Lucrezia Borgia was born on 18 April 1480 in the fortress of Subiaco as the illegitimate daughter of Vannozza dei Cattanei and Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Rodrigo fathered eight or maybe even nine children. He had a total of three children with Vannozza, and Lucrezia had two elder brothers, Cesare and Juan. Vannozza married two times while having an affair with Rodrigo and once more after it all ended. A fourth child – Jofre – was also possibly Rodrigo’s. Lucrezia and her mother were never close.
Due to her illegitimate birth, we know very little about Lucrezia’s early childhood. She probably spent her first years in her mother’s house in Rome, and she probably received her education in the Dominican convent of San Sisto. She spent a lot of time with Adriana de Mila, who was her father’s first cousin, and when her father became Pope, they were moved to the Palazzo Santa Maria in Portico near the Vatican. She was closest to her brother Cesare, and he would later even be accused of incest with her. But even before her father became Pope, Lucrezia was already promised in marriage to Querubi de Centelles, the son of the Count of Oliva. However, Querubi married someone else just two months later, and Lucrezia was duly betrothed to Don Gaspar de Procida, son of the Count of Almenera and Aversa. This betrothal was cancelled the following year.
Her third betrothal to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, was signed on 2 February 1493, and the wedding was performed by proxy. Lucrezia was just 12 years old while Giovanni was 26 – and a widower. They were married in person on 12 June 1493. Due to her age, there was no bedding ceremony, and her father had ordered that the marriage was not to be consummated before November. They moved to the princely palace in Pesaro. But with her father’s strategic planning and need for alliances, Giovanni soon outlived his usefulness. Lucrezia sought refuge with the nuns of the San Sisto convent, probably to escape the tensions in the family. Her father soon sought to dissolve the marriage on the grounds of non-consummation.
As Lucrezia sat in the convent, a tragedy took place. Her elder brother Juan disappeared during the night, and his body was eventually recovered from the river with nine stab wounds. However, her brother’s murder simply delayed plans for a new marriage for Lucrezia. Her new husband was to be Alfonso, the natural son of King Alfonso II of Naples and his mistress Trogia Gazzela. Giovanni Sforza refused to agree to the Pope’s terms as the non-consummation was offensive to his honour, but he finally relented at the end of 1497. Lucrezia did not seem to have minded much.
On 14 February 1498, the body of one Pedro Calderon was discovered in the Tiber. He was almost certainly Lucrezia’s lover, and a month later, a report appeared alleging that Lucrezia had given birth to a child. The timing of the birth of a child led to rumours that the so-called Infans Romanus was Lucrezia’s son, but he was probably her father’s child, and Lucrezia later treated him as her half-brother. If Lucrezia gave birth to a child at all around this time, we don’t know what happened to it.
Lucrezia’s next wedding could now go ahead, and Alfonso was given the Duchy of Bisceglie and the lands of Corato while Lucrezia received a dowry of 40,000 ducats. There was a greater goal to this wedding as her father wanted a stepping stone to a greater marriage still – that of Cesare to Charlotte of Naples, the legitimate daughter of King Frederick of Naples. Lucrezia and Alfonso were married on 21 July 1498, and this time the marriage was undoubtedly consummated. Lucrezia soon found herself pregnant with her first child, but she suffered a miscarriage in February after a fall. She was pregnant again when news arrived that Cesare had not married Charlotte of Naples – who had refused him – but had instead married Charlotte d’Albert, the sister of King John III of Navarre. Lucrezia’s second husband fell victim to the switching alliances as well, and he left for Naples, though he begged Lucrezia to join him. Lucrezia was forced to write to him, asking him to return, and her father sent her out of Rome to act as Governor of Spoleto for her own safety. She was by then six months pregnant. Alfonso returned to his wife but headed straight for Spoleto. They returned to Rome together on 14 October and 1 November 1499, she gave birth to a son named Rodrigo for her father.
On 15 July 1500, Alfonso was attacked by “persons unknown” on the steps of St. Peter’s, and although he survived the attack, he was severely injured. Lucrezia prepared his food for fear of poison and only the doctor sent by the King of Naples was allowed to attend on him. On 18 August, he was suffocated in his bed, and it seemed clear that Cesare had ordered the attack in revenge for a supposed attempt on his own life. Lucrezia did not accept this excuse, and by early September, she had packed up her stuff and left for Nepi to mourn. By then, her father was probably already planning her third marriage. The day after her husband’s funeral, Cesare visited Lucrezia, although it is unclear if she forgave him then, but they would remain close.
Her third husband would be the widowed Alfonso I d’Este, the future Duke of Ferrara, a very good catch indeed. But his father Ercole was appalled, Lucrezia was hardly a good match, and he was well-informed of the fates of her first two husbands. He was eventually persuaded after his first two choices fell through. On 1 September 1501, the wedding by proxy took place. She was eager to leave for Ferrara to consummate the marriage, but there was one problem – she would have to leave her young son behind. She was realistic enough to realise that it was necessary as he was a reminder of her past. She wrote to her father-in-law that she would do everything possible to serve him. After intense negotiations in which Lucrezia participated, she finally left for Ferrara on 6 January 1502.1