Pope Alexander VI

Summary

Alexander VI, originally known in Valencian Catalan as Roderic de Borja, which became known in Italian as Rodrigo Borgia, born Roderic Llançol i de Borja, Spanish Rodrigo de Borja, Latin Rodericus de Borgia, (Xàtiva, 1 January 1431 – Rome, 18 August 1503) was the 214th Pope from 1492 until his death. Alexander”s eleven-year pontificate conveyed the essence of the Renaissance era of the papacy. In contrast to earlier church leaders, Alexander was given clear epithets in various chronicles. Even long after the Pope”s death, Church historians continued to echo the gloomy description of Alexander as the most sinister figure of the papacy. The extremely negative image of him, however, owes much to Pope Gregory II, who succeeded Pope Pius III, and was already a deadly enemy even before Alexander was elevated to the Holy See. His moral sins followed those of his predecessors, and he owes his particularly dark reputation to his desire to turn the ecclesiastical state into a family duchy, and in this too he lost the initiative, and in his last years the Pope was a puppet of his son Cesare Borgia.

Alexander VI was an excellent politician and orator, but he was also ambitious and cunning. He was a man of domination and glory, who did not shy away from any method to achieve his goals. Alexander”s ambition to make the Papal States the most influential principality in Italy and in his family was the most central element of his policy. Alexander VI is credited with important papal bulls such as the Treaty of Tordesillas, by which he effectively divided the unknown world between the Spanish and Portuguese kings, a decision of immense importance that still has a lasting effect today.

Born on 1 January 1431 as Roderic Llançol i de Borja, or Rodrigo de Borja in Spanish. He was born in the town of Xàtiva in the Kingdom of Valencia, part of the Aragonese Crown, in what is now Spain, to Jofré Gil Llançol i Escrivà and Isabel de Borja. The Valencian noble family did not boast vast wealth or extensive estates, but when Isabel”s brother Alfonso Borja was made a cardinal at the papal court, the family flourished across the sea. Settling in Italy as the Italianised Borgia, Alfonso was able to take up the highest office in the Church as Pope Callixtus III in 1455. From then on, the Borgia were among the most powerful families in Italy. The young Rodrigo then abandoned his paternal name and took the Borgia name through his mother, and travelled to Italy to benefit from his uncle”s favour. Rodrigo had not originally intended to enter the service of the Church, but the rank of Callixtus gave him a comfortable life. The Pope received him at his court and, after providing his nephew with both wealth and rank, enrolled him at the University of Bologna. Here Rodrigo became a truly Renaissance man.

In cardinal dignity

After a year at university, Rodrigo was invited to the papal court by Callixtus and appointed cardinal of the church of San Nicolò in Carcere in 1456. He was then only twenty-five years old and, despite his high ecclesiastical dignity, had not yet been ordained a priest. There is nothing strange about this, since he was a cardinal nepos (“nephew-cardinal”) in the Church”s centuries-old tradition. A year later, thanks to his uncle, he was appointed to the Pontifical Chancellery, where he received the dignity of Vice-Chancellor. For several years he managed the finances of the Curia and, as a result, became incredibly wealthy. Moreover, even his later detractors acknowledged that he had managed the Papal Treasury with great talent. He always managed the Popes” finances successfully, and on several occasions brought the Curia income. This enabled him to retain his post in the chancellery after the death of his uncle. His growing wealth and his respected work made him one of the most influential and universally respected members of the College of Cardinals. He was ordained in 1468 and consecrated bishop-cardinal of Albano by Sixtus IV in 1471. In 1476 he became Cardinal of Porto and Dean of the Sacred College. In addition to these, Cardinal Borgia was granted countless ecclesiastical dignities and titles, which secured him a vast fortune. Among others, he was granted the title of Abbot of Petrograd by King Matthias Hunyadi of Hungary.

The dignities of bishop, abbot, cardinal and vice-chancellor have made Cardinal Rodrigo”s palace the most luxurious residence in Rome. The Cardinal made no effort to conceal his passion for the arts, as well as for sensual pleasures, as a true Renaissance man. According to contemporary accounts, inspired by his enemies, Rodrigo had a reputation as a real good-looking man, who could have almost anyone in his entourage, and who would not give up his love affairs just for the sake of the title of cardinal. Revels were a regular occurrence in Rodrigo”s sumptuous palace. The Cardinal was a passionate card player and loved to eat and drink well. His lifestyle did not change after his consecration, and what is more, as pope he could not do without the charms of women and balls that seemed to be a moral stain. Before he was ordained priest, he had four children by the noble lady Vanozza dei Cattani. Juan, or Giovanni, was the eldest, born in 1474. In 1475 he had a son, Cesare, and in 1480 a daughter, Lucrezia. In 1482 his youngest son, Jofre (Gioffre) or Goffredo in Italian, was born. All four children were proudly adopted by the Cardinal, and in later life he did his best to show his paternal love. Rodrigo appears in the chronicles as a truly passionate father. He had two more children by an unknown mother: Don Pedro Luis and Girolama.

Conclave of Intrigues

When the news of Pope Ince VIII”s death spread around the world on 25 July 1492, the College of Cardinals in Rome was already trying to secure alliances around the succession. The master of ceremonies for the conclave in the Sistine Chapel was Johann Burchard, who had served several heads of churches and was now conducting his umpteenth conclave after Ince”s death. After the election, Burchard said that this was the most expensive place to vote for a cardinal. This, along with many other unsubstantiated sources, suggests that the negotiations behind closed doors were not necessarily based on aptitude. When the conclave met, it was obvious to all that three cardinals had a chance of winning the election. Rodrigo Borgia was one of them, while Ascanio Sforza and Giuliano della Rovere in particular were Rodrigo”s rivals. Rodrigo, who had amassed a huge fortune, had already engaged in massive bribery before the conclave met, and managed to ensure that only eight of the twenty-three members of the college did not vote for him. But since canon law stipulated that the election was valid only if two-thirds of the cardinals present voted for one person, this was just enough to undermine Rodrigo”s plans.

From then on, the chronicles largely speculate on the exact scenario of the final success. What certainly caught the eye was that Ascanio Sforza sided with the Borgias. A contemporary historian, Infessura, writes that Rodrigo offered Cardinal Sforza four mules” worth of silver in exchange for his vote. This theory has now been disproved, as it seems increasingly likely that Ascanio did not ask Rodrigo for silver, but for power. The Borgia accepted the offer, and Ascanio became chief adviser to the papal court, and certainly made a more lucrative deal than the four mules loaded with silver. Nor were the other fifteen cardinals likely to have voted for Borgia willingly. Many believe that Rodrigo was undeterred by threats, blackmail and all forms of targeted but immoral persuasion.

Of course, the other side did not prove to be much holier. The great Papal families, grouped around the Della Rovere family, also did their best to curb the power of the Borgia family. The Della Rovere family was joined by the Medici, Cibò, Piccolomini, Caraffa and Costa families. It is important to note that the papal election came back into the sights of the secular powers after many decades. Italy was the clear target of the increasingly intense power struggle between France and Spain. And the conclave decided who would have the greatest position of power on the peninsula. Although the Borgia family was of Spanish origin, Rodrigo represented pro-French politics within the college. It is therefore not surprising that it later came to light that King Charles VIII of France offered Della Rovere two hundred thousand ducats in gold if he sided with the Borgia. This was matched by Genoa with a further 100,000.

For all the intrigue and gossip, the bottom line is that, by stealth, Rodrigo Borgia was elected head of the church on 11 August 1492, and took the imperial name of Alexander VI at his coronation.

In the year of Alexander”s accession to the throne, he had already reached the age of sixty-one, but his ambition and the acquisition of the power of the head of the Church had filled him with new energy. When the conclave publicly proclaimed the cardinals” decision, the whole city and Italy endorsed Alexander”s election. Everyone was well aware that he had been at the head of the papal chancery for thirty-five years, and therefore welcomed an excellent leader and a prudent politician to the Holy See.

The Romans, moreover, respected the Borgia family as Romans, so they welcomed the new Pope as their own. On the news of his election, the inhabitants of the eternal city erupted in unprecedented celebrations. Bonfires, torchlight processions, flower garlands and triumphal arches marked the city”s satisfaction. The coronation on 26 August also drew a large crowd to St Peter”s Basilica, and when Alexander marched into the Lateran, chronicles say that never before had a head of the Church received such an ovation as Alexander.

The political greatness of the incoming head of the Church was already evident in those first weeks. He had already gained the support of the Romans by sheer sympathy, but he was also skilled at deepening it. The first months of Alexander”s life were indeed the picture of an ideal Pope. He had stopped the rampant crime that was overwhelming the city. According to contemporary chronicles, there were over 200 murders in the city in just a few months. Robbery was also in its heyday, and Ince VIII could do nothing about it. Alexander divided the city into four parts, each headed by a magistrate. These were responsible for the public safety of the districts. He also set up a bureau of investigation to investigate the crimes committed up to that time. He also set strict standards for the accused. Anyone found guilty was hanged and his house was razed to the ground. Every Tuesday of the week, Alexander would receive the Romans in person, so that they could report their grievances to him. It was then the Pope himself who decided the matter. The strict control of order and the building work that was begun made Rome once again one of the most splendid centres in Europe. The people followed the head of the Church with devotion, and it became a household word that Alexander was truly the mediator of God”s will.

The sanctity of the family

It is an interesting historical fact that the Borgia family”s expansion and fertility reached its peak under a Pope. And yet, according to the chronicles, Alexander had at least eight children, and the involvement of the head of the Church is doubtful in several cases. The aforementioned Vanozza dei Cattani was not the first concubine to bear children for Alexander, although they undoubtedly played the greatest role in their father”s politics. Indeed, the greatness of the Pope”s political talent lay in the fact that, immediately after his accession to the throne, he rallied Rome to his side and then, also with a view to consolidating papal power, conferred rank and dignity on his own children.

Despite this, in the first months he concentrated on the Spanish influence in the Borgias. He married his daughter Girolama to an influential Spanish nobleman, while he bought the title of Duke of Gandia from the Spanish monarch for a sum of money for his son Pedro Luís. But Pedro was not a long-lived man, even to Borgia eyes, and his title was inherited on his death by Alexander and Vanozza”s eldest son Giovanni. The Pope also sought to seal this title by blood, so the Spanish monarch chose a cousin of Giovanni as his wife. The prince was also given a cardinal”s hat.

Alexander”s most influential child was certainly Cesare Borgia, whom the Pope used to consolidate his power. Seventeen-year-old Cesare had already been granted important dignities during his father”s vice-chancellorship: he was granted several Spanish estates by Pope Ince and was also made bishop of Pamplona. After the accession of Alexander to the throne, Cesare, barely eighteen years old, became Archbishop of Valencia, although he never received the sacrament of the Order (which was not unusual at the time, since cardinals had four orders, in accordance with a tradition going back hundreds of years: bishop-cardinal, priest-cardinal, deacon-cardinal and nephew-cardinal). Goffredo, the Pope”s youngest child, also contributed to the collection of Spanish dignitaries, although he was given ecclesiastical rank at a time when Alexander”s family-building plans were focusing on Italy. His daughter Lucrezia had been betrothed to a Venetian nobleman, Don Gasparo da Procida, before he was elected Pope, but when Alexander came to the throne the engagement was broken off. Alexander”s daughter was almost always a widow or a bride during her father”s pontificate, always depending on the political interests of the Pope. At the beginning of Alexander”s reign, it was Giovanni Sforza, the lord of Pesaro, to whom his interests were attached, and it was to him that Lucrezia Borgia first married in 1493, in a splendour never seen before in the Vatican.

Alongside the Spanish lands acquired for his children, the old Borgia estates, a strong secular state slowly began to emerge before Alexander, which could unite all of Italy under the control of the Borgia. The Pope believed that consolidation of state power was essential to strengthen the Church. This was a natural and logical expectation in a fragmented Italy, where the rulers of the various duchies, duchies and other territories were often at loggerheads with each other. As a first step, Alexander needed allies. That is why he gave his son Giovanni the cardinal”s hat, and why Lucrezia married the Lord of Pesaro, whose family ruled Milan. However, his three sons still had to acquire substantial estates, and to do so it was inevitable that he would have to confiscate certain property from certain ruling families (for example, those who refused to pay the church tax collected into the Vatican treasury). This led to a series of conflicts, which led to fights and wars. The Pope declared his supreme authority over the Papal States and also emphasised his feudal rights over Naples. He therefore confiscated several large estates and gave them to his sons. The powerful Orsini family was the most affected by Alexander”s decisions. Two of the family”s estates in Naples, Cervetri and Anguillara, were also seized by the Pope. This triggered long wars which marked the whole pontificate of Alexander.

Naples in the crosshairs of two thrones

The Orsini wanted revenge, and it was not difficult to find the right allies. The Della Rovere family, headed by Giuliano della Rovere, was already known to be enemies of the Borgia family at the time of the papal election. Moreover, at the conclave, Cardinal Giuliano was supported by Naples, which was ruled by the House of Aragon. So Ferdinand I, King of Naples, immediately took a stand against the Pope, and his envoys quickly formed alliances with Milan, Venice and Florence. King Ferdinand of Naples also tried to win over Aragon, then headed by Ferdinand II, to the alliance.

However, the Spanish crown was reluctant to defy the papal authority, fearing for the fate of its new subjects. Spain was then in a fever of exploring America, and the Crown wanted the Pope”s blessing for Spanish conquests, mainly because Portugal was also eyeing overseas possessions. This shows how intertwined church and state were even in the Renaissance. On 4 May 1493, Alexander issued his bull Inter caetera divini, which was the basis of the Treaty of Tordesillas. In it, Alexander decided to divide the globe in two along the southern circle between Cape Verde and Haiti, so that the Portuguese could conquer to the east and the Spanish to the west.

In any case, the war fuelled by Virginio Orsini was imminent, and Alexander had to act. First and foremost, he tried to conquer Naples” allies, and succeeded brilliantly. The marriage between Lucrezia and Giovanni Sforza was then solemnised, which led to the conversion of Milan, and the papal envoys soon reached an agreement with Venice. Alexander proclaimed the alliance of the three powers on 25 April 1493. Ferdinand, left to his own devices, nevertheless wanted war, but finally, thanks to Spain”s intervention, armed conflict was avoided. Alexander”s youngest child, Goffredo, married Ferdinand I”s granddaughter, Princess Doña Sancha, who made Goffredo Duke of Squillace. But peace was on very shaky ground, the main reason being the Pope”s open empire-building policy. And the great noble families feared for their estates and fortunes.

Alexander wanted to strengthen his position in the Curia after the Naples conflict, so in 1493 he created twelve cardinals. Among them, on 20 September, Cesare received the Order of the Purple and, more interestingly, Alessandro Farnese, later Paul III, who was the brother of Alexander”s concubine at the time, Giulia Farnese, became Cardinal. The representative of the allied King of France, Bishop Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, was also given the cardinal”s hat.

By reorganising the college, Alexander had already prepared for the war years to come. He knew well that the ideal of the Borgia kingdom could only be achieved through struggle and alliances of interest. But the driving forces behind the political events were much deeper than the struggles of Alexander and a few nobles or the papal throne. It was also the time when France, victorious in the Hundred Years” War, was awakening its foreign policy ambitions and the House of Habsburg was looking to a promising future. In the last few centuries, a power vacuum had in fact opened up in Italy. In the German-Roman Empire, the emperor”s power was weakening, France was locked in a bloody war against England, and Spain was not yet a unitary state (and part of it was ruled by the Moors). By the 16th century, however, these conditions had changed, and Italy, made up of fragmented small dominions, was an attractive target for all three countries.

Alexander did not realise this for some time, and thought it better to prepare for the Napoleonic attack in advance and find a strong ally. Alexander VI chose France, led by King Charles VIII of France, the strong backer of the popes at the time, who had previously formed an alliance with Ludovico (il Moro) Sforza, the illegitimate Duke of Milan.

Ludovico succeeded to the throne of Lombardy after the ousting of the legitimate prince, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, which was against the interests of King Ferdinand of Naples. The wife of the ousted Duke of Milan, Isabella, was the daughter of the future King Alfonso II of Naples and the granddaughter of King Ferdinand I of Naples. All the conditions seemed to be in place to start the war when the King of Naples died in 1494. At that time, Alexander was still stirring up conflict between Naples and France, but the death of Ferdinand created a very different political situation. The Pope had realised that Charles had embraced the idea of claiming the throne of Naples by right of the House of Anjou too much, and was already dreaming of a campaign in Italy. Charles VIII”s plans did not fit the image of the Pope”s Borgia-led principality, and the Curia slowly but surely turned away from the French.

Alexander hastened to recognize Ferdinand”s son, Alfonso II, as King of Naples, and sent his sister”s son, Cardinal-Legate Giovanni Borgia-Llançol, to crown him on behalf of the Pope and to make an alliance with him against the French. Following the Pope”s and Alfonso”s plans, the Naples army marched towards Milan and there foiled Charles” plans, while the fleet attacked Genoa. But the hastily hatched plan and unprepared army failed in both areas, and in 1494 Charles”s army crossed the Alps. With the addition of Ludovico il Moro”s army, Charles advanced rapidly in Italy. Meanwhile, the Colonnas attacked and captured Ostia on behalf of the French. Alexander was in despair, knowing full well that there was a good chance that the noble families and cardinals who were against him would use Charles to have his papal dignity annulled. The Pope had mobilised all his ambassadors to find allies, even sending a letter to Sultan Bayezid II asking for help, but to no avail. Charles arrived in Florence in November, and after a short rest set off for Rome. One by one, the dukes and barons of the Papal States, sworn to Alexander, surrendered to the French troops. In his letters, Alexander recalls that the French needed no other weapon to march across the peninsula than the chalk with which they had marked the troops” quarters. When Charles arrived in Rome on 31 December without any particular obstacle, Alexander was locked up in the Castel Sant”Angelo, preparing for the negotiations. To greet the king, Cardinal Della Rovere and his supporters hurried to convince the monarch to convene a universal synod to challenge the legitimacy of Alexander”s papacy. But even then, Alexander would not give up his notorious methods for centuries to come, and approached the Bishop of Saint Malo, who was Charles” most extreme adviser. The Pope offered him a cardinal”s hat and a fabulous fortune. Soon Charles and Alexander were at the negotiating table. On 16 January 1495, under French guidance, an agreement was reached. According to this, Alexander gave Cesare as a hostage to Charles” escort until the French arrived in Naples, and also handed over to Charles Prince Djem, the Sultan”s brother, and gave French possession of the territories of Civitavecchia.

Alexander turns against the French

Charles left the eternal city on 28 January, much to the disappointment of Cardinal Della Rovere and the relief of Alexander. As soon as the French had left the city, the Pope immediately counter-attacked. Above all, he wanted to free Cesare from Charles”s ”entourage”, since he had not dared to take any action against the French monarch until then. When Cesare finally managed to free himself at Spoleto, Alexander reconsidered his policy and the construction of the Papal States. Meanwhile, Charles marched into Naples on 22 February. A terrified Alfonso II abdicated the throne in favour of his child Ferdinand II and fled. Ferdinand, unable to rally sufficient support behind him, fled to Spain. Charles seized the throne of Naples and made contact with the Curia of Alexander to get the Pope to recognise Charles as King of Naples.

Alexander tried to stall for time, while finding strong allies. On 31 March 1495, under the guise of launching a crusade against the Turks, Alexander created the Holy League, an anti-French alliance of the leading northern Italian states (Venice, the Papacy and Milan). Under this pretext, he even imposed a special tax on the Jews he had received. The League was joined by Venice, Milan (Ludovico il Moro), Spain, and the German-Roman Empire (Emperor Nicholas I). The stated aim of the league was to drive the pagans out of Europe, but in reality they were pledging their support to each other against Charles. The French king grew tired of waiting in Naples and crowned himself king on 12 May. But the French leadership of the Kingdom of Naples was not on solid foundations. As the alliance put increasing pressure on Charles, he slowly moved northwards. French armies clashed with League troops near Fornovo, and after a largely indecisive battle, Charles returned home to France.

After this, Ferdinand II was restored to the throne of Naples with Spanish help. The equilibrium theory of Lorenzo Medici of Florence was overturned after the French invasion. It was based on the idea that the balance of Italy was determined by the political equilibrium of Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. But this equilibrium was upset by the actions of the great powers seeking hegemony in Europe. And Alexander was able to draw important lessons from Charles” campaign. The most important of these was that the key positions in the Papal States should be occupied by his own relatives, or at any rate by trustworthy people. It was this that triggered the Borgia Pope”s relentless fight for the Italy his family held.

Italy of the Borgias

Alexander”s policy became truly mature after the threat of Charles VIII was lifted. This was the most uninhibited period of the struggle between the minor kings and city-states of Italy and the Pope. Neither side was indiscriminate in the means it used: poisoners, assassins, blackmail letters, threats and bribes were the main tools of the trade. Protestant historians of later times then sought to paint as dark a picture as possible of Alexander”s reign. For example, according to the Lutheran German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), this was the time when Alexander and his son Cesare became virtuosi of sin.

Alexander made it a priority to make his already modest nepotism even more pronounced. The main victims of this were the Orsini family estates. Virginio Orsini, the head of the influential Roman family, had previously been the commander of the papal armies, but had betrayed the Pope on the appearance of Charles, so when the Holy League was formed, he was captured and imprisoned by Spanish soldiers in Naples and soon died. Alexander therefore felt the time had come to strike back. First, he confiscated all Virginio”s possessions and recruited an army against the rest of the family. The army was led by his son Giovanni and the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo. The fighting went on for months, and one after another the castles of the Orsini fell to the papal army. Only the castle of Bracciano, the central fortress of the Orsini, proved to be a tough nut to crack. Finally, on 25 January 1497, a decisive battle took place at Soriano, in which the Pope”s armies were defeated. The peace was brokered by Venetian mediation, and in this Alexander lost very little. The Orsinians got their castles back, except for Cervetri and Anguillara, which started the whole war. For these the Orsini family paid the Pope fifty thousand ducats. Only a small chapter of this peace is mentioned in passing in the pages of history. For the Duke of Urbino had been captured by the Orsini, and Alexander had declared his ally to redeem himself from the Orsini if he had money.

The Pope then turned his attention to French-controlled Ostia. With the help of the Colonnas and Cardinal Della Rovere, the Pope entrusted the city to the army of the Spanish captain De Córdoba. The experienced general recaptured the important port city in two weeks.

So Alexander”s plans were not yet fully realised. The influence of the Orsinians was hardly diminished, and only small areas were conquered. It was then that he decided to give his son Giovanni some of the land directly held by the Church. He merged the territories of Benevento, Terracina and Pontecorvo, and intended to leave them to his eldest son as Duke of Benevento. Only two cardinals in the College of Cardinals opposed this, but the dispute soon became moot, as Giovanni Borgia disappeared on 14 June and the next day his body was fished out of the Tiber, bleeding from several wounds and with his throat cut. To this day, historians are still unclear who was behind the murder. One theory is that the murderer was Cesare Borgia, the second son, who did not come to the fore until his brother”s death. Cesare was considered a cruel, vengeful and bloody ruler, and this was especially evident after Giovanni”s death.

The death of his child undoubtedly affected Sándor. For weeks he was confined to the Angel Castle, and in his first outburst he declared that he would renounce the papal tiara. Then, after meditating for three days and three nights without sleep or food, he stood before his cardinals and declared that his current policies were undermining the authority of the papacy. He announced reforms and clerics and canon lawyers began to work out the basis for church reform. But the incredible change soon passed, in which Cesare may have played a major role. After the spiritual collapse of Alexander, the family affairs were taken care of by Cesare Borgia.

Cesare organised and led the first regular papal army. He recruited most of the mercenary army from Switzerland, which laid the foundations for the later Swiss Guard. Cesare wanted to renounce his cardinalate and all ecclesiastical titles to become a secular prince. It was at this time that Ferdinand II of Naples died unexpectedly and was succeeded by his uncle Frederick IV. In the last act of his ecclesiastical career, Cesare crowned Frederick king and asked the new king”s daughter, Saroletta, Duchess of Taranto, to marry him. This would have given him the chance not only to become a prince, but also to take the throne of Naples. But Sarolta turned him down.

Cesare”s activities also increased in other parts of Italy. He took the town of Imola after driving the Della Rovers from it. Cesare then focused on his brother. In 1497, he declared the marriage between Lucrezia and Giovanni Sforza invalid, as the Lord of Pesaro was sterile. This was untrue, as was the rumour spread by Giovanni Sforza that Ti. Pope Alexander and Cesare”s son were having an incestuous affair with Lucrezia. The Borgia machine quickly silenced Lucrezia”s ex-husband, and so the Borgia girl remarried, this time to the Duke of Bisceglie, who was the child of Alfonso II and thus a claimant to the throne of Naples. It is not difficult to guess that Cesare was trying to make up for his own failure in Naples.

Cesare”s rise to prominence brought the so-called Borgia method into fashion. It was based on the fact that Cesare needed money to finance his plans and campaigns. He therefore made short work of confiscating the property of the Borgia”s enemies. The accusations were mostly well-founded, but it was also possible that their enemies were falsely accused and then imprisoned and all their property and possessions confiscated under the law. Some defendants died in prison.

Only Tuscany and Florence stood up to the Pope. No wonder Alexander did everything he could to drive the Medici from the city. With opposition in Florence and French support, the Medici family”s rule was finally overthrown, but control slipped from the Pope”s grasp and the republic was soon in the grip of a radical popular movement. Its leader was a Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. He took up the banner of ecclesiastical reform and the restoration of a moral church. However, the ideas that were gaining ground among the poor were not only scourging the Church, but also the bourgeoisie. This was a fundamental mistake, even though Savonarola could still rule Florence unchecked between 1494 and 1498. When the Florentine monk turned against the Pope, Alexander at first only warned him, and then excommunicated him in 1497. This was the end of Savonarola. The Inquisition acted immediately, and after the positive results of the fire-iron test, Savonarola died at the stake as a heretic in the main square of Florence on 23 May 1498.

Louis XII and the Borgia plans for Romagna

Alexander”s, and increasingly Cesare”s, plans were not a resounding success in Italy. Above all, the Pope wanted a strong ally to support his cause against the Orsinians. The solution fell into Alexander”s lap in April 1498. It was then that Charles VIII, King of France, died and was almost immediately followed to the grave by the only heir to the throne who had followed his policy. The French throne was therefore to be occupied by the late Charles”s cousin, the Duke of Orléans, Louis XII. The accession of this by-branch cousin to the throne set off a series of events in European politics. On the one hand, Louis was raised as Duke of Orléans and was not really expected to become king. He was therefore married off to Jeanne Valois when he was still a child. But once on the throne, it seemed clear that unless Louis married the late king”s widow, Queen Anne, the French crown would lose Brittany.

On the other hand, the new French monarch”s grandmother, Valentina Visconti, gave him a legal claim to the throne of Milan, from which the Sforza family had ousted the Visconti family. With all this in mind, Alexander”s plan was already in place. The papal court could once again make a deal with the French court, which was preparing to march its army into Italy, and the Pope had the trump card in his hand to dissolve Louis” first marriage. In the meantime, the French monarch had managed to break the bonds of the Holy League and had brought Venice to his side. In Rome, Cesare abdicated his cardinalate and then went to see Louis, holding a papal dispensation annulling the monarch”s first marriage. Alexander considered the marriage null and void for two reasons: firstly, because Louis had been forced against his will, and secondly, because the marriage had been childless. Cesare left Rome on 1 October 1498. In addition to the papal letter, he took with him a cardinal”s hat for Louis” minister of state, the Count d”Amboise. The King accepted the alliance between Cesare and Alexander the Concealed and appointed the young Borgia Prince of Valentinois and French nobleman. Cesare then looked for a bride, and after the proposal of the Princess of Naples, he married one of Louis” nieces and sister of King John III of Navarre, Princess Charlotte d”Albret.

On 8 October 1499, the alliance marched triumphantly into Milan, and Cesare continued to build on its successes. The Borgia family reached its greatest power after the French invasion. Most of the minor princes of central Italy were dethroned by Cesare and replaced by men loyal to the Borgia family. In all, the young Borgia led eighty successful campaigns, in the financing of which Alexander played a major role. In 1500, a Holy Year was proclaimed under earlier ecclesiastical decrees, which replenished the papal treasury. Forgiveness of sins and all manner of spiritual salvation were sold at the year-long event. In addition, Alexander created twelve more cardinals, who thus paid a total of 120,000 ducats to the papal treasury as a “token of gratitude”. After this, Alexander even announced a crusade against the Turks, which was really an attempt to cover up Cesare”s conquests in the north, and thus gave all the money to his son. France and Venice also backed Cesare in the war. By 1501, the whole of Romagna had fallen to the Borgias. Cesare disciplined the previously fragmented Romagna, ruled by petty principalities and tyrants, with iron fists. Most of the previous princes died mysterious deaths. This form of rule fascinated Machiavelli, who modelled his work The Prince on Cesare.

The Borgia family”s interests had therefore moved away from the previous Spanish-Napolitan line, and Lucrezia”s husband, the Duke of Bisceglia, no longer fitted into the family picture. On 15 July Cesare made Lucrezia a widow again. But the change in Alexander”s political views did not only affect his daughter”s marriage. The Pope and Cesare were happy to turn against Frederick, King of Naples. The main reason for this was that the Colonnas, the Savelli, the Gaetani and several large noble families were able to undermine papal power by supporting the Neapolitan territories. It was for this reason that Alexander accepted the secret treaty of Granada, in which France and Spain finally agreed to partition the Kingdom of Naples.

Meanwhile, Cesare, buoyed by the successes of Romagna, began new conquests. While the French and Spanish were negotiating, the young Borgia annexed Camerino and Urbino to the Papal States in 1502. However, his plans for Tuscany could no longer go ahead as Alexander opened another front in the south. French troops invaded Naples, and at the same time Alexander imposed an ecclesiastical curse on the hostile barons of the Patrimonium Petri. This also meant that the noble estates and castles were transferred to the Church. The Pope personally headed the army that was launched against the larger noble families of the Patrimonium. While Alexander was at war in the south, the widowed Lucrezia took over the curia”s affairs. The Pope”s daughter ran the day-to-day affairs of the Church for several months, even opening confidential letters to the Pope. This is unprecedented in the history of the Church. One by one, the nobility of the patrimony gave up their castles, which became the private property of Alexander. It is a sign of the infinite short-sightedness of the Orsini family that the strongest anti-papal family sided with Alexander, believing that the Pope wanted peace with them. He eventually divided the conquered territories into two duchies, one of which was inherited by his grandson Rodrigo and the other by Giovanni”s son.

The last years of Alexander

The last phase of Pope Borgia”s pontificate brought him and his family immense success. By then Cesare was clearly dominating the family, and this was reflected in Lucrezia”s remarriage. On 30 December 1501, the illegitimate daughter of the Pope celebrated her third marriage to Alphonse, the pretender to the dukedom of Ferrara. Alfonso”s father, Ercole d”Este, initially opposed the marriage, saying he did not want his honourable family name to be sullied by the illegitimate daughter of a pope. However, at the intercession of Louis XII, it did happen. From then on, the chronicles refer to Lucrezia as a model wife, faithful to her husband, generous and virtuous.

The increasingly oppressive Borgia rule spared only the Orsinians, and this noble family also felt its doom. They therefore decided not to wait idly for the Pope and Cesare”s machinations and to make the first move. They conspired to assassinate Cesare. The papal armies were first ambushed, and after the battle was lost, Cesare seemed to be in a real fix. But the French helped the Pope and his child out of the situation, and the tide of the war that broke out in October was turned. By 31 December, Cesare had massacred the Orsini army near Senigallia and killed Oliverotto da Fermo and Vitellozzo Vitelli, two of the most important nobles supporting the family.

On hearing this, Alexander acted swiftly and imprisoned the spiritual father of the conspiracy, Cardinal Orsini, in the Angel Castle, who died mysteriously twelve days later. The Pope confiscated all the cardinal”s property and arrested the Orsini family living in Rome. His youngest son, Goffredo, marched south with his army to seize the last of the noble family”s estates. Cesare later joined him, and a peace treaty with Giuliano Orsini allowed the shattered noble family to hold only the castle of Bracciano.

This brought Rome and the Papal States firmly under the authority of the head of the Church. Whereas a century ago the Pope”s residence in Rome had not always been certain, there was now no question that Alexander had the greatest power in the eternal city. The great showdown against the Orsinians involved several high ecclesiastical dignitaries. Four other cardinals from the College of Cardinals, in addition to Cardinal Orsini, died at this time. Cardinal Michiel was poisoned in 1503, and Cardinal Juan de Santa Croce, who had helped Cardinal Orsini escape, was also brutally murdered. No one escaped the sword of the Borgias, as Cardinal Troccio, the Pope”s personal secretary and confessor, was also quickly buried. Only in the case of Cardinal Ferrari is it possible that he died a natural death.

Meanwhile, a war broke out between France and Spain over Naples, as the two rulers could not agree on the division of the kingdom. Alexander, with his diplomatic skills, tried to see what he could gain from each side. With Louis, the Pope”s envoys agreed that if the French crown won in southern Italy, Sicily would be Cesare”s possession. In the same way, the Spanish king expected the Borgia help in exchange for possession of Siena, Pisa and Bologna. However, the pre-war negotiations were interrupted by the illness and death of the seventy-three-year-old head of the church.

Death and afterlife

On 6 August 1503, both Alexander and Cesare were invited to Cardinal Adriano da Corneto”s villa for a simple dinner party. It was on this evening that the Pope and his child contracted the fatal disease. The chronicles give many accounts of Alexander”s last days, and these are based to a considerable extent on rumours among the Romans. One of these legends is that Alexander and Cesare fell victim to a poison they so often used, la cantarella, a sugary, almost tasteless white powder, a type of arsenic. Many thought they were about to kill their host, but before the toast, the glasses were mixed and they drank their own poison. Despite the adventurous descriptions, it is more likely that the Pope and Cesare”s illness was caused by malaria or so-called Roman fever. This is confirmed by a letter from the Ferrara ambassador who was present: ”No wonder the Pope and the Prince fell ill, as almost everyone in Rome was ill from the bad air.”

Jean Burchard, master of ceremonies at the conclave that elected Alexander, wrote about the Pope”s illness. From him we know that Alexander”s belly became bloated, his face reddened and he began to peel heavily. The Pope had internal bleeding and often shook with fever. After two weeks of agony, he finally died on 18 August, after taking the last rites.

Cesare, however, survived the illness, although he was bedridden for several weeks. When he heard of his father”s death, he forbade it to be made public until the late Alexander”s private fortune had been secured. When the Pope”s body was exhumed, most chronicles are unanimous in describing it as the most hideous body ever seen. The swollen nose and lips, the split jaw with its receding tongue and the body frozen in convulsions only reinforced the popular opinion that Pope Alexander had suffered such a horrible death by the will of God.

However, the Pope”s roof was swollen and deformed for more prosaic reasons. According to canon law, a new pope had to be elected within 10 days of the death of the previous pope. However, as Alexander VI had created several new cardinals, mainly French and Spanish, during his reign, and war was raging on the Italian peninsula, the conclave could not meet within the prescribed time. In an attempt to cope with the time constraints, the Pope”s funeral was postponed for weeks, despite the August heatwave.

Initially celebrated throughout Italy, the pope”s popularity waned so much that the priests of St Peter”s Basilica refused to bury him in the church.

Eventually, under pressure from the Borgias, four priests took over the funeral. Alexander was succeeded on the papal throne by Pope Pius III, who forbade them to pray for his predecessor”s spiritual salvation (saying it was blasphemous to pray for someone who was cursed), but confirmed Cesare in all his offices. (This is probably why his papacy lasted only 26 days, because he could have been poisoned). Shortly afterwards, the remains of Alexander were transferred from the basilica”s lower church to the national shrine erected by the Spaniards in Rome, the Church of Santa Maria di Monserrato.

Sources

  1. VI. Sándor pápa
  2. Pope Alexander VI