Vannozza dei Cattenei was the mother of Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare Borgia and two (or maybe one) other children of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI. Borgia’s mistress, she was also an innkeeper. She lived from July 13, 1442 to November 24, 1518. Variations on her name include Vanozza dei Cattenei, Giovanna de Candia, Countess of Cattenei.
Vannozza dei Cattanei, as she was called, was born Giovanna de Candia, daughter of two nobles of the house of Candia. (Vannozza is a diminutive of Giovanna.) We know nothing of her early life, other than that she was born in Mantua. She may have been an innkeeper with several establishments in Rome when she became mistress of Rodrigo Borgia, then a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church (or the inns may have been property obtained with his support). He had many other mistresses before, during and after their relationship, but his with Vannozza was his longest relationship. He honored his children by her above his other illegitimate offspring.
Rodrigo Borgia had been appointed a cardinal by Pope Callixtus III in 1456 — his uncle, born Alfonso de Borja, who died in 1458. Rodrigo Borgia did not take Holy Orders and become a priest until 1468 — but that did include a vow of ceibacy. Borgia was not the only cardinal to have mistresses; one rumor at the time had Vanozza being the mistress first of another cardinal, Giulio della Rovere. Rovere was a rival of Borgia in his papal election in 1492, and later was elected pope, taking office in 1503 as Julius II, known among other things in his papacy for his opposition to the Borgias.
Vannozza bore four children during her relationship with Cardinal Borgia. The first, Giovanni or Juan, was born in Rome in 1474. In September 1475, Cesare Borgia was born. Lucrezia Borgia was born in April of 1480 in Subiaco. In 1481 or 1482, a fourth child, Gioffre, was born. Rodrigo publicly acknowledged paternity of all four children, but more privately expressed doubts about whether he fathered the fourth, Gioffre.
As was common, Borgia saw that his mistress was married to men who would not object to the relationship. He officiated at her marriage in 1474 to Domenico d’Arignano — the same year her first Borgia child was born. d’Arignano died after a few years, and Vannozza then was married to Giorgio di Croce about 1475 — the dates are given differently in different sources. There may have been another husband, Antonio de Brescia, between d’Arignano and Croce (or, according to some histories, after Croce).
Croce died in 1486. Sometime around or after 1482, with Vannozza turning forty years old, the relationship of Vannozza and Borgia cooled. That was around the time that Borgia expressed his belief that Croce was the father of Gioffre. Borgia no longer lived with Vannozza, but he continued to take care that she was comfortable financially. Her property, much acquired during her relationship with Borgia, speaks to that. She, in turn, kept his confidences.
Her children were raised apart from her after the relationship ended. Lucrezia was given into the care of Adriana de Mila, a third cousin of Borgia.
Giulia Farnese, as Borgia’s newest mistress, moved into the household with Lucrezia and Adriana no later than 1489, the year Giulia was married to the stepson of Adriana. That relationship continued until after Alexander was selected Pope in 1492. Giulia was the same age as Lucrezia’s eldest brother; Lucrezia and Giulia became friends.
Vannozza had one more child, Ottaviano, by her husband Croce. After Croce died in 1486, Vannozza remarried, this time to Carlo Canale.
In 1488, Vannozza’s son Giovanni became the heir of the Duke of Gandia, inheriting the title and holdings from an older half-brother, one of Borgia’s other children. In 1493 he would marry a bride who had been betrothed to that same half-brother.
Vanozza’s second son, Cesare, was made a bishop of Pamplona in 1491, and early in 1492, Lucrezia was betrothed to Giovanni Sforza. Vannozza’s former lover Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope Alexander VI in August of 1492. Also in 1492, Giovanni became the Duke of Gandia and Vannozza’s fourth child, Gioffre, was given some land.
The next year, Giovanni married a bride who had been betrothed to the same half-brother from whom he’d inherited his title, Lucrezia married Giovanni Sforza and Cesare was appointed a cardinal. While Vannozza was apart from these events, she was building her own status and holdings.
Her eldest son Giovanni Borgia died in July 1497: he was killed and his body thrown into the Tiber River. Cesare Borgia was widely thought to have been behind the assassination. That same year, Lucrezia’s first marriage was annulled on the grounds that her husband was unable to consummate the marriage; she remarried the next year.
In July of 1498, Vannozza’s son Cesare became the first Cardinal in church history to renounce his office; resuming secular status, he was named a Duke the same day. The next year, he married a sister of king John III of Navarre. And about that time, Giulia Farnese’s time as the Pope’s mistress had ended.
In 1500, Lucrezia’s second husband was assassinated, likely on the orders of her older brother, Cesare. She appeared in public with a child in 1501, named Giovanni Borgia, probably the child that she was pregnant with at the end of her first marriage, probably by a lover. Alexander muddied already muddy waters about the child’s parentage by issuing two bulls saying he was fathered by an unknown woman and Alexander (in one bull) or Cesare (in the other). We have no record of what Vannozza thought about this.
Lucrezia remarried in 1501. Vannozza was occasionally in touch with her daughter after during her long and relatively stable marriage. Gioffre was appointed prince of Squillace.
In 1503, the Borgia family fortunes reversed with the death of Pope Alexander; Cesare was apparently too ill to move quickly to consolidate fortune and power. He was asked to be away during the subsequent election of a Pope, one who lasted mere weeks. The following year, with yet another Pope — this one, Julius III, with decidedly anti-Borgia sentiments — Cesare was exiled Spain. He died in a battle at Navarre in 1507.
Vannozza’s daughter, Lucrezia, died in 1514, probably of childbed fever. In 1517, Gioffre died.
Vannozza herself died in 1518, surviving all four of her Borgia children. Her death was followed with a well-attended public funeral. Her tomb was at Santa Maria del Popolo, which she had endowed along with a chapel there. All four of the Borgia children — even Gioffre — are mentioned on her tombstone.