Apr 182014


Today is the birthday (1480) of Lucrezia Borgia, famed sister of Cesare, Giovanni, and Goffredo Borgia, and daughter of Pope Alexander VI with his favored mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei (so much for celibacy). Not much is known directly about Lucrezia, but she has been portrayed in numerous works of art, novels, films, and television shows as the archetypal femme fatale.  But it is quite likely that this image is unwarranted.  It’s more likely that she was a pawn in her family’s game of ruthless politics and sexual intrigue that dominated the Renaissance papacy. Her brothers arranged several marriages for her to powerful men in order to advance their own political ambitions. She was married in succession to Giovanni Sforza (Lord of Pesaro), Alfonso of Aragon (Duke of Bisceglie), and Alfonso I d’Este (Duke of Ferrara). Tradition has it that Alfonso of Aragon was an illegitimate son of the King of Naples and that Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare, had him murdered after his political value waned.

Lucrezia Borgia was born at Subiaco, near Rome. Her father’s natal name was Rodrigo Borgia, and he was a cardinal at the time of her birth.  He too may be unfairly characterized by history given that most of what we know about him was written by his enemies.  It is clear that he was not particularly pastoral, nor obedient to church law; most senior clergy in his day were not.  But there is every indication that he was a skilled politician and diplomat. Lucrezia grew up in her mother’s household and was doted on by her father.  Her childhood was cut short, however, by a series of betrothals from age 11.


On 26 February 1491, a matrimonial arrangement was drawn up between Lucrezia and the Lord of Val D’Ayora in the kingdom of Valencia, Don Cherubino Joan de Centelles, which was annulled less than two months later in favor of a new contract engaging Lucrezia to Don Gaspare Aversa, count of Procida. When Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI (11 August 1492) he sought to be allied with powerful princely families and founding dynasties of Italy. Thus he called off Lucrezia’s previous engagements and arranged for her to marry Giovanni Sforza, a member of the House of Sforza who was Lord of Pesaro and titled Count of Catignola. Giovanni was an illegitimate son of Costanzo I Sforza and a Sforza of the second rank. He and Lucrezia were married on 12 June 1493 in Rome.

Before long, the Borgia family no longer needed the Sforzas, and the presence of Giovanni Sforza in the papal court was superfluous. Lucrezia’s father (now Alexander) needed new, more advantageous political alliances, so he may have covertly ordered the execution of Giovanni. The generally accepted version is that Lucrezia was informed of the execution order by her brother Cesare, and she warned her husband, who fled Rome.  Alexander asked Giovanni’s uncle, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, to persuade Giovanni to agree to a divorce. Giovanni refused and accused Lucrezia of paternal and fraternal incest. Alexander asserted that his daughter’s marriage had not been consummated and was thus invalid. Giovanni was offered her dowry in return for his cooperation. The Sforza family threatened to withdraw their protection should he refuse. Giovanni finally signed confessions of impotence and documents of annulment before witnesses.

There has been speculation that during the prolonged process of the annulment, Lucrezia consummated a relationship with someone, perhaps Alexander’s chamberlain Pedro Calderon, also named Perotto. Families hostile to the Borgias would later accuse her of being pregnant at the time her marriage was annulled for non-consummation. She is known to have retired to the convent of San Sisto in June 1497 to await the outcome of the divorce which was finalized in December of that year. The bodies of Pedro Calderon, and a maid, Pantasilea, were found in the Tiber in February 1498. In March 1498 the Ferrarese ambassador claimed that Lucrezia had given birth, but this was denied by other sources. A child was born, however, in the Borgia household the year before Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso of Aragon. He was named Giovanni but is known to historians as the Infans Romanus.

Govanni Borgia

Govanni Borgia

In 1501, Alexander issued two papal bulls concerning the child, Giovanni Borgia. In the first, he was recognized as Cesare’s child from an affair before his marriage. The second, contradictory, bull recognized him as Alexander’s son. Lucrezia’s name is not mentioned in either, and rumors that she was his mother have never been proven. The second bull was kept secret for many years, and Giovanni was assumed to be Cesare’s son. This is supported by the fact that in 1502 he became Duke of Camerino, one of Cesare’s recent conquests, hence the natural inheritance of the Duke of Romagna’s oldest son. Giovanni went to stay with Lucrezia in Ferrara after Alexander’s death, where he was accepted as her half-brother.

Following her divorce from Sforza, Lucrezia was married to the Neapolitan, Alfonso of Aragon, the half-brother of Sancha of Aragon who was the wife of Lucrezia’s brother Goffredo. The marriage was a short one. They were married in 1498 and subsequently Lucrezia—not her husband—was appointed governor of Spoleto in 1499. Alfonso fled Rome shortly afterwards but returned at Lucrezia’s request, only to be murdered in 1500. It was widely rumored that Lucrezia’s brother Cesare was responsible for Alfonso’s death, as he had recently allied himself (through marriage) with France against Naples. Lucrezia and Alfonso had one child, Rodrigo of Aragon, who predeceased his mother in August 1512 at the age of 12.

After the death of her second husband, Lucrezia’s father arranged a third marriage to Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in early 1502 in Ferrara. She bore her third husband a number of children and gained a reputation as a respectable and accomplished Renaissance duchess, effectively rising above her previous notoriety (whether justified or not), and surviving the fall of the Borgias following her father’s death.



Neither partner was faithful. Beginning in 1503, Lucrezia had a long relationship with Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua; as well as an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo. Francesco’s wife was the Isabella d’Este, Alfonso’s sister, famed for her patronage of the arts and diplomatic skills.  Needless to say, Lucrezia and Isabella did not hit it off, despite Lucrezia’s many overtures of friendship. The affair between Francesco and Lucrezia was passionate as can be attested in the fevered love letters the pair wrote to one another. The affair ended when Francesco contracted syphilis.

Lucrezia died in Ferrara on 24 June 1519 (aged 39) from complications after giving birth to her eighth child, having had a lifelong history of complicated pregnancies and miscarriages. She was buried in the convent of Corpus Domini.

Only one portrait of Lucrezia is confirmed as genuine – the title image I have used here which is Lucrezia as St. Catherine of Alexandria in a fresco by Pinturicchio in the Sala dei Santi, the Borgia apartments in the Vatican (c. 1494).  There are two others that are presumed to be of her but this conjecture is not fully verified.

borgia2  borgia3

She is described by a contemporary as having heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which changed color, and a natural grace which made her appear to walk on air.

For Lucrezia I have chosen a recipe from Libro de arte coquinaria (c. 1465) by Martino de Rossi, usually known as Maestro Martino, and universally acknowledged as one of the great chefs of all time.  In fact he is sometimes referred to nowadays as the first celebrity chef.  Unfortunately the details of his life are sketchy.  He was born in 1430 and it is known that at the end of his career he was the head chef at the Vatican.  So it is possible he was chef to Pope Alexander.  This dish, Ambrosino, is typically noble in its quantities – ½ a capon per person (plus many other dishes served with it).  I notice in scanning his recipes that the maestro has a fondness for almonds; there’s barely a main dish in his collection that does not feature them in some fashion: whole, slivered, ground, and pulped.  He also uses the normal range of dried fruits and spices as flavorings.

This recipe is typically vague and needs a little help to make it viable.  For example, it is not clear if you add any fluid to the capons after you have given them an initial sauté and add the fruit and spices.  Probably not, but you would want to make the second sauté rather brief before adding the almond milk.  A modern interpretation (and the image here) can be found on this site: http://recipes.sparkpeople.com/recipe-detail.asp?recipe=1509089  I have not made this dish myself but I would be inclined to follow the original recipe more closely – using whole spices (rather than powdered), and jointing a whole capon rather than using chicken breasts. I’ll have a go at some point, but today is Good Friday and I don’t eat meat on this day.


IV. Ambrosino good and perfect and such.

If you want to make ambrosino for twelve people take 6 lean capons, 2 pounds of almonds, a pound of currants, 1 pound of dates and a pound of prunes.  Also take one and a half* ginger, half a whole nutmeg, cloves, saffron and half a pound of sweet spices.  Take the capons and cut into seven portions each and fry in clean lard in a pan.  When the capons are well fried add the saffron rubbed, the nutmeg that has been chopped finely, the cinnamon broken into pieces, whole cloves, whole peeled almonds, dates, currants [and prunes].  Add a large amount of sweet spices and let it cook a little longer.  When it is cooked reduce the heat or remove from the flame.  Take unskinned almonds, grind, and distemper with a little vinegar, strain the almonds and add the almond milk to the dish, and add to the sauce spices and enough saffron.  This dish should be sharp and sweet and red in color.  Serve in a bowl with powdered spices over it.

* Presumably means ounces.