The Life of Cesare Borgia by Raphael Sabatini

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 PREFACE This is no Chronicle of Saints. Nor yet is it a History of Devils. It is a record of certain very human,
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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


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 contrasts.

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 similarly distorted.

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 Mayfair.

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 gewgaws.

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 following inscription:


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 centuries.”

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 force.

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 fiction.

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 history:

Alvisi, Odoardo, Cesare Borgia, Duca di Romagna. Imola, 1878. Auton, Jean d’, Chroniques de Louis XII (Soc. de l’Hist. de France). Paris, 1889.
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, 1878.
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. Venezia, 1837.
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. Rimini, 1617.
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.) Firenze, 1876.
Granata, F., Storia Civile di Capua. 1752. Gregorovius, Ferdinand, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter. Stuttgart, 1889.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand, Lacrezia Borgia (Italian translation). Firenze, 1855.
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.) Roma, 1887.
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, 1879.
Tartt, W. M., Pandolfo Collenuccio, Memoirs connected with his life. 1868.
“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, 1861.
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). Çaragoça, i610.












































“Borgia stirps: BOS : atque Ceres transcendit Olympo, Cantabat nomen saecula cuncta suum.”

Michele Ferno



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 unimpaired.

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 Borja.

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 under it.

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 his heir.

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 offender.

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 surrounded?

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 IV.
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 abundantly clear.

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 of Albano.



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 this story.

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 chroniclers.

1 See the supplement to the Appendix of Thuasne’s edition of Burchard’s Diarium.

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 magnificent age.

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 Gandia).

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 importance.

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, 1479.

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 his authority.

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 in 1474.

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:


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 war.

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 Ferrara.

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, 1484–he died.

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 Paul III.

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 to Imola.”(1)

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 Innocent VIII.

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 are told.

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 pontificate.

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 father.

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 been exploded.

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 impartial critic.

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 possessed.

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 him.

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 class.

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 children.”

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 terrible indeed.

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 contravene.

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 quoted.

Who were the men who were filled with dismay, horror, or dread at Roderigo’s election?

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 excellent cardinal.”

Genoa said that “his merit lay not in having been elected, but in having been desired.”

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 his election.

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 satisfy.

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 not retrospective.

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 Valori.

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