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The ghost of Lucrezia Borgia

Blog | By Charlotte Eagar | Nov 30, 2023

I went to Rome to look for Lucrezia Borgia and met her ghost at the Vatican in the Sala dei Sibilli.

Lucrezia’s blue eyes, framed by blonde ringlets, gaze down, in the guise of multiple Sybils, from every wall of this room in the Vatican’s Borgia Tower.

I was looking for Lucrezia (1480-1519) because I’m writing a book.

A Renaissance beauty with golden hair, a brilliant mind and a truly appalling family, Lucrezia was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, one of the most reviled Popes in history, synonymous with poison, corruption and even a hint of incest.

Lucrezia has been tarred, almost certainly wrongly, with the same brush.

I've been commissioned to write a novella about Lucrezia for the Garden of Ninfa Foundation because, in early 1500, Lucrezia briefly owned Ninfa, a ruined medieval town south of Rome, now a legendarily beautiful garden.

I’ve spent much of the last six months trapped with Lucrezia in the Sala dei, with Lucrezia in the Sala dei Sibilli in my book. She spent August 1500 as good as besieged in the room with her husband, Alfonso, after he’d been severely wounded by Cesare’s assassins.

We’d rented an Airbnb flat ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican; a building that would have been old when Lucrezia was alive, near the Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most fabulous squares, where the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain writhes before the Baroque bulges of Borromini’s church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. The flat was on Via Governo Vecchio, a narrow, cobbled street snaking through Rome’s Centro Storico, which grew organically from the imperial city’s ruins.

Lucrezia herself probably walked our street. It's on the way to the Vatican from her childhood home, three minutes away, in the Piazza Sforza Cesarini, next to Da Luigi, which serves a splendid lobster linguine.

'Lucrezia lived just there, when she was a little girl'

The Borgias have inspired more literature than any Pope since St Peter. They were the model for the Corleone crime dynasty in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Machiavelli based The Prince on Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare. As for Lucrezia, authors from Jean Plaidy to Victor Hugo have tried to understand her. Donizetti wrote an opera about her.

And they inspired Harry Lime’s brilliant speech in The Third Man, improvised by Orson Welles:

‘In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

Not entirely true. The Swiss don’t make cuckoo clocks.

There were two Borgia popes: Callixtus III (1455–1458) and Alexander VI (1492–1503). Yet it’s surprisingly hard to find the Borgias in Rome because Baroque Rome has overlaid the Renaissance. And the Borgias’ papal successors so loathed these Spanish interlopers that they eradicated as many traces of them as they could.

I wandered towards St Peter’s Basilica past the gesticulating angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, added by Bernini; past the grim bulk of the Castel Sant’Angelo, once the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian, repurposed as the Popes’ answer to the Tower of London, topped by Bernini’s avenging St Michael.

Little here would be recognisable to Lucrezia: Michelangelo’s floating dome and St Peter’s magnificent façade were built after her death – although the dismal cells of Castel Sant’Angelo would have been only too familiar to the Borgias’ enemies.

Armed with an early-17th-century print, I found Lucrezia’s home, where she lived with Alfonso: Palazzo Santa Maria in Portico, squeezed between St Peter’s and the Papal Palace. Thanks to Baroque remodelling and Bernini’s all-embracing colonnade, just the upper storey and the top corner tower can be seen.

The splendid Borgia mausoleum Lucrezia’s father plonked in the centre of St Peter’s Square was demolished in 1586, replaced by the obelisk that stands today. Pope Alexander’s bones spent 400 years in a cupboard in the Spanish church, Santa Maria in Monserrato, until found by chance in the 19th century.

Lucrezia’s mother, Vanozza, a high- class courtesan with a chain of successful pubs, paid for an elaborate side chapel in Innocent X (which looks like his ghost S Maria del Popolo, for her and her son being taken screaming to hell) and a Juan, Duke of Gandia (a spoilt drunk, almost certainly murdered by Cesare in a fit of fraternal envy).

After a largely horizontal career, the whole family through this suite of Vanozza was obsessed by her fate in the six rooms, in which the Pope (and often afterlife. Despite her dying highly his children) lived during his reign. respected, in her seventies, and being In the Sala dei Santi, Lucrezia buried with great pomp, Vanozza and debates with the Juan’s tombs were also broken up, the side Emperor Maxentius as St Catherine chapel repurposed for a less controversial of Alexandria, flanked by her brothers family. No one knows what happened Cesare, Juan and little Joffre, married to their bones; Vanozza’s plaque was found about 70 years ago, and moved to In the Sala dei Misteri, the a church just opposite the Campodoglio.

But in the Sala dei Sibilli, I met the Borgias themselves. Most tourists don’t bother with the Torre Borgia, built by earliest depiction of Native Americans Alexander shortly after he became Pope.

By the time they’ve trodden the Vatican tourist one-way treadmill to the sign ’Sistine Chapel, Café and Exit left; Borgia Apartments right’, exhausted by two hours of visual splendour, they head straight to Michelangelo’s megastars and a large gelato.

Today, the Borgia apartments house Borgia paranoia, had the rooms closed a collection of religious modern art, including Gauguin, Chagall, Francis Bacon’s 1954 take on Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X (which looks like his ghost being taken screaming to hell) and a Van Gogh Pietà.

But I was far more interested in the frescoed walls: Pinturicchio painted the whole family through this suite of six rooms, in which the Pope (and often his children) lived during his reign.

In the Sala dei Santi, Lucrezia (pictured, opposite)debates with the Emperor Maxentius as St Catherine of Alexandria, flanked by her brothers Cesare, Juan and little Joffre, married to Alfonso’s sister, Sancia.

In the Sala dei Misteri, the Borgias’ family sitting room, Pope Alexander prays in front of the risen Christ’s empty tomb. Behind him is the earliest depiction of Native Americans in Western Art, painted shortly after Columbus’s return. The picture of Alexander’s mistress, la bella Giulia Farnese, as the Madonna, dandling Christ on her knee, was hacked off in the 17th century by Pope Alexander VII, who kept some of the fragments.

Alexander’s successors, in their anti-Borgia paranoia, had the rooms closed off – they were not reopened until the late-19th century, and have never been lived in again.

It was here that the Vatican guard, intrigued by my nerdy photography and measuring, whispered sheepishly, ‘You know this room is haunted!’ By Lucrezia? ‘No, by her brother, Cesare.’ He hadn’t seen him, he said, but ‘the nightwatchmen see and hear things’.

No wonder Cesare’s nemesis and Alexander’s successor, Pope Julius II, shut these rooms up. Cesare Borgia would be a very unrestful ghost.

Charlotte Eagar is writing a novella about Lucrezia Borgia, The Queening