Who was Lucrezia Borgia? Tradition has it that she may have poisoned her second husband, Giovanni Sforza. Rumor of the day had it that Lucretia had incestuous relations with both her father, Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI, and her brother, Cesare Borgia.
What is know for certain is that Lucretia was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo, then a cardinal of the Catholic Church, and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. It is known that she was married three times, the first being annulled as never being consummated (despite her giving birth a few months after the annulment). The second marriage ended in the death of her husband, Giovanni, and her third to Alfonso d'Este, son of the powerful Duke of Ferrera. This was also to be Alfonso's third marriage, which ended when Lucrezia dies ten days after she gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She also had affairs (as did her husbands) with several political figures of the day, and even gave birth to the daughter of one lover.
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How did Lucrezia get such a bad reputation? In part, it's due to the political infighting and power politics of Rennaisance Italy, where rumor and innuendo was common, and partly because she was reportedly a beautiful woman whose story attracted the attention of later novelists, who twisted her tale to create bestsellers. In both film and print, Lucrezia is depicted as the ultimate femme fatale, using her position, beauty and sexual favors to get what she and her family wanted. And today, Lucrezia Borgia is a character in the popular video game, Assassin's Creed.
However, in recent studies of her personal financial records, Lucrezia comes across as quite the entrepreneur with a personal fortune of her own creation in an age when women were not allowed to hold property or wealth in their own names, but through a protector.
She is known to given freely of her personal wealth, becoming known as "Good Duchess" of Ferrara, even acting as de factor ruler in her husband's absence.
Research published in 2008 by USC historian Diane Yvonne Ghirardo reveals that the only sister of Machiavelli's Prince, Cesare Borgia, was less interested in political intrigue than business, undertaking massive land development projects that "stand alone in the panorama of early sixteenth-century projects, not only those initiated by women." Forced by an economic downturn to cut expenses and become an entrepreneur, Lucrezia eventually would control between 30,000 and 50,000 acres in northern Italy.
"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. Ghirardo notes that historians have long dismissed Lucrezia as "stupida" because no record exists of her collecting art or antiquities, even though records showed she supported a number of writers and artists from her personal funds.
"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 to complete.
In essence, according the Ghirardo's research, Lucrezia turned seemingly worthless swampland into reclaimed land 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 Diamantia, a large marshy district west of Ferrara. In exchange, Lucrezia agreed to fund improvements to the land, including drainage, building embankments and digging canals.
As 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, according to Ghirardo. Other records show her pawning an extremely valuable ruby-and-pearl piece of jewelry in order to buy more water buffaloes (especially to produce mozzarella).
"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."
Notably, Lucrezia held titles to the land she acquired in her own name, not in her husband's. Profits from Lucrezia's entrepreneurial activities were also for her use alone, according to Ghirardo.
"She could have purchased property that was already arable, but instead she got land that wasn't useful and transformed it," Ghirardo says. "I really believe that she thought of this as her Christian duty, to transform the land and make it better, and then to use money to help fund her spiritual and religious interests."
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 a love child.
"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 from the birth of her eighth child. Three decades would pass before another comparable land reclamation project emerged in northern Italy.
As Ghirardo says: "Lucrezia defied the conventions of her class and her gender."
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Story Source: Materials provided by University of Southern California. Ghirardo et al. Lucrezia Borgia as Entrepreneur. Renaissance Quarterly, 2008