History is Incessantly Incesty (Part Uno)

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A Song of Fire & Ice or shameless familial “bonding”

I, like 16.5 million viewers last Sunday, watched the Game of Thrones season 7 finale with bated breath. With only 6 episodes left of the entire show, a series which was born from books that are taking about as quickly to write as The York Minister Cathedral was to build, the story is furiously spiraling to its inevitable conclusions. One of which happens to be the fate of a couple I’ve personally been rooting for since Book 1 when it made little sense geographically or personally, nor does it seem likely ideal in light of recent revelations…

But what do I care? In defense of myself, I’m here to point out a few instances in history where things got a bit too close for comfort, if you know what I mean. And perhaps by contrast, make the Dragon and Wolf look guiltlessly desirable in comparison. Lord of Light, have mercy on my internet search history…

1. Lucrezia & Cesare Borgia (And maybe Pope Alexander VI)

Lucrezia_Cesare Borgia

Unlike Showtime and Victor Hugo, I personally don’t ascribe to the belief that this Renaissance Brother & Sister Power Duo were secretly boning. But, alas, contemporaries of their time assumed they might be. After-all, the family of Pope Alexander VI stood accused of liberal poisonings and murders, thievery, buying and selling church offices, adultery and rampant orgies among the papacy, fratricide, and general douche-baggery aimed toward the Papal States–was there no limit to bounds The House of Borgia knew? [6]

Late in the 15th century, when Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI in no small part to bribery (presumably) and the assistance of rival Cardinal Sforza who was said to have personally taken a large payoff himself, Lucrezia Borgia suddenly became the most eligible, illegitimate 12-year old daughter in Italy. As a reward for his support, Cardinal Sforza saw Lucrezia married off to his nephew, Giovanni Sforza the then Duke of Milan, to solidify the alliance between the two families. This went about as well as a dinner date between the Hatfields & McCoys, and soon Pope Alexander VI was calling for an annulment while Cardinal Sforza’s other ally –just the King of France, Charles VIII, no big deal — appeared parading through Italy with the door held wide open for him to invade the papal territories. Giovanni was accused of having neglected to consummate the marriage, which incensed, caused him to lob the nefarious accusation at the Borgia family that the true reason the papacy was asking for the divorce was because Lucrezia was busy fornicating with her father and brother, a somewhat less humiliating prospect for the Duke to stomach apparently. With the promise of keeping the dowry intact for Giovanni, the marriage was soon dissolved but not so for the rumors. [1]

“It is said that Mr. Giovanni Sforza did this because the Duke used with his sister, his wife, the puppet of the pope, but of another mother” – Malipiero Letter 1497 [5

The Borgias had not yet given up on Lucrezia’s worth as a bargaining chip, and so paired her off with Alfonso of Aragon, a bastard of Naples, in the hopes of laying the ground work for Cesare Borgia to marry the daughter of the King of Naples and inherit the throne as well as another ally against Charles VIII who was still busy trouncing through doors a bit willy-nilly around Italy. Still a teenager, Lucrezia managed a hot second of a peaceful marriage before, again, her scheming brother and father (who were totally plausible lovers…of her misfortune, clearly) decided, you know what, Charles VIII just loves walking through doors and things, really good at it actually, the best–we might as well be friends and marry Cesare off to his daughter instead. Naturally, the Kingdom of Naples was a bit pissy about this new frenemy and The Borgias added another noble house of Italy to their shitlist. [2]

“Thus, Lucretia, Sextus always wants to make love to you? O fate with a horrible name! This Sextus is your father.” Epigram by Jacopo Sannazaro Italian poet (1457 – 1530) [4]

On the wrong-side of another family dispute, 18-year old Lucrezia tried to navigate her way through another marriage doomed to fail when her Neapolitan hubby was ambushed on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica by henchmen wielding a few knives, no doubt causing her to cry out “Et Tu, Pater?”. Alfonso managed to survive for the time being, held up under the “reliable” care of the papacy while propaganda papered the streets of Naples supposing that Cesare had made the idle threat “What didn’t happen at lunch may still happen at dinner.” like this was some pilot season episode of The Sopranos. Unsurprisingly, Alfonso turned up in bed strangled one morning. Perhaps by a jealous lover brother reasoned the gossip. Lucrezia, having really no energy left to deal with the mess her life had become at the hands of her family, went into mourning. [1]

Unfortunately, if there was one thing a noble Renaissance woman was good for other than posing for paintings, it was getting hitched– and that’s precisely what the Borgia brood were plotting to do again. This time their ambitions were with the duchy of Ferrara (And no, not for Lemonheads, that candy company is an American one) and Lucrezia was soon married off to Alfonso D’Este, another alliance Charles VIII would surely adore. Ultimately, this one worked out for Lucrezia and she was able to spend the rest of her days in Northern Italy cherished by her subjects. Not a year later, her father Pope Alexander VI collapsed of illness (or poisoning, eh it was the Renaissance after-all), sending the papacy into the awaiting hands of Borgia enemies and her brother Cesare, infamous as a subject of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, aesthetic model for portraiture of Jesus Christ, and number one suspect in the Tiber river murder of his brother Giovanni or “Juan” [7], died only a few years later.

It seemed almost as if Lucrezia would be fortunate enough to finally escape the sins and rumored exploits of her family, but after her death in 1519 after a troubled childbirth, the gossip again rose to a feverish pitch with little to no one left to denounce them.

“Here rests Lucrezia by name, who in reality was a Thais, the daughter, wife & daughter-in-law of Alexander.” – Epitaph written by Jaccopo Sannazaro, who wasn’t yet done slandering Lucrezia. [1]

Why did the rumors persist? Alexander’s papacy wasn’t exactly the first of its kind to churn out questionable practices nor a squeaky clean image, but perhaps the answer lies with the sheer amount of enemies The Borgia managed to collect over their years clamoring for power. Among the families already listed, they also managed to incite the animosity of the legendary House of Medici who ran Florence, the Orsini family, the Colonna house which churned out a libelous diary from Stefano Infessura who gleefully chronicled Lucrezia’s rumored licentiousness, and Pope Julius II. Before becoming pope, Julius II spent his time hating Alexander VI and worked to undermine and, if possible, unseat him. When he wasn’t trolling Michelangelo, Julius II used his papacy to try and mop up remaining Borgia territory all while torturing a Cesare Borgia loyalist for any amusing gossip he could gleefully spread about his enemies. [2]

“For the thing was known far and wide, and because my informants were not Romans merely, but were the Italian people, therefore have I mentioned it.”

-Matarazzo of Perugia, who relates the accusation of papal orgies by Pope Alexander VI with the inclusion of his daughter Lucrezia as well-known fact because it was ‘common’ gossip. [5]

As for the fate of King Charles VIII of France who featured so prevalently in the torrid politics of Lucrezia’s numerous marriages? Killed by a door. I’m not even kidding. [3]

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(To be Continued…Part 2)

Fact check it, yo!

[1] Hibbert, C. (2009). The Borgias and their enemies. London: Constable.

[2] Meyer, G. J. (2014). The Borgias: The Hidden History. Random House Inc.

[3] Markatos K., Karamanou M., Arkoudi K., Konstantinidi A., Androutsos G., A Cranial Trauma was the Cause of Death of Charles VIII of France (1470–1498), World Neurosurgery, Volume 105, 2017, Pages 745-748

[4] Fantazzi, C. (2011). Susanna de Beer, Karl A. E. Enenkel, and David Rijser, eds.The Neo-Latin Epigram: A Learned and Witty Genre. Supplementa Humanistica Lovaniensia 25. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009

[5] Gregorovius F., Lucretia Borgia: According to Original Documents & Correspondence of Her Day.

Primaries;

[6] Diario della citta di RomaStefano Infessura (Notoriously biased & unreliable, as are the rumors)

[7] “But I understood, as the Duke of Candia died for the death of his brother, Cardinal.” Pigna dispatch Ercole, Venice Feb 22nd, 1498

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