condition after condition, asked for guarantees that the dowry would be paid, until Alexander VI had complained that the man was behaving "like a shopkeeper."

Ercole I had also heard the distasteful rumours claiming that Lucrezia had indulged in incestuous relationships with both her father and brother—indeed there were few in Italy who had not heard them—and before agreeing to the match, he sent two diplomatic officials to Rome to make enquiries about the Borgia girl and her suitability for admittance into the distinguished House of Este.

When the envoys arrived in Rome, they were admitted immediately to Lucrezia's presence. Later that day they reported to their "most illustrious and excellent prince" that "we entered the palace where the illustrious Lucrezia lives, and where, tired with riding and thinking we were going to rest, we were immediately conducted into the said Lucrezia's presence, where we were graciously received. We expressed the infinite pleasure and contentment of your Excellency, and the great love which your Excellency bears her," emphasizing, as they had been ordered to do, "how perfectly disposed your Excellency is to treat her well." The two envoys did their work conscientiously, taking almost four months over it and finally deciding that Lucrezia was an acceptable bride.

There were several problems concerning Lucrezia's past that needed careful consideration. Her son Rodrigo was one such issue. He was living with his mother in Rome; but it was decided that it would not do for him to accompany her to Ferrara. The Ferrarese ambassador in Rome went to see Lucrezia about this to ask her "what was to be done with him; she replied, 'He will remain in Rome and will have an allowance of 15,000 ducats.'" The fact that Lucrezia had already borne a son was, of course, an advantage to a duke in need of grandsons to secure his family line.

There was also the issue of Lucrezia's divorced husband, Giovanni Sforza, who was living in Ferrara, to be settled. The pope wrote about this to the two envoys who had been sent by Ercole I to make enquiries concerning Lucrezia. They, in turn, passed his request on to the duke; the pope "has asked us to write to Your Excellency to request that you see to it that the Lord Giovanni of Pesaro shall not be in Ferrara at the time of the marriage celebrations, for, although his divorce from the illustrious lady was absolutely legal," they insisted, "himself fully consenting to it, he may, nevertheless still feel some resentment."

Meanwhile, negotiations about the dowry had reached their conclusion, and it was clear that Ercole I had extracted a high price. It was agreed that Lucrezia should bring 100,000 ducats and that she should also take to Ferrara jewellery, carpets, linen, tapestries, furniture, silver, and objets d'art and de vertu worth a further 75,000 ducats. The duke would receive the castles and lands of Cento and Pieve—though not the port of Cesenatico, which properly belonged to the duchy of Romagna—as well as a reduction in the annual census payable to the Vatican from 4,500 ducats to a token sum of 100 ducats. Cardinal Ippolito d'Este was to be made bishop of Ferrara and receive other benefices worth 14,000 ducats a year and a palace by St. Peter's. Ercole I was jubilant; the deal, he thought, was worth a total of 400,000 ducats to his family. "If I could overcome my distaste for these Borgia upstarts," Alfonso informed his father, "I might even consider myself fortunate."

At last, on August 26, 1501, the marriage contract was signed, and Lucrezia, just twenty-one years old, was to be a bride for the third time. For her own part, having been sent a portrait of her future husband and heard reports of his taste for low life and low company, she decided that, once she had given him children, Alfonso would let her go her own way. Moreover, the proposed marriage into the Este family would allow her to escape from Rome, a place associated with unhappy episodes in her young life.

And the old duke was soon to be grateful to his prospective daughter-in-law for more than mere money. In 1499 Ercole I had heard of a nun at the Dominican convent at Viterbo, Sister Lucia da Narni, who had been developing stigmata on her hands every Friday. A man much intrigued by such miracles, the duke decided to bring the nun to Ferrara. The mother superior, however, was reluctant to part with so potentially valuable an asset, though Sister Lucia herself was quite willing to go. So the duke arranged for her to be spirited out of the convent in a basket and taken to Ferrara, where, unfortunately, she felt dreadfully homesick, missing the nuns whom she had left behind in Viterbo. Very well then, the duke decided, the other nuns should also come to Ferrara, where a new convent would be built for them.

Duke Ercole then sent a trusted courtier, Bartolomeo Bresciano, as his envoy to Viterbo to put this proposal to the prioress of the convent, but she objected in the strongest terms to the duke's suggestion. Bresciano, appalled by her bossiness, called her a woman "more obstinate than the Devil himself" and turned to Lucrezia to ask her to use her influence at the papal court. Lucrezia, whom he described as "a delightful lady with a first-class mind," went out of her way to assist, negotiating in person with the pope and the Dominicans until, at last, the prioress was forced to let nine of her nuns go to Ferrara. Lucrezia "is endowed with such graciousness and goodness," wrote Bresciano to Duke Ercole, "and thinks only of how to serve you."

Now that the contract had been signed, the formal betrothal between Alfonso and Lucrezia could take place. Accordingly, as Burchard recorded, "about the hour of Vespers on Saturday 4 September news came of the marriage contracted and concluded between Alfonso d'Este, elder son of the Duke of Ferrara, and Lucrezia Borgia, formerly the Duchess of Bisceglie and earlier the wife of Giovanni Sforza."

The news of the forthcoming marriage was greeted in Rome with exceptional excitement and with the celebrations that the citizens so much enjoyed on these occasions; a "continual cannonade" of artillery fired noisily from the ramparts of Castel Sant'Angelo while fireworks flashed and spluttered in the sky. The following day, Sunday, saw Lucrezia, dressed in a robe of gold brocade and accompanied by her ladies and several bishops, riding in the place of honour in a grand procession of three hundred horses from her palace to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, while her Spanish dwarfs skipped and jumped through the streets.

That evening, as the great Capitoline bell tolled, bonfires were lit at Castel Sant'Angelo and throughout the city, illuminating the towers of the castle, the Capitol, and other buildings: "The people became wildly excited," which, according to Burchard, "caused some anxiety." On Monday two clowns "paraded through all the principal streets and piazzas," continued Burchard. They went on their way, one on horseback, one on foot, both shouting loudly, "Long live the Duchess of Ferrara! Long live Pope Alexander! Viva! Viva!" Lucrezia had given each of them a dress from her wardrobe; the riding clown had received the new gold brocade robe she had worn the evening before, which was said to be worth as much as 300 ducats.

The pope also celebrated his daughter's betrothal with a succession of parties and banquets at the Vatican. He joined in the festivities with relish, undeterred by a bad cold and a loose tooth, and the fact that he was approaching his seventieth birthday, remarking cheerfully to the Ferrarese ambassador that, although his face was tied up, he would happily invite the bridegroom's father to a wild boar hunt.

Cesare, who had returned from Naples on September 15, was exhausted after the fighting. A few days later he received a visitor—one of the rare occasions when he received them at all—lying down but fully dressed. "I thought he was ill," the surprised Ferrarese envoy wrote, "but yesterday evening he danced without intermission and will do so again tonight at the Pope's palace where the illustrious Duchess [Lucrezia] is going to supper." Burchard also commented on Cesare's condition: "The Duke has recently been ill again with his old complaint, which returned upon him after the conquest of Naples and has, some of his physicians think, affected his mind as well as his body. Although forcing himself to take part in dances and entertainments, it is seen and reported by his servants that they discover him exhausted and sometimes in pain upon his bed."

Lucrezia, too, was beginning to feel the strain of unremitting parties and dances that the pope was so fond of attending and watching. "Whenever she is at the Pope's palace," the Ferrarese envoy reported, "the entire night, until two or three in the morning, is spent dancing and at play, which fatigues her greatly."

On September 25 the celebrations were halted when the pope and his son left Rome for a week, leaving Lucrezia once again in charge at the Vatican, while they went on a tour of inspection of the papal castles north of Rome, stopping at Nepi and, in particular, the fortress at Civita Castellana, forty miles north of Rome, which was being built under the direction of the military architect Antonio da Sangallo. The two men did the same in October, this time travelling south to view the fortresses recently seized from the Colonna family.

By the end of October, Cesare and his father were back in Rome. Perhaps it was these trips that revitalized Cesare, but he had certainly recovered his spirits by October 31, when he hosted a supper party in his apartments in the Vatican Palace to which he invited his father, his sister, and many friends, along with fifty courtesans. This particularly colourful party was described in detail by Burchard:

On Sunday the last day of October 1501 there took place a supper attended also by fifty honest prostitutes, those who are called courtesans. After supper they danced with the servants and others who were there, first clothed, then naked. After supper the lighted candelabra which had been on the table were placed on the floor, and chestnuts thrown among them which the prostitutes had to pick up as they crawled between the candles. The Pope, the Duke and Lucrezia, his sister, were present looking on. At the end they displayed prizes, silk mantles, boots, caps and other objects which were promised to whomsoever should have made love to these prostitutes the greatest number of times. The prizes were distributed to the winners according to the judgement of those present.

Four days later, so the Florentine ambassador Francesco Pepi reported, the pope failed to attend Mass in the papal chapel. It was rumoured that he was ill, no doubt the after-effects of Cesare's party, at which, according to Pepi, the elderly pope had spent "the night until the twelfth hour with the Duke who had brought into the palace that night, singers and courtesans; and all night they spent in pleasure, dancing and laughter." Rather less reliably, the Perugian chronicler Francesco Matarazzo reported that the pope "had all the lights put out, and then all the women who were there, and as many men as well, took off all their clothes, and there was much play and festivity."

Lucrezia was again seen to be enjoying herself when, a few days after the game with the chestnuts and candles, there was a display of animal lubricity inside the Vatican. Burchard described how a farmer had brought some mares through the Viridaria gate by the palace carrying loads of wood for the market and

when the mares reached the piazza of St. Peter's, some of the palace guard came up and cut through the straps and threw off the pack saddles and the wood in order to lead the mares into the courtyard immediately inside the palace gate. Four stallions were then freed from their reins and harness and let out of the palace stables. They immediately ran to the mares, over whom they proceeded to fight furiously and noisily amongst themselves, biting and kicking in their efforts to mount them and seriously wounding them with their hoofs. The Pope and Lucrezia, laughing with evident satisfaction, watched all that was happening from a window above the palace gate.

Cesare was evidently not present on this occasion; and it appears that there was at this time a growing friction between father and son, the pope becoming increasingly annoyed by his son's "turning day into night and night into day," as one of the Ferrarese envoys put it, and extremely hard to pin down to a meeting to discuss affairs of state.

It seemed as though Cesare, increasingly independent, elusive, and self-assured, and liable to fly off the handle at the least hint of criticism of his actions, no longer valued the advice of his father and certainly rarely sought it. Cesare's arrogant atheism was another bone of contention since, although his father's morals were widely held to be deeply corrupt—indeed, Agostino Vespucci told Machiavelli that it was "known to everyone that His Holiness brought every evening to the Vatican twenty-five women or more ... so that the palace is manifestly made the brothel of all filth"—the pope was scrupulous in the outward observances of his religious duties and had an apparently sincere devotion to the cult of the Virgin Mary.

When wearing his black mask by day, Cesare naturally became an object of curiosity on the streets of Rome; but men who stared at him soon learned that it was dangerous to do so. Cesare had one man arrested and imprisoned for apparently making a critical remark; that night his hand was cut off, his tongue ripped out and attached to the little finger of the severed hand, and the whole grisly ensemble was hung out of the prison window for all to see. Yet another, guilty of some unknown offence, was "secretly strangled and his body cast into the Tiber." Men naturally grew ever more wary in Cesare's presence.

"He cannot tolerate insults," his father confided in conversation with the Venetian ambassador. "I have often told him that Rome is a free city and that everyone may speak and write as they please. Evil is often spoken of me but I let it pass. The Duke replied to me, 'It may be true that Romans are accustomed to speak and write as they please but I will teach people to take care what they say about me.'" He was as good as his word—more than one man had a hand struck off or his tongue ripped out for writing or speaking mockingly of the Duke of Valence.

Uneasy as relations between the pope and Cesare were from time to time, both remained devoted to Lucrezia. Indeed, the pope patently adored his daughter, the "apple of his eye," and, useful as her marriage to Alfonso d'Este would be to both of them politically, providing a reliable alliance with Ferrara, both father and brother looked upon it as a sacrifice, one that would bring Lucrezia's inevitable departure from Rome.

Meanwhile, Duke Ercole's ambassadors continued to send favourable reports regarding the behaviour of the girl soon to be his daughter-in-law. "Lucrezia is a highly intelligent, gracious and extremely graceful young lady, modest and lovable," one envoy reported in November 1501. "She is also devout and dutiful as a Christian. Tomorrow she will go to confession and intends to receive communion during Christmas week."

The duke's daughter, Isabella d'Este, however, was suspicious of this attractive twenty-one-year-old woman who was to become her sister-in-law and was to receive so many valuable family jewels and sumptuous clothes in consequence. She dispatched to Rome a man who could be trusted to send her accurate reports of the unwelcome bride, her trousseau, and the ladies of her court. The man, having undertaken "to follow the most excellent lady as a shadow follows a body," sent back to Mantua reports that cannot have pleased Isabella, describing a "charming and very graceful lady":

On Sunday I went to see her in the evening [one of the reports ran] and found her sitting near her bed with ten maids of honour and twenty other ladies wearing handkerchiefs on their heads in the Roman fashion. They soon began to dance and Madonna Lucrezia did so very gracefully.... She wore a camorra of black velvet with a white chemise ... a gold-striped veil and a green silk cap with a ruby clasp.... Her maids of honour have not yet got their wedding dresses. Our own ladies are quite equal to them in looks and, indeed, in everything else.... The number of horses and people the Pope will place at her disposal will amount to one thousand. There will be two hundred carriages.... The escort which will take her to Ferrara will travel in these.

Finally, at the beginning of December 1501, Duke Ercole gave the order for the departure of the grand cavalcade that was to travel to Rome in order to escort his son's bride back to her new home. Three of Alfonso's brothers—Ferrante, Sigismondo, and Cardinal Ippolito—led the party of ducal courtiers, secretaries, councillors, bishops, soldiers, and servants, horses, mules, and wagons. The weather was dreadful, the going exceptionally hard. They struggled for three weeks through the snowbound passes of the Apennines and down to the flooded Tiber plain. Finally, just before Christmas, the long line of horsemen, carriages, and carts drew to a halt outside the walls of Rome at the gate by Santa Maria del Popolo.

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