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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Monday, March 9, 2009


On Easter Sunday in 1478, the good burghers of Florence gathered in the Duomo, the splendid cathedral which sits at the heart of their equally splendid city, to celebrate the traditional High Mass marking the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from his tomb. Amid the hundreds crowding the pews that day were the young Medici brothers, Lorenzo, not yet thirty years of age and ruler of Florence, and his brother Giuliano.

Among the other worshippers in the Duomo was a priest named Francesco de’ Pazzi, who intended to lead the assassinations of the brothers in a coup d’etat to end Medici rule of the Florentine Republic. Before the sun set that day, the River Arno ran red with the blood of the dead.

Francesco’s family the Pazzi had grievances against the Medici going back generations, to when Giovanni de’ Medici, the great grandfather of Lorenzo and Giuliano, had imposed taxes on the rich to the benefit of the poor. The move had predictably made Giovanni popular on the street but detested in the halls of the aristocracy.

Although the Pazzi had long nursed the ambition of bringing down the Medici, it was via the scheming of a pope, Sixtus IV, that they almost achieved their aim. But the Pope played the Pazzi for a patsy, by hatching a plot with them with the goal of annexing the plum prize of Florence to the papal states, while exposing himself to no risk.

The conspirators led by Francesco de' Pazzi saw their first opportunity to strike at a banquet given by Lorenzo on 25 April 1478, at his villa in the hills of Fiesole just outside Florence, but because Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano was ill and unable to attend, the plan was postponed until the next day, Easter Sunday. Even then it was uncertain whether Giuliano would be able to attend, but being a red letter day in the Christian calendar, special arrangements were made to get him there.

Francesco de’ Pazzi took his place in the pew behind the two Medici brothers, and gripped the dagger concealed in his priestly garb. He had chosen the dramatic high-point in the Mass as his moment to strike, and when the officiating cardinal raised the Sacred Host high, the bells rang and the congregation all bowed their heads, he leapt forward and thrust his dagger into the unsuspecting Giuliano, following up the first strike with a furious assault until the young man lay mortally wounded on the marble floor of the cathedral, bleeding from twenty stab-wounds.

But all did not go according to plan for the plotters. Lorenzo escaped, and the attempted coup collapsed. The Pazzi were hunted down: the Medici triumphed again, and all the while the Pope in Rome seethed.

Monday, March 2, 2009


In the late thirteenth century a corrosive power struggle between two of the oldest and the most influential families of Rome resulted in paroxysms for the papal office. The Orsini and Colonna families had been literally taking the Throne of Saint Peter in turns, when in 1294 the cardinals were deadlocked in electing the next pope, support in the conclave evenly divided between candidates from each family - and, more widely, loyalties to the Guelphs and Ghibellines - with neither side able to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.

The conclave had dragged on for more than two years, even being relocated to Perugia to escape the oppressive summer heat and an outbreak of plague in Rome. When still no candidate could be agreed upon, and with the citizenry demanding a decision - the practice had begun of bricking in the cardinals until they elected the next pope - a wild-card entry gained unanimous agreement from the exhausted cardinals. But in electing the illiterate cave-dwelling mystic Pietro di Morrone as their head, they had chosen the mediaeval equivalent of a hippie cult leader to be CEO of General Motors. Indeed, any modern cult leader would be better equipped to run a major corporation than Morrone was for the papacy.

He was born into a peasant family in 1215, and became a Benedictine monk, but left the monastery for the mountain solitude of the Abruzzi, east of Rome. He lived a hermit’s life of extreme privation in the mould of John the Baptist, as befitted a mystic anchorite of the era, clad in a hair-shirt and weighed down with iron chains, praying all day into the night, subsisting on little more than water and crusts of dry bread. Given his diet, or lack thereof, it is not surprising he began experiencing visions, which ultimately brought fame from far afield to the cave-dwelling holy man. He founded his own order devoted to the Holy Ghost, which became known as the Celestines, and to escape the ever increasing traffic of pilgrims, retreated to a cave at the hermitage of San Onofrio, on another remote peak.

But even thence his fame spread, attracting the eye of the French king of Naples, Charles II of Anjou, who made the difficult journey to meet him in 1293, and devised a plan which was to have serious consequences for the Church for many decades to come. Charles encouraged the holy hermit to write a letter to the cardinals criticising them for their drawn-out deliberations, and their snap response, which the king might well have anticipated from such exhausted and frazzled men, was to elect Pietro himself.

The vote taken, the pope-elect had to be advised of his elevation to the pontificate, which meant dispatching Vatican envoys on a journey of some 200 kilometres to the remote and rugged mountains where the elderly hermit resided. Clad in their Vatican finery, the envoys were joined en route on this curious expedition by a throng of monks and other faithful, ultimately scrabbling up the rocks to the hermit’s lofty refuge, ‘...a cave over a thousand feet up on the desolate mountain. It was set upon a narrow plateau, with a sheer drop upon one side, and there the party was forced to crowd. News of the approaching cortege had filled Peter (Pietro) not so much with dismay as outright terror. He had intended to fly yet again to one of his remoter refuges, but his disciples, with a keener awareness of the fruits involved, had dissuaded him. When (met) he was peering out through the bars of his cell, his eyelids swollen and darkened by tears, his face emaciated. He barely seemed to understand what was being said to him; then he threw himself upon the ground, prayed, arose, and with infinite reluctance, accepted.’1

By the time Pietro and his entourage descended the mountain, the joyful word of a new pope at last had spread far and wide, and a cheering multitude estimated in the hundreds of thousands poured in to greet the startled pontiff-elect. The next surprise for all concerned was that the new pontiff did not wish to go to Rome to be crowned, but accepted an invitation from King Charles to go south to Naples, where the unhappy cardinals eventually agreed to join him, and he established his papacy as Celestine V.

From the outset things were difficult. The new pope chose to live humbly in a custom built replica of his mountain cell, and could not speak Latin, the language of the papal court, but instead vernacular Italian, the roughness of which assaulted the delicate ears of the papal courtiers. He also appeared to have little idea of his role and his power to rule by decree, and from the outset dispensed positions and money virtually to anyone who bothered to ask, and they were inevitably very many in number.

1. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003, p81