Rossetti painted this in 1851, hundreds of years after the Borgia family was in power. The colors he used are reminiscent of jewels, but there are plenty of dark crevasses contrasting throughout. A perfect analogy to the House of Borgia.
Notably absent are Rossetti’s usual soft lines and demure features. Bright red is the thematic color, tying together everything from the childrens’ hair to Cesare’s Cardinal robe. An almost sardonic connection can be drawn between the innocence of children (and a supposed man of God) versus the actions within the painting. The children dance in the foreground, either oblivious or used to the flirtation going on behind them. A dubious and, quite frankly, banal claim could be made here that the children are symbolic of the Roman citizenry during the reign of Alexander XI. But I digress: time for the main attraction.
Lucrezia Borgia is the star of this work (Rossetti was said to have quite the fascination with her), relaxing on her father’s lap while being nuzzled by her brother, Cesare, on the left. Today’s awkward family photos have nothing on the Borgias.
There have been enough allegations of Borgia incest to fill a baptismal font and then some, although many are quick to point out that most were propagated by rivals of the family. I also must add that it is worthy to note that many rumors happened to come to light at key times that were most detrimental to Pope Alexander XI and his ill-fated brood. Some rumors sprang from fact - for example, it is widely claimed that Cesare Borgia’s love for his sister Lucrezia bordered on obsessiveness. He did, after all, murder the father of her child. But incest within the Borgia family is a charged subject, as there is really no proof except that which was written by their enemies (and by enemies, I mean nearly every human being alive at the time that wasn’t a Borgia.)
Interestingly enough, as time passes on these rumors (and many others) have only served to strengthen the allure of this family to the public, which is definitely not the outcome Borgia detractors in the 16th century would have wished for.