Femme fatale? Incestuous, crazed temptress? Poisoner?
Would you believe... the most successful capitalist entrepreneur of her time?
actually, is Lucrezia Borgia?
Take the most hideous, the most repulsive, the most
complete moral deformity; place it where it fits best --- in the heart of a woman
whose physical beauty and royal grandeur will make the crime stand out all the
more strikingly; then add to all that moral deformity the purest feeling a woman
can have, that of a mother ...
Inside our monster put a mother and the monster
will interest us and make us weep. And this creature that filled us with fear
will inspire pity; that deformed soul will be almost beautiful in our eyes ..."
--- Victor Hugo (from his preface to his play Lucrezia Borgia)
In popular legend, Lucrezia
Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara (1480 - 1519) stands falsely accused of having
a child by either her father or her brother and of poisoning her second husband.
fatale? Incestuous, crazed temptress? Poisoner? Would you believe... the most
successful capitalist entrepreneur of her time?
scholars of the period have dismissed Lucrezia's biography as mediocre. Her main
claim to a place in history has been as the noble daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo
Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI, and the sister of Cesare Borgia.
new research by USC historian Diane Yvonne Ghirardo reveals that the only sister
infamous Prince was less interested in political intrigue than in running a business.
Other historians have suggested that her administrative skills were sharp enough
for her father to leave her in charge of his duties... both as the ruler of Rome
and as the Pope, the head of the church, while he was on journeys to cement political
and business alliances.
is a classic case of seeing only what youre looking for and not getting
the whole picture, Ghirardo says of the centuries-old mystery surrounding
how Lucrezia accumulated her vast personal wealth.
Through the lens of Showtime's "The Borgias" Lucrezia Borgia is a victim of lust,
power and intrigue. But new historical records unveil a shrewd
woman with a mind - and vast property - of her own.
from the period show that she spent her time undertaking massive land development
projects that stand alone in the panorama of early sixteenth-century projects,
not only those initiated by women, Ghirardo says.
by an economic downturn to cut expenses and become an entrepreneur, the illegitimate
daughter of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI would control between 30,000 and 50,000
acres in northern Italy within six years.
information was there in the archives, but because she was a woman, scholars only
looked at transactions for clothes, for jewelry, or for works of art. Nobody looked
at the other entries in the account registers, says Ghirardo of the research
project that took her more than seven years.
Ghirardo explains how Lucrezia turned seemingly worthless swampland
into reclaimed land. The land was used to cultivate grains, barley, beans and
olive trees; to grow flax for spinning into linen; to pasture livestock for milk,
meat, wool and hides; and for vineyards. Thats
really a capitalist attitude: to leverage capital by getting the basic good
in this case, land at the cheapest cost, Ghirardo says.
example, Ghirardo details Lucrezias first business venture with her husbands
cousin Don Ercole dEste. The Don gave Lucrezia title to half his land in
Diamantina, a large marshy district west of Ferrara. In exchange, Lucrezia agreed
to fund improvements to the land, including drainage, building embankments and
explains, Lucrezia grasped the untapped potential of thousands of acres
of marginal, waterlogged land, but she was too shrewd to employ her own resources
to purchase it unless absolutely necessary.
documents also indicate Lucrezias knowledge of contract terms, border disputes
and even the skill of various hydraulic engineers. Other records show her pawning
an extremely valuable ruby-and-pearl personal ornament in order to buy additional
water buffalo to supplement the production of mozzarella. In contrast to
the standard practices of the time, Lucrezia held titles to the land she acquired
in her own name, not in her husbands. She also kept the profits from her
entrepreneurial activities for her own use.
Was Lucrezia Borgia just a victim of character assassination by men who she often outwitted - and outspent?
to authenticate mystery portraits believed to be that of "Lucrezia The Infamous."
not just what Lucrezia did and how she did it, but the immensity of her enterprises,
that stands out, Ghirardo says. Nobody else was doing this on such
a large scale, not even men. Nobody was prepared to put in that kind of money.
have purchased property that was already arable, but instead she got land that
wasnt useful and transformed it, Ghirardo says.
account registers that the Duke of Ferrara would not have seen, Ghirardo found
indication of significant cash gifts to Lucrezias confessors, preachers
and other religious figures, as well as unexplained cash dispersals, possibly
for the love child who was the basis of the rumors of incest!
challenges of figuring out a person's biography from account registers is that
there are many questions left unanswered. Its a little like trying
to reconstruct a life from a credit card statement. Theres a lot you can
tell, but a lot that remains obscure, Ghirardo says.
Borgia widely described by her contemporaries as beautiful and blond, with
a sunny disposition died at 39 following complications of childbirth. Three
decades would pass before another comparable land reclamation project emerged
in northern Italy.
so many ways, as Ghirardo says, Lucrezia defied the conventions of her class
and her gender.
Ghirardo is professor of architecture and art history at the University of Southern
California and the author of Architecture After Modernism (Thames & Hudson)
and Building New Communities: New Deal American and Fascist Italy (Princeton University
Press). This article
is based on a University of Southern California press release provided by Newswise.