One can make this generalisation about men: they are
ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger
and are greedy for profit.
- Machiavelli, The Prince
Such was the impact of the Borgias upon the world of the Renaissance that their name still retains its power to evoke thoughts of treachery, debauchery and murder. The head of the Borgia clan was something else too: a pope. The Roman Catholic Church has long sighed with resignation about its numerous “bad popes”, but to many eyes Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, was the baddest of the bad, bad to the bone. Whether this is the truth is still a matter of debate among mediaeval historians, where reputations have been forged by the latest revision upwards of his reputation, or a freshly penned scathing rebuttal.
It is perhaps fitting that the coat of arms of the Borgia family is a bull: Rodrigo Borgia was the bull in the china shop of the Vatican. He lived with faint regard to the moral code of his Church or his times, wielded papal authority like a grasping duke, and instilled fear into friend and foe alike, a practice refined into an art form by his even more notorious son, Cesare, upon whose statecraft of cynicism, or realpolitik, Niccolo Machiavelli in part, at the least, wrought The Prince. Accounts of Cesare’s sister Lucrezia as a seductress and poisoner, a definitive femme fatale, have also spiced the pages of history and popular fiction.
The first hurdle Rodrigo Borgia had to cross on his way to the Church’s highest office, was that he was a Spaniard. He was born in Valencia in 1531, but the ambitious young cleric was fortunate to arrive in Rome under the patronage of a fellow Borgia, his uncle Pope Calixtus III, who later made him a cardinal. Calixtus also brought Rodrigo’s elder brother Pedro to Rome, and invested him with titles, but Pedro’s avarice for the gold of the leading families of Rome eventually brought about his downfall, and he died in exile.
At the age of 30, after Rodrigo had already fathered three children with various mistresses, he took a Roman aristocrat, Vanozzi dei Cataneis, as his lover. It would prove no mere fling: they remained together for more than a quarter of a century, and she bore him four children, including Cesare and Lucrezia.1
It is said of the sometimes jovial but often querulous and endlessly scheming Rodrigo, that at least he loved his family, as he certainly did. Eventually, however, he took the younger and more glamorous Guilia Farnese as his mistress, when he was in his fifties and approaching the apogee of his power.
Rodrigo made little attempt to mask his worldly appetites, and on the contrary so flaunted them as a rising young cardinal that Pope Pius II was caused to chastise him severely.
‘Beloved Son, We have heard that, four days ago, several ladies of Siena - women entirely given over to worldly frivolities - were assembled in the gardens of the Giovanni di Bichis... We have heard that the most licentious dances were indulged in, none of the allurements of love were lacking and you conducted yourself in a wholly worldly manner. Shame forbids mention of all that took place - not only the acts themselves but their very names are unworthy of your position... All Siena is talking about this orgy...’2
Despite such admonishments, Rodrigo Borgia maintained a steady march upward through the Church hierarchy, and when Pope Innocent VIII died in 1492, he considered the papal tiara itself within his grasp. By then he was one of the most experienced operators in the Vatican, and only too aware the votes of the conclave of cardinals were open to the highest bidder. He had amassed a fortune from his offices in the Church, and was determined to outbid his Italian rivals for the prize.
‘His revenues from his papal offices, his abbeys in Italy and Spain, and his three bishoprics are vast. His office of Vice Chancellor alone yields him 8000 gold ducats annually. His plate, his pearls, his stuffs embroidered with silk and gold, his books are all of such high quality as would befit a king or pope. Altogether it is believed that he possesses more gold and riches of every sort than all the other cardinals put together.’3
The conclave reached an easy decision in his favour, the smoke poured from the chimneys of the Vatican announcing his election, and unlikely as it might have appeared to powerbrokers in the years beforehand, the sexagenarian Spaniard had won the papal prize. As such he was the best pope money could buy, even if later events revealed the quality of the goods unsatisfactory in the end.
This is not to say that he did not possess personal virtues, or was unable at least to conjure the outline of them. As his official secretary remarked: ‘He knew how to dominate, how to shine in conversation, how to appear dignified. Majestic in stature, he had the advantage over lesser men. He was just at that age, sixty, at which Aristotle says men are wisest. He was robust in body and vigourous in mind and so was perfectly suited to his new position.’4
Not all who dealt with him were so easily charmed. The Florentine scholar Francesco Guicciardini wrote: ‘His manner was dissolute. He knew neither shame nor sincerity, neither faith nor religion. Moreover he was possessed by an insatiable greed, and overwhelming ambition and a burning passion for the advancement of his many children who, in order to carry out his iniquitous decrees, did not scruple to employ the most heinous means.’5
Rodrigo Borgia had however inherited a papacy already diminished by many years of profligate and scandalous behaviour: ‘the corruption, which seemed to culminate in this family, was already far advanced when they came to Rome.’6
As such it was not their notorious personal behaviour which would bring abiding opprobrium to the house of Borgia, but their methods of achieving their ends, a melding of terror and treachery later proclaimed the ideal for rulers by Machiavelli. ‘Their (the Borgias) immediate purpose, which in fact, they attained, was the complete subjugation of the Pontifical State.’7
To bolster his authority, on assuming the papacy Alexander made his son Cesare a cardinal, even if the young man had limited training and even less interest in clerical matters. He also schemed to break marriage vows exchanged on behalf of his teenage daughter Lucrezia with a Spanish dynasty of no further use to him, betrothing her to Giovanni Sforza, an Italian prince of promise and influence, lord of Pesaro and kin to the rulers of Milan.
Giovanni and Lucrezia were married with great pomp in the Vatican in 1493, the year after Alexander’s accession. The marriage was not fated to last long however. When shifting allegiances rendered the Sforzas of little more use, the young Giovanni was compelled to sign a statement that he was impotent and the marriage to Lucrezia unconsummated, and Alexander annulled the union. After the marriage was dissolved and while she was staying in a convent, Lucrezia became pregnant to an emissary sent by her father, but this detail did not prevent him issuing a bull declaring her a virgin. Such brazen behaviour had tongues wagging in Rome, and up and down the boot of Italy.
‘Throughout his papacy... Alexander VI was surrounded by a buzz of scandal. Gossiping about popes has always been a favourite Italian pastime, but probably no other pope has ever afforded so much occasion for juicy gossip. Other popes had kept mistresses in the Vatican, and simony and immorality were no more rife in Rome under the Borgia Pope than they had been under his predecessors and would be under his successors. But there was a sort of childlike shamelessness about Alexander VI which invited comment. Other popes had auctioned off high ecclesiastical offices, doublecrossed their associates and allies, and used their exalted position for the advancement of their families and base personal ends, but usually they pretended to be doing something else. Rodrigo Borgia had either an honest scorn for hypocrisy or a naive ignorance of the force of public opinion. Other popes had thrown wild parties at the Vatican, but no other pope had made the parties so flamboyant or public. And no other pope had had a portrait of his official mistress, robed as the Virgin Mary, painted over the door of his bedchamber.’8
In this respect at least, he did break new ground for sexual shenanigans in the Vatican. But ironically enough, although he was a career womaniser, and his official mistress had numerous rivals, Alexander was in some other respects quite abstemious, and despite his corporeal bulk more sparing than some with food and drink. He is also considered to have acquitted himself as an able if not conscientious administrator, determined to make the Roman streets safer, and to trim the Vatican’s notorious reels of red tape, as well as being something of a patron of the arts.
But it was his carnal activities which inevitably aroused the keenest interest, and soon after he took the papal throne the rumours spread of wild parties and orgies in the Vatican, even private bullfights in the courtyards. Some accused him of treating the Vatican as a high class brothel. The rude Spaniards aroused the ire of the old ruling families of Rome, who despite any activities of their own demanded at least a degree of decorum. There was even talk of incest between the Borgias, chatter in part instigated and fanned along by powerful rivals and jilted allies. All this led to agitation at home and abroad by Alexander’s most bitter enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, but it was an allegation of collusion by Alexander with the Muslim Sultan Bazajet that prompted the young French king, Charles VIII, to the view that the Borgia pope was a traitor to Christendom. A French invasion of the Italian peninsula followed.
The powerful French army met little resistance as it swept south. Charles and his men were welcomed into Florence by the preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who saw in Charles “the sword of God” he had prophesied, and with French help he overthrew the ruling Medici and installed himself as Florentine ruler. Charles continued south, and entered Rome unopposed. As the new year 1495 dawned, his troops controlled the city, and his advisors urged him to depose Alexander at once. But the young king was unsure of how to proceed.
‘Once more the vast, undefinable, intangible power of the supreme pontiff and universal pope came to the aid of the Italian prince... could the rest of Christendom be persuaded that they were acting from love of the Holy Church and not from plain politics? How would Charles’s deeply religious subjects take it? And in any case, who would fill the vacant throne? In the last analysis, the decision was Charles’s - a decision which the weak young man did not dare to make.’9
Instead of overthrowing the Pope, he exacted favours, and taking Alexander’s son Cesare as a hostage, continued south to threaten the kingdom of Naples, to which he asserted a family claim. Cesare escaped and returned to Rome, and although the French took Naples with little effort and indulged themselves in extended looting of its treasures, the entire campaign turned to sand in Charles’s fingers. While Charles entertained himself in Naples, Alexander organised the powerful Venetians and Milanese against the French, with support from Spain, into the coalition of the Holy League.
By the time Charles returned north he found himself pitted against very powerful forces, fighting every step of the way. The French saw their Neapolitan booty eaten away bit by bit, spent on sorely needed provisions and arms, and gone to vapour on the battlefield. In Florence, Charles’s erstwhile friend Savonarola castigated him, saying he was incurring the wrath of God because he had failed in his holy duty to reform Rome. The climax came in July 1495, when troops of the Holy League vanquished the French in the Battle of Fornuovo near Parma in northern Italy. Charles lost nearly all his remaining loot, and the French straggled home across the Alps a harried, battered force.
Having dealt with Charles, Alexander now turned his attention to the problem of Florence itself, and the outspoken friar whose name he added to his death list. Savonarola was born into the aristocracy, and entered the Dominican order, rising to become Vicar-General in 1493. As word filtered back from Rome about the excesses of newly-installed Alexander, Savonarola started preaching fire and brimstone sermons against Christendom’s moral decline, of sexual licentiousness, corruption and the luxuries of earthly wealth.
He also spoke out against Florence’s ruler, the now ailing Lorenzo de Medici, although his words may also have been double-pointed, simultaneously aimed at Rome. ‘Tyrants are incorrigible because they are proud, because they love flattery, because they will not restore their ill-gotten gains. They allow bad officials to have their way; they yield to adulation; they neither heed the poor nor condemn the rich...’ 10
After the arrival of the French army and his usurpation of Medici power, Savonarola became in effect head of his own theocratic state, the so-called Catholic Commonwealth, backed by followers called the Piagnoni, the “Weepers” or “Snivellers”, so named for the emotional reaction he elicited from them through his sermons. Savonarola sought to purge the wealthy city of Florence of its treasure trove of earthly finery, which went up in flames in his infamous Bonfire of the Vanities.
Although there was more than one such Bonfire - and there had been previous instances of similar events in other parts of Italy - the most famous occurred at the onset of Lent in February 1497, when Savonarola sent his minions around the city collecting books and works of art, women’s dresses and jewellery, cosmetics and mirrors, gambling tables, even chess sets, which were put to the torch on bonfires in the Piazza della Signoria.10A
The Bonfires of the Vanities are believed to have devoured some fine Renaissance works, including some by the young Michelangelo. There were even accounts of young artists, among them Sandro Botticelli, a follower of Savonarola, becoming swept up in the fervour and tossing their own works onto the pyres.
Although Savonarola loathed Alexander and largely ignored his edicts from Rome, the friar’s claims to the gift of prophecy led to an investigation of heresy in Florence, and he was forbidden to preach. His end came when the apocalypse he had predicted failed to eventuate, and a populace which had been urged to destroy its most precious possessions rioted a few months later, in May 1497, and drinking, gambling and bawdy behaviour spread through the city. With calls to restore the Medici, Savonarola’s reign was effectively over.
Alexander had the last word against his enemy when he signed his death warrant in 1498. Savonarola and two of his disciples were strangled and burned in the Piazza della Signoria, where his infamous Bonfire had burned only a year before.
1. He went on to father nine children in all, by various women, two of them conceived in the Vatican while he was pope.
2. The letter ws written in 1460, when Rodrigo Borgia was 29. quoted in Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, p161.
3. Chamberlin, E.R., Cesare Borgia, p2
4. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, p172
5. ibid, p173
6. Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, p109
7. ibid, p 109
8. Mattingly, G., Machiavelli in Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, p23
9. Chamberlin, R., op cit, pp184-5
10. Roeder, R., in Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, p68