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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 14 JULY 2015 — Lucretia Borgia, born in Rome in the spring of 1480, who grew up famed  for her beauty and sweet nature, is instantly associated nowadays with murder and incest going hand in hand  with the image of a ruthless femme fatale whose very name struck horror in the hearts of all around her. Such is the image handed down to posterity over the centuries by jilted lovers, by the insecure Pope Julius II who succeeded Alexander VI, by Johannes Burckard editor of the early 16th century Le Journal as well as by Luther and his followers, an image seized upon and developed over 200 years later by Voltaire, Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, the French writer famed for Les Misérables, whose melodramatic play is currently being shown at the Comédie Française in Paris (through 19 July 2015).

"All Italy hates me" comes her cry from the heart at the beginning of Hugo’s provocative play, loosely based on  late 15th century sources, and the audience soon learns why. According to Hugo, Lucretia’s hands, like those of William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, are stained with blood as he informs us in his prologue that the "dark and venomous" Lucretia Borgia reigns at Ferrara. For Victor Hugo, as for Denis Podalydès who directed the 1833 drama of betrayals and vengeance, Lucretia is an immoral monster, a "monster mother".

For it is incest at the centre of his play, in the unnatural love Lucretia bears for her illegitimate son,  Gennaro,  while fratricide, her presumed multiple liaisons, murders, poisoning and inflated ambition seem almost to be peripheral events.

Victor Hugo: Lucrèce Borgia
La Comédie-Française
Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

The play opens onto a superb décor by Eric Ruf. A group of men, grotesque masks on their faces, are telling the story of the sinister Borgia family, recounting how the two brothers, Cesar and Jean, killed each other for love of their sister. Heavy dark clouds scud across a threatening sky foretelling the drama to come.

A masked ball in Venice is taking place during which Lucretia, dressed in a magnificent black dress attempts to seduce Gennaro, the supposed fruit of her union with her brother. The scene, with accompanying loud, ‘operatic’ music, is spectacular. Venice by night, with the lagoon and gondolas and masked party-goers, is laid before us. The costumes, rich, dark and sumptuous are by Christian Lacroix. Equally sublime is the last act at the macabre ball held by the Princess Negroni with extraordinary musical effects by Bernard Vallery and alternating clear/obscure lighting by Stéphanie Daniel.

However, the presence of the prestigious actor, Guillaume Gallienne, in the role of Lucretia Borgia came as a surprise. He arrived on stage bare-chested, without makeup or wig, and the subsequent mask that he donned for the ball was to presumably make him less a woman played by a man than a woman caught up in an inescapable destiny not of her own making. It is the one clear indication that she is the victim of her family. Amazement there was, emotion, much less. One had to get used to the impact of his presence, a man not particularly good-looking as a man and hence disturbing as the transvestite imagined by Podalydès. It was a role Gallienne played to excess, striding around the stage and shouting in a deep, harsh voice up until the end when, in true Greek tragedy style, everyone excepting Lucretia, dies. 

Victor Hugo: Lucrèce Borgia
La Comédie-Française
Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

An outstanding performance was that of Christian Hecq, totally convincing as the diabolical Gubetta, while Thierry Hancisse was remarkable as Don Alphonse d’Este, the jealous husband who tracks Lucretia, condemning her to death.

However, the historical facts in so far as they can be believed, do tell another story, that of a compassionate young girl, highly educated for the 15th century, who is married off to Giovanni, son of the powerful Sforza family at the age of 13 to secure a strong political alliance for her father, Pope Alexander VI. Outgrowing the need for the support of the Sforza family, Alexander VI had the marriage annulled on grounds of impotence to make way for a better connection with Alphonse d’Aragon. In revenge, Sforza ‘revealed’ an incestuous relationship between Lucretia, her father and her brother, rumours which form the base of Hugo’s play.

Meanwhile, this second alliance becoming obsolete, Cesar assassinated Aragon some 18 months later forcing the 20 year old girl into a third marriage with Alphonse d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, murdering along the way the poet, Pietro Bembo* with whom she was in love.

Nevertheless, the rumours of a diabolical Lucretia Borgia persisted and grew, fanned by the hatred of the new pope, Julius II, who was anxious to discredit not only his predecessor but also the rest of his family.

From all accounts, Lucretia Borgia, the model for the very lovely Portrait de Femme  by Bartolomeo Veneto as well as for the beautiful portrait by Pinturicchio, was considered a respectable and accomplished Duchess, bearing her husband 10 children as well as being  a patron of the arts. From the 20th century onwards, biographers have cast serious doubts on her alleged immorality; there is no proof of her bearing a son from incestuous relationships, nor that she was a poisoner. She is seen today as a victim of her sinister family, but Hugo’s play would convince the world of quite the opposite. Her reputation as a diabolical poisoner persists.

*According to Lord Byron, their love letters were "the prettiest love-letters in the world", and a lock of her hair, golden, was found amongst the poet’s belongings. It was on display at the fascinating exhibition, The Borgias and Their Times, at the Maillol museum in Paris.

Victor Hugo: Lucrèce Borgia
Directed by Denis Podalydès
Through 19 July 2015

La Comédie-Française
Salle Richelieu
Place Colette
Paris 1er
Tel:  (33) 1 44 58 15 15

La Comédie-Française

Headline photo: Victor Hugo: Lucrèce Borgia
La Comédie-Française
Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Poverty in Rome. 


Related Culturekiosque Archives

Art Exhibition Review: The Borgias and Their Times

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