Lucrezia Borgia continues to be the subject of biographies, a hit TV series (sadly cancelled before its time), and historical novels, including the recent Vatican Princess that probes the depths of depravity that the infamous papal dynasty of the early 16th century sank into, engulfing everyone within its orbit.
As an illegitimate but beloved daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia grew up surrounded by splendor and privilege, but her life was not an easy one. Married off to a succession of noblemen to further her family’s political and territorial ambitions, she was a woman whose will and body were not her own.
Historically, she had been considered as part of the Borgias’ web of deceit, betrayal, and murder, but in recent years Lucrezia’s reputation has seen a reversal. It is now more commonly accepted that she was less a villainess in the mold of her father and brothers, and more a pawn and a victim of their political scheming, greed, and, possibly, incest.
C.W. Gortner’s The Vatican Princess is thoroughly researched and full of fascinating period detail. It focuses on Lucrezia’s growth from a carefree adolescent to a young woman whose principal value lay in her family’s ability to forge alliances, and who was surrounded by opportunists and spies, unable to trust anyone, even her beloved brother Cesare. Yet, despite it all, she is determined to carve her own path within the limits imposed on her by her birth and her times.
Rumors swirled even during Lucrezia’s lifetime about incest being practiced at the court due to the family’s belief in its superiority to others. A child appears in the records at some point who was raised in the papal household and whose paternity was acknowledged by both the pope and his son Cesare. Some historians have suggested that he was Lucrezia’s illegitimate offspring, possibly the result of incest.
Both the Showtime series The Borgias and The Vatican Princess take up the issue of incest, although in different ways. What in the TV show is playful and tantalizing becomes dark and violent in the novel.
Ultimately, given the stealth and secrecy with which the Borgias’ conducted their business, we may never know the full truth about the role Lucrezia really played in the family. Perhaps it is that enduring mystery that makes her such a rich and fascinating character 500 years after her death.
If you like historical fiction featuring strong women, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.