Wrapped in a carpet, the horribly bloated and badly decomposing body of Pope Alexander VI was pummelled and pushed unceremoniously into a hastily made and too small coffin. No priests attended his burial nor were there wax tapers, lights, solemn masses or chanting monks. It was August 1503 at the Vatican and the Spanish Borgia’s iron grip on power was unravelling fast. With Alexandar VI dead, the Borgias had, in all senses of the word, lost their ‘Godfather’,
Back in the Vatican, Alexander VI’s private chambers had already been pillaged, so that all that remained were a few hangings and cushions. Meanwhile, the Pope’s son, the ruthless and terrifying Cesare Borgia, was desperately trying to secure his position, despite barely recovering from the illness that had killed his father. As Captain General of the church, he had already taken possession of his father’s treasures and sent for reinforcements, whilst his men, under his loyal and cruel henchman, Michelotto, held the Borgo. But no one knew better than Cesare how fragile Borgia power was, now that the Pope was dead. With enemies in every direction, the very existence of the Borgias was suddenly at stake. Quite simply, the Pope had died too soon.
Ultimate power for the Borgias had always depended upon the Papacy, which they had first obtained in 1455 when Alfonso Borgia had been elected Pope Callixtus III. Elected as a compromise candidate, aged 77, Pope Callixtius III lasted only three years, although by then he had promoted two of his nephews to the Cardinalate. One of these was Rodrigo Borgia, who was only 25 when appointed, before being elevated to Vice-Chancellor of the church. He was to serve five Popes over the course of the next 34 years before becoming one of history’s most notorious Popes, remembered for his astonishing excesses and his creation of one of the first ‘mafia’ crime families.
In fact, there had been nothing exceptional about the blatant nepotism of Callixtus III. This was the age of ‘secular’ Popes who, at best, combined piety with a rapacious lust for wealth and temporal power. Living in a splendour that was the envy of kings, the poverty and modesty of early Christianity had long been forgotten by the Papacy. Indeed, in the explosive and dangerously unstable atmosphere of High Renaissance Italy, being Pope was about securing power and riches – with the Borgias developing this particular talent into a state of the art.
Indeed, 450 years later their reputation, and that of the supreme creativity of Italy at the time of the Borgias, was summed up succinctly by Orson Welles, in his legendary film The Third Man (1949). The protagonist, Harry Lime, says: ‘…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Orson Welles may have been a bit unfair to Switzerland but he was not exaggerating about the Borgias nor the incredible emergence of stunning artists. Alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci were Titian, Raphael and Bramante – all working in an environment of extraordinary decadence. For political or church leaders the stakes could not have been higher. With mind-boggling corruption the norm, political in-fighting was, literally, murderous within a frightening environment of bitter intrigue and dark betrayal.
Certainly, by the time the incredibly wealthy Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia bribed his way to becoming Pope in 1492, Italy was a land of massively wealthy, feuding states. In turn these were, at various times, claimed or fought over by Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, much of central Italy (the Papal States) was, in theory, controlled by the Pope. In practice, these valuable temporal lands were held by ‘princes’ who paid the Vatican little more than lip service. However, this was to change under the ambitious, brave, skilled and ruthless rule of Pope Alexander VI.
Pope Alexander VI defies all contemporary notions of the papacy. He was a deeply religious man, particularly revering the cult of the Virgin Mary. However, he pursued wealth and temporal power single-mindedly, using every instrument at his disposal, including the assassination of his enemies. Amazingly, he also loved hunting, orgies, riotous parties and, perhaps most of all, women. He had several long term mistresses who bore him at least nine adored children, of whom two in particular (Cesare and Lucretzia), were to play a major part during his papacy. Like the ‘Godfather’, immortalised in Mario Puzo’s book of the same name, his family was everything and furthering their interests was paramount.
As soon as he became Pope, Alexander VI began to consolidate and increase the power and wealth of his family. Cesare was made a Cardinal when he was only 18 and his elder bother, Giovanni, was made Duke of Gandia (the Spanish ancestral home of the Borgias). Meanwhile, Lucrezia, in a magnificent ceremony in the Vatican Palace, was married to the strategically important Lord of Pesaro (Giovanni Sforza). Alexander’s plan was to take control of the Papal States of central Italy to increase the wealth and secular power of the church – whilst also distributing lands, titles and ever further riches to his own family.
In 1497, to Alexander’s appalled grief, his son Giovanni was murdered. This was possibly done by Cesare, who, the following year, resigned as a Cardinal to become Duke of Valentois and Alexander’s military right hand man. By 1500 Cesare had conquered the Romagna and been appointed by Alexander as Captain General of the church and thereby one of the most powerful men in Italy.
In Cesare, Alexander had the perfect person to forward his grandiose plans. Utterly ruthless, highly intelligent, brave and secretive, Cesare was an opportunist who was supremely ambitious. His motto was ‘Either Caesar or nothing’ and he operated on the basis that the ends always justified the means. Dressed dramatically in black, often masked (to hide syphilitic scars), he was charismatic, a master politician and able general. He was also a cold blooded murderer who killed his sister’s defenceless lover (Perotto) and her second husband Alfonso of Aragon. Notoriously, in 1502 at Senigallia, he also executed his own unsuspecting condottieri (mercenary) leaders by garrotting them when he doubted their loyalty. At the time, he was the most feared man in Italy, although beloved by his father, the Pope, who admiringly condoned his actions.
Lucrezia was the favoured daughter of Alexander and vital as a means for the Borgias to secure alliances through her marriages. A femme fatale, she was engaged twice by the time she was 11 and subsequently married three times, as the shifting political alliances of Alexander and Cesare demanded. Amazingly, at 21, she was made Regent of the Vatican (and therefore caretaker of the church!) whilst Alexander was away inspecting his new conquests.
But Alexander’s efforts to create a powerful and long lasting Borgia dynasty were not to succeed. Just before Cesare could consolidate Borgia power, the Pope died, possibly (and ironically) from poisoning. Hated by the Italians as a Spanish mafia, the Borgias had lacked sufficient time to build a long term, solid, power base. Universally feared, Cesare had made too many enemies to exist without the overt support of the papacy and, shortly after the death of Alexander, was stripped (by Pope Julius II) of his church titles and Papal possessions and sent back to Spain as a prisoner.
Eventually escaping, Cesare died as he had lived: outnumbered and killed in a bloody ambush. However, unlike ‘The Godfather’ film, there was no Al Pacino figure to take over from Cesare – and with him died supreme Borgia ambitions and one of the most notorious episodes in Papal history.
1450 – 1527 High Renaissance
1455 Alfonso de Borgia becomes Pope (Callixtus III)
1458 Pope Callixtus III dies
1484 Boticelli paints The Birth of Venus
1492 Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope (Alexander VI)
Last Moorish stronghold in Granada conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella
Columbus finds the New World
1494 – 1559 Italian Wars (a series of conflicts that involved all the major countries of Europe and the states of Italy)
1495 French invade Italy
1497 Leonardo Da Vinci paints ‘The Last Supper’
1499 Cesare starts conquest of the Romagne
1500 Jubilee Year
Caesare murders Lucretzia’s second husband Alfonso of Aragon
1502 Donato Bramante’s Tempietto constructed
Leonardo Da Vinci starts the ‘Mona Lisa’
1503 Pope Alexander VI dies
Pope Pius III lasts 26 days
Pope Julius II crowned and reigns until 1513
1504 Cesare surrenders Romagne to Pope Julius II and sent to Spain as a prisoner
1506 Donato Bramante’s masterpiece St Peter’s Basilica started
Swiss Guard formed
1507 Cesare Borgia killed in an ambush in Navarre
Pope Julius II proclaims indulgences to aid rebuilding of St. Peter’s
1508 Michelangelo starts painting the Sistine Chapel
Raphael starts ‘Rapheal Rooms’ in the Vatican Palace
1513 Machiavelli writes ‘The Prince’ based upon Cesare Borgia
1514 Copernicus first states that the Earth circles the Sun.
1517 Martin Luther nails 95 theses on church door in Wittenburg ref. indulgences
1518 Titian completes the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’
1519 Lucrezia Borgia dies
1520 Martin Luther excommunicated by Pope Leo X
Alfonso Borgia 1378 – 1458
Pope (Callixtus III) 1455 – 1458
Born in Xativa, Valencia
1st Borgia Pope
Made two nephews Cardinals (including Rodrigo Borgia at 25)
Pious but nepotistic
Rodrigo Borgia 1431 – 1503
Pope (Alexander VI) 1492 – 1503
Born in Xativa, Valencia
Had 10 children and adored his family
Handsome, clever, ruthless and brave
Deeply religious but saw a distinction between his religious and secular life
Loved women, hunting, power and riches
Cesare Borgia 1475 – 1507
Son of Pope Alexander VI
Made a Cardinal at 18 and then the 1st man ever to resign as a Cardinal
Ruthlessly ambitious, secretive and murderous
Syphilitic and dressed in black
Ably commanded Papal armies as Captain General of the Church
Died alone in an ambush in Navarre
The inspiration for Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’
Lucretzia Borgia 1480 – 1519
Favourite daughter of Pope Alexander VI
Femme fatale, engaged twice by age 11 and had three husbands
Caesare murdered one of her lover’s and her second husband
In 1501 made Regent of the Vatican when Pope Alexander was absent
Accused of incest and murder by poisoning
Painted by Titian and Veneziano
Guiliano della Rovere 1443 – 1513
Pope (Julius II) 1503 – 1513
The ‘Warrior Pope’ who drove French out of Italy
Hated the Borgias and destroyed Caesare Borgia
Master politician and strategist
Morally indifferent, probably a homosexual and had a daughter
Patronised Michelangelo, Bramante and Rafael
Banquet of Chestnuts (1501)
An orgy held in the Vatican Palace and hosted by Cesare in the presence of Pope Alexander VI. By the light of candelabra set on the floor, 50 naked prostitutes searched for hot chestnuts scattered on the floor. They were quickly joined by the party goers who were rewarded according to their displays of virility.
Death of Cesare 1507
In light armour, riding a massive charger and carrying a huge, double pointed lance Cesare out paced his escort. Arriving in a ravine, he was ambushed by three knights and their foot soldiers. Mortally wounded, he fought desperately before being overwhelmed.
(Noms de plume: Alexander Peters, Elena Suarez, Alberto Diaz)