Thursday, 18 April 2013

A monster? Or a sacrificial lamb?

Take the most hideous, the most repulsive, the most complete moral deformity; place it where it fits best - in the heart of a woman whose physical beauty and royal grandeur will make the crime stand out all the more strikingly; then add to all that moral deformity the purest feeling a woman can have, that of a mother ...

Inside our monster put a mother and the monster will interest us and make us weep. And this creature that filled us with fear will inspire pity; that deformed soul will be almost beautiful in our eyes ..."
- Victor Hugo (from his preface to his play Lucrèce Borgia)
But was she really the "monster" or "creature" that Victor Hugo (and Donizetti, upon whose opera Hugo's play is based) portrayed her? Not according to many recent historians. I reprint in full this rather good article by Tanya Smith on Helium website published in 2009, that seeks to redress the balance:
Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and is one of the most unjustly disparaged women of the Renaissance period. Legend portrays her as an immoral murderess who conspired with her power-hungry father and brothers to further her family's influence in Italy and Europe. However, like most high-ranking women in the Renaissance period, Lucrezia would have had few choices in relation to her personal life. Marriages were made for political alliances and Lucrezia was used to form such alliances for the Borgias.

Her family's ruthless tactics in breaking off her betrothal to a wealthy Spanish nobleman named Cherubino Juan de Centenelles, in order to betroth her to a more powerful contender for her hand Gasparo da Procida, resulted in making the young girl an object of anger and injured pride. The situation worsened when her father ascended the Papal throne shortly thereafter and decided that his daughter should marry even higher. Rodrigo Borgia cancelled the second engagement to Gasparo da Procida and entered into a new agreement with Giovanni Sforza, Count of Pesaro. Lucrezia became the innocent pawn between the two rival suitors at the tender age of twelve.

Eventually, it would be her first husband, Giovanni Sforza who was the source of her worst defamation. Lucrezia seemed happy enough with the marriage, but after six years, she had not become pregnant. The Pope did not need the alliance with Sforza any longer and since no heir was forthcoming, he annulled Lucrezia's first marriage. Sforza was furious and embarrassed that an examination of Lucrezia had proven that she was a "virga intacta". He blurted out a horrible statement that would blacken Lucrezia's name for centuries, accusing the Pope of wanting Lucrezia back for himself.

Shortly thereafter, Lucrezia was married to a young, handsome man who appeared to make her very happy. Upon meeting Prince Alfonso Bisceglie of Aragon, it was said that Lucrezia experienced un colpo di fulmine' literally, a thunderbolt' of love at first sight. She became pregnant with his child soon after their marriage. However, her happiness was not to last. Along with Lucrezia, the Pope had come to feel very affectionate toward his new son-in-law. This angered her brother, Cesare. In a fit of jealousy and fear of losing his position, Cesare murdered Alfonso Bisceglie, just as he did his own brother, Juan, who had also threatened his influence with their father. Lucrezia was almos inconsolable. Barely having recovered from the loss, she was married off to Alfonso D'Este, a man who matched her family in power and was therefore able to remove her from their life of treachery and deceit.

Regardless of her innocence and inability to make her own marital choices in life, Lucrezia still became the target of malicious gossip. As a female, she was the weakest member of a powerful family, and therefore, the easiest to attack. Her name was sullied by the Borgia's enemies, who claimed she had incestuous relationships with her father and brothers. Her role in her family's machinations was grossly exaggerated.

Yet, by the end of her life, at age thirty-nine, Lucrezia's image had changed. She spent the second epoch of her life helping the needy, protecting the rights of Jewish people in Italy, encouraging peaceful agreements, and devoting herself to family, friends and the service of God. She died as a beloved patron of the arts, immortalized by poets such as Pietro Bembo and Ercole Strozzi.

Her third husband, a hardened warrior who was known to have been reluctant to marry Lucrezia, fainted with grief at her funeral. Even the Doge of Venice said he "grieved for her as if she had been his own daughter". Despite these evidences of her better nature, famous composers such as Donizetti portrayed Lucrezia as a spoiled, murdering woman of ill-repute. Victor Hugo based his Lucrece Borgia on Donizetti's opera and thus the false legends of Lucrezia Borgia were carried to popular culture.

Finally, it is the cruel words from an epitaph written by Pontano, twenty years before her death, that are most commonly associated with her today: "Here lies in her tomb a Lucrezia in name, but a Thais in fact. Daughter, wife and daughter-in-law to Alexander VI". History has not been any kinder to Lucrezia and does not often account for the fact that she was no more than an innocent daughter and sacrificial lamb to the Borgia family.
However, in high art and culture, everybody loves a villainess - so it is the Donizetti/Hugo portrayal that provides us with the campest version. And, in the immortal words of Anna Russell (read my blog about her), ...that’s the beauty of Grand Opera, you can do anything so long as you sing it!"

Lucrezia Borgia (18th April 1480 – 24th June 1519)

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