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  • 1914
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benefices–Roderigo bought the cardinal’s votes, what then? He bought them, true. But they–they sold him their sacred trust, their duty to their God, their priestly honour, their holy vows. For the gold he offered them they bartered these. So much admitted, then surely, in that transaction, those cardinals were the prostitutes! The man who bought so much of them, at least, was on no baser level than were they. Yet invective singles him out for its one object, and so betrays the aforethought malice of its inspiration.

Our quarrel is with that; with that, and with those writers who have taken Alexander’s simony for granted–eagerly almost–for the purpose of heaping odium upon him by making him appear a scandalous exception to the prevailing rule.

If, nevertheless, we hold, as we have said, that simony probably did take place, we do so, not so much upon the inconclusive evidence of the fact, as upon the circumstance that it had become almost an established custom to purchase the tiara, and that Roderigo Borgia–since his ambition clearly urged him to the Pontificate–would have been an exception had he refrained.

It may seem that to have disputed so long to conclude by admitting so much is no better than a waste of labour. Not so, we hope. Our aim has been to correct the adjustment of the focus and properly to trim the light in which Roderigo Borgia is to be viewed, to the end that you may see him as he was–neither better nor worse–the creature of his times, of his environment, and of the system in which he was reared and trained. Thus shall you also get a clearer view of his son Cesare, when presently he takes the stage more prominently.

During the seventeen days of the interregnum between the death of Innocent and the election of Alexander the wild scenes usual to such seasons had been taking place in Rome; and, notwithstanding the Cardinal- Chamberlain’s prompt action in seizing the gates and bridges, and the patrols’ endeavours to maintain order, crime was unfettered to such an extent that some 220 murders are computed to have taken place–giving the terrible average of thirteen a day.

It was a very natural epilogue to the lax rule of the lethargic Innocent. One of the first acts of Alexander’s reign was to deal summarily with this lawlessness. He put down violence with a hard hand that knew no mercy. He razed to the ground the house of a murderer caught red-handed, and hanged him above the ruins, and so dealt generally that such order came to prevail as had never before been known in Rome.

Infessura tells us how, in the very month of his election, he appointed inspectors of prisons and four commissioners to administer justice, and that he himself gave audience on Tuesdays and settled disputes, concluding, “et justitiam mirabili modo facere coepit.”

He paid all salaries promptly–a striking departure, it would seem, from what had been usual under his predecessor–and the effect of his improved and strenuous legislation was shortly seen in the diminished prices of commodities.

He was crowned Pope on August 6, on the steps of the Basilica of St. Peter, by the Cardinal-Archdeacon Piccolomini. The ceremony was celebrated with a splendour worthy of the splendid figure that was its centre. Through the eyes of Michele Ferno–despite his admission that he is unable to convey a worthy notion of the spectacle–you may see the gorgeous procession to the Lateran in which Alexander VI showed himself to the applauding Romans; the multitude of richly adorned men, gay and festive; the seven hundred priests and prelates, with their familiars the splendid cavalcade of knights and nobles of Rome; the archers and Turkish horsemen, and the Palatine Guard, with its great halberds and flashing shields; the twelve white horses, with their golden bridles, led by footmen; and then Alexander himself on a snow-white horse, “serene of brow and of majestic dignity,” his hand uplifted–the Fisherman’s Ring upon its forefinger–to bless the kneeling populace. The chronicler flings into superlatives when he comes to praise the personal beauty of the man, his physical vigour and health, “which go to increase the veneration shown him.”

Thus in the brilliant sunshine of that Italian August, amid the plaudits of assembled Rome, amid banners and flowers, music and incense, the flash of steel and the blaze of decorations with the Borgian arms everywhere displayed–or, a grazing steer gules–Alexander VI passes to the Vatican, the aim and summit of his vast ambition.

Friends and enemies alike have sung the splendours of that coronation, and the Bull device–as you can imagine–plays a considerable part in those verses, be they paeans or lampoons. The former allude to Borgia as “the Bull,” from the majesty and might of the animal that was displayed upon their shield; the latter render it the subject of much scurrilous invective, to which it lends itself as readily. And thereafter, in almost all verse of their epoch, writers ever say “the Bull” when they mean the Borgia.



At the time of his father’s election to the throne of St. Peter, Cesare Borgia–now in his eighteenth year–was still at the University of Pisa.

It is a little odd, considering the great affection for his children which was ever one of Roderigo’s most conspicuous characteristics, that he should not have ordered Cesare to Rome at once, to share in the general rejoicings. It has been suggested that Alexander wished to avoid giving scandal by the presence of his children at such a time. But that again looks like a judgement formed upon modern standards, for by the standards of his day one cannot conceive that he would have given very much scandal; moreover, it is to be remembered that Lucrezia and Giuffredo, at least, were in Rome at the time of their father’s election to the tiara.

However that may be, Cesare did not quit Pisa until August of that year 1492, and even then not for Rome, but for Spoleto–in accordance with his father’s orders–where he took up his residence in the castle. Thence he wrote a letter to Piero de’Medici, which is interesting, firstly, as showing the good relations prevailing between them; secondly, as refuting a story in Guicciardini, wherewith that historian, ready, as ever, to belittle the Borgias, attempts to show him cutting a poor figure. He tells us(1) that, whilst at Pisa, Cesare had occasion to make an appeal to Piero de’Medici in the matter of a criminal case connected with one of his familiars; that he went to Florence and waited several hours in vain for an audience, whereafter he returned to Pisa “accounting himself despised and not a little injured.”

1 Istoria d’Italia, tom. V.

No doubt Guicciardini is as mistaken in this as in many another matter, for the letter written from Spoleto expresses his regret that, on the occasion of his passage through Florence (on his way from Pisa to Spoleto), he should not have had time to visit Piero, particularly as there was a matter upon which he desired urgently to consult with him. He recommends to Piero his faithful Remolino, whose ambition it is to occupy the chair of canon law at the University of Pisa, and begs his good offices in that connection. That Juan Vera, Cesare’s preceptor and the bearer of that letter, took back a favourable answer is highly probable, for in Fabroni’s Hist. Acad. Pisan we find this Remolino duly established as a lecturer on canon law in the following year.

The letter is further of interest as showing Cesare’s full consciousness of the importance of his position; its tone and its signature–“your brother, Cesar de Borgia, Elect of Valencia”–being such as were usual between princes.

The two chief aims of Alexander VI, from the very beginning of his pontificate, were to re-establish the power of the Church, which was then the most despised of the temporal States of Italy, and to promote the fortune of his children. Already on the very day of his coronation he conferred upon Cesare the bishopric of Valencia, whose revenues amounted to an annual yield of sixteen thousand ducats. For the time being, however, he had his hands very full of other matters, and it behoved him to move slowly at first and with the extremest caution.

The clouds of war were lowering heavily over Italy when Alexander came to St. Peter’s throne, and it was his first concern to find for himself a safe position against the coming of the threatening storm. The chief menace to the general peace was Lodovico Maria Sforza, surnamed Il Moro,(1) who sat as regent for his nephew, Duke Gian Galeazzo, upon the throne of Milan. That regency he had usurped from Gian Galeazzo’s mother, and he was now in a fair way to usurp the throne itself. He kept his nephew virtually a prisoner in the Castle of Pavia, together with his young bride, Isabella of Aragon, who had been sent thither by her father, the Duke of Calabria, heir to the crown of Naples.

1 Touching Lodovico Maria’s by-name of “Il Moro”–which is generally translated as “The Moor,” whilst in one writer we have found him mentioned as “Black Lodovico,” Benedetto Varchi’s explanation (in his Storia Fiorentina) may be of interest. He tells us that Lodovico was not so called on account of any swarthiness of complexion, as is supposed by Guicciardini, because, on the contrary, he was fair; nor yet on account of his device, showing a Moorish squire, who, brush in hand, dusts the gown of a young woman in regal apparel, with the motto, “Per Italia nettar d’ogni bruttura”; this device of the Moor, he tells us, was a rébus or pun upon the word “moro,” which also means the mulberry, and was so meant by Lodovico. The mulberry burgeons at the end of winter and blossoms very early. Thus Lodovico symbolized his own prudence and readiness to seize opportunity betimes.

Gian Galeazzo thus bestowed, Lodovico Maria went calmly about the business of governing, like one who did not mean to relinquish the regency save to become duke. But it happened that a boy was born to the young prisoners at Pavia, whereupon, spurred perhaps into activity by this parenthood and stimulated by the thought that they had now a son’s interests to fight for as well as their own, they made appeal to King Ferrante of Naples that he should enforce his grandson-in-law’s rights to the throne of Milan. King Ferrante could desire nothing better, for if his grandchild and her husband reigned in Milan, and by his favour and contriving, great should be his influence in the North of Italy. Therefore he stood their friend.

Matters were at this stage when Alexander VI ascended the papal throne.

This election gave Ferrante pause, for, as we have seen, he had schemed for a Pope devoted to his interests, who would stand by him in the coming strife, and his schemes were rudely shaken now. Whilst he was still cogitating the matter of his next move, the wretched Francesco Cibo (Pope Innocent’s son) offered to sell the papal fiefs of Cervetri and Anguillara, which had been made over to him by his father, to Gentile Orsini–the head of his powerful house. And Gentile purchased them under a contract signed at the palace of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, on September 3, for the sum of forty thousand ducats advanced him by Ferrante.

Alexander protested strongly against this illegal transaction, for Cervetri and Anguillara were fiefs of the Church, and neither had Cibo the right to sell nor Orsini the right to buy them. Moreover, that they should be in the hands of a powerful vassal of Naples such as Orsini suited the Pope as little as it suited Lodovico Maria Sforza. It stirred the latter into taking measures against the move he feared Ferrante might make to enforce Gian Galeazzo’s claims.

Lodovico Maria went about this with that sly shrewdness so characteristic of him, so well symbolized by his mulberry badge–a humorous shrewdness almost, which makes him one of the most delightful rogues in history, just as he was one of the most debonair and cultured. He may indeed be considered as one of the types of the subtle, crafty, selfish politician that was the ideal of Macchiavelli.

You see him, then, effacing the tight-lipped, cunning smile from his comely face and pointing out to Venice with a grave, sober countenance how little it can suit her to have the Neapolitan Spaniards ruffling it in the north, as must happen if Ferrante has his way with Milan. The truth of this was so obvious that Venice made haste to enter into a league with him, and into the camp thus formed came, for their own sakes, Mantua, Ferrara, and Siena. The league was powerful enough thus to cause Ferrante to think twice before he took up the cudgels for Gian Galeazzo. If Lodovico could include the Pope, the league’s might would be so paralysing that Ferrante would cease to think at all about his grandchildren’s affairs.

Foreseeing this, Ferrante had perforce to dry the tears Guicciardini has it that he shed, and, replacing them by a smile, servile and obsequious, repaired, hat in hand, to protest his friendship for the Pope’s Holiness.

And so, in December of 1492, came the Prince of Altamura–Ferrante’s second son–to Rome to lay his father’s homage at the feet of the Pontiff, and at the same time to implore his Holiness to refuse the King of Hungary the dispensation the latter was asking of the Holy See, to enable him to repudiate his wife, Donna Leonora–Ferrante’s daughter.

Altamura was received in Rome and sumptuously entertained by the Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. This cardinal had failed, as we have seen, to gain the Pontificate for himself, despite the French influence by which he had been supported. Writhing under his defeat, and hating the man who had defeated him with a hatred so bitter and venomous that the imprint of it is on almost every act of his life–from the facilities he afforded for the assignment to Orsini of the papal fiefs that Cibo had to sell–he was already scheming for the overthrow of Alexander. To this end he needed great and powerful friends; to this end had he lent himself to the Cibo-Orsini transaction; to this end did he manifest himself the warm well-wisher of Ferrante; to this end did he cordially welcome the latter’s son and envoy, and promise his support to Ferrante’s petition.

But the Holy Father was by no means as anxious for the friendship of the old wolf of Naples. The matter of the King of Hungary was one that required consideration, and, meanwhile, he may have hinted slyly there was between Naples and Rome a little matter of two fiefs to be adjusted.

Thus his most shrewd Holiness thought to gain a little time, and in that time he might look about him and consider what alliances would suit his interests best.

At this Cardinal della Rovere, in high dudgeon, flung out of Rome and away to his Castle of Ostia to fortify–to wield the sword of St. Paul, since he had missed the keys of St. Peter. It was a shrewd move. He foresaw the injured dignity of the Spanish House of Naples, and Ferrante’s wrath at the Pope’s light treatment of him and apathy for his interests; and the cardinal knew that with Ferrante were allied the mighty houses of Colonna and Orsini. Thus, by his political divorcement from the Holy See, he flung in his lot with theirs, hoping for red war and the deposition of Alexander.

But surely he forgot Milan and Lodovico Maria, whose brother, Ascanio Sforza, was at the Pope’s elbow, the energetic friend to whose efforts Alexander owed the tiara, and who was therefore hated by della Rovere perhaps as bitterly as Alexander himself.

Alexander went calmly about the business of fortifying the Vatican and the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, and gathering mercenaries into his service. And, lest any attempt should be made upon his life when he went abroad, he did so with an imposing escort of men-at-arms; which so vexed and fretted King Ferrante, that he did not omit to comment upon it in scathing terms in a letter that presently we shall consider. For the rest, the Pope’s Holiness preserved an unruffled front in the face of the hostile preparations that were toward in the kingdom of Naples, knowing that he could check them when he chose to lift his finger and beckon the Sforza into alliance. And presently Naples heard an alarming rumour that Lodovico Maria had, in fact, made overtures to the Pope, and that the Pope had met these advances to the extent of betrothing his daughter Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and cousin to Lodovico.

So back to the Vatican went the Neapolitan envoys with definite proposals of an alliance to be cemented by a marriage between Giuffredo Borgia– aged twelve–and Ferrante’s granddaughter Lucrezia of Aragon. The Pope, with his plans but half-matured as yet, temporized, was evasive, and continued to arm and to recruit. At last, his arrangements completed, he abruptly broke off his negotiations with Naples, and on April 25, 1493, publicly proclaimed that he had joined the northern league.

The fury of Ferrante, who realized that he had been played with and outwitted, was expressed in a rabid letter to his ambassador at the Court of Spain.

“This Pope,” he wrote, “leads a life that is the abomination of all, without respect for the seat he occupies. He cares for nothing save to aggrandize his children, by fair means or foul, and this is his sole desire. From the beginning of his Pontificate he has done nothing but disturb the peace, molesting everybody, now in one way, now in another. Rome is more full of soldiers than of priests, and when he goes abroad it is with troops of men-at-arms about him, with helmets on their heads and lances by their sides, all his thoughts being given to war and to our hurt; nor does he overlook anything that can be used against us, not only inciting in France the Prince of Salerno and other of our rebels, but befriending every bad character in Italy whom he deems our enemy; and in all things he proceeds with the fraud and dissimulation natural to him, and to make money he sells even the smallest office and preferment.”

Thus Ferrante of the man whose friendship he had been seeking some six weeks earlier, and who had rejected his advances. It is as well to know the precise conditions under which that letter was indited, for extracts from it are too often quoted against Alexander. These conditions known, and known the man who wrote it, the letter’s proper value is at once apparent.

It was Ferrante’s hope, and no doubt the hope of Giuliano della Rovere, that the King of Spain would lend an ear to these grievances, and move in the matter of attempting to depose Alexander; but an event more important than any other in the whole history of Spain–or of Europe, for that matter–was at the moment claiming its full attention, and the trifling affairs of the King of Naples–trifling by comparison–went all unheeded. For this was the year in which the Genoese navigator, Cristofero Colombo, returned to tell of the new and marvellous world he had discovered beyond the seas, and Ferdinand and Isabella were addressing an appeal to the Pope–as Ruler of the World–to establish them in the possession of the discovered continent. Whereupon the Pope drew a line from pole to pole, and granted to Spain the dominion over all lands discovered, or to be discovered, one hundred miles westward of Cape Verde and the Azores.

And thus Ferrante’s appeal to Spain against a Pope who showed himself so ready and complaisant a friend to Spain went unheeded by Ferdinand and Isabella. And what time the Neapolitan nursed his bitter chagrin, the alliance between Rome and Milan was consolidated by the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to Giovanni Sforza, the comely weakling who was Lord of Pesaro and Cotignola.

Lucrezia Borgia’s story has been told elsewhere; her rehabilitation has been undertaken by a great historian(1) among others, and all serious- minded students must be satisfied at this time of day that the Lucrezia Borgia of Hugo’s tragedy is a creature of fiction, bearing little or no resemblance to the poor lady who was a pawn in the ambitious game played by her father and her brother Cesare, before she withdrew to Ferrara, where eventually she died in child-birth in her forty-first year. We know that she left the duke, her husband, stricken with a grief that was shared by his subjects, to whom she had so deeply endeared herself by her exemplary life and loving rule.(2)

1 Ferdinand Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia. 2 See, inter alia, the letters of Alfonso d’Este and Giovanni Gonzaga on her death, quoted in Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia.

Later, in the course of this narrative, where she crosses the story of her brother Cesare, it will be necessary to deal with some of the revolting calumnies concerning her that were circulated, and, in passing, shall be revealed the sources of the malice that inspired them and the nature of the evidence upon which they rest, to the eternal shame alike of those pretended writers of fact and those avowed writers of fiction who, as dead to scruples as to chivalry, have not hesitated to make her serve their base melodramatic or pornographic ends.

At present, however, there is no more than her first marriage to be recorded. She was fourteen years of age at the time, and, like all the Borgias, of a rare personal beauty, with blue eyes and golden hair. Twice before, already, had she entered into betrothal contracts with gentlemen of her father’s native Spain; but his ever-soaring ambition had caused him successively to cancel both those unfulfilled contracts. A husband worthy of the daughter of Cardinal Roderigo Borgia was no longer worthy of the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, for whom an alliance must now be sought among Italy’s princely houses. And so she came to be bestowed upon the Lord of Pesaro, with a dowry of 30,000 ducats.

Her nuptials were celebrated in the Vatican on June 12, 1493, in the splendid manner worthy of the rank of all concerned and of the reputation for magnificence which the Borgia had acquired. That night the Pope gave a supper-party, at which were present some ten cardinals and a number of ladies and gentlemen of Rome, besides the ambassadors of Ferrara, Venice, Milan, and France. There was vocal and instrumental music, a comedy was performed, the ladies danced, and they appear to have carried their gaieties well into the dawn. Hardly the sort of scene for which the Vatican was the ideal stage. Yet at the time it should have given little or no scandal. But what a scandal was there not, shortly afterwards, in connection with it, and how that scandal was heaped up later, by stories so revolting of the doings of that night that one is appalled at the minds that conceived them and the credulity that accepted them.

Infessura writes of what he heard, and he writes venomously, as he betrays by the bitter sarcasm with which he refers to the fifty silver cups filled with sweetmeats which the Pope tossed into the laps of ladies present at the earlier part of the celebration. “He did it,” says Infessura, “to the greater honour and glory of Almighty God and the Church of Rome.” Beyond that he ventures into no great detail, checking himself betimes, however, with a suggested motive for reticence a thousand times worse than any formal accusation. Thus: “Much else is said, of which I do not write, because either it is not true, or, if true, incredible.”(1)

1 “Et multa alia dicta sunt; que hic non scribo, que aut non sunt; vel si sunt, incredibilia” (Infessura, Diarium).

It is amazing that the veil which Infessura drew with those words should have been pierced–not indeed by the cold light of fact, but by the hot eye of prurient imagination; amazing that he should be quoted at all–he who was not present–considering that we have the testimony of what did take place from the pen of an eye-witness, in a letter from Gianandrea Boccaccio, the ambassador of Ferrara, to his master.

At the end of his letter, which describes the proceedings and the wedding-gifts and their presentation, he tells us how the night was spent. “Afterwards the ladies danced, and, as an interlude, a worthy comedy was performed, with much music and singing, the Pope and all the rest of us being present throughout. What else shall I add? It would make a long letter. The whole night was spent in this manner; let your lordship decide whether well or ill.”

Is not that sufficient to stop the foul mouth of inventive slander? What need to suggest happenings unspeakable? Yet it is the fashion to quote the last sentence above from Boccaccio’s letter in the original–“totam noctem comsumpsimus; judicet modo Ex(ma.) Dominatio vestra si bene o male”–as though decency forbade its translation; and at once this poisonous reticence does its work, and the imagination–and not only that of the unlettered–is fired, and all manner of abominations are speculatively conceived.

Infessura, being absent, says that the comedies performed were licentious (“lascive”). But what comedies of that age were not? It was an age which had not yet invented modesty, as we understand it. That Boccaccio, who was present, saw nothing unusual in the comedy–there was only one, according to him–is proved by his description of it as “worthy” (“una degna commedia.”)

M. Yriarte on this same subject(1) is not only petty, but grotesque. He chooses to relate the incident from the point of view of Infessura, whom, by the way, he translates with an amazing freedom,(2) and he makes bold to add regarding Gianandrea Boccaccio that: “It must also be said that the ambassador of Ferrara, either because he did not see everything, or because he was less austere than Infessura, was not shocked by the comedies, etc.” (“soit qu’il n’ait pas tout vu, soit qu’il ait été moins austère qu’Infessura, n’est pas choqué….”)

1 La Vie de César Borgia.
2 Thus in the matter of the fifty silver cups tossed by the Pope into the ladies’ laps, “sinum” is the word employed by Infessura–a word which has too loosely been given its general translation of “bosom,” ignoring that it equally means “lap” and that “lap” it obviously means in this instance. M. Yriarte, however, goes a step further, and prefers to translate it as “corsage,” which at once, and unpleasantly, falsifies the picture; and he adds matter to dot the I’s to an extent certainly not warranted even by Infessura.

M. Yriarte, you observe, does not scruple to opine that Boccaccio, who was present, did not see everything; but he has no doubt that Infessura, who was not present, and who wrote from “hearsay,” missed nothing.

Alas! Too much of the history of the Borgias has been written in this spirit, and the discrimination in the selection of authorities has ever been with a view to obtaining the more sensational rather than the more truthful narrative.

Although it is known that Cesare came to Rome in the early part of 1493– for his presence there is reported by Gianandrea Boccaccio in March of that year–there is no mention of him at this time in connection with his sister’s wedding. Apparently, then, he was not present, although it is impossible to suggest where he might have been at the time.

Boccaccio draws a picture of him in that letter, which is worthy of attention, “On the day before yesterday I found Cesare at home in Trastevere. He was on the point of setting out to go hunting, and entirely in secular habit; that is to say, dressed in silk and armed. Riding together, we talked a while. I am among his most intimate acquaintances. He is man of great talent and of an excellent nature; his manners are those of the son of a great prince; above everything, he is joyous and light-hearted. He is very modest, much superior to, and of a much finer appearance than, his brother the Duke of Gandia, who also is not short of natural gifts. The archbishop never had any inclination for the priesthood. But his benefice yields him over 16,000 ducats.”

It may not be amiss–though perhaps no longer very necessary, after what has been written–to say a word at this stage on the social position of bastards in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to emphasize the fact that no stigma attached to Cesare Borgia or to any other member of his father’s family on the score of the illegitimacy of their birth.

It is sufficient to consider the marriages they contracted to perceive that, however shocking the circumstances may appear to modern notions, the circumstance of their father being a Pope not only cannot have been accounted extraordinarily scandalous (if scandalous at all) but, on the contrary, rendered them eligible for alliances even princely.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we see the bastard born of a noble, as noble as his father, displaying his father’s arms without debruisement and enjoying his rank and inheritance unchallenged on the score of his birth, even though that inheritance should be a throne–as witness Lucrezia’s husband Giovanni, who, though a bastard of the house of Sforza, succeeded, nevertheless, his father in the Tyranny of Pesaro and Cotignola.

Later we shall see this same Lucrezia, her illegitimacy notwithstanding, married into the noble House of Este and seated upon the throne of Ferrara. And before then we shall have seen the bastard Cesare married to a daughter of the royal House of Navarre. Already we have seen the bastard Francesco Cibo take to wife the daughter of the great Lorenzo de’Medici, and we have seen the bastard Girolamo Riario married to Caterina Sforza–a natural daughter of the ducal House of Milan–and we have seen the pair installed in the Tyranny of Imola and Forli. A score of other instances might be added; but these should suffice.

The matter calls for the making of no philosophies, craves no explaining, and, above all, needs no apology. It clears itself. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries–more just than our own more enlightened times– attributed no shame to the men and women born out of wedlock, saw no reason–as no reason is there, Christian or Pagan–why they should suffer for a condition that was none of their contriving.

To mention it may be of help in visualizing and understanding that direct and forceful epoch, and may even suggest some lenience in considering a Pope’s carnal paternity. To those to whom the point of view of the Renaissance does not promptly suggest itself from this plain statement of fact, all unargued as we leave it, we recommend a perusal of Gianpietro de Crescenzi’s Il Nobile Romano.

The marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to Giovanni Sforza tightened the relations between the Pope and Milan, as the Pope intended. Meanwhile, however, the crafty and mistrustful Lodovico, having no illusions as to the true values of his allies, and realizing them to be self-seekers like himself, with interests that were fundamentally different from his own, perceived that they were likely only to adhere to him for just so long as it suited their own ends. He bethought him, therefore, of looking about him for other means by which to crush the power of Naples. France was casting longing eyes upon Italy, and it seemed to Lodovico that in France was a ready catspaw. Charles VIII, as the representative of the House of Anjou, had a certain meagre claim upon the throne of Naples; if he could be induced to ride south, lance on thigh, and press that claim there would be an end to the dominion of the House of Aragon, and so an end to Lodovico’s fears of a Neapolitan interference with his own occupation of the throne of Milan.

To an ordinary schemer that should have been enough; but as a schemer Lodovico was wholly extraordinary. His plans grew in the maturing, and took in side-issues, until he saw that Naples should be to Charles VIII as the cheese within the mouse-trap. Let his advent into Italy to break the power of Naples be free and open; but, once within, he should find Milan and the northern allies between himself and his retreat, and Lodovico’s should it be to bring him to his knees. Thus schemed Lodovico to shiver, first Naples and then France, before hurling the latter back across the Alps. A daring, bold, and yet simple plan of action. And what a power in Italy should not Lodovico derive from its success!

Forthwith he got secretly to work upon it, sending his invitation to Charles to come and make good his claim to Naples, offering the French troops free passage through his territory.(1) And in the character of his invitation he played upon the nature of malformed, ambitious Charles, whose brain was stuffed with romance and chivalric rhodomontades. The conquest of Naples was an easy affair, no more than a step in the glorious enterprise that awaited the French king, for from Naples he could cross to engage the Turk, and win back the Holy Sepulchre, thus becoming a second Charles the Great.

1 See Corlo, Storia di Milano, and Lodovico’s letter to Charles VIII, quoted therein, lib. vii.

Thus Lodovico Maria the crafty, to dazzle Charles the romantic, and to take the bull of impending invasion by the very horns.

We have seen the failure of the appeal to Spain against the Pope made by the King of Naples. To that failure was now added the tightening of Rome’s relations with Milan by the marriage between Lucrezia Borgia and Giovanni Sforza, and Ferrante–rumours of a French invasion, with Naples for its objective being already in the air–realized that nothing remained him but to make another attempt to conciliate the Pope’s Holiness. And this time he went about his negotiations in a manner better calculated to serve his ends, since his need was grown more urgent. He sent the Prince of Altamura again to Rome for the ostensible purpose of settling the vexatious matter of Cervetri and Anguillara and making alliance with the Holy Father, whilst behind Altamura was the Neapolitan army ready to move upon Rome should the envoy fail this time.

But on the terms now put forward, Alexander was willing to negotiate, and so a peace was patched up between Naples and the Holy See, the conditions of which were that Orsini should retain the fiefs for his lifetime, but that they should revert to Holy Church on his death, and that he should pay the Church for the life-lease of them the sum of 40,000 ducats, which already he had paid to Francesco Cibo; that the peace should be consolidated by the marriage of the Pope’s bastard, Giuffredo, with Sancia of Aragon, the natural daughter of the Duke of Calabria, heir to the throne of Naples, and that she should bring the Principality of Squillace and the County of Coriate as her dowry.

The other condition demanded by Naples–at the suggestion of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere–was that the Pope should disgrace and dismiss his Vice­Chancellor, Ascanio Sforza, which would have shattered the pontifical relations with Milan. To this, however, the Pope would not agree, but he met Naples in the matter to the extent of consenting to overlook Cardinal della Rovere’s defection and receive him back into favour.

On these terms the peace was at last concluded in August of 1493, and immediately afterwards there arrived in Rome the Sieur Peron de Basche, an envoy from the King of France charged with the mission to prevent any alliance between Rome and Naples.

The Frenchman was behind the fair. The Pope took the only course possible under the awkward circumstances, and refused to see the ambasssador. Thereupon the offended King of France held a grand council “in which were proposed and treated many things against the Pope and for the reform of the Church.”

These royal outbursts of Christianity, these pious kingly frenzies to unseat an unworthy Pontiff and reform the Church, follow always, you will observe, upon the miscarriage of royal wishes.

In the Consistory of September 1493 the Pope created twelve new cardinals to strengthen the Sacred College in general and his own hand in particular.

Amongst these new creations were the Pope’s son Cesare, and Alessandro Farnese, the brother of the beautiful Giulia. The grant of the red hat to the latter appears to have caused some scandal, for, owing to the Pope’s relations with his sister, to which it was openly said that Farnese owed the purple, he received the by-name of Cardinal della Gonella–Cardinal of the Petticoat.

That was the first important step in the fortunes of the House of Farnese, which was to give dukes to Parma, and reach the throne of Spain (in the person of Isabella Farnese) before becoming extinct in 1758.



Roma Bovem invenit tunc, cum fundatur aratro, Et nunc lapsa suo est ecce renata Bove.

From an inscription quoted by Bernardino Coaxo.



You see Cesare Borgia, now in his nineteenth year, raised to the purple with the title of Cardinal-Deacon of Santa Maria Nuova–notwithstanding which, however, he continues to be known in preference, and, indeed, to sign himself by the title of his archbishopric, Cardinal of Valencia.

It is hardly necessary to mention that, although already Bishop of Pampeluna and Archbishop of Valencia, he had received so far only his first tonsure. He never did receive any ecclesiastical orders beyond the minor and revocable ones.

It was said by Infessura, and has since been repeated by a multitude of historians, upon no better authority than that of this writer on hearsay and inveterate gossip, that, to raise Cesare to the purple, Alexander was forced to prove the legitimacy of that young man’s birth, and that to this end he procured false witnesses to swear that he was “the son of Vannozza de’ Catanei and her husband, Domenico d’Arignano.” Already has this been touched upon in an earlier chapter, here it was shown that Vannozza never had a husband of the name of d’Arignano, and it might reasonably be supposed that this circumstance alone would have sufficed to restrain any serious writer from accepting and repeating Infessura’s unauthoritative statement.

But if more they needed, it was ready to their hands in the Bull of Sixtus IV of October 1, 1480–to which also allusion has been made– dispensing Cesare from proving his legitimacy: “Super defectum natalium od ordines et quoecumque beneficia.”

Besides that, of what avail would any false swearing have been, considering that Cesare was openly named Borgia, that he was openly acknowledged by his father, and that in the very Bull above mentioned he is stated to be the son of Roderigo Borgia?

This is another instance of the lightness, the recklessness with which Alexander VI has been accused of unseemly and illicit conduct, which it may not be amiss to mention at this stage, since, if not the accusation itself, at least the matter that occasioned it belongs chronologically here.

During the first months of his reign–following in the footsteps of predecessors who had made additions to the Vatican–Alexander set about the building of the Borgia Tower. For its decoration he brought Perugino, Pinturicchio, Volterrano, and Peruzzi to Rome. Concerning Pinturicchio and Alexander, Vasari tells us, in his Vita degli Artefici, that over the door of one of the rooms in the Borgia Tower the artist painted a picture of the Virgin Mary in the likeness of Giulia Farnese (who posed to him as the model) with Alexander kneeling to her in adoration, arrayed in full pontificals.

Such a thing would have been horrible, revolting, sacrilegious. Fortunately it does not even amount to a truth untruly told; and well would it be if all the lies against the Borgias were as easy to refute. True, Pinturicchio did paint Giulia Farnese as the Madonna; true also that he did paint Alexander kneeling in adoration–but not to the Madonna, not in the same picture at all. The Madonna for which Giulia Farnese was the model is over a doorway, as Vasari says. The kneeling Alexander is in another room, and the object of his adoration is the Saviour rising from His tomb.

Yet one reputable writer after another has repeated that lie of Vasari’s, and shocked us by the scandalous spectacle of a Pope so debauched and lewd that he kneels in pontificals, in adoration, at the feet of his mistress depicted as the Virgin Mary.

In October of that same year of 1493 Cesare accompanied his father on a visit to Orvieto, a journey which appears to have been partly undertaken in response to an invitation from Giulia Farnese’s brother Alessandro.

Orvieto was falling at the time into decay and ruin, no longer the prosperous centre it had been less than a hundred years earlier; but the shrewd eye of Alexander perceived its value as a stronghold, to be used as an outpost of Rome or as a refuge in time of danger, and he proceeded to repair and fortify it. In the following summer Cesare was invested with its governorship, at the request of its inhabitants, who sent an embassy to the Pope with their proposal,–by way, no doubt, of showing their gratitude for his interest in the town.

But in the meantime, towards the end of 1493, King Ferrante’s uneasiness at the ever-swelling rumours of the impending French invasion was quickened by the fact that the Pope had not yet sent his son Giuffredo to Naples to marry Donna Sancia, as had been contracted. Ferrante feared the intrigues of Milan with Alexander, and that the latter might be induced, after all, to join the northern league. In a frenzy of apprehension, the old king was at last on the point of going to Milan to throw himself at the feet of Lodovico Sforza, who was now his only hope, when news reached him that his ambassadors had been ordered to leave France.

That death-blow to his hopes was a death-blow to the man himself. Upon receiving the news he was smitten by an apoplexy, and upon January 25, 1494, he departed this life without the consolation of being able to suppose that any of his schemes had done anything to avert the impending ruin of his house.

In spite of all Alexander’s intercessions and representations, calculated to induce Charles VIII to abandon his descent upon Italy; in spite, no less, of the counsel he received at home from such far-seeing men as had his ear, the Christian King was now determined upon the expedition and his preparations were well advanced. In the month of March he assumed the title of King of Sicily, and sent formal intimation of it to Alexander, demanding his investiture at the hands of the Pope and offering to pay him a heavy annual tribute. Alexander was thus given to choose between the wrath of France and the wrath of Naples, and–to put the basest construction on his motives–he saw that the peril from an enemy on his very frontiers would be more imminent than that of an enemy beyond the Alps. It is also possible that he chose to be guided by his sense of justice and to do in the matter what he considered right. By whatever motive he was prompted, the result was that he refused to accede to the wishes of the Christian King.

The Consistory which received the French ambassador–Peron de Basche– became the scene of stormy remonstrances, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, of course, supporting the ambassador and being supported in his act of insubordination by the Vice-Chancellor Ascanio Sforza (who represented his brother Lodovico in the matter) and the Cardinals Sanseverino, Colonna, and Savelli, all attached to French interests. Peron de Basche so far presumed, no doubt emboldened by this support, as to threaten the Pope with deposition if he persisted in his refusal to obey the King of France.

You see once more that kingly attitude, and you shall see it yet again presently and be convinced of its precise worth. In one hand a bribe of heavy annual tribute, in the other a threat of deposition; it was thus they conducted their business with the Holy Father. In this instance his Holiness took the threat, and dismissed the insolent ambassador. Della Rovere, conceiving that in France he had a stouter ally than in Naples, and seeing that he had once more incurred the papal anger by his open enmity, fled back to Ostia; and, not feeling safe there, for the pontifical forces were advancing upon his fortress, took ship to Genoa, and thence to France, to plot the Pope’s ruin with the exasperated Charles; and, the charge of simony being the only weapon with which they could attack Alexander’s seat upon the papal throne, the charge of simony was once more brandished.

His Holiness took the matter with a becoming and stately calm. He sent his nephew, Giovanni Borgia, to Naples to crown Alfonso, and with him went Giuffredo Borgia to carry out the marriage contract with Alfonso’s daughter, and thus strengthen the alliance between Rome and Naples.

By the autumn Charles had crossed the Alps with the most formidable army that had ever been sent out of France, full ninety thousand strong. And so badly was the war conducted by the Neapolitan generals who were sent to hold him in check that the appearance of the French under the very walls of Rome was almost such as to take the Pope by surprise. Charles’s advance from the north had been so swift and unhindered that Alexander contemptuously said the French soldiers had come into Italy with wooden spurs and chalk in their hands to mark their lodgings.

Charles had been well received by the intriguing Lodovico Sforza, with whom he visited the Castle of Pavia and the unfortunate Gian Galeazzo, who from long confinement, chagrin, and other causes was now reduced to the sorriest condition. Indeed, on October 22, some days after that visit, the wretched prince expired. Whether or not Lodovico had him poisoned, as has been alleged–a charge, which, after all, rests on no proof, nor even upon the word of any person of reliance–his death most certainly lies at his ambitious uncle’s door.

Charles was at Piacenza when the news of Gian Galeazzo’s death reached him. Like the good Christian that he accounted himself, he ordered the most solemn and imposing obsequies for the poor youth for whom in life he had done nothing.

Gian Galeazzo left a heart-broken girl-widow and two children to succeed him to the throne he had never been allowed to occupy–the eldest, Francesco Sforza, being a boy of five. Nevertheless, Lodovico was elected Duke of Milan. Not only did he suborn the Parliament of Milan to that end, but he induced the Emperor to confirm him in the title. To this the Emperor consented, seeking to mask the unscrupulous deed by a pitiful sophism. He expounded that the throne of Milan should originally have been Lodovico’s, and never Galeazzo Maria’s (Gian Galeazzo’s father), because the latter was born before Francesco Sforza had become Duke of Milan, whereas Lodovico was born when he already was so.

The obsequies of Gian Galeazzo completed, Charles pushed on. From Florence he issued his manifesto, and although this confined itself to claiming the kingdom of Naples, and said no word of punishing the Pope for his disobedience in crowning Alfonso and being now in alliance with him, it stirred up grave uneasiness at the Vatican.

The Pope’s position was becoming extremely difficult; nevertheless, he wore the boldest possible face when he received the ambassadors of France, and on December 9 refused to grant the letters patent of passage through the Pontifical States which the French demanded. Thereupon Charles advanced threateningly upon Rome, and was joined now by those turbulent barons Orsini, Colonna, and Savelli.

Alexander VI has been widely accused of effecting a volte-face at this stage and betraying his Neapolitan allies; but his conduct, properly considered, can hardly amount to that. What concessions he made to France were such as a wise and inadequately supported man must make to an army ninety thousand strong. To be recklessly and quixotically heroic is not within the function of Popes; moreover, Alexander had Rome to think of, for Charles had sent word that, if he were resisted he would leave all in ruins, whereas if a free passage were accorded him he would do no hurt nor suffer any pillage to be done in Rome.

So the Pope did the only thing consistent with prudence: he made a virtue of necessity and gave way where it was utterly impossible for him to resist. He permitted Charles the passage through his territory which Charles was perfectly able to take for himself if refused. There ensued an interchange of compliments between Pope and King, and early in January Charles entered Rome in such warlike panoply as struck terror into the hearts of all beholders. Of that entrance Paolo Giovio has left us an impressive picture.

The vanguard was composed of Swiss and German mercenaries–tall fellows, these professional warriors, superb in their carriage and stepping in time to the beat of their drums; they were dressed in variegated, close- fitting garments that revealed all their athletic symmetry. A fourth of them were armed with long, square-bladed halberts, new to Italy; the remainder trailed their ten-foot pikes, and carried a short sword at their belts, whilst to every thousand of them there were a hundred arquebusiers. After them came the French infantry, without armour save the officers, who wore steel corselets and head-pieces. These, again, were followed by five thousand Gascon arbalisters, each shouldering his arbalest–a phalanx of short, rude fellows, not to be compared with the stately Swiss. Next came the cavalry, advancing in squadrons, glittering and resplendent in their steel casings; 2,500 of these were in full heavy armour, wielding iron maces and the ponderous lances that were usual also in Italy. Every man-at-arms had with him three horses, mounted by a squire and two valets (four men going to the lance in France). Some 5,000 of the cavalry were more lightly armed, in corselets and head-piece only, and they carried long wooden bows in the English fashion; whilst some were armed with pikes, intended to complete the work of the heavier cavalry. These were followed by 200 knights–the very flower of French chivalry for birth and valour–shouldering their heavy iron maces, their armour covered by purple, gold-embroidered surcoats. Behind them came 400 mounted archers forming the bodyguard of the king.

The misshapen monarch himself was the very caricature of a man, hideous and grotesque as a gargoyle. He was short of stature, spindle-shanked, rachitic and malformed, and of his face, with its colossal nose, loose mouth and shallow brow, Giovio says that “it was the ugliest ever seen on man.”

Such was the person of the young king–he was twenty-four years of age at the time–who poured his legions into Rome, and all full-armed as if for work of immediate destruction. Seen, as they were, by torchlight and the blaze of kindled bonfires–for night had fallen long before the rearguard had entered the city–they looked vague, fantastic, and terrifying. But the most awe-inspiring sight of all was kept for the end; it consisted of the thirty-six pieces of artillery which brought up the rear, each piece upon a carriage swiftly drawn by horses, and the longest measuring eight feet, weighing six thousand pounds, and discharging an iron ball as big as a man’s head.

The king lay in the Palace of San Marco, where a lodging had been prepared for him, and thither on the day after his entrance came Cesare Borgia, with six Cardinals, from the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, whither the Pope had withdrawn, to wait upon his Christian Majesty. Charles immediately revealed the full and exigent nature of his demands. He required the Pope’s aid and counsel in the conquest of Naples, upon which he was proceeding; that Cesare Borgia be delivered into his hands as a hostage to ensure the Pope’s friendliness; and that the Castle of Sant’ Angelo be handed over to him to be used as a retreat in case of need or danger. Further, he demanded that Prince Djem–the brother of Sultan Bajazet, who was in the Pope’s hands–should be delivered up to him as a further hostage.

This Djem (Gem, or Zizim, as his name is variously spelled) was the second son of Mahomet II, whose throne he had disputed with his brother Bajazet on their father’s death. He had raised an army to enforce his claim, and had not lacked for partisans; but he was defeated and put to flight by his brother. For safety he had delivered himself up to the Knights of Rhodes, whom he knew to be Bajazet’s implacable enemies. They made him very welcome, for d’Aubusson, the Grand Master of Rhodes, realized that the possession of the prince’s person was a very fortunate circumstance for Christianity, since by means of such a hostage the Turk could be kept in submission. Accordingly d’Aubusson had sent him to France, and wrote: “While Djem lives, and is in our hands, Bajazet will never dare to make war upon Christians, who will thus enjoy great peace. Thus is it salutary that Djem should remain in our power.” And in France Djem had been well received and treated with every consideration due to a person of his princely rank.

But he appears to have become a subject of contention among the Powers, several of which urged that he could be of greater service to Christianity in their hands than in those of France. Thus, the King of Hungary had demanded him because, being a neighbour of Bajazet’s, he was constantly in apprehension of Turkish raids. Ferdinand of Spain had desired him because the possession of him would assist the Catholic King in the expulsion of the Moors. Ferrante of Naples had craved him because he lived in perpetual terror of a Turkish invasion.

In the end he had been sent to Rome, whither he went willingly under the advice of the Knights of Rhodes, whose prisoner he really considered himself. They had discovered that Bajazet was offering enormous bribes to Charles for the surrender of him, and they feared lest Charles should succumb to the temptation.

So Prince Djem had come to Rome in the reign of Pope Innocent VIII, and there he had since remained, Sultan Bajazet making the Pope an annual allowance of forty thousand ducats for his brother’s safe custody. He was a willing prisoner, or rather a willing exile, for, far from being kept a prisoner, he was treated at Rome with every consideration, associating freely with those about the Pontifical Court, and being frequently seen abroad in company with the Pope and the Duke of Gandia.

Now Charles was aware that the Pope, in his dread of a French invasion, and seeing vain all his efforts to dissuade Charles from making his descent upon Italy, had appealed for aid to Bajazet. For so doing he has been severely censured, and with some justice, for the picture of the Head of Christianity making appeal to the infidel to assist him against Christians is not an edifying one. Still, it receives some measure of justification when we reflect what was the attitude of these same Christians towards their Head.

Bajazet himself, thrown into a panic at the thought of Djem falling into the hands of a king who proposed to make a raid upon him, answered the Pope begging his Holiness to “have Djem removed from the tribulations of this world, and his soul transported to another, where he might enjoy a greater peace.” For this service he offered the Pope 300,000 ducats, to be paid on delivery of the prince’s body; and, if the price was high, so was the service required, for it would have ensured Bajazet a peace of mind he could not hope to enjoy while his brother lived.

This letter was intercepted by Giovanni della Rovere, the Prefect of Sinigaglia, who very promptly handed it to his brother, the Cardinal Giuliano. The cardinal, in his turn, laid it before the King of France, who now demanded of the Pope the surrender of the person of this Djem as a further hostage.

Alexander began by rejecting the king’s proposals severally and collectively, but Charles pressed him to reconsider his refusal, and so, being again between the sword and the wall, the Pope was compelled to submit. A treaty was drawn up and signed on January 15, the king, on his side, promising to recognize the Pope and to uphold him in all his rights.

On the following day Charles made solemn act of veneration to the Pontiff in Consistory, kissing his ring and his foot, and professing obedience to him as the kings of France, his forbears, had ever done. Words for deeds!

Charles remained twelve days longer in Rome, and set out at last, on January 28, upon the conquest of Naples. First he went solemnly to take his leave of the Pope, and they parted with every outward mark of a mutual esteem which they most certainly cannot have experienced. When Charles knelt for the Pope’s blessing, Alexander raised him up and embraced him; whilst Cesare completed the show of friendliness by presenting Charles with six beautiful chargers.

They set out immediately afterwards, the French king taking with him his hostages, neither of which he was destined to retain for long, with Cesare riding in the place of honour on his right.

The army lay at Marino that night, and on the following at Velletri. In the latter city Charles was met by an ambassador of Spain–Antonio da Fonseca. Ferdinand and Isabella were moved at last to befriend their cousins of Naples, whom all else had now abandoned, and at the same time serve their own interests. Their ambassador demanded that Charles should abandon his enterprise and return to France, or else be prepared for war with Spain.

It is eminently probable that Cesare had knowledge of this ultimatum to Charles, and that his knowledge influenced his conduct. However that may be, he slipped out of Velletri in the dead of that same night disguised as a groom. Half a mile out of the town, Francesco del Sacco, an officer of the Podestá of Velletri, awaited him with a horse, and on this he sped back to Rome, where he arrived on the night of the 30th. He went straight to the house of one Antonio Flores, an auditor of the Tribunal of the Ruota and a person of his confidence, who through his influence and protection was destined to rise to the eminence of the archbishopric of Avignon and Papal Nuncio to the Court of France.

Cesare remained at Flores’s house, sending word to the Pope of his presence, but not attempting to approach the Vatican. On the following day he withdrew to the stronghold of Spoleto.

Meanwhile Rome was thrown into a panic by the young cardinal’s action and the dread of reprisals on the part of France. The quaking municipality sent representatives to Charles to assure him that Rome had had nothing to do with this breach of the treaty, and to implore him not to visit it upon the city. The king replied by a special embassy to the Pope, and there apparently dropped the matter, for a few days later Cesare reappeared at the Vatican.

Charles, meanwhile, despite the threats of Spain, pushed on to accomplish his easy conquest.

King Alfonso had already fled the kingdom (January 25), abdicating in favour of his brother Federigo. His avowed object was to withdraw to Sicily, retire from the world, and do penance for his sins, for which no doubt there was ample occasion. The real spur was probably–as opined by Commines–cowardice; for, says that Frenchman, “Jamais homme cruel ne fut hardi.”

Federigo’s defence of the realm consigned to him was not conspicuous, for the French entered Naples almost without striking a blow within twenty days of their departure from Rome.

Scarcely had Charles laid aside his armour when death robbed him of the second hostage he had brought from the Vatican. On February 25, after a week’s illness, Prince Djem died of dysentery at the Castle of Capua, whither Charles had sent him.

Rumours that he had been poisoned by the Pope arose almost at once; but, considering that twenty­eight days had elapsed since his parting from Alexander, it was, with the best intentions in the world, rather difficult to make that poisoning credible, until the bright notion was conceived, and made public, that the poison used was a “white powder” of unknown components, which did its work slowly, and killed the victim some time after it had been administered. Thus, by a bold and brazen invention, an impossible falsehood was made to wear a possible aspect.

And in that you have most probably the origin of the famous secret poison of the Borgias. Having been invented to fit the alleged poisoning of Prince Djem, which it was desired to fasten upon the Pope by hook or by crook, it was found altogether too valuable an invention not to be used again. By means of it, it became possible to lay almost any death in the world at the door of Alexander.

Before proceeding to inquire further into this particular case, let us here and now say that, just as to-day there is no inorganic toxin known to science that will either lie fallow for weeks in the human system, suddenly to become active and slay, or yet to kill by slow degrees involving some weeks in the process, so none was known in the Borgian or any other era. Science indeed will tell you that the very notion of any such poison is flagrantly absurd, and that such a toxic action is against all the laws of nature.

But a scientific disquisition is unnecessary. For our present needs arguments of common sense should abundantly suffice. This poison–this white powder–was said to be a secret of the Borgias. If that is so, by what Borgia was the secret of its existence ever divulged? Or, if it never was divulged, how comes it to be known that a poison so secret, and working at such distances of time, was ever wielded by them?

The very nature of its alleged action was such as utterly to conceal the hand that had administered it; yet here, on the first recorded occasion of its alleged use, it was more or less common knowledge if Giovio and Guicciardini are to be believed!

Sagredo(1) says that Djem died at Terracina three days after having been consigned to Charles VIII, of poison administered by Alexander, to whom Bajazet had promised a large sum of money for the deed. The same is practically Giovio’s statement, save that Giovio causes him to die at a later date and at Gaeta; Guicciardini and Corio tell a similar story, but inform us that he died in Naples.

1 In Mem. Storiche dei Monarchi Ottomani.

It is entirely upon the authority of these four writers that the Pope is charged with having poisoned Djem, and it is noteworthy that in the four narratives we find different dates and three different places given as the date and place of the Turk’s death, and more noteworthy still that in not one instance of these four is date or place correctly stated.

Now the place where Djem died, and the date of his death, were public facts about which there was no mystery; they were to be ascertained–as they are still–by any painstaking examiner. His poisoning, on the other hand, was admittedly a secret matter, the truth of which it was impossible to ascertain with utter and complete finality. Yet of this poisoning they know all the secrets, these four nimble writers who cannot correctly tell us where or when the man died!

We will turn from the fictions they have left us–which, alas! have but too often been preferred by subsequent writers to the true facts which lay just as ready to their hands, but of course were less sensational– and we will consider instead the evidence of those contemporaries who do, at least, know the time and place of Djem’s decease.

If any living man might have known of a secret poison of the Borgias at this stage, that man was Burchard the Caeremoniarius, and, had he known of it, not for a moment would he have been silent on the point. Yet not a word of this secret poison shall you find in his diaries, and concerning the death of Djem he records that “on February 25 died at the Castle of Capua the said Djem, through meat or drink that disagreed with him.”

Panvinio, who, being a Neapolitan, was not likely to be any too friendly to the Pope–as, indeed, he proves again and again–tells us positively that Djem died of dysentry at Capua.(1)

1 Vitis Pontif. Rom.

Sanuto, writing to the Council of Ten, says that Djem took ill at Capua of a catarrh, which “descended to his stomach”; and that so he died.

And now mark Sanuto’s reasoning upon his death, which is the very reasoning we should ourselves employ finally to dispose of this chatter of poisoning, did we not find it awaiting quotation, more authoritative therefore than it could be from us, and utterly irrefutable and conclusive in its logic. “This death is very harmful to the King of France, to all Italy, and chiefly to the Pope, who is thereby deprived of 40,000 ducats yearly, which was paid him by his [Djem’s] brother for his custody. And the king showed himself greatly grieved by this death, and it was suspected that the Pope had poisoned him, which, however, was not to be believed, as it would have been to his own loss.”

Just so–to his own infinite loss, not only of the 40,000 ducats yearly, but of the hold which the custody of Djem gave him upon the Turks.

The reason assigned by those who charged Alexander with this crime was the bribe of 300,000 ducats offered by Bajezet in the intercepted letter. The offer–which, incidentally, had never reached the Pope–was instantly taken as proof of its acceptance–a singular case of making cause follow upon effect, a method all too prevalent with the Borgian chroniclers. Moreover, they entirely overlooked the circumstance that, for Djem’s death in the hands of France, the Pope could make no claim upon Bajazet.

Finally–though the danger be incurred of becoming tedious upon this point–they also forgot that, years before, Bajazet had offered such bribes to Charles for the life of Djem as had caused the Knights of Rhodes to remove the Turk from French keeping. Upon that circumstance they might, had it sorted with their inclinations, have set up a stronger case of poisoning against Charles than against the Pope, and they would not have been put to the necessity of inventing a toxin that never had place in any earthly pharmacopoeia.

It is not, by this, suggested that there is any shadow of a case against Charles. Djem died a perfectly natural death, as is established by the only authorities competent to speak upon the matter, and his death was against the interests of everybody save his brother Bajazet; and against nobody’s so much as the Pope’s.



By the middle of March of that year 1495 the conquest of Naples was a thoroughly accomplished fact, and the French rested upon their victory, took their ease, and made merry in the capital of the vanquished kingdom.

But in the north Lodovico Sforza-now Duke of Milan de facto, as we have seen–set about the second part of the game that was to be played. He had a valuable ally in Venice, which looked none too favourably on the French and was fully disposed to gather its forces against the common foe. The Council of Ten sent their ambassador, Zorzi, to the Pope to propose an alliance.

News reached Charles in Naples of the league that was being formed. He laughed at it, and the matter was made the subject of ridicule in some of the comedies that were being performed for the amusement of his Court. Meanwhile, the intrigue against him went forward; on March 26 his Holiness sent the Golden Rose to the Doge, and on Palm Sunday the league was solemnly proclaimed in St. Peter’s. Its terms were vague; there was nothing in it that was directly menacing to Charles; it was simply declared to have been formed for the common good. But in the north the forces were steadily gathering to cut off the retreat of the French, and suddenly Lodovico Sforza threw aside the mask and made an attack upon the French navy at Genoa.

At last Charles awoke to his danger and began to care for his safety. Rapidly he organized the occupation of Naples, and, leaving Montpensier as Viceroy and d’Aubigny as Captain-General, he set out for Rome with his army, intent upon detaching the Pope from the league; for the Pope, being the immediate neighbour of Naples, would be as dangerous as an enemy as he was valuable as an ally to Charles.

He entered Rome on June 1. The Pope, however, was not there to receive him. Alexander had left on May 28 for Orvieto, accompanied by Cesare, the Sacred College, 200 men-at-arms, and 1,000 horse and 3,000 foot, supplied by Venice. At Orvieto, on June 3, the Pontiff received an ambassador from the Emperor, who had joined the league, and on the 4th he refused audience to the ambassador of France, sent to him from Ronciglione, where the King had halted. Charles, insistent, sent again, determined to see the Pope; but Alexander, quite as determined not to see the king, pushed on to Perugia with his escort.

There his Holiness abode until the French and Italians had met on the River Taro and joined battle at Fornovo, of which encounter both sides claimed the victory. If Charles’s only object was to win through, then the victory undoubtedly was his, for he certainly succeeded in cutting a way through the Italians who disputed his passage. But he suffered heavily, and left behind him most of his precious artillery, his tents and carriages, and the immense Neapolitan booty he was taking home, with which he had loaded (says Gregorovius) twenty thousand mules. All this fell into the hands of the Italian allies under Gonzaga of Mantua, whilst from Fornovo Charles’s retreat was more in the nature of a flight. Thus he won back to France, no whit the better for his expedition, and the only mark of his passage which he left behind him was an obscene ailment, which, with the coming of the French into Italy, first manifested itself in Europe, and which the Italians paid them the questionable compliment of calling “the French disease”–morbo gallico, or il mal francese.

During the Pope’s visit to Perugia an incident occurred which is not without importance to students of his character, and of the character left of him by his contemporaries and others.

There lived in Perugia at this time a young nun of the Order of St. Dominic, who walked in the way of St. Catherine of Siena, Colomba da Rieti by name. You will find some marvellous things about her in the Perugian chronicles of Matarazzo, which, for that matter, abound in marvellous things–too marvellous mostly to be true.

When he deals with events happening beyond the walls of his native town Matarazzo, as an historian, is contemptible to a degree second only to that of those who quote him as an authority. When he deals with matters that, so to speak, befell under his very eyes, he is worthy, if not of credit at least of attention, for his “atmosphere” is valuable.

Of this Sister Colomba Matarazzo tells us that she ate not nor drank, save sometimes some jujube fruit, and even these but rarely. “On the day of her coming to Perugia (which happened in 1488), as she was Crossing the Bridge of St. Gianni some young men attempted to lay hands upon her, for she was comely and beautiful; but as they did so, she showed them the jujube fruit which she carried in a white cloth, whereupon they instantly stood bereft of strength and wits.”

Next he tells us how she would pass from life for an hour or two, and sometimes for half a day, and her pulse would cease to beat, and she would, seem all dead. And then she would quiver and come to herself again, and prophesy the future, and threaten disaster. And again: “One morning two of her teeth were found to have fallen out, which had happened in fighting with the devil; and, for the many intercessions which she made, and the scandals which she repaired by her prayers, the people came to call her saint.”

Notwithstanding all this, and the fact that she lived without nourishment, he tells us that the brothers of St. Francis had little faith in her. Nevertheless, the community built her a very fine monastery, which was richly endowed, and many nuns took the habit of her Order.

Now it happened that whilst at Perugia in his student days, Cesare had witnessed a miracle performed by this poor ecstatic girl; or rather he had arrived on the scene–the Church of St. Catherine of Siena–to find her, with a little naked boy in her lap, the centre of an excited, frenzied crowd, which was proclaiming loudly that the child had been dead and that she had resurrected him. This was a statement which the Prior of the Dominicans did not seem disposed unreservedly to accept, for, when approached with a suggestion that the bells should be rung in honour of the event, he would not admit that he saw any cause to sanction such a course.

In the few years that were sped since then, however, sister Colomba had acquired the great reputation of which Matarazzo tells us, so that, throughout the plain of Tiber, the Dominicans were preaching her fame from convent to convent. In December of 1495 Charles VIII heard of her at Siena, and was stirred by a curiosity which he accounted devotional– the same curiosity that caused one of his gentlemen to entreat Savonarola to perform “just a little miracle” for the King’s entertainment. You can picture the gloomy fanatic’s reception of that invitation.

The Pope now took the opportunity of his sojourn in Perugia to pay Colomba da Rieti a visit, and there can be no doubt that he did so in a critical spirit. Accompanied by Cesare and some cardinals and gentlemen of his following, he went to the Church of St. Dominic and was conducted to the sister’s cell by the Prior–the same who in Cesare’s student-days had refused to have the bells rung.

Upon seeing the magnificent figure of the Pontiff filling the doorway of her little chamber, Sister Colomba fell at his feet, and, taking hold of the hem of his gown, she remained prostrate and silent for some moments, when at last she timidly arose. Alexander set her some questions concerning the Divine Mysteries. These she answered readily at first, but, as his questions grew, she faltered, became embarrassed, and fell silent, standing before him white and trembling, no doubt a very piteous figure. The Pope, not liking this, turned to the Prior to demand an explanation, and admonished him sternly: “Caveto, Pater, quia ego Papa sum!”

This had the effect of throwing the Prior into confusion, and he set himself to explain that she was in reality very wonderful, that he himself had not at first believed in her, but that he had seen so much that he had been converted. At this stage Cesare came to his aid, bearing witness, as he could, that he himself had seen the Prior discredit her when others were already hailing her as a saint, wherefore, if he now was convinced, he must have had very good evidence to convince him. We can imagine the Prior’s gratitude to the young cardinal for that timely word when he saw himself in danger perhaps of being called to account for fostering and abetting an imposture.

What was Alexander’s opinion of her in the end we do not know; but we do know that he was not readily credulous. When, for instance, he heard that the stigmata were alleged to have appeared upon the body of Lucia di Narni he did what might be expected of a sceptic of our own times rather than of a churchman of his superstitious age–he sent his physicians to examine her.

That is but one instance of his common-sense attitude towards supernatural manifestations. His cold, calm judgement caused him to seek, by all available and practical means, to discriminate between the true and the spurious in an age in which men, by their credulity, were but too ready to become the prey of any impostor. It argues a breadth of mind altogether beyond the times in which he had his being. Witches and warlocks, who elsewhere–and even in much later ages, and in Protestant as well as Catholic States–were given to the fire, he contemptuously ignored. The unfortunate Moors and Jews, who elsewhere in Europe were being persecuted by the Holy Inquisition and burnt at the stake as an act of faith for the good of their souls and the greater honour and glory of God, found in Alexander a tolerant protector and in Rome a safe shelter.

These circumstances concerning him are not sufficiently known; it is good to know them for their own sake. But, apart from that, they have a great historical value which it is well to consider. It is not to be imagined that such breadth of views could be tolerated in a Pope in the dawn of the sixteenth century. The times were not ripe for it; men did not understand it; and what men do not understand they thirst to explain, and have a way of explaining in their own fashion and according to their own lights.

A Pope who did such things could not be a good Pope, since such things must be abhorrent to God–as men conceived God then.

To understand this is to understand much of the bad feeling against Alexander and his family, for this is the source of much of it. Because he did not burn witches and magicians it was presently said that he was himself a warlock, and that he practised black magic. It was not, perhaps, wanton calumny; it was said in good faith, for it was the only reason the times could think of that should account for his restraint. Because he tolerated Moors and Jews it was presently said by some that he was a Moor, by others that he was a Jew, and by others still that he was both.

What wonder, then, if the rancorous Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere venomously dubbed him Moor and Jew, and the rabid fanatic Savonarola screamed that he was no Pope at all, that he was not a Christian, nor did he believe in any God?

Misunderstood in these matters, he was believed to be an infidel, and no crime was too impossible to be fastened upon the man who was believed to be that in the Italy of the Cinquecento.

Alexander, however, was very far from being an infidel, very far from not being a Christian, very far from not believing in God, as he has left abundant evidence in the Bulls he issued during his pontificate. It is certainly wrong to assume–and this is pointed out by l’Espinois–that a private life which seems to ignore the commandments of the Church must preclude the possibility of a public life devoted to the service of the Church. This is far from being the case. Such a state of things–such a dual personality–is by no means inconsistent with churchmen of the fifteenth, or, for that matter, of the twentieth century.

The whole truth of the matter is contained in a Portuguese rhyme, which may roughly be translated:

Soundly Father Thomas preaches.
Don’t do as he does; do as he teaches.

A debauchee may preach virtue with salutary effect, just as a man may preach hygiene without practising the privations which it entails, or may save you from dyspepsia by pointing out to you what is indigestible without himself abstaining from it.

Such was the case of Alexander VI, as we are justified in concluding from the evidence that remains.

Let us consider the apostolic zeal revealed by his Bull granting America to Spain. This was practically conceded–as the very terms of it will show–on condition that Spain should employ the dominion accorded her over the New World for the purpose of propagating the Christian faith and the conversion and baptism of the heathen. This is strictly enjoined, and emphasized by the command that Spain shall send out God-fearing men who are learned in religion and capable of teaching it to the people of the newly discovered lands.

Thus Alexander invented the missionary.

To King Manuel the Fortunate (of Portugal), who sought his authority for the conquest of Africa, he similarly enjoined that he should contrive that the name of the Saviour be adored there, and the Catholic faith spread and honoured, to the end that the king “might win eternal life and the blessing of the Holy See.”

To the soldiers going upon this expedition his Holiness granted the same indulgences as to those who fought in the Holy Land, and he aided the kings of Spain and Portugal in this propagation of Christianity out of the coffers of the Church.

He sent to America a dozen of the children of St. Francis, as apostles to preach the Faith, and he invested them with the amplest powers.

He prosecuted with stern rigour the heretics of Bohemia, who were obscenely insulting Church and Sacraments, and he proceeded similarly against the “Picards” and “Vaudois.” Against the Lombard demoniacs, who had grown bold, were banding themselves together and doing great evil to property, to life, and to religion, Alexander raised his mighty arm.

Then there is his Bull of June 1, 1501, against those who already were turning to evil purposes the newly discovered printing-press. In this he inveighed against the printing of matter prejudicial to healthy doctrine, to good manners, and, above all, to the Catholic Faith or anything that should give scandal to the faithful. He threatened the printers of impious works with excommunication should they persist, and enlisted secular weapons to punish them in a temporal as well as a spiritual manner. He ordered the preparation of indexes of all works containing anything hurtful to religion, and pronounced a ban of excommunication against all who should peruse the books so indexed.

Thus Alexander invented the Index Expurgatorius.

There is abundant evidence that he was a fervid celebrant, and of his extreme devotion to the Blessed Virgin–in whose honour he revived the ringing of the Angelus Bell–shall be considered later.

Whatever his private life, it is idle to seek to show that his public career was other than devoted to the upholding of the dignity and honour of the Church.



Having driven Charles VIII out of Italy, it still remained for the allies to remove all traces of his passage from Naples and to restore the rule of the House of Aragon. In this they had the aid of Ferdinand and Isabella, who sent an army under the command of that distinguished soldier Gonzalo de Cordoba, known in his day as the Great Captain.

He landed in Calabria in the spring of 1496, and war broke out afresh through that already sorely devastated land. The Spaniards were joined by the allied forces of Venice and the Church under the condotta of the Marquis Gonzaga of Mantua, the leader of the Italians at Fornovo.

Lodovico had detached himself from the league, and again made terms with France for his own safety’s sake. But his cousin, Giovanni Sforza, Tyrant of Pesaro–the husband of Lucrezia Borgia–continued in the pontifical army at the head of a condotta of 600 lances. Another command in the same ranks was one of 700 lances under the youthful Giuffredo Borgia, now Prince of Squillace and the husband of Doña Sancia of Aragon, a lady of exceedingly loose morals, who had brought to Rome the habits acquired in the most licentious Court of that licentious age.

The French lost Naples even more easily than they had conquered it, and by July 7 Ferdinand II was able to reenter his capital and reascend his throne. D’Aubigny, the French general, withdrew to France, whilst Montpensier, the Viceroy, retired to Pozzuoli, where he died in the following year.

Nothing could better have suited the purposes of Alexander than the state of things which now prevailed, affording him, as it did, the means to break the power of the insolent Roman barons, who already had so vexed and troubled him. So in the Consistory of June 1 he published a Bull whereby Gentile Virginio Orsini, Giangiordano Orsini, and his bastard Paolo Orsini and Bartolomeo d’Alviano, were declared outlawed for having borne arms with France against the Church, and their possessions were confiscated to the State. This decree was to be enforced by the sword, and, for the purposes of the impending war, the Duke of Gandia was recalled to Rome. He arrived early in August, having left at Gandia his wife Maria Enriquez, a niece of the Royal House of Spain. It was Cesare Borgia who took the initiative in the pomp with which his brother was received in Rome, riding out at the head of the entire Pontifical Court to meet and welcome the young duke.

In addition to being Duke of Gandia, Giovanni Borgia was already Duke of Sessa and Prince of Teano, which further dignities had been conferred upon him on the occasion of his brother Giuffredo’s marriage to Donna Sancia. To these the Pope now added the governorship of Viterbo and of the Patrimony of St. Peter, dispossessing Cardinal Farnese of the latter office to bestow it upon this well-beloved son.

In Venice it was being related, a few months later,–in October–that Gandia had brought a woman from Spain for his father, and that the latter had taken her to live with him. The story is given in Sanuto, and of course has been unearthed and served up by most historians and essayists. It cannot positively be said that it is untrue; but it can be said that it is unconfirmed. There is, for instance, no word of it in Burchard’s Diarium, and when you consider how ready a chronicler of scandalous matter was this Master of Ceremonies, you will no doubt conclude that, if any foundation there had been for that Venetian story, Burchard would never have been silent on the subject.

The Pope had taken into his pay that distinguished condottiero, Duke Guidobaldo of Urbino, who later was to feel the relentless might of Cesare. To Guidobaldo’s command was now entrusted the punitive expedition against the Orsini, and with him was to go the Duke of Gandia, ostensibly to share the leadership, in reality that, under so able a master, he might serve his apprenticeship to the trade of arms. So on October 25 Giovanni Borgia was very solemnly created Gonfalonier of the Church and Captain-General of the pontifical troops. On the same day the three standards were blessed in St. Peter’s–one being the Papal Gonfalon bearing the arms of the Church and the other two the personal banners of Guidobaldo and Gandia. The two condottieri attended the ceremony, arrayed in full armour, and received the white truncheons that were the emblems of their command.

On the following day the army set out, accompanied by the Cardinal de Luna as papal legate a latere, and within a month ten Orsini strongholds had surrendered.

So far all had been easy for the papal forces; but now the Orsini rallied in the last three fortresses that remained them–Bracciano, Trevignano, and Anguillara, and their resistance suddenly acquired a stubborn character, particularly that of Bracciano, which was captained by Bartolomeo d’Alviano, a clever, resourceful young soldier who was destined to go far. Thus the campaign, so easily conducted at the outset, received a check which caused it to drag on into the winter. And now the barons received further reinforcements. Vitellozzo Vitelli, the Tyrant of Città di Castello, came to the aid of the Orsini, as did also the turbulent Baglioni of Perugia, the della Rovere in Rome, and all those who were inimical to Alexander VI. On the other hand, however, the barons Colonna and Savelli ranged themselves on the side of the Pope.

Already Trevignano had fallen, and the attack of the pontifical army was concentrated upon Bracciano. Hard pressed, and with all supplies cut off, Bartolomeo d’Alviano was driven to the very verge of surrender, when over the hills came Carlo Orsini, with the men of Vitellozzo Vitelli, to take the papal forces by surprise and put them to utter rout. Guidobaldo was made prisoner, whilst the Duke of Gandia, Fabrizio Colonna, and the papal legate narrowly escaped, and took shelter in Ronciglione, the Pope’s son being slightly wounded in the face.

It was a severe and sudden conclusion to a war that had begun under such excellent auspices for the Pontificals. Yet, notwithstanding that defeat, which had left guns and baggage in the hands of the enemy, the Pope was the gainer by the campaign, having won eleven strongholds from the Orsini in exchange for one battle lost.

The barons now prepared to push home their advantage and complete the victory; but the Pope checkmated them by an appeal to Gonzalo de Cordoba, who promptly responded and came with Prospero Colonna to the aid of the Church. He laid siege to Ostia, which was being held for the Cardinal della Rovere, and compelled it to a speedy surrender, thereby bringing the Orsini resistance practically to an end. For the present the might of the barons was broken, and they were forced to pay Alexander the sum of 50,000 ducats to redeem their captured fortresses.

Gonzalo de Cordoba made a triumphal entry into Rome, bringing with him Monaldo da Guerra, the unfortunate defender of Ostia, in chains. He was received with great honour by the Duke of Gandia, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Giovanni Sforza, and they escorted him to the Vatican, where the Pope awaited him.

This was but one of the many occasions just then on which Giovanni Sforza was conspicuous in public in close association with his father-in-law, the Pope. Burchard mentions his presence at the blessing of the candles on the Feast of the Purification, and shows him to us as a candle-bearer standing on the Pope’s right hand. Again we see him on Palm Sunday in attendance upon Alexander, he and Gandia standing together on the steps of the pontifical throne in the Sixtine Chapel during the Blessing of the Palms. There and elsewhere Lucrezia’s husband is prominently in the public eye during those months of February and March of 1497, and we generally see him sharing, with the Duke of Gandia, the honour of close attendance upon the Pontiff, all of which but serves to render the more marked his sudden disappearance from that scene.

The matter of his abrupt and precipitate flight from Rome is one concerning which it is unlikely that the true and complete facts will ever be revealed. It was public gossip at this time that his marriage with Lucrezia was not a happy one, and that discord marred their life together. Lucrezia’s reported grievance upon this subject reads a little vaguely to us now, whatever it may have conveyed at the time. She complained that Giovanni “did not fittingly keep her company,”(1) which may be taken to mean that a good harmony did not prevail between them, or, almost equally well, that there were the canonical grounds for complaint against him as a husband which were afterwards formally preferred and made the grounds for the divorce. It is also possible that Alexander’s ambition may have urged him to dissolve the marriage to the end that she might be free to be used again as a pawn in his far-reaching game.

1 “Che non gli faceva buona compagnia.”

All that we do know positively is that, one evening in Holy Week, Sforza mounted a Turkish horse, and, on the pretext of going as far as the Church of Sant’ Onofrio to take the air, he slipped out of Rome, and so desperately did he ride that, twenty-four hours later, he was home in Pesaro, his horse dropping dead as he reached the town.

Certainly some terrible panic must have urged him, and this rather lends colour to the story told by Almerici in the Memorie di Pesaro. According to this, the Lord of Pesaro’s chamberlain, Giacomino, was in Lucrezia’s apartments one evening when Cesare was announced, whereupon, by Lucrezia’s orders, Giacomino concealed himself behind a screen. The Cardinal of Valencia entered and talked freely with his sister, the essence of his conversation being that the order had been issued for her husband’s death.

The inference to be drawn from this is that Giovanni had been given to choose in the matter of a divorce, and that he had refused to be a party to it, whence it was resolved to remove him in a still more effective manner.

Be that as it may, the chroniclers of Pesaro proceed to relate that, after Cesare had left her, Lucrezia asked Giacomino if he had heard what had been said, and, upon being answered in the affirmative, urged him to go at once and warn Giovanni. It was as a consequence of this alleged warning that Giovanni made his precipitate departure.

A little while later, at the beginning of June, Lucrezia left the Vatican and withdrew to the Convent of San Sisto, in the Appian Way, a step which immediately gave rise to speculation and to unbridled gossip, all of which, however, is too vague to be worthy of the least attention. Aretino’s advices to the Cardinal Ippolito d’Este suggest that she did not leave the Vatican on good terms with her family, and it is very possible, if what the Pesaro chroniclers state is true, that her withdrawal arose out of her having warned Giovanni of his danger and enabled him to escape.

At about the same time that Lucrezia withdrew to her convent her brother Gandia was the recipient of further honours at the hands of his fond father. The Pope had raised the fief of Benevento to a dukedom, and as a dukedom conferred it upon his son, to him and to his legitimate heirs for ever. To this he added the valuable lordships of Terracina and Pontecorvo.

Cesare, meanwhile, had by no means been forgotten, and already this young cardinal was–with perhaps the sole exception of the Cardinal d’Estouteville–the richest churchman in Christendom. To his many other offices and benefices it was being proposed to add that of Chamberlain of the Holy See, Cardinal Riario, who held the office, being grievously ill and his recovery despaired of. Together with that office it was the Pope’s avowed intention to bestow upon Cesare the palace of the late Cardinal of Mantua, and with it, no doubt, he would receive a proportion of the dead cardinal’s benefices.

Cesare was twenty-two years of age at the time; tall, of an athletic slenderness, and exceedingly graceful in his movements, he was acknowledged to be the handsomest man of his age. His face was long and pale, his brow lofty, his nose delicately aquiline. He had long auburn hair, and his hazel eyes, large, quick in their movements, and singularly searching in their glance, were alive with the genius of the soul behind them. He inherited from his father the stupendous health and vigour for which Alexander had been remarkable in his youth, and was remarkable still in his old age. The chase had ever been Cesare’s favourite pastime, and the wild boar his predilect quarry; and in the pursuit of it he had made good use of his exceptional physical endowments, cultivating them until–like his father before him–he was equal to the endurance of almost any degree of fatigue.

In the Consistory of June 8 he was appointed legate a latere to go to Naples to crown King Federigo of Aragon–for in the meanwhile another change had taken place on the Neapolitan throne by the death of young Ferdinand II, who had been succeeded by his uncle, Federigo, Prince of Altamura.

Cesare made ready for his departure upon this important mission, upon which he was to be accompanied by his brother Giovanni, Duke of Gandia. They were both to be back in Rome by September, when Gandia was to return to Spain, taking with him his sister Lucrezia.

Thus had the Pope disposed; but the Borgia family stood on the eve of the darkest tragedy associated with its name, a tragedy which was to alter all these plans.



On June 14, 1497, the eve of Cesare and Giovanni Borgia’s departure for Naples, their mother Vannozza gave them a farewell supper in her beautiful vineyard in Trastevere. In addition to the two guests of honour several other kinsmen and friends were present, among whom were the Cardinal of Monreale and young Giuffredo Borgia. They remained at supper until an advanced hour of the night, when Cesare and Giovanni took their departure, attended only by a few servants and a mysterious man in a mask, who had come to Giovanni whilst he was at table, and who almost every day for about a month had been in the habit of visiting him at the Vatican.

The brothers and these attendants rode together into Rome and as far as the Vice-Chancellor Ascanio Sforza’s palace in the Ponte Quarter. Here Giovanni drew rein, and informed Cesare that he would not be returning to the Vatican just yet, as he was first “going elsewhere to amuse himself.” With that he took his leave of Cesare, and, with one single exception–in addition to the man in the mask–dismissed his servants. The latter continued their homeward way with the cardinal, whilst the Duke, taking the man in the mask upon the crupper of his horse and followed his single attendant, turned and made off in the direction of the Jewish quarter.

In the morning it was found that Giovanni had not yet returned, and his uneasy servants informed the Pope of his absence and of the circumstances of it. The Pope, however, was not at all alarmed. Explaining his son’s absence in the manner so obviously suggested by Giovanni’s parting words to Cesare on the previous night, he assumed that the gay young Duke was on a visit to some complacent lady and that presently he would return.

Later in the day, however, news was brought that his horse had been found loose in the streets, in the neighbourhood of the Cardinal of Parma’s palace, with only one stirrup-leather, the other having clearly been cut from the saddle, and, at the same time, it was related that the servant who had accompanied him after he had separated from the rest had been found at dawn in the Piazza della Giudecca mortally wounded and beyond speech, expiring soon after his removal to a neighbouring house.

Alarm spread through the Vatican, and the anxious Pope ordered inquiries to be made in every quarter where it was possible that anything might be learned. It was in answer to these inquiries that a boatman of the Schiavoni–one Giorgio by name–came forward with the story of what he had seen on the night of Wednesday. He had passed the night on board his boat, on guard over the timber with which she was laden. She was moored along the bank that runs from the Bridge of Sant’ Angelo to the Church of Santa Maria Nuova.

He related that at about the fifth hour of the night, just before daybreak, he had seen two men emerge from the narrow street alongside the Hospital of San Girolamo, and stand on the river’s brink at the spot where it was usual for the scavengers to discharge their refuse carts into the water. These men had looked carefully about, as if to make sure that they were not being observed. Seeing no one astir, they made a sign, whereupon a man well mounted on a handsome white horse, his heels armed with golden spurs, rode out of that same narrow street. Behind him, on the crupper of his horse, Giorgio beheld the body of a man, the head hanging in one direction and the legs in the other. This body was supported there by two other men on foot, who walked on either side of the horseman.

Arrived at the water’s edge, they turned the horse’s hind-quarters to the river; then, taking the body between them, two of them swung it well out into the stream. After the splash, Giorgio had heard the horseman inquire whether they had thrown well into the middle, and had heard him receive the affirmative answer–“Signor, Si.” The horseman then sat scanning the surface a while, and presently pointed out a dark object floating, which proved to be their victim’s cloak. The men threw stones at it, and so sank it, whereupon they turned, and all five departed as they had come.

Such is the boatman’s story, as related in the Diarium of Burchard. When the Pope had heard it, he asked the fellow why he had not immediately gone to give notice of what he had witnessed, to which this Giorgio replied that, in his time, he had seen over a hundred bodies thrown into the Tiber without ever anybody troubling to know anything about them.

This story and Gandia’s continued absence threw the Pope into a frenzy of apprehension. He ordered the bed of the river to be searched foot by foot. Some hundreds of boatmen and fishermen got to work, and on that same afternoon the body of the ill-fated Duke of Gandia was brought up in one of the nets. He was not only completely dressed–as was to have been expected from Giorgio’s story–but his gloves and his purse containing thirty ducats were still at his belt, as was his dagger, the only weapon he had carried; the jewels upon his person, too, were all intact, which made it abundantly clear that his assassination was not the work of thieves.

His hands were still tied, and there were from ten to fourteen wounds on his body, in addition to which his throat had been cut.

The corpse was taken in a boat to the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, where it was stripped, washed, and arrayed in the garments of the Captain-General of the Church. That same night, on a bier, the body covered with a mantle of brocade, the face “looking more beautiful than in life,” he was carried by torchlight from Sant’ Angelo to Santa Maria del Popolo for burial, quietly and with little pomp.

The Pope’s distress was terrible. As the procession was crossing the Bridge of Sant’ Angelo, those who stood there heard his awful cries of anguish, as is related in the dispatches of an eye-witness quoted by Sanuto. Alexander shut himself up in his apartments with his passionate sorrow, refusing to see anybody; and it was only by insistence that the Cardinal of Segovia and some of the Pope’s familiars contrived to gain admission to his presence; but even then, not for three days could they induce him to taste food, nor did he sleep.

At last he roused himself, partly in response to the instances of the Cardinal of Segovia, partly spurred by the desire to avenge the death of his child, and he ordered Rome to be ransacked for the assassins; but, although the search was pursued for two months, it proved utterly fruitless.

That is the oft-told story of the death of the Duke of Gandia. Those are all the facts concerning it that are known or that ever will be known. The rest is speculation, and this speculation follows the trend of malice rather than of evidence.

Suspicion fell at first upon Giovanni Sforza, who was supposed to have avenged himself thus upon the Pope for the treatment he had received. There certainly existed that reasonable motive to actuate him, but not a particle of evidence against him.

Next rumour had it that Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s was the hand that had done this work, and with this rumour Rome was busy for months. It was known that he had quarrelled violently with Gandia, who had been grossly insulted by a chamberlain of Ascanio’s, and who had wiped out the insult by having the man seized and hanged.

Sanuto quotes a letter from Rome on July 21, which states that “it is certain that Ascanio murdered the Duke of Gandia.” Cardinal Ascanio’s numerous enemies took care to keep the accusation alive at the Vatican, and Ascanio, in fear for his life, had left Rome and fled to Grottaferrata. When summoned to Rome, he had refused to come save under safe­conduct. His fears, however, appear to have been groundless, for the Pope attached no importance to the accusation against him, convinced of his innocence, as he informed him.

Thereupon public opinion looked about for some other likely person upon whom to fasten its indictment, and lighted upon Giuffredo Borgia, Gandia’s youngest brother. Here, again, a motive was not wanting. Already has mention been made of the wanton ways of Giuffredo’s Neapolitan wife, Doña Sancia. That she was prodigal of her favours there is no lack of evidence, and it appears that, amongst those she admitted to them, was the dead duke. Jealousy, then, it was alleged, was the spur that had driven Giuffredo to the deed; and that the rumour of this must have been insistent is clear when we find the Pope publicly exonerating his youngest son.

Thus matters stood, and thus had public opinion spoken, when in the month of August the Pope ordered the search for the murderer to cease. Bracci, the Florentine ambassador, explains this action of Alexander’s. He writes that his Holiness knew who were the murderers, and that he was taking no further steps in the matter in the hope that thus, conceiving themselves to be secure, they might more completely discover themselves.

Bracci’s next letter bears out the supposition that he writes from inference, and not from knowledge. He repeats that the investigations have been suspended, and that to account for this some say what already he has written, whilst others deny it; but that the truth of the matter is known to none.

Later in the year we find the popular voice denouncing Bartolomeo d’Alviano and the Orsini. Already in August the Ferrarese ambassador, Manfredi, had written that the death of the Duke of Gandia was being imputed to Bartolomeo d’Alviano, and in December we see in Sanuto a letter from Rome which announces that it is positively stated that the Orsini had caused the death of Giovanni Borgia.

These various rumours were hardly worth mentioning for their own values, but they are important as showing how public opinion fastened the crime in turn upon everybody it could think of as at all likely to have had cause to commit it, and more important still for the purpose of refuting what has since been written concerning the immediate connection of Cesare Borgia with the crime in the popular mind.

Not until February of the following year was the name of Cesare ever mentioned in connection with the deed. The first rumour of his guilt synchronized with that of his approaching renunciation of his ecclesiastical career, and there can be little doubt that the former sprang from the latter. The world conceived that it had discovered on Cesare’s part a motive for the murder of his brother. That motive–of which so very much has been made–shall presently be examined. Meanwhile, to deal with the actual rumour, and its crystallization into history. The Ferrarese ambassador heard it in Venice on February 12, 1498. Capello seized upon it, and repeated it two and a half years later, stating on September 28, 1500: “etiam amazó il fratello.”

And there you have the whole source of all the unbridled accusations subsequently launched against Cesare, all of which find a prominent place in Gregorovius’s Geschichte der Stadt Rom, whilst the rumours accusing others, which we have mentioned here, are there slurred over.

One hesitates to attack the arguments and conclusions of the very eminent author of that mighty History of Rome in the Middle Ages, but conscience and justice demand that his chapter upon this subject be dealt with as it deserves.

The striking talents of Gregorovius are occasionally marred by the egotism and pedantry sometimes characteristic of the scholars of his nation. He is too positive; he seldom opines; he asserts with finality the things that only God can know; occasionally his knowledge, transcending the possible, quits the realm of the historian for that of the romancer, as for instance–to cite one amid a thousand–when he actually tells us what passes in Cesare Borgia’s mind at the coronation of the King of Naples. In the matter of authorities, he follows a dangerous and insidious eclecticism, preferring those who support the point of view which he has chosen, without a proper regard for their intrinsic values.

He tells us definitely that, if Alexander had not positive knowledge, he had at least moral conviction that it was Cesare who had killed the Duke of Gandia. In that, again, you see the God-like knowledge which he usurps; you see him clairvoyant rather than historical. Starting out with the positive assertion that Cesare Borgia was the murderer, he sets himself to prove it by piling up a mass of worthless evidence, whose worthlessness it is unthinkable he should not have realized.

“According to the general opinion of the day, which in all probability was correct, Cesare was the murderer of his brother.”

Thus Gregorovius in his Lucrezia Borgia. A deliberate misstatement! For, as we have been at pains to show, not until the crime had been fastened upon everybody whom public opinion could conceive to be a possible assassin, not until nearly a year after Gandia’s death did rumour for the first time connect Cesare with the deed. Until then the ambassadors’ letters from Rome in dealing with the murder and reporting speculation upon possible murderers never make a single allusion to Cesare as the guilty person.

Later, when once it had been bruited, it found its way into the writings of every defamer of the Borgias, and from several of these it is taken by Gregorovius to help him uphold that theory.

Two motives were urged for the crime. One was Cesare’s envy of his brother, whom he desired to supplant as a secular prince, fretting in the cassock imposed upon himself which restrained his unbounded ambition. The other–and no epoch but this one under consideration, in its reaction from the age of chivalry, could have dared to level it without a careful examination of its sources–was Cesare’s jealousy, springing from the incestuous love for their sister Lucrezia, which he is alleged to have disputed with his brother. Thus, as l’Espinois has pointed out, to convict Cesare Borgia of a crime which cannot absolutely be proved against him, all that is necessary is that he should be charged with another crime still more horrible of which even less proof exists.

This latter motive, it is true, is rejected by Gregorovius. “Our sense of honesty,” he writes, “repels us from attaching faith to the belief spread in that most corrupt age.” Yet the authorities urging one motive are commonly those urging the other, and Gregorovius quotes those that suit him, without considering that, if he is convinced they lie in one connection, he has not the right to assume them truthful in another.

The contemporary, or quasi-contemporary writers upon whose “authority” it is usual to show that Cesare Borgia was guilty of both those revolting crimes are: Sanazzaro, Capello, Macchiavelli, Matarazzo, Sanuto, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, Guicciardini, and Panvinio.

A formidable array! But consider them, one by one, at close quarters, and take a critical look at what they actually wrote:

SANAZZARO was a Neapolitan poet and epigrammatist, who could not–his times being what they were–be expected to overlook the fact that in these slanderous rumours of incest was excellent matter for epigrammatical verse. Therefore, he crystallized them into lines which, whilst doing credit to his wit, reveal his brutal cruelty. No one will seriously suppose that such a man would be concerned with the veracity of the matter of his verses–even leaving out of the question his enmity towards the House of Borgia, which will transpire later. For him a ben trovato was as good matter as a truth, or better. He measured its value by its piquancy, by its adaptability to epigrammatic rhymes.

Conceive the heartlessness of the man who, at the moment of Alexander’s awful grief at the murder of his son–a grief which so moved even his enemies that the bitter Savonarola, and the scarcely less bitter Cardinal della Rovere, wrote to condole with him–could pen that terrible epigram:

Piscatorem hominum ne te non, Sexte, putemus, Piscaris notum retibus ecce tuum.

Consider the ribaldry of that, and ask yourselves whether this is a man who would immolate the chance of a witticism upon the altar of Truth.

It is significant that Sanazzaro, for what he may be worth, confines himself to the gossip of incest. Nowhere does he mention that Cesare was the murderer, and we think that his silence upon the matter, if it shows anything, shows that Cesare’s guilt was not so very much the “general opinion of the day,” as Gregorovius asks us to believe.

CAPPELLO was not in Rome at the time of the murder, nor until three years later, when he merely repeated the rumour that had first sprung up some eight months after the crime.

The precise value of his famous “relation” (in which this matter is recorded, and to which we shall return in its proper place) and the spirit that actuated him is revealed in another accusation of murder which he levels at Cesare, an accusation which, of course, has also been widely disseminated upon no better authority than his own. It is Capello