Long before I thought of writing about the Borgias, I was of course well aware of their notorious reputation. They came trailing clouds of infamy, incest, and impiety. By the time I had finished writing about them, this reek of ill repute still clouded my mind. Yet it had undergone a subtle sea change. Yes, the Borgias were undoubtedly an evil bunch. But they were a lot more than this. They were organized, ambitious, and willing to take risks. They had a vision, which they were ready to pursue at all costs.

Such evil and bravado were all too necessary for success in Renaissance Italy, especially during the last days of the 15th century and beyond, the time when the Borgias attained the pinnacle of their success. Worse still, in Italian eyes, the Borgias were Spanish. The close family guarded their secrets by speaking Catalan among themselves—a language opaque to Italian ears. The Borgias’ detractors labeled them conversos, the name given to Spanish Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. The secret language spoken among the Borgia family was evidently Hebrew, according to inquisitive outsiders.

Cardinal Sin

Not surprisingly, the streets of Rome became abuzz with rumors during the time of Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope) that the family were guilty of all the sins and evil practices that had grown up around their reputation. The rumors were for the most part not true, yet they frequently germinated from a seed of truth. No, the Borgias were not incestuous, as the rumors claimed. Yet, as I learned during my research, the spread of rumors was quite understandable: the Borgias were a very close family, often embracing or caressing one another casually in public, in “the Spanish fashion.” And it’s likely that there was more than a hint of Freudian practice at play in their close family relations—Alexander VI seemed to love his daughter Lucrezia with an ardor which would certainly raise suspicions in our more psychologically aware age.

As for the relationship between Alexander VI’s favorite son, Cesare, and his young sister Lucrezia, this was an eye-opener for me: during the course of my research I learned that Cesare, too, was preternaturally close to Lucrezia, but that the rumors of actual incest were almost certainly false. The actual state of affairs was, if anything, even more unsettling. Cesare had what might loosely be termed a love-hate relationship with his sister. But this was no ordinary love-hate affair. Cesare went out of his way to impress Lucrezia and persuade her to love him, which she undoubtedly did. This passion was purely, if suffocatingly, familial. On the other hand, Cesare could not help but be antipathetic—to say the least—toward Lucrezia’s husbands and lovers.

The Borgias were a preternaturally close family, often caressing one another in “the Spanish fashion.”

I knew the rumors surrounding the mysterious fate of Lucrezia’s husbands and lovers, but the more I unearthed, the more clear Cesare’s role became. Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza of Milan, deserted her, fleeing Rome for his life—and blaming his fear on Cesare. Lucrezia’s father would consequently claim a divorce on the grounds of Giovanni’s impotence—a curious allegation in light of the fact that he already had a son by a previous marriage. The fatherly Pope even went so far as to have his daughter publicly declared virgo intacta—a laughable claim, yet one which ensured that she would be eligible for a future marriage.

Then it was discovered that Lucrezia was conducting a clandestine love affair with her father’s favorite servant, a young man known as Perotto. Cesare was certainly responsible for Perotto’s mutilated body being found in the Tiber a short while later. Lucrezia’s second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, fared little better: he was to be murdered on Cesare’s orders by his notorious Spanish henchman, Miguel da Corella, known as “the strangler” for his expertise in garroting. It was only when Lucrezia was married off to Alfonso d’Este, and went to live in distant Ferrara, that she was able to live a normal life. Which, being a Borgia, included falling in love with the poet Pietro Bembo and having an affair with her sister-in-law’s husband, the dashing Francesco Gonzaga, duke of nearby Mantua.

Paul Strathern’s The Borgias: Power and Fortune is out now from Pegasus