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Love in the Renaissance - The Secret Story between Lucrezia Borgia and Francesco Gonzaga

Updated on October 26, 2014

A woman suspected to be a poisoner

A man keen of war and battles, ill of syphilis

A sort of pre-romantic poet who fans the flames of their love...

Bartolomeo Veneto, Presumed Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (1505-1508), London National Gallery
Bartolomeo Veneto, Presumed Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (1505-1508), London National Gallery | Source
Portrait of Francesco II Gonzaga, Ambras Castle Innsbruck
Portrait of Francesco II Gonzaga, Ambras Castle Innsbruck | Source

Lucrezia Borgia and Francesco Gonzaga

The love story between Lucrezia Borgia, the natural daughter of the pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), and Francesco Gonzaga, military leader and Marquis of Mantua, seems to come out from the pages of War and Peace. What we know, the pair met only three or may be four times, but they gave life to a secret correspondence in the years between 1507 and 1513. In the background, the disagreement between the two families and the bloody battles of the War of Italy, when France, Venice and the Papacy competed for the supremacy in Northern Italy.

Lucrezia Borgia had arrived to the court of Ferrara in 1502. She had married the Duke Alfonso d’Este, after two other marriages ended badly, or very badly. The Borgia were one of the most powerful families in Italy at that time, feared because of the intrigues of the pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare, brother to Lucrezia, the bloodthirsty conqueror of the Romagna who is thought to have inspired Machiavelli’s Prince. The sister of the Duke Alfonso, Isabella d’Este, had married Francesco II Gonzaga, to strengthen a traditional alliance between the two families. Isabella was the most cultured woman in the Renaissance, a protagonist of the cultural life of the period, while her husband was certainly more accustomed with weapons and soldiers.

L. Da Vinci, Isabella d'Este (1500), Paris Louvre
L. Da Vinci, Isabella d'Este (1500), Paris Louvre | Source
Dosso Dossi, Portrait of Alfonso d'Este (a. 1510)
Dosso Dossi, Portrait of Alfonso d'Este (a. 1510) | Source

A Visit and a Promise

The Marquis of Mantua Francesco Gonzaga comes to Ferrara in 1504, to meet his new sister in law Lucrezia, since he had not been able to take part in the wedding banquet in 1502. Really, it was the second time that Francesco had the occasion to see her: he had met Lucrezia eight years before, in Rome, when he had gone to receive the blessing from the pope Alexander VI after the troubled success obtained in the battle of Fornovo. She was a 16 year old girl (already married to Luigi Sforza). He was a brilliant military leader aged 30.

Lucrezia’s father, pope Alexander VI, had died in 1503. His successor (after the short pontificate of Pius III) Pope Julius II (della Rovere), archenemy to the Borgia, had imprisoned Lucrezia’s brother Cesare, who had conquered the government of the Romagna with the support of his father. The power of the Borgia was suddenly declining. Francesco had a generous and impetuous character, seasoned with a pinch of ingenuity. He was featuring a look sweet and attractive, admirably portrayed by Mantegna in the canvas celebrating the victory of Fornovo. Instinctively, he finds the most direct route to Lucrezia’s hearth: he promises to intercede for the release of Cesare Borgia. Really, he is promising something greater than him, that he is not in the power to obtain: but Lucrezia knows that the Este do not love her family. She sees Francesco as the unique person who can try something to help her brother.

Love on the Two Banks of River Po

show route and directions
A markerBorgoforte -
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The Gonzaga's citadel where Francesco welcomed Lucrezia in 1505

B markerReggio Emilia -
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Summer residence of Lucrezia

C markerMantova -
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Seat of the Gonzaga

D markerFerrara -
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Seat of the Este

Tintoretto, Battle of Fornovo (a. 1578), Monaco - Francesco Gonzaga appears on his horse  on the left side of the painting
Tintoretto, Battle of Fornovo (a. 1578), Monaco - Francesco Gonzaga appears on his horse on the left side of the painting | Source
Francesco Gonzaga portrayed by Andrea Mantegna in the Madonna of the Victory, painted in 1495 to celebrate the victory in the battle of Fornovo (Paris Louvre)
Francesco Gonzaga portrayed by Andrea Mantegna in the Madonna of the Victory, painted in 1495 to celebrate the victory in the battle of Fornovo (Paris Louvre) | Source

Meeting in Autumn

Francesco and Lucrezia meet again, for a few days, at least twice. In the summer of 1505, Lucrezia was alone in Reggio Emilia, part of the Ferrara Duchy, after having lost her newborn Alessandro. Francesco takes advantage of the opportunity and invites her to Borgoforte, the Gonzaga’s citadel on the opposite bank of the river Po. Lucrezia leaves Reggio Emilia at the end of October. She arranges the journey to the residence of Belriguardo, one of the Este’s sites most loved by the duchess, in a way to travel on the Po’s waters and to pass trough Borgoforte. The welcome of the Marquis is reported to have been magnificent. Lucrezia and Francesco, alone without their respective spouses, spend together two full days, the 28 and 29 of October. Their conversation is centred on the imprisonment of Cesare Borgia in Spain, but surely this was not their unique argument. Francesco invites Lucrezia to Mantua, to greet her sister in law and rival, Isabella. There, Isabella tries to astonish Lucrezia with the “glamour” of her court. She shows off her wide culture, her fine art collections. But Lucrezia has other thoughts on her mind.

The river Po nearby Mantua
The river Po nearby Mantua | Source

Meeting at Carnival

In 1507 Francesco was appointed general captain of the papal army. During the festivities of the Carnival, he arrives at the court of Ferrara proud of his new title. It is now the time of Lucrezia to welcome him. The whole Ferrara can see the affection she shows towards Francesco. Lucrezia throws herself in dancing and drags him whit her. She dances and dances with a so great fervour, that she loses the child she had in womb. The Duke Alfonso receives the news badly. Once again, he is not able to see an heir to the Duchy. He considers his wife responsible of what has happened and does nothing to hide this sentiment.

Lucrezia's Home in Ferrara

The Castle of the Este in Ferrara
The Castle of the Este in Ferrara | Source
Ercole Strozzi, engraving after Paolo Giovio (1577)
Ercole Strozzi, engraving after Paolo Giovio (1577) | Source

Ercole Strozzi

In the spring, Lucrezia receives other terrible news. Her brother Cesare has dead, fighting in Spain with the King of Navarra against the Count of Lerin. Once again, she is alone with her pain, nobody of the Este is willing to shed a tear for a Borgia. But there is a man, to better say a poet, who is ready to offer his consolation to her. This is Ercole Strozzi, a VIP in the city of Ferrara, cultured, rich, descendant of a great family. A sort of “pre-romantic” figure that will do his best to throw Lucrezia in the arms of Francesco. However, Ercole was unpopular with the Duke, who had removed him from the important office of Judge of the Savi. So he was used to go to the court to see Lucrezia only in the absence of the Duke.

It is probable that Ercole was cultivating a subtle desire for revenge against Alfonso. He encourages the love of Lucrezia towards Francesco and becomes the intermediary of their secret correspondence. He was a friend to the Marquis of Mantua and he had free access to his court. The letters were written by Ettore himself, sometimes also by Lucrezia. They were addressed to Ercole’s brother, Guido, who lived in Mantua and delivered them to Francesco. Apparently, Lucrezia and Francesco acted with a great caution. The true names were always masked: Francesco appears as Guido, Lucrezia as Barbara, Ercole as Zilio. The letters were burnt after they had been read, so only a few have arrived to us. But it is probable that the correspondence was known to the Este. Lucrezia and Francesco knew they were surrounded by spies.

I make you certain that she (Lucrezia) loves you much and so, if you continue in the way I show you and not achieve your purpose, I give you permission to complain with me…

— Ercole Strozzi to Francesco Gonzaga
Bartolomeo Veneto, Presumed portrait of Lucrezia Borgia as Flora (1505)
Bartolomeo Veneto, Presumed portrait of Lucrezia Borgia as Flora (1505) | Source

Words of Love

The soldier Francesco sometimes seems to be not so firm in his love. So, Ercole-Zilio writes to him: “She (Lucrezia) loves you very very much and much more than you think….” It is not known if Lucrezia and Francesco met at one of their summer residences (Borgoforte, Belriguardo, Reggio Emilia) in 1507. What is known, is that Lucrezia gives birth to a child, Ercole II, in the April of 1508. Here is the so long desired heir of the Duchy. Alfonso, the Duke, was away: he did not want to assist to another death. Ercole Strozzi celebrates the birth of the future duke by a poem in Latin:

Rideat omnis ager, tibi, rideat omnis Olympus,
et patris et matris gaudia magna, puer...

Strozzi recommends Francesco to come, he makes him sure about Lucrezia’s love and writes that Alfonso too would have been pleased to reconcile with him (there had been issues between the two families about servants gone from one part to the other one). But Francesco does not come.

The stone commemorating Ercole Strozzi murder, on the wall of Casa Romei in Ferrara
The stone commemorating Ercole Strozzi murder, on the wall of Casa Romei in Ferrara | Source

Murder at Night

On June 6, at dawn, a tragedy shakes the city of Ferrara. Ercole Strozzi is found murdered by 22 stabs. He had just become father of a girl and he was composing an elegy on the white shirt of his wife, full of sad presages. The investigations were not so diligent and the guilty was never discovered. Historians have accused in turn Alfonso, out of jalousie but also because he may have been in love with Strozzi’s wife, Francesco, interested in eliminating a witness of his dangerous relationship, Lucrezia herself. Indeed, Strozzi had strong enemies such as the Sforza (the rulers of Milano), because of the heritage of his wife. It is probable that the killers had come from there, with the consent of the Este.

Lucrezia Borgia Lock of Hair

A lock of the golden hair of Lucrezia Borgia is conserved in Milan with the letters she exchanged with the poet Pietro Bembo (this took place before the correspondence with Francesco Gonzaga). It is thought Lucrezia gave Bembo her hair as a pledge of love. The English poet George Gordon Byron saw this tress in 1816. He wrote to his friend John Murray that they were the blondest hair that he could imagine. After three weeks, Byron informed his friend that he had corrupted the guardian. He had been able to obtain one of those hair and was keeping it as a relic. After Byron, the tress had other important admirers, such as Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers. Even the Prince George of Prussia is said to have sent two officers to see the hair and make a report.

Letters Go On

Less than a month after the death of Ercole, Lucrezia has already found a substitute to continue the correspondence with Francesco. The new intermediary is a brother of Ercole, Lorenzo. He is so prompt to enter in this role that legitimate suspects arise that he really was engaged by the Este to watch over the relationship. Again, Lucrezia prays Francesco to come, through the new messenger. At last she obtains only this discouraging answer: he would like to, but he can not, because he is seriously ill (syphilis, the disease that will lead him to death). It is summer, again: Lucrezia is in Reggio Emilia, at a short distance from Mantua. She takes the decision: she will go by herself to visit her beloved who lays sick. But Alfonso comes to Reggio and the project must be suspended. Meanwhile, a new war is preparing to come and separate the lovers again.

The battle of Agnadello, 1837, Versailles
The battle of Agnadello, 1837, Versailles | Source

Francesco and Alfonso Go to the War

The War of the League of Cambrai was fought between 1509 and 1512, involving also the Duchies of Mantua and Ferrara with ups and downs and changes in the alliances. The war was first initiated by the warlike pope Julius II to limit the growing power of Venice on the Northern Italy. The Pope was leading an alliance with France, Naples, Mantua and Ferrara. The league defeated the Venetian troops at Agnadello (near Cremona) and attacked the Venetian territories, up to Mestre. However, in 1510, the pope decided to change his strategy, because he felt that the influence of the French was becoming too strong. So, he dissolved the League and reversed the alliance, taking side with the former enemy Venice against France.

The death of Gaston de Foix in the Battle of Ravenna (1512) - It was a crucial episode of the War of the League of Cambrai
The death of Gaston de Foix in the Battle of Ravenna (1512) - It was a crucial episode of the War of the League of Cambrai
Titian, Portrait of Isabella d'Este (1534), Wien Kunsthistorisches Museum - Isabella d'Este was sixty at the time of this painting, but Titian depicted her as she had 40 years less.
Titian, Portrait of Isabella d'Este (1534), Wien Kunsthistorisches Museum - Isabella d'Este was sixty at the time of this painting, but Titian depicted her as she had 40 years less. | Source

Francesco Prisoner

The events of the war have consequences also on the protagonists of this story. Francesco, leading a handful of soldiers into the territories of the enemy, in a heroic but unwise momentum, is captured by the Venetians and imprisoned. He was released after some months, but only at condition that his son Federico was consigned to the Vatican as a hostage. Julius II wanted to be sure about the fidelity of the Marquis. The negotiation was conducted by Isabella, who was ruling Mantua in the absence of the husband. Someone says that she delayed things to prolong her role of command and that she was worrying about her son more than her husband, so that Francesco wrote her a furious letter, promising to strangle her if she had not delivered Federico. After have been at last released, the Marquis admitted the support he had received by her sister in law. In fact, Lucrezia had found the way to arrive to him. She did not let he miss the comfort of her letters and probably also some useful goods.

Raphael, Pope Julius II (1511), London National Gallery
Raphael, Pope Julius II (1511), London National Gallery | Source

Francesco vs Alfonso

The war was preparing other surprises. After the peace between the papacy and Venice and the end of the League of Cambrai, Alfonso quits the alliance with the Papacy and sides with the French. This move leads him near to the loss of his Duchy. Now Alfonso and Francesco are at the two opposite parts. The Pope launches the excommunication on Ferrara, Lucrezia feels to be lost. It is the turn of Francesco to go to rescue of his beloved. He writes a letter to the Pope. He ensures that he will deliver Alfonso, if he happens to catch him, and prays to show mercy to Lucrezia, the only one that had taken care of him at the time of his imprisonment in Venice. He gets even to prepare an apartment for her in a palace near the meadows of the Te, he personally takes care of the decoration of the home. Lucrezia thanks him: “Hope we can enjoy it together, after so many years of troubles”.

Time of Peace

It did not end this way. Julius II suddenly dies in 1512. Alfonso can preserve his Duchy. Lucrezia and Francesco are destined to never meet again. Or maybe they have met again, we do not know, anyway we lose trace of any correspondence between them. Destiny wanted that they die in the same year, 1519, a few months one after the other. Francesco in March, due to his syphilis, Lucrezia in June after another pregnancy. She had given Alfonso seven children.

The square of Gonzaga Castle in Mantua
The square of Gonzaga Castle in Mantua | Source

© 2014 Massimo Viola

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    • profile image

      Elisabeth Tomlinson 20 hours ago

      Hello, I have found your article extremely interesting. Because I myself am studying Francesco Gonzaga and the war of the League of Cambrai, including how syphillis affected him, I would be most grateful if you could tell me what documents you base yourself when you say: "In 1508 (...) he would like to [meet with Lucrezia], but he can not, because he is seriously ill".

      With all my thanks,

      Elisabeth Tomlinson

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Congrats on HOTD! This was a great hub about a tragic love story. I remember the Borgias on HBO, a few years ago. Great writing.