Alexander had little time to gloat over his triumph over Savonarola. He himself was stunned by the murder of his beloved eldest son Juan, the Duke of Gandia. Juan’s corpse had been dragged from the Tiber the morning after a Borgia family dinner in the summer of 1497. The young man had been stabbed repeatedly. Theft was ruled out as a motive, as Juan’s purse with a large sum in gold was found on the body. Although the identity of the killer was not confirmed, suspicion passed between a number of those who knew him, before settling upon his younger brother Cesare, the last person with whom Juan had been seen alive.
The Pope himself is said to have suspected Cesare of the fratricide, but out of fear of his own calculating and ruthless son, did nothing. ‘Alexander was forced to acquiesce in the murder of his best-loved son, the Duke of Gandia, (Juan) since he himself lived in hourly dread of Cesare.’11
Worse in many ways for Alexander, he now needed Cesare. He had preferred Juan to the younger Cesare, who, resenting a perceived lack of paternal affection, had fashioned himself as cool and aloof, habitually dressed all in black. But the aging Pope had little choice but to turn now to Cesare, whose diplomatic and military skills had already been seen, and upon whose practiced brutality he would increasingly come to rely.
Dispatched as Alexander’s envoy to the newly crowned Louis XII of France, Cesare capped the success of his mission by his marriage to Charlotte d’Albret, sister of the King of Navarre and daughter of the Duke of Guyenne. In the process he gained the Duchy of Valentinois, becoming Cesare Borgia of France, and known throughout Italy as Duke Valentino. His close relationship with Louis XII then allowed Cesare to muster French troops for a scheme he and his father had hatched, to annexe the Papal States in a military campaign through the cities of central Italy.
At the close of the fifteenth century, the Papal States were hemmed in by powerful neighbours - Venice, Naples, Milan, and France itself - as well as by prosperous city-states such as Florence and Bologna. But there was a jigsaw of smaller cities and principalities to Rome’s north and south held by the petty princes of the Italian nobility, and it was to bolster their strategic position that the Borgias, with the aid of French troops sent by Louis, set about reinforcing the Papal States by creating the neighbouring state of Romagna.
Cesare’s campaign, akin to a fifteenth century blitzkrieg, saw forced marches and surprise attacks, with city after city besieged and falling, some without a fight due to Cesare’s famous skills at negotiation and his vaunted military might, and in fear of the consequences of doing otherwise. Those who did resist, such as the imperious and cultured Caterina Sforza in Forli, saw their battlements breached and treasuries plundered. Cesare is said to have raped the captive Caterina herself, and kept her as a concubine until she managed to escape his clutches and flee.
His victories became the stuff of terrifying legend. After the fall of the city of Capua, with the final attack led by Cesare on horseback, its citizenry were raped and butchered in the streets. ‘Women, as usual, suffered the most with the inevitable rape preceding murder. Thirty of the most beautiful were captured and sent to Rome, Christians sent to the seat of Christendom as though to the court of a pagan prince. It was a Frenchman who recorded this incident, leaving it to Italian writers to elaborate it into a Herculean myth whereby Cesare took the women into his personal harem.’12
By now Alexander and Cesare had decided that Lucrezia’s second marriage to a Neapolitan noble, Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, was inconvenient for their ongoing alliance with France. In the midsummer of the year 1500 Alfonso was attacked and stabbed on the steps of Saint Peter’s, and left to die. One eyewitness reported the assailant was Cesare Borgia. When a few days later Alfonso was strangled in his bed, the task was said to have been done by Cesare's chief fixer, Don Michelotto, although other accounts had Cesare attending personally to his brother-in-law. Lucrezia had apparently loved her second husband, but this carried no weight with her father and brother. After a time of mourning, during which Cesare paid her close fraternal attention, Lucrezia was deemed adequately recovered for her next assignment, marriage to Alfonso D’Este, the powerful Duke of Ferrara, whom she wed in 1501.
The mere mention of the “satanic” Cesare had become enough to freeze hearts up and down the boot of Italy. ‘The manner in which Cesare isolated his father, murdering brother, brother-in-law, and other relations or courtiers, whenever their favour with the Pope or their position in any other respect became inconvenient to him, is literally appalling.’13
The plans of Cesare and Alexander for the Romagna suffered a severe setback in 1502 with the Revolt of the Condottieri, the warlords and mercenaries of Cesare’s campaign of conquest. Hearing rumours of a possible weakening of the French king’s allegiance to Cesare, and that perhaps their master might not much longer be the force he had been, the condottieri conducted their own “freelance” assault upon Bologna, which embarrassed Cesare and eventually brought him into direct conflict with many of his long-time comrades in arms.
The young Niccolo Machiavelli, Secretary of State of the Florentine Republic, had by then spent considerable time with Cesare, and liking what he saw, joined his campaign in October of 1502, becoming an eyewitness to the vanquishing of the condottieri. The author of The Prince, the little handbook of treachery traditionally said to be inspired by Satan (though in fact inspired at least in part by Cesare Borgia), was described by a contemporary as:
‘Of middle height, slender figure, sparkling eyes, dark hair, rather a small head, a slightly aquiline nose, a tightly closed mouth; all about him bore the impress of a very acute observer and thinker, but not that of one able to wield much influence over others. He could not easily rid himself of the sarcastic expression continually playing round his mouth and flashing from his eyes, which gave him the air of a cold and impassible calculator; while nevertheless he was frequently ruled by his powerful imagination; sometimes led away by it to an extent befitting the most fantastic of visionaries.’14
Such was the man who rode alongside Cesare Borgia towards the betrayal which Cesare considered his “beautiful deception”. By this time, lacking support of the powerful Venetians which they had been counting upon, the revolt of the condottieri had run out of steam, and it was in attempting to re-pledge themselves to Cesare that they met their doom. He first led them to believe they were welcome back to the fold, but after they had served him in the capture of the Adriatic city of Sinigaglia, in December 1502, he sprang a trap as they rode in triumph through the city, and their four leaders were captured. Two were immediately strangled. The remaining pair, the brothers Francesco and Paulo Orsini, were very well connected men, relatives of the powerful Cardinal Orsini. But Alexander freed Cesare of any concern by inviting the Cardinal to dinner in the Vatican, and poisoning him. The way cleared, Cesare had the Orsini brothers strangled.
Cesare’s guile and ruthlessness could not fail to impress Machiavelli, who later wrote in The Prince that only “inhuman cruelty” on the part of the commander could maintain unity and discipline in an army. As such, Cesare made an ideal executive, and his actions, to Machiavelli’s mind, exemplary. But he did not maintain his high regard for Cesare, after the reign of the Borgias unravelled spectacularly. Rarely has a ruling house of such fearsome repute been laid low so quickly.
Cesare had long suffered venereal affliction, the so-called “French Disease”. Returning home in Rome in 1503, he got around the streets alone at night clad in black and masked to hide the syphilitic disfigurement of his once handsome features. On 12 August 1503, both Alexander and Cesare fell ill after a dinner in the Vatican, and Alexander died six days later. Talk abounded in Rome that they had both been accidentally stricken with poison intended for another dinner guest, but the most common view now is that they succumbed to a virulent fever rife that year. Alexander had been susceptible because of his advancing years, and Cesare due to his advanced syphilis.
Though very seriously ill, Cesare sent his men in to ransack the Vatican treasury while he still had the chance, but it was the last stand of a desperate man. With Alexander dead, the French quickly cooled to Cesare, and while he was recovering the dispossessed rulers and cities of central Italy rallied against him. Cesare’s troops - and with them his power - melted away into the countryside of the Romagna.
Confused perhaps by the sudden death of Alexander, the cardinals elected the elderly Pope Pius III, who himself died three weeks later. When the cardinals were again asked to decide on a pope, the old enemy of the Borgias, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, was the frontrunner. Enticed towards a deal to salvage some of his power, Cesare backed della Rovere, a surprise decision which Machiavelli later noted foundered on the foolish notion that unlike him, della Rovere would keep his word.
He didn’t. Soon after his accession, Pope Julius II (his adopted name is suspected of being be a joke pun at the expense of Cesare - “Caesar”) had the former tyrant, now little more than a desperado on the run, arrested. Cesare was packed off home to Spain where life got little better for him, and he died cut down in a skirmish in 1507. He was 32. By this time Machiavelli had turned from admiration to loathing, declaring ‘He merited the most miserable of deaths.’
11. Burckhardt, J., op cit p110
12. Chamberlin, E.R., op cit, p 49
13. Burckhardt, J., op cit p110
14. Bull, G, introduction to Machiavelli’s The Prince, p1715. The Borgias: The Art of Power
For Lucrezia, see:
from my book, Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado.http://www.newholland.com.au/product.php?isbn=9781741106664