Born this day January 1 in 1431 - Alexander VI Pope Alexander VI
(1431-1503) born Roderigo Llançol, later Rodrigo Borja (Italian: Borgia) was Pope from 1492 to 1503. He is the most controversial of the secular popes of the Renaissance and one whose surname became a byword for the debased standards of the papacy of that era. He was born at Xativa, Valencia, Spain. His father's surname was Lanzol (Castilian) or Llançol (Catalan). He assumed his mother's family name of Borja
on the elevation of his maternal uncle to the papacy as Calixtus III
in 1455. Pope Alexander VI Education and election
Borgia studied law at Bologna and after his uncle's election as pope, was created successively bishop, cardinal and vice-chancellor of the church. Nepotistic appointments were characteristic of the age. He served in the Curia under five popes (Calixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV
and Innocent VIII
) and acquired much administrative experience, influence and wealth, though not great power.
On the death of Pope Innocent VIII
(1484–1492), the three likely candidates for the Holy See were cardinals Borgia, Ascanio Sforza
and Giuliano della Rovere
. While there was never substantive proof of simony
, the rumour was that Borgia, by his great wealth, succeeded in buying the largest number of votes, including that of Sforza, whom, popular rumour had it, he bribed with four mule-loads of silver. According to some historians, however, Borgia had no need of such an unsubtle exchange - the benefices and offices granted Sforza for his support would be worth considerably more than four mule-loads of silver. John Burchard
, the conclave's master of ceremonies and a leading figure of the papal household under several popes, recorded in his diary that the 1492 conclave was a particularly expensive campaign. Della Rovere was bankrolled to the cost of 200,000 gold ducats
by the King of France, with another 100,000 supplied by the Republic of Genoa. Borgia was elected on August 11, 1492, assuming the name of Alexander VI. Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici
sharply criticized the election and warned of dire things to come:
Nepotism and opposition
Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.
At first, Alexander's reign was marked by a strict administration of justice and an orderly method of government, in contrast to the mismanagement of the previous pontificate, as well as by great outward splendour. But it was not long before his passion for endowing his relatives at the church's and his neighbours' expense became manifest. To that end he was ready to commit any crime and to plunge all Italy into war. Alexander VI had four children by his mistress (Vannozza dei Cattani
), three sons and a daughter: Giovanni, Cesare, Goffredo
. Vannozza dei Cattani one of the Pope Alexander VI mistresses
Cesare, while a youth of seventeen and a student at Pisa, was made Archbishop of Valencia, and Giovanni received the dukedom of Gandia, the Borgias' ancestral home in Spain. For the Duke of Gandía and for Goffredo the Pope proposed to carve fiefs out of the papal states and the Kingdom of Naples. Among the fiefs destined for the duke of Gandía were Cerveteri
, lately acquired by Virginio Orsini
, head of that powerful house. This policy brought Ferdinand I, King of Naples
, into conflict with Alexander, who was also opposed by Cardinal della Rovere, whose candidature for the papacy had been backed by Ferdinand. Della Rovere fortified himself in his bishopric of Ostia at the Tiber's mouth as Alexander formed a league against Naples (April 25, 1493) and prepared for war. Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was given an opulent wedding at the Vatican Palace. click on image to enlarge.
Ferdinand allied himself with Florence, Milan and Venice. He also appealed to Spain for help. But Spain was anxious to be on good terms with the papacy in order to obtain the title to the newly discovered continent of America. Alexander, in the bull Inter Caetera
, divided the title between Spain and Portugual along a demarcation line. (This and other related bulls are known collectively as the Bulls of Donation
Alexander VI arranged great marriages for his children. Lucrezia had been promised to the Venetian Don Gasparo da Procida, but on her father's elevation to the papacy the engagement was cancelled and in 1493 she married Giovanni Sforza
, lord of Pesaro, the ceremony being celebrated at the Vatican Palace
with unparalleled magnificence.
In spite of the splendours of the Pontifical court, the condition of Rome became every day more deplorable. The city swarmed with Spanish adventurers, assassins, prostitutes and informers; murder and robbery were committed with impunity, and the Pope himself cast aside all show of decorum, living a purely secular life; indulging in the chase, and arranging dancing, stage plays and orgies (culminating in the debaucherous Banquet of Chestnuts
of 1501) within the Vatican itself. One of his close companions was Cem
, the brother of the Sultan Bayazid II
(1481–1512), detained as a hostage. The general outlook in Italy was of the gloomiest and the country was on the eve of foreign invasion. French Involvement
Alexander VI made many alliances to secure his position. He sought help from Charles VIII of France
, who was allied to Ludovico il Moro Sforza, the de facto ruler of Milan who needed French support to legitimise his regime (1483–1498). As King Ferdinand I of Naples was threatening to come to the aid of the rightful duke Gian Galeazzo — the husband of his granddaughter Isabella — Alexander VI encouraged the French king in his scheme for the conquest of Naples. Alexander VI would ally with Charles VIII of France against the King of Naples
But Alexander VI, always ready to seize opportunities to aggrandize his family, then adopted a double policy. Through the intervention of the Spanish ambassador he made peace with Naples in July 1493 and cemented the peace by a marriage between his son Giuffre and Doña Sancha, another granddaughter of Ferdinand I. In order to dominate the College of Cardinals more completely, Alexander, in a move that created much scandal, created twelve new cardinals, among them his own son Cesare, then only eighteen years old, and Alessandro Farnese
(later Pope Paul III), the brother of one of the Pope's mistresses, the beautiful Giulia Farnese
. Giulia Farnese, Raffaello 1505 - another of Pope Alexander VI's mistresses: The affair was widely known among the gossips of the time, and Giulia was referred to as "the Pope's whore" or as "the bride of Christ". Giulia and Lucrezia became close friends. Through her intimacy with the Pope she was able to get her brother Alessandro created Cardinal. This earned him the title of "Cardinal of the skirts" from Pasquino.
When Ferdinand I died in 1494, he was succeeded by his son Alfonso II
(1494–1495). Charles VIII of France
now advanced formal claims on the kingdom, and Alexander VI authorized him to pass through Rome ostensibly on a crusade against the Turks, without mentioning Naples. But when the French invasion became a reality he was alarmed, recognized Alfonso II as King, and concluded an alliance with him in exchange for various fiefs for his sons (July 1494). A military response to the French threat was set in motion. A Neapolitan army was to advance through the Romagna and attack Milan, while the fleet was to seize Genoa. But both expeditions were badly conducted and failed, and on September 8, Charles VIII crossed the Alps and joined Lodovico il Moro at Milan. The papal states were in turmoil, and the powerful Colonna
faction seized Ostia
in the name of France. Charles VIII rapidly advanced southward, and after a short stay in Florence, set out for Rome (November 1494).
Alexander VI appealed to Ascanio Sforza
for help, and even to the Sultan. He tried to collect troops and put Rome in a state of defence, but his position was precarious. When the Orsini offered to admit the French to their castles, Alexander had no choice but to come to terms with Charles, who on December 31 entered Rome with his troops, the cardinals of the French faction, and Giuliano della Rovere. Alexander now feared that the king might depose him for simony
and summon a council, but he won over the bishop of Saint-Malo who had much influence over the king, with a cardinal's hat. Alexander VI agreed to send Cesare, as legate, to Naples with the French army, to deliver Cem to Charles VIII and to give him Civitavecchia
(January 16, 1495). On January 28, Charles VIII departed for Naples with Cem and Cesare, but the latter slipped away to Spoleto. Napolitan resistance collapsed; Alfonso II fled and abdicated in favour of his son Ferdinand II
, who also had to escape, abandoned by all, and the kingdom was conquered with surprising ease. The French in retreat Castel Sant'Angelo is where Pope Alexander VI secluded himself after the death of the Duke of Gandia.
A reaction against Charles VIII soon set in, for all the powers were alarmed at his success, and on March 31, 1495 a so-called Holy League
was formed between the pope, the emperor, Venice, Lodovico il Moro and Ferdinand of Spain, ostensibly against the Turks, but in reality to expel the French from Italy. Charles VIII had himself crowned King of Naples May 12 but a few days later began his retreat northward. He encountered the allies at Fornovo and after a drawn battle cut his way through them and was back in France by November.
Ferdinand II was reinstated at Naples soon afterwards, with Spanish help. The expedition, if it produced no material results, demonstrated the foolishness of the so called 'politics of equilibrium' (the Medicean doctrine of preventing one of the Italian principates from overwhelming the rest and uniting them under its hegemony), since it rendered the country unable to defend itself against the powerful nation states, France and Spain, that had forged themselves during the previous century. Alexander VI, following the general tendency of all the princes of the day to crush the great feudatories and establish a centralized despotism, now took advantage of the defeat of the French to break the power of the Orsini and begin building himself an effective power base in the papal states.
Virginio Orsini, who had been captured by the Spaniards, died a prisoner at Naples, and the Pope confiscated his property; but the rest of the clan still held out, defeating the papal troops sent against them under Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino and Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, at Soriano (January 1497). Peace was made through Venetian mediation, the Orsini paying 50,000 ducats in exchange for their confiscated lands, while the Duke of Urbino, whom they had captured, was left by the Pope to pay his own ransom. The Orsini remained very powerful, and Alexander VI could count on none but his 3,000 Spaniards. His only success had been the capture of Ostia and the submission of the Francophile cardinals Colonna and Savelli.
Then occurred the first of those ugly domestic tragedies for which the house of Borgia remains notorious. On 14 June the Duke of Gandia, lately created Duke of Benevento
, disappeared: the next day his corpse was found in the Tiber.
Alexander, overwhelmed with grief, shut himself up in Castel Sant'Angelo
and then declared that the reform of the church would be the sole object of his life henceforth – a resolution he did not keep. Every effort was made to discover the assassin, and suspicion fell on various highly placed people. When the rumour spread that Cesare, the Pope's second son, had done the deed, the inquiries ceased. No conclusive evidence ever came to light about the murder, although Cesare remained the most widely suspected. Confiscations and Savonarola
Violent and vengeful, Cesare now became the most powerful man in Rome, and even his father quailed before him. Because Alexander needed funds to carry out his various schemes, he began a series of confiscations, of which one of the victims was his own secretary. The process was a simple one: any cardinal, nobleman or official who was known to be rich would be accused of some offence; imprisonment and perhaps murder followed at once, and then the confiscation of his property. The least opposition to the Borgia was punished with death. Because of his invectives against papal corruption, Girolamo Savonarola was viewed with hostility by Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually arrested and executed on 23 May 1498.
Even in that corrupt age the debased state of the curia was a major scandal. Opponents such as the demagogic monk Girolamo Savonarola
, who appealed for a general council to confront the papal abuses, launched invectives against papal corruption. Alexander VI, unable to get the excommunicated Savonarola into his own hands, browbeat the Florentine government into condemning the reformer to death (May 23, 1498). The houses of Colonna and Orsini, after much fighting between themselves, allied against the Pope, who found himself unable to maintain order in his own dominions.
In these circumstances, Alexander, feeling more than ever that he could only rely on his own kin, turned his thoughts to further family aggrandizement. He had annulled Lucrezia's marriage to Giovanni Sforza
— who had responded to the suggestion that he was impotent with the counter-claim that Alexander and Cesare indulged in incestuous relations with Lucrezia — in 1497, and, unable to arrange a union between Cesare and the daughter of King Frederick IV of Naples
(who had succeeded Ferdinand II the previous year), he induced Frederick by threats to agree to a marriage between the Duke of Bisceglie, a natural son of Alfonso II, and Lucrezia. Cesare, after resigning his cardinalate, was sent on a mission to France at the end of the year, bearing a bull of divorce for the new French king Louis XII
, in exchange for which he obtained the duchy of Valentinois (hence his title of Duca Valentino), a promise of material assistance in his schemes to subjugate the feudal princelings of papal Romagna, and a marriage to a princess of Navarre.
Alexander VI hoped that Louis XII's help would be more profitable to his house than that of Charles VIII had been. In spite of the remonstrances of Spain and of the Sforza, he allied himself with France in January 1499 and was joined by Venice. By the autumn Louis XII was in Italy expelling Lodovico Sforza from Milan. With French success seemingly assured, the Pope determined to deal drastically with the Romagna, which although nominally under papal rule was divided into a number of practically independent lordships on which Venice, Miilan, and Florence cast hungry eyes. Cesare, empowered by the support of the French, proceeded to attack the turbulent cities one by one in his capacity as nominated gonfaloniere
(standard bearer) of the church. But the expulsion of the French from Milan and the return of Lodovico Sforza interrupted his conquests, and he returned to Rome early in 1500. Cesare in the North Cesare Borgia, the son and cardinal-nephew of Alexander VI, became the first person to resign the cardinalate on August 17, 1498.
This year was a jubilee
year, and crowds of pilgrims flocked to the city from all parts of the world bringing money for the purchase of indulgences
, so that Alexander VI was able to furnish Cesare with funds for his enterprise. In the north the pendulum swung back once more in favour of the French, who reoccupied Milan in April, causing the downfall of the Sforza, much to Alexander VI's satisfaction.
In July the Duke of Bisceglie, whose existence was no longer advantageous, was murdered on Cesare's orders, leaving Lucrezia free to contract another marriage. The Pope, ever in need of money, now created twelve new cardinals, from whom he received 120,000 ducats, and fresh conquests for Cesare were considered. A crusade was talked of, but the real object was central Italy; and so in the autumn, Cesare, backed by France and Venice, set forth with 10,000 men to complete his interrupted business in the Romagna.
The local despots of Romagna were duly dispossessed, and an administration was set up, which, if tyrannical and cruel, was at least orderly and strong, and which aroused the admiration of Machiavelli
. On his return to Rome in June 1501 Cesare was created Duke of Romagna. Louis XII, having succeeded in the north, determined to conquer southern Italy as well. He concluded a treaty with Spain for the division of the Neapolitan kingdom, which was ratified by the Pope on 25 June, Frederick being formally deposed. While the French army proceeded to invade Naples, Alexander VI took the opportunity, with the help of the Orsini, to reduce the Colonna to obedience. In his absence on campaign he left Lucrezia as regent, providing the remarkable spectacle of a pope's natural daughter in charge of the Holy See. Shortly afterwards he induced Alfonso d'Este
, son of the Duke of Ferrara
, to marry Lucrezia, thus establishing her as wife of the heir to one of the most important duchies in Italy (January 1502). At about this time a Borgia of doubtful parentage was born — Giovanni, described in some papal documents as Alexander VI's son and in others as Cesare's.
As France and Spain were quarrelling over the division of Naples and the Campagna barons were quiet, Cesare set out once more in search of conquests. In June 1502 he seized Camerino and Urbino, the news of whose capture delighted the Pope; but his attempt to draw Florence into an alliance failed. In July, Louis XII of France again invaded Italy and was at once bombarded with complaints from the Borgias' enemies. Alexander VI's diplomacy, however, turned the tide, and Cesare, in exchange for promising to assist the French in the south, was given a free hand in central Italy. Last years
A danger now arose in the shape of a conspiracy on the part of the deposed despots, the Orsini, and of some of Cesare's own condottieri. At first the papal troops were defeated and things looked black for the house of Borgia. But a promise of French help quickly forced the confederates to come to terms. Cesare, by an act of treachery, then seized the ringleaders at Senigallia and put Oliverotto da Fermo
and Vitellozzo Vitelli
to death (December 31, 1502). As soon as Alexander VI heard the news he lured Cardinal Orsini to the Vatican and cast him into a dungeon, where he died. His goods were confiscated, his aged mother turned into the street and many other members of the clan in Rome were arrested, while Giuffre Borgia led an expedition into the Campagna and seized their castles. Thus the two great houses of Orsini and Colonna, who had long fought for predominance in Rome and often flouted the Pope's authority, were subjugated and the Borgias' power increased. Cesare then returned to Rome, where his father asked him to assist Giuffre in reducing the last Orsini strongholds; this for some reason he was unwilling to do, much to Alexander VI's annoyance; but he eventually marched out, captured Ceri and made peace with Giulio Orsini, who surrendered Bracciano.
Three more high personages fell victim to the Borgias' greed this year: Cardinal Michiel, who was poisoned in April 1503, J. da Santa Croce, who had helped to seize Cardinal Orsini, and Troches or Troccio, Alexander's chamberlain and secretary; all these murders brought immense sums to the Pope. About Cardinal Ferrari's death there is more doubt; he probably died of fever, but Alexander VI immediately confiscated his goods even so. The war between France and Spain for the possession of Naples dragged on, and Alexander VI was forever intriguing, ready to ally himself with whichever power promised the most advantageous terms at any moment. He offered to help Louis XII on condition that Sicily be given to Cesare, and then offered to help Spain in exchange for Siena, Pisa and Bologna.
Although it is doubtless that Alexander VI liked to eliminate any cardinal and immediately confiscate their property, there is no suffice evidence on the murdering methods. It has been suggested that the family used their favorite poison Cantarella
, an arsenic variation, which was offered to their poor victim in a form of drink with an innovative nickname, the 'liquor of succession'. Since raw forms of arsenic, known at that time, were not immediately fatal, Alexander VI must had invented a method for preparation of that substance, for which no information exists. The famous cup of Borgia, a golden cup with a hidden area storing the poison so it could be mixed with the wine, is often mentioned as the family's favorite murdering method, and it has been the base for many legendary and science fiction stories, including Agatha Christie's short story The Apples of Hesperides
published in the 1947 collection The Labours of Hercules
. Death Pope Pius III succeeded Alexander VI upon his death.
Burchard recorded the events that surrounded the death of the Pope. Cesare was preparing for another expedition in August 1503 when, after he and Alexander had dined with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto on August 6th, they were taken ill with fever. Cesare had eventually recovered, but Alexander VI was too old to have any chance. According to Burchard, Alexander VI's stomach became swollen and turned to liquid, while his face became wine-coloured and his skin began to peel off. Finally his stomach and bowels bled profusely. After more than a week of intestinal bleeding and convulsive fevers, and after accepting last rites and making a confession, the despairing Alexander VI expired on August 18, 1503 at the age of 72.
His death was followed by scenes of wild disorder, and Cesare, too ill to attend to the business himself, sent Don Michelotto, his chief bravo
, to seize the Pope's treasures before the death was publicly announced. When the body was exhibited to the people the next day it was in a shocking state of decomposition. Writing in his Liber Notarum, Burchard elaborates: "The face was very dark, the colour of a dirty rag or a mulberry, and was covered all over with bruise-coloured marks. The nose was swollen; the tongue had bent over in the mouth, completely double, and was pushing out the lips which were, themselves, swollen. The mouth was open and so ghastly that people who saw it said they had never seen anything like it before." It has been suggested that, having taken into account the unusual level of decomposition, Alexander VI was accidentally poisoned to death by his son with Cantarella (which was prepared to eliminate Cardinal Adriano), although some commentaries (including the Encyclopædia Britannica
) doubt these stories and attribute Alexander's death to malaria, at that time prevalent in Rome, or to another such pestilence. The ambassador of Ferrara wrote to Duke Ercole that it was no wonder the pope and the duke were sick because nearly everyone in Rome was ill as a consequence of bad air
("per la mala condictione de aere").
Burchard described how the Pope's mouth foamed like a kettle over a fire and how the body began to swell so much that it became as wide as it was long. The Venetian ambassador reported that Alexander VI's body was "the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity". Finally the body began to release sulphurous
gasses from every orifice. Burchard records that he had to jump on the body to jam it into the undersized coffin and covered it with an old carpet, the only surviving furnishing in the room.
Such was Alexander VI's unpopularity that the priests of St. Peter's Basilica refused to accept the body for burial until forced to do so by papal staff. Only four prelates attended the Requiem Mass. Alexander's successor on the Throne of St. Peter, Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini, who assumed the name of Pope Pius III
(1503), forbade the saying of a Mass for the repose of Alexander VI's soul, saying, "It is blasphemous to pray for the damned". After a short stay, the body was removed from the crypts of St. Peter's and installed in a less well-known church, the Spanish national church of Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli. Legacy
Alexander gave away the temporal estates of the papacy
to his children as though they belonged to him. The secularization of the church was carried to a pitch never before dreamed of, and it was clear to all Italy that he regarded the papacy as an instrument of worldly schemes with no thought of its religious aspect. During his pontificate the church was brought to its lowest level of degradation. The condition of his subjects was deplorable, and if Cesare's rule in Romagna was an improvement on that of the local tyrants, the people of Rome have seldom been more oppressed than under the Borgia.
Alexander VI has become almost a mythical character, and countless legends and traditions are attached to his name. Alexander was not the only figure responsible for the general unrest in Italy or for the foreign invasions, but he was ever ready to profit by them. Even if the stories of his murders (including the rumor that his first murder was at the age of 12), poisonings and immoralities are not all true, there is no doubt that his greed for money and his essentially vicious nature led him to commit a great number of crimes. For many of his misdeeds his son Cesare was as guilty as his father as well.
The one pleasing aspect of his life is his patronage of the arts, and in his days a new architectural era was initiated in Rome with the coming of Bramante. Raphael, Michelangelo
all worked for him, and a curious contrast, characteristic of the age, is afforded by the fact that a family so steeped in vice and crime could take pleasure in the most exquisite works of art.