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Who Was the Real Lucrezia Borgia?

Femme fatale? Incestuous, crazed temptress? Poisoner?
Would you believe... the most successful capitalist entrepreneur of her time?


lucrezia borgia"Who, 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.

Victor Hugo portrayed her as a tragic femme fatale. A Donizetti opera made her life into a dramatic thriller. Buffalo Bill, of all people, named his gun after her.

Femme fatale? Incestuous, crazed temptress? Poisoner? Would you believe... the most successful capitalist entrepreneur of her time?

Serious 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.

But new research by USC historian Diane Yvonne Ghirardo reveals that the only sister of Machiavelli’s 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.

“This is a classic case of seeing only what you’re 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 business
woman with a mind - and vast property - of her

Records 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.

Forced 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.

“The 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. “That’s really a capitalist attitude: to leverage capital by getting the basic good — in this case, land — at the cheapest cost,” Ghirardo says.

For example, Ghirardo details Lucrezia’s first business venture with her husband’s cousin Don Ercole d’Este. 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 digging canals.

Ghirardo 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.”

Surviving documents also indicate Lucrezia’s 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 husband’s. She also kept the profits from her entrepreneurial activities for her own use.

portraits of Lucrezia Borgia
Was Lucrezia Borgia just a victim of character assassination by men who she often outwitted - and outspent?
Above, art historians still struggle to authenticate mystery portraits believed to be that of "Lucrezia The Infamous."

“It’s 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.”

“She could have purchased property that was already arable, but instead she got land that wasn’t useful and transformed it,” Ghirardo says.

In account registers that the Duke of Ferrara would not have seen, Ghirardo found indication of significant cash gifts to Lucrezia’s 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!

The challenges of figuring out a person's biography from account registers is that there are many questions left unanswered. “It’s a little like trying to reconstruct a life from a credit card statement. There’s a lot you can tell, but a lot that remains obscure,” Ghirardo says.

Lucrezia 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.

In so many ways, as Ghirardo says, “Lucrezia defied the conventions of her class and her gender.”

Diane Yvonne Ghirardo, “Lucrezia Borgia as Entrepreneur.” Renaissance Quarterly 61 (2008): 53-91.

Diane Yvonne 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.

More about the Borgias around the Web:

Lucrezia Borgia - WIkipedia

Lucrezia The Infamous



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