Thursday, March 19, 2009


In October 2002 a major exhibition opened at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome, The Borgias: The Art of Power. It drew together more than two hundred artworks from museums around the world. In addition to Pinturicchio, who decorated the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, and who painted Giulia Farnese as the Virgin Mary for Alexander’s bedchamber, other artists who met the Borgias, and whose works were part of the exhibition, included Michelangelo, Titian and Bellini. One room was dedicated solely to Cesare Borgia’s military costumery.

Intent upon the question of whether the Borgias really were as bad as history has presented them, the exhibition’s curators were keen to mount a strong defence. Co-curator and Borgia scholar Learco Andalo said at the opening, ‘The aim of the show is to put the record straight. The Borgias are the victims of biased historical accounts based on malicious rumour.’1

While few could deny the ruthless machinations of Rodrigo Borgia - Pope Alexander VI - and his son Cesare, the organisers in particular cast doubt upon the more shocking stories, such as incest with Lucrezia. Co-curator Carlo Alfano said many alleged crimes of Lucrezia were untrue, adding: ‘Nor were claims that she had had an incestuous relationship with her father true, probably'2, and attested to the view that rumours of Borgia incest were spread by Lucrezia’s jilted and disgruntled spouse, Giovanni Sforza.

Many historians concur that the accounts of incest were probably fabricated by Sforza, but that is not to say Alexander and Cesare did not behave in a scandalous manner in other respects, in particular the strong suspicion that Cesare raped Caterina Sforza. But it would appear with regard to Lucrezia at least, some basic human taboos were observed by the Borgias.

Various accounts deem Lucrezia a woman wronged by previous generations whose stories became mingled with luridly colourful fictions about her, growing into a literary cottage industry which flourished during the nineteenth century. The Lucrezia industry shows little sign of slowing down. With new books, stage productions and films still being developed and released about her life, the name would appear to return its mystery and allure for authors, directors and public alike.

What then is the truth of the popular reputation of the Borgias as poisoners, which has rightly or wrongly persisted for generations? It seems again that an intermingling of history and Romantic fiction, and the fact that poisoning was common during the Renaissance, may have led to the prevailing view.

The Borgias are said to have killed up to seventy of their rivals through poisoning, with some accounts of them killing people at a rate or one or two a week. In some versions Lucrezia’s chef and poisoner worked side by side in her kitchens - surely very dangerous if they got their mixing bowls confused.

Their poison of choice was popularly a white powder called cantarella, said to have had a pleasant taste but be extremely toxic and leading quickly to death. Its purported use grew into the stuff of proverbs - which may have come from the Borgia’s political foes - such as “tasting the cup of the Borgias”, being a synonym for sudden, mysterious death.

According to the more macabre accounts, Alexander and Cesare experimented in applying arsenic to the entrails of freshly slaughtered beasts, from the decaying flesh of which they later harvested the fabled cantarella, less detectable and far more powerful than arsenic itself. Another version has the Borgias force-feeding arsenic to a bear, and extracting cantarella from its vomit.

Borgia biographer Marion Johnson, while pointing out that many people at the time were interested in trying to poison others, believes it was at best a very imprecise skill. ‘Poisoning was an art practised all over Italy... The science however, was defective, and more was attempted than accomplished... Legend portrays Cesare as an inveterate poisoner. No doubt he was interested, but the method was far too unsure for one who aimed to practise an efficient terror.’3

The curators of the The Borgias exhibition refuted any inference that Lucrezia was a poisoner. ‘Lucrezia poisoned no-one,’ Learco Andaro stated. ‘She was poisoned by the pen of history and nineteenth century Romanticism. She was instead a gifted stateswoman. She even ran the Vatican in her father’s absence.’4

It would appear the jury is less decided, however, about whether Cesare was a poisoner. Nineteenth century historian Jacob Burckhardt considered that in addition to his fixer Don Michelotto, Cesare employed his own personal poisoner, a Spaniard called Sebastiano Pinzon.5 Here too is historian Garrett Mattingly’s assessment of Cesare:

‘It was said that he was his father’s rival for his sister’s bed. (Almost certainly false.) It was said that after the horrible sack of Capua he seized forty beautiful highborn maidens and added them to his personal harem. (Highly unlikely, Cesare does not seem to have shared his father’s excessive appetite. The maidens were probably commandeered by Cesare’s captains, though perhaps in his name.) It was said that he seduced that gallant youth Astorre Manfredi, and when he tired of him had him murdered. (Possibly, but the motive for the murder was more probably purely political.) It was said he murdered his brother, the Duke of Gandia. (Probable. At least his father seems to have believed it.) And that he had his brother-in-law, Lucrezia’s second husband, murdered. (Pretty certainly true). But it was a dull week when one, at least, of the embassies of Rome did not chalk up another murder to Cesare’s credit, sometimes by poison, sometimes by the hands of hired assassins, sometimes by his own dagger. Probably he really was responsible for a fair share of those bodies hauled out of the Tiber... As he marched through the anarchic Papal States, seizing one town after another, by bribery or trickery or the sheer terror of his name, his legend hung over him like a thundercloud.’6

That thundercloud lifted with the deaths of Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia. The final judgement on Rodrigo fell to the men entrusted with his corpse, their feelings of whom may have mirrored those of other ordinary Romans. ‘...the body was carried to the Chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre and placed in its coffin next to the wall in a corner by the altar. Six labourers or porters, making blasphemous jokes about the pope and in contempt of his corpse, together with two master carpenters, performed this task. The carpenters had made the coffin too narrow and short, and so they placed the pope’s mitre at his side, rolled his body up in an old carpet, and pummelled and pushed it into the coffin with their fists. No wax tapers or lights were used, and no priests or other persons attended to his body.’21

1. The Borgias: The Art of Power
2. ibid.
3. Johnson, M., The Borgias, Penguin Books, London, 2001, pp186-187
5. Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Mentor, New York City, 1960, p109
6. Mattingly, G., in Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, Harper Torchbook, New York City, 1965, p23
7. Testimony of Johann Burchard, papal master of ceremonies, in Walsh, M.J., he Popes: 50 Celebrated Occupants of the Throne of St Peter, Quercus Publishing, London, 2007, p155

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