1902 Encyclopedia > Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia)

Pope Alexander VI
(also known as: Rodrigo Borgia)
(1431-1503)





ALEXANDER VI, (Rodrigo Borgia), memorable as the most characteristic incarnation of the secular spirit of the papacy of the 15th century, was born at Xativa in Valencia, 1st January 1431. His biographers all but unanimously assert his patronymic to have been Lenzuoli (in its original Valencia form, Llancol), and the name of Borgia (or more properly Borja) to have been assumed on his adoption by his maternal uncle. Francisco Escolano, however, a compatiot, positively affirms (Cornica, lib. Vi ca,p. 33), that Llancol was his mother's name, and that his father was Giofre Borja. It is also disputed whether he originally followed the legal or the military profession; the former appears more probable. In either case, his career was determined by his uncle's elevation to the papacy as Calixtus III., 8th April 1455, and his own immediate summons to Rome, where he was reserved in petto as cardinal in the ensuing February, publicly promoted in September, and by an unparalleled act of nepotism elevated to the lucrative and dignified office of vice-chancellor in the following July. He also succeeded his uncle as archbishop of Valencia. An elder brother, Pedro Luis, was made generalissimo of the papal forces by land and sea. The animosity created by so invidious an exaltation prepared Rodrigo's subsequent feud with the Roman patriciate. For the moment he was all-powerful, and the letters of that dexterous courtier Aeneas Sylvius attest the importance attached to his good word. We must here notive the ridiculous fiction concerning the parentage of Borgia's natural children, which owes its currency to the uncritical credulity of Gordon, his first formal biographer. An anonymous MS. romance, professing to record the secret history of the Borgia family, exists in many Italian libraries; a copy is in the British Museum. Gordon fell in with this fiction, and whether from lack of judgment or love of marvel, adopted it into his narrative. According to this version, Rodrigo, when summoned to Rome, was living with a beautiful Valencian courtesan, Rosa Vanozza, by whom he had already had several children. Despatching his family to Venice under the care of a major-domo, he entered upon a course of austere hypocrisy, designed to secure his exaltation to the papacy, thus remaining apart from his mistress and children for a period of nearly forty years! This legend, originally circulated as a prime piece of scandal, has been accepted as a vindication by Rodrigo's apologists. Vanozza, they contend, was not his concubine but his wife, and her decease must have preceded his ordination: Caesar and Lucretia were consequently legitimate. The Abbe Ollivier goes a step further still, and disposes of two scandals at a stroke by identifying Vanozza with Giulia Farnese, whose charms, during Alexander's pontificate forty years afterwards, notoriously procured her brother's elevation to the cardinalate. It is sufficient to reply that in this case the beautiful Lucretia must have espoused the Duke of Ferrara at forty, and have borne him children at sixty. The date of Caesar's birth, moreover, is known to an hour, being fixed by the horoscope preserved in Junctinus (tom. i p. 171) at 18th September 1475. Nor is the history of Vanozza any longer a secrte. It is known that her family name was De' Cattanei; that after bearing five children to Alexander she was twice married, on each occasion to a petty official about the papal court; that she possessed houses and other property in Rome; that she survived Alexander many years, and made use of the name of Borgia (Reumont, Bd. 3, pp. 202, 203).


Pope Alexander VI

Pope Alexander VI


The fortune of the Borgia brothers seemed menaced with eclipse on the death of their uncle, 8th August 1458. Pedro Luis, who had incurred the bitter enmity of the Orsini family, escaped under the escort of cardinal Barbo to Civita Vecchia, where a fever soon carried him off. Rodrigo remained for the conclave. No papal election is more dramatically narrated in that edifying collection, conclavi de' Pontefici Romani, than the one which resulted in the choice of Aeneas Sylvius (Pius II.) Borgia's share in it had earned Pius's gratitude; he was, nevertheless, compelled to submit to some diminution of the authority and emoluments of the vice-chancellorship; and a subsequent indiscretion in the too public indulgence of his taste for female society while discharging a legation at Siena procured him one of the severest reprimands ever addressed to a cardinal by a pope. Pius's reproof is preserved in Raynaldus (Append. Ad ann. 1460, num. 31), and alone refutes the fiction of Borgia's religious hypocrisy. Cardinal Barbo, however, who succeeded as Paul II., was the same spirited patrician who had befriended the Borgias in their hour of need, and his ostentation pontificate ushered in the era of Rodrigo's unbroken prosperity. "He is," writes at this time Gaspar Veronensis (Muratori, tom. iii. pt. 2, p. 1037), "a comely man of cheerful countenance and honeyed discourse, who gains the affections of all the women he admires, and attracts them as the laodstone does iron; it is indeed supposed that he proceeds no further." A supposition rather pious than probable.

On the death of the jovial Paul (1471), Borgia is mentioned, along with Cardinals Orsino and Gonzaga, as one of the three who chiefly contributed to place the tiara on the brows of the then famous preacher and exemplary ascetic Sixtus IV., who immediately (per fuggive l'ingratitudine) bestowed on him the opulent abbey of Subiaco, and raised him to the dignity of cardinal-bishop. About the same time must have commenced his intimacy with Vanozza. In 1473 he undertook a legation to Spain, avowedly with the purpose of visiting his diocese and of composing differences between the kings of Castile and Portugal, but in reality to display his magnificence to his countrymen. His demeanour on this occasion is represented in the most unfavourable light by the cardinal of Pavia, who had previously composed for him that elegant oration to his Valencia flock which the Abbe Ollivier has the simplicity to attribute to Borgia himself. The cardinal, however, is too much of a time-server and a rhetorician for his account to be altogether trusthworthy. More certain is the occurrence of a tremendous tempest on Borgia's return, in which part of his retinue perished, while he himself narrowly escaped. Innocent VIII., the successor of Sixtus, owed his election to Borgia's coalition with the late pope's nephew, and the fortunes of the former remained unimpaired throughout his tranquil pontificate. The long malady which terminated afforded scope for the intrigues of aspirants to the succession; and when the cardinals entered into conclave (August 1492), already the rumour ran that a Spaniard would be pope. The simoniacal character of the election is indisputable. We need not believe that the opulent and high-spirited Cardinal Ascanio Sforza was tempted with four mule-loads of silver , but his instant elevation to the vice-chancellorship speaks for itself. Cardinal Orsino was bought with Borgia's palace in Rome; cardinal Colonna with the abbey of Subiaco; money gained the minor members of the sacred College; five cardinals alone are recorded as incorruptible. Borgia's uneasiness was betrayed by his hasty assumption of the pontifical vestments, and premature announcement of the election to the expectant crowd. He assumed the name of Alexander VI. His allocution to the cardinals breathed spirit and dignity; an admonitory discourse to his son Caesar, which may be read in Gordon, is an invention of the anonymous romancer. The pomp of his coronation far surpassed preceding examples, and the compliments of foreign ambassadors on the majesty of his mien and the maturity of his wisdom were echoed by a public accustomed to simony, relieved at their deliverance from a period of anarchy, and sensible of their need of a firmer hand. This hope Alexander justified and surpassed. Ere long her had divided Rome into judicial districts, placed a magistrate at the head of each, and himself established a weekly audience, at which, by the admission of the malcontent Infessura, "he administered justice after a marvelous sort."





Alexander's pontificate might have been less eventual but for a circumstance beyond his control. The political system of Italy was on the eve of dissolution. Ludovico the Moor, anxious to confirm himself in his ill-gotten duchy of Milan, was already tempting the French monarch across the Alps by the bait of the kingdom of Naples. As of old in Greece, so now dissensions and political corruption were about to cast down the civilization of Italy at the feet of the stranger. The passion for family aggrandizement on this occasion impelled Alexander to a patriotic course. His third son Giofre had espoused the illegitimate daughter of the king of Naples, and received as dower the principality of Squillace. When, therefore, the French envoys demanded the investiture of Naples, they met with a flat refusal. This encouraged Alexander's enemies. Cardinal della Rovere (Julius II.) withdrew from the papal court, seized upon Ostia, and from thence addressed urgent appeals to the French king to march upon Rome, convene a council, and purge Christendom of the simoniacal pope. On this side Alexander felt himself indeed vulnerable. Casting about for alliances, he dispatched an envoy to the Sultan; the ambassador was arrested as he returned with a favourable reply, and the publication of his instructions created a fresh scandal. Others still, had Roman manners been less lax, might have arisen from the marriage of the pope's acknowledged daughter Lucretia to the Lord of Pesaro, under the auspices of the whole sacred College, and from the elevation of his second son Caesar to the cardinalate at the age of eighteen, unblushing perjury being employed to conceal his illegitimate birth. Yet, at the same period, the successor of Peter appeared for the last time in history as the undisputed bestower of kingdoms and the ultimate tribunal of appeal for Christian nations. Spain and Portugal resorted to him for the adjustment of their claims to the New World; and by tracing a line upon a map he disposed of three-fourths of the human race. Never, according to mediaeval ideas, had a pope exerted his prerogative with equal grandeur; but the mediaeval conception of the papacy was passing away, and no one's faith in it was feebler than the pope's.

Charles VIII. Passed the Alps in the autumn of 1494; city after city fell before him, and by the end of the year Rome was added to the number. Alexander had retired into the castle of St Angelo. His deposition was universally expected, most of all by himself. But Charles's minister, Briconnet, had been gained by the promise of a cardinal's hat. On 16th January the reconciliation of king and pontiff was officially celebrated; they rode together through the city; but distrust still prevailed between them. With really surprising firmness Alexander continued to refuse the investiture of Naples, with which Charles may have thought himself able to dispense. Nothing, indeed, could have been more rapid than his conquest, except his loss of that kingdom. By March the triumph of the French seemed complete: on 6th July their retreating army cut its way through the Italian hosts at taro in Upper Italy; on 7th July the King of Naples re-entered his capital. Nothing remained of the French incursion except a fatal contagion, and the more fatal revelation of the weakness of Italy.

The retreat of the French left Alexander at liberty to pursue what must have been the main object of any pope of intelligence and spirit in his place-the extirpation of the petty feudal vassals of the church, and the establishment of the temporal independence of the papacy. This was in truth but a phase of the great struggle of the crown and the people against the aristocracy, universally a characteristic of that age; but the pope's principal motive was unquestionably the insatiable appetite of family aggrandizement. The incurable vice, however, of his policy was imposed upon him by the lack of men and money to carry it into effect. To obtain the former, he was compelled to incline alternately to France and Spain, degrading the majesty of the Holy See, and forfeiting his liberty of action as a member of the Italian body politic. The finances had to be recruited by the sale of offices and spiritual privileges of every kind. Such practices had long been prevalent at Rome, but never had they attained the enormity, the effrontery, or the method imparted to them by Alexander.

His enterprises was at first unfortunate. After some petty successes the papal forces were routed by the Orsini, January 1497. Spanish aid was invoked; the Great captain checked the Orsini and recovered Ostia. Alexander's spirits rose; on 7th June he alienated Benevento in favour of his eldest son, the Duke of Gandia. That day week the duke disappeared; his body, pierced with wounds, was soon found in the Tiber. The public voice attributed the murder to the pope's second son, the Cardinal Caesar Borgia, but on no other grounds than his capability of any atrocity, and the gain that accrued to him by this. Some historians know what he said to the pope in confessing his fratricide, and can report the pope's rejoinder; so is history written. Alexander secluded himself in a passion of grief. He talked of abdication, and actually appointed a commission to inquire into the abuses of the Church. While it ineffectually deliberated on reforms, the stake was preparing for a real reformer. The history of Savonarola must be related elsewhere; it can only be said here that Alexander appears to have been most unwilling to proceed against him, and only to have consented to do so when the Dominican's hostile attitude rendered further forbearance impossible.

Caesar Borgia, meanwile, was bent on improving the opportunity which he had found or made. Three months after Savonarola's death he propounded to the assembled cardinals his desire to renounce ecclesiastical orders for his soul's health, and was soon at liberty to contract a royal alliance. After encountering a refusal from the daughter of the King of Naples he repaired to France, and there (May 1499) espoused a princess of the house of Navarre, receiving the title of Duke of Valentinois from the French king. Lucretia also benefited by her family's enlarged views; her alliance with the lord of Pesaro was dissolved on a pretext of nullity, and she married the Duke of Bisceglia, a natural son of the King of Naples. This had occurred a year previously, when Alexander still attached weight to the Neapolitan alliance; but the political horizon was now changed. In October 1499 a French army crossed the Alps and conquered Lombardy, almost without resistance. The watchword was thus given for the papal campaign in the Romagna. Caterina Sforza, regent of Imola and Forli, received a summons to discharge certain arrears long woing to her suzerain. Caesar Borgia followed with an army on the heels of the messenger, and although the intrepid princess defended herself stoutly by sword and poison, she was compelled to succumb to the "Gonfalonier of the Church." The Borgias' enterprise coincided fortunately with the commencement (according to the then method of recknoning) of the new century and the mighty concourse of pilgrims to Rome for the jubille, each representing some substantial contribution to the papal exchequer. France and Spain, meanwhile, had concerted their secret arrangement for the dispossession of the King of Naples, and Caesar Borgia prepared to remove the only obstacle to his own participation in it. In July 1500 the duke of Bisceglia, Lucretia's Neapolitan husband, was attacked by assassins in broad day, and left desperately wounded. The pope placed guards over the prince; Lucretia and her sister-in-law prepared his food to avoid poison; but none the less "quum ex vulneribus sibi datis mori noluisset" - Alphonso of Bisceglia was strangled by men in masks. "All Rome," writes the Venetian ambassador, "trembles before the duke." The worst times of the empire seemed returned, even to the amusements of the amphitheatre, where Caesar, whose tastes were those of a Spaniard, dispatched six bulls successively, severing the head of one from the shoulders at a stroke. The pope looked on helplessly at the Frankenstein of his own creation; "he loves and hugely fears his son," reports the Venetian, who adds that Caesar had pursued his father's favourite secretary to his arms, and there butchered him, the pope's robe being saturated with the gushing blood. Alexander's easy temper stood him in good stead. "The pope," according to the same authority, "grows younger every day, and is extremely cheerful; his cares and troubles endure only for a night; he thinks continually of aggrandizing his children-ne d'altro ha cura." In his conversations with foreign envoys he excused his son's violence as the error of youth. "The duke," he said, "is really a good fellow; it is only a pity that he cannot endure to be offended." Lucretia is extolled by all as "lovely, discreet, and bountiful." Rumour, indeed, imputed to her an incestuous connection with her brother; but this aspersion, like all others upon her, is to this day utterly destitute of proof.

"These devils cannot be cast out by holy water," cardinal Juan Borgia had formerly reported of the turbulent occupants of the Romagna. The experiment of casting out Santan by Beelzebub to be tried. In April 1501 Caesar entered upon his second campaign, and by perfidy or force quickly added Pesaro, rimini, and Faenza to his former possessions. Attentive to the maxims of sagacious tyranny, he governed with substantial justice. If his coffers had to be filled by oppression, the odium would be cast on some subordinate agent, whose body, his mission, fulfilled, would be found dismembered in the market-place. France and Spain, meanwhile, proceeded to the spoliation of the defenceless king of Naples, and Caesar (July 1501) shared in the conquest and the booty. In September Alexander himself undertook a campaign against the Colonnas, and humbled those haughty patricians by the capture of all their castles. Lucretia, to the general scandal, represented him in his absence. Worse scandals were in store, could we implicitly credit the contemporary diarist's account of the scenes enacted in the apostolic palace after Alexander's return, but the passage is probably interpolated. At this period the papal court was engrossed with preparations for Lucretia's marriage to Alphonso, son of the Duke of Ferrara, which was celebrated by proxy in December. The pope's daughter, cardinals and prelates in her train, undertook a stately progress through Italy to Ferrara, where she was received with extraordinary splendour. Piombino was reduced at this time, and in July Caesar treacherously rendered himself master of Urbino. Immediately afterwards his power received a severe shock from the defection of his principal condottieri. Caesar temporized until, to the admiration of Machiavelli, then Florentine envoy at his camp, his adversaries were decoyed into his hands, seized and executed (31st December 1502). The news gave the signal at Rome for the arrest of the Orsini and the occupation of their castles; thus was the humiliation of the Roman aristocracy completed. Cardinal Orsino was committed to Saint Angelo, where the services of the papal master of the ceremonies were soon required for his interment. "But I," remarks Burcardus with quaint naivete, "turned the business over to my assistant, for I did not want to know more than was good for me." It must be owned that in that age it would have been impossible to bring a cardinal publicly to the block. This apology does not apply to the charges of secret poisoning which have mainly given the Borgias their sinister celebrity, and which became fearfully rife in Alexander's latter years. They are unproved as yet, but are certainly countenanced by the opulence of the supposed victims, and the avidity with which the pope pounced upon their effects, especially in the case of his rapacious datary, Cardinal Ferrari.

By May 1503 Spain had disposed France of her share of ill-gotten Naples. A general war seemed imminent; Alexander and Caesar leaned to the side of Spain. The sacred College was already full of Spanish cardinals, docile instruments of their countryman, and Alexander might well deem that he had fettered the church to the fortune of his house. men looked for the proclamation of Caesar as king of Romagna, and the division of the temporal and the spiritual power. The ancient mutual relations of pope and emperor would have been revived, but on the narrow area of Central Italy. But this was not to be. On the morning of 12th August "Pope Alexander felt ill;" so did Caesar Borgia. Every one knows the story of the supper given to the ten cardinals in the villa, and the fatal exchange of the poisoned flask. This picturesque tale is almost certainly a fiction. An attempt to destroy ten cardinals at once is inconceivable; it would be easier to believe cardinal Castellesi's assertion that he was to have been the victim, as his sickness at the time is confirmed from an independent source. But his character does not stand high, and the symptoms of his disorder, as described by humself, differ totally from Alexander's, which were those of an ordinary Roman fever. The progress of the pope's malady may be minutely traced in the diary of Burcardus and the dispatches of the Ferrarese envoy. He expired on the evening of 18th August, duly provided with all the needful sacraments of the Church. From his own point of view his life probably appeared fortunate and glorious; but the vicissitude of human affairs is ever dramatically illustrated by the death of a pope. Ere the corpse was cold the pontifical apartments were pillaged by the satellites of Caesar Borgia; at the funeral a brawl between priest and soldiers left it exposed in the body of the church; when placed before the altar, its shocking decomposition confirmed the surmise of poison; finally, stripped of its cerements and wrapped in an old carpet, it was forced, with blows and jeers, into a narrow coffin, and flung into an obscure vault. The remains were subsequently transferred to the Spanish church of St Mary of Montserrat, where they repose at this day.

Alexander has become a myth, and his "acts" are in some respects almost as legendary as those of the primitive saints and martyrs. The peculiar odium attached to his memory rests partly on the charge of incest, of which he must be acquitted; partly on that of secret poisoning, which is at least not established; partly on the confusion between his actions and Caesar Borgia's. nearly everything actually criminal in his pontificate is subsequent to the preponderance of the latter.. profligate alike in public and private life, he was no malignant tyrant, - affable, familiar, easy, he justly took credit for his moderation towards notorious malcontents, and his indifference to personal injuries. These virtues, however, as well as his family affection, were merely constitutional with him,-as the many beneficial acts of his administration were rather prompted by a sense of policy than a sense of duty. His ability as a ruler is evince by the tranquility he maintained in Rome, his effectual provision against dearth, the regular discharge of financial obligations, the energetic prosecution of useful public works. As a statesman he ranks high in the second class. He was too destitute of morality to have the least insight into the tendencies of his times; but from the point of view of political expediency, his policy was eminently sagacious and adroit. He cannot be accused of preparing the misfortunes of Italy, but he did not disdain to profit by them. His licentiousness and contempt of ecclesiastical decorum are partly palliated by the circumstances of his initiation into the Church. He was untrained to the ecclesiastical profession, never felt himself a priest, and was w holly regardless of the Church's interest as such. In this respect he is almost unique among the successors of St Peter. Were controversies regulated by reason rather than by convenience, the parties to this would change sides, - Alexander's accusers would become his advocates, and his advocates his accusers. The church in her secret heart must rate him the lowest of her chiefs; the world must feel that he deserves much better of it than many much better popes.

The principal contemporary authority for the reign of Alexander is the diary of the papal master of the ceremonies, Joannes Burcardus, a record replete with trivialities and not exempt from interpolations, but containing indisputable evidence of perfect candour. An excellent edition, commenced in 1855 by the Abbe Gennarelli was discontinued after the publication of a few parts. The uncritical histories of Gordon and Tomasi are indebted to Burcardus for any value they posses. The paltry productions of modern Roman Catholic apologies (Joyy, Fave, Cerri, &c.) are beneath contempt. The Abbe Olivier (Alexandre VI. Et les Borgia, tom his strange alliance of perverse ingenuity with infantine inauspiciousness. Of late years the archives of the Italian courts have become accessible, and the transactions of Alexander's reign have been sagaciously investigated from his source by two German scholars, Von Reumont (Die Stadt Rom, Bd. 3, Abth. 1, Berlin 1868) and Gregorovius (Rom in Mitterlalter, Bd. 7, Stuttgart, 1870) The latter is the more copious, but his general estimate of Alexander is much too low. By far the ablest English contribution to the history of Alexander is a notice of Gregorovius in the North British Review, vol. lii., entitled The Borgias and their Latest Historian. (R. G.)






The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D., C.B.; Assistant in Library of British Museum, 1851, Superintendant of Reading Room, 1875; Keeper of Printed Books, 1890-1899; edited the British Museum Catalogue from 1881 to 1890; author of Idylls and Epigrams from Greek Anthology, Relics of Shelley, Twilight of the Gods, Life of Milton, Age of Dryden, William Blake, A History of Italian Literature, Life of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, etc.



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