The heroine, whose part is by far the best and most interesting, is the celebrated poisoner and murderess, Lucrezia Borgia. At the same time she gives evidence, in her dealings with her son Gennaro, of possessing a very tender and motherly heart, and the songs in which she pours out her love for him are really fine as well as touching.
Lucrezia, wife of Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, goes to Venice in disguise to see the son of her first marriage, Gennaro. In his earliest youth he was given to a fisherman, who brought him up as his own son. Gennaro feels himself attracted toward the strange and beautiful woman who visits him, but hearing from his companions, who recognize her and charge her with all sorts of crimes, that she is Lucrezia Borgia, he abhors her. Don Alfonso, not knowing the existence of this son of an early marriage, is jealous, and when Gennaro comes to Ferrara and in order to prove his hatred of the Borgias tears off Lucrezia’s name and scutcheon from the palace-gates, Rustighello, the Duke’s confidant, is ordered to imprison him. Lucrezia, hearing from her servant Gubella of the out-rage to her name and honor, complains to the Duke, who promises immediate punishment of the malefactor.
Gennaro enters, and Lucrezia, terror-stricken, recognizes her son. Vainly does she implore the Duke to spare the youth. With exquisite cruelty he forces her to hand the poisoned golden cup to the culprit herself, and, departing, bids her accompany her prisoner to the door. This order gives her an opportunity to ad-minister an antidote by which she saves Gennaro’s life, and she implores him to fly. But Gennaro does not immediately follow her advice, being induced by his friend Orsini to assist at a grand festival at Prince Negroni’s.
Unhappily all those young men who formerly reproached and offended Lucrezia so mortally in presence of her son are assembled there by Lucrezia’s orders. She has mixed their wine with poison, and herself appears to announce their death. Horror-stricken, she sees Gennaro, who was not invited, among them. He has partaken of the wine like the others, but on her offering him an antidote he refuses to take it; its quantity is insufficient for his friends, and he threatens to kill the murderess. Then she reveals the secret of his birth to him, but he only turns from this mother, for whom he had vainly longed his whole life, and dies. The Duke, coming up to witness his wife’s horrible victory, finds all either dead or dying, and Lucrezia herself expires, stricken down by deadly remorse and pain.