A Sign Of The Times
To be able to talk of the Borgia family, one must be able to at least try and understand the time in which they ruled. It's for another node and time to try and entirely dissect the mentality of the Catholic Church during the end of the dark ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, if not we can simply list their crimes and misdemeanors, and be suitably shocked and gratified we do not live in that world. But this would not bring us one iota closer to understanding.
The world that saw Callistus III rise to power was a world that would be unrecognizable to the 20th century boy. Apart from the lack of electricity, the printing press was still a few years in the future and the core of literacy was still confined mainly to monasteries and to a few universities. With use of arithmetic symbols (the humble + and - signs) all but gone from usage, the educated Erasmus and Thomas Moore were very much unique for their time.
Europe was still a very, very large place. With only a handful of cities spread through the continent the mass of the population lived in rural areas or in small towns that were dominated, both in a spiritual, administrative and architectural way, by the local church.
Famine was more common than not, for every year of good harvest one could expect another two years of famine. During famine years cannibalism was not unheard of, nor that uncommon. So when the food was available they ate and drank and then ate and drank some more. For the most part men and women were considerably shorter than they are today - the average was just under 5 feet for men and weighing in at about 135 pounds (just over 61 kilos) - the giant of Jack and the Beanstalk was thought to be only about 6 foot tall. This meant that for all the eating and drinking they spent a lot of the time inebriated. Curiously, it was then that the Englishmen acquired a reputation for ugly women and drunkenness.
With disease on all sides - underground sewerage still a thing of the future - religion was embraced from birth to death. It was both a passage from the miserable mortal coil to a heavenly afterlife as well as a handy way of absolving earthly sins. This absolution by now was freely bought and sold. Religion was the only guiding light in a dark world; the air was infested with sprits - most them long lived and hard to kill - unbaptized infants, bone chewing ghouls, nymphs, dracs, wolfmen risen from the dead, vampires, sucubi and incubi and a number of other terrors. Doctors where guided by constellations and the angels guided the stars. Thousands of people with swollen lymph nodes in their necks mobbed the kings of England and France in the belief that their scrofula could cure them.
By the time the Borgias began their raise to power the center of Italian life was focused in Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice. The famine had ended and the avarge peasent was no longer in such a desperate situation. The Borgia rule, whilst notable was also relatively short - and the fact that the bulk of the criticism came from the nobility does not mean that it was not reflected or noticed amongst the masses - one of its most memorable voices are the poet and humanist Jacopo Sannazaro and the satrical tailor Pasquin.
With donations pouring in from the pious, the faithful, and the ones who could afford to buy their salvation outright, the church amassed considerable wealth. After the lawlessness of the dark ages and the new kingdoms slowly coming to shape the church had begun to not only regulate the affairs of the states but to wage open war upon those who it viewed as it enemies
Church could now almost be considered a country of its own - with power struggles, class system, a monetary budget, and of course an army of its own. With the barriers between the ecclesiastical world and that of the nobility breaking down it was only a matter of time until other more sacred customs were abandoned. From celibacy to harbouring concubines within church walls to fatherless children born to devout nuns - by the time Pope Alexander VI took his seat the barriers were well and truly down.
Before the Borgia Pope we saw Sixtus IV appointing four of his nephews and one grandnephew to the College of Cardinals. He named an eight year old boy the archbishop of Lisbon and eleven year old archbishop of Milan; despite the fact that they were children, neither of them had received any religious training.
After Sixtus came Pope Innocent VIII who roamed the streets of Rome after dark with a group of young men looking for women to gang-rape (amongst them nuns), sodomising them and leaving them injured in the streets. To culminate this he mortgaged the papal tiara and treasury to pay for his bastard son's wedding, then appointed his son's brother in law to College. This young fourteen year old was to become Leo X.
All of the Holy Fathers of the time were unabashed and unrestrained but none more so than Alexander VI and his remarkable offspring. All of their actions and their obsessions are a reflection of the time in which they lived. The consequences of their actions were to lead to a seismic reaction that is still echoing even now.
Callistus III (Alfonso de Borja - born 1378 - died 1458) elected to the papacy in 1455
Callistus III came at a time when the main preoccupation of Europe was the advances of the Turks and the ongoing task of the Crusades which at this point was lacking in volunteers and beginning to demand too much tax to pay for what was already been seen as an unwinable situation.
He spent most of his papacy trying unsuccessfully to drive back the Turks and to unite the European princes in one army to drive them back. The height of his papacy would be spent variously in negotiations and in disputes with the rulers of Europe watching the Balkan neighbors of the Turks unable to defend themselves against the continual onslaught.
With his reputation in tatters, his lasting legacy was to be his nepotism. He was criticised for his decision to raise two of his nephews to the College of Cardinals, one of those being Rodrigo Borgia. He then to bestowed the duchy of Spoleto and the governorship of the Castle of Sant' Angelo upon a third nephew. This nephew, proven to be incompetent and worthless at best, caused much anger amongst his peers even in his own time.
His last notable act would to be revise the trial of Joan the Arc and proclaim her innocence, leaving the work of defending Europe to those who would follow him.
Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia] - born 1431 died 1503) elected to papacy 1492
Vendit Alexander Claves, altaria, Christum,
Emerat ille prius, vendere jure potest.
“Alexander sells the keys, the altars, and Christ;
As he bought them first, he had a right to sell them!”
- Jacopo Sannazaro
Alexander VI was noted even before his election to the papacy for his wild parties and was reprimanded by the Vatican on more than one time for his behaviour prior even to joining the College of Cardinals - which he celebrated by orchestrating a wild orgy that led to conception of one son and two daughters. These offspring were later joined by three more sons and yet another daughter a few years later.
The mother of his second family was a young girl, daughter of one Rodrigo's mistresses, Rosa Vanozza dei Cantana who Rodrigo married off to different men twice - even though, after both marriages she still was said to spend more time in the bed of his Eminence then with her husband.
The driving force in his life was the ability the manipulate, an ability that he used in order to further his power; he used his position as priest, as a cardinal and ultimately as the Pope in order to gain lands, forge deals and maneuver the base of power in Italy squarely to Rome - to rival Florence and Naples.
From his election to the papacy, which he secured by buying off the other candidates, to the sham marriages of his daughters and mistresses, Alexander VI viewed the papacy as a method to gain control of Rome. To this end he manipulated everyone around him, but none more so than his daughter Lucrezia and his son Cesare. Both of these remarkable children were both willing to help forge the Borgia kingdom of Rome through any means.
Orgies, sham marriages, killings, bribers, treachery, torture, rapes and incest were common place in the time. The Borgias, through their unashamed behaviour and decadence, and in the growing climate of change at the beginning of the Renaissance, were to become a symbol for the growing Christian reformists and for what was almost to be the end of the Catholic Church in Rome
Cesare was Alexander’s favorite son due to their shared common goal to unite the central Italian cities under Roman rule and Borgia crest.
In 1497 Cesare is said to have murdered his brother Juan Borgia, duke of Gandia. The motive for this murder was said to have been over the relationship of both brothers with their youngest sibling’s wife. But this story has often been said to be a cover up for the fact that Juan discovered Cesare’s relationship with his sister Lucrezia and was overcome with jealousy as he also was having an affair with his sister. But, this also may be speculation as it has been recorded that Cesare was jealous of the affection his father had for Juan and envy drove him to murder.
In 1498 Cesare renounced his priesthood and dedicated the remainder of his life to his military conquest of central cities of Italy. With his father’s patronage, the vast power of the Church behind him ensured France’s support for all of his advances and in less than a decade had brought most Italy to its knees.
In this time he outlived a confederate conspiracy and outwitted its members, had one of his sister’s husbands murdered, shot unarmed prisoners and had initiated countless plots against his so called friends of the Italian nobility and held over half a dozen duchies.
It was an unfortunate coincidence that would bring him and his father to his knees. In 1503 whilst back in Rome gathering troops for a fresh expedition he and his father took ill. His father died soon after and Cesare was left debilitated. This would prove to be his ruin as his enemies rose on all sides.
This would be the end of the Borgias. As Cesare was exiled to Spain their powerbase crumbled. He died serving as a solider for Navarre.
Hoc tumulo dormit Lucretia nomine, sed re
Thais; Alexandri filia, sponsa, nurus!
“Beneath this stone sleeps Lucretia by name,
but by nature Thais*; the daughter, the wife,
and the daughter-in-law of Alexander!”
- Jacopo Sannazaro
*Thais: courtesan or lady of very very easy affection
When reading and writing about Lucrezia Borgia it is easy to get lost in the seedy details of her voracious sexual appetite, but it has to be noted that most of the details we have of her life come from her contemporaries in the Italian nobility, a circle in which she was almost unanimously despised. According to Cambridge Modern History: “Nothing could be less like the real Lucrezia of the dramatists and the romancers”. There is some evidence that she did live the life we thought she did but only a few sources are exact in their details.
Now remembered for her sexuality, she was highly educated. She was fluent in four languages and she read both Latin and classical Greek. She was a keen debater and an accomplished poet. But, she was also vulnerable and driven by an unquenchable need to please her father. Her looks were staggering; she was described as beautiful even by the women who saw her.
She was raised by Guilia Farense, one of Rodrigo Borgias mistresses, and by the age of eleven she had been engaged twice to two Spanish nobles as her father sought to consolidate his kingdom.
When she was thirteen she married Giovanni Sforza, part of the powerful Milanese Sforza family that Alexander at the time wanted to appease. He had that marriage annulled when his son Cesare forced the Sforzas out of Milan.
When this happened Giovanni struck back with the allegations that Alexander VI wanted her for himself. Whilst it is probably true that he wanted Lucrezia back in Rome and back in his bed it is also clear that Alexander VI viewed his daughter as a political tool as well, and her talents were being wasted on Giovanni.
But the allegations could not be ignored and the Sforzas where still powerful enough to protect Giovanni. Alexander found himself in an awkward position as if he kept his daughter near the Vatican and without suitors then Rome would have no doubt that the allegations were true. We know now they were true, but at the time it was essential to disspel the rumours, so he prepared a new marriage for her. In the midst of this her brother Juan was murdered by Cesare, the gossip has it that it was because both of the brothers were involved with her and wanted her for himself.
By the time Lucrezia was eighteen she had another problem, she was with child. She had conceived between marriages with either her father or one her brothers. Alexander claimed the son as his own in a secret bull.
Whilst preparing for the marriage her father had arranged Lucrezia had to appear at the Lateran Palace for an annulment of her ties to Giovanni Sforza and for that end she had to declare that the marriage had not been consummated and she was still a virgin. At her appearance despite her flowing clothes she was now six months pregnant and unable to disguise the fact, but despite this the canonical judges declared her virgin.
She was then married to Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, a move made to firm the ties between Naples and the Rome of the Borgias. This political marriage is said to have been the happiest time of Lucrezia's life as the couple enjoyed what can only be called love. But, soon Naples fell out favour and with the backing that France was offering to Cesare Alfonso knew that his life was in danger. He fled to Genazzano where he stayed until Lucrezia – six months pregnant – begged him to return to Rome. When he arrived he was attacked on the steps of Saint Peter’s. He survived the wounds only to be murdered a month later by Cesare’s henchmen.
By the time she married the Duke of Ferrese she was only 21. This was the marriage she would live her life out with as only two years after the union her father took ill and died of fever and her brother was exiled to Spain.
After her father’s death she turned her life around. Historians have noted that she has been given the highest praise for her beauty, modesty, virtuousness, and understanding. The people of her duchy loved and respected her. As she grew older she devoted herself to works of charity and piety, and was deeply mourned when she passed away.
Giovanni Borgia – Infans Romanus (born 1498 – died 1548)
Nicknamed the “child of Rome” he is the illegitimate son of Lucrezia and her father the pope Alexander VI. His notoriety came mainly from the discovery of his conception by the peoples of Rome and the extraordinary measures to which his family had to go to try and justify the infant.
At the age of eighteen Lucrezia conceived a child between marriages; if not from her father it was certain from one of her brothers. The pope, feeling the need to legitimize the child, proceeded to issue a public bull which claimed the child was three years old, and the child of Cesare and an unmarried woman.
But, in a 2nd secret bull, it is acknowledged the child is of Alexander and same woman. It was possible he did this because he didn’t want Cesare to get hold of the duchy lands to which his son would be entitled. In any case the child was then passed of as Lucrezia’s younger brother and was named the Duke of Nepi and Camerino.
Giovanni died in relative obscurity.
With the death of Alexander VI and then with the death of Cesare the Borgia hold on Rome all but vanished the world had entered a new era. The Christian Reformation was gathering strength and the next pope Leo X would have to deal with Martin Luther. A battle that he would eventually lose.
The stage was set for a new beginning for mankind as with the Borgias the earthquake that have consequences for centuries to come.
As a footnote the final Borgia was Francis Borgia - the great grandson of Alexander. He was raised a priest and when he rejected a place in the College of Cardinals he became a Jesuit priest and eventually became Father General of the whole order. He was regarded a saint even in his own lifetime and was canonised in 1672.
A World Lit Only By Fire - William Manchester