Lucrezia Borgia, by Ferdinand Gregorovius

Now my view of Lucrezia Borgia was that she was an evil woman who poisoned people; but according to Gregorovius, this wasn’t the case at all; it was all just anti-Borgia propaganda. A lot of people, for various reasons, just didn’t like the Borgias. In fact, as Gregorovius argues, aside from being the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia), Lucrezia Borgia was, as a person, pretty much an insipid non-entity. (I imagine her a bit like Princess Diana: less beautiful than her admirers make out, not quite as intelligent – although Gregorovius does let me down a bit by claiming she probably never did have an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo). Which is, of course, a bit of a problem if you’re writing a biography of her.

Another problem Gregorovius has is that there’s not really much information available about her life, which leads him, for her childhood and education, to recount instead what a typical childhood and education for someone of her background (illegitimate daughter of a pope) might have been. Also, it means he really goes to town on that one moment in her life which is well-sourced: her marriage into the Ferrarese Este family: – pages and pages and pages of it, full of eye-witness accounts about what people were wearing and letters sent to and fro wrangling over the nature of the dowry.

There is no doubt a truth in this, in that, in keeping with the position of most women of her time, this marriage was the only significant event of her life; and that otherwise she lived almost entirely in the shadow and under the control of the two men of the family: her pleasure-loving father Pope Alexander, and her psychotic brother Cesare, who one feels at times are living the real story off in the distant foreground, arranging her marriages for her, dissolving them again, and occasionally murdering people (sometimes, the very people they’ve recently married her to) and instigating wars; although it does serve as a good record of the shifting fortunes of the leading Italian families.

At least Gregorovius has done his research, digging about in Italian archives, which I take to have been a novel means of historiography back then (1870s?) and associate largely with c19th German scholars (in terms of ancient history in particular Theodor Mommsen, who was forever collating disparate information); sometimes perhaps not practised otherwise in the preparation of history since the days of Herodotus.

I might next have a go at the apparently far more idiosyncratic Chronicles of the House of Borgia, by that literary eccentric Frederick Rolfe.