Friday, October 31, 2014

Pope Borgia

1492 The Borgias in Rome

As the power and wealth of the papacy grew, cardinals lusted after the papal tiara with ever greater fervor, and elections rapidly became dominated by rampant simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). None, however, was worse than the conclave of 1492. Conclave, which means with keys’ or locked in. Comes from the 1268-1271 Papal Conclave where the Cardinals just never elected a pope. Eventually the people of the town locked them in and also started the tradition of feeding them only bread and water and legend has it that the town eventually took off the roof of the palace.

Back to 1492. Enter the ferociously ambitious and worldly Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia a Spaniard who would stop at nothing in his quest to become the next pope, and was reputed to have offered four mule-loads of silver and benefices worth over 10,000 ducats a year to Ascanio Sforza alone. Rome was said to have been awash with Borgia money while the election was going on. But, from Borgia’s perspective, this was money well spent: he was duly elected as Pope Alexander VI. 

In 1492 CE, was an interesting time; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia.
This man who desperately wanted to become the pope, Roberto Borgia was not a favorite, but he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.

Borgia entered the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he was sure of six votes, but needed fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Say what you will about the modern church, but this church was rotten to the core and members could buy positions in the Curia, and they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.

After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just six votes, as expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but in return he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this was probably a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.
The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.

Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position Borga currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.

One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a true Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee for his life to Spain.

In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”

After 14 days of wrangling and intrigue by the cardinals, Rodrigo Borja  was elected Pope Alexander VI.

Rodrigo Borgia, Now Pope Alexander VI, was nephew of Alfonso Borgia, better known as Pope Callixtus III, was born in the Kingdom of Valencia, Spain. He studied law at Bologna and was appointed as cardinal by his Pope uncle.  While a cardinal, he maintained a long-term illicit relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei of the House of Candia, with whom he had four children: Giovanni; Cesare; Lucrezia; and Geoffrey. Rodrigo also had children by other women, including one daughter with his mistress, Giulia Farnese. The general idea was not that priests were celibate (though they seemed more pious if they were) but that they did not marry.

As Alexander VI, Rodrigo was recognized as a skilled politician and diplomat, but was widely criticized during his reign for his over-spending, sale of Church offices (simony), nepotism and orgeys. Lots of orgeys. As Pope, he struggled to acquire more personal and papal power and wealth, often ennobling and enriching the Borgia family directly. He appointed his son, Giovanni, as captain-general of the papal army, his foremost military representative, and established another son, Cesare, as a cardinal.  Alexander used the marriages of his children to build alliances with powerful families in Italy and Spain. At the time, the Sforza family, which comprised the Milanese faction, was one of the most powerful in Europe, so Alexander united the two families by marrying Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza. He also married Gioffre, his youngest son from Vannozza, to Sancia of Aragon of the Kingdom of Aragon and Naples. He established a second familial link to the Spanish royal house through Giovanni's marriage during what was a period of on-again/off-again conflict between France and Spain over the Kingdom of Naples.

In 1493, Alexander attempted to draw a line between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the New World (dividing the world in half). He is also remembered for the torture and execution in 1498 of the famous Florentine preacher Savonarola, who had had the balls to denounce papal corruption and call for the removal of Alexander.

After a Papal term renound for poisonings incest (usually involving the super hot Lucrezia) and political maneuverings Pope Alexander VI died in Rome in 1503 after contracting a disease, generally believed to have been malaria.

Rodrigo Borgia's second son, Cesare, was precisely planned by his father to be a king, like his namesake. He was educated by tutors in Rome until his 12th birthday. He grew up to become a charming man skilled at war and politics.  He studied law and the humanities at the University of Perugia, then went to the University of Pisa to study theology. As soon as he graduated from the university, his father made him a cardinal.

Cesare was suspected of murdering his brother Giovanni, but there is no clear evidence to confirm this. However, Giovanni’s death cleared the path for Cesare to become a layman and gain the honors his brother received from their father, Pope Alexander VI. Although Cesare had been a cardinal, he left the priesthood to gain power and take over the position Giovanni once held, captain of the Papal Guard. This was not a common occurrence. He may have been the first Cardinal to voluntarily defrock. He was finally married to a French princess. So the Borgia was connected by marriage to all the most powerful families in Europe.

Cesare became the ally of the French king, for his father and became a leading general of Louis XII, winning some important victories in the Romagna, a city state adjacent to the papal states. He entered Rome in triumph in February, 1500, dragging behind him, in golden chains, Caterina Sforza, the Lady of two of cities he had conquered. She was imprisoned, and would have died in chains had not the French interceded for her release.

The Jubilee year of 1500 began the period of greatest decadence for Alexander and Cesare. Cesare amused the throngs of Romans by killing five bulls in St. Peter's Square, making him the hero of Rome. There were also shooting of unarmed criminals by Cesare, but Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia watched with amusement as fifty Roman harlots coupled with fifty palace servants, competing for prizes for "best performance" awarded by Alexander.  A drunken reveler had his tongue and hand cut off for mocking Cesare. A Venetian who had written a pamphlet criticizing Cesare was sentenced to drowning in the Tiber river.

But Cesare was not satisfied only with a return to Rome in triumph. Jubilee gifts went into his coffers, and Alexander shared with him the huge sums obtained from the creation of nine new cardinals, each paying thousands of ducats. Still, the Borgias were not satisfied.
Deciding that Lucrezia's second husband, the Duke of Bisceglie, had lost his value to them Cesare strangled him as he was recovering from wounds from an earlier attempt on his life by Cesare's henchmen. This allowed Alexander to arrange a third marriage for Lucrezia.

After Alexander's death in 1503, Cesare fled to Spain.  Cesare died in 1507, at Viana Castle in Navarre, Spain while besieging the rebellious army of Count de Lerín. The castle was held by Louis de Beaumont at the time it was besieged by Cesare Borgia and King John's army of 10,000 men in 1507. In order to attempt to breach the extremely strong, natural fortification of the castle, Cesare counted on a desperate surprise attack. Not only did he fail to take the castle, he was killed during the battle.

After a few months into his marriage to Charlotte in 1498, Cesare never saw his wife again, nor their daughter, Louise. Charlotte, however, remained loyal to her husband's memory. She and her daughter entered a convent, and lived pious lives until the death of Charlotte.

Strangely, Cesare's lasting legacy is that he served as the model for Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, the leader who promotes himself solely through the strength of his own will. When we hear of the adjective "Machiavellian," we are once more in the presence of Borgia. There's no contest about who is the most important person in The Prince, Cesare Borgia.

Machiavelli worked for and greatly admired Cesare Borgia whose exploits Machiavelli later used as examples in The Prince. Although Borgia was corrupt and hated by many, in The Prince, Machiavelli views Borgia as a leader capable of uniting Italy.

There is also a theory that White Jesus modeled on Cesare Borgia.
Cesare Borgia and Portraits of Jesus

The theory is that people were generally not too enthusiastic about the Catholic Church’s regular massacres of Jews and Muslims, because the people they were killing looked kinda like Jesus. Brilliantly, Pope Alexander VI then ordered the destruction of all art depicting a Semitic Jesus and commissioned a number of paintings depicting a Caucasian Jesus.  His son, Cardinal Cesare Borgia, was the model for these paintings.  Thus, the nastiest of all the Borgias, became the iconic Caucasian Jesus so loved by Christians today. True? Well, paintings were famously modeled on living people and there are many similarities in the paintings of the time of Cesare and those of Jesus. But, Cesare was classically handsome and so were the portraits of Jesus. I say it could be true but it might just be that Cesare was attractive in the same way the Catholic Church thought Jesus ought to be depicted. The Middle Eastern pictures of Jesus were destroyed under Alexander VI though. That much is actual.

The Conclave of 1492 brought a fucker to the Vatican, divided the world in half, created the Machiavellian hero, Cesare, and cost uncountable lives and money. It also stained the Catholic Church for over a thousand years.

The most infamous of all the Popes, father of several children, and politician extraordinaire. The second Borgia Pope, the most misunderstood and most unexplainable character to have ever sat upon the throne of Saint Peter, dynamic, enigmatic, and intelligent, this man was a shrewd political leader, with a very clear understanding of the politics of his day. Alexander was not a Churchman, he belonged else where, yet he did not neglect his responsibilities to the Church. By no means was he an exemplary Christian, however, he did bring back a prestige and power to the Church that made Her enemies tremble, and Her faithful gasp in wonder and awe. 


  1. Interesting article. What is the source of the assertion that Pope ordered the destruction of all paintings depicting a Semitic Jesus?

  2. Interesting article. What is the source of the assertion that Pope ordered the destruction of all paintings depicting a Semitic Jesus?