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Lucrezia Borgia: in Search of Her Lost Face

Updated on September 30, 2014
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Presumed portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, copy after Bartolomeo Veneto, Nimes
Presumed portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, copy after Bartolomeo Veneto, Nimes | Source

The Missing Portrait

Lucrezia Borgia (1480 – 1519), the duchess of Ferrara, daughter of the pope Alexander VI, famous initiator of the successes and scandals of the Borgia family, has always exerted a special fascination, maybe also due to her behaviour, supposed to be unscrupulous and immoral. In the XIX century artists such as Victor Hugo and Donizetti have represented her as a sort of dark lady of the Renaissance, a poisoner involved in the plots of her family. In XX century, scholars have revised the historical figure of Lucrezia Borgia, demonstrating that most of the accusations to her were false. The English actress Holliday Grainger has given her a face in a TV series in 2011, however, her true image is not completely known yet. Unlike the other great ladies of her days, as for example her sister in law Isabella D’Este, there are no portraits referable to her figure with certainty, although it seems to be reasonable that some portraits must still exist. So, finding the true portrait of the most fascinating member of the Borgia family has become a sport passionately attended by art historians.

Of mediocre stature, frail in appearance, somewhat long face, a profiled nose, golden hair, white eyes, the mouth rather large, bright teeth; pure and white throat adorned with a decent value, all cheerful and smiling

— Niccolò Cagnolo da Parma, contemporary to Lucrezia Borgia
Bronze medal with the bust of Lucrezia Borgia, probably coined when Alfonso d'Este acquired the title of Duke, at the death of the father Ercole (1505).
Bronze medal with the bust of Lucrezia Borgia, probably coined when Alfonso d'Este acquired the title of Duke, at the death of the father Ercole (1505). | Source

Two Medallions and a Silver Plaque

Indeed, we have a few images that undoubtedly represent Lucrezia. However, they are not portraits and are not so clear to give a definitive light on her exact appearance. They are a medallion, coined in the occasion of her marriage with Alfonso d’Este in 1502, and another one, probably dating 1505, when she acquired the title of Duchess of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. We also have a silver plaque engraved in the occasion of the battle of Ravenna in 1512. In this battle, the French army, supported by the troops of the Ferrara Duchy, had defeated the army of the Lega Santa, an alliance between Venice, the King of Naples and the pope Julius II, historical enemy of Alexander VI, who had died in 1503. Lucrezia Borgia is portrayed at the age of 32 while presenting her son Ercole, heir of the Duchy, to saint Maurilio, patron of the city of Ferrara. The image that comes out from these figures is partial, as everyone can see, but substantially coherent with the description by a chronicler of the time (Niccolò Cagnolo): mediocre stature, long face, prominent nose. The chronicler also informs us that she was frail, featuring golden hair, clear eyes, a large mouth and very white teeth. Cheerful and smiling with all of herself. These are the characteristics that everyone in search of her true face must keep in mind.

Lucrezia Borgia presenting her son Ercole to St. Maurelio - Silver plaque engraved by Giannantonio da Foligno (1508)
Lucrezia Borgia presenting her son Ercole to St. Maurelio - Silver plaque engraved by Giannantonio da Foligno (1508) | Source
Pinturicchio, St. Catherine's Disputation (detail), Vatican Palaces Borgia Apartment
Pinturicchio, St. Catherine's Disputation (detail), Vatican Palaces Borgia Apartment | Source

Three Weddings and Some Murders

At the age of 20, in Rome, Lucrezia certainly had all but the reputation for a girl to marry. Her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, to whom her natural father, the pope Alexander VI Borgia, had allocated her in marriage when she was 11, had been forced to sign a declaration of impotence, so that the marriage could be revoked. In return, Giovanni had accused the wife of incest with her father and her brother Caesar. The second husband, Alfonso d’Aragona, had gone worse: murdered probably by Caesar Borgia, because of a change in the convenience of his alliances. Between the two husbands, Lucrezia is thought to have been in love with this Perotto, the young attendant of Alexander VI, mysteriously killed a little before the birth of a mysterious child, maybe the son of Lucrezia and Perotto or maybe not, known as the infans Romanus. Lucrezia’s third marriage, with the reluctant duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este, was by far quieter. Here only two love stories are imputed to Lucrezia: with the fascinating Venetian poet Pietro Bembo and then with her brother in law, the marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga. Only note: the intermediary of this last love, the poet Ercole Strozzi, was killed too, once again in mysterious circumstances. Lucrezia spent the last years of her life in devotion and founded the convent of San Bernardino. She had seven certain children (one with Alfonso d’Aragona and six with Alfonso d’Este).

All the Painters of Lucrezia

The true or supposed portraits of Lucrezia Borgia are especially concentrated around the names of three painters: Bartolomeo Veneto, Pinturicchio and Dosso Dossi, although they are not the only names that have been associated to Lucrezia. All of these had something to do with the Este or the Borgia in the first decades of XVI century. The first one, Bartolomeo Veneto, holds the record of at least four presumed portraits. The most certain among these - irony of destiny – has been lost. Bartolomeo Veneto is a little known name among the Italian painters active in the Renaissance, but he was probably the nearest to Lucrezia, since she wanted him to work for the decoration of her rooms at the Court of Ferrara, between 1506 and 1508. So, it is highly probable that he may have portrayed her more than once. Pinturicchio, the other great exponent of the Umbria school, with Perugino and Raphael, was called to decorate the private apartment of the pope Alexander VI (i.e. Rodrigo Borgia, natural father to Lucrezia) between 1492 and 1494. Lucrezia was a child at that time. However, she had already married to Giovanni Sforza, count of Pesaro and nephew of Alessandro Sforza. It is not certain, but quite consolidated, that Pinturicchio portrayed her, on the walls of the Borgia’s apartment, in the likeness of a gracious, thin St. Catherine. Dosso Dossi, the favourite painter of the Duke Alfonso d’Este, was court painter in Ferrara from 1515 until his death in 1542. So, he assisted to Lucrezia’s last years of life. As we will see later, he plays an important role in the game of giving a face to Lucrezia.

The Portraits by Bartolomeo Veneto

The most credited portraits of Lucrezia are two graceless copies (nowadays hanging in Nimes and in Como) by unknown authors after, it is supposed, a lost original of Bartolomeo Veneto. They show a lady featuring an elaborate hairstyle and wearing a rich dress, according to the fashion of the time (a. 1505, when Lucrezia was in her 25s). Is this the true face of the Duchess of Ferrara? The poor quality of the two paintings probably does not render the original with accuracy, but if we add to these another portrait discovered by Maria Bellonci in 1930s at the London National Gallery, we can form a quite coherent picture. This other portrait is a painting that Bellonci found in the depository of the museum, considered an original by Bartolomeo Veneziano. Bellonci argues that it may be a portrait of Lucrezia, considering the similarity with the two copies of Nimes and Como and the accordance to the description of the contemporaries: clear eyes, blonde hair with golden reflexes, profiled nose. A young age a little burdened by worries and hardships of the life. In conclusion, we do not have a definitive proof, but a set of clues all going in the same direction, composing a credible picture.

Bartolomeo Veneto, Presumed Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (1506 - 1508), London National Gallery
Bartolomeo Veneto, Presumed Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (1506 - 1508), London National Gallery | Source
Bartolomeo Veneto, Flora (a. 1506), Frankfurt Stadel
Bartolomeo Veneto, Flora (a. 1506), Frankfurt Stadel | Source
Bartolomeo Veneto, Saint Beatrice II d'Este depicted as Lucrezia Borgia (?) (a. 1506), Snite Museum of Arts, Indiana
Bartolomeo Veneto, Saint Beatrice II d'Este depicted as Lucrezia Borgia (?) (a. 1506), Snite Museum of Arts, Indiana | Source

Saint Beatrice and the Pagan Flora

Someone may be tempted to add another piece to the picture that we have designed until now. In 2002 the city of Ferrara has celebrated her former Duchess who had arrived in the city 500 years before. A painting by Bartolomeo Veneto had come in Ferrara from the Snite Museum of Art (Indiana). The painting is known as a portrait of the Saint Beatrice II d’Este (1230 – 1262), an ancestor of the Este who had founded the Monastery of Sant’Antonio in Polesine. However, considering the evident difference between the known features of the Saint and the woman in the painting and also the shape of the dress, some scholars argue that Bartolomeo Veneto has given Beatrice II d’Este the face of Lucrezia. But the Venetian painter (or maybe the interpreters of his paintings) is ready to surprise us even more. He has thought to have given the features of Lucrezia to a half-naked graceful girl representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and the spring. The profiled nose and the golden hair may correspond to our model (also, the painting gives us an insight on the “decent value” mentioned by Niccolò Cagnolo…). If this and the Saint Beatrice portraits are true, we can conclude that Lucrezia must have made fun of posterity in changing and hiding her identity.

Giovanni Bellini, The Feast of the Gods (1514), Washington National Gallery
Giovanni Bellini, The Feast of the Gods (1514), Washington National Gallery | Source
Giovanni Bellini, Feast of the Gods, detail with Gea (Lucrezia Borgia ?) and Neptune
Giovanni Bellini, Feast of the Gods, detail with Gea (Lucrezia Borgia ?) and Neptune | Source
Titian, The Schiavona (1510), London National Gallery
Titian, The Schiavona (1510), London National Gallery | Source

The Intrusions of Titian and Bellini

Take two great exponents of the Venetian school, both authors of works for the Duke of Ferrara. Could they be away from the game of portraying Lucrezia in disguise? We are talking of Titian and Bellini, of course. The two Venetian painters are represented in the Camerino of the Duke by some relevant works: three by Titian and one by Bellini, the Feast of the Gods (1514) that depicts a group of gods carousing with other goddesses and nymphs. Recently, the painting has been read as a critical allegory of the loose conduct of the pope Alexander VI. The pope would be represented by the donkey. The goddess Gea, sitting on knees at the centre of the group and bothered by Neptune, is nothing but Lucrezia Borgia. She keeps an arm on the shoulder of Neptune, however her expression is not so compliant. The quince she is eating means conjugal union in the Christian symbology. In this way, the dark skin and the hair of Neptune might allude to the marriage of Lucrezia with Giovanni Sforza, an exponent of the family headed by Ludovico il Moro (Moro = Moor). More dated and poorly credited by the scholars is the identification of Lucrezia with a young busty woman depicted in an early painting by Titian, known as the Schiavona. In fact, the woman portrayed has never been identified with certainty. The dress induced to think to a Dalmatian woman, but it may also be compatible with the clothing of the aristocratic ladies of that time in the Venetian territories.

Dosso Dossi, Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (?) (a. 1515), Victoria National Gallery Melbourne
Dosso Dossi, Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (?) (a. 1515), Victoria National Gallery Melbourne | Source

Lesson of Borgias

Lucrezia as Lucretia

The last identification of Lucrezia in order of time is also the most clamorous. It concerns a painting that was hanging with little glory at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne. It had been considered for tens of years the portrait of a young man and attributed to an unknown painter of North Italy. But a restorer of the museum, Carl Villis, has tried to demonstrate that this was definitively false. After a careful analysis he has concluded first that the painting is not anonymous but it is the work of a well known artist and second that it might be the only formal portrait of Lucrezia Borgia. According to Villis and the other experts of the museum, the author of the portrait is Dosso Dossi who, as we have seen, was active at the court of Ferrara since 1515. The most evident proof of this would be the oval form of the painting, scarcely used in Italy in the first half of XVI century, with the only exception of Dosso and his brother Battista. Also, some details of the painting lead to think that the subject must be a woman: the bush of myrtle in the background is the plant sacred to Venus, symbol of the feminine beauty, the Latin inscription on the bottom refers to Virtue and Beauty, qualities that are pertinent to a woman, or, to better say, to a very important woman. Now, who was the most important woman in 1515-1520 at the court of Ferrara? The answer is obvious. But there is another more significant detail that brings to Lucrezia. The handle of the dagger she holds in the hands leads to another Lucrezia, the Roman Lucretia, symbol of heroism and chastity, who stabbed herself after have been raped by the son of the last king of Rome. So, the experts of the Victoria gallery conclude, we are probably before the unique formal portrait of Lucrezia, that here appears in a chaste and high necked dress appropriate to the devotion shown in the last period of her life. Unique portrait? Maybe they neglect Lucrezia’s attitude to masquerade and appear where no one expects her.

A radiant smile, two blond braids, a scarf edged with pearls, a potion of poison

— A sentence about Lucrezia Borgia attributed to a chronicler of the time

Devoted Sister and Admirer

The signature of Lucrezia Borgia, from a letter to her sister in law Isabella d'Este
The signature of Lucrezia Borgia, from a letter to her sister in law Isabella d'Este | Source

The Classic by Maria Bellonci that Has Put Lucrezia Borgia in a New Light

© 2014 Massimo Viola

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