The Borgias: power corrupts and absolute power is even more fun

The Borgia dynasty is one of the most infamous in European history – rape, paedophilia, nepotism, bribery, incest, treachery, murder and worst of all … simony – the sale of Church offices. The Borgias were one of the key families in ecclesiastical and political affairs from the middle to late 15th century until the early 16th century, producing two popes. Italy in this period was an explosive cocktail of city states, duchies and kingdoms. Such was the bitterness of their rivalries that they would sometimes prefer the intervention of foreign powers. A pope was not just the head of the Church; he was also a secular ruler. This was the time of powerful family dynasties. The Borgias’ desire for power brought them into conflict with the Medici, the Sforza, the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the French king among others. There is a black legend that is tied to this family, but many of the stories now told about their depraved behaviour emerged after their fall from grace. Do they really deserve their notoriety?

The family was of Spanish origin with Borja being the family name. Alfons de Borja was born in La Torreta in the Kingdom of Valencia in 1378. He was a professor of law at the University of Lleida, then a diplomat for the Kings of Aragon before becoming a cardinal. He was elected Pope Callixtus III in 1455, at age of 76. A compromise candidate, with little to recommend him, he would remain on the throne for just three years. He didn’t achieve a great deal, but he was able to name two of his nephews as Cardinals.

One of those nephews, Rodrigo Borgia, had been born in Xàtiva, also in the Kingdom of Valencia in 1431. He studied law at Bologna and was appointed as cardinal at the age of 25. He remained held the post for more than thirty years, enabling him to acquire money and power. Then in 1492 he seized the moment. Pope Innocent VIII had passed away after nearly eight years as pontiff. There was stalemate in the papal elections between Cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Giuliano Della Rovere. Realising that he couldn’t win, Sforza decided to back Rodrigo. The four mule loads of bullion that made a one-way journey from the Borgia palace to that of Sforza can’t have hindered the operation. In defence of the Borgias it has to be said that they were not the only family who had resorted to bribery. But in this election Della Rovere, who was backed by the King of Naples, could not match this wealth and his bid for the papacy ended in failure. He was embittered, but his time would come a decade later. Rodrigo Borgia was now Pope Alexander VI. While a cardinal, he had maintained an illicit long-term relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei, having four children with her – Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia and Gioffre. Rodrigo also fathered children by other women, including a daughter with his mistress, Giulia Farnese. In total, he had eight illegitimate children. This was extreme, but what we need to bear in mind is that the pope before him had two illegitimate children, and the one after him had also had bastard child.

As Alexander VI, Rodrigo was recognized as a skilled politician and diplomat, but was widely criticized during his reign for all the  corruption, depravity, nepotism and murder that took place. As pope, he struggled to acquire more personal and papal power and wealth. The papacy could not be inherited, but he could provide money, power and land for all the family. You can say many things about Rodrigo Borgia, but there can be no doubt that he loved his family. He made his eldest son Giovanni, a captain-general of the papal army, and he named Cesare a cardinal. Alexander used the marriages of his children to build alliances with powerful families in Italy and Spain. He married Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza to strengthen ties with Milan. He also married Gioffre, his youngest son, to Sancia of Aragon of the Kingdom of Aragon and Naples. Giovanni would also be linked to the Spanish royal house through marriage.

There is no doubt that that the Borgias knew how to have a good time. Johannes Burckhardt the papal secretary described a typical evening of fun:

On Sunday evening, October 30 [1501]. Don Cesare Borgia gave a supper in his apartments in the apostolic palace, with fifty decent prostitutes or courtesans in attendance, who, after the meal, danced with the servants and others there, first fully dressed and then naked. Following the supper, too, lampstands holding lighted candles were placed on the floor and chestnuts strewn about, which the prostitutes, naked and on their hands and knees, had to pick up as they crawled in and out among the lampstands. The Pope, Don Cesare, and Donna Lucrezia were all present to watch. Finally prizes were offered—silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats, and other garments—for those men who could perform the act most frequently with the prostitutes.

At this point it might be useful to talk about Cesare Borgia. Cesare’s education was meticulously prepared by his father.  Until his 12th birthday he was educated by tutors in Rome. He grew up to become an accomplished young man skilled at war and politics. After attending the University of Perugia, where he studied law and the humanities he went to the University of Pisa to study theology. On graduation his father immediately made him a cardinal.

Cesare was suspected of murdering his brother Giovanni, but it is impossible to know whether this is true or not.  There is no doubt he benefitted from it. He was now free to abandon the cloth and pursue political and military ambitions. He married a French princess Charlotte d’Albret and became a condottiero, a military leader.

After Alexander’s death in 1503, Cesare sought to influence the election of the next Pope. He was looking for a candidate who would not threaten his plans to create his own principality in Central Italy. He succeeded, his candidate, Francesco Nanni Todeschini Piccolomini became Pope Pius III. However, he would die less than a month after his coronation. Cesare was now forced to support Giuliano Della Rovere. The cardinal promised Cesare that he could keep all of his titles and honours. Unsurprisingly, in these treacherous times, Della Rovere betrayed him. Cesare died in 1507, while leading a surprise attack on VianaCastle in Navarre, Spain.

I haven’t mentioned the other star of the family, Lucrezia. She has the reputation of being the femme fatale of the dynasty. This is the fate of so many women in history; they are either completely ignored, or made out to be monsters. We have already seen how she was a pawn in her father’s dynastic ambitions. We have already mentioned her marriage to Sforza. Before that she had been betrothed to two Spanish princes.  There does seem to be little evidence for the rumours of incest with one or more of her brothers—or indeed with her father—apart from the testimony given by Giovanni Sforza himself during the divorce proceedings. The Sforzas were no longer necessary, so the pope’s son-in-law had become an inconvenience. Indeed, in 1497 there seems to have been a Borgia-led plot to assassinate him, but he was able to flee Rome just in time. Divorce would have to do. Sforza was eventually forced to agree to the divorce on the grounds of impotence, despite his testimony that the marriage had been consummated more than a thousand times and the fact that Lucrezia was actually pregnant! The paternity of Giovanni, who was born in secret, has never been established. One year later, Pedro Calderon, a Spaniard, was fished out of the Tiber. Perotto, as he was known was believed to have been conducting an affair with Lucrezia. This did not please Cesare, who had him killed because an affair might well have compromised the negotiations then taking place for another marriage.

This marriage would turn out even worse. Her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, whom she genuinely loved, was murdered by Cesare—quite possibly out of jealousy, though there were also political overtones. Cesare wished to strengthen his relations with France and completely break with the Kingdom of Naples. As Alfonso’s father was the ruler of the Kingdom of Naples, the young husband was in great danger. Although the first murder attempt did not succeed, Alfonso was eventually strangled in his own quarters.

She may have felt genuine grief, but her father had soon arranged a third marriage – to another Alfonso, the Este duke of Ferrara. This marriage was also ostensibly successful, in that Lucrezia bore her husband a number of children. Unfortunately her pregnancies were difficult and she lost several babies after birth. But, she also had  a number of affairs including with the poet Pietro Bembo and her bisexual brother-in-law, Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Nevertheless, she achieved comparative respectability and managed to outlive the rest of her family, before dying in Ferrara in 1519 after giving birth to her eighth child, Isabella Maria.

The Borgias have fired the popular imagination for five centuries and this interest shows no sign of flagging. Machiavelli was inspired to write “The Prince” a decade after meeting Cesare. Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote about them. They are said to be the models for the Corleones in writer Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Sarah Dunant, who writes best-selling historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy, has a new novel Blood & Beauty, which looks at this much-maligned family. Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti based his opera on Hugo’s play about Lucrezia.  There have been a handful of movies dating back to 1911. In that year La cena de los Borgias (known as The Feud of the Borgias) an 11-minute silent movie was produced in Italy. Unfortunately I was unable to find it online. They have also been staples of the small screen. In 1981, the BBC aired a 10-part miniseries, The Borgias, which was the butt of many a joke. And more recently, Showtime, the company which gave us The Tudors, produced The Borgias. The series, which has now been cancelled after its third season, was created by Neil Jordan and features Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo. Dunant thinks that the leading role was miscast; she feels that the late James Gandolfini would have been perfect for the part. Finally the have appeared in the newest technologies. And they are mot missing from new technology either making an appearance in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise-franchise has also featured the family.

There is no doubt that the Borgias have had a pretty bad press for the last 500 years. They did engage in a lot of sordid behaviour. Nevertheless, they were a product of their time and place. Many of these stories only appeared decades after the deaths of those involved. I love the Renaissance. What particularly intrigues is the marked contrast between the scandalous politics and the beautiful art that was created. The creativity and the corruption seem inseparable. I wouldn’t go as far as rehabilitating them, but we do need a more subtle and nuanced view of the Borgias.

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One Response to The Borgias: power corrupts and absolute power is even more fun

  1. Alberto says:

    Mario Puzo even wrote a book about the Borgias, but it’s not worth reading, in my opinion.

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