Book Corner: Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia by Samantha Morris

Myths and rumour have shrouded the Borgia family for centuries – tales of incest, intrigue and murder have been told of them since they themselves walked the hallways of the Apostolic Palace. In particular, vicious rumour and slanderous tales have stuck to the names of two members of the infamous Borgia family – Cesare and Lucrezia, brother and sister of history’s most notorious family. But how much of it is true, and how much of it is simply rumour aimed to blacken the name of the Borgia family? In the first ever biography solely on the Borgia siblings, Samantha Morris tells the true story of these two fascinating individuals from their early lives, through their years living amongst the halls of the Vatican in Rome until their ultimate untimely deaths. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia begins in the bustling metropolis of Rome with the siblings ultimately being used in the dynastic plans of their father, a man who would become Pope, and takes the reader through the separate, yet fascinatingly intertwined, lives of the notorious siblings. One tale, that of Cesare, ends on the battlefield of Navarre, whilst the other ends in the ducal court of Ferrara. Both Cesare and Lucrezia led lives full of intrigue and danger, lives which would attract the worst sort of rumour begun by their enemies. Drawing on both primary and secondary sources Morris brings the true story of the Borgia siblings, so often made out to be evil incarnate in other forms of media, to audiences both new to the history of the Italian Renaissance and old.

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris is a fascinating look at two of the most famous villains in history; a brother and sister renowned for murder, intrigue and incest. Or are they? Samantha Morris’s beautifully written dual biography of these siblings aims to peal away the centuries of rumour and accusations and find the real people beneath the legend.

Samantha Morris combines a lively, engaging narrative with keen historical analysis, uncovering the facts embedded in the legends, rumours and scandals. She demonstrates a deep understanding not only of her subjects and their motivations but of the political theatre of Italy, the papacy and Europe in general at that time.

In Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family, Samantha Morris expertly separates rumour from fact to provide a balanced appraisal of these famous siblings; their strengths and weakness. Using creditable sources, papal records and even family letters, she clearly establishes the facts behind the lies of the incest accusation, whilst demonstrating how such accusations came about and the various efforts to sully the name of the Borgia family.

The careers of the Borgia children were decided and laid out before them before they could even waalk. Juan was chosen as the son who would be the military leader, the great Duke who would go on to continue the Borgia line; Cesare was destined for a life in the Church; Lucrezia would be forced into diplomatic marriages and Gioffre would do the same. The children were their father’s pawns, important chess pieces but Cesare in particular did not like the career path that was chosen for him.

When Cesare was just six years old, the Pope granted a dispensation that allowed him to hold Church benefices despite his illegitimacy and the following year, 1482, King Ferdinand of Aragon exempted him from a law that would stop him from holding lordships in Spain due to his illegitimacy. Being bastard born would not get in the way of raising Cesare Borgia to the heights that his father so wanted for him.

By the age of just fifteen, Cesare had already been given a vast number of Church benefices including the Bishopric of Pamplona, the ancient capital of Navarre. This caused particular outrage as the young man had not yet taken his holy orders and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia did his best to calm down the populace, telling them that Cesare’s elevation was simply down to his merits and hard work. Cesare, on a break from the University of Perugia and busy on a hunting trip, found himself having to write a letter to the people of Navarre to try and soothe their anger. But it didn’t work and the Pope had to intervene to halt the rebellion.

From tracing their origins in Spain, to the spectacular heights to which the family rose, to the politics that brought about the demise of Cesare and meant the family were embroiled in constant struggles for land and power, Samantha Morris charts the successes and failures – and underhand dealings of the infamous family. The siblings’ father and family patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI is depicted as a scheming but capable man and pope who loved his children dearly. He sought to establish his illegitimate children in lives and careers appropriate to their rank as the children of a reigning pope.

Lucrezia Borgia comes across as an intelligent, passionate woman, far removed from , the poisoner of legend conducting a love affair with her own brother. She proved herself capable of ruling and was loving and loyal to her family. She pursued an active political career despite her almost constant pregnancies, and suffered incalculable griefs and family loss. Lucrezia, however, is not depicted as a pure, innocent virgin, but a well educated, politically astute woman who may also have conducted certain indiscretions, or at least platonic love affairs, during her lifetime. She is a woman who made the best of the life that was mapped out for her.

Cesare, on the other hand, is a ruthless man not cut out for the career in the church to which he appeared destined. The untimely murder of his older brother meant he went from cardinal to soldier, a job to which he was much better suited and a thousand times more capable and dedicated. Cesare is a complex character; accused of numerous murders, including those of his own brother and Lucrezia’s second husband, he is remembered to history as a ruthless, scheming murderer and seducer of his own sister. While he may have been ruthless and scheming – and a murderer to some extent, Samantha Morris goes on to prove that not all the murders laid at Cesare’s door were his responsibility.

As an aside, the reader cannot fail to notice the prevalence of syphillis in Italy at the time. A countless number of the protagonists in the story suffered from this disfiguring disease, Cesare Borgia among them. The French, attempting to conquer Italy at the time, called it ‘the Italian disease’, though in England it was known as ‘the French disease’ – those same invading French soldiers took the dreadful disease with them when they returned home.

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family is an engaging narrative of the history of not only these most famous Italian siblings, but also Italy, the papacy and wider European politics at the time when the world was moving from the Medieval era into the Early Modern, when the Renaissance was in full swing and the Reformation was just around the corner. Samantha Morris demonstrates the power of the papacy, of Pope Alexander VI in particular, and how papal factions caused the rise – and fall – of the Borgia family.

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family is an entertaining and enthralling read – one not to be missed!

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris is available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon.

About the author:

Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester and it was there, whilst working on a dissertation about the battlefield archaeology of the English Civil War that her interest in the Italian Renaissance began. Her main area of interest is the history of the Borgia family and the papacy of Pope Alexander VI, however she also has a keen interest in the history of other Renaissance families. Samantha has previously written on the Borgia family and runs a successful blog based mainly on the history of the Italian Renaissance, but with snippets of other eras thrown in too.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly