Chapter 26

Duchess of Ferrara


THE DEATH OF HER FATHER, Alexander VI, followed so rapidly by the collapse of Cesare's empire and his ambitions, and his humiliating imprisonment so far away in Spain, must have been devastating to the twenty-three-year-old Lucrezia. All the more so, isolated in Ferrara, where, according to the chronicler Bernardino Zambotti, it was widely believed that the pope had been poisoned; Cesare, too, "was found to have been poisoned," he reported, adding that "it was chiefly due to the fact that he was placed inside the still warm entrails of two mules that he was cured."

The torrential rain that lashed Ferrara that September and October, causing the Po to burst its banks, flooding both fields and city streets, matched the depths of her misery. Couriers arrived daily with news of Cesare's cities and fortresses as they fell, one by one, some returning to their earlier rulers, others seized by Venice; of the new tenant of her old home, the Vatican Palace, and how the new pope had shut up her father's apartments, where she had once danced and laughed so gaily, and vilified "that Spaniard of accursed memory."

It was not just her private grief at the loss of her father and brother that overwhelmed her; it was clear from the gossip at court that Lucrezia's position as wife of the heir to the duchy was now also under threat. One friend advised her to do all she could to assuage her grief lest people thought she was overcome by apprehension about her own future.

Louis XII himself was ready to repudiate both Cesare and Lucrezia now that Alexander VI was dead; and he told the Ferrarese envoy that he knew very well that the Este family had never been pleased with the Borgia alliance, and "therefore the French court did not regard Madonna Lucrezia as Don Alfonso's real wife." Alfonso, however, had become attached to Lucrezia. Hearing of her father's death, he came home to Ferrara to comfort his wife and thus to show that although the marriage had lost its political raison d'être, it still retained its private lustre.

They seemed to have been "quite satisfied with one another," and they may well have been so, but their temperaments were very different; while he still continued to spend a large part of each day in the lecture halls of the university or in his workshop, poring over proposals for public works, military engineering, and firearms, she enjoyed the life at court, where masques and tableaux, drama and poetry occupied the evening hours.

Music was the interest closest to Lucrezia's heart, and one she shared with her husband, who was himself an accomplished player of the viol. She employed her own singers, pipers, and lute players, even her own dancing master, spending a large part of her income on the patronage of music. She was particularly fond of songs, of the lovely Spanish poems that were set to music by her musicians; and she vied with her rival, Isabella d'Este, to attract the best players and composers to her court.

The court at Ferrara was famous throughout Italy as a centre of culture. Duke Ercole had doubled the size of the city and transformed it into a setting worthy of ducal grandeur, enclosing a huge hunting park, complete with its own racecourse, where ladies of the court could watch their knights displaying their skills, jousting at the ring or pursuing game with trained leopards; he added new gardens and gilded reception rooms to the ducal palace and, in 1504, decided to build on the grounds the Sala delle Comedie, the first purpose-built theatre since antiquity.

Among the many foreign writers and musicians attracted to this lively cultural centre were the scholarly humanists Ercole Strozzi and Pietro Bembo. A member of the Florentine family whose grand palazzo, built for Filippo Strozzi, is one of the most imposing in Florence, Ercole Strozzi was a poet of distinction. Much disliked by Lucrezia's husband but admired and sponsored by her father-in-law, Strozzi was a distinctive figure in Ferrara, where he hobbled about on crutches that his clubfeet rendered indispensable.

Strozzi was clearly and immediately attracted to Lucrezia, as she was to him. He sympathised with her in her differences with her father-in-law, who kept her, so she complained, so short of money that she was not able to dress with the distinction that was her due. Strozzi made light of her complaints; she could always borrow money; and since he himself was shortly to go to Venice, he would buy for her there such materials as those for which that city was celebrated. He returned with large bundles to the delight not only of Lucrezia but also of her ladies, who were presented with rolls of material to be made up into dresses of exceptional splendour.

Pietro Bembo, on the other hand, was a Venetian poet, handsome and charming, a man in his early thirties whose company Lucrezia found especially alluring. Indeed, there were whispers at court that the duke's new daughter-in-law might have succumbed to Bembo's charms; it was generally supposed that they soon became lovers. Certainly she was always ready to enjoy the company of the lively brilliant poet when he was in Ferrara or a guest at Ercole Strozzi's lovely villa at Ostellato, on the shores of the lagoon at Comacchio, travelling there from time to time along the waters of the Po in her painted barge.

When apart, the two wrote passionate letters to each other in the fashion of their times. Lucrezia called him "Messer Bembo mio" (my Mr. Bembo), and he wrote to her with deep affection. She gave him a lock of her lovely blond hair, which can still be seen today, on display in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, along with much of their correspondence and the poems they wrote to each other; seeing "those beautiful locks that I love ever more deeply," ran one of Bembo's verses, "my heart was torn from me and caught." One of his letters to her ends: "With my heart do I now kiss that hand of yours, which soon I shall kiss with my lips that ever have your name engraved upon them."

"Were I an angel as she is," Bembo told Lucrezia's cousin Angela Borgia, "I would take pity on anyone who loved as I love." And in one of the verses he sent her, he wrote:

Avess'io almen d'un bel cristallo il core
Che quel ch'io taccio, Madonna non vede
De l'interno mio mal, senza altre fede
A suoi occhi traducesse fore.

[Had I a heart made of fine crystal
rather than the one I hide, which Madonna does not see
from inside me my pain
would betray itself in her eyes.]

When Lucrezia replied (the letter is dated June 24, 1503) that in the crystal of her heart she had found a perfect conformity with Bembo's, he replied that his own crystal was now more precious to him than "all the pearls of the Indian seas."

When Bembo heard of the death of Alexander VI, he immediately rode the ten miles or so from Ostellato to the ducal villa at Medelana where Lucrezia was staying to see what he could do to comfort her in her grief. But she was, for the moment, beyond grief. "As soon as I saw you lying in your darkened room, wearing your black gown, weeping and desolate," he wrote to her the following day, "I was so overcome by my feelings that I stood still, as though struck dumb, not knowing what to say. Instead of offering sympathy, I felt in need of sympathy myself. I left, fumbling and speechless, overcome with emotion at the sight of your misery." He could offer little in the way of solace: "I know not what else to say except to remind you that time soothes and eases all our sorrows," he said, adding that although Alexander VI, "your very great father," had died, "this is not the first misfortune which you have had to endure at the hands of your cruel and malign destiny."

As summer turned to autumn and the plight of her beloved brother grew worse and worse, Bembo continued to offer what help he could to comfort Lucrezia, writing to her when they were apart with that romantic passion she found so beguiling. "The whole of this night in my dreams, and in the wakeful watches, however long they were, I was with you," one of his letters ran. "And I hope that every other night of my life, whatever it holds in store for me, the same thing will happen."

Lucrezia, in return, asked Bembo to translate one of her own Spanish sonnets into Italian:

Yours is the radiance which makes me burn,
And growing with each act and gracious word
My joy in seeing you is never done.

But these contented days at Medelana were soon to end: Bembo's younger brother, Carlo, fell seriously ill at Venice; Bembo hurried to his bedside too late to see him before he died. "I am sending for my books which I left behind in Ferrara," Bembo wrote to Lucrezia in early 1504, to say that "I shall remain here for a while in order that my aged and sorrowful father need not remain entirely alone for it is clear he has much need of my company."

It was to be many months before he and Lucrezia saw each other again, and by then the ardour of their attachment to each other had cooled to friendship, one that was to last until the end of her life. In 1505 he dedicated his dialogues on Platonic love,Gli Asolani,to Lucrezia, whose visit to him on one occasion when he had been ill had "cured him of every feverish languore" that beset him. The following year he moved from Venice to the lively court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and Elisabetta Gonzaga, now reinstated in Urbino, and he was one of the leading characters in Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier. A few years later he moved to Rome to take up his appointment as secretary to Pope Leo X and would later be made a cardinal by Paul III. Having established a reputation for Latin lyric poetry, he turned to Italian verse, the collected edition of his Italian poems appearing in 1530.

One of the last letters Lucrezia wrote to him was quite perfunctory; certainly she had not written much of late, she told him, but he must rest assured that there were many good reasons why she had not been able to do so. She remained, she added caringly, as anxious as ever to please him.

It was around the time when Bembo left for Venice that Lucrezia began to appear more frequently in public, fulfilling her duties and responsibilities as Duchess of Ferrara. Using the skills she had learned at her father's court, she received embassies with a grace that her husband was quite unable to muster on such occasions. With her extensive knowledge of political affairs, she took an unfeigned interest in the government of the duchy and its relationships with the other Italian states and with foreign powers.

She was also busy fulfilling her primary duty as Alfonso's wife, endeavouring to produce an heir for the duchy, a subject particularly close to Duke Ercole's heart. A year after the disappointment of her stillborn daughter, Lucrezia was pregnant again, and yet again she miscarried. At Christmas 1504 Lucrezia was pregnant once more, bearing Alfonso's child for a third time, much to the joy of her seventy-one-year-old father-in-law, whose own long life was finally drawing to a close.

During the previous summer, the duke had travelled to Florence in order to visit the miraculous image of the Virgin in the Church of Santissima Annunziata, but on his return, "much fatigued by the journey," according to the Ferrarese chronicler Bernardino Zambotti, he had fallen seriously ill. Alfonso, who was on a trip to France to visit Louis XII, was informed immediately by a courier sent posthaste to the French court, and he rushed home to join Isabella, who had arrived from Mantua, at their father's bedside. Alfonso arrived, according to Zambotti, "healthy and safe but very downcast with anxiety and sorrow"; he was "much concerned with what might have occurred if his father had died in his absence." With four brothers, one of whom was illegitimate, he did have occasion to worry.

The old duke finally died on January 25, 1505, much mourned by his family and by his subjects; Alfonso was proclaimed his successor later that same day before riding in a grand ceremonial procession through the streets of Ferrara, accompanied by his court, dressed in the ducal mantle of white satin lined with fur and the great gold chain of state hanging across his breast. When Lucrezia dutifully knelt before him to offer her homage, the new duke embraced her warmly and kissed her before leading her out onto the balcony, her hand in his, to display the new duchess to her people.

During the summer of 1505, the rivalry between Alfonso's brothers erupted dramatically into open hostility. Life in the hot, humid city of Ferrara was more unpleasant than usual that year; on May 17, reported one chronicler, "there was no wheat for sale in the market place, nor fodder of any sort, except for rice," which was selling at double the normal price, "and for two days there was no bread for sale either." When the wheat did arrive, it was found to be full of weevils, and the poor could be seen across the city, "crying out for a slice of bread." In the middle of June, with the price of foodstuffs rising daily, a ten-year-old boy was found dead on the street, and when the neighbours went to his house, they found that his parents had died of the plague.

Lucrezia, concerned by reports of the outbreak of the plague, decided to take her household to Modena both for her own sake—since her fluctuating temperature had induced her to consult her doctor, who advised her to leave the city—and for the sake of the child she was carrying. Her brother-in-law Giulio d'Este, Duke Ercole's bastard son, asked if he might go with her. He was a rather tiresome young man, conceited, frivolous, quick-witted, and headstrong; but Lucrezia enjoyed his amusing company and so she readily assented. The old duke, well aware of the young man's extravagance, had only granted him a modest allowance and had wanted him to go into the church. But Giulio had strongly resisted this plan and was much relieved when his brother, the new duke, presented him with a generous income as well as a palace.

Cardinal Ippolito was exasperated by the indulgence that Alfonso had shown to such a flighty and arrogant wastrel; and, as an opening gambit in the dispute that was developing between Ippolito and his illegitimate brother, he had a chaplain in Giulio's household arrested and imprisoned. Giulio promptly broke into the prison and released the man.

The cardinal was a sardonic, elegant, supercilious, and argumentative man. He much regretted having been made a cardinal and certainly did not allow his unwanted eminence in the church to interfere with his passions for hunting and women. His outbursts of temper were notorious; on one occasion he flew into a rage with one of his father's crossbowmen and had him beaten so savagely that he was almost killed. Lucrezia was intrigued by him, and she was seen so often in his company that the Roman ambassador in Ferrara reported that "she belonged to her husband at night, and to the Cardinal by day."

Meanwhile, Lucrezia, accompanied by Giulio, was forced to leave Modena, where plague had by then also broken out, and made for Reggio, where they were intercepted by a messenger from Duke Alfonso with an order banishing Giulio to a remote estate. At first Giulio refused to go there, but eventually he was persuaded to leave, while Lucrezia induced the chaplain whom Giulio had released from prison to return there voluntarily for the moment.

Nor was this the only aspect of Giulio's behaviour that was provoking such fury in his brother the cardinal. For months Giulio had been pursuing the pretty, alluring Angela Borgia, Lucrezia's cousin; and when she became pregnant, it was generally supposed that he was the father of her child. Here was another problem for Lucrezia, for, while conducting an affair with Giulio d'Este, Angela was simultaneously being pursued by a besotted Cardinal Ippolito.

It was at Reggio on September 19, 1505, that Lucrezia gave birth to another child, a boy this time, who was named Alessandro in memory of her father. Bembo offered his congratulations. "It gave me infinite pleasure," he wrote, "to hear of the happy birth of a male child to your ladyship; all the more so," he added, after "the cruel disappointment and vain hopes" that had accompanied her miscarriage of the previous year. He prayed also that this "dearly awaited son" would grow into a man "worthy of so fine a mother." His hopes, and those of Alfonso and Lucrezia, however, were to be once again cruelly dashed. The infant proved poor and sickly; Alfonso sent his own doctor to Reggio to care for the baby, but despite his ministrations, barely a month later Alessandro was dead.

Writing to comfort Lucrezia, who had also suffered a bout of puerperal fever after the birth, Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, invited her to stay at Borgoforte, a castle on the border of Ferrara and Mantua that belonged to his family.

The thirty-nine-year-old Francesco was by no means a captivating personality, but his presence would be some comfort to Lucrezia after the departure of Giulio and the death of her baby. Besides, it would annoy Isabella d'Este, who was eight months pregnant, and whose discomfiture Lucrezia always found pleasurable. So she agreed to meet Gonzaga at Borgoforte, where, in his brusque and didactic way, he did his best to comfort and entertain her, even offering to send an envoy to Spain to hear news of Cesare; and when the time came to leave the castle, she wrote to Alfonso to tell him that she had been invited to accompany the marquis to Mantua on her way home to Ferrara. "I have been urged with such passion," she wrote to him, "to go tomorrow to visit the illustrious Marchioness, that, although I resisted strongly, I could not but obey."

She had reason to be grateful for having done so. The Mantuan court possessed an enviable collection of works of art that Isabella was delighted to show her guest, books and jewels, enamels, glass and silver, and paintings not only by Perugino and Lorenzo Costa but also by Andrea Mantegna.

Mantegna, appointed court painter in 1460, had completed work on the Camera degli Sposi in the ducal palace in 1474, a project commissioned by Francesco's grandfather, Marquis Lodovico. For Francesco himself, he had painted the nine huge canvases of theTriumph of Caesar, which were later bought by King Charles I and are now in the Orangery at Hampton Court. For Isabella, Lucrezia's hostess, he had painted the Parnassus in 1497 and, three years later, the Triumph of Virtue, both now in the Louvre.

By the time he had finished work on the Triumph of Virtue, Mantegna was nearly seventy years old, a grumpy old man, by no means so well off as he thought he ought to be and in constant dispute with his neighbours. He was also in dispute with the illustrious Isabella over an antique bust of the Empress Faustina, which he had offered to sell her for 100 ducats, far less than he thought it was worth. Eventually, after treating the offer with disdainful silence, Isabella agreed to acquire it by settling the old artist's debts up to that amount.

Lucrezia left Mantua at the end of October, having greatly annoyed the heavily pregnant Isabella by having so obviously aroused in her husband the passions and desires he was more in the habit of feeling for his wife's maids-of-honour. Travelling in Francesco's ceremonial barge, she arrived at Belriguardo, where she was greeted by Alfonso and by Giulio, his banishment rescinded by his indulgent half-brother.

A few days later, Giulio was returning to Belriguardo from a hunting expedition, riding along the road toward the villa, when he was met by a furiously jealous Cardinal Ippolito d'Este; he had been spurned, yet again, by the pretty Angela Borgia, who had scornfully told the cardinal that his brother's liquid brown eyes were worth more to her than "the whole of your person." In an excess of rage, Ippolito now shouted orders to his four footmen to kill the man and put out his eyes, those eyes that Angela had told him she so extravagantly admired. Ippolito's footmen obediently pulled Giulio from his saddle to the ground, where they stabbed at his eyes with their daggers until his face was covered with blood and his eyelids almost severed.

Ippolito rode back to Belriguardo with the news that he had found Giulio lying on the ground and wounded; the footmen fled abroad. Men were sent out to carry him back to the villa, and urgent summons were sent to surgeons at Ferrara. Giulio seemed to be on the point of death or, at least, blinded for life.

Cardinal Ippolito at first denied all responsibility for the incident; then he claimed that the four footmen were "formerly in our household." Alfonso, reluctant to have his own brother arraigned on a charge of murder, took care that this version of the events was sent to every court in Italy, where it soon became the subject of gossip. In a private letter to Isabella, however, Alfonso confessed the terrible truth, begging his sister not to reveal the true details of "this shameful act"; Isabella replied that it was too late, that every barber in the marketplace knew what had really happened. Like Alfonso, she was also shocked; when Ippolito himself fled to Mantua hoping to find refuge at his sister's court, she was so horrified by what he had done that he was soon forced to leave.

Eventually, when Giulio had partially recovered his sight, Ippolito was admitted back into Ferrara, where he was induced to make a guarded apology; and that, Alfonso hoped, would be the end of the matter. But Giulio, still in great pain and finding comfort only in darkened rooms, remained bitterly resentful, not only of the cardinal but also of Duke Alfonso, whom he blamed for not charging Ippolito with his crime.

The duke and duchess returned to Ferrara, as was the custom, to celebrate Christmas, New Year, and Carnival in the ducal capital. Lucrezia clearly enjoyed herself, joining in the dancing, relishing the saucy comedies that she asked to be performed at the ducal theatre during Carnival, when she became a familiar figure in the streets, through which she rode wearing a mask, sometimes in a white dress, at other times gold. She did what she could to comfort Giulio, endeavouring to find him a profitable appointment with the Knights of Malta. She also went out of her way to help the tiresome, importunate Angela Borgia, who had discarded the no longer handsome Giulio without, apparently, a second thought and had recently been betrothed to the young Alessandro Pio and now badgered Lucrezia for help in purchasing an extravagant trousseau, including an extremely expensive dress of cloth-of-gold.

While the court laughed and joked and danced, Giulio remained in his darkened room, his resentment growing as he listened to the revelries outside on the city streets. He had begun to recover his sight; at first murky outlines could be seen of faces and objects, but his vision soon cleared. Still in intolerable pain, however, he thought of little other than the revenge he would inflict on Ippolito and Alfonso. He was joined by his half-brother Ferrante, his companion in the carefree exploits of earlier days, who had hopes of usurping Alfonso as Duke of Ferrara. They discussed ways of achieving their aims; they drew others, as incompetent as themselves, into their conspiracy; they discussed methods of poisoning, possible ambushes, traps and snares and disguises. "Something sinister is being planned," Isabella d'Este's friend Bernardino di Prosperi wrote to her at Mantua. "I don't think things will ever be right again between Don Giulio and the Cardinal."

Meanwhile, Cardinal Ippolito's informers had begun to hear rumours of the plotters and their wretched schemes; during the summer several men, including one of Giulio's servants, were arrested. Giulio himself took advantage of Alfonso's absence from Ferrara on a trip to Venice, to escape to the security offered by Isabella in Mantua. When the duke came home in early July, he ordered his half-brother to return home. Giulio refused, claiming that his life was in danger in Ferrara. In an attempt to mediate between the brothers, Francesco Gonzaga formally requested Alfonso to guarantee Giulio's safety. Alfonso replied that he promised to stand surety for Ippolito's actions but warned Giulio that he could not protect him from the law if he was to be found guilty of treason.

Finally it was Ferrante who betrayed the conspirators and told of Giulio's involvement in the affair. Alfonso was appalled at the realization that his own brothers were plotting his assassination. Ferrante was arrested, along with the other plotters, with the exception of Giulio, who preferred to remain in Mantua under the protection of Francesco and Isabella.

The trial opened on August 3; and a month later all were found guilty and condemned to death by execution. Alfonso, however, had been fond of his brothers and decided to reprieve them, sentencing the two young men instead to life imprisonment in the castle dungeons. For Ferrante, life imprisonment entailed captivity for forty-three years until his death; for Giulio, fifty-three years, until he was released by his great-nephew, Lucrezia's grandson Duke Alfonso II.

At the end of November 1506, after a year that had seen her husband suffer so much anguish, Lucrezia brought him news that gladdened both their hearts; she was pregnant again and would, God willing, bear this child. At the same time welcome news arrived from Spain: Cesare had escaped from prison and was on his way to the safety of the court of his brother-in-law, who was now king of Navarre. Lucrezia awaited eagerly to hear what he would do next; she herself was prepared to do all she could to help him.

Her gaiety was plain for all to see that year during Carnival in 1507, when Francesco Gonzaga, now captain-general of the papal forces, came to Ferrara to discuss future operations with Duke Alfonso, who, by now quite unconcerned by his wife's obvious attraction to this man, raised no objection to the attentions that she and Gonzaga paid to each other, to the time they spent in each other's company, to their dancing together at ball after ball. Abandoned yet graceful, she threw herself energetically into the excitement of the palace dances until she had to take yet again to her bed.

All the excitement had proved too much for Lucrezia, who, in the middle of January, suffered yet another miscarriage. Alfonso despaired and chided his wife for her lack of proper care for her condition; too much dancing, he remonstrated, and too much revelry. She also had to endure the news, which arrived a few weeks later, that Isabella had given birth to her third son, whom she named Ferrante, in honour of her brother, languishing a prisoner in the castle dungeons.

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