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Lucrezia and Isabella: Similar Lives, Different Fates

Updated on September 11, 2014

Renaissance womanhood....


Similar beginnings

Who or what decides our fate in life: is it our innate qualities, our environment, our parents or a complex mixture of all of these qualities, and more? Nearly five and a half centuries ago, two females were born into wealthy families within six years of one another, during the Italian Renaissance. Both grew into intelligent and beautiful young women, rich in accomplishments and admirers. It was no surprise when the pair became related by marriage, sisters-in-law, in fact. Yet, they were never friends and their fates followed very different paths, one woman living a life of honour into her golden years, while the younger woman died at the age of 39, her name lost in ignominy because of her family’s political ambition.

Lucrezia and Vatican politics

Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, to Rodrigo Borgia and Vannozza dei Cattanei. On the surface, her upbringing was no different from the unremarkable if comfortable life of a well-to-do Renaissance girl. Well educated in the custom of the time, she could speak and write in a number of languages, including Latin and Greek. All the world, it seemed, acknowledged her beauty. The Chevalier Bayard of the French garrison called her “a pearl among women”. By the age of 12, Lucrezia had been twice engaged – not unusual for females of the time.

In 1493, all prior engagements were broken so that Lucrezia could marry Giovanni Sforza, the young Count of Catignola, and the wedding took place in June of that year. At the time of Lucrezia’s birth, Rodrigo Borgia had been a cardinal and in 1492, he became Pope Alexander VI. As ruler of the Vatican state, he needed alliances with the most powerful families in Italy. As time went on, Rodrigo realised that his daughter’s marriage did not have the influence he had hoped for and decided, one way or another, to be rid of the young Count. Lucrezia allegedly saved her husband's life by urging him to flee from home. Rodrigo eventually settled for an annulment of the marriage, with documents signed by Giovanni himself.

A family connection

Lucrezia’s second marriage took place soon after, to Alfonso of Aragon. He died in 1500, shortly after Lucrezia summoned him to Rome from Spoleto, where he was governor. This act put in place one of the many shadows that were to fall upon her character. In the same year, she had Alfonso's child and named him Rodrigo. In 1502, Lucrezia married Alfonso 1 d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Now was her opportunity to become a respectable Renaissance matron and she did indeed give her husband a number of children.

Marriage to Alfonso brought Lucrezia into the social circle of her husband’s sister, Isabella, and her spouse, Francesco Gonzaga, heir to the Dukes of Mantua. Isabella d’Este was born in 1474, the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara and his wife Eleanor, who was the daughter of Ferdinand 1, the Aragonese king of Naples. Like Lucrezia, Isabella was beautiful and gifted and like her, learned Latin, Greek and other disciplines, like music. Unlike Lucrezia, she was born into a ruling family, with her destiny decided almost from birth. The precociously intellectual girl began to learn statecraft when she was only six years old, conversing about affairs of state with ambassadors at her father’s court.

Spurned friendship

At the same age, she became engaged to Francesco Gonzaga and the couple married in 1490, with Isabella bringing her husband a handsome dowry. When Francesco went to Venice in his capacity as Captain General of the Venetian army, Isabella struck up a friendship with his sister, Elisabetta. This deepened so much that the pair became life-long correspondents. However, when Lucrezia became the bride of Alfonso d’Este in 1501, a shadow fell across her life.

Allegedly, Isabella spurned all overtures of friendship of Lucrezia. Was the young noblewoman jealous of this scion of the nouveau riche Borgia family, afraid that Lucrezia’s beauty would outshine her own? It is quite possible that Lucrezia, alienated by her sister-in-law’s behaviour, embarked on an affair with Francesco Gonzaga out of revenge at the pain of being excluded from the social circle of Isabella and Elisabetta. It is also possible that Lucrezia, accustomed to the intrigue of the politically-ambitious papal court, needed the dash of spice that an affair brought to what may have been a rather dull married life. It could be that Francesco, notorious for his behaviour towards women, sensed the climate between his wife and her sister-in-law, and used the situation to his advantage. We can only speculate on this matter.

Endings; glorious and ignominous

Like Lucrezia, Isabella gave her husband a number of children. It is here that further parallels between the women come to an end. The worn-out Lucrezia died at the age of 39. Isabella went on to have a distinguished state career, taking control of Mantua in 1512 when her husband was absent. This displeased Francesco so much that their marriage broke down. Isabella left Mantua until 1519, and returned on Francesco’s death to act as regent until her son, Federico, came of age. In later life, she became a collector of paintings, a patron of arts and architecture. She loved fine and lovely clothing, and became something of a sixteenth-century fashion icon, her continental flamboyance in contrast to the stiff and sombre “Tudor” costumes of the English court ladies.

In later years, Isabella founded a school and museum in Mantua, and ruled the province of Solarolo until she died, aged sixty-five. Overall, it was a glorious career, in marked contrast to the ignominious end of her sister-in-law.


Lucrezia Borgia

Isabella d'Este


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