Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

By Sarah Bradford. Viking. 421 pp. $27.95

In her essay on the art of biography, Virginia Woolf observed that the skillful biographer should focus only on "creative facts" (as opposed to all facts) if the work in question is to aspire to the level of notable historical literature. Woolf means those facts that elucidate character, and it is, after all, the character of extraordinary people that interests us most.

This is a high standard and one particularly hard to achieve with figures of medieval history. Material about their private lives, and often even their public, character-revealing lives, is hard to find or nonexistent. Researching women's lives in those male-dominated realms is an especially daunting task for the biographer. This is at the core of Sarah Bradford's problem in her book about Lucrezia Borgia.

Borgia is an interesting subject. She is sometimes considered a woman ahead of her time: ruthless, resilient, ambitious and cunning, ready to use feminine wiles, her body and even the poison cup to get what she wanted. Bradford sets out to make her subject far less interesting than her mythology. "She shared the curious mixture of piety, sensuality, and complete indifference to sexual morality that was a feature of her family," Bradford writes early in the book, "but, when she was in a position to express herself, she would prove to be a good, kind, and compassionate woman."

Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish pope, the second and most outrageous of the Borgia popes, who reigned as Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503. Alexander had captured the papacy through a disgraceful campaign of simony in which he bought off the voting cardinals with gold, castles and townships, and then, as "the most carnal of men," turned the Vatican into a bawdy house. (On page 120, we are treated to a description of a papal orgy in which 50 naked prostitutes crawl around the floor lapping up chestnuts that the pope has strewn around the Apostolic apartments.) Along the way he dealt with important affairs of state. After Christopher Columbus discovered the new world, it fell to Alexander VI to divide the world between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. And after encouraging Charles VIII of France to invade Italy and capture Naples, the pope spent much of his reign dealing with the wreckage.

But his children, Caesare, Juan and Lucrezia (not to mention a passel of lesser bastards), were a major preoccupation for Alexander. Caesare Borgia is a monster of history; he wreaked havoc throughout Italy, garroted a slew of opponents (including a husband and lover of his own sister, Lucrezia) and became his father's instrument of terror toward any who threatened to challenge Alexander's election. Juan, for whom the pope purchased the wealthy Spanish province of Gandia, ended up in the Tiber River, the victim of an assassination of which his own brother was suspected. And yet, Bradford tells us, the pope loved his children very much.

Thus, scandal, intrigue, murder and mayhem in the Holy City were the backdrop to Lucrezia Borgia's early life. She was married at the age of 13 to Giovanni Sforza, a minor, illegitimate prince and relative of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, to whom Alexander VI was indebted for his simonial election. But this marriage ended badly when Sforza associated himself with the French designs on Naples and charged that Lucrezia and her father had an incestuous relationship. (Bradford also mentions possible incest with Caesare, but neither confirms nor denies the rumors.) Alexander annulled the marriage, but Lucrezia had acquired the reputation of being "the greatest whore there ever was in Rome." Thereafter, marrying well became a problem.

Her second marriage was to another illegitimate scion of a distinguished Italian family, the Duke of Bisceglie. But Caesare Borgia took a dislike to this in-law as well and assassinated him. Bradford portrays Lucrezia as quite upset about this insult. But within two years, she arrived at a turning point in her life, when she tired of being a pawn and became ready to take control of her own life.

The last half of Bradford's biography deals with Lucrezia's turn as the Duchess of Ferrara from 1502 to her death in 1519. For this, her third marriage, the Borgias joined forces in a fascinating, arm-twisting campaign to turn this 22-year-old woman of ill repute into a paragon of virtue and gain her acceptance into the important house of Este. After this campaign succeeded, Lucrezia was welcomed with "huge acclaim and rejoicing" in Ferrara, though the reader may wonder why. We learn a lot about Lucrezia's jewels and gowns, her sumptuous surroundings and entertainments, her difficult pregnancies and her affairs, her grief over her father's death and her brother's assassination.

In her foreword, Bradford claims to have relied on thousands of papers in archives across Italy. "I have let Lucrezia speak for herself," she writes. In fact, Lucrezia speaks seldom, and when she does, she says very little of a revealing nature. With her evil shown to be reflective rather than congenital, she comes off in the end as rather ordinary for the aristocracy of the time. Absent Caesare's monstrosity and Alexander's corruption, why should we pay attention to Lucrezia?

This biography is packed with enough minor and forgettable personages to fill a small stadium and enough sidetracks to confuse even the most attentive Renaissance scholar. One is left with the impression of a writer rummaging through medieval archives, but then neglecting to do the careful sifting and discarding that Virginia Woolf would have admired. *

James Reston Jr.'s new book, "Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors," will be published in the fall of 2005.

Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo da Veneto