The Political Demonization of Incest

Is The Trump Family The New Borgia Dynasty?

In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. And, at first glance, the legacy he would leave behind seems largely incorruptible. During his life, Pope Alexander VI, would contribute to the historical legacy many of us now take for granted including, the declaration of Ferdinand and Isabella (the reigning King and Queen of Spain) as Catholic sovereigns, granting Spain and Portugal rights to the New World, and, of course, commissioned building projects and artistic embellishments. Despite these moments, Pope Alexander VI is often remembered as one of the worst popes in history. Keep in mind, this is the same Pope Alexander VI whose son would go on to inspire Niccolo Machiavelli in his writing, The Prince.

But, with his religious conviction unquestionable by many, how did Pope Alexander VI become so mercilessly hated? After all, the insult of many people recognizing Pope Alexander VI not by his papal title, and instead as Rodrigo Borgia, is a historical insult that runs quite deep. The Borgia name itself has become a family name synonymous with incest where political scandal, murder plots, and love affairs were the inherited legacy. So, is the Borgia family really as bad as history remembers? What about the accusations on incest? To answer that question we have to start where all scandals seem to start, with a beautiful daughter… and her politically powerful father.

Incest In The Borgia Family

From the beginning, Pope Alexander VI’s reputation was somewhat questionable. His weakness, even as a then Cardinal, was beautiful women. Rodrigo Borgia had, in fact, taken a mistress, Vannozza Catanei, and subsequently fathered four children (later legitimized upon his becoming Pope Alexander VI). Included in these four children was a single daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. At the time, daughters were monetarily valued, by wealthy families, as a political tool. Weddings were political alliances, a way to ensure and strengthen political power. This meant Lucrezia Borgia was thrust into the political spotlight and all eyes were on her future marriage. Her wedding would become a major political affair: international gossip, and romance was simply not taken into account.

At first glance, Lucrezia Borgia was undoubtedly beautiful. She was often the inspiration for many artists and their paintings. Yes, Lucrezia Borgia, the soon to be topic of scandal, was described and painted as the embodiment of Christian piety and grace. Those privileged enough to be in her presence would often discover her charm went much deeper than outward beauty. Lucrezia Borgia was in fact, quite intelligent. Her education, at the behest of her ambitious father, was quite unusual for an ‘illegitimate’ child during the time period… especially for a female. As a child, Lucrezia had actually been taught by Adriana Orsini. The extent of her education included the Latin, Greek, Italian, and French languages as well as music, singing, and drawing. A combination of beauty and intelligence, Lucrezia was highly sought after, and her father used this to his every advantage.

In June, 1493, Giovanni Sforza married Lucrezia Borgia in all the pomp and circumstance possible. All seemed quite well, as Giovanni Sforza was the ‘perfect’ choice of a husband. His family gave Pope Alexander VI a much needed ally in Northern and Central Italy. The match may have been a little too perfect, as many now note the role of the Sforza family in the election of Pope Alexander VI. Whether or not the marriage was a political favor in turn for another, the joyous atmosphere was short lived. For in 1494, France invaded Italy. In a moment that can only be described as sheer stupidity, Giovanni’s uncle, with his nephew in Rome, decided to pledge his alliance to France. Pressured by Lucrezia’s brothers, Juan and Cesare, Giovanni simply couldn’t go against his uncle, and declared loyalty to France as well. This led to a painful mistake, one that put Giovanni’s life in jeopardy.

In a moment of imprudence, Cesare warned Lucrezia that her husband would need to be killed. Loyal to her husband, Lucrezia probably warned Giovanni, because he quickly fled to safety in Milan. Pope Alexander VI was not about to let the resource of his beautiful daughter go to waste, and soon sought an annulment to her marriage with Giovanni on the grounds of impotence. Insulted to say the least, Giovanni refused the annulment. This began all the scandals that would plague Lucrezia, and ultimately, the Borgia family. Giovanni in his refusal to accept an annulment, started rumors and speculations claiming Pope Alexander VI wanted Lucrezia for himself, adding in a jealous and lust crazed brother for good measure. Soon, everyone was discussing the incestuous scandal of the Pope, and his daughter.

Ultimately, with the promise of being able to keep the dowry, Giovanni accepted the annulment. In 1497, with her marriage annulled, Lucrezia retired to a convent. There she may have stayed if it hadn’t been for her brother Juan’s death. The death was a scandal of its own, one that deserves attention to detail all on its own. Juan Borgia, formerly known as Giovanni (because nothing shouts incestuous scandal quite like a husband and brother sharing a name), seems quite unremarkable to history, if not for his inherited love of women… particularly his younger brother’s (Gioffre) wife. This painting of him might be a bit unkind of history, but the circumstances surrounding his death have done nothing but increase the scandal.

On the night of June 14, 1947, deep in the heart of the ghetto of Rome, Juan Borgia left a feast in his honor, never to be seen again. The setting wasn’t strange to him, as the villa in question was his mother’s house. However, early the next morning, Juan’s horse returned without its rider. A search was sent out, only for his body to be discovered in the Tiber. Any doubts surrounding the circumstances of Juan’s death were soon put to rest. His throat had been slit and his body had received a total of nine stab wounds. None of the valuables he was carrying had been stolen. Pope Alexander VI was stricken with grief and quickly launched an investigation into finding the culprit. A week later, the investigation was halted.

The abrupt halt to find the murderer of Juan Borgia has led many to speculate that the culprit lay within the Borgia family itself. It’s worth noting that while the Orsini family was probably suspected by the Pope himself, nothing ever came of those suspicions, which would have been quite fortuitous. Instead, the murderer is often speculated to have been one of Juan’s brothers. Cesare and Gioffre both had ample motivation to kill Juan, but it is Gioffre that is the more likely. It was Gioffre who had married at the age of twelve, to a bride who was then sixteen. The interest of Sancha (Gioffre’s wife) in her brother-in-laws is well documented. Rumors of Sancha’s affair with both Juan and Cesare were widespread, which if true, classified as incestuous at the time. A general consensus of the issue now speculates that Cesare, at Gioffre’s request, murdered Juan. Sancha was suddenly a widow, one with inconvenient political ties to Naples.

Resigning from his vows as Cardinal, Cesare soon followed his brother footsteps and took a role in the papal armies. He was also in want of a wife. Hoping to wed Cesare to Carlotta of Naples, thus strengthening allegiances against France, Pope Alexander VI once again used his daughter’s marriage as a political tool. This time, Lucrezia married Alfonso of Aragon, the brother of Juan’s widow, in 1498. The match was actually a happy one, despite newfound rumors circulating prior to their wedding. In another moment of sheer brilliance, someone fathered a child within the Borgia household, an infant often referred to as Infans Romanus, but named Giovanni. A somewhat common occurrence, one that could have been solved quietly, suddenly turned into the scandal everyone was talking about. This time, it seems to have been the fault of Pope Alexander VI himself.

In a poorly executed political move, Pope Alexander issued a decree stating that the child, Giovanni, was fathered by Cesare and an unnamed woman. Unable to recognize the child as his own, Pope Alexander probably saw the wisdom in keeping the child within the family, soon entrusting his care to Lucrezia. However, Pope Alexander seemed concerned about Giovanni’s long term well-being, and issued a supplemental decree to the first one. Now, the waters became muddy, and Pope Alexander acknowledge that Giovanni was in fact his child, not that of his son Cesare. The scandal that ensued is the source of many incestuous rumors circulating today about the Borgia family. This was the atmosphere in which Alfonso of Aragon married Lucrezia. Despite the rumors, Lucrezia and Alfonso had their own child, Rodrigo, in 1499.

Lucrezia’s joyful marriage was once again to be interrupted by politics in 1500. The strategic arrangement of Cesare Borgia and Carlotta of Naples fell apart. Not to be without a wife, Cesare married Charlotte d’Albret in an unanticipated and politically strong move. Suddenly, the interests of the Borgia family were with France, their previous enemy, and against Naples. The swapping of alliances put Juan’s widow in a predicament that soon saw her imprisoned in Rome. For Lucrezia’s husband however, the fateful turn of alliances was devastating. Trouble first struck the newly married couple in June of that year, when Pope Alexander became injured by a falling chimney. Concerned for her father, Lucrezia nursed his wounds. Two weeks later, Lucrezia’s husband, Alfonso, was stabbed multiple times on the steps of the Vatican.

The attack left Alfonso trapped within the Vatican. Lucrezia was devastated and refused to leave his side. She took control over his nursing, ordering doctors to examine him, cooking her husband’s meals herself, and seeing to it her father issued guards to ensure his safety. Rumors of the attack on Alfonso made their way through the streets, and soon, Cesare was once again painted as murderer. Some speculation even went so far as to say Cesare wanted his sister for himself. A month later in August, as rumors began circulating full force in print, Alfonso was strangled to death. The culprit was well-known, a hired assassin of Cesare Borgia. Suddenly, Lucrezia was a widow, all at the ordering of her ambitious brother. This was devastating to the then twenty year old.

Forced to abandon her son, Rodrigo, to his godfather, Lucrezia remarried for the political advantage of her brother and father in 1501. With her new husband, Alfonso d’Este, living in Ferrara, Lucrezia soon left Rome to join him in 1502. For once in her life, Lucrezia seemed both happy and in a bout of good fortune. In 1503, while enjoying a passionate affair with her new brother-in-law, Lucrezia received news that her father had died. Once again, Lucrezia was forced to deal with the painful pieces of her family legacy, as her son, Rodrigo, remained trapped within the Vatican. Unable to take care of the child herself, Lucrezia entrusted the care of Rodrigo to Sancha, her son’s aunt.

For Sancha, the death of Pope Alexander VI in 1503 marked a turning point. She was suddenly free, and refused to stay in Rome any longer. Leaving her husband, Sancha took Rodrigo and left for Naples. Interestingly enough, not long after she did so, Cesare came to visit her. The meeting is one of speculation, with most people suggesting Cesare entrusted the care of Giovanni, the Pope’s illegitimate son, to Sancha’s care. There are plenty of reasons for this, as Cesare was facing problems of his own. With his father’s death, Cesare found papal backing tough to come by for his army. In 1506, after being taken prisoner and having his land confiscated, Cesare was sent to Spain. There he escaped and became a military commander for King John III of Navarre. But, in 1507, Cesare was ambushed and killed.

Lucrezia only seemed to thrive in her newfound environment. The people of Ferrara seemed quite in love with their Duchess. Both her and her husband enjoyed passionate affairs outside their marriage. Despite this, Lucrezia only became the embodiment of beauty and honesty. She would go on to have more children, but also showed signs of impending difficulties. Then, in June 1519, Lucrezia gave birth to a ninth child. The daughter was named after her husband’s sister, but died soon after birth. Lucrezia would not do much better, as close to two weeks later, she died of complications. The legacy she and her family would left behind was almost immediately tarnished by political rivals. It seems history was not kind, especially to the longest surviving of the Borgia siblings.

History has taught us that, more often than not, the legacy that survives someone is not the truth, but rather, an intricate web of fiction mixed with fact. We have also learned that tarnishing someone’s reputation often takes nothing more than patience and salacious gossip. The Borgia legacy seems plagued by both these things. Art and Literature no doubt played a huge role in the tarnishing of the Borgia name. But the problematic issue is how. It’s true that Cesare Borgia was a murderer who killed those unfortunate enough to get in his way. It’s also true that Pope Alexander VI was a politically ruthless individual. But, what about Lucrezia? Does she really deserve the rumors surrounding her incestuous sex life? No, not really.

Out of all the rumors surrounding the Borgia family, incest is the most scandalous. Both Netflix and Showtime capitalized on the incestuous love affair rumored to have occurred between Cesare and Lucrezia. For their efforts, fan bases of individuals now exist eager to see the rumors proven historically true. The political rivals of the Borgia would never have imagined this taking place, much less the Borgia family themselves. No, at the time, incest was the most sinful of behaviors. Only someone truly evil could commit the sin of incest, much less produce offspring from such a union. Incest was quite equatable to sleeping with the devil himself, all in an effort to sell your soul. So, what changed? Why are people suddenly rooting for the incestuous love affair to succeed? Well, because incest is the last taboo, and the last demonization that still exists politically.

Incest In The Trump Family?

Want to see this scenario play out in real life? You need look no further than Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka and the 2016 Presidential Election. But to get a clear picture, you need to go all the way back to 2006. At the time, Ivanka Trump appeared with her father on The View to promote her role on The Apprentice. Then twenty-five, Ivanka Trump had a background as a teen model and was just getting her business feet wet. The interview seemed to be going well, right until Donald Trump was asked to comment on his daughter’s modelling. Asked for his thoughts on if his daughter were to pose in Playboy, Trump answered a little too honestly. Remarking on his daughter’s ‘beautiful figure’ Trump joked, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” That was all it took to lay the ground work for future scandal.

Flash forward to May, 2017, the Presidential Election is going strong, when all of a sudden, Bill Maher does the unthinkable. Probably remembering the old interview, Maher decides to make an incest joke, insinuating Ivanka can bribe her father with sexual favors. The joke doesn’t go over well with the media, but for a certain subset of people, the comment is too good to ignore. Suddenly pictures resurface of Donald Trump and Ivanka in questionable poses with people calling attention to their ‘special relationship’. The rumors start to become more common, and while people may not admit it, they can’t stop talking about the latest celebrity gossip. Once again, incest is at the center of a political scandal, and for modern society, it’s a hit.

Then in September 2017, just when things look like they might die down, Ivanka makes the mistake of referring to her father as ‘Daddy’. The comment adds fuel to the fire, and suddenly, there’s nothing to quelch it. While people were quick to remark on the tasteless joke by Bill Maher, this time around, they can’t resist. Trump’s history of awkward comments, pictures with his daughter, and the close father-daughter bond is too much for the gossiping public to ignore. Articles start popping up in common news feeds, and people are consuming the latest version of the printed pamphlets all too common in the Borgia time period. But this time, the material is cheap and the exposure vast.

When Donald Trump becomes President-Elect Trump, well, the rumors resurface. When it comes out Melania Trump will not be joining her husband for the first few months in the White House, people are quick to insinuate Ivanka will be the ‘fill in First Lady’. The political smearing of Donald Trump, on the topic of incest, seems complete. Not only are people talking about it, but Ivanka herself has to deny the rumors calling them inappropriate. When Donald Trump is sworn in as President, things seem to calm down… for a while. Ivanka is still in the spotlight, the rumors echo down the halls of the White House, but for the most part, people stop adding to the gossip. Suddenly, there’s enough to draw attention to now without involving the President’s daughter.

But then, just when everyone thought there might be some peace to the incestuous gossip, Ivanka started to appear at political functions instead of the First Lady. This could have easily been explained by interviews of Melania Trump stating she wanted to focus on raising her son. The rumors simply wouldn’t have it. Ivanka Trump’s place in the political world of her father was somehow proof the pair couldn’t be separated. They simply ‘had’ to be having an incestuous love affair if not sexually, then by proxy. Yes, there were even speculations surrounding how much alike Melania Trump’s father looked like her husband, Donald Trump. Nothing was off limits, and everything was suddenly a free for all. That is, until suddenly, things calmed down about a year into Trump’s presidency.

The political world had moved on, the incestuous gossip suddenly old news. Yet, that didn’t stop Michael Wolff from taking the rumors just a tad further in his book Fire and Fury. Only time will tell if readers of the book will go on to add yet another layer to the incest rumors. The author claims that Ivanka Trump is actually a ‘wife’ to her father, and Hope Hicks, Communications Director, a ‘daughter’. Now, if that doesn’t just exemplify the height of incestuous gossip, I don’t know what does. Suddenly, the President has a daughter for a wife and a daughter by proxy in his communications director. Somehow, I think we ended up back in 1497. Then again, at least those rumors were only just beginning! Yes, the political smearing by incestuous passions is alive and well today.

Why Is That? Why Incest?

Well, the answer is simple: incest is the last taboo. If you truly want to demonize your political rival, you have to go for the throat, the worst of the worst. In today’s society, incest remains the last stronghold. We’ve seen the acceptance of unfaithful husbands, illegitimate children, same-sex affairs (and marriages), and even plural/open relationships are becoming ‘the norm’. When it comes to incest however, feelings are much different. Incest is still ‘disgusting’ and a ‘perversion of nature’. While incestuous relationships today are consented to by mature adults, that doesn’t stop people from labeling the behavior as unusual or unacceptable. Until incest becomes typical and loses its taboo status, well, we’ll always be treated to these incestuous rumors. But hey, that just might mean we have the affair between Ivanka and Donald Jr. to look forward to!