Lucrezia’s Family: The Renaissance Borgia Dynasty

May 4-5, 2018

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

Much maligned for their misuse of power, the Borgias are being reassessed in our age of more secular power politics. Were Alfons (Pope Callixtus III), Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare and Lucrezia dastardly characters or stereotyped as Machiavellian? Were the Borgia popes abjectly sinful or merely worldlier than was good for their reputations? Was Lucrezia one of history’s great vixens or her powerful family’s pawn? Were the Borgias simply victims of early biographers intent on character assassination due to gender politics or a poor understanding of how political power must always be used? Our program reexamines the Borgias in the context of their considerable contributions to the Italian Renaissance. This program is offered with the support of the College of Letters and Science, UC Santa Barbara.

Friday May 4, 2018

7:30 – 9:30 pm

The Borgia and the Renaissance of Empire in Italy / Thomas Dandelet (History, UC Berkeley). Few, if any, “foreign” families shaped the cultural, religious and political life of Renaissance Italy in the dramatic and controversial fashion that distinguished the Borgia (Borja) family of Valencia, Spain. Often maligned by contemporary opponents and later critics alike as politically ruthless, morally depraved, and religiously corrupt, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), can also be viewed as an important patron of art and architecture, a shrewd political operator who strengthened the Papal States, and an important player in the revival of imperial ambitions in Italy and abroad. These were characteristics that made Alexander VI a classic example of Machiavelli’s respected (and feared) Renaissance prince who gained honor, glory and fame for himself and his family. At the same time, his rule can be credited with expanding the foundations of the Renaissance in Rome that following popes would build upon. This presentation focuses on this often forgotten role of Alexander VI as one of the most influential princes in a period of dramatic European and global transformation.

Music in the House of Borgia / Shira Kammen and Gallimaufry, introduced by Kip Cranna (Dramaturg, SF Opera). Gallimaufry Chamber Chorus presents a program of music associated with the Borgia dynasty, including works by Josquin des Pres, Bartolomeo Tromboncino (who was employed by Lucrezia Borgia), Cristobal de Morales, as well as music of the Sephardic Jews, who make their way into the intriguing story.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

10 am – noon and 1:30 – 4:00 pm

Giulia “La Bella” Farnese: Papal Concubines and Families in Renaissance Rome  / Carol Lansing (History, UCSB). Rodrigo Borgia’s reputation for debauchery is based in part on his open arrangements with his concubines and their children, notably Vanozza dei Cattanei and Giulia Farnese.  There is a long history of scandalous Roman gossip about popes and women, notably Pope Joan.  However, recent studies have shown that it was very common for priests in the Renaissance to have concubines and even to provide for their illegitimate offspring.  This talk will view papal scandals through the eyes of the women and families.   The brilliant and ambitious Giulia Farnese after all was able to use her role to advance members of the Farnese family.

Confidence Games: The Ends of Power in Machiavelli’s The Prince / Jon Snyder (Italian Studies, UCSB). On diplomatic missions for the Florentine Republic in the turbulent first years of the sixteenth century, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) met the feared warlord Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli later immortalized Cesare’s meteoric rise and fall in his treatise on The Prince, identifying in the younger Borgia a model for any ruler of a modern state seeking to obtain and maintain power. The ideal Italian Renaissance prince—cunning, ruthless, daring, indifferent to conventions and traditions—must practice an instrumental approach to “the art of the state” that severs ethics from politics. These troubling new “virtues” need to be deployed, but never displayed, because the prince’s grip on power depends in part upon how well he can act like a “fox” by hiding his true thoughts from subjects and enemies alike. In this presentation we will look at some of Machiavelli’s seminal—and still highly controversial—ideas about statecraft, before focusing on the fall-out from The Prince in the final phases of the Renaissance.

Rodrigo Borgia and His Legacy as Art Patron / Meryl Bailey (Art History, Mills College). In 1507, Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) vacated the Vatican rooms of his despised predecessor Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). Closed for centuries, Pinturicchio’s lavish Borgia Apartments blend Roman, Christian, and unusual Egyptian iconography to celebrate the glorious ancestry, destiny, and virtues of the Borgia pope and his family. Many of the holy figures in the frescoes have been identified as portraits of the pope’s illegitimate children and his mistress. Situating these sumptuous frescoes within their artistic, intellectual, and political context, we will explore Alexander’s use of the visual arts to promote his family and cement his claims to power. For centuries, scholars minimized the influence of the Borgia on later developments in Renaissance art, but we will reconsider Alexander VI’s legacy and his impact on later pontiffs, including his nemesis Julius II.

Sacred Reliquaries and Silk Clad Walls, Portraits and Living Spaces of Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara / Allyson Burgess Williams (Art History, SDSU). Lucrezia Borgia created a sensation when she entered Ferrara in January 1502 clad in a gold and brown striped wedding dress, her golden hair set off by a shimmering diamond studded hairnet. As the bride of Alfonso d’Este I, heir to the venerable dukedom of Ferrara, this twice-married 22-year old daughter of the licentious Pope Alexander VI and sister of the rapacious Cesare Borgia was under intense scrutiny. She quickly proved herself to be intelligent, kind, and pious, a superb administrator and loving mother. In order to move out from under the shadow of her Borgia past, Lucrezia commissioned a series of portraits presenting a new self, the virtuous and magnificent duchess. Lucrezia’s persona was reflected in her fabulous lost living quarters filled with sumptuous textiles and precious objects, consciously selected to firmly entrench her within the courtly world of North Central Italy.

Panel Discussion: Q&A with presenters

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Presenters & Resources


Meryl_BaileyMeryl Bailey (PhD, Art History, UC Berkeley; JD, Harvard Law School) is Assistant Professor of Art History at Mills College, where she teaches courses on medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art in Europe. Much of her research explores the intersection of art, religious devotion, and the criminal justice system in Renaissance Venice. Recent publications include “Punishment as Brotherly Love: Antonio Zanchi’s Expulsion of the Profaners from the Temple and the Venetian Conforteria” (Artibus et Historiae, 2016), and “Carrying the Cross in Early Modern Venice” (Space, Place & Motion: Locating Confraternities in the Late Medieval and Early Modern City, ed. Diana Bullen Presciutti, Brill, 2017). Her current research project, on the business strategies of the Venetian painter Jacopo Palma il Giovane and his contemporaries, examines how painters used engraving as a tool of self-promotion in the late Renaissance. Her work has been funded by generous grants and fellowships from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, and other organizations.

Clifford-(Kip)-CrannaClifford (Kip) Cranna, Dramaturg at San Francisco Opera, has a BA in music from University of North Dakota and a PhD in musicology from Stanford. He has served as vocal adjudicator for numerous groups, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council. For 30 years he was Program Editor and Lecturer for the Carmel Bach Festival. He lectures and writes frequently on music, teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory and the Fromm Institute, and often moderates panel discussions such as the Opera Guild’s “Insights.” In 2008 he was awarded the SF Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, and in 2012 he received the Bernard Osher Cultural Award for distinguished efforts to bring excellence to a cultural institution. Dr. Cranna serves on the boards of Chanticleer and Humanities West and on the Advisory Board of Opera Parallele. 

Thomas-DandeletThomas Dandelet is Professor of History and Italian Studies, UC Berkeley. He also taught at Princeton and Bard College. His awards and prizes include fellowships from Guggenheim (2008), National Endowment for the Humanities (1998), Spanish Ministry of Culture (1997), Mellon (1994), and Fulbright (1992); the Roland Bainton Prize for best new book in history (2002), and the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (1999-2000). Selected publications include The Renaissance of Empire in Early Modern Europe (2015); Spain in Italy, Politics, Society, and Religion 1500-1700, Ed. with John Marino (2006-07); “Between Courts: The Colonna Agents in Italy and Iberia, 1555-1600,” in Your Humble Servant. Agents in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800, Ed. Marike Keblusek et al (2006); “Rome, 1592: An Introduction to A Newly Discovered Parish Census,” in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome (2006); and Spanish Rome, 1500-1700 (2001).

Gallimaufry, the new chamber chorus of twenty voices, is directed by Shira Kammen and features Peter Maund (percussion) and Michelle Levy (vielle). Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Shira Kammen has spent much of her life exploring the world of early music.A member for many years of the early music Ensembles Alcatraz, Project Ars Nova, and Medieval Strings, she has also worked with Sequentia; Hesperion XX; the Boston Camerata; Balkan group Kitka; the King’s Noyse; the Newberry and Folger Consorts; Anonymous IV; Rose of the Compass; Parthenia; Cançonier; the Oregon, California, and San Francisco Shakespeare Festivals; singer Anne Azema; storyteller Patrick Ball; clown Jeff Raz, and others. Shira founded Class V Music, an ensemble providing music on river rafting trips. She has performed and taught in the US, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan, Abu Dhabi, Israel, Morocco, Latvia, and Russia. She has taught music at Yale, Case Western, Stanford, and Oregon at Eugene; and at specialized seminars at the Fondazione Cini in Italy; the Scuola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland and in France. 

Carol-LansingCarol Lansing (PhD, University of Michigan) is a professor of history and historian of early Renaissance Italy at UC Santa Barbara. Her teaching and research explore the problem of civil society: how Italian townsfolk envisioned and struggled to create a peaceful, urban community. What were the sources of conflict, and where did they turn to find solutions? Her first book, The Florentine Magnates, analyzed a noble culture in many ways at odds with the needs of community. In Power and Purity, she explored struggles over religious culture, arguing that the popularity of Cathar dualist heresy was ironically an expression of confidence in self-restraint and the sacrifice needed to live in community. Passion and Order is a study of civic legislation intended to control behavior. Laws intended to curb public displays of grief, shaped by ancient models and the early Renaissance turn to Stoicism, were an effort to restrain emotions that were perceived as the source of disastrous instability as passion overwhelmed reason. Other studies draw on criminal court records to examine the lives of people such as concubines and con men who do not appear in any other sources.

Jon R. Snyder is Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature at UC Santa Barbara. He is an affiliate faculty in the Department of Religious Studies. He has also taught at UC San Diego and UCLA, as well as at the University of Turin and the University of Macerata in Italy. He has published and lectured extensively on the literatures, arts and cultures of early modern Europe, especially Italy. He was the lead editor of the 825-page Volume 5 (2014) of the open-access journal California Italian Studies, whose special theme issue is on “Italy and the Sacred.” Click here to view or download this volume free of charge. Among his books are: L’estetica del Barocco (The Aesthetics of the Baroque) (Italian, 2005; Portuguese, 2007; and Spanish, 2014); Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe, (2009; paperback 2012); Love in the Mirror (2009). He studied Comparative Literature at Princeton (AB 1976) and Yale (MPhil 1979; PhD, 1982).     

Allyson Burgess WilliamsAllyson Burgess Williams (PhD, Art History, UCLA) teaches art history of the early modern period at San Diego State University. Her research interests include Italian courtly patronage (particularly that of the Este in Ferrara), gender issues, palace architecture and decoration, and the history of collecting. Her publications include an essay on the portraits of Lucrezia Borgia in Wives, Widows, Mistresses, and Nuns in Early Modern Italy, edited by Katherine McIver (2012); an article on Titian’s portraits of Alfonso I d’Este and Laura Dianti in Visual Resources (2012); “Silk-Clad Walls and Sleeping Cupids, A Documentary Reconstruction of the Living Quarters of Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara,” in The Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior 1400-1700: Objects, Spaces, Domesticities (2013, 2016).

Resources Materials

Dandelet, Tom. The Renaissance of Empire in Early Modern Europe. 2014.

—. Spanish Rome: 1500-1700. 2001.

Findlen, Paula. Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500-1800. 2013.

Fo, Dario. The Pope’s Daughter. Anthony Shugaar (translator). A Novel illustrated with the Nobelist Fo’s own paintings. 2015.

Lansing, Carol. The Florentine Magnates: Lineage and Faction in a Medieval Commune.   1991.

—. Ed. A Blackwell Companion to the Medieval World. 2009.

Snyder, Jon. California Italian Studies special theme issue on “Italy and the Sacred.” . Free.

—. Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe. 2009; paperback 2012.

—. Love in the Mirror, 2009.