To Love a Borgia

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Christmas in Ferrara

Christmas in Ferrara, a time that should have been joyful. The parties, the masques, the tableaus, and the every-present dancing that Lucrezia loved. Even mass was taking on a new meaning with the chapel decorated for the Christmas season. Everything was merry, bright, and gay and should have lifted Constanzia’s spirits, but it did not.


Lucrezia had regained her health and eagerly participated in the activities at the Duke’s court. Her alabaster cheeks and her lips were no longer pale and had recovered their natural rosy color. She dressed as gaily as she could afford, for the reduction in her allowance limited her spending. She lamented the fact that she felt she could not dress according to her station, resenting the interference of Isabella D’Este in her personal and financial affairs.


Alfonso continued the odd behavior that had begun on their wedding night. He would visit Lucrezia nightly but would leave her bed before morning, seeking out the company of other women sometimes even during the day. Lucrezia wrote to her father asking what she should do, but he replied that Alfonso was young and such behavior “did him good.”


Oddly enough a bond of affection was forming between the two. Lucrezia had no plans to remain faithful to her husband once she gave him children, and Alfonso remained with the mistress he had kept before he knew Lucrezia. It was a strange arrangement, but it seemed to work.


It comforted Constanzia that Alfonso seemed genuinely attached to his new wife. He frequently sought out Lucrezia’s company, often sitting in to play the viol with the orchestra she had formed. She, in turn, accompanied him on the harp, and many happy hours were spent performing for the Duke.


Constanzia danced and sang and performed in the plays. She would go to morning mass with Lucrezia, though like Cesare, her beliefs had relapsed. She did all that she could to avoid thinking and worrying, for she had no faith that Cesare would not make an attempt on Raffaello’s life, it seemed more likely to her that he would keep attempting until he succeeded.


Perhaps he would let, she hoped. She heard rumors that he had attended a ball thrown for him by five of the leading citizens of Cesena and had spent the night dancing with Cleofe Marescotti, the wife of one of his hosts. How typical, she thought, Cesare was a law unto himself. Even his father was finding it hard to control him. He did not come near Ferrara these days, but he still made visits to Rome, no doubt to make sure that the Pope would continue to furnish cash so that he could help outfit his army.


Easter now seemed a lifetime away. Raffaello had arranged to come to Ferrara prior to Good Friday so that he could attend services with her and Lucrezia. On the Saturday following the Easter feast, they would be married in the royal chapel and leave for Genoa a week later.


“Smile,” Lucrezia whispered to her, “You look like you are attending a funeral, not a party. Come and dance with me, let us show them that Spanish girls are light on their feet.” Brooking no refusal, she took Constanzia’s hand and pulled her to her feet.


A week later a messenger arrived, announcing gifts for the Lady Constanzia. A bolt of royal blue velvet and one of a heavy red satin were accompanied by gold brocade and cloth of silver. A casket of ornately inscribed silver was placed in her hands that contained a magnificent necklace of sapphires and diamonds. How thoughtful Raffaello is she thought until she saw the last gift. A silver cage contained two blue songbirds, sweetly singing. On the cage was engraved “To the Lovely Lady Constanzia from Her Devoted Cousin Cesare.”


Constanzia felt her world growing black and struggled for her breath. While the family gathered around to admire the gifts Cesare sent her, Lucrezia put her arm around her shoulders and a glass of wine into her hand. Only she knew the significance of the gifts, the others had no idea.

As soon as she could, she excused herself and sought the refuge of her rooms, Lucrezia following close behind. She dismissed her maids, except for the faithful Carmilla, and threw herself on the bed and began to cry.


Lucrezia held her tightly, stroking her dark hair. “There, there,” she soothed, “Cesare is jealous that he no longer can have you to himself. Do not allow him to torment you. Hold your head high and do not let him damage your pride. It has never been common knowledge that you were his mistress, it is a secret that only you and I know. Time will pass quickly and soon you will find yourself married, and then you will be safe.”


“Will I, Lucrezia?” she asked and struggled to sit up, “Will I truly be safe from him? France and Spain have influence in Genoa, what if Cesare persuades Louis that it would be in his best interest to invade it? Will I be safe? He has always told me he intends to conquer Florence for Uncle, what if he decides that Genoa should be another jewel in his crown?”


“Then you must hope that his interests will remain in the Romagna. Surely he will not think that he can conquer the entire Italian peninsula! He will have to accede to Father’s wishes, after all, he is the source of the funding of his army.”


“Lucrezia, I think that he does not care what Uncle wants. Cesare frightens me, and I think that perhaps he always has. He loves me, I know this, but his love has always been tempered by cruelty. If I was unwilling to give him what he wanted he always felt free to take it from me. And, and, he used his hands on me if I would not do as he said.” The look of astonishment on Lucrezia’s face made her feel guilty as she said these things, but now she could not stop.


“He beat me very badly once, not on my face, almost never for he did not wish to leave marks, but he left bruises on my buttocks and thighs. And after that, he had me like I was a whore as if what he had done excited him. He could be so loving, and sometimes he would be apologetic, but it never stopped him. He treated me as if I was a possession that he could do with as he liked.”


Lucrezia stood up and brushed her long skirts. “I wish you had not told me this, “she said, “I don’t want to believe this, only I know you would not say these things if they were not true.”


“I wish I had not,” Constanzia replied, “Only I know that I needed to tell you. I have concealed this for years, and now I am free. I still love him, I always will, but I want to be free of him. He can’t hurt me now, and neither can he hurt you. I wish that you could have married someone that you could love, but Alfonso, in his own strange way, truly loves you, I think. I can leave here knowing that you will be happy and cherished. I know I am marrying someone who will love and cherish me. Our lives are just beginning, Lucrezia, I just don’t want them to be taken away again.”


Twelfth Night and the New Year came and went. Outside was gloomy and cold as it had been when Lucrezia made her journey to Ferrara with her cousin, but the inside of the castle of Ercole D’Este was its own insular world. There were endless entertainments at court to help the nobility pass its time until the days of the deprivation of Lent fell upon them.


The poet Pietro Bembo came to court, and Constanzia became aware of a growing affection between him and her cousin. No, no, Lucrezia, she thought, now is not the time for an affair. But her cousin was high spirited and ill-suited to her phlegmatic husband, therefore the poet and his sensibilities pleased her.


Alfonso did not seem to notice though with the onset of winter he was less inclined to visit the universities and foundries as he would be when the weather improved. His mistress was pregnant and though he visited her every night he seemed to pay little attention to Lucrezia.


“Which suits me fine,” she told Constanzia as they sat in her rooms while their maids brushed their long hair. Father could have found someone more attractive and diverting, instead, he married me off to a bear.”

“A bear as opposed to a beast like Giovanni Sforza?” Constanzia teased.


“Oh, Giovanni wasn’t so bad, just more of a bore. There he was, almost thirty, and married to a giddy young girl of thirteen. And the Pope’s daughter, mind you. He really ought to have done better for himself, I understand he’s now in a loveless marriage with an entirely suitable wife.” Both laughed at this, there had been something rather pathetic about Giovanni Sforza.


“Well, Ercole demanded that your father pay four hundred thousand ducats for the privilege of your marrying Alfonso—that thirty thousand that Sforza got from your father is paltry by comparison. And Ferrara seems fairly safe from invasion, unlike Naples. Unless Cesare decides that…”


“No, Constanzia, don’t say it. Cesare will leave Ferrara alone for my sake, I hope. He and Father have their secure borders now, so I don’t think Cesare will put me in harm’s way. I think Genoa will be a safe haven for you, the Doge seems to play France and Spain off each other and somehow remain allies with both. We must keep up our hopes that all will be well, and my brother will maintain his friendship with Louis and hold onto his conquests in the Romagna.”


Valentine’s Day came and a trunk arrived from Genoa for Constanzia. A casket of marble held a magnificent necklace of diamonds and pearls, with matching earrings. There were fans of ivory and ebony and bottles sealed with wax that held perfumes from Turkey. There were sables of the finest quality, read to trim a gown or the neck of a cloak.


There was a letter from Raffaello, and Constanzia tucked it into the bodice of her gown to read in private. She had received valentines from three courtiers and had responded with empty graceful thanks and promises. If she had developed doubts about her own allure and had felt herself in Lucrezia’s shadow, these courtly pastimes reminded her that she was a beauty on par with her cousin. The two of them together were much remarked upon in the duke’s court, arousing the ire of Isabella D’Este who found herself quite overshadowed.


“Tell me about Pietro Bembo,” Constanzia asked coyly, “He seems to have acquired so much favor at court!”


“Shh, you must not speak like that. There is nothing going on between ‘Messer Bembo’ and myself.”


“Lucrezia, first it was Ercole Strozzi—did you not think there was talk when he sent you and your ladies all those lovely bolts of material for your new gowns? Now they whisper of you and Bembo. Lucrezia, you must be careful, if Alfonso finds out…”

“And what of Alfonso, what does he truly care for me? I am the vehicle by which he hopes to obtain his heirs. Do you think I can be happy with a man who occupies his days making cannons? What do I care for cannons? Do you blame me for seeking happiness outside of my most unhappy marriage?”


Constanzia took her hand, “Believe me, my love, I know. I see the way men look at you, you are so young and vibrant that you draw men to you like the sun. Do you not think that I can see the way Isabella D’Este’s husband looks at you? Francesco Gonzaga wants to be one of your conquests, I can tell. If that becomes the case, beware of Isabella’s wrath. Just be careful, my dearest, you must not arouse the suspicion of your husband. Ferrara and France are in a delicate balance if Cesare should happen to alienate Louis…”


“I know, I know,” Lucrezia sighed, “As always, Papa married me to the wrong man, but I wish for this to be the last wrong man. I miss Rome, I miss our old life, but I am determined to make this wrong marriage work. Yes, I am seeking happiness elsewhere, but can you truly blame me?”

Note: Lucrezia had affairs (so it seems) with Ercole Strozzi and Pietro Bembo—both poets of note. She gave Bembo a lock of her hair which hangs in a museum in Milan. And she also had an affair with Isabella D’Este’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga, which allegedly ended when he contracted syphilis.





Christmas in Ferrara, a time that should have been joyful. The parties, the masques, the tableaus, and the every-present dancing that Lucrezia loved. Even mass was taking on a new meaning with the chapel decorated for the Christmas season. Everything was merry, bright, and gay and should have lifted Constanzia’s spirits, but it did not.


Lucrezia had gotten her health back and eagerly participated in the activities at the Duke’s court. Her alabaster cheeks and her lips were no longer pale and had recovered their natural rosy color. She dressed as gaily as she could afford, for the reduction in her allowance limited her spending. She lamented the fact that she felt she could not dress according to her station, resenting the interference of Isabella D’Este in her personal and financial affairs.


Alfonso continued the odd behavior that had begun on their wedding night. He would visit Lucrezia nightly but would leave her bed before morning, seeking out the company of other women sometimes even during the day. Lucrezia wrote to her father asking what she should do, but he replied that Alfonso was young and such behavior “did him good.”


Oddly enough a bond of affection was forming between the two. Lucrezia had no plans to remain faithful to her husband once she gave him children, and Alfonso remained with the mistress he had kept before he knew Lucrezia. It was a strange arrangement, but it seemed to work.


It comforted Constanzia that Alfonso seemed genuinely attached to his new wife. He frequently sought out Lucrezia’s company, often sitting in to play the viol with the orchestra she had formed. She, in turn, accompanied him on the harp, and many happy hours were spent performing for the Duke.


Constanzia danced and sang and performed in the plays. She would go to morning mass with Lucrezia, though like Cesare, her beliefs had relapsed. She did all that she could to avoid thinking and worrying, for she had no faith that Cesare would not make an attempt on Raffaello’s life, it seemed more likely to her that he would keep attempting until he succeeded.


Perhaps he would let, she hoped. She heard rumors that he had attended a ball thrown for him by five of the leading citizens of Cesena and had spent the night dancing with Cleofe Marescotti, the wife of one of his hosts. How typical, she thought, Cesare was a law unto himself. Even his father was finding it hard to control him. He did not come near Ferrara these days, but he still made visits to Rome, no doubt to make sure that the Pope would continue to furnish cash so that he could help outfit his army.


Easter now seemed a lifetime away. Raffaello had arranged to come to Ferrara prior to Good Friday so that he could attend services with her and Lucrezia. On the Saturday following the Easter feast, they would be married in the royal chapel and leave for Genoa a week later.


“Smile,” Lucrezia whispered to her, “You look like you are attending a funeral, not a party. Come and dance with me, let us show them that Spanish girls are light on their feet.” Brooking no refusal, she took Constanzia’s hand and pulled her to her feet.


A week later a messenger arrived, announcing gifts for the Lady Constanzia. A bolt of royal blue velvet and one of a heavy red satin were accompanied by gold brocade and cloth of silver. A casket of ornately inscribed silver was placed in her hands that contained a magnificent necklace of sapphires and diamonds. How thoughtful Raffaello is she thought until she saw the last gift. A silver cage contained two blue songbirds, sweetly singing. On the cage was engraved “To the Lovely Lady Constanzia from Her Devoted Cousin Cesare.”


Constanzia felt her world growing black and struggled for her breath. While the family gathered around to admire the gifts Cesare sent her, Lucrezia put her arm around her shoulders and a glass of wine into her hand. Only she knew the significance of the gifts, the others had no idea.

As soon as she could, she excused herself and sought the refuge of her rooms, Lucrezia following close behind. She dismissed her maids, except for the faithful Carmilla, and threw herself on the bed and began to cry.


Lucrezia held her tightly, stroking her dark hair. “There, there,” she soothed, “Cesare is jealous that he no longer can have you to himself. Do not allow him to torment you. Hold your head high and do not let him damage your pride. It has never been common knowledge that you were his mistress, it is a secret that only you and I know. Time will pass quickly and soon you will find yourself married, and then you will be safe.”


“Will I, Lucrezia?” she asked and struggled to sit up, “Will I truly be safe from him? France and Spain have influence in Genoa, what if Cesare persuades Louis that it would be in his best interest to invade it? Will I be safe? He has always told me he intends to conquer Florence for Uncle, what if he decides that Genoa should be another jewel in his crown?”


“Then you must hope that his interests will remain in the Romagna. Surely he will not think that he can conquer the entire Italian peninsula! He will have to accede to Father’s wishes, after all, he is the source of the funding of his army.”


“Lucrezia, I think that he does not care what Uncle wants. Cesare frightens me, and I think that perhaps he always has. He loves me, I know this, but his love has always been tempered by cruelty. If I was unwilling to give him what he wanted he always felt free to take it from me. And, and, he used his hands on me if I would not do as he said.” The look of astonishment on Lucrezia’s face made her feel guilty as she said these things, but now she could not stop.


“He beat me very badly once, not on my face, almost never for he did not wish to leave marks, but he left bruises on my buttocks and thighs. And after that, he had me like I was a whore as if what he had done excited him. He could be so loving, and sometimes he would be apologetic, but it never stopped him. He treated me as if I was a possession that he could do with as he liked.”


Lucrezia stood up and brushed her long skirts. “I wish you had not told me this, “she said, “I don’t want to believe this, only I know you would not say these things if they were not true.”


“I wish I had not,” Constanzia replied, “Only I know that I needed to tell you. I have concealed this for years, and now I am free. I still love him, I always will, but I want to be free of him. He can’t hurt me now, and neither can he hurt you. I wish that you could have married someone that you could love, but Alfonso, in his own strange way, truly loves you, I think. I can leave here knowing that you will be happy and cherished. I know I am marrying someone who will love and cherish me. Our lives are just beginning, Lucrezia, I just don’t want them to be taken away again.”


Twelfth Night and the New Year came and went. Outside was gloomy and cold as it had been when Lucrezia made her journey to Ferrara with her cousin, but the inside of the castle of Ercole D’Este was its own insular world. There were endless entertainments at court to help the nobility pass its time until the days of the deprivation of Lent fell upon them.


The poet Pietro Bembo came to court, and Constanzia became aware of a growing affection between him and her cousin. No, no, Lucrezia, she thought, now is not the time for an affair. But her cousin was high spirited and ill-suited to her phlegmatic husband, therefore the poet and his sensibilities pleased her.


Alfonso did not seem to notice though with the onset of winter he was less inclined to visit the universities and foundries as he would be when the weather improved. His mistress was pregnant and though he visited her every night he seemed to pay little attention to Lucrezia.


“Which suits me fine,” she told Constanzia as they sat in her rooms while their maids brushed their long hair. Father could have found someone more attractive and diverting, instead, he married me off to a bear.”

“A bear as opposed to a beast like Giovanni Sforza?” Constanzia teased.


“Oh, Giovanni wasn’t so bad, just more of a bore. There he was, almost thirty, and married to a giddy young girl of thirteen. And the Pope’s daughter, mind you. He really ought to have done better for himself, I understand he’s now in a loveless marriage with an entirely suitable wife.” Both laughed at this, there had been something rather pathetic about Giovanni Sforza.


“Well, Ercole demanded that your father pay four hundred thousand ducats for the privilege of your marrying Alfonso—that thirty thousand that Sforza got from your father is paltry by comparison. And Ferrara seems fairly safe from invasion, unlike Naples. Unless Cesare decides that…”


“No, Constanzia, don’t say it. Cesare will leave Ferrara alone for my sake, I hope. He and Father have their secure borders now, so I don’t think Cesare will put me in harm’s way. I think Genoa will be a safe haven for you, the Doge seems to play France and Spain off each other and somehow remain allies with both. We must keep up our hopes that all will be well, and my brother will maintain his friendship with Louis and hold onto his conquests in the Romagna.”


Valentine’s Day came and a trunk arrived from Genoa for Constanzia. A casket of marble held a magnificent necklace of diamonds and pearls, with matching earrings. There were fans of ivory and ebony and bottles sealed with wax that held perfumes from Turkey. There were sables of the finest quality, read to trim a gown or the neck of a cloak.


There was a letter from Raffaello, and Constanzia tucked it into the bodice of her gown to read in private. She had received valentines from three courtiers and had responded with empty graceful thanks and promises. If she had developed doubts about her own allure and had felt herself in Lucrezia’s shadow, these courtly pastimes reminded her that she was a beauty on par with her cousin. The two of them together were much remarked upon in the duke’s court, arousing the ire of Isabella D’Este who found herself quite overshadowed.


“Tell me about Pietro Bembo,” Constanzia asked coyly, “He seems to have acquired so much favor at court!”


“Shh, you must not speak like that. There is nothing going on between ‘Messer Bembo’ and myself.”


“Lucrezia, first it was Ercole Strozzi—did you not think there was talk when he sent you and your ladies all those lovely bolts of material for your new gowns? Now they whisper of you and Bembo. Lucrezia, you must be careful, if Alfonso finds out…”

“And what of Alfonso, what does he truly care for me? I am the vehicle by which he hopes to obtain his heirs. Do you think I can be happy with a man who occupies his days making cannons? What do I care for cannons? Do you blame me for seeking happiness outside of my most unhappy marriage?”


Constanzia took her hand, “Believe me, my love, I know. I see the way men look at you, you are so young and vibrant that you draw men to you like the sun. Do you not think that I can see the way Isabella D’Este’s husband looks at you? Francesco Gonzaga wants to be one of your conquests, I can tell. If that becomes the case, beware of Isabella’s wrath. Just be careful, my dearest, you must not arouse the suspicion of your husband. Ferrara and France are in a delicate balance if Cesare should happen to alienate Louis…”


“I know, I know,” Lucrezia sighed, “As always, Papa married me to the wrong man, but I wish for this to be the last wrong man. I miss Rome, I miss our old life, but I am determined to make this wrong marriage work. Yes, I am seeking happiness elsewhere, but can you truly blame me?”

Note: Lucrezia had affairs (so it seems) with Ercole Strozzi and Pietro Bembo—both poets of note. She gave Bembo a lock of her hair which hangs in a museum in Milan. And she also had an affair with Isabella D’Este’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga, which allegedly ended when he contracted syphilis.





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