The very word – ghost – evokes fear and fascination. It conjures up, literally, a host of images from will o’ the wisps dancing in cemeteries to Anne Boleyn running along a corridor in Hampton Court clasping her head under her arm. A country house near us boasts of a ghostly presence – the daughter of the house who disappeared in the early 1600s but who returns, on and off, to her bedroom anxiously searching for something. Nobody knows what she is looking for.
The Tudors have supplied by far the best historical ‘copy’ for books, cinema and television. A TV series once tried to feature the Borgias. It didn’t catch on. Surprisingly little is known about the larger-than-life Pope Alexander VI, his beautiful, much-married daughter Lucrezia, and her brutally ambitious brother, Cesare. They should have provided ample material for a riveting series in magnificent settings such as the Vatican and ducal cities of Spoleto, which Lucrezia ruled for a while, and Ferrara, where she married Ercole d’Este, produced a large family and did good works.
Historical figures are like ghosts that haunt our collective memory. The sources for the Borgia family are predominantly visual. They came originally from Spain to seek lucrative and influential positions in and around the Vatican culminating in 1455 when a member of their family became Pope Callixtus III. His nephew was crowned Pope Alexander VI at the end of the century.
Places that are out of bounds become more intriguing. For years the earlier Borgia apartments painted by Pinturicchio under the famous Stanze in the Vatican painted later by Raphael, could not be visited. They languished ‘in restoration’ year after year. When at last revealed to the public, visitors were disappointed. High above the bare brown plaster walls, which would have been hung with tapestries, were Pinturicchio’s portraits of the Borgia family acting forever in religious scenes. Lucrezia is painted as St. Catherine of Alexandria and Pope Alexander VI – or Rodrigo Borgia –as pope witnessing Christ’s resurrection.
Stories, more or less lubricious, ebbed and flowed around the beautiful blond Lucrezia and her father. Rodrigo Borgia fathered four children with Vanozza dei Cattanei before he became pope, Cesare and Lucrezia being two of them. He even installed Lucrezia as governor of Spoleto, a hill town north of Rome. Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI in 1492 about the same time Christopher Columbus discovered America and when the three great rulers of early 16th-century Europe – Henry VIII, Francois I and Charles V – were still children. In a papal bull issued the year after he became pope, he confirmed the rights of the Spanish crown in the New World.
For a member of a powerful and violent family, most of Lucrezia’s life was relatively uneventful. After two short-lived marriages, she was sent off to marry Ercole d’Este, the ruler of Ferrara in northern Italy. She became a significant patron of artists and writers and gave birth to children who then married into other ruling families. Who knows, might Queen Elizabeth even have a drop of notorious Borgia blood?
Pope Alexander VI