“Often I find myself recalling, and with what ease, certain words spoken to me, some on the balcony with the moon as witness, others at that window I shall always look upon so gladly, with all the many endearing and gracious acts I have seen my gentle lady perform…” -Pietro Bembo to Lucrezia Borgia 1503
A lock of blonde hair caught the eye of Lord Byron when he stopped by the famous Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan in 1816. Part of the library’s collections from its earliest days, the memento was apparently a gift from a young woman to her paramour, safely and quietly kept at the library with their handwritten correspondence for over 400 years. Then, in 1928 a local jeweler was finally contracted to create a fitting reliquary to hold Lucrezia Borgia’s hair.
Borgia’s life was in upheaval when she first made the acquaintance of the poet Pietro Bembo in 1502. At age 22, she was already infamous. The illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (better known as Pope Alexander VI), and sister to Cesare, she had arrived in the Northern Italian city of Ferrara for her third arranged marriage, in the relatively recent wake of the highly suspicious death of her young (second) husband - most likely at the hands of her scheming brother - and the birth and subsequent banishment of her first legitimate child.
It is somewhat unsurprising to find out that under these circumstances, she first took up a passionate dalliance with her husband’s sister’s husband - a dashing mercenary with a trucker’s ‘stache - and then a more complicated relationship with the older poet, who was employed at her new husband’s estate.
Bembo was ten years her senior and no one really knows the full extent of their relationship, but it is clear from the handwritten letters, spanning some 16 years, that the two shared an intimate and romantic bond long after Bembo left Ferarra for Urbino.
Lucrezia’s hair now sits trapped prettily between two plates of glass atop an elegant stand, and the original letters are still kept for safekeeping at the library. They have also been collected and translated in a book, named for Byron’s description of them as “the prettiest love letters in the world.”