The Life of Cesare Borgia
Of France, Duke of Valentinois and Romagna, Prince of Andria and Venafri
Count of Dyois, Lord of Piombino, Camerino and Urbino, Gonfalonier and
Captain-General of Holy Church
A History and Some Criticisms
by Raphael Sabatini
This is no Chronicle of Saints. Nor yet is it a History of Devils. It
is a record of certain very human, strenuous men in a very human,
strenuous age; a lustful, flamboyant age; an age red with blood and pale
with passion at white-heat; an age of steel and velvet, of vivid colour,
dazzling light and impenetrable shadow; an age of swift movement,
pitiless violence and high endeavour, of sharp antitheses and amazing
To judge it from the standpoint of this calm, deliberate, and correct
century--as we conceive our own to be--is for sedate middle-age to judge
from its own standpoint the reckless, hot, passionate, lustful humours of
youth, of youth that errs grievously and achieves greatly.
So to judge that epoch collectively is manifestly wrong, a hopeless
procedure if it be our aim to understand it and to be in sympathy with
it, as it becomes broad-minded age to be tolerantly in sympathy with the
youth whose follies it perceives. Life is an ephemeral business, and we
waste too much of it in judging where it would beseem us better to
accept, that we ourselves may come to be accepted by such future ages as
may pursue the study of us.
But if it be wrong to judge a past epoch collectively by the standards of
our own time, how much more is it not wrong to single out individuals for
judgement by those same standards, after detaching them for the purpose
from the environment in which they had their being? How false must be
the conception of them thus obtained! We view the individuals so
selected through a microscope of modern focus. They appear monstrous and
abnormal, and we straight-way assume them to be monsters and
abnormalities, never considering that the fault is in the adjustment of
the instrument through which we inspect them, and that until that is
corrected others of that same past age, if similarly viewed, must appear
Hence it follows that some study of an age must ever prelude and
accompany the study of its individuals, if comprehension is to wait upon
our labours. To proceed otherwise is to judge an individual Hottentot or
South Sea Islander by the code of manners that obtains in Belgravia or
Mind being the seat of the soul, and literature being the expression of
the mind, literature, it follows, is the soul of an age, the surviving
and immortal part of it; and in the literature of the Cinquecento you
shall behold for the looking the ardent, unmoral, naïve soul of this
Renaissance that was sprawling in its lusty, naked infancy and bellowing
hungrily for the pap of knowledge, and for other things. You shall infer
something of the passionate mettle of this infant: his tempestuous mirth,
his fierce rages, his simplicity, his naïveté, his inquisitiveness, his
cunning, his deceit, his cruelty, his love of sunshine and bright
To realize him as he was, you need but to bethink you that this was the
age in which the Decamerone of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Facetiae of
Poggio, the Satires of Filelfo, and the Hermaphroditus of Panormitano
afforded reading-matter to both sexes. This was the age in which the
learned and erudite Lorenzo Valla--of whom more anon--wrote his famous
indictment of virginity, condemning it as against nature with arguments
of a most insidious logic. This was the age in which Casa, Archbishop of
Benevento, wrote a most singular work of erotic philosophy, which, coming
from a churchman's pen, will leave you cold with horror should you chance
to turn its pages. This was the age of the Discovery of Man; the pagan
age which stripped Christ of His divinity to bestow it upon Plato, so
that Marsilio Ficino actually burnt an altar-lamp before an image of the
Greek by whose teachings--in common with so many scholars of his day--he
sought to inform himself.
It was an age that had become unable to discriminate between the merits
of the Saints of the Church and the Harlots of the Town. Therefore it
honoured both alike, extolled the carnal merits of the one in much the
same terms as were employed to extol the spiritual merits of the other.
Thus when a famous Roman courtesan departed this life in the year 1511,
at the early age of twenty-six, she was accorded a splendid funeral and
an imposing tomb in the Chapel Santa Gregoria with a tablet bearing the
"IMPERIA CORTISANA ROMANA QUAE
DIGNA TANTO NOMINE, RARAE INTER MORTALES
FORMAE SPECIMEN DEDIT."
It was, in short, an age so universally immoral as scarcely to be termed
immoral, since immorality may be defined as a departure from the morals
that obtain a given time and in a given place. So that whilst from our
own standpoint the Cinquecento, taken collectively, is an age of grossest
licence and immorality, from the standpoint of the Cinquecento itself few
of its individuals might with justice be branded immoral.
For the rest, it was an epoch of reaction from the Age of Chivalry: an
epoch of unbounded luxury, of the cult and worship of the beautiful
externally; an epoch that set no store by any inward virtue, by truth or
honour; an epoch that laid it down as a maxim that no inconvenient
engagement should be kept if opportunity offered to evade it.
The history of the Cinquecento is a history developed in broken pledges,
trusts dishonoured and basest treacheries, as you shall come to conclude
before you have read far in the story that is here to be set down.
In a profligate age what can you look for but profligates? Is it just,
is it reasonable, or is it even honest to take a man or a family from
such an environment, for judgement by the canons of a later epoch? Yet
is it not the method that has been most frequently adopted in dealing
with the vast subject of the Borgias?
To avoid the dangers that must wait upon that error, the history of that
House shall here be taken up with the elevation of Calixtus III to the
Papal Throne; and the reign of the four Popes immediately preceding
Roderigo Borgia--who reigned as Alexander VI--shall briefly be surveyed
that a standard may be set by which to judge the man and the family that
form the real subject of this work.
The history of this amazing Pope Alexander is yet to be written. No
attempt has been made to exhaust it here. Yet of necessity he bulks
large in these pages; for the history of his dazzling, meteoric son is so
closely interwoven with his own that it is impossible to present the one
without dealing at considerable length with the other.
The sources from which the history of the House of Borgia has been culled
are not to be examined in a preface. They are too numerous, and they
require too minute and individual a consideration that their precise
value and degree of credibility may be ascertained. Abundantly shall
such examination be made in the course of this history, and in a measure
as the need arises to cite evidence for one side or for the other shall
that evidence be sifted.
Never, perhaps, has anything more true been written of the Borgias and
their history than the matter contained in the following lines of Rawdon
Brown in his Ragguagli sulla Vita e sulle Opere di Marino Sanuto: "It
seems to me that history has made use of the House of Borgia as of a
canvas upon which to depict the turpitudes of the fifteenth and sixteenth
Materials for the work were very ready to the hand; and although they do
not signally differ from the materials out of which the histories of half
a dozen Popes of the same epoch might be compiled, they are far more
abundant in the case of the Borgia Pope, for the excellent reason that
the Borgia Pope detaches from the background of the Renaissance far more
than any of his compeers by virtue of his importance as a political
In this was reason to spare for his being libelled and lampooned even
beyond the usual extravagant wont. Slanders concerning him and his son
Cesare were readily circulated, and they will generally be found to
spring from those States which had most cause for jealousy and resentment
of the Borgia might--Venice, Florence, and Milan, amongst others.
No rancour is so bitter as political rancour--save, perhaps, religious
rancour, which we shall also trace; no warfare more unscrupulous or more
prone to use the insidious weapons of slander than political warfare. Of
this such striking instances abound in our own time that there can scarce
be the need to labour the point. And from the form taken by such
slanders as are circulated in our own sedate and moderate epoch may be
conceived what might be said by political opponents in a fierce age that
knew no pudency and no restraint. All this in its proper place shall be
more closely examined.
For many of the charges brought against the House of Borgia some
testimony exists; for many others--and these are the more lurid,
sensational, and appalling covering as they do rape and murder, adultery,
incest, and the sin of the Cities of the Plain--no single grain of real
evidence is forthcoming. Indeed, at this time of day evidence is no
longer called for where the sins of the Borgias are concerned. Oft-
reiterated assertion has usurped the place of evidence--for a lie
sufficiently repeated comes to be credited by its very utterer. And
meanwhile the calumny has sped from tongue to tongue, from pen to pen,
gathering matter as it goes. The world absorbs the stories; it devours
them greedily so they be sensational, and writers well aware of this have
been pandering to that morbid appetite for some centuries now with this
subject of the Borgias. A salted, piquant tale of vice, a ghastly story
of moral turpitude and physical corruption, a hair-raising narrative of
horrors and abominations--these are the stock-in-trade of the sensation-
monger. With the authenticity of the matters he retails such a one has
no concern. "Se non é vero é ben trovato," is his motto, and in his
heart the sensation-monger--of whatsoever age--rather hopes the thing be
true. He will certainly make his public so believe it; for to discredit
it would be to lose nine-tenths of its sensational value. So he trims
and adjusts his wares, adds a touch or two of colour and what else he
accounts necessary to heighten their air of authenticity, to dissemble
any peeping spuriousness.
A form of hypnosis accompanies your study of the subject--a suggestion
that what is so positively and repeatedly stated must of necessity be
true, must of necessity have been proved by irrefutable evidence at some
time or other. So much you take for granted--for matters which began
their existence perhaps as tentative hypotheses have imperceptibly
developed into established facts.
Occasionally it happens that we find some such sentence as the following
summing up this deed or that one in the Borgia histories: "A deal of
mystery remains to be cleared up, but the Verdict of History assigns the
guilt to Cesare Borgia."
Behold how easy it is to dispense with evidence. So that your tale be
well-salted and well-spiced, a fico for evidence! If it hangs not
overwell together in places, if there be contradictions, lacunae, or
openings for doubt, fling the Verdict of History into the gap, and so
strike any questioner into silence.
So far have matters gone in this connection that who undertakes to set
down to-day the history of Cesare Borgia, with intent to do just and
honest work, must find it impossible to tell a plain and straightforward
tale--to present him not as a villain of melodrama, not a monster,
ludicrous, grotesque, impossible, but as human being, a cold, relentless
egotist, it is true, using men for his own ends, terrible and even
treacherous in his reprisals, swift as a panther and as cruel where his
anger was aroused, yet with certain elements of greatness: a splendid
soldier, an unrivalled administrator, a man pre-eminently just, if
merciless in that same justice.
To present Cesare Borgia thus in a plain straightforward tale at this
time of day, would be to provoke the scorn and derision of those who have
made his acquaintance in the pages of that eminent German scholar,
Ferdinand Gregorovius, and of some other writers not quite so eminent yet
eminent enough to serve serious consideration. Hence has it been
necessary to examine at close quarters the findings of these great ones,
and to present certain criticisms of those same findings. The author is
overwhelmingly conscious of the invidious quality of that task; but he is
no less conscious of its inevitability if this tale is to be told at all.
Whilst the actual sources of historical evidence shall be examined in the
course of this narrative, it may be well to examine at this stage the
sources of the popular conceptions of the Borgias, since there will be no
occasion later to allude to them.
Without entering here into a dissertation upon the historical romance, it
may be said that in proper hands it has been and should continue to be
one of the most valued and valuable expressions of the literary art. To
render and maintain it so, however, it is necessary that certain well-
defined limits should be set upon the licence which its writers are to
enjoy; it is necessary that the work should be honest work; that
preparation for it should be made by a sound, painstaking study of the
period to be represented, to the end that a true impression may first be
formed and then conveyed. Thus, considering how much more far-reaching
is the novel than any other form of literature, the good results that
must wait upon such endeavours are beyond question. The neglect of them
--the distortion of character to suit the romancer's ends, the like
distortion of historical facts, the gross anachronisms arising out of a
lack of study, have done much to bring the historical romance into
disrepute. Many writers frankly make no pretence--leastways none that
can be discerned--of aiming at historical precision; others, however,
invest their work with a spurious scholarliness, go the length of citing
authorities to support the point of view which they have taken, and which
they lay before you as the fruit of strenuous lucubrations.
These are the dangerous ones, and of this type is Victor Hugo's famous
tragedy Lucrezia Borgia, a work to which perhaps more than to any other
(not excepting Les Borgias in Crimes Célèbres of Alexandre Dumas) is due
the popular conception that prevails to-day of Cesare Borgia's sister.
It is questionable whether anything has ever flowed from a distinguished
pen in which so many licences have been taken with the history of
individuals and of an epoch; in which there is so rich a crop of crude,
transpontine absurdities and flagrant, impossible anachronisms. Victor
Hugo was a writer of rare gifts, a fertile romancer and a great poet, and
it may be unjust to censure him for having taken the fullest advantages
of the licences conceded to both. But it would be difficult to censure
him too harshly for having--in his Lucrezia Borgia--struck a pose of
scholarliness, for having pretended and maintained that his work was
honest work founded upon the study of historical evidences. With that
piece of charlatanism he deceived the great mass of the unlettered of
France and of all Europe into believing that in his tragedy he presented
the true Lucrezia Borgia.
"If you do not believe me," he declared, "read Tommaso Tommasi, read the
Diary of Burchard."
Read, then, that Diary, extending over a period of twenty-three years,
from 1483 to 1506, of the Master of Ceremonies of the Vatican (which
largely contributes the groundwork of the present history), and the one
conclusion to which you will be forced is that Victor Hugo himself had
never read it, else he would have hesitated to bid you refer to a work
which does not support a single line that he has written.
As for Tommaso Tommasi--oh, the danger of a little learning! Into what
quagmires does it not lead those who flaunt it to impress you!
Tommasi's place among historians is on precisely the same plane as
Alexandre Dumas's. His Vita di Cesare Borgia is on the same historical
level as Les Borgias, much of which it supplied. Like Crimes Célèbres,
Tommasi's book is invested with a certain air of being a narrative of
sober fact; but like Crimes Célèbres, it is none the less a work of
This Tommaso Tommasi, whose real name was Gregorio Leti--and it is under
this that such works of his as are reprinted are published nowadays--was
a most prolific author of the seventeenth century, who, having turned
Calvinist, vented in his writings a mordacious hatred of the Papacy and
of the religion from which he had seceded. His Life of Cesare Borgia was
published in 1670. It enjoyed a considerable vogue, was translated into
French, and has been the chief source from which many writers of fiction
and some writers of "fact" have drawn for subsequent work to carry
forward the ceaseless defamation of the Borgias.
History should be as inexorable as Divine Justice. Before we admit
facts, not only should we call for evidence and analyse it when it is
forthcoming, but the very sources of such evidence should be examined,
that, as far as possible, we may ascertain what degree of credit they
deserve. In the study of the history of the Borgias, we repeat, there
has been too much acceptance without question, too much taking for
granted of matters whose incredibility frequently touches and
occasionally oversteps the confines of the impossible.
One man knew Cesare Borgia better, perhaps, than did any other
contemporary, of the many who have left more or less valuable records;
for the mind of that man was the acutest of its age, one of the acutest
Italy and the world have ever known. That man was Niccolô Macchiavelli,
Secretary of State to the Signory of Florence. He owed no benefits to
Cesare; he was the ambassador of a power that was ever inimical to the
Borgias; so that it is not to be dreamt that his judgement suffered from
any bias in Cesare's favour. Yet he accounted Cesare Borgia--as we shall
see--the incarnation of an ideal conqueror and ruler; he took Cesare
Borgia as the model for his famous work The Prince, written as a grammar
of statecraft for the instruction in the art of government of that
weakling Giuliano de'Medici.
Macchiavelli pronounces upon Cesare Borgia the following verdict:
"If all the actions of the duke are taken into consideration, it will be
seen how great were the foundations he had laid to future power. Upon
these I do not think it superfluous to discourse, because I should not
know what better precept to lay before a new prince than the example of
his actions; and if success did not wait upon what dispositions he had
made, that was through no fault of his own, but the result of an
extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune."
In its proper place shall be considered what else Macchiavelli had to say
of Cesare Borgia and what to report of events that he witnessed connected
with Cesare Borgia's career.
Meanwhile, the above summary of Macchiavelli's judgement is put forward
as a justification for the writing of this book, which has for scope to
present to you the Cesare Borgia who served as the model for The Prince.
Before doing so, however, there is the rise of the House of Borgia to be
traced, and in the first two of the four books into which this history
will be divided it is Alexander VI, rather than his son, who will hold
the centre of the stage.
If the author has a mercy to crave of his critics, it is that they will
not impute it to him that he has set out with the express aim of
"whitewashing"--as the term goes--the family of Borgia. To whitewash is
to overlay, to mask the original fabric under a superadded surface. Too
much superadding has there been here already. By your leave, all shall
be stripped away. The grime shall be removed and the foulness of
inference, of surmise, of deliberate and cold-blooded malice, with which
centuries of scribblers, idle, fantastic, sensational, or venal, have
coated the substance of known facts.
But the grime shall be preserved and analysed side by side with the
actual substance, that you may judge if out of zeal to remove the former
any of the latter shall have been included in the scraping.
The author expresses his indebtedness to the following works which,
amongst others, have been studied for the purposes of the present
Alvisi, Odoardo, Cesare Borgia, Duca di Romagna. Imola, 1878.
Auton, Jean d', Chroniques de Louis XII (Soc. de l'Hist. de France).
Baldi, Bernardino, Della Vita e Fatti di Guidobaldo. Milano, 1821.
Barthélemy, Charles, Erreurs et Mensonges Historiques. Paris, 1873.
Bernardi, Andrea, Cronache Forlivese, 1476-1517. Bologna, 1897.
Bonnaffé, Edmond, Inventaire de la Duchesse de Valentinois, Paris,
Bonoli, Paolo, Istorie della Città di Forli. Forli, 1661.
Bourdeilles, Pierre, Vie des Hommes Illustres. Leyde, 1666.
Brown, Rawdon, Ragguagli Sulla Vita e sulle Opere di Marino Sanuto.
Buonaccorsi, Biagio, Diario. Firenze, 1568.
Burchard, Joannes, Diarium, sive Rerum Urbanarum Commentarii.
(Edited by L. Thuasne.) Paris, 1885.
Burckhardt, Jacob, Der Cultur der Renaissance in Italien. Basel, 1860.
Castiglione, Baldassare, Il Cortigiano. Firenze, 1885.
Chapelles, Grillon des, Esquisses Biographiques. Paris, 1862.
Cerri, Domenico, Borgia. Tonino, 1857.
Clementini, Cesare, Raccolto Istorico delle Fondatione di Rimino.
Corio, Bernardino, Storia di Milano. Milano, 1885.
Corvo, Baron, Chronicles of the House of Borgia. London, 1901.
Espinois, Henri de l', Le Pape Alexandre VI (in the Revue des Questions
Historiques, Vol. XXIX). Paris, 1881.
Giovio, Paolo, La Vita di Dicenove Uomini Illustri. Venetia, 1561.
Giovio, Paolo, Delle Istorie del Suo Tempo. Venetia, 1608.
Giustiniani, Antonio, Dispacci, 1502-1505. (Edited by Pasquale Villari.)
Granata, F., Storia Civile di Capua. 1752.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand, Lacrezia Borgia (Italian translation). Firenze,
Guicciardini, Francesco, Istoria d'Italia. Milan, 1803.
Guingené, P. L., Histoire Littéraire d'Italie. Milano, 1820.
Infessura, Stefano, Diarum Rerum Romanum. (Edited by 0. Tommassini.)
Leonetti, A., Papa Alessandro VI. Bologna, 1880.
Leti, Gregorio ("Tommaso Tommasi"), Vita di Cesare Borgia, Milano, 1851.
Lucaire, Achille, Alain le Grand, Sire d'Albret. Paris, 1877.
Macchiavelli, Niccolô, Il Principe. Torino, 1853.
Macchiavelli, Niccolô, Le Istorie Fiorentine. Firenze, 1848.
Macchiavelli, Niccolô, Opere Minori. Firenze, 1852.
Matarazzo, Francesco, Cronaca della Città di Perugia, 1492-1503.
(Edited by F. Bonaini and F. Polidori.) In Archivio Storico
Italiano, Firenze, 1851.
Panvinio, Onofrio, Le Vite dei Pontefici. Venezia, 1730.
Pascale, Aq., Racconto del Sacco di Capova. Napoli, 1632.
Righi, B., Annali di Faenza. Faenza, 1841.
Sanazzaro, Opere. Padua, 1723.
Sanuto Marino, Diarii, Vols. I to V. (Edited by F. Stefani.) Venice,
Tartt, W. M., Pandolfo Collenuccio, Memoirs connected with his life.
"Tommaso Tommasi" (Gregorio Leti), Vita di Cesare Borgia. 1789.
Varchi, Benedetto, Storia Fiorentina. Florence, 1858.
Visari, Gustavo, Vita degli Artefici.
Villari, Pasquale, La Storia di Girolamo Savonarola, etc. Florence,
Villari, Pasquale, Niccolò Machiavelli e I suoi Tempi. Milano, 1895.
Yriarte, Charles, La Vie de César Borgia. Paris, 1889.
Yriarte, Charles, Autour des Borgia. Paris, 1891.
Zurita, Geronimo, Historia del Rey Don Hernando el Catolico (in Anales).
THE HOUSE OF THE BULL
I. THE RISE OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA
II. THE REIGNS OF SIXTUS IV AND INNOCENT VIII
III. ALEXANDER VI
IV. BORGIA ALLIANCES
THE BULL PASCANT
I. THE FRENCH INVASION
II. THE POPE AND THE SUPERNATURAL
III. THE ROMAN BARONS
IV. THE MURDER OF THE DUKE OF GANDIA
V. THE RENUNCIATION OF THE PURPLE
THE BULL RAMPANT
I. THE DUCHESS OF VALENTINOIS
II. THE KNELL OF THE TYRANTS
III. IMOLA AND FORLI
IV. GONFALONIER OF THE CHURCH
V. THE MURDER OF ALFONSO OF ARAGON
VI. RIMINI AND PESARO
VII. THE SIEGE OF FAENZA
VIII. ASTORRE MANFREDI
IX. CASTEL BOLOGNESE AND PIOMBINO
X. THE END OF THE HOUSE OF ARAGON
XI. THE LETTER TO SILVIO SAVELLI
XII. LUCREZIA'S THIRD MARRIAGE
XIII. URBINO AND CAMERINO
XIV. THE REVOLT OF THE CONDOTTIERI
XV. MACCHIAVELLI'S LEGATION
XVI. RAMIRO DE LORQUA
XVII. "THE BEAUTIFUL STRATAGEM"
VIII. THE ZENITH
THE BULL CADENT
I. THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER VI
II. PIUS III
III. JULIUS II
THE HOUSE OF THE BULL
"Borgia stirps: BOS : atque Ceres transcendit Olympo, Cantabat nomen
saecula cuncta suum."
THE RISE OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA
Although the House of Borgia, which gave to the Church of Rome two popes
and at least one saint,(1) is to be traced back to the eleventh century,
claiming as it does to have its source in the Kings of Aragon, we shall
take up its history for our purposes with the birth at the city of
Xativa, in the kingdom of Valencia, on December 30, 1378, of Alonso de
Borja, the son of Don Juan Domingo de Borja and his wife Doña Francisca.
1 St. Francisco Borgia, S.J.--great-grandson of Pope Alexander VI, born
at Gandia, in Spain, in 1510.
To this Don Alonso de Borja is due the rise of his family to its
stupendous eminence. An able, upright, vigorous-minded man, he became a
Professor and Doctor of Jurisprudence at the University of Lerida, and
afterwards served Alfonso I of Aragon, King of Naples and the Two
Sicilies, in the capacity of secretary. This office he filled with the
distinction that was to be expected from one so peculiarly fitted for it
by the character of the studies he had pursued.
He was made Bishop of Valencia, created Cardinal in 1444, and finally--in
1455--ascended the throne of St. Peter as Calixtus III, an old man,
enfeebled in body, but with his extraordinary vigour of mind all
Calixtus proved himself as much a nepotist as many another Pope before
and since. This needs not to be dilated upon here; suffice it that in
February of 1456 he gave the scarlet hat of Cardinal-Deacon of San
Niccoló, in Carcere Tulliano, to his nephew Don Roderigo de Lanzol y
Born in 1431 at Xativa, the son of Juana de Borja (sister of Calixtus)
and her husband Don Jofrè de Lanzol, Roderigo was in his twenty-fifth
year at the time of his being raised to the purple, and in the following
year he was further created Vice-Chancellor of Holy Church with an annual
stipend of eight thousand florins. Like his uncle he had studied
jurisprudence--at the University of Bologna--and mentally and physically
he was extraordinarily endowed.
From the pen-portraits left of him by Gasparino of Verona, and Girolamo
Porzio, we know him for a tall, handsome man with black eyes and full
lips, elegant, courtly, joyous, and choicely eloquent, of such health and
vigour and endurance that he was insensible to any fatigue. Giasone
Maino of Milan refers to his "elegant appearance, serene brow, royal
glance, a countenance that at once expresses generosity and majesty, and
the genial and heroic air with which his whole personality is invested."
To a similar description of him Gasparino adds that "all women upon whom
he so much as casts his eyes he moves to love him; attracting them as the
lodestone attracts iron;" which is, it must be admitted, a most
undesirable reputation in a churchman.
A modern historian(1) who uses little restraint when writing of Roderigo
Borgia says of him that "he was a man of neither much energy nor
determined will," and further that "the firmness and energy wanting to
his character were, however, often replaced by the constancy of his evil
passions, by which he was almost blinded." How the constancy of evil
passions can replace firmness and energy as factors of worldly success is
not readily discernible, particularly if their possessor is blinded by
them. The historical worth of the stricture may safely be left to be
measured by its logical value. For the rest, to say that Roderigo Borgia
was wanting in energy and in will is to say something to which his whole
career gives the loud and derisive lie, as will--to some extent at least
--be seen in the course of this work.
1 Pasquale Villari in his Machiavelli i suoi Tempi
His honours as Cardinal-Deacon and Vice-Chancellor of the Holy See he
owed to his uncle; but that he maintained and constantly improved his
position--and he a foreigner, be it remembered--under the reigns of the
four succeeding Popes--Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VIII--
until finally, six-and-twenty years after the death of Calixtus III, he
ascended, himself, the Papal Throne, can be due only to the unconquerable
energy and stupendous talents which have placed him where he stands in
history--one of the greatest forces, for good or ill, that ever occupied
St. Peter's Chair.
Say of him that he was ambitious, worldly, greedy of power, and a prey to
carnal lusts. All these he was. But for very sanity's sake do not let
it be said that he was wanting either in energy or in will, for he was
energy and will incarnate.
Consider that with Calixtus III's assumption of the Tiara Rome became the
Spaniard's happy hunting-ground, and that into the Eternal City streamed
in their hundreds the Catalan adventurers--priests, clerks, captains of
fortune, and others--who came to seek advancement at the hands of a
Catalan Pope. This Spanish invasion Rome resented. She grew restive
Roderigo's elder brother, Don Pedro Luis de Lanzol y Borja, was made
Gonfalonier of the Church, Castellan of all pontifical fortresses and
Governor of the Patrimony of St. Peter, with the title of Duke of Spoleto
and, later, Prefect of Rome, to the displacement of an Orsini from that
office. Calixtus invested this nephew with all temporal power that it
was in the Church's privilege to bestow, to the end that he might use it
as a basis to overset the petty tyrannies of Romagna, and to establish a
feudal claim on the Kingdom of Naples.
Here already we see more than a hint of that Borgia ambition which was to
become a byword, and the first attempt of this family to found a dynasty
for itself and a State that should endure beyond the transient tenure of
the Pontificate, an aim that was later to be carried into actual--if
ephemeral--fulfilment by Cesare Borgia.
The Italians watched this growth of Spanish power with jealous, angry
eyes. The mighty House of Orsini, angered by the supplanting of one of
its members in the Prefecture of Rome, kept its resentment warm, and
waited. When in August of 1458 Calixtus III lay dying, the Orsini seized
the chance: they incited the city to ready insurgence, and with fire and
sword they drove the Spaniards out.
Don Pedro Luis made haste to depart, contrived to avoid the Orsini, who
had made him their special quarry, and getting a boat slipped down the
Tiber to Civita Vecchia, where he died suddenly some six weeks later,
thereby considerably increasing the wealth of Roderigo, his brother and
Roderigo's cousin, Don Luis Juan, Cardinal-Presbyter of Santi Quattro
Coronati, another member of the family who owed his advancement to his
uncle Calixtus, thought it also expedient to withdraw from that zone of
danger to men of his nationality and name.
Roderigo de Lanzol y Borja alone remained--leastways, the only prominent
member of his house--boldly to face the enmity of the majority of the
Sacred College, which had looked with grim disfavour upon his uncle's
nepotism. Unintimidated, he entered the Conclave for the election of a
successor to Calixtus, and there the chance which so often prefers to
bestow its favours upon him who knows how to profit by them, gave him the
opportunity to establish himself as firmly as ever at the Vatican, and
further to advance his interests.
It fell out that when the scrutiny was taken, two cardinals stood well in
votes--the brilliant, cultured Enea Silvio Bartolomeo de' Piccolomini,
Cardinal of Siena, and the French Cardinal d'Estouteville--though neither
had attained the minimum majority demanded. Of these two, the lead in
number of votes lay with the Cardinal of Siena, and his election
therefore might be completed by Accession--that is, by the voices of such
cardinals as had not originally voted for him--until the minimum
majority, which must exceed two-thirds, should be made up.
The Cardinal Vice-Chancellor Roderigo de Lanzol y Borja led this
accession, with the result that the Cardinal of Siena became Pontiff--as
Pius II--and was naturally enough disposed to advance the interests of
the man who had been instrumental in helping him to that eminence. Thus,
his position at the Vatican, in the very face of all hostility, became
stronger and more prominent than ever.
A letter written two years later from the Baths at Petriolo by Pius II to
Roderigo when the latter was in Siena--whither he had been sent by his
Holiness to superintend the building of the Cathedral and the Episcopal
and Piccolomini palaces--is frequently cited by way of establishing the
young prelate's dissolute ways. It is a letter at once stern and
affectionate, and it certainly leaves no doubt as to what manner of man
was the Cardinal Vice-Chancellor in his private life, and to what manner
of unecciesiastical pursuits he inclined. It is difficult to discover in
it any grounds upon which an apologist may build.
"When four days ago, in the gardens of Giovanni de Bichis, were assembled
several women of Siena addicted to worldly vanity, your worthiness, as we
have learnt, little remembering the office which you fill, was
entertained by them from the seventeenth to the twenty-second hour. For
companion you had one of your colleagues, one whom his years if not the
honour of the Holy See should have reminded of his duty. From what we
have heard, dancing was unrestrainedly indulged, and not one of love's
attractions was absent, whilst your behaviour was no different from that
which might have been looked for in any worldly youth. Touching what
happened there, modesty imposes silence. Not only the circumstance
itself, but the very name of it is unworthy in one of your rank. The
husbands, parents, brothers, and relations of these young women were
excluded, in order that your amusements should be the more unbridled.
You with a few servants undertook to direct and lead those dances. It is
said that nothing is now talked of in Siena but your frivolity. Certain
it is that here at the baths, where the concourse of ecclesiastics and
laity is great, you are the topic of the day. Our displeasure is
unutterable, since all this reflects dishonourably upon the sacerdotal
estate and office. It will be said of us that we are enriched and
promoted not to the end that we may lead blameless lives, but that we may
procure the means to indulge our pleasures. Hence the contempt of us
entertained by temporal princes and powers and the daily sarcasms of the
laity. Hence also the reproof of our own mode of life when we attempt to
reprove others. The very Vicar of Christ is involved in this contempt,
since he appears to countenance such things. You, beloved son, have
charge of the Bishopric of Valencia, the first of Spain; you are also
Vice-Chancellor of the Church; and what renders your conduct still more
blameworthy is that you are among the cardinals, with the Pope, one of
the counsellors of the Holy See. We submit it to your own judgement
whether it becomes your dignity to court young women, to send fruit and
wine to her you love, and to have no thought for anything but pleasure.
We are censured on your account; the blessed memory of your uncle
Calixtus is vituperated, since in the judgement of many he was wrong to
have conferred so many honours upon you. If you seek excuses in your
youth, you are no longer so young that you cannot understand what duties
are imposed upon you by your dignity. A cardinal should be
irreproachable, a model of moral conduct to all. And what just cause
have we for resentment when temporal princes bestow upon us titles that
are little honourable, dispute with us our possessions, and attempt to
bend us to their will? In truth it is we who inflict these wounds upon
ourselves, and it is we who occasion ourselves these troubles,
undermining more and more each day by our deeds the authority of the
Church. Our guerdon is shame in this world and condign punishment in the
next. May your prudence therefore set a restraint upon these vanities
and keep you mindful of your dignity, and prevent that you be known for a
gallant among married and unmarried women. But should similar facts
recur, we shall be compelled to signify that they have happened against
our will and to our sorrow, and our censure must be attended by your
shame. We have always loved you, and we have held you worthy of our
favour as a man of upright and honest nature. Act therefore in such a
manner that we may maintain such an opinion of you, and nothing can
better conduce to this than that you should lead a well-ordered life.
Your age, which is such as still to promise improvement, admits that we
should admonish you paternally."
"PETRIOLO, June 11, 1460."
Such a letter is calculated to shock us in our modern notions of a
churchman. To us this conduct on the part of a prelate is scandalous
beyond words; that it was scandalous even then is obvious from the
Pontiff's letter; but that it was scandalous in an infinitely lesser
degree is no less obvious from the very fact that the Pontiff wrote that
letter (and in such terms) instead of incontinently unfrocking the
In considering Roderigo's conduct, you are to consider--as has been urged
already--the age in which he lived. You are to remember that it was an
age in which the passions and the emotions wore no such masks as they
wear to-day, but went naked and knew no shame of their nudity; an age in
which personal modesty was as little studied as hypocrisy, and in which
men, wore their vices as openly as their virtues.
No amount of simple statement can convey an adequate notion of the
corrupt state of the clergy at the time. To form any just appreciation
of this, it is necessary to take a peep at some of the documents that
have survived--such a document, for instance, as that Bull of this Pope
Pius II which forbade priests from plying the trades of keeping taverns,
gaming-houses, and brothels.
Ponder also that under his successor, Sixtus IV, the tax levied upon the
courtesans of Rome enriched the pontifical coffers to the extent of some
20,000 ducats yearly. Ponder further that when the vicar of the
libidinous Innocent VIII published in 1490 an edict against the universal
concubinage practised by the clergy, forbidding its continuation under
pain of excommunication, all that it earned him was the severe censure of
the Holy Father, who disagreed with the measure and who straightway
repealed and cancelled the edict.(1)
1 See Burchard's Diarium, Thuasne Edition, Vol. II. p.442 et seq.
All this being considered, and man being admittedly a creature of his
environment, can we still pretend to horror at this Roderigo and at the
fact that being the man he was--prelate though he might be--handsome,
brilliant, courted, in the full vigour of youth, and a voluptuary by
nature, he should have succumbed to the temptations by which he was
One factor only could have caused him to use more restraint--the good
example of his peers. That example he most certainly had not.
Virtue is a comparative estate, when all is said; and before we can find
that Roderigo was vile, that he deserves unqualified condemnation for his
conduct, we must ascertain that he was more or less exceptional in his
licence, that he was less scrupulous than his fellows. Do we find that?
To find the contrary we do not need to go beyond the matter which
provoked that letter from the Pontiff. For we see that he was not even
alone, as an ecclesiastic, in the adventure; that he had for associate on
that amorous frolic one Giacopo Ammanati, Cardinal-Presbyter of San
Crisogno, Roderigo's senior and an ordained priest, which--without
seeking to make undue capital out of the circumstance--we may mention
that Roderigo was not. He was a Cardinal-Deacon, be it remembered.(1)
We know that the very Pontiff who admonished these young prelates, though
now admittedly a man of saintly ways, had been a very pretty fellow
himself in his lusty young days in Siena; we know that Roderigo's uncle--
the Calixtus to whom Pius II refers in that letter as of "blessed
memory"--had at least one acknowledged son.(2) We know that Piero and
Girolamo Riario, though styled by Pope Sixtus IV his "nephews," were
generally recognized to be his sons.(3) And we know that the numerous
bastards of Innocent VIII--Roderigo's immediate precursor on the
Pontifical Throne--were openly acknowledged by their father. We know, in
short, that it was the universal custom of the clergy to forget its vows
of celibacy, and to circumvent them by dispensing with the outward form
and sacrament of marriage; and we have it on the word of Pius II himself,
that "if there are good reasons for enjoining the celibacy of the clergy,
there are better and stronger for enjoining them to marry."
1 He was not ordained priest until 1471, after the election of Sixtus
2 Don Francisco de Borja, born at Valencia in 1441.
3 Macchiavelli, Istorie Fiorentine.
What more is there to say? If we must be scandalized, let us be
scandalized by the times rather than by the man. Upon what reasonable
grounds can we demand that he should be different from his fellows; and
if we find him no different, what right or reason have we for picking him
out and rendering him the object of unparalleled obloquy?
If we are to deal justly with Roderigo Borgia, we must admit that, in so
far as his concessions to his lusts are concerned, he was a typical
churchman of his day; neither more nor less--as will presently grow
It may be objected by some that had such been the case the Pope would not
have written him such a letter as is here cited. But consider a moment
the close relations existing between them. Roderigo was the nephew of
the late Pope; in a great measure Pius II owed his election, as we have
seen, to Roderigo's action in the Conclave. That his interest in him
apart from that was paternal and affectionate is shown in every line of
that letter. And consider further that Roderigo's companion is shown by
that letter to be equally guilty in so far as the acts themselves are to
be weighed, guilty in a greater degree when we remember his seniority and
his actual priesthood. Yet to Cardinal Ammanati the Pope wrote no such
admonition. Is not that sufficient proof that his admonition of Roderigo
was dictated purely by his personal affection for him?
In this same year 1460 was born to Cardinal Roderigo a son--Don Pedro
Luis de Borja--by a spinster (mulier soluta) unnamed. This son was
publicly acknowledged and cared for by the cardinal.
Seven years later--in 1467--he became the father of a daughter--Girolama
de Borja--by a spinster, whose name again does not transpire. Like Pedro
Luis she too was openly acknowledged by Cardinal Roderigo. It was widely
believed that this child's mother was Madonna Giovanna de' Catanei, who
soon became quite openly the cardinal's mistress, and was maintained by
him in such state as might have become a maîtresse en titre. But, as we
shall see later, the fact of that maternity of Girolama is doubtful in
the extreme. It was never established, and it is difficult to understand
why not if it were the fact.
Meanwhile Paul II--Pietro Barbo, Cardinal of Venice--had succeeded Pius
II in 1464, and in 1471 the latter was in his turn succeeded by the
formidable Sixtus IV--Cardinal Francesco Maria della Rovere--a Franciscan
of the lowest origin, who by his energy and talents had become general of
his order and had afterwards been raised to the dignity of the purple.
It was Cardinal Roderigo de Lanzol y Borja who, in his official capacity
of Archdeacon of Holy Church, performed the ceremony of coronation and
placed the triple crown on the head of Pope Sixtus. It is probable that
this was his last official act as Archdeacon, for in that same year
1471, at the age of forty, he was ordained priest and consecrated Bishop
THE REIGNS OF SIXTUS IV AND INNOCENT VIII
The rule of Sixtus was as vigorous as it was scandalous. To say--as has
been said--that with his succession to St. Peter's Chair came for the
Church a still sadder time than that which had preceded it, is not
altogether true. Politically, at least, Sixtus did much to strengthen
the position of the Holy See and of the Pontificate. He was not long in
giving the Roman factions a taste of his stern quality. If he employed
unscrupulous means, he employed them against unscrupulous men--on the
sound principle of similia similibus curantur--and to some extent they
were justified by the ends in view.
He found the temporal throne of the Pontiffs tottering when he ascended
it. Stefano Porcaro and his distinguished following already in 1453 had
attempted the overthrow of the pontifical authority, inspired, no doubt,
by the attacks that had been levelled against it by the erudite and
daring Lorenzo Valla.
This Valla was the distinguished translator of Homer, Herodotus, and
Thucydides, who more than any one of his epoch advanced the movement of
Greek and Latin learning, which, whilst it had the effect of arresting
the development of Italian literature, enriched Europe by opening up to
it the sources of ancient erudition, of philosophy, poetry, and literary
taste. Towards the year 1435 he drifted to the court of Alfonso of
Aragon, whose secretary he ultimately became. Some years later he
attacked the Temporal Power and urged the secularization of the States of
the Church. "Ut Papa," he wrote, "tantum Vicarius Christi sit, et non
etiam Coesari." In his De falso credita et ementita Constantini
Donatione, he showed that the decretals of the Donation of Constantine,
upon which rests the Pope's claim to the Pontifical States, was an
impudent forgery, that Constantine had never had the power to give, nor
had given, Rome to the Popes, and that they had no right to govern there.
He backed up this terrible indictment by a round attack upon the clergy,
its general corruption and its practices of simony; and as a result he
fell into the hands of the Inquisition. There it might have gone very
ill with him but that King Alfonso rescued him from the clutches of that
dread priestly tribunal.
Meanwhile, he had fired his petard. If a pretext had been wanting to
warrant the taking up of arms against the Papacy, that pretext Valla had
afforded. Never was the temporal power of the Church in such danger, and
ultimately it must inevitably have succumbed but for the coming of so
strong and unscrupulous a man as Sixtus IV to stamp out the patrician
factions that were heading the hostile movement.
His election, it is generally admitted, was simoniacal; and by simony he
raised the funds necessary for his campaign to reestablish and support
the papal authority. This simony of his, says Dr. Jacob Burckhardt,
"grew to unheard-of proportions, and extended from the appointment of
cardinals down to the sale of the smallest benefice."
Had he employed these means of raising funds for none but the purpose of
putting down the assailants of the Pontificate, a measure of
justification (political if not ecclesiastical) might be argued in his
favour. Unfortunately, having discovered these ready sources of revenue,
he continued to exploit them for purposes far less easy to condone.
As a nepotist Sixtus was almost unsurpassed in the history of the Papacy.
Four of his nephews and their aggrandizement were the particular objects
of his attentions, and two of these--as we have already said--Piero and
Girolamo Riario, were universally recognized to be his sons.
Piero, who was a simple friar of twenty-six years of age at the time that
his father became Pope, was given the Archbishopric of Florence, made
Patriarch of Constantinople, and created Cardinal to the title of San
Sisto, with a revenue of 60,000 crowns.
We have it on the word of Cardinal Ammanati(1)--the same gentleman who,
with Roderigo de Lanzol y Borja made so scandalously merry in de Bichis'
garden at Siena--that Cardinal Riario's luxury "exceeded all that had
been displayed by our forefathers or that can even be imagined by our
descendants"; and Macchiavelli tells us(2) that "although of very low
origin and mean rearing, no sooner had he obtained the scarlet hat than
he displayed a pride and ambition so vast that the Pontificate seemed too
small for him, and he gave a feast in Rome which would have appeared
extraordinary even for a king, the expense exceeding 20,000 florins."
1 In a letter to Francesco Gonzaga.
2 Istorie Florentine.
Knowing so much, it is not difficult to understand that in one year or
less he should have dissipated 200,000 florins, and found himself in debt
to the extent of a further 60,000.
In 1473, Sixtus being at the time all but at war with Florence, this
Cardinal Riario visited Venice and Milan. In the latter State he was
planning with Duke Galeazzo Maria that the latter should become King of
Lombardy, and then assist him with money and troops to master Rome and
ascend the Papal Throne--which, it appears, Sixtus was quite willing to
yield to him--thus putting the Papacy on a hereditary basis like any
other secular State.
It is as well, perhaps, that he should have died on his return to Rome in
January of 1474--worn out by his excesses and debaucheries, say some; of
poison administered by the Venetians, say others--leaving a mass of
debts, contracted in his transactions with the World, the Flesh, and the
Devil, to be cleared up by the Vicar of Christ.
His brother Girolamo, meanwhile, had married Caterina Sforza, a natural
daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria. She brought him as her dowry the City
of Imola, and in addition to this he received from his Holiness the City
of Forli, to which end the Ordelaffi were dispossessed of it. Here again
we have a papal attempt to found a family dynasty, and an attempt that
might have been carried further under circumstances more propitious and
had not Death come to check their schemes.
The only one of the four "nephews" of Sixtus--and to this one was imputed
no nearer kinship--who was destined to make any lasting mark in history
was Giuliano della Rovere. He was raised by his uncle to the purple with
the title of San Pietro in Vincoli, and thirty-two years later he was to
become Pope (as Julius II). Of him we shall hear much in the course of
Under the pontificate of Sixtus IV the position and influence of Cardinal
Roderigo were greatly increased, for once again the Spanish Cardinal had
made the most of his opportunities. As at the election of Pius II, so at
the election of Sixtus IV it was Cardinal Roderigo who led the act of
accession which gave the new Pope his tiara, and for this act Roderigo--
in common with the Cardinals Orsini and Gonzaga who acceded with him--was
richly rewarded and advanced, receiving as his immediate guerdon the
wealthy Abbey of Subiaco.
At about this time, 1470, must have begun the relations between Cardinal
Roderigo and Giovanna Catanei, or Vannozza Catanei, as she is styled in
contemporary documents--Vannozza being a corruption or abbreviation of
Giovannozza, an affectionate form of Giovanna.
Who she was, or whence she came, are facts that have never been
ascertained. She is generally assumed to have been a Roman; but there
are no obvious grounds for the assumption, her name, for instance, being
common to many parts of Italy. And just as we have no sources of
information upon her origin, neither have we any elements from which to
paint her portrait. Gregorovius rests the probability that she was
beautiful upon the known characteristics and fastidious tastes of the
cardinal. Since it is unthinkable that such a man would have been
captivated by an ugly woman or would have been held by a stupid one, it
is fairly reasonable to conclude that she was beautiful and ready-witted.
All that we do know of her up to the time of her liaison with Cardinal
Roderigo is that she was born on July 13, 1442, this fact being
ascertainable by a simple calculation from the elements afforded by the
inscription on her tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo:
Vix ann. LXXVI m. IV d. XII Objit anno MDXVIII XXVI, Nov.
And again, just as we know nothing of her family origin, neither have we
any evidence of what her circumstances were when she caught the magnetic
eye of Cardinal Roderigo de Lanzol y Borja--or Borgia as by now his name,
which had undergone italianization, was more generally spelled.
Infessura states in his diaries that Roderigo desiring later--as Pope
Alexander VI--to create cardinal his son by her, Cesare Borgia, he caused
false witness to be borne to the fact that Cesare was the legitimate son
of one Domenico d'Arignano, to whom he, the Pope, had in fact married
her. Guicciardini(1) makes the same statement, without, however,
mentioning name of this d'Arignano.
1 Istoria d'Italia.
Now, bastards were by canon law excluded from the purple, and it is
probably upon this circumstance that both Infessura and Guicciardini have
built the assumption that some such means as these had been adopted to
circumvent the law, and--as so often happens in chronicles concerning the
Borgias--the assumption is straightway stated as a fact. But there were
other ways of circumventing awkward commandments, and, unfortunately for
the accuracy of these statements of Infessura and Guicciardini, another
way was taken in this instance. As early as 1480, Pope Sixtus IV had
granted Cesare Borgia--in a Bull dated October 1(1)--dispensation from
proving the legitimacy of his birth. This entirely removed the necessity
for any such subsequent measures as those which are suggested by these
1 See the supplement to the Appendix of Thuasne's edition of
Moreover, had Cardinal Roderigo desired to fasten the paternity of Cesare
on another, there was ready to his hand Vannozza's actual husband,
Giorgio della Croce.(2) When exactly this man became her husband is not
to be ascertained. All that we know is that he was so in 1480, and that
she was living with him in that year in a house in Piazza Pizzo di Merlo
(now Piazza Sforza Cesarini) not far from the house on Banchi Vecchi
which Cardinal Roderigo, as Vice-Chancellor, had converted into a palace
for himself, and a palace so sumptuous as to excite the wonder of that
2 D'Arignano is as much a fiction as the rest of Infessura's story.
This Giorgio della Croce was a Milanese, under the protection of Cardinal
Roderigo, who had obtained for him a post at the Vatican as apostolic
secretary. According to some, he married him to Vannozza in order to
afford her an official husband and thus cloak his own relations with her.
It is an assumption which you will hesitate to accept. If we know our
Cardinal Roderigo at all, he was never the man to pursue his pleasures in
a hole-and-corner fashion, nor one to bethink him of a cloak for his
amusements. Had he but done so, scandalmongers would have had less to
fasten upon in their work of playing havoc with his reputation. What is
far more likely is that della Croce owed Cardinal Roderigo's protection
and the appointment as apostolic secretary to his own complacency in the
matter of his wife's relations with the splendid prelate. However we
look at it, the figure cut in this story by della Croce is not heroic.
Between the years 1474 and 1476, Vannozza bore Roderigo two sons, Cesare
Borgia (afterwards Cardinal of Valencia and Duke of Valentinois), the
central figure of our story, and Giovanni Borgia (afterwards Duke of
Lucrezia Borgia, we know from documentary evidence before us, was born on
April 19, 1479.
But there is a mystery about the precise respective ages of Vannozza's
two eldest sons, and we fear that at this time of day it has become
impossible to establish beyond reasonable doubt which was the firstborn;
and this in spite of the documents discovered by Gregorovius and his
assertion that they remove all doubt and enable him definitely to assert
that Giovanni was born in 1474 and Cesare in 1476.
Let us look at these documents. They are letters from ambassadors to
their masters; probably correct, and the more credible since they happen
to agree and corroborate one another; still, not so utterly and
absolutely reliable as to suffice to remove the doubts engendered by the
no less reliable documents whose evidence contradicts them.
The first letters quoted by Gregorovius are from the ambassador
Gianandrea Boccaccio to his master, the Duke of Ferrara, in 1493. In
these he mentions Cesare Borgia as being sixteen to seventeen years of
age at the time. But the very manner of writing--"sixteen to seventeen
years"--is a common way of vaguely suggesting age rather than positively
stating it. So we may pass that evidence over, as of secondary
Next is a letter from Gerardo Saraceni to the Duke of Ferrara, dated
October 26, 1501, and it is more valuable, claiming as it does to be the
relation of something which his Holiness told the writer. It is in the
post-scriptum that this ambassador says: "The Pope gave me to understand
that the said Duchess [Lucrezia Borgia] will complete twenty-two years of
age next April, and at that same time the Duke of Romagna will complete
his twenty-sixth year."(1)
1 "Facendomi intendere the epsa Duchessa é di etá di anni ventidui, li
quali finiranno a questo Aprile; in el qual tempo anche lo Illmo. Duca
di Romagna fornirá anni ventisei."
This certainly fixes the year of Cesare's birth as 1476; but we are to
remember that Saraceni is speaking of something that the Pope had
recently told him; exactly how recently does not transpire. An error
would easily be possible in so far as the age of Cesare is concerned. In
so far as the age of Lucrezia is concerned, an error is not only
possible, but has actually been committed by Saraceni. At least the age
given in his letter is wrong by one year, as we know by a legal document
drawn up in February of 1491--Lucrezia's contract of marriage with Don
Juan Cherubin de Centelles.(2)
2 A contract never executed.
According to this protocol in old Spanish, dated February 26, 1491,
Lucrezia completed her twelfth year on April 19, 1491,(3) which
definitely and positively gives us the date of her birth as April 19,
3 "Item mes attenent que dita Dona Lucretia a XVIIII de Abril prop.
vinent entrará in edat de dotze anys."
A quite extraordinary error is that made by Gregorovius when he says that
Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, extraordinary considering
that he made it apparently with this very protocol under his eyes, and
cites it, in fact (Document IV in the Appendix to his Lucrezia Borgia) as
To return, however, to Cesare and Giovanni, there is yet another evidence
quoted by Gregorovius in support of his contention that the latter was
the elder and born in 1474; but it is of the same nature and of no more,
nor less, value than those already mentioned.
Worthy of more consideration in view of their greater official and legal
character are the Ossuna documents, given in the Supplement of the
Appendix in Thuasne's edition of Burchard's Diary, namely:
(a) October 1, 1480.--A Bull from Sixtus IV, already mentioned,
dispensing Cesare from proving his legitimacy. In this he is referred to
as in his sixth year--"in sexto tuo aetatis anno."
This, assuming Boccaccio's letter to be correct in the matter of April
being the month of Cesare's birth, fixes the year of his birth as 1475.
(b) August 16, 1482.--A Bull of Sixtus IV, appointing Roderigo Borgia
administrator of Cesare's benefices. In this he is mentioned as being
seven years of age (i.e., presumably in his eighth year), which again
gives us his birth-year as 1475.
(c) September 12, 1484.--A Bull of Sixtus IV, appointing Cesare treasurer
of the Church of Carthage. In this he is mentioned as in his ninth year
--"in nono tuo aetatis anno." This is at variance with the other two,
and gives us 1476 as the year of his birth.
To these evidences, conflicting as they are, may be added Burchard's
mention in his diary under date of September 12, 1491, that Cesare was
then seventeen years of age. This would make him out to have been born
Clearly the matter cannot definitely be settled upon such evidence as we
have. All that we can positively assert is that he was born between the
years 1474 and 1476, and we cannot, we think, do better for the purposes
of this story than assume his birth-year to have been 1475.
We know that between those same years, or in one or the other of them,
was born Giovanni Borgia; but just as the same confusion prevails with
regard to his exact age, so is it impossible to determine with any
finality whether he was Cesare's junior or senior.
The one document that appears to us to be the most important in this
connection is that of the inscription on their mother's tomb. This runs:
FAUSTIAE CATHANAE, CESARE VALENTINAE, JOHANNAE CANDIAE,
JUFFREDO SCYLATII, ET LUCRETIA FERRARIAE DUCIB. FILIIS NOBILI
PROBITATE INSIGNI, RELIGIONE EXIMIA, ETC., ETC.
If Giovanni was, as is claimed, the eldest of her children, why does his
name come second? If Cesare was her second son, why does his name take
the first place on that inscription?
It has been urged that if Cesare was the elder of these two, he, and not
Giovanni, would have succeeded to the Duchy of Gandia on the death of
Pedro Luis--Cardinal Roderigo's eldest son, by an unknown mother. But
that does not follow inevitably; for it is to be remembered that Cesare
was already destined for an ecclesiastical career, and it may well be
that his father was reluctant to change his plans.
Meanwhile the turbulent reign of Sixtus IV went on, until his ambition to
increase his dominions had the result of plunging the whole of Italy into
Lorenzo de'Medici had thwarted the Pope's purposes in Romagna, coming to
the assistance of Città di Castello when this was attacked in the Pope's
interest by the warlike Giuliano della Rovere. To avenge himself for
this, and to remove a formidable obstacle to his family's advancement,
the Pope inspired the Pazzi conspiracy against the lives of the famous
masters of Florence. The conspiracy failed; for although Giuliano
de'Medici fell stabbed to the heart--before Christ's altar, and at the
very moment of the elevation of the Host--Lorenzo escaped with slight
hurt, and, by the very risk to which he had been exposed, rallied the
Florentines to him more closely than ever.
Open war was the only bolt remaining in the papal quiver, and open war he
declared, preluding it by a Bull of Excommunication against the
Florentines. Naples took sides with the Pope. Venice and Milan came to
the support of Florence, whereupon Milan's attentions were diverted to
her own affairs, Genoa being cunningly set in revolt against her.
In 1480 a peace was patched up; but it was short-lived. A few months
later war flared out again from the Holy See, against Florence this time,
and on the pretext of its having joined the Venetians against the Pope in
the late war. A complication now arose, created by the Venetians, who
seized the opportunity to forward their own ambitions and increase their
territories on the mainland, and upon a pretext of the pettiest
themselves declared war upon Ferrara. Genoa and some minor tyrannies
were drawn into the quarrel on the one side, whilst on the other
Florence, Naples, Mantua, Milan, and Bologna stood by Ferrara. Whilst
the papal forces were holding in check the Neapolitans who sought to pass
north to aid Ferrara, whilst the Roman Campagna was being harassed by the
Colonna, and Milan was engaged with Genoa, the Venetians invested
Ferrara, forced her to starvation and to yielding-point. Thereupon the
Pope, perceiving the trend of affairs, and that the only likely profit to
be derived from the campaign would lie with Venice, suddenly changed
sides that he might avoid a contingency so far removed from all his aims.
He made a treaty with Naples, and permitted the Neapolitan army passage
through his territories, of which they availed themselves to convey
supplies to Ferrara and neutralize the siege. At the same time the Pope
excommunicated the Venetians, and urged all Italy to make war upon them.
In this fashion the campaign dragged on to every one's disadvantage and
without any decisive battle fought, until at last the peace of Bagnolo
was concluded in August of 1484, and the opposing armies withdrew from
The news of it literally killed Sixtus. When the ambassadors declared to
him the terms of the treaty he was thrown into a violent rage, and
declared the peace to be at once shameful and humiliating. The gout from
which he suffered flew to his heart, and on the following day--August 12,
Two things he did during his reign to the material advantage of the
Church, however much he may have neglected the spiritual. He
strengthened her hold upon her temporal possessions and he enriched the
Vatican by the addition of the Sistine Chapel. For the decoration of
this he procured the best Tuscan talent of his day--and of many days--and
brought Alessandro Filipeppi (Botticelli), Pietro Vannuccio (Il
Perugino), and Domenico Bigordi (IL Ghirlandajo) from Florence to adorn
its walls with their frescoes.(1)
1 The glory of the Sistine Chapel, however, is Michelangelo's "Last
Judgement," which was added later, in the reign of Pope Julius II
(Giuliano della Rovere).
In the last years of the reign of Pope Sixtus, Cardinal Roderigo's family
had suffered a loss and undergone an increase.
In 1481 Vannozza bore him another son--Giuffredo Borgia, and in the
following year died his eldest son (by an unknown mother) Pedro Luis de
Borgia, who had reached the age of twenty-two and was betrothed at the
time of his decease to the Princess Maria d'Aragona.
In January of that same year, 1482, Cardinal Roderigo had married his
daughter Girolama--now aged fifteen--to Giovanni Andrea Cesarini, the
scion of a patrician Roman house. The alliance strengthened the bonds of
good feeling which for some considerable time had prevailed between the
two families. Unfortunately the young couple were not destined to many
years of life together, as in 1483 both died.
Of Cesare all that we know at this period is what we learn from the Papal
Bulls conferring several benefices upon him. In July 1482 he was granted
the revenues from the prebendals and canonries of Valencia; in the
following month he was appointed Canon of Valencia and apostolic notary.
In April 1484 he was made Provost of Alba, and in September of the same
year treasurer of the Church of Carthage. No doubt he was living with
his mother, his brothers, and his sister at the house in the Piazza Pizzo
di Merlo, where an ample if not magnificent establishment was maintained.
By this time Cardinal Roderigo's wealth and power had grown to stupendous
proportions, and he lived in a splendour well worthy of his lofty rank.
He was now fifty-three years of age, still retaining the air and vigour
of a man in his very prime, which, no doubt, he owed as much as to
anything to his abstemious and singularly sparing table-habits. He
derived a stupendous income from his numerous abbeys in Italy and Spain,
his three bishoprics of Valencia, Porto, and Carthage, and his
ecclesiastical offices, among which the Vice-Chancellorship alone yielded
him annually eight thousand florins.(1)
1 The gold florin, ducat, or crown was equal to ten shillings of our
present money, and had a purchasing power of five times that amount.
Volterra refers with wonder to the abundance of his plate, to his pearls,
his gold embroideries, and his books, the splendid equipment of his beds,
the trappings of his horses, and other similar furnishings in gold, in
silver, and in silk. In short, he was the wealthiest prince of the
Church of his day, and he lived with a magnificence worthy of a king or
of the Pope himself.
Of the actual man, Volterra, writing in 1586, says: "He is of a spirit
capable of anything, and of a great intelligence. A ready speaker, and
of distinction, notwithstanding his indifferent literary culture;
naturally astute, and of marvellous talent in the conduct of affairs."
In the year in which Volterra wrote of Cardinal Roderigo in such terms
Vannozza was left a widow by the death of Giorgio della Croce. Her
widowhood was short, however, for in the same year--on June 6--she took a
second husband, possibly at the instance of Roderigo Borgia, who did not
wish to leave her unprotected; that, at least, is the general inference,
although there is very little evidence upon which to base it. This
second husband was Carlo Canale, a Mantovese scholar who had served
Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga in the capacity of chamberlain, and who had
come to Rome on the death of his patron.
The marriage contract shows that by this time Vannozza had removed her
residence to Piazza Branchis. In addition to this she had by this time
acquired a villa with its beautiful gardens and vineyards in the Suburra
near S. Pietro in Vincoli. She is also known to have been the proprietor
of an inn--the Albergo del Leone--in Via del Orso, opposite the Torre di
Nona, for she figures with della Croce in a contract regarding a lease of
it in 1483.
With her entrance into second nuptials, her relations with Cardinal
Roderigo came to an end, and his two children by her, then in Rome--
Lucrezia and Giuffredo--went to take up their residence with Adriana
Orsini (née de Mila) at the Orsini Palace on Monte Giordano. She was a
cousin of Roderigo's, and the widow of Lodovico Orsini, by whom she had a
son, Orso Orsini, who from early youth had been betrothed to Giulia
Farnese, the daughter of a patrician family, still comparatively obscure,
but destined through this very girl to rise to conspicuous eminence.
For her surpassing beauty this Giulia Farnese has been surnamed La Bella
--and as Giulia La Bella was she known in her day--and she has been
immortalized by Pinturicchio and Guglielmo della Porta. She sat to the
former as a model for his Madonna in the Borgia Tower of the Vatican, and
to the latter for the statue of Truth which adorns the tomb of her
brother Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III.
Here in Adriana Orsini's house, where his daughter Lucrezia was being
educated, Cardinal Roderigo, now at the mature age of some six-and-fifty
years, made the acquaintance and became enamoured of this beautiful
golden-headed Giulia, some forty years his junior. To the fact that she
presently became his mistress--somewhere about the same time that she
became Orso Orsini's wife--is due the sudden rise of the House of
Farnese. This began with her handsome, dissolute brother Alessandro's
elevation to the purple by her lover, and grew to vast proportions during
his subsequent and eminently scandalous occupation of the Papal Throne as
In the year 1490 Lucrezia was the only one of Roderigo's children by
Vannozza who remained in Rome.
Giovanni Borgia was in Spain, whither he had gone on the death of his
brother Pedro Luis, to take posession of the Duchy of Gandia, which the
power of his father's wealth and vast influence at the Valencian Court
had obtained for that same Pedro Luis. To this Giovanni now succeeded.
Cesare Borgia--now aged fifteen--had for some two years been studying his
humanities in an atmosphere of Latinity at the Sapienza of Perugia.
There, if we are to believe the praises of him uttered by Pompilio, he
was already revealing his unusual talents and a precocious wit. In the
preface of the Syllabica on the art of Prosody dedicated to him by
Pompilio, the latter hails him as the hope and ornament of the Hous
of Borgia--"Borgiae familiae spes et decus."
From Perugia he was moved in 1491 to the famous University of Pisa, a
college frequented by the best of Italy. For preceptor he had Giovanni
Vera of Arcilla, a Spanish gentleman who was later created a cardinal by
Cesare's father. There in Pisa Cesare maintained an establishment of a
magnificence in keeping with his father's rank and with the example set
him by that same father.
It was Cardinal Roderigo's wish that Cesare should follow an
ecclesiastical career; and the studies of canon law which he pursued
under Filippo Decis, the most rated lecturer on canon law of his day,
were such as peculiarly to fit him for that end and for the highest
honours the Church might have to bestow upon him later. At the age of
seventeen, while still at Pisa, he was appointed prothonotary of the
Church and preconized Bishop of Pampeluna.
Sixtus IV died, as we have seen, in August 1482. The death of a Pope was
almost invariably the signal for disturbances in Rome, and they certainly
were not wanting on this occasion. The Riario palaces were stormed and
looted, and Girolamo Riario--the Pope's "nepot"--threw himself into the
castle of Sant' Angelo with his forces.
The Orsini and Colonna were in arms, "so that in a few days incendiarism,
robbery, and murder raged in several parts of the city. The cardinals
besought the Count to surrender the castle to the Sacred College,
withdraw his troops, and deliver Rome from the fear of his forces; and
he, that he might win the favour of the future Pope, obeyed, and withdrew
1 Macchiavelli, Istorie Fiorentine.
The cardinals, having thus contrived to restore some semblance of order,
proceeded to the creation of a new Pontiff, and a Genoese, Giovanni
Battista Cibo, Cardinal of Malfetta, was elected and took the name of
Again, as in the case of Sixtus, there is no lack of those who charge
this Pontiff with having obtained his election by simony. The Cardinals
Giovanni d' Aragona (brother to the King of Naples) and Ascanio Sforza
(brother of Lodovico, Duke of Milan) are said to have disposed of their
votes in the most open and shameless manner, practically putting them up
for sale to the highest bidder. Italy rang with the scandal of it, we
Under Innocent's lethargic rule the Church again began to lose much of
the vigour with which Sixtus had inspired it. If the reign of Sixtus had
been scandalous, infinitely worse was that of Innocent--a sordid,
grasping sensualist, without even the one redeeming virtue of strength
that had been his predecessor's. Nepotism had characterized many
previous pontificates; open paternity was to characterize his, for he was
the first Pope who, in flagrant violation of canon law, acknowledged his
children for his own. He proceeded to provide for some seven bastards,
and that provision appears to have been the only aim and scope of his
Not content with raising money by the sale of preferments, Innocent
established a traffic in indulgences, the like of which had never been
seen before. In the Rome of his day you might, had you the money, buy
anything, from a cardinal's hat to a pardon for the murder of your
The most conspicuous of his bastards was Francesco Cibo--conspicuous
chiefly for the cupidity which distinguished him as it distinguished the
Pope his father. For the rest he was a poor-spirited fellow who sorely
disappointed Lorenzo de'Medici, whose daughter Maddalena he received in
marriage. Lorenzo had believed that, backed by the Pope's influence,
Francesco would establish for himself a dynasty in Romagna. But father
and son were alike too invertebrate--the one to inspire, the other to
execute any such designs as had already been attempted by the nepots of
Calixtus III and Sixtus IV.
Under the weak and scandalous rule of Innocent VIII Rome appears to have
been abandoned to the most utter lawlessness. Anarchy, robbery, and
murder preyed upon the city. No morning dawned without revealing corpses
in the streets; and if by chance the murderer was caught, there was
pardon for him if he could afford to buy it, or Tor di Nona and the
hangman's noose if he could not.
It is not wonderful that when at last Innocent VIII died Infessura should
have blessed the day that freed the world of such a monster.
But his death did not happen until 1492. A feeble old man, he had become
subject to lethargic or cataleptic trances, which had several times
already deceived those in attendance into believing him dead. He grew
weaker and weaker, and it became impossible to nourish him upon anything
but woman's milk. Towards the end came, Infessura tells us, a Hebrew
physician who claimed to have a prescription by which he could save the
Pope's life. For his infusion(1) he needed young human blood, and to
obtain it he took three boys of the age of ten, and gave them a ducat
apiece for as much as he might require of them. Unfortunately he took so
much that the three boys incontinently died of his phlebotomy, and the
Hebrew was obliged to take to flight to save his own life, for the Pope,
being informed of what had taken place, execrated the deed and ordered
the physician's arrest. "Judeus quidem aufugit, et Papa sanatus not
est," concludes Infessura.
1 The silly interpretation of this afforded by later writers, that this
physician attempted transfusion of blood--silly, because unthinkable in
an age which knew nothing of the circulation of the blood--has already
Innocent VIII breathed his last on July 25, 1492.
The ceremonies connected with the obsequies of Pope Innocent VIII lasted
--as prescribed--nine days; they were concluded on August 5, 1492, and,
says Infessura naïvely, "sic finita fuit eius memoria."
The Sacred College consisted at the time of twenty-seven cardinals, four
of whom were absent at distant sees and unable to reach Rome in time for
the immuring of the Conclave. The twenty-three present were, in the
order of their seniority: Roderigo Borgia, Oliviero Caraffa, Giuliano
della Rovere, Battista Zeno, Giovanni Michieli, Giorgio Costa, Girolamo
della Rovere, Paolo Fregosi, Domenico della Rovere, Giovanni dei Conti,
Giovanni Giacomo Sclafetani, Lorenzo Cibo, Ardicino della Porta,
Antoniotto Pallavicino, Maffeo Gerardo, Francesco Piccolomini, Raffaele
Riario, Giovanni Battista Savelli, Giovanni Colonna, Giovanni Orsini,
Ascanio Maria Sforza, Giovanni de'Medici, and Francesco Sanseverino.
On August 6 they assembled in St. Peter's to hear the Sacred Mass of the
Holy Ghost, which was said by Giuliano della Rovere on the tomb of the
Prince of the Apostles, and to listen to the discourse "Pro eligendo
Pontefice," delivered by the learned and eloquent Bishop of Carthage.
Thereafter the Cardinals swore upon the Gospels faithfully to observe
their trust, and thereupon the Conclave was immured.
According to the dispatches of Valori, the Ferrarese ambassador in Rome,
it was expected that either the Cardinal of Naples (Oliviero Caraffa) or
the Cardinal of Lisbon (Giorgio Costa) would be elected to the
Pontificate; and according to the dispatch of Cavalieri the ambassador of
Modena, the King of France had deposited 200,000 ducats with a Roman
banker to forward the election of Giuliano della Rovere. Nevertheless,
early on the morning of August 11 it was announced that Roderigo Borgia
was elected Pope, and we have it on the word of Valori that the election
was unanimous, for he wrote on the morrow to the Council of Eight (the
Signory of Florence) that after long contention Alexander VI was created
"omnium consensum--ne li manco un solo voto."
The subject of this election is one with which we rarely find an author
dealing temperately or with a proper and sane restraint. To vituperate
in superlatives seems common to most who have taken in hand this and
other episodes in the history of the Borgias. Every fresh writer who
comes to the task appears to be mainly inspired by a desire to emulate
his forerunners, allowing his pen to riot zestfully in the accumulation
of scandalous matter, and seeking to increase if possible its lurid
quality by a degree or two. As a rule there is not even an attempt made
to put forward evidence in substantiation of anything that is alleged.
Wild and sweeping statement takes the place that should be held by calm
deduction and reasoned comment.
"He was the worst Pontiff that ever filled St. Peter's Chair," is one of
these sweeping statements, culled from the pages of an able, modern,
Italian author, whose writings, sound in all that concerns other matters,
are strewn with the most foolish extravagances and flagrant inaccuracies
in connection with Alexander VI and his family.
To say of him, as that writer says, that "he was the worst Pontiff that
ever filled St. Peter's Chair," can only be justified by an utter
ignorance of papal history. You have but to compare him calmly and
honestly--your mind stripped of preconceptions--with the wretched and
wholly contemptible Innocent VIII whom he succeeded, or with the latter's
precursor, the terrible Sixtus IV.
That he was better than these men, morally or ecclesiastically, is not to
be pretended; that he was worse--measuring achievement by opportunity--is
strenuously to be denied. For the rest, that he was infinitely more
gifted and infinitely more a man of affairs is not to be gainsaid by any
If we take him out of the background of history in which he is set, and
judge him singly and individually, we behold a man who, as a churchman
and Christ's Vicar, fills us with horror and loathing, as a scandalous
exception from what we are justified in supposing from his office must
have been the rule. Therefore, that he may be judged by the standard of
his own time if he is to be judged at all, if we are even to attempt to
understand him, have we given a sketch of the careers of those Popes who
immediately preceded him, with whom as Vice-Chancellor he was intimately
associated, and whose examples were the only papal examples that he
That this should justify his course we do not pretend. A good churchman
in his place would have bethought him of his duty to the Master whose
Vicar he was, and would have aimed at the sorely needed reform. But we
are not concerned to study him as a good churchman. It is by no means
clear that we are concerned to study him as a churchman at all. The
Papacy had by this time become far less of an ecclesiastical than a
political force; the weapons of the Church were there, but they were
being employed for the furtherance not of churchly, but of worldly aims.
If the Pontiffs in the pages of this history remembered or evoked their
spiritual authority, it was but to employ it as an instrument for the
advancement of their temporal schemes. And personal considerations
entered largely into these.
Self-aggrandizement, insufferable in a cleric, is an ambition not
altogether unpardonable in a temporal prince; and if Alexander aimed at
self-aggrandizement and at the founding of a permanent dynasty for his
family, he did not lack examples in the careers of those among his
predecessors with whom he had been associated.
That the Papacy was Christ's Vicarage was a fact that had long since been
obscured by the conception that the Papacy was a kingdom of this world.
In striving, then, for worldly eminence by every means in his power,
Alexander is no more blameworthy than any other. What, then, remains?
The fact that he succeeded better than any of his forerunners. But are
we on that account to select him for the special object of our
vituperation? The Papacy had tumbled into a slough of materialism in
which it was to wallow even after the Reformation had given it pause and
warning. Under what obligation was Alexander VI, more than any other
Pope, to pull it out of that slough? As he found it, so he carried it
on, as much a self-seeker, as much a worldly prince, as much a family man
and as little a churchman as any of those who had gone immediately before
By the outrageous discrepancy between the Papacy's professed and actual
aims it was fast becoming an object of execration, and it is Alexander's
misfortune that, coming when he did, he has remained as the type of his
The mighty of this world shall never want for detractors. The mean and
insignificant, writhing under the consciousness of his shortcomings,
ministers to his self-love by vilifying the great that he may lessen the
gap between himself and them. To achieve greatness is to achieve
enemies. It is to excite envy; and as envy no seed can raise up such a
crop of hatred.
Does this need labouring? Have we not abundant instances about us of the
vulgar tittle-tattle and scandalous unfounded gossip which, born Heaven
alone knows on what back-stairs or in what servants' hall, circulates
currently to the detriment of the distinguished in every walk of life?
And the more conspicuously great the individual, the greater the
incentive to slander him, for the interest of the slander is commensurate
with the eminence of the personage assailed.
Such to a great extent is the case of Alexander VI. He was too powerful
for the stomachs of many of his contemporaries, and he and his son Cesare
had a way of achieving their ends. Since that could not be denied, it
remained to inveigh loudly against the means adopted; and with pious
uplifting of hands and eyes, to cry, "Shame!" and "Horror!" and "The like
has never been heard of!" in wilful blindness to what had been happening
at the Vatican for generations.
Later writers take up the tale of it. It is a fine subject about which
to make phrases, and the passion for phrase-making will at times outweigh
the respect for truth. Thus Villari with his "the worst Pontiff that
ever filled St. Peter's Chair," and again, elsewhere, echoing what many a
writer has said before him from Guicciardini downwards, in utter and
diametric opposition to the true facts of the case: "The announcement of
his election was received throughout Italy with universal dismay." To
this he adds the ubiquitous story of King Ferrante's bursting into tears
at the news--"though never before known to weep for the death of his own
Let us pause a moment to contemplate the grief the Neapolitan King. What
picture is evoked in your minds by that statement of his bursting into
tears at Alexander's election? We see--do we not?--a pious, noble soul,
horror-stricken at the sight of the Papacy's corruption; a truly sublime
figure, whose tears will surely stand to his credit in heaven; a great
heart breaking; a venerable head bowed down with lofty, righteous grief,
weeping over the grave of Christian hopes. Such surely is the image we
are meant to see by Guicciardini and his many hollow echoers.
Turn we now for corroboration of that noble picture to the history of
this same Ferrante. A shock awaits us. We find, in this bastard of the
great and brilliant Alfonso a cruel, greedy, covetous monster, so
treacherous and so fiendishly brutal that we are compelled to extend him
the charity of supposing him to be something less than sane. Let us
consider but one of his characteristics. He loved to have his enemies
under his own supervision, and he kept them so--the living ones caged and
guarded, the dead ones embalmed and habited as in life; and this
collection of mummies was his pride and delight. More, and worse could
we tell you of him. But--ex pede, Herculem.
This man shed tears we are told. Not another word. It is left to our
imagination to paint for us a picture of this weeping; it is left to us
to conclude that these precious tears were symbolical of the grief of
Italy herself; that the catastrophe that provoked them must have been
But now that we know what manner of man was this who wept, see how
different is the inference that we may draw from his sorrow. Can we
still imagine it--as we are desired to do--to have sprung from a lofty,
Christian piety? Let us track those tears to their very source, and we
shall find it to be compounded of rage and fear.
Ferrante saw trouble ahead of him with Lodovico Sforza, concerning a
matter which shall be considered in the next chapter, and not at all
would it suit him at such a time that such a Pope as Alexander--who, he
had every reason to suppose, would be on the side of Lodovico--should
rule in Rome.
So he had set himself, by every means in his power, to oppose Roderigo's
election. His rage at the news that all his efforts had been vain, his
fear of a man of Roderigo's mettle, and his undoubted dread of the
consequences to himself of his frustrated opposition of that man's
election, may indeed have loosened the tears of this Ferrante who had not
even wept at the death of his own children. We say "may" advisedly; for
the matter, from beginning to end, is one of speculation. If we leave it
for the realm of fact, we have to ask--Were there any tears at all? Upon
what authority rests the statement of the Florentine historian? What, in
fact, does he say?
"It is well known that the King of Naples, for all that in public he
dissembled the pain it caused him, signified to the queen, his wife, with
tears--which were Unusual in him even on the death of his children--that
a Pope had been created who would be most pernicious to Italy."
So that, when all is said, Ferrante shed his kingly tears to his wife in
private, and to her in private he delivered his opinion of the new
Pontiff. How, then, came Guicciardini to know of the matter? True, he
says, "It is well known"--meaning that he had those tears upon hearsay.
It is, of course, possible that Ferrante's queen may have repeated what
passed between herself and the king; but that would surely have been in
contravention of the wishes of her husband, who had, be it remembered,
"dissembled his grief in public." And Ferrante does not impress one as
the sort of husband whose wishes his wife would be bold enough to
It is surprising that upon no better authority than this should these
precious tears of Ferrante's have been crystallized in history.
If this trivial instance has been dealt with at such length it is
because, for one reason, it is typical of the foundation of so many of
the Borgia legends, and, for another, because when history has been
carefully sifted for evidence of the "universal dismay with which the
election of Roderigo Borgia was received" King Ferrante's is the only
case of dismay that comes through the mesh at all. Therefore was it
expedient to examine it minutely.
That "universal dismay"--like the tears of Ferrante--rests upon the word
of Guicciardini. He says that "men were filled with dread and horror by
this election, because it had been effected by such evil ways [con arte
si brutte]; and no less because the nature and condition of the person
elected were largely known to many."
Guicciardini is to be read with the greatest caution and reserve when he
deals with Rome. His bias against, and his enmity of, the Papacy are as
obvious as they are notorious, and in his endeavours to bring it as much
as possible into discredit he does not even spare his generous patrons,
the Medicean Popes--Leo X and Clement VII. If he finds it impossible to
restrain his invective against these Pontiffs, who heaped favours and
honours upon him, what but virulence can be expected of him when he
writes of Alexander VI? He is largely to blame for the flagrant
exaggeration of many of the charges brought against the Borgias; that he
hated them we know, and that when he wrote of them he dipped his golden
Tuscan pen in vitriol and set down what he desired the world to believe
rather than what contemporary documents would have revealed to him, we
can prove here and now from that one statement of his which we have
Who were the men who were filled with dismay, horror, or dread at
The Milanese? No. For we know that Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the Duke of
Milan's brother, was the most active worker in favour of Roderigo's
election, and that this same election was received and celebrated in
Milan with public rejoicings.
The Florentines? No. For the Medici were friendly to the House of
Borgia, and we know that they welcomed the election, and that from
Florence Manfredi--the Ferrarese ambassador--wrote home: "It is said he
will be a glorious Pontiff" ("Dicesi che sará glorioso Pontefice").
Were Venice, Genoa, Mantua, Siena, or Lucca dismayed by this election?
Surely not, if the superlatively laudatory congratulations of their
various ambassadors are of any account.
Venice confessed that "a better pastor could not have been found for the
Church," since he had proved himself "a chief full of experience and an
Genoa said that "his merit lay not in having been elected, but in having
Mantua declared that it "had long awaited the pontificate of one who,
during forty years, had rendered himself, by his wisdom and justice,
capable of any office."
Siena expressed its joy at seeing the summit of eminence attained by a
Pope solely upon his merits--"Pervenuto alla dignitá pontificale
meramente per meriti proprii."
Lucca praised the excellent choice made, and extolled the
accomplishments, the wisdom, and experience of the Pontiff.
Not dismay, then, but actual rejoicing must have been almost universal in
Italy on the election of Pope Alexander VI. And very properly--always
considering the Pontificate as the temporal State it was then being
accounted; for Roderigo's influence was vast, his intelligence was
renowned, and had again and again been proved, and his administrative
talents and capacity for affairs were known to all. He was well-born,
cultured, of a fine and noble presence, and his wealth was colossal,
comprising the archbishoprics of Valencia and Porto, the bishoprics of
Majorca, Carthage, Agria, the abbeys of Subiaco, the Monastery of Our
Lady of Bellefontaine, the deaconry of Sancta Maria in Via Lata, and his
offices of Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Holy Church.
We are told that he gained his election by simony. It is very probable
that he did. But the accusation has never been categorically
established, and until that happens it would be well to moderate the
vituperation hurled at him. Charges of that simony are common;
conclusive proof there is none. We find Giacomo Trotti, the French
ambassador in Milan, writing to the Duke of Ferrara a fortnight after
Roderigo's election that "the Papacy has been sold by simony and a
thousand rascalities, which is a thing ignominious and detestable."
Ignominious and detestable indeed, if true; but be it remembered that
Trotti was the ambassador of France, whose candidate, backed by French
influence and French gold, as we have seen, was della Rovere; and, even
if his statement was true, the "ignominious and detestable thing" was at
least no novelty. Yet Guicciardini, treating of this matter, says: "He
gained the Pontificate owing to discord between the Cardinals Ascanio
Sforza and Giuliano di San Pietro in Vincoli; and still more because, in
a manner without precedent in that age [con esempio nuovo in quella etá]
he openly bought the votes of many cardinals, some with money, some with
promises of his offices and benefices, which were very great."
Again Guicciardini betrays his bias by attempting to render Roderigo's
course, assuming it for the moment to be truly represented, peculiarly
odious by this assertion that it was without precedent in that age.
Without precedent! What of the accusations of simony against Innocent
VIII, which rest upon a much sounder basis than these against Alexander,
and what of those against Sixtus IV? Further, if a simoniacal election
was unprecedented, what of Lorenzo Valla's fierce indictment of simony--
for which he so narrowly escaped the clutches of the Inquisition some
sixty years before this date?
Simony was rampant at the time, and it is the rankest hypocrisy to make
this outcry against Alexander's uses of it, and to forget the others.
Whether he really was elected by simony or not depends largely--so far as
the evidence available goes--upon what we are to consider as simony. If
payment in the literal sense was made or promised, then unquestionably
simony there was. But this, though often asserted, still awaits proof.
If the conferring of the benefices vacated by a cardinal on his elevation
to the Pontificate is to be considered simony, then there never was a
Pope yet against whom the charge could not be levelled and established.
Consider that by his election to the Pontificate his Archbishoprics,
offices, nay, his very house itself--which at the time of which we write
it was customary to abandon to pillage--are vacated; and remember that,
as Pope, they are now in his gift and that they must of necessity be
bestowed upon somebody. In a time in which Pontiffs are imbued with a
spiritual sense of their office and duties, they will naturally make such
bestowals upon those whom they consider best fitted to use them for the
greater honour and glory of God. But we are dealing with no such
spiritual golden age as that when we deal with the Cinquecento, as we
have already seen; and, therefore, all that we can expect of a Pope is
that he should bestow the preferment he has vacated upon those among the
cardinals whom he believes to be devoted to himself. Considering his
election in a temporal sense, it is natural that he should behave as any
other temporal prince; that he should remember those to whom he owes the
Pontificate, and that he should reward them suitably. Alexander VI
certainly pursued such a course, and the greatest profit from his
election was derived by the Cardinal Sforza who--as Roderigo himself
admitted--had certainly exerted all his influence with the Sacred College
to gain him the Pontificate. Alexander gave him the vacated Vice-
Chancellorship (for which, when all is said, Ascanio Sforza was
excellently fitted), his vacated palace on Banchi Vecchi, the town of
Nepi, and the bishopric of Agri.
To Orsini he gave the Church of Carthage and the legation of Marche; to
Colonna the Abbey of Subiaco; to Savelli the legation of Perugia (from
which he afterwards recalled him, not finding him suited to so difficult
a charge); to Raffaele Riario went Spanish benefices worth four thousand
ducats yearly; to Sanseverino Roderigo's house in Milan, whilst he
consented that Sanseverino's nephew--known as Fracassa--should enter the
service of the Church with a condotta of a hundred men-at-arms and a
stipend of thirteen thousand ducats yearly.
Guicciardini says of all this that Ascanio Sforza induced many of the
cardinals "to that abominable contract, and not only by request and
persuasion, but by example; because, corrupt and of an insatiable
appetite for riches, he bargained for himself, as the reward of so much
turpitude, the Vice-Chancellorships, churches, fortresses [the very
plurals betray the frenzy of exaggeration dictated by his malice] and his
[Roderigo's] palace in Rome full of furniture of great value."
What possible proof can Guicciardini have--what possible proof can there
be--of such a "bargain"? It rests upon purest assumption formed after
those properties had changed hands--Ascanio being rewarded by them for
his valuable services, and, also--so far as the Vice-Chancellorship was
concerned--being suitably preferred. To say that Ascanio received them
in consequence of a "bargain" and as the price of his vote and
electioneering services is not only an easy thing to say, but it is the
obvious thing for any one to say who aims at defaming.
It is surprising that we should find in Guicciardini no mention of the
four mule-loads of silver removed before the election from Cardinal
Roderigo's palace on Banchi Vecchi to Cardinal Ascanio's palace in
Trastevere. This is generally alleged to have been part of the price of
Ascanio's services. Whether it was so, or whether, as has also been
urged, it was merely removed to save it from the pillaging by the mob of
the palace of the cardinal elected to the Pontificate, the fact is
interesting as indicating in either case Cardinal Roderigo's assurance of
M. Yriarte does not hesitate to say: "We know to-day, by the dispatches
of Valori, the narrative of Girolamo Porzio, and the Diarium of Burchard,
the Master of Ceremonies, each of the stipulations made with the electors
whose votes were bought."
Now whilst we do know from Valori and Porzio what benefices Alexander
actually conferred, we do not know, nor could they possibly have told us,
what stipulations had been made which these benefices were insinuated to
Burchard's Diarium might be of more authority on this subject, for
Burchard was the Master of Ceremonies at the Vatican; but, unfortunately
for the accuracy of M. Yriarte's statement, Burchard is silent on the
subject, for the excellent reason that there is no diary for the period
under consideration. Burchard's narrative is interrupted on the death of
Innocent VIII, on July 12, and not resumed until December 2, when it is
There is, it is true, the Diarium of Infessura. But that is of no more
authority on such a matter than the narrative of Porzio or the letters of
Lord Acton--in his essay upon this subject--has not been content to rest
the imputation of simony upon such grounds as satisfied M. Yriarte. He
has realized that the only testimony of any real value in such a case
would be the actual evidence of such cardinals as might be willing to
bear witness to the attempt to bribe them. And he takes it for granted--
as who would not at this time of day, and in view of such positive
statements as abound?--that such evidence has been duly collected; thus,
he tells us confidently that the charge rests upon the evidence of those
cardinals who refused Roderigo's bribes.
That it most certainly does not. If it did there would be an end to the
matter, and so much ink would not have been spilled over it; but no
single cardinal has left any such evidence as Lord Acton supposes and
alleges. It suffices to consider that, according to the only evidences
available--the Casanatense Codices(1) and the dispatches of that same
Valori(2) whom M. Yriarte so confidently cites, Roderigo Borgia's
election was unanimous. Who, then, were these cardinals who refused his
bribes? Or are we to suppose that, notwithstanding that refusal--a
refusal which we may justifiably suppose to have been a scandalized and
righteously indignant one--they still afforded him their votes?
1 "...essendo concordi tutti i cardinali, quasi da contrari voti rivolti
tutti in favore di uno solo, crearono lui sommo ponteflce" (Casanatense
MSS). See P. Leonetti, Alessandro VI.
2 "Fu pubblicato il Cardinale Vice-Cancelliere in Sommo Pontefice
Alessandro VI(to) nuncupato, el quale dopo una lunga contentione fu
creato omnium consensum--ne ii manco un solo voto" (Valori's letter to
the Otto di Pratica, August 12, 1492). See Supplement to Appendix in E.
Thuasne's edition of Burchard's Diarium.
This charge of simony was levelled with the object of making Alexander VI
appear singularly heinous. So much has that object engrossed and blinded
those inspired by it, that, of itself, it betrays them. Had their horror
been honest, had it sprung from true principles, had it been born of any
but a desire to befoul and bespatter at all costs Roderigo Borgia, it is
not against him that they would have hurled their denunciations, but
against the whole College of Cardinals which took part in the sacrilege
and which included three future Popes.(1)
1 Cardinals Piccolomini, de'Medici, and Giuliano della Rovere.
Assuming not only that there was simony, but that it was on as wholesale
a scale as was alleged, and that for gold--coined or in the form of