Lucrezia Borgia and The Mother of Poisons
by Roberta Gellis
Forge September 2003
Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI and sister of Cesare Borgia, agreed to a loveless third marriage only to escape from Rome. There the machinations of her father and brother had so damaged her reputation that it was whispered behind her back that she was incestuous with both her male relatives and a murderess beside. It was said that those invited to dine at Lucrezia's table made out their wills before they left home. In Ferrara, however, she was greeted with joy–by everyone except her husband–and regarded as beautiful, innocent, and virtuous. And then one of her ladies-in-waiting died ... of poison.
- A NEW WEDDED WIFE
- Lucrezia was well aware that Alfonso of Ferrara had been forced into their marriage by his greedy father for the sake of her enormous dowery. She did not care. She was happy in Ferrara where she was greeted by the people with cries of joy and the courtiers all liked and admired her. And then Bianca Tedaldo was poisoned. Was Alfonso so eager to be rid of her that he would poison his mistress just so that Lucrezia would be accused of murder?
- AN UNWILLING HUSBAND
- Alfonso of Ferrara had been forced by his father to marry Lucrezia but his pride had been severely injured by having to accept a woman he thought of as unchaste. He was even more infuriated when everyone around him obviously believed her pretense of sweetness and virtue. Worst of all, he himself found her surprisingly attractive. His father would never give up his wife's dowery, but there were other ways to save himself from her seduction.
- A DEAD LADY-IN-WAITING
- Bianca Tedaldo may have been the silliest woman in the duke of Ferrara's court, but she was also the kindest and sweetest. Although many said she was featherheaded and inconstant, even her discarded lovers never said a truly harsh word about her. No one could want Bianca Tedaldo dead, yet Bianca Tedaldo was dead of poison, sprawled on the floor of her public audience chamber in which there was nothing to eat or drink, not even an empty vessel that could hold food or drink.
Excerpt from MOTHER OF POISONS
Lucrezia's private reception chamber, Castel Vecchio Ferrara
"Poison?" Lucrezia breathed, all the color fading from her face, leaving her skin like translucent alabaster. "Why? Why would anyone wish to poison so harmless and silly a woman as Bianca Tedaldo?"
"You wished to poison her," Alfonso d'Este shouted, "because she was my mistress!"
Lucrezia's mouth dropped open and her eyes widened with a shock that deprived her of the power to make any protest, for a moment of the power to think. Her husband's black eyes flashed. His expression was so filled with rage and hate that Lucrezia sank back onto the chair from which she had risen when he entered. She stared up at him, swallowing painfully.
"No," she whispered. "I have been away in the Convent of Corpus Domini since before Easter. I have not laid eyes upon Donna Bianca since I returned two days ago." Her voice grew stronger, angry, as the utter stupidity of such an accusation overcame the shock it had given her. "When was she poisoned? How? And why should I poison her when I never troubled any of the others? Why should I care about one more mistress--if she was your mistress?"
Frustration now mingled with the rage and hate in Alfonso d'Este's coarse face, and Lucrezia stared back at him defiantly. Alfonso was no cultured intellectual, but he was shrewd and had a most powerful sense of self-preservation. He was not really likely to harm the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and the sister of Cesare Borgia.
"I do not know how or why," he snarled, and then, as if he had read her mind, added, "If I did, you would be in the bargello with the other common criminals right now, and to hell with your father, even if he is the pope, and that vicious mad-dog of a brother with his armies."
For a moment Lucrezia almost believed him and her breath caught. "But it is not true!" she cried, tears rising to her eyes. "I never poisoned anyone in my life and Cesare ... Well, he has killed, yes--"
She looked away and her voice trembled, as she recalled the beloved husband Cesare had killed, shattering her life just so she could be free to make a political marriage to this man who hated her and seemingly would do anything to be rid of her.
Alfonso apparently did not guess the reason for her distress and answered her words directly. "Killed, yes," he mimicked, sneering. "Among others his own brother, I have heard. So why should his sister hesitate to remove a lady I found attractive--"
Now that the shock of Alfonso's accusation had abated, Lucrezia detected the false note in his declaration. "You found Bianca attractive?" she echoed unbelievingly, rising to her feet again and laughing harshly. "I do not believe it. Light of mind and virtue Bianca was, but she was a lady. I never saw her behave like a street slut, and I know you care for no other kind of woman."
"So you say." Alfonso looked her over from head to foot and then met her eyes, sneering again. "Perhaps that I should court a lady is what you could not bear."
Lucrezia shook her head and lifted a shoulder contemptuously. "You are assuming you matter enough to me that I would be jealous." A flick of his eyes told her that shaft had hurt. Satisfied, she continued with a half smile, "but I tell you that even if someone had shouted in my ear that she was your leman--and no one bothers to gossip to me about you since what you do is clear enough to all--I would never have believed it so I still had no reason to kill Bianca."
Alfonso's powerful hands knotted into fists, but he did not step forward and strike her. Lucrezia wondered whether it was because he really did not want to hurt her or because he knew hurting her would infuriate his father.
"What does the reason matter," he growled. "Perhaps it is no more than the Borgia urge to kill something. Certainly Cesare does not seem to need a reason to kill."
"But not with poison," she snapped. "Cesare uses a knife or a bludgeon or a sword."
Alfonso shrugged. "You do not have that option. And tell me, who else in my father's court would use poison?"
Lucrezia stared at him for a moment and then laughed again, easily this time. "Do you want a list?"
He made a furious, wordless sound and snarled, "No one has ever been poisoned in the palace of Ferrara before you came."
Those words made Lucrezia pale and when he started to turn away she caught at his arm. "Wait!" she cried. "If you came here to tell me this, others must be accusing me also. I did not do it, Alfonso! And you know that. Will you not allow me to defend myself?"
"How? By proclaiming your innocence? My father is doing that already." His mouth twisted with an emotion Lucrezia could not read. "You may depend on his support."
"No," she said, "to say I am innocent would do about as much good as my father's friends pointing out that all those he is said to have poisoned are still walking about accusing him. You must discover who really poisoned poor Bianca."
"I? I must discover who killed her? Why the devil should I--"
He stopped speaking abruptly as if, Lucrezia thought, he had suddenly remembered that only a few moments before he had professed tender feelings for the dead woman. A lover would wish to avenge his lady. She raised her brows in silent, sardonic enquiry.
"My father would not countenance it!" he exclaimed. "Considering his determination to hold you blameless at all costs and my conviction concerning Bianca's death, it would be best for everyone that she be buried in decent silence and forgotten as soon as possible."
On those words, before Lucrezia could protest again, he was at the door, drawing aside the portiere and leaving the room. As the curtain lifted, Lucrezia heard the whispers and hisses of intense conversation. The sound was muffled into a barely perceptible murmur when the curtain fell, but Lucrezia stood staring at the hanging with burning eyes. The tapestry displayed a beautiful rendering of the Annunciation. The Virgin in her blue dress staring past a graceful pillar at the angel, whose wings glittered with thread of gold.
Lucrezia remembered when she had seen the tapestry on first entering this apartment a month earlier that she had hoped it was an omen, that she would soon be with child so her place here in Ferrara would be assured. That hope had been fulfilled; she was pregnant, but her husband seemed utterly indifferent. Or was he disappointed that she had conceived so readily? Was that the reason for his mad accusation? Was he so eager to be rid of her ... No. Surely not. Surely he had been growing accustomed; twice not so long ago he had lingered after their coupling to say a few words.
Then although her eyes were still fixed on the tapestry, her mind focused beyond it on those who waited in her public receiving room. The tapestry muffled whispers and low voices, but Alfonso's shouted accusation would have been easily heard. She could guess who was out there. The ladies her father-in-law had imposed upon her when he said her entourage was too large, too costly for him to support, and sent her own people back to Rome, those and the hangers-on who made themselves welcome guests to the less noble of the city by relaying the latest gossip and scandal.
What were they doing there so early? she asked herself. Her custom was to break her fast in private with the two ladies who had defied the duke and refused to leave her, then to respond to invitations or write letters until at least midday before she dressed and went into her public reception room. Had they known that Bianca was dead, she wondered, and come to see what I was doing?
She continued staring at the doorway, overwhelmed with bitter memories of similar accusations with as little cause. It had been mostly because she could no longer bear the hissing behind her back, the knowing winks, the significant smiles that she had welcomed the marriage to Alfonso, even while her heart was raw with the loss of her beloved. Of course she had been afraid to refuse, too, afraid of her father's displeasure and ... of Cesare. Not that he would hurt her; she did not believe that. But God knew what else he might have done if she had not fallen in with his plans.
Marriage to Alfonso had promised freedom, freedom from the sickening rumors about her, freedom from being dangled like a ripe fruit in front of those who desired her father's favor, freedom from Cesare's dangerous notions of how she could be used to forward his purposes. Ferrara was far from Rome and a powerful state protected by an alliance with France. Being the heir, Alfonso could not be expected to live in Rome as had been demanded of her previous husbands.
She had known Alfonso was unwilling, that he had agreed to the marriage only under severe pressure from his father, but she had not cared. She had not wanted or expected love. She had come prepared to be a good wife in the face of her new husband's indifference, to be an ornament of the court of Ferrara, to bear an heir to the dukedom. She had wanted only a haven--and thought she had found it. Until this very morning she had believed that all, even Alfonso, even the Ferrarese ladies who disliked her, thought well of her.
While she stared at the doorway and thought, Lucrezia had been increasingly aware of the sound of weeping behind her. Now she turned to face the companions who had shrugged off the duke's lack of welcome to stay with her. Her cousin, Angela Borgia, like herself blonde and blue-eyed, was sobbing and shaking her head. Nicola la Sienese, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and olive-skinned, whose mind and sense of humor accorded more exactly with her own than any other companion she had ever had, looked more amazed than saddened.
"Who would kill Bianca?" Angela whimpered. "You said she was silly, and so she was, but she was also the kindest person in the whole world and the most obliging. She even parted from her old lovers on good terms. No one could have wanted to hurt her. I cannot believe it."
"What I cannot believe is what Don Alfonso said," Nicola muttered.
"Oh, you are quite right!" Angela exclaimed, wiping her eyes. "Bianca was not Alfonso's mistress. She had a new lover, and she was thrilled with him--"
"Hush!" Lucrezia said softly, looking over her shoulder toward the door behind the portiere. "Alfonso left it open--apurpose, I think. Come into my bedchamber."
Angela's hand went to her lips and Nicola took her lower lip between her teeth. Both stared at the doorway for a horrified moment and then turned to follow Lucrezia across the room toward a door at the back, which led to the innermost chamber of the apartment.
Before they reached it, a high, trembling voice said, "I know you did not do it, madonna, and I can prove it!"
"Lucia!" Lucrezia exclaimed.
"I was bringing the wine when Don Alfonso came in, so I stopped, and I could not help but hear what he said. But it is not true, madonna. There is nothing of yours that is private from your maid, and I know you have no poison anywhere. I will speak to the duke. I will cry it aloud to the whole world!"
"Why, thank you, Lucia," Lucrezia said.
She was much touched not only by the staunch support but by the reddened eyes and tear-streaked cheeks that displayed how frightened the maid had been. And she was not sorry that the girl had been so overset that she had spoken much more loudly than usual. It could do no harm if those gossip-greedy harpies in the public chamber heard Lucia's defense. However before something was said that she was not as eager for the whole world to know, she had better obtain some privacy. Gesturing for Lucia to come, she led her ladies into her most private sanctum and softly closed the door.
She made a slight grimace of distaste as she stepped into the room and was nearly blinded by the gilding that highlighted the patterns of the blue walls. Even the moldings between the painted panels on the ceiling were gilded. She could only be thankful that the gold embroidered blue bedcurtains hid it after she had closed them or the glitter reflected from her nightcandle would have kept her awake. She supposed she should be grateful that the room--actually all six rooms (if one counted the bathing room)--had been decorated afresh, but she could not help wishing someone had asked what she would prefer. Now it would be years before she could have all that glittering gold removed and the wood beneath it darkened to her favorite warm brown.
Lucia set the wine down on the side of her mistress's writing table and pulled out the chair. "Sit down, madonna. You are dreadfully pale. It was terrible to threaten you like that, terrible. And so unjust."
Lucrezia seated herself in the proffered chair with a rather tremulous smile. The maid poured a glass of wine, offered it to her, and knelt down before her. Seeing the fear shadowing the wide, dark eyes, Lucrezia sought for a way to comfort the girl, and then realized she could use the emotion to correct a behavior that she knew was common to many of the serving girls but was particularly noxious in her situation. So she fixed her kneeling maid with what she hoped was a reproachful and still stern expression.
"If you are afraid for me, I think this time you must forgo the profit or the pleasure you win from telling El Prete all the tidbits you see and hear in my chambers."
She expected the maid to blanch, to burst into tears, to deny she told tales or sold information and beg forgiveness. Instead the fear faded from Lucia's eyes and she grinned.
"Oh, no, madonna," she said. "I must tell him of this specially." She giggled softly, shaking her head as Lucrezia drew a sharp breath. "Not about what Don Alfonso said." She shrugged. "Many will tell him that before I could reach him anyway. I must tell him that I have secretly used every powder, lotion, cream and perfume in my madonna's possession, and that none of them did me any ill. I must tell him of your devotions in the convent and that you invited none but Madonna Angela and Madonna Nicola to your table since you returned and that I spy on you every moment and know what you do just as I know what gowns you wear and how gloriously golden is your hair and how beautiful and clever you are and how all the artists and poets flock around you and all adore you. I love to tell him such things." She lowered her eyes and giggled again. "Far as she is in Mantua, I can hear Madonna Isabella's teeth grinding as she reads his letters."
Lucrezia stared at the maid for a moment and then began to laugh also. "You mean you tell Madonna Isabella's spy what makes my dear sister-in-law fear even more that I will outshine her?"
Lucia looked contemptuous. "And right she is to fear it, for you do!" she replied. "She strives and struts and spouts fine words to overawe everyone. You smile and listen and reply so sweetly that everyone loves you."
"Except my husband," Lucrezia said with a wry smile.
"Ridiculous!" Lucia exclaimed passionately. "He cannot think you would harm anyone. He knows how gentle you are--"
"Does he?" Lucrezia asked, for the first time realizing how very clever Lucia was and seeing a path to learning what the servants said among themselves--and thus what the noble ladies and gentlemen did when they believed they were in private. "Or does he believe the terrible tales that were told of me in Rome?"
Lucrezia's eyes filled with tears, and that was no pretense. She had hated the whispering behind her back, the knowing smiles over stories of murder and base born babes, even incest. She had fled to this cold, grey north and a loveless marriage to escape the ugliness that surrounded her life in Rome. Was it to begin all over again?
The kneeling maid leaned forward and kissed her hand. "No one really believed those tales," Lucia said. "They only enjoyed whispering them to each other."
"But I did not enjoy it," Lucrezia snapped. "I have had great pleasure in the open way I am greeted here, in the ease of conversation, in the trust shown to me. There are a few who watch in hope I will do wrong, but most of the court liked me. Now after what Alfonso said, if no one finds out who truly killed Madonna Bianca, the whispering will all begin again. Lucia, will you help me?"
"Of course I will, madonna," Lucia breathed.
"Because you are a maid, no one sees you. No one thinks that you hear and see. Will you hear and see for me, Lucia?"
"Indeed. Indeed I will."
"Then go among my uninvited guests in the outer chamber. Bring them cakes and wine. All of them know I do not come out of my inner rooms until the nineteenth or twentieth hour, so what are they doing here at the fifteenth? Find out for me, Lucia. Did they already know what Alfonso would say?"
The maid's eyes widened with sudden comprehension. She kissed her mistress's hand again and scrambled to her feet. Then she nodded her head once, sharply, and slipped out. When she was gone, Lucrezia looked around at Nicola and Angela.
"But it is not true, that Alfonso does not care for you," Nicola remarked, her fine dark eyes narrowed. "Until this lunacy, I would have sworn that he was now well on his way to being satisfied--and more than satisfied--to have you to wife. If not, why should he continue to come to you every night when he knows he has already set a babe in your belly?"
Lucrezia's eyes widened at this telling remark. She had never considered that interesting fact. Then she frowned and shook her head. "But he hardly says a word to me."
Nicola shrugged. "He hardly says a word to anyone. Words are not Don Alfonso's strong suit. And it is true that mostly he likes his meat coarser. But still, I believe he is coming to know your value and respect you."
"I had thought so, too," Lucrezia said. "And particularly just now. Not only am I, as you said, with child, but Cesare is about to come north--and he could easily come as far north as Ferrara if I were insulted. No, it is utterly ridiculous that Alfonso would accuse me of murder even if he had watched me commit the crime." She drew a long breath, then let it out, her eyes going from Nicola to Angela and back to Nicola. "So what was that all about?"
"Could he have--" Angela began, and then shook her head sharply. "No, that is impossible. I am sure Bianca hardly knew him. She never spoke of him, and I am sure she could not have resisted boasting if she had captured Don Alfonso's attention ... Unless ... she was very kindhearted ... she kept it secret so as not to hurt you?"
"But why make such a to-do if he were guilty?" Nicola mused. "No, if he were, he would pass the whole thing off as if it had nothing to do with him. He would not come here shouting aloud that Bianca was his mistress."
"Then was his purpose to besmirch me?" Lucrezia asked, her voice not quite steady. "Can he wish to be rid of me to make a French marriage?"
"Not with a baby in your belly and Cesare about to take the road north," Angela said. "I may be a fool, but even I am not so foolish as that. This is the wrong time."
"True, and beside that, I am not sure that the duke any longer wants a French marriage. Can you imagine King Louis parting with the kind of dowry that your father was willing to give?" Nicola uttered a bark of laughter. "Or imagine the duke returning your dowry?"
Even Lucrezia laughed, albeit rather shakily, at that idea. Duke Ercole d'Este was extraordinarily tight-fisted--except about the theater. He adored plays and was truly musical--the whole family was--and the duke had built a magnificent theater to display his love and his talents. Then she shook her head.
"It does not really matter why he said it. What matters is that if the murderer is not uncovered everyone will remember Alfonso's accusation and I will never be rid of the mark of the serpent who poisons."