Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half her life in Ferrara. After two marriages that ended in bizarre and terrible ways–as you will see if you watch the Showtime series– her last marriage to the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I (or Alfonso II if you count how many husbands she had named Alfonso), was relatively tranquil.
In fact, her life had a fairy tale quality. She lived in this giant brick castle, complete with a moat and dungeons underneath. (There would not normally be ice on the moat. I happened to get to Ferrara during the coldest early spring in the last thirty years. )
Near the castle, Lucrezia attended church in a pink and white striped gothic cathedral, which had a pink and white striped bell tower that is leaning a bit, after close to a thousand years. Here they are:
When Lucrezia tired of her castle or her pink striped cathedral, she could visit the castles and hunting lodges all over her husband’s dukedom, including at least two more in Ferrara. One of them was the Palazzo Schifanoia, which means, roughly, the Palace where Boredom is Banished. It had a large interior garden, high, coffered ceilings and walls covered with frescoes of lords, ladies and mythological beasts (which you can’t photograph, unfortunately). If Lucrezia got bored at Schifanoia, there was always the Palace of the Diamonds, named for its elaborate walls:
Lucrezia probably had plenty of diamonds of her own. The Este dukedom was fabulously rich. Her husband had one of the finest collections of art and precious objects in the world at the time.
But of course, life is never a fairy tale. While Lucrezia and her family dwelt in sumptuous Renaissance apartments in the castle, her husband’s uncles were down below in the dungeons. They had made the mistake of trying to wrestle the dukedom away from Alfonso, who was a dangerous man to mess with. And he had not wanted to marry Lucrezia. The Estes considered themselves the oldest and most cultured of all Italian nobility. Marrying the bastard daughter of a Spanish pope was not part of Alfonso’s plan. However, Lucrezia’s father was even more dangerous than Alfonso d’ Este. Alfonso had taken the offer of an alliance with the pope, which was one he couldn’t refuse.
Lucrezia had been forced once again into a marriage she hadn’t chosen. So she had a lot to cope with when she moved to Ferrara. But she seems to have won Alfonso over with her legendary charm. They had a large number of children together—many more than the heir and spare that suggest cold relations between husband and life. By all reports she was a solicitous mother, a devout Christian and patroness of many charities. In fact, she became known as “the good Duchess.” And when she died in childbirth in her late 30’s, her husband expressed genuine sadness.
Lucrezia is buried in Ferrara in the Corpus Domini convent, along with her husband, several of her children, and many of the Este family from that era and before. Knowing how the Este operated, you would expect large, ornamental tombs. You won’t find them. I walked over all of them without even noticing. In fact, the floor vault that contains the remains of Lucrezia and her immediate family is so worn from six centuries of footsteps that you can’t even read their names.
The Este family fell apart a century or two after Lucrezia’s death. The large art collection was dispersed; the palazzi fell into other hands and much of the interior artwork was destroyed. Only the residents of Ferrara really remember the Estes. But the entire world knows about Lucrezia Borgia.