The people of Rome never blinked when in 1456 Pope Callixtus III (Alfonso Borjia of Spain) named his nephew Roderigo Borjia to be Cardinal Deacon of S. Nicolo in Carcere church in Rome. Roderigo was later to become Pope Alexander VI and, when it was his turn, like his Uncle Callixtus, Roderigo took care of his own kids.
The Borgia family has come down through history as the epitome of Papal corruption. Research of the Borgia question has occupied historians during the intervening five centuries of Italian and religious history, and their research has produced three general propositions. First, the Borgias were certainly corrupt and dissolute. Second, they were no worse (and certainly no better) than the other "noble" families of their time. And third, what you think about the level of their corruption and notoriety depends on which contemporary sources you accept as accurate. It is also remarkable that, even after five centuries, the behavior of the Borgias can still arouse vitriolic arguments between defenders and attackers of the Papacy.
The beginning -- Pope Callixtus III
The Borjias were already well established nobility in the Valencia region of Spain when Alfonso (later Callixtus III) was born in 1378. After getting what appears to have been a reasonably good education, Alfonso became a priest and later became embroiled in the Pope-Antipope controversy. At first he sided with the faction that eventually succumbed, but he later served as the mediator who ended the dispute and left the Catholic Church with only one Pope. As a reward, he was appointed Bishop of Valencia in 1429. In 1444 he was made a Cardinal, and his honesty, his pious life, his firmness of purpose, and his prudence in carrying out his office made him a popular candidate for the Papacy. On April 8, 1455, after the death of Nicholas V, he was easily and honestly elected and took the name of Callixtus III.
Callixtus' main concern was organizing the defense of Europe, which was being threatened by an Islamic invasion: Mohammed II had taken Constantinople in 1453, and the forces of Islam were advancing steadily westward. Nicholas V, before Callixtus, had not been able to rouse the European princes -- even those most directly threatened. Callixtus was not much more successful: the princes were much too busy fighting amongst themselves to mount an effective defense, and despite a famous Christian victory at Belgrade (1456) by Hunyady, the religious wars sputtered on interminably.
Callixtus III is regarded by most historians to have been a man of lofty ideals, of boundless courage, energy, and perseverance. In 1458 he died leaving an exemplary record, having done nothing that the people viewed as unusually bad: he left a huge fortune to his heirs and had ensured their continued employment. Two of his nephews, including young Roderigo, were Cardinals, and another was the Governor of Castel St. Angelo and Duke of Spoletto.
Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI: Roderigo Lancol was born near Valencia, Spain, on January 1, 1431 to Isabella Borjia, the sister of Cardinal Alfonso Borjia. Shortly after Alfonso Borjia became Pope Callixtus III in 1455, he adopted Roderigo into his immediate family, and Roderigo was thereafter known as Roderigo Borgia. (Borgia or Borjia? Same family, different spellings. The family used both, with the "j" in Spain and the "g" in Italy.) After a short year studying law at the University of Bologna, Roderigo was back in Rome, and at age 25 he was named Cardinal Deacon of S. Nicolo in Carcere.
Cardinal Roderigo moved up through the hierarchy even after the death of his uncle, Callixtus, in 1458, and by 1476 he was Dean of the College of Cardinals. He was universally regarded as a very able administrator of the Papal Chancery and even his worst detractors thought that he "combined rare prudence and vigilance, mature reflection, marvelous powers of persuasion, skill and capacity for the conduct of the most difficult affairs."
But the Cardinal had a few quirks. The list of archbishoprics, bishoprics, abbacies, and other dignities he held was unusually long, and, though he was strictly abstemious in his eating and drinking, he kept a magnificent household and gambled notoriously at cards. He quickly became one of the wealthiest men of his time. And he liked women. In 1460 his extravagant and immoral behavior shocked the town and Court of Sienna and drew a scathing letter from Pope Pius II (Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini). In 1468 he was ordained to the priesthood (until then he had been a Cardinal Deacon), but by 1470 he had begun his long relationship with the Roman lady, Vanozza Catanei, the mother of four of his children: Juan (born 1474), Cesare (1476), Lucrezia (1480), and Jofre (1482).
Cardinal Roderigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, his own vote providing the two-thirds majority that he needed. Although the popular belief at the time was that he had obtained the vote through simony (paying for it) there is no evidence to prove it, and it also would not have been necessary. (The stories spread by Stefano Infessura, an anti-papal republican and a partisan of the opposing Colonna family, of mule-loads of silver arriving at the residences of the electors are still quoted but are not believed by any serious historian.) It is certain, however that Borgia would not have been elected without the support of the powerful Sforza family and the vote and influence of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. Sforza would have been insulted by any offer of a bribe -- but he did want to become Alexander's chief advisor.
The accession of Alexander VI was met by general acclaim. He had, after all, conducted the affairs of the Roman Chancery for thirty-five years with rare ability and industry, enriching himself, but also enriching the Church and the city of Rome. Romans had come to regard him as one of their own, and they looked forward to a splendid and energetic reign. His procession to St. Peters was greeted with thunderous applause and cheers, celebratory bonfires were lit, garlands were hung and extravagant triumphal arches were erected.
Alexander did not disappoint. His first order of business was to restore order in the city, and he quickly extinguished the lawlessness that had characterized Rome during the rule of his predecessors. The grateful population regarded his vigorous administration of justice -- including weekly courts in which he personally heard petitions -- as an "interposition of God." After establishing internal order, Alexander set about defending and embellishing the city. He fortified the Mausoleum of Hadrian (Castel Sant'Angelo) and the Torre di Nona, transformed the Vatican into a fashionable quarter, and organized the building of the Cancellaria (for Cardinal Riario) and the national churches of the Germans (S. Maria dell' Anima), the French (Trinita dei Monti), and the Spanish (S. Maria di Monserrato). He also installed the beautiful gilded ceiling of S. Maria Maggiore (just cleaned 1n 1999 and worth a visit), using, according to tradition, the first Spanish gold brought from America by Columbus.
Although he acknowledged the inadequacy of his own education, Alexander fostered literature, science and the arts. He had written two books on canonical subject while he was a Cardinal. He rebuilt the Roman University, and, more importantly, paid the professors generously. He surrounded himself with scholars and jurists and supported dramatists and composers. He angered the Spanish and other narrow-minded contemporaries by tolerance toward the Jews and by refusing to banish or molest them. In 1500 he organized a magnificent Jubilee year, opening his own and the official Papal coffers to ensure the security and comfort of the throngs of pilgrims.
Alexander tried, as had his uncle before him, to organize the defense of Europe. A notable success was his mediation between the Spanish and the Portuguese over the newly discovered American territories. The "Line of Demarcation," which Alexander drew through the Americas, satisfied both Catholic Iberian powers and prevented a collision which would have left Europe defenseless against Muslim invasion. Most of his efforts to mediate between European princes and Italian families were less successful, however, usually because his favored method of mediation was to suggest Borgia hegemony. He resisted efforts of other Italian families to enlist foreign assistance, but at times used the same methods himself in the dynastic struggles inside Italy -- and he himself interfered in Spain and France. In the rough and tumble of dynastic politics he was no better or worse and no more or less successful than the others.
Alexander VI Borgia might have entered history as a great Pope except for the fact that he continued as Pope the manner of life that had disgraced him as a Cardinal. Although Steffano Infessura's exuberant accusations are easily dismissed, the diary of Alexander's own Court Chamberlain, Johann Burchard, is generally regarded as accurate. Later editors, even some openly hostile to Burchard, accept most of his descriptions of Papal excesses and escapades, orgies and wild parties. Alexander still liked women, and openly courted them as Pope. Rumors of several more illegitimate children circulated and one new son was certainly born in 1497 or 1498. Most of the paternity stories, however, were never substantiated in his own time or even during the reigns of hostile successors.
Serious historians do not believe the most extravagant accusations against Alexander VI -- that he poisoned his enemies and had an incestuous relationship with his Daughter, Lucrezia. (Popular writers, however, from Victor Hugo to William Mancester have spiced their tales with scurrilous reports from partisan accusers and with apparently sourceless accusations of their own, as did the team of Gaetano Donizetti and Felice Romani in their Opera about Lucrezia.)
Alexander VI, like Uncle Callixtus III, did take care of his kids.
Alexander and the Borgia Kids:Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, appears, at least initially, to have resolved to keep his illegitimate children out of the spotlight by getting them appointments in Spain, the country of his family's origins and far from Rome. While he was still a Cardinal, he married off one daughter, Girolama, to a Spanish nobleman, and he bought for a son, Pedro Luis, the Spanish Duchy of Gandia. When Pedro Luis died, Roderigo again bribed the King of Spain, and ownership of Gandia passed to Juan, Roderigo's oldest son by Vanozza Catenei. He selected Cesare, his second son by Vanozza, to be Ecclesiastical Representative of the Borgias in Spain and arranged for him, sequentially, several Spanish religious offices including the Bishopric of Pampeluna. A week after Roderigo's coronation as Pope Alexander VI, Cesare was elevated to the Archbishopric of Valencia -- but Cesare never became a priest or even a deacon. Roderigo also got Jofre, his youngest son by Vanozza, several relatively minor religious offices in Spain. And he betrothed Vanozza's daughter, Lucrezia, to a Spanish nobleman, but she never went to Spain, and the marriage plans came to nothing. Other relatives were also taken care of. What kind of father would he be if he didn't take care of his own kids?
Alexander VI had achieved the Papacy through the support of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. Sforza's early support had made him Alexander's most trusted senior advisor, and it was Sforza who appears to have convinced Alexander to use both Cesare and Lucrezia closer to home in Italy. In 1493 to cement a military alliance with Milan and Venice, where the Sforzas were powerful, Alexander married Lucrezia, age 13, to Ascanio's cousin, Giovanni Sforza, the Lord of Pesaro. The wedding was in St. Peter's in the presence of Cardinals and nobility, and the extravagant revels that followed caused a scandal. But the alliance worked, and soon Ferrante, the King of Naples, who was the primary target of the Borgia-Sforza alliance, came to terms and sent his own granddaughter, Sancia, to marry Jofre. Shortly thereafter, Alexander made Cesare a Cardinal. Cesare was 17.
There quickly followed a bloody dispute with France over possession of the Kingdom of Naples. Alexander loyally defended his new ally, Ferrante (and then Ferrante's son Alfonso II, when Ferrante died in mid-dispute), but Alexander's Cardinals and Barons deserted the cause one by one. Cardinal Della Rovere, who had papal ambitions of his own but who also appears genuinely to have been offended by Alexander's excesses, led the faction that invited in the French. The Colonna and Savelli barons quickly became traitors, and, finally and most painfully, Virginio Orsini, the leader of the Orsini family and of the Papal military forces, defected. Alexander stood alone on the crumbling battlements of Castel St. Angelo and stared defiantly into the mouths of the cannons of Charles VIII of France. Within two weeks, Charles VIII had withered under that stony Papal glance. Charles proclaimed his "filial obedience" to the Pope, and Rome and the Papacy were saved. Charles, nonetheless, took Naples, without Papal blessing, but a year later he was forced to fight his way back to France through the ranks of the allied Italians. This Neapolitan episode taught Alexander that only his own family could be trusted -- and Cesare stood ready.
With Cesare and the loyal Ascanio Sforza at his side, Alexander VI decided to discipline the Barons and Cardinals, starting with the mutinous Orsini family. He put his son Juan, the Duke of Spanish Gandia, at the head of the papal military forces, and indecisive battles against the Orsini dragged on for months. When both sides grew tired, the Orsini paid cash and a few castles to end the war. Alexander then hired Gonsalvo de Cordova and his Spanish veterans to evict the French and Cardinal Della Rovere from Ostia. That took two weeks and was immediately followed by a Papal demand from the other Cardinals for a new Italian Duchy -- Benevento, Terracina, and Pontecorvo -- for the twenty-three year old Juan. The thoroughly cowed Cardinals agreed, but a week later, Juan's badly hacked body was fished from the Tiber. His throat had also been cut.
Alexander initially took the murder of his son Juan, Duke of Gandia, as an omen that reform and repentance were needed, and he actually framed the reform ordinances. But he soon relapsed, the decrees were not promulgated, and his contrition was quickly extinguished. With Juan gone, Cesare Borgia really came into his own. He overcame the Pope's objections and resigned all of his ecclesiastical posts resolving to become the greatest of secular princes. He wanted to marry the royal princess of Naples, but she found him repugnant, and his suit was rejected. Meanwhile, amid great scandal, Lucrezia's marriage to Giovanni Sforza was annulled on the grounds of Sforza's impotence, and she was quickly given as wife to Alfonso Biseglia, an acknowledged illegitimate son of Alfonso II of Naples.
Then the alliance structure of Europe shifted unexpectedly and dramatically when Charles VIII of France died in 1498. The Infanta was already dead, so France passed to a cousin, the Duc D'Orlean, King Louis XII. Louis XII needed a Papal annulment of an early involuntary marriage, so the stage was set for a French-Papal alliance. Cesare, no longer a Cardinal, was designated Duke of Valentinois and Peer of France, and he set off for Paris with the annulment for Louis XII and with a dispensation for Louis to marry Queen Anne, the widow of his deceased cousin and predecessor, Charles VIII. Cardinal Della Rovere was quickly rehabilitated and became a fixture in the French court. Cesare, although still pining for Carlotta of Naples, found a bride in Paris, Charlotte D'Albret, a niece of Louis XII, who was also a sister of the King of Navarre.
Soon joint French-Papal forces entered Milan and then began to mop up petty tyrants on the fringes of the Papal States. History would probably have credited Alexander for removing the tyrants had he not replaced them with his own family. By 1501, Cesare had recovered (and was master of) all the usurped Papal territories and was made Duke of Romangna by the Pope. It was while these small territorial wars were raging that Lucrezia's husband, the Duke of Biseglia (the Neapolitan Bastard) was waylaid and seriously wounded by five masked men. Biseglia was sure that Cesare was the instigator of the attack, and, when he has sufficiently recovered from his wounds, he tried to kill Cesare. Cesare's bodyguards made short work of Biseglia, and the Pope's and Cesare's enemies quickly spread the word that Cesare had murdered Lucrezia's husband.
There quickly followed another Neapolitan interlude in which, after long being a defender of the ruling family in Naples, Alexander dumped the Neapolitans (because, he said, they were conspiring with the Turks, which, in all likelihood, they were) and agreed to a partition of the Kingdom of Naples between Spain and France. It was patently a betrayal, but, by supporting the Spanish (Aragonese) claim to Naples, Alexander had also masterfully deprived his internal enemies, the Colonna, the Savelli, the Gaetani, and other barons, of Aragonese support in their struggle to replace him. Alexander then excommunicated the lot as rebels, and to buy their way back into the Church, they quickly surrendered to him the keys of their castles. The Orsini, perhaps not realizing that they were next in line for subjection, supported Alexander's suppression of their hereditary rivals. Alexander went on a tour of his new, easily won possessions, leaving Lucrezia with authority to run the Vatican. He divided his spoils into two Duchies, one for Lucrezia's infant son Roderigo (by Alfonso Biseglia) and the other to his own young son Juan, who was born shortly after his half brother Juan, Duke of Gandia, was murdered in 1497.
Lucrezia, now twenty-three and available, was quickly wed to another Alfonso, the son and heir of Duke Ercole of Ferrara. The Pope's illegitimate daughter had married the scion of the powerful house of Este. Lucrezia's third marriage, celebrated by proxy in the Vatican on December 31, 1501, was even more scandalous and extravagant then her first. But if Alexander VI had expected her to continue to be a foil in his intrigues, he could not have been more wrong.
Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, was a model wife and princess until she died in 1519. She was universally praised for her amiability, he virtue, her charity, and for her support of the arts. There was never a hint of scandal. No poison. No plots. The fiendish Lucrezia of Victor Hugo, Geatano Donizetti, and William Mancester never existed except in their prurient imaginations and in their purses.
But Cesare was as bad as anyone ever said he was. He intensified his infamous career of simony, extortion, and treachery, acquiring by the end of 1502 all of Camerino and Sinigaglia. He winkled out a plot by the Orsini and some of his own generals to dispose of him and then coolly lured them into a trap at the castle of Senigallia, on the Adriatic Sea, where he had the conspirators executed. Cardinal Orsini, the instigator of the plot, was imprisoned in good health in Castel St. Angelo and was dead of "natural causes" 12 days later. The other Barons fled before Cesare's forces as he returned to Rome. The last bulwark of the Orsini, Castel Bracciano, sued for peace in April 1503. Alexander already had named Cesare Duke of Romagna in 1501, and now Cesare actually had it. He had taken the Principality of Piombino in north-central Italy but failed in an attempt to acquire Bologna and Florence. He also had Camerino and the Duchy of Urbino, both in central Italy.
Alexander VII, in good health at age 73 despite his dissolute life, looked forward to many more years in power and set about raising money to refill his own and the Papal treasuries. Seizures and taxes levied against his enemies and more of the same to impoverish potential enemies played a large part in his plans. And, with the Curia now packed with his own appointees, he looked to have a clear road ahead of him. He is said to have enjoyed and laughed at the "scurrilous lampoons" that were circulated and that accused him of innumerable and incredible crimes. He certainly took no steps to shield his reputation or to modify his behavior. He continued to dabble in disputes outside his own borders and was trying to decide whether to support the French or the Spanish, who were squabbling over the spoils in Naples, when he made a small but fatal mistake.
On August 6, 1503, Alexander, Cesare, and others of the Papal Court dined with Cardinal Adriano Corneto in the Cardinal's villa. The company unwisely stayed outside after sunset, and within days they had all contracted the dangerous "Roman fever." The Pope took to his bed a few days later and was dead on August 18, almost certainly brought down by a mosquito. (Perhaps Cardinal Orsini's "natural causes" also really were natural.) The body's quick decomposition and swollen appearance immediately led to suspicion that the Pope had been poisoned. Years later a story circulated that Alexander had tried to poison his host and the cups somehow were switched. Cesare also had a bad case of the fever and was in no condition and had no position from which to influence the next papal election. Alexander's Papacy had lasted eleven years.
Following the death of Alexander the enemies of the Borgias resumed their struggle to regain old family holdings. Before the end of the year, they had seized Cesare's dominions in central Italy. Julius II, an archenemy of the Borgias was elected pope in 1503 and immediately deprived Cesare of the remainder of his holdings. Wanting Cesare out of Rome (and perhaps, also, not sure that he could get away with just having him killed off) Julius allowed Cesare to depart for Naples, then under Spanish control. But in Naples, the (Aragonese) Spanish, who also didn't want Cesare in their territory, accused him of conspiracy -- it certainly would have been in character. Cesare was arrested and taken to Aragon. He was imprisoned in the castle of Medina del Campo from 1504 to 1506 but finally contrived to escape to Navarre. He joined his brother-in-law, the King of Navarre, in an expedition against Castile and was killed in action at Viana, Navarre.
Like many of his contemporaries, Cesare Borgia was unscrupulous, treacherous, and cruel toward his political rivals. He was the prototype of the political hero portrayed in The Prince (1513) by the Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, and he was the role model for many princes that followed him. Machiavelli's treatise and latter day followers of Machiavelli conveniently ignore two important factors, however. First, Cesare's success depended on the intervention, on more than one occasion, of the Pope with a threat of or actual excommunication -- and that only works against enemies who care about such things. Second, and much more important, Cesare's lamp burned brightly, but was quickly extinguished -- he was already out of power when he was twenty-seven and dead at age thirty.
The Catholic Church is, to say the least, defensive about the Borgias and their immediate successors. It claims that the Church was, like everyone else, victimized by the family and by other unscrupulous families that followed in the Papacy. Nineteenth century attempts to justify Borgia actions have been completely abandoned in the light of later, more rigorous research. The Borgias "inflicted" their people on the Church, and the Church "suffered as with a disease". And who can blame a sick man for his viruses. It brings to mind the current debate about whether victims are themselves responsible for so-called life-style diseases. Whoever was to blame, the Papacy was not really reformed until 1585 when Felice Peretti, Sixtus V, came to power and reformed the Roman Curia, dividing power among the fifteen Congregations that still run the Catholic Church for the Pope. Some later Popes have been no less interested in temporal power, but the checks and balances of the fifteen Congregations have prevented any one family from getting enough power to "inflict" more infamy on the Church.