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Lucrezia Borgia’s performances at the Este court

Sergio Costola
4 Lucrezia Borgias performances at the Este court
Sergio Costola
As Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and Roberta Mock (2011) have pointed out, “bodies are the material through which
theatre researchers most often discuss performance Whether performing or spectating, bodies are often the
means for understanding how performance operates and makes meaning” (210). This chapter will consider the
performances of Lucrezia Borgia and of some of the women of her entourage in particular Angela Borgia,
Lucrezias cousin and lady-in-waitingduring the years before and after the death of the Ferrarese poet Ercole
Strozzi. Many documents, for example, insist on Lucrezias isolation during the period following Ercole
Strozzis death: she refused to receive people in her rooms and showed no desire to hold court. Scholars and
biographers tend to explain Lucrezias behavior as the result of a severe depression. However, it is possible to
re-read Lucrezias isolation as a series of performances apt to project the private domestic space to which she
was “restricted” into the public sphere. Lucrezias refusal to leave her rooms could represent a rebellion against
dominant codes that served to regulate the ways and times a duchess was to appear in public. In fact, as this
chapter shows, when she finally did leave her room and appear publicly it was in most peculiar ways. In
addition, this chapter will investigate how Lucrezias awareness of the ways in which self-representation could
be coded was paralleled by bodily practices that tended to challenge contemporary moral standards.
The year 2002 marked 500 years since Lucrezia Borgia made her entry into Ferrara. Her
entry on 2 February 1502, according to Ferdinand Gregorovius, was “one of the most brilliant
spectacles of the age,”1 and the anniversary triggered a series of very interesting and
promising conferences, publications, performances, exhibits, and other events, all with the
intent of providing a deeper and more precise image both of the golden age of the city of
Ferrara and of Lucrezia herself. Of particular interest was the exhibit entirely devoted to the
duchess that took place at Palazzo Bonacossi (Ferrara, 5 October – 15 December 2002) with a
catalog edited by Laura Laureati2 that included a rich apparatus of documents, and the 2002
conference, Lucrezia Borgia. Storia e Mito.3 More recently, Gabriella Zarri has considered
the duchess’ spiritual life,4 Diane Ghirardo has explored her building commissions and her
work as an entrepreneur,5 and Allyson Burgess Williams has analyzed her portraits.6
Unfortunately, since then not much has changed and Lucrezia Borgia’s importance has been
slighted, on one hand, by the myth developed around her figure and, on the other by a
1 Ferdinand Gregorovius, Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of
Her Day, trans. John Leslie Garner (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904), 240.
2 Laura Laureati, Lucrezia Borgia (Ferrara: Ferrara Arte, 2002).
3 Lucrezia Borgia. Storia e Mito, ed. Michele Bordin and Paolo Trovato (Florence: Leo S. Olschki
4 Gabriella Zarri, La religione di Lucrezia Borgia. Le lettere inedite del confessore (Rome: Roma nel
Rinascimento, 2006).
5 Dianne Yvonne Ghirardo, “Lucrezia Borgia’s Palace in Renaissance Ferrara,” Journal of the Society of
Architectural Historians 44, no. 4 (December 2005): 474497 and “Lucrezia Borgia as Entrepreneur,”
Renaissance Quarterly 61, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 5391.
6 Allyson Burgess Williams, “Rewriting Lucrezia Borgia: Propriety, Magnificence, and Piety in Portraits
of a Renaissance Duchess,” in Wives, Widows, Mistresses, and Nuns in Early Modern Italy: Making the
Invisible Visible through Art and Patronage, ed. Katherine A. McIver (London and New York: Routledge,
2012), 7797.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
constant comparison with other women of the time. As Diane Ghirardo has pointed out,
Lucrezia Borgia has traditionally “been locked into the paradigm of an Italian Renaissance
duchess … known for her material possessions and family affiliations” and “of interest
mainly for her jewelry, her wedding to Alfonso I d’Este and fabulous dowry, and her
notorious relatives, her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother, Cesare Borgia, il
Valentino.”7 In addition, Ghirardo states that
given the popular legends surrounding her name, it is no surprise that … the Lucrezia
who emerges remains a relatively passive figure, a pawn of her family’s political
games in Rome, and a faithful if often sickly wife in Ferrara without much
independent character of her own.8
Lucrezia has also been ignored because, “unlike her sister-in-law, she was neither an art and
antiquities collector nor, with the exception of Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), did she carry on a
correspondence with a major cultural or artistic figure.”9
The portrait of Lucrezia Borgia that emerges from the many contemporary documents is a
complex and contradictory one. As Laura Laureati has noted, it is certainly very different
“from that which has come down to us through a popular tradition supported and nourished
by a whole nineteenth-century and twentieth-century factious and basically misinformed
literature that has his roots in the romantic drama of Victor Hugo, Lucréce Borgia10 first
performed at the Théatre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris in 1833 – and in the opera Lucrezia
Borgia with music by Donizetti and libretto by Felice Romani first performed the same year
in Milan at the Teatro alla Scala. These and subsequent works have eclipsed the more
accurate and balanced depictions offered by writers such as Ferdinand Gregorovius and
Maria Bellonci.11 Very recent accounts of Lucrezia Borgia seem to revel, once again, in the
myth developed during the 1800s, as can be seen in the 2017 National Geographic History
article by Josep Palau I Orta,12 her Wikipedia page,13 and the two TV series recently devoted
to the Borgias.14
7 Ghirardo, “Lucrezia Borgia’s Palace,” 476.
8 Ghirardo, “Lucrezia Borgia,” 5556.
9 Ghirardo, “Lucrezia Borgia,” 56.
10 Laureati, Lucrezia Borgia, 23.
11 Maria Bellonci, Lucrezia Borgia (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1939). Quotes from The Life and
Times of Lucrezia Borgia, trans. Bernard and Barbara Wall (London: Phoenix Press, 2000).
12 Josep Palau I Orta, “Lucrezia Borgia: Predator or Pawn?,” National Geographic History,
January/February, 2017,
Sergio Costola
The 17 years that Lucrezia Borgia spent in Ferrara – between 1502 and 1519 – are extremely
important: her arrival in Ferrara in 1502 and the wedding celebrations with Alfonso I d’Este
represent a turning point in Lucrezia’s life and also an event dividing the two centuries.
About a year later, on 18 August 1503, Pope Alexander VI died and Lucrezia realized,
probably for the first time, that her stature in Ferrara was permanent and that it did not
depend on the fact that she was the daughter of Alexander VI. A focus on Lucrezia’s years in
Ferrara will allow us to avoid being diverted by her complicated family relationships and
rumors of the Roman period and to prioritize a time that marked a shift in the ways in which
chroniclers treated her. If Francesco Matarazzo, in his chronicle of Perugia (1492–1503),
referred to her as “la maggior puttana che fusse in Roma,”15 subsequent chroniclers, as Laura
Laureati has noted, began to refer to her in quite different and, more often than not, positive
terms: the extraordinary spectacles organized first in Rome by Alexander VI and then in
Ferrara by Ercole I can be considered the prologue to this new period in Lucrezia’s life.16
However, the focus of this chapter is less on the performances organized for Lucrezia Borgia
and more on the performances by the patrician woman. As Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti has
argued, the numerous pages devoted to Lucrezia both by her contemporaries and through
subsequent centuries cannot help us understand how, “as a Duchess of Ferrara, [Lucrezia]
managed to be accepted by everyone, and to perform her role in an irreproachable manner.”17
Even if we dismiss the rumors of incest and murder, the Pope’s daughter had been married
twice already, had a son with her second husband, Alfonso di Bisceglie, and most probably a
second son Giovanni, the Infante Romano with an unknown partner. These events were
all well-known and can be found in the contemporary chronicles and diaries by, among
others, Johann Burchard, Marin Sanudo, and Bernardino Zambotti. Tissoni Benvenuti adds
that it “was therefore hard for a reigning house of such a long and noble tradition as the Casa
13 “Lucrezia Borgia,” Wikipedia, accessed 8 December 2018,
14 The Borgias, Showtime Networks, 20112013, created by Neil Jordan and Borgia, Canal +, 2011
2014, created by Tom Fontana.
15 “The greatest whore who lived in Rome.” Francesco Matarazzo, Cronache della città di Perugia dal
1492 al 1503, in “Cronache e storie inedite della città di Perugia dal MCL al MDLXIII seguite da inediti
documenti tratti dagli archivi di Perugia, Firenze e di Siena con illustrazioni,” eds. Francesco Bonaini, Ariodante
Fabretti, and Filippo Luigi Polidori. In Archivio Storico Italiano 2 (1851). Quoted in Ferdinand Gregorovius,
History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, trans. Annie Hamilton (London: George Bell & Sons, 1900),
16 It is to be expected, as Laura Laureati points out, that the chronicles, diaries, dispatches, and poems
from Ferrara would be full of praise for their duchess. However, she continues, it is also worth noticing how
“some of the previous writers who, like Marin Sanudo, continue their chronicles during the ferrarese period of
Lucrezia, talk about her in very different terms.” Lucrezia Borgia, 2223.
17 Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti, “L’arrivo di Lucrezia a Ferrara,” in Lucrezia Borgia, eds. Bordin and
Trovato, 3.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
d’Este to welcome as the bride of the firstborn, and as a future duchess, a person with such a
past.”18 Francesco Guicciardini in a passage of his Storia d’Italia (pub. 1561) perfectly
describes the situation thus:
To this Match, so unworthy of the Family of the Este, which used to contract Affinity
with none but the most noble Families, Ercole and Alfonso were induced to consent,
because the King of France; who was willing to have everything done for the Pope’s
Satisfaction, earnestly insisted on it. And they were also inclined to it from a Desire
they had of securing themselves (if there could be any Security against such
perfidious Dealings) against the Arms and Ambition of Valentino, who abounding in
Money, and strengthened with the Authority of the Apostolic See, and the Favour of
France was now grown formidable to a great Part of Italy, who were sensible that his
covetous Ambition knew no Bounds or Restraint.19
Lucrezia Borgia, however, managed to change the narrative to which she had been confined.
According to Anne Jacobson Schutte, some women in early modern Italy
managed to lay their hands on physical and psychological space, materials, and
techniques insufficient for staging a revolution, but adequate for limited exercises in
self-determination. They worked to create not only works of literature, art, and music
but also themselves.20
So, how did Lucrezia “create herself”? What forms did this creation take? How was this
creation able to redirect the narrative to which she had been assigned in diaries, chroniclers,
and scandal?21
As previously stated, this chapter is part of a larger project meant to illustrate the rich variety
of performances not for, as it has partially been done, but by Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
and to re-evaluate her contributions to early modern theatre. This means looking beyond the
18 Tissoni Benvenuti, “L’arrivo di Lucrezia a Ferrara,” 3.
19 Francesco Guicciardini, The History of Italy, trans. Austin Parke Goddard (London: John Towers,
1755), 3:67.
20 Anne Jacobson Schutte, “Per Speculum in Enigmate: Failed Saints, Artists, and Self-Construction of
the Female Body in Early Modern Italy,” in Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious
and Artistic Renaissance, eds. E. Anne Matter and John Coakley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1994), 186.
21 As Allyson Burgess Williams has recently noted, these are difficult questions to answer “in light of the
scanty documentary evidence.” However, Burgess Williams continues, there are enough documents showing
that Lucrezia commissioned a variety of worksbuildings, rooms, portraits, medalsand that “it is therefore
likely that she either commissioned or was consulted about images of herself.” Burgess Williams, “Rewriting
Lucrezia Borgia,” 78.
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canonical an emphasis on the text or play and its performance and instead bringing new
light on materials which should be integrated into the histories of early modern theatre. In her
Feminism and Theatre, a seminal study meant to re-evaluate the research methods and
paradigms employed by theatre historians, Sue-Ellen Case argued that “for centuries the
theatrical achievements of women remained largely invisible” and for this reason,
the history of their part in theatre history must differ substantially from that of men.
Any history of women in performance must include achievements in performance
areas which originated in the unique experiences of women. Alongside traditional
categories of production such as playwriting, directing and designing, consideration
must be given to modes of performance located in the domestic and personal spheres
which were assigned to women by the patriarchy.22
More recently, Dympna Callaghan has proposed the category of “excluded participant” to
describe women’s standing within the early modern social hierarchy and also as a way of
bridging the two traditional positions warning against ignoring the effects of patriarchy
while seeing women beyond the roles of victims of the social system:
Feminist scholarship thus far, then, presents us with two divergent perspectives,
which nonetheless have the potential to add up to a valuably complex, nuanced
picture of women’s simultaneous participation and exclusion from early modern
culture. Women’s status in early modern England is, paradoxically that of excluded
It could be argued that Lucrezia Borgia, by virtue of her social standing, was not truly or
completely excluded. However, as Robert Davis has shown, in Renaissance Italy, urban space
became progressively gendered, identifying public spaces as male and private spaces as
female. The “isolation and enclosure women played a crucial role in promoting … patrilineal
interests.”24 In addition, male rituals of display and aggression in city streets and piazzas
made public spaces unsafe for women.25 For these reasons, women – and, we should specify,
22 Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Routledge, 1988), 2829.
23 Dympna Callaghan, “Introduction,” in The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Studies, ed.
Dympna Callaghan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 7.
24 Robert C. Davis, “The Geography of Gender in the Renaissance,” in Gender and Society in
Renaissance Italy, eds. Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis (London and New York: Longman, 1998), 20.
25 For male rituals of display see Davis, “The Geography,” 2331. For a description of different kinds of
aggression, from verbal harassment to rape, see Michael Rocke, “Gender and Sexual Culture in Renaissance
Italy,” in Gender and Society, 150170.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
elite women – went out less frequently and, when they did, they were forced by the
complexity and volume of their attire to be followed by a large number of female servants.
Lucrezia in 1509, for example, in order to prove her chastity at court, was required to have
the courtier Pietro Giorgio da Lampugnano sleep in her antechamber as a guard.26
Following the lead from performance studies, it is thus possible to depend less on the textual
record – or the text of a play as it has been the case in theatre studies – and more on
unscripted theatre events, as Diana Taylor has suggested, by focusing on the repertory of
embodied memory conveyed through the intersection of gestures, body, voice, movement,
dance, and other means of performance.27 By attending to different theatrical forms beyond
the scripted drama, it is possible to recover the performative events of a much larger number
of early modern women and “advance the field,” as Sara Mueller has noted, “beyond the
confines of the new women dramatists whose dramatic manuscripts have survived, and
develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which women’s theatre could be received by
its audiences.”28
Given the paucity of documents, the reconstruction of Lucrezia Borgia’s performances at the
Este court can only be hypothetical. This was also the situation lamented by Diane Ghirardo
at the beginning of her study of Lucrezia Borgia as entrepreneur. However, despite their
paucity, as Ghirardo noted, the surviving documents could nonetheless “reveal Lucrezia
Borgia as a woman who maneuvered both within and without the conventions of her
Theatre historiography, as Fabrizio Cruciani points out, “studies the ways in which theatre
has existed throughout history.”30 However, the tautology of this sentence, the Italian scholar
warns, is only apparent, because it implies the need for a variety of methods for the different
theatres that have existed: “it evokes the many functions and the many professions that have,
from time to time, been specified as theatre; and above all it tends to make explicit that the
word used (‘theatre’) is taken to indicate more a field of investigation than an object of
26 In a letter dated 6 July 1509, Tolomeo Spagnolo wrote: “La mia illustrissima madama hoggi si ha preso
gran spasso de la Duchessa di Ferrara, qual per mostrare al marito de esser ben fidel e casta si fa dormire Petro
Zorzo da Lampugnano in l’anticamera.” Quoted in Alessandro Luzio, “Isabella d’Este e i Borgia,Archivio
Storico Lombardo: Giornale della società storica lombarda, Serie 5, 42 (1915): 737.
27 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
28 Sara Mueller, “Early Modern Banquet Receipts and Women’s Theatre,” Medieval and Renaissance
Drama in England 24 (2011): 108.
29 Ghirardo, “Lucrezia Borgia,” 57.
30 Fabrizio Cruciani, “Problemi di Storiografia,” in Guide Bibliografiche. Teatro, eds. Fabrizio Cruciani
and Nicola Savarese (Milan: Garzanti, 1991), 3.
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study.”31 Most importantly, theatre is a field of investigation because its situations and sign
systems do not necessarily arise from theatre, but they become so. With respect to cultures,
Cruciani argues, theatre is “un luogo dei possibili”32 – it is a place for what is imaginable. It is
therefore necessary to make representation – rather than the theatrical event itself our field
of investigation, as a way to avoid enshrining “the all-male stage as the locus classicus of
early modern theater” and analyze instead “the vast range of other theatrical labors and
practices with which women were indeed engaged”33 as Clare McManus has recently pointed
out: “The term ‘actress’ is too limited to define the practice of theatrical women … The early
modern woman constantly oversteps the bounds of the ‘actress,’ moving into broader fields
of cultural and theatrical activity.”34
What kinds of “theatrical labors and practices” did Lucrezia Borgia engage with? These kinds
of questions force a deeper examination of methodological issues related to performance and
its documentation, especially in light of a recently published book by Philip Auslander.
Auslander states that “performance documentation has been understood to encompass two
categories … the documentary and the theatrical.”35 On one hand, the documentary category
assumes that
the documentation of the performance event provides both a record of it through
which it can be reconstructed and evidence that it actually occurred. The
connection between performance and document is thus thought to be ontological, with
the event preceding and authorizing its documentation.36
In the theatrical category, on the other hand, Auslander places a host of art works in which
performances “are staged solely to be photographed or filmed,” and with “no meaningful
prior existence as autonomous events presented to audiences.” As a result, “the space of the
document … thus becomes the only space in which the performance occurs.”37 These
observations can be adapted and applied to the broader fields of cultural and theatrical
31 Cruciani, “Problemi di Storiografia,” 3.
32 Cruciani, “Problemi di Storiografia,” 4.
33 Clare McManus, “Early Modern Women’s Performance: Toward a New History of Early Modern
Theatre?,” Shakespeare Studies 37 (2009): 175.
34 McManus, “Early Modern Women’s Performance,” 175.
35 Philip Auslander, Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 2018), 21.
36 Auslander, Reactivations, 2122.
37 Auslander, Reactivations, 22.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
activity by women during the early modern period. Two specific examples both related to
Lucrezia Borgia – make this more clear.
EXAMPLE 1: The Eclogue composed by Ercole Pio and performed in the Great Hall of the Ducal
Palace during the 1508 Carnival celebrations.
This interesting performance is known thanks to the detailed description made by Bernardino
de’ Prosperi in one of his letters to Isabella d’Este:
[124r] Very Illustrious Lady: In order to have something to write to Your Lordship,
last night I went to the representation of the Eclogue composed by D. Hercule di Pij
for the Very Reverend Cardinal, staged in the great hall, where in the middle of said
hall, there was a platform, facing the Castle, decorated only with tapestries, and there
were the duke and the Cardinal, both masked, and the duchess with her court of
noblewomen. Without any preamble of sound or words, entered a young shepherd in
love, complaining about his beloved and his sad fate; after many verses on the said
subject, entered another [shepherd] more experienced in the art of love, who blessed
the place where his love for her beloved began: while talking about these matters, he
showed happiness and great joy. Raising his eyes and seeing the first shepherd, he
asked him what was the cause of his sadness. After [the first shepherd] told him the
story, complaining not only about his beloved but also all the other women, the more
experienced shepherd reprimanded him and instead praised them, remembering
succinctly the facts, merit, and value of the ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman
women, of which he said that three, at the moment, hold the principality: one over the
Heridano, another over the Mincio, and the third at the Matauro: meaning the Duchess
[Lucrezia], Your Lordship, and the Duchess of Urbino: after this long controversy,
during which many remarkable things were said, both for and against, entered another
[shepherd] who, putting an end to this reasoning, proved that women are worthy of
being loved: and he entered to praise the name of [Lucrezia] Borgia with laudatory
triplets, each one beginning with her name. [124v] Then a young shepherdess
wounded in love came in, told herself her serious pain, and showed to be willing to
die, rather than telling anybody about her pain; and with this disposition she said she
wanted to go among the alpine places to cry and regret her hard fate. Of this the three
shepherds were grieving, showing her compassion. And, at the sound of a hunting
horn, many shepherds with dogs on a leash and sogoxi came in and their leader began
to praise the site of that found place, because florid and pleasant with plenty of trees
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and delicate fountains; he then instructed the site to be used for recreation and
pleasure, before the time would come to go back to their huts and herds. Then the
three shepherds approached them and the more experienced one told them the reason
for their being late, and said that it was because they offered comfort and good
memories to the young shepherd for the troubles he recounted; they [the hunters] thus
involve them in games and songs and say that he [the young shepherd] had to vacate
and leave that much grieving with songs, and that they will then offer a sacrifice to
the Goddess Pallas, for the protection and growth of the flock, and to the divine
Borgia, so that she could defend and recommend them to the divine Alfeo. Then they
elected a Lord with the power to ask each one of the shepherds whatever he wanted;
two were ordered to sing with a cithara: they each sang first separately and depicted a
beautiful woman and then together with great grace and beautiful speeches; they were
then asked to be silent and [the Lord] asked another [shepherd] to sing with a lute,
who seemed to sing in honor of the divine Borgia; then four putti, trained by the one
who walks the rope and serves the Cardinal [125r], twirled; then, after his disciples,
he [the trainer] did wonderful things hopping back and forth with slave jumps and
ending, with a similar back jump, down the platform, which is about one feet high.
Then Delida, who was dressed as a shepherd like the others, began to sing with three
of her companions, among which there was Tromboncino. After she was done with
her singing, she prepared for the sacrifice, and played some other games, one of them
ordered by their Lord: she took the lute, with the others went down on her knees,
holding torches in their hands that seemed adorned with fronds, and offered a
beautiful invocation and supplication to the Goddess Pallas and the divine Borgia,
mostly to the divine Borgia, who was happy to accept the sacrifice and their
supplication; and if they were not worthy of her merits and stature, she should
consider their hearts and good intentions instead: after the supplication was over, they
spread odors over the perfumatoro that was there adorned and, standing up, two by
two they went around the platform three or four times, while singing a sort of
supplication or litanies; first two [were singing], then the aforementioned Delida with
her companions was answering in a soft tone and almost as if she was asking to pray
for them. After this procession was over, the Lord of the shepherds said a few words
to the shepherd in pain, giving him counsel and comfort, and showing how he could
also take, with the present women, the same recreations and pleasures that they had
taken with those games and songs. And as soon as the bagpipes started to play, they
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
all came down the platform, and they [the shepherds] took each one of them [the
women] by hand. I then went back home, but I do not think that the dances lasted
much longer, since it was already three, the time for people to go back to their homes
to dine. This is all I could understand of the Eclogue, which was really beautiful to
watch and hear. I kiss Your Lordship’s hand and I ask forgiveness if I dwelt on this
for too long: it was owed to my desire to satisfy you in all things.38
38 Bernardino de’ Prosperi, Archivio di Stato di Mantova, AG, b. 1242, fol. xiii, 124125, Bernardino de’
Prosperi to Isabella d’Este, 14 February 1508: “[124r] Madama: Per havere cosa da scrivere a V. S. me
condussi hersira al spectaculo de l’Egloga composta per questo D. Hercule di Pij ad instantia del Car.,
dimonstrata in sala grande, dove a traverso nel mezzo d’epsa sala era uno tribunale ornato sol de tapezarie che
guardava verso il Castello, et lì trovandossi il Sr. Duca et lo Car. ambidui in mascara et la S.ra con
bona comitiva de zentildonne, senza altro preambulo de sono ni d’altra pronuncia se presentoe uno pastore
giovineto inamorato dogliendosse del amante sua e de sua triste sorte; e dicto supra tal materia multi versi ni
vene un altro più provecto nel arte de amar, bendicendo quello loco dove principioe l’amor suo a la amata sua: e
discorrendo in questo dire monstroe contenteza e letitia grande. Et alzando l’ochij et vedendo il primo pastore li
adimandoe la causa de la sua tristeza. Narratogli il tuto cum beasimar non tanto la sua inamorata ma anche
l’altre done, quello provecto pastore lo riprese laudandole lui da l’altro canto et comemorando succintamente li
ex.ti facti, vaglia et valorosità de done antiche hebree, greche et latine, de le quali dixe tre mo ne tenino il
principato: una supra lo Heridano, unaltra supra il Mincio, et la terza presso il Metauro: intendendo de la p.ta n. de V. S. et de Urbino: facta questa controversia a la longa, dove fo dicto cose notabile assai
pro et contra, se ne presentoe un altro, lo quale ponendo fine a li ragionamenti di primi dimonstroe anchor lui le
done esser degne d’essere amate; et introe a laudare il nome de Borgia, adducendola sempre in ogni capo del
[124v] terceto. Ne vene poi una pastorella ferita de amore, et narrando la sua grave doglia fra sè, dimonstroe
prima volere morire che manifestarse a veruno de la doglia sua; et cum tal animo dixe volere andare fra lochi
alpestri a piangere et rimaricarsi de la sua dura sorte. De che se ne contristoe fra loro li tri pastori, dimostrando
portarli compassione. Et sonata uno corno da cazatori, fori se presentorno multi pastori cum cani a lassio et
sogoxi, de li quali il principe d’epsi cominciò a laudare il sito de quello loco trovato per essere florido e ameno
cum copia de arbori et de delicate fonte, et demonstroe chel loco et il tempo recerchasse che li pigliassimo
recreatione et piacere mentre l’hora veniva a ritornar a li tugurij at armenti suoi. Poi vedendo li tri pastori se
accostarono a loro, et quello provecto narrandogli la causa del suo essere tardato a ritornare ad epsi, quale era
stata per dare conforto et boni ricordi al giovene pastore de li guay a lui narrate, li tirano a sè a far giochi et canti
cum dire che a questi se doveva vacare et lassare da canto hormai il tanto contristare, et che doppo fariano
sacrificio a la Dea Pallas per conservatione et augumento de li loro armenti, et a la diva Borgia acciò li
raccomandasse et defendesse presso il suo divo Alfeo. Et constituito uno che havesse a comandare a
cadauno d’epsi quello gli pareva, fo comandato a dui che cantassino in una cithera, li quali laudando et
depingendo una dona bella cadauno da per sè et poi ambi dui insieme in bona gratia et belle sententie, gli fo
posto silentio, et comandato ad un altro che cantasse in uno leuto, lo quale pare cantoe in laude de Borgia diva;
poi fo facto voltezar quatro putarelli disciplinati da quello che va supra la corda, servitor [125r] del Cardinale, et
lui doppo li discipuli suoi fece cose stupende butandosse inanti et indrieto cum salti schiavoneschi et in fine al
indreto cum simile salto gioso del tribunal, quale è alto più de me circa mezo brazo. Dalida poi quale era vestita
cum l’altri da pastore incominciò a cantare cum tri suoi compagni fra quali era Tromboncino. Finito il canto suo
et preparato il sacrificio et facto anche alcuni altri giochi di tomegiare, uno d’epsi per comandamento del
loro piglioe uno liuto et inginochiati tuto il resto cum facelle in mano accese, quale parevano adornate de fronde,
fece una bella invocatione et deprecatione a la p.te Dea Pallas et diva Borgia, ma per lo più nomiando la diva
Borgia che fosse contenta de acceptare il sacrificio et le deprecation loro; et quando non fosseno condegne a la
sua alteza et meriti ne volesse piglair il core et boni animi suoi: quale deprecatione finite fo sparso odori supra il
perfumatoro che era lì parato et levati in pedi a dui a dui zirorno tre o quatro fiate il tribunal et li dicti odori
cantando in forma de supplicatione o sia de letanie, dove dui dicevano prima, poi dicta Dalida cum li compagni
suoi ge respondeva cum uno tono dolce et quasi como volesse dire prega per nui. Finita questa processione, lo de pastori dixe alcune parole verso lo adolorato pastore dandogli cosiglio et conforto et dimonstrogli
che ultra la recreatione et piaceri che havevano pigliato in quelli giochi et canti che anche il poteva recrearse et
mitigare li affanni suoi col ballare insieme cum le done astante. Et cominciato a sonare li pivi tuti salirno gioso
del tribunale, et chi una chi un’altra ne prese per mano. Et mi me ne veni a casa, nè molto credo che se ballasse
Sergio Costola
This performance took place on a raised platform, while the spectators Lucrezia Borgia,
Alfonso d’Este, Cardinal Ippolito and other members of the court sat in the hall in front of
it. The eclogue opens with a dispute between two shepherds over the nature of love; then, a
third shepherd comes in to end the controversy: he declares that all women should be praised
and end with laudatory triplets, each one beginning with the name of Lucrezia Borgia. The
second part of the performance represents a sudden shift: at the sound of a horn, a “caccia”
begins, with hunters and dogs. The previous three shepherds join the hunters and announce a
sacrifice to both the goddess Pallas and Lucrezia Borgia; they then elect the lord of the
games; and finally organize a series of entertainments: songs, music, acrobatic numbers, and
the dances of Dalila de’ Putti, dressed as a man. At the end of these performances, one of the
shepherds turns to the young man whose lamentation had begun the entire performance and
says that the pains of love can be mitigated with games as has been done and by dancing
with women. At this point, Lucrezia Borgia and her court of women leave the stands and join
the actors in a dance. As Clelia Falletti has pointed out, what began as an eclogue, was then
transformed into a courtly entertainment, and ended as a liturgical ceremony – the sacrifice to
Pallas and the dance, uniting spectators and actors.39
This performance clearly belongs to the category of the documentary as described before: it
provides us with a record of the theatrical event and thus the possibility – however partial – to
reconstruct and analyze it. It is also evidence that it actually occurred. This document does
not present particular problems for the theatre historian: the event preceded and authorized its
EXAMPLE 2: Lucrezia Borgias voluntary exile in the Palace of Belfiore (June 1502).
As soon as Spaniard and Roman guests began to leave Ferrara for Rome following the
wedding celebrations between Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este, the future duchess began
to withdraw “all the bridges she had thrown across to the men and women of Ferrara,” as
Maria Bellonci writes, since Duke Ercole “refused to budge an inch in the matter of money
and would not add a single ducat to the 10,000 he had offered,”40 to “provide her court with
clothes, food, horses and carriages, quite apart from the alms-giving and entertaining
perchè già era presso a le III hore, termine che ognuno se ha a trovare a cena a casa sua. Questo è quanto poteti
racoglier de l’Egloga, la quale invero fo bella da audire et da vedere. A V. S. baso la mano et racomandome
sempre che se troppo me sonto exteso, quella lo impute al desiderio ch’io ho de satisfarli in tute le cose.” The
document was originally published by Alessandro Luzio and Rodolfo Renier, Mantova e Urbino (Turin and
Rome: L. Roux e C. Editori, 1893), 317319.
39 Clelia Falletti, “Racconto critico di un’egloga cortigiana a Ferrara nel 1508,” Teatro e Storia 5, no. 2
(October 1990): 301.
40 Bellonci, The Life and Times, 231.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
expected of her rank.”41 What has been described by many writers as Lucrezia’s voluntary
exile thus began. It is worth quoting the passage as described by Maria Bellonci in its
entirety. Bellonci’s account is based on the letters by “el Prete,” Isabella d’Estes
correspondent from Ferrara:
And so Lucrezia’s voluntary exile was under the sign of Eros. She rose late in the
morning, dressed at leisure, and went to Mass in her little chapel. She lunched. She
received the few people who were allowed into her presence, chatted with her women
and read religious stories or love poetry to them. She planned new dresses with her
robe-makers. Or she would send for one of the strong boxes that contained
innumerable appeals and secret Vatican documents … With a festive air Lucrezia
would prepare powders and braziers and golden nets and Moorish shirts and a great
receptacle of warm, aromatic water, and then, when alone with her favourite, would
take off her own brocades and undress her girl-in-waiting and together they could get
into the bath which the little maid, Lucia, kept supplied with hot water. The two
young women would play and laugh and bask through the aromatic hours. Later,
wearing only their shifts, their hair held up in a mesh of gold, they would stretch out
on cushions and burn sweet-scented incense in the braziers.42
Can this be considered a performance and thus be studied as such by theatre historians? Is
this even a theatrical event to begin with? Clearly, it was not available to an audience at the
time that it happened and had no specific time limits – i.e., it did not have a specific
beginning and end. The only people present besides Lucrezia were, at times, her ladies-in-
waiting, her maid Lucia, and the few other people Lucrezia would allow in her rooms. In
addition, the account-document by “el Prete” on which Bellonci bases her reconstruction is a
second-hand account, since it is based on the rumors reported by Lucia of things she had
witnessed, but also of things she had heard:
I spend my time with la Mora and at times I speak with the mocicha who helps in the
bedroom. Last night she told me that the Lady [Lucrezia] was lustful with Nichola:
41 Bellonci, The Life and Times, 227.
42 Bellonci, The Life and Times, 232233.
Sergio Costola
they bathed together and, once out, they put on perfumes and stayed for more than
one hour in their Moorish shirts.43
It does not belong to the category of the documentary as described before, since the priest’s
letter does not provide us, like Bernardino de’ Prosperi’s letter did, with a record of a
theatrical event framed as such. The letter is evidence that these instances actually occurred,
but we have no evidence that they were understood to be in any way a spectacle or a
representation. None of the terms used at the time to refer to theatrical performances is used
by “el Prete:” he makes no references to tribunali de legname for the spectators or actors, no
scena de città or de comici, where things could be represented – rappresentate – no ioci, ludi,
festa, facetia, spectaculo. There is no mention of actori. Most importantly, the letter lacks
one of the most important indicators for a theatre historian of this period: the often-used
expression by the chroniclers of the time “el Duca Ercole fece fare” “the Duke ordered,”
an expression that offers the historian the certainty that what we are analyzing was indeed
understood to be a theatrical performance.
Can the description offered by “el Prete” and reconstructed by Bellonci be considered, going
back to the distinction made by Auslander, a documentation of the second kind, falling into
the theatrical category, i.e., those art works staged solely to be documented and with “no
meaningful prior existence as autonomous events presented to audiences?” The absence of
words specifically referring to a traditional theatrical world would probably not constitute a
real problem for most of the contemporary theatre historians, attuned to look beyond the
canonical – the text of a play and/or its performance – thanks to the contribution of
performance studies in the last few decades. However, what about that fece fare i.e., the
certainty that Lucrezia’s performances were indeed intended by their author for an audience?
Without a document that can be used as evidence of what we could define as her authorial
intention, are we running the risk of projecting our own needs, desires, and expectations onto
the past? In other words, by considering this passage that, until now, has been understood as a
series of daily rather than extraordinary events in Lucrezia’s life, are we creating the object of
study, rather than analyzing a pre-established connection between a performance and its
43 El Prete’s letters are at the Archivio di Stato di Mantova. Of particular interest is the June 15 letter
(AG, b. 1238, fol. iii, 304): “[304r] Io me ne sto cola Mora e tal volta parlo a la mia mocicha che sta a la camera.
Pur heri sira me dise che la Sig.ra stave in lasivie con Nichola, tute due in bagno e poi che sono fora teneno el
perfume abasso più de una hora stanno in camisse moresche.” Part of these letters have been published by
Alessandro Luzio, “Isabella d’Este e i Borgia,” Archivio Storico Lombardo: Giornale della società storica
lombarda, Serie 5, 41 (1914): 469553.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
documentation? Are we not transforming what should be an ontological connection into a
phenomenological one?
At this point let us turn to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discussion of “the historicity of
understanding” as explained in his Truth and Method.44 In the hermeneutical process,
according to Gadamer, to acquire a horizon of interpretation requires a “fusion of horizons.”
This fusion, the German philosopher continues, allows the interpreter to gain a superior
understanding. However, this understanding is not superior “in the sense of superior
knowledge of the subject because of clearer ideas,” but simply because “we understand in a
different way,”45 and we understand it in a “different way every time.”46 And this is why
understanding is “not merely a reproductive, but a productive attitude as well.”47 Before
focusing on what it means, or to understand it “as an expression of life,”48 a work of art, in
fact, should always be understood for what it says, and this process necessitates that the work
of art be restated. And, needless to say, something can be restated only by being related to the
present. In addition, as Gadamer reminds us, there is always a risk involved in the process of
historical understanding:
But this means that the interpreter’s own thoughts have also gone into the re-
awakening of the meaning of the text. In this the interpreter’s own horizon is decisive,
yet not as a personal standpoint that one holds on to or reinforces, but more as a
meaning and a possibility that one brings into play and puts at risk.49
It follows that the meaning of a performance is “fundamentally identifiable and
What is identical in the reproduction is only that which was formulated. This indicates
that ‘reproduction’ cannot be meant here in its strict sense. It does not mean referring
back to some original source in which something is said or written. The understanding
44 Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Garrett Barden and John Cumming (New York: The
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1975), 358.
45 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 264.
46 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 276.
47 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 264.
48 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 354.
49 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 350.
Sergio Costola
of something written is not a reproduction of something that is past, but the hearing of
a present meaning.50
What is identical in the various reproductions of Lucrezia’s original performances and we
mean here all reproductions, from the “original” one of the maid Lucia, to the one of “el
Prete,” created by mixing Lucia’s with other rumors, to the re-awakening in Bellonci’s novel
– is thus “not a reproduction of something that is past, but the sharing of a present
meaning.”51 What about Lucrezia’s intentions? Did she conceive all the acts performed during
her ‘voluntary exile’ as a conscious performance? Was she performing for an audience, albeit
an absent one? It is very plausible again, “more as a meaning and a possibility that one
brings into play and puts at risk”52 – that Lucrezia was aware that what she was doing would
have been talked about, and maybe written down.
Many documents insist on Lucrezia’s isolation during her first months in Ferrara and also in
subsequent periods – in particular, a few years later, following Ercole Strozzi’s death
periods during which she refused to receive people in her rooms and showed no desire to hold
court. More often than not, scholars and biographers tend to explain Lucrezia’s behavior as
the result of a severe depression. However, it is possible to re-read Lucrezia’s isolations as a
series of performances apt to project the private domestic space to which she was “confined”
into the public sphere.53 Lucrezia’s refusal to leave her rooms could represent a rebellion
against dominant codes regulating the ways and times in which a duchess was supposed to
appear in public. In 1509, after one of her last isolations, when she finally did leave her room
and appeared in public, it was in a most peculiar way. On one occasion, for example,
Lucrezia ordered a field tent to be erected in the Cathedral in which she and her court of
women could attend mass without being seen.54 This act demonstrates a consciousness on
Lucrezia’s part of how the organization of social space tended to “objectify” women.
50 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 354.
51 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 354.
52 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 350.
53 For an analysis of the interrelationship between domestic and public spaces as opposed to any firm
separation between the two, see Lena Cowen Orlin, Private Matters and Public Culture in Post-Reformation
England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).
54 This episode has been described by Bernardino de’ Prosperi in two of his letters to Isabella d’Este. In
the first one, dated 20 February 1509, Bernardino writes that “La Sig.ra Duchessa se ha facto drizare in domo la
Camereta da Campo” [The Duchess has ordered to build a tent in the Cathedral]. In the second one, dated
26 February 1509, he adds: “Credo che la Duchessa sia venuta due fiate … questi di, ma de certo non ne
so se non de una perchè sua e l’altre vi intrano in quella Camereta quale ge scrissi essere adrizata in
vescovato” [I think that the very illustrious Duchess came a couple of times these days …, but I am not certain
except for one, because Her Lordship and the others [women] entered into that tent built in the Cathedral that I
wrote about]. Archivio di Stato di Mantova, AG, b. 1242, fols. xv, 263r and 265r.
Lucrezia Borgia at the Este court
Lucrezia’s awareness of the ways in which modes of self-representation could be coded was
paralleled by bodily practices that tended to challenge contemporary standards of morality
and that, as we have seen, were made known to the courts of Mantua and Ferrara through the
indiscretions of “El Prete.”
Lucrezia Borgia, whether consciously or not, through these performances was casting doubts
and calling attention to a text both in its performed and literary modes as process and
construction: first, the original performances of herself and her ladies-in-waiting; secondly,
the oral accounts of her maid Lucia and the possible accounts of other people at court who
could have been directly or indirectly involved in these performances; thirdly, the written
account of “el Prete” for Isabella d’Este; and then, still more oral accounts based on both the
letter and the rumors travelling, as we know, from court to court. Thus, Lucrezia Borgia
triggered a series of unofficial histories and unofficial historians that, in turn, pointed to the
conventionality of both gender construction and power dynamics, especially in a city like
Ferrara, characterized by a competition among the different court coteries of Duke Alfonso,
Cardinal Ippolito, Isabella d’Este, and Lucrezia Borgia. The audience of these performances
performances that were embodied, narrated, written down can be understood, borrowing
from Herbert Blau, not so much in a canonical way as a mere congregation of people
assembled to see the performance of a staged play – thus co-present in time and space, – but
as a “body of thought and desire,” involved in issues of “representation, repression,
otherness, the politics of the unconscious, ideology and power” together with questions of
“memory, mirroring, perspective and the spatializing of thought itself.”55
The real challenge for the scholar of Italian Renaissance theatre is to trace, together with the
main characteristics of the dominant culture, those subaltern cultures, which developed and
transformed along non-literary routes. It is the culture of those whom we can identify as the
lively intermediaries, such as jesters, jugglers, acrobats, impromptu singers, dancers,
musicians, the various artists and artisans of music, masks, scenery, and food. But this can
also be achieved by paying greater attention, to linking figures such as maids, ladies-in-
waiting, priests, and envious sisters-in-law.
Lucrezia Borgia’s acts, as they have been treated so far, point toward a central issue: the
performativity of documentation itself. As Philip Auslander has pointed out, “the act of
documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as such. Documentation does
not simply generate image/statements that describe an autonomous performance and state that
55 Herbert Blau, The Audience (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 2526.
Sergio Costola
it occurred: it produces an event as a performance,” for which “we are the present
audience.”56 Only in this way can Lucrezia Borgia’s performances be re-activated and re-
awakened, even if only in “the space of the document.”
Print sources
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Performance and Art 28, no. 3 (2006): 1–10.
Auslander, Philip. Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation. Ann Arbor:
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Bellonci, Maria. Lucrezia Borgia. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1939.
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Bordin, Michele and Paolo Trovato, eds. Lucrezia Borgia. Storia e Mito. Florence: Leo S.
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in Portraits of a Renaissance Duchess.” In Wives, Widows, Mistresses, and Nuns in Early
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56 Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,PAJ: A Journal of
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Most people agree that witnessing a live performance is not the same as seeing it on screen; however, most of the performances we experience are in recorded forms. Some aver that the recorded form of a performance necessarily distorts it or betrays it, focusing on the relationship between the original event and its recorded versions. By contrast, Reactivations focuses on how the audience experiences the performance, as opposed to its documentation. How does a spectator access and experience a performance from its documentation? What is the value of performance documentation? The book treats performance documentation as a specific discursive use of media that arose in the middle of the 20th century alongside such forms of performance as the Happening and that is different, both discursively and as a practice, from traditional theater and dance photography. Philip Auslander explores the phenomenal relationship between the spectator who experiences the performance from the document and the document itself. The document is not merely a secondary iteration of the original event but a vehicle that gives us meaningful access to the performance itself as an artistic work. "A rich and rewarding book. Reactivations reminds us how to think about performance in a manner that is direct and pragmatic, while still ambitious and fully embedded in both conceptual and historical knowledge of our subject."
Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-1891) was a celebrated German medieval historian. After studying philosophy and theology at the University of Königsberg, Gregorovius moved to Rome in 1852, and became immersed in researching the medieval history of the city. First published in 1872, his monumental study of medieval Rome was the first modern account of the subject, and became the standard reference. This English translation of the fourth German edition appeared between 1894 and 1902. In his work Gregorovius discusses the political, social and cultural changes in the city from 400 to 1534, making extensive use of primary sources. Gregorovius also includes the Renaissance in his study, showing how medieval thought and events influenced political and cultural life and thought during the Renaissance. Volume 7, Part 1 covers the period 1421-1496 and examines the condition of the city and the process of urban renewal.
Lucrezia Borgia, duchess of Ferrara, constructed a palace in Ferrara between 1515 and 1518 adjacent to the convent of San Bernardino, which she had founded in 1509. Following her death in 1519, most of the palace was turned over to the nuns of San Silvestro for their new convent, and all historical memory of the palace disappeared. She did not intend the palace as a suburban residence or as a spectacular retreat, but as the head-quarters of her burgeoning agricultural and reclamation enterprises, activities also forgotten over the centuries. This study strips away the additions that were erected between 1520 and 1809 to arrive at a projected reconstruction of the palace as commissioned by Lucrezia, and explores the evidence for how she intended to use it.
The financial status of patrician women in Renaissance Italy remains obscure in all but a few cases, but the prevailing paradigm frames them as being dedicated to the well-being of their families, subordinating their interests to those of their spouses. Where known, their financial activities consist for the most part of supervising small farms, marketing livestock and produce, buying and selling properties, and lending money at interest. Lucrezia Borgia confounds this paradigm: she was a budding capitalist entrepreneur, leveraging her own capital by obtaining marshland at negligible cost and then investing in massive reclamation enterprises. She also raised livestock and rented parts of her newly arable land for short terms, nearly doubling her annual income in the process.
onsider two familiar images from the history of performance and body art: one from the documentation of Chris Burden's Shoot (1971), the notori- ous piece for which the artist had a friend shoot him in a gallery, and Yves Klein's famous Leap into the Void (1960), which shows the artist jumping out of a second-story window into the street below. It is generally accepted that the first image is a piece of performance documentation, but what is the second? Burden really was shot in the arm during Shoot, but Klein did not really jump unprotected out the window, the ostensible performance documented in his equally iconic image. What difference does it make to our understanding of these images in relation to the concept of performance documentation that one documents a performance that "really" happened while the other does not? I shall return to this question below. As a point of departure for my analysis here, I propose that performance docu- mentation has been understood to encompass two categories, which I shall call the documentary and the theatrical. The documentary category represents the traditional way in which the relationship between performance art and its documentation is conceived. It is assumed that the documentation of the performance event provides both a record of it through which it can be reconstructed (though, as Kathy O'Dell points out, the reconstruction is bound to be fragmentary and incomplete1) and evidence that it actually occurred. The connection between performance and docu - ment is thus thought to be ontological, with the event preceding and authorizing its documentation. Burden's performance documentation, as well as most of the documentation of classic performance and body art from the 1960s and 1970s, belongs to this category. Although it is generally taken for granted, the presumption of an ontological relation- ship between performance and document in this first model is ideological. The idea of the documentary photograph as a means of accessing the reality of the performance derives from the general ideology of photography, as described by Helen Gilbert, glossing Roland Barthes and Don Slater: "Through its trivial realism, photography creates the illusion of such exact correspondence between the signifier and the signi - fied that it appears to be the perfect instance of Barthes's 'message without a code.' The 'sense of the photograph as not only representationally accurate but ontologically
The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia
  • Maria Bellonci
Bellonci, Maria. The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. Translated by Bernard and Barbara Wall. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.
Rewriting Lucrezia Borgia: Propriety, Magnificence, and Piety in Portraits of a Renaissance Duchess
  • Burgess Williams
Burgess Williams, Allyson. "Rewriting Lucrezia Borgia: Propriety, Magnificence, and Piety in Portraits of a Renaissance Duchess." In Wives, Widows, Mistresses, and Nuns in Early Modern Italy, edited by Katherine A. McIver, 77-97. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.
The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Studies
  • Dympna Callaghan
Callaghan, Dympna, ed. The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.