"AUT CAESAR AUT NIHIL"
IT WAS IN THE MIDDLE of July 1499 that news reached Rome that the king of France was gathering his troops in Lyons ready for the invasion of Italy and the military campaign to enforce his claims to Milan and Naples. Knowing what was in store for his family, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza fled the city to join his brother, Duke Ludovico. The pope's son-in-law, Alfonso of Aragon, left on August 2, riding toward Naples, much to the misery of Lucrezia; the young man, according to the Venetian ambassador, had "deserted his wife who has been with child for six months and she cries constantly." A few days later, Alexander VI sent his reluctant daughter-in-law Sancia off to join her brother in Naples and, on August 8, dispatched their spouses, Lucrezia and Jofrè, north to Spoleto, a town in the Apennines, to which he now appointed the nineteen-year-old Lucrezia as governor, an unusual appointment but one that confirmed the respect the pope had for his daughter's abilities and the trust he placed in her loyalty—it was an appointment that would have been conventional for a son. Out of respect for her delicate condition, he equipped her with a litter, which was decorated inside with white and crimson satin, to ease what would be an extremely uncomfortable journey up into the hills in the harsh summer heat.
Cesare, meanwhile, had taken leave of his new bride in early July, just two months after his wedding, and ridden south from Blois to join the French troops massing at Lyons. With an army of six thousand cavalry, one company of which was under Cesare's command, and seventeen thousand infantry, Louis XII was optimistic about his chances of conquering the prosperous duchy of Milan. He declined, however, to lead the troops himself, preferring instead to follow the old French tradition whereby a king without a direct male heir should remain in France.
By the end of the month, the French army had crossed the Alps, negotiating the passes with ease in the midsummer heat, and were now encamped on the Po plain. Alessandria capitulated after a short siege, and several other towns, mindful of the price they would pay for resistance, chose to surrender peacefully. On September 2 Duke Ludovico Sforza, who was not popular in Milan and was suspected by many of having poisoned his nephew to acquire his title, fled the city. The Milanese, unwilling to suffer as Alessandria had done, opened their gates to the French invaders. A month later, on Sunday, October 6, Louis XII made his formal entry into the city, hailed as "King of the Franks, Duke of Milan."
Leading the cavalcade was an armed guard of six hundred soldiers, followed by Louis XII'S general carrying the gilded baton. The French king rode a bay charger caparisoned in gold and clattered triumphantly through the city streets, which had been hung with white awnings emblazoned with the French fleur-de-lis. Also taking part in the procession were Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, as well as the ambassadors of Venice, Spain, Genoa, Florence, Ferrara, and Mantua. The cavalcade, however, was not greeted with as much enthusiasm as Louis XII had hoped; one Venetian eyewitness reported that he heard only a few shouting, "France! France!"
The once-proud Sforza dynasty had collapsed into ruins. When Louis XII opened the treasure chests in the Castello Sforzesco, Ludovico's massive fortress, he found them empty—Ludovico had managed to escape with a fortune in gold and jewels. Leonardo's famous fresco of The Last Supper in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, to which the king made a special visit, accompanied by Cesare, had already begun to flake off the walls of the refectory, and, saddest of all, Leonardo's clay model of a horse, intended by Ludovico Sforza for a bronze equestrian statue of his father, Francesco, had symbolically crumbled under the shots of the French soldiers who had used it for target practice.
With the French conquest of Milan accomplished, Cesare had fulfilled his part of the bargain that his father, the pope, had reached with the king of France, and it was time for Louis XII to honour the promise he had made to Cesare, to provide him with a contingent of French troops to fight under the duke's orders. The arrival of the French army in Italy provided Alexander VI and his son with the pretext they needed to establish a state for Cesare in northern Italy, using the thinly disguised excuse of the need to reassert control of the Papal States to counter the strong French presence in the area.
The Papal States covered a large area in northern and central Italy, stretching down the Adriatic coast from Bologna and Ravenna to Ancona and across the Apennines into the Tiber valley to include Lazio and the countryside around Rome. It was a mosaic of small states, each belonging to the church, bordered to the north by the duchy of Ferrara and to the south by that of Urbino, both papal fiefs, and to the west by the independent Republic of Florence. Some of these states were administered directly from Rome, like Spoleto, where Lucrezia was governor; others were ruled by quasi-autonomous lords, known as vicars.
As Niccolò Machiavelli observed without excessive exaggeration, these lands were "a nursery of all the worst crimes, of outbreaks of rapine and murder, resulting from the wickedness of local lords and not, as these lords maintained, from the disposition of their subjects. For these lords were poor, yet endeavouring to live as though they were rich, they resorted to innumerable cruelties ... and passed laws prohibiting certain acts only to give occasion for breaking them ... and punishing offenders by imposing heavy fines which they collected." The area might have been intermittently lawless, but much of it was highly fertile, especially in the north, where agriculture flourished on the alluvial soils of the Po plain. It was also of enormous strategic importance, offering the possibility, once firmly unified, of a state as considerable as those of Naples, Venice, or Florence. It was this area that Alexander VI intended, with the help of the French, to unite into a duchy for his son.
In October, shortly after Louis XII's triumphant entry into Milan, Alexander VI announced that "the vicars of Rimini, Pesaro, Imola, Forlì, Camerino and Faenza, as well as the Duke of Urbino, feudatories of the Church in Rome, have failed to pay their annual census to the Apostolic Chamber," according to Burchard's report, "and so [the pope] has removed their titles and declared them forfeit." Burchard added that the city of Milan—by which he meant the new French government—had loaned 45,000 ducats to the pope to raise troops to retake these territories: "The Duke of Valence," he reported, "captain of these troops, has received this sum in the name of the Church."
On November 18 Cesare returned to Rome for a brief visit, entering the city late that afternoon through one of the smaller gates to avoid detection. He spent the next two days at the Vatican, much of the time in private discussion with his father, though he did find the opportunity to visit his beloved Lucrezia, who had given birth to a baby boy during the night of November 1. The boy had been christened Rodrigo, after his grandfather, in a splendid ceremony in St. Peter's, attended by all those cardinals who were in Rome.
Cesare left Rome again on November 21, and rode north with all possible speed, accompanied by 1,500 soldiers of the papal army, toward the northern borders of the Papal States, where his French troops—4,000 infantry and 1,800 cavalry under the command of Yves d'Alègre—were waiting for him. He was now ready to embark on the first stage of his campaign to establish the rule of the Borgia over the Romagna in the name of the church with an attack on Imola and Forlì, two towns on the great Roman road, the Via Emilia, which were held in the name of the Riario family by Girolamo Riario's widow, Caterina Sforza-Riario.
Alexander VI, meanwhile, dispatched the fifty-two-year-old cardinal of Monreale, the pope's nephew and another victim of the mal francese, to Venice in order to reassure the government of that city that Venetian interests in the Romagna were not under threat, a gesture that acquired greater force when backed openly by Louis XII. The French king personally reassured the Bentivoglio family, the rulers of Bologna, that he would safeguard their state. But he made it clear that the Borgia campaign had his backing: "At the request of our Holy Father," he wrote, "and wishing to help him re-cover those lands, signories and domains [of the Papal States] and especially the castles and lands of Imola and Forlì, we have appointed our dear and well-beloved cousin, the Duke of Valence, as our lieutenant."
With the self-confidence he now always chose to display, Cesare announced that the "recovery of the lands and lordships of Imola and Forlì" would now be achieved without undue delay. The Riario family, he insisted, had become so disliked by their subjects that they could not depend upon the resistance of the inhabitants, who were more than likely to open their gates to their liberators. This confident estimate, however, did not take into account the resolution of Girolamo Riario's widow, Caterina Sforza-Riario.
Imola proved no obstacle, and the fortress surrendered to Cesare's armies on December 11, after a brief, almost token resistance by Caterina Sforza-Riario's castellan, and six days later Alexander VI's great-nephew Cardinal Juan Borgia received the oath of obedience from the civic authorities on behalf of the pope. Forlì, however, was to prove a greater obstacle; the city itself fell without a struggle but the fortress, to which Caterina had retreated, was one of the strongest in Italy. While she held out inside the castle, Cesare entered Forlì with his lance at rest in silent acknowledgement of his victory. French and Swiss mercenaries, followed by hundreds of rapacious camp followers, poured in through the gates, plundering the captured towns and violating their women.
Cesare made little effort to stem the violence: when the citizens appealed to him to curb his soldiers, he used the spurious excuse that the troops were answerable to the king of France and he could not control them. He did, however, succeed in placating the responsible citizens of both Imola and Forlì by assuring them that if he survived to keep his promise, he would make it up to them and ensure that when peace was fully restored, they would be re-appointed to any offices they might have undeservedly lost.
Caterina was a remarkable woman. The illegitimate daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza, she was now thirty-six years old. Tall and beautiful, brave and unscrupulous, she was given to outbursts of fury, real or assumed, and was "much feared by her men," who knew her among themselves as the Virago. On occasion she wore full armour, adapted to conform to her full figure, and was immediately recognized by the falcon perched on her arm. She had been married three times, had had several lovers, and had borne nine children.
After the assassination of her husband, Girolamo Riario, in 1488, she had run for shelter to the castle in Forlì, leaving her children to the mercy of his murderers, who had threatened to kill them too. She had responded in a characteristic manner, standing on the battlements of the castle, her skirt raised in her arms and shouting: "Fools! Can't you see that I can make more?"
She was also alleged to be a witch with an arcane knowledge of magical potions, the recipes for which she kept in a safely guarded book and that were, in fact, potions, salves, bleaches, and all kinds of cosmetics that she used to preserve and enhance her undoubted beauty.
Her first reaction upon hearing that the pope had confiscated her state was to plan his murder. On the evening of the day that Cesare had left Rome, Burchard reported, "a certain Tomasino da Forlì, a musician of the Pope, and one of his colleagues were arrested and taken to Castel Sant'Angelo." It emerged that Tomasino had just arrived in Rome carrying letters that purported to be an offer of peace from Caterina and that he had intended, after bribing one of the Vatican guards to gain entry to the palace, to present to the pope in person.
"If the Pope had opened them," continued Burchard, "he would have been poisoned and would have been dead a few hours or days later." Tomasino confessed that "it had been his firm belief that, once the Pope was dead, the cities of Imola and Forlì would have been liberated from the siege imposed by the Duke of Valence." What exactly had been in the package no one knew for sure, but it was widely rumoured that Caterina had wrapped the letters in the grave cloth of the corpse of a man who had recently died of the plague. Her nephew Cardinal Raffaello Riario fled Rome a few days later, taking with him a small group of servants and sticking to minor roads to evade any pursuers.
Despite the failure of her devious plot, the formidable Caterina still refused to give up, and she now waited in her citadel above the town at Forlì, determined to hold out as long as she could against the Borgia advance. Standing defiantly on the ramparts, she rebuffed Cesare when he came up twice to the edge of the moat to demand her surrender, and on one of these occasions, so it was reported, she almost captured him by inducing him to come onto the drawbridge to discuss the terms and then giving orders for the drawbridge to be raised.
By the last week of the year 1499, Cesare's French troops had put their artillery in position and the attack on the castle began in earnest. Whenever the guns fell silent for a time, Caterina could be seen scrambling over fallen masonry, sometimes in armour and with her sword in hand, at others dressed as though for some grand fête, always apparently undaunted.
The outcome, however, was never in doubt. After two weeks of heavy bombardment, with Cesare's gunners battering the citadel by night as well as by day, the keep collapsed and then a large part of the outer wall fell into the moat. A storming party crossed the moat on rafts, clambering up the tumbled stones and through the breach in the walls, pouring into the fortress to hack and stab at the defenders. On January 14 the defence collapsed, four hundred of Caterina's soldiers were dead, and Caterina herself was taken prisoner. The slaughter was total: Burchard, who reported that news of the victory at Forlì reached Rome that night, wrote that "the magnificent Countess, widow of Count Girolamo Riario, has been captured; all the others have been killed." And the papal legate, the cardinal of Monreale, who was ill with a fever in Urbino, rashly left his sickbed to ride to Forlì to congratulate his cousin on his victory, but he only got as far as Fossombrone, where he collapsed and died.
It was said afterward that Cesare and Yves d'Alègre quarrelled over who should take charge of Caterina—d'Alègre had been her captor; Cesare was in command. In the end Cesare won the argument and dragged the struggling woman to his quarters, where he was alleged to have commented that she had defended her castle more vigorously than she had her ultimately willing body. The Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo reported that the relationship between Cesare and Caterina was far from being merely that of captor and prisoner: Duke Valentino, he wrote, "is keeping the lady of Forlì...who is a most beautiful woman, daughter of Duke Galeazzo Sforza of Milan, day and night in his room. And, in the opinion of all, he is taking his pleasure." Louis XII's general, the Milanese condottiere Gian Jacopo Trivulzio, put it more bluntly: "Oh, good Madonna, now you will not lack for fucking."
From Forlì, Cesare intended to march south to attack Pesaro, the state of his ex-brother-in-law, Giovanni Sforza, but before he could do so, a courier brought the startling news that Ludovico Sforza had managed to raise a large force of eighty-five hundred mercenaries and was about to march on Milan to reclaim his duchy. Louis XII now requested that the French soldiers serving under Cesare were to be withdrawn, temporarily, from his command and recalled to Lombardy. The first stage of Cesare's campaign was now at an end, and he decided to return to Rome, leaving some of his troops to garrison his new possessions and bringing his famous prisoner with him for incarceration in the dungeons of Castel Sant'Angelo.
The pope prepared a tumultuous welcome in Rome for his son, and the entry, which was to take place during Carnival, would add impressively to the customary events staged during that season. "On Wednesday 26 February, all the cardinals, on the order of His Holiness," reported Burchard, "received notification that they were to arrange for their households to be outside the gate of Santa Maria del Popolo" at midday to welcome Cesare on his return. Burchard also announced that all ambassadors, government representatives, and officials of the Curia were to be there "in person," as were the cardinals themselves. They had a long, cold wait; it was not until after three o'clock that the crowds at the gate finally heard the distant sounds of trumpets and pipes that heralded Cesare's arrival.
His entry was recorded in detail by Burchard, who had arranged the whole event and was evidently displeased that not all of the participants shared his own desire for order:
The cardinals, learning that Don Cesare was approaching, mounted their mules and waited in customary fashion outside the gate. They doffed their hats to welcome him, and he in turn took off his own cap and graciously thanked them. The procession made its way to the Vatican, Don Cesare riding between Cardinals Pallavicini and Orsini, passing along the Via Lata to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva ... and the Campo dei Fiori.
About a hundred packhorses in new black trappings led the cavalcade, walking in good order, and behind, rather more haphazardly strung out, were fifty more. I was unable to arrange the households in any sort of order since there were in the procession about a thousand infantry soldiers, Swiss and Gascons, who marched along in ranks of five each under their own separate standards, all blazoned with Don Cesare's arms, and were not interested in our arrangements at all. When the Pope's infantry approached, carrying their own banner, the Swiss, on meeting them, demanded that they should lower this standard. They absolutely refused to march along with it, and this led to a considerable argument, but Don Cesare quickly settled it. Don Cesare had around him a hundred grooms, each one dressed in a cloak of black velvet reaching to his knees, with a collar of simple and severe design. There were a number of trumpeters in the procession, all wearing Don Cesare's arms, and two of his own heralds, but both trumpeters and other musicians remained silent throughout the journey.
The Duke of Bisceglie [Alfonso of Aragon] and Don Jofrè Borgia followed next in the procession, and then Don Cesare Borgia between two cardinals, with the bishops and ambassadors behind them riding two abreast. There was a wrangle over precedence between two ambassadors...[who] refused to take any further part in the ceremonies. The ambassadors for Venice, Florence, Savoy and other states were, however, present. Behind them came Vitellozzo Vitelli [the condottiere] in charge of the men-at-arms, who marched along in such disorder that the ecclesiastics could not take their places and consequently for the most part also withdrew.
To welcome Don Cesare at the Vatican, the Pope came to the room over the loggia of the entrance to the palace. When Don Cesare reached the Sala dei Paramenti, the Pope climbed to the Sala del Pappagallo, where he took his seat and had five brocaded cushions arranged, so that one was on the throne, one under his feet, and the other three on the floor in front of him. The door of the Pappagallo was then opened, and Don Cesare entered ... kneeling before His Holiness, he made a brief speech in Spanish to thank him for being thought worthy of such an honour, and to this the Pope replied also in Spanish. For this reason, I did not understand what he said. Don Cesare next kissed both feet and the right hand of the Pope, and following this ceremony, those lords who also so desired also kissed His Holiness's foot.
The Castel Sant'Angelo was most elaborately decorated on this occasion. Two banners were set up on the lower round tower overlooking the Ponte Sant'Angelo, whilst on the higher tower, where trumpeters played, there were displayed four or five more banners, all with the papal arms. Above the walls, and between each turret facing the bridge, there stood three men armed from head to foot and holding halberds in their hands, whilst above the walls of the round tower were fifteen soldiers and as many again where the trumpeters were blowing. Some two hundred or more explosions in turn shook the area with a great deal of noise ... with reverberations that brought down several windows and shutters.... I had never seen such a splendid nor triumphant display.
So delighted was the pope to welcome his son home to Rome as Lord of Imola and Forlì that he was reported as being unable to decide whether to laugh or cry and so did both alternately. Cesare had, indeed, achieved much and had done so at little cost to either his father's purse or to the troops under his command. And, strikingly, in this moment of real triumph, he had chosen deliberately to dress both himself and his household more modestly than he had in the past. He and his bodyguard made their entry into the city all clothed in black, Cesare proudly wearing his golden collar of the Order of St. Michael; and in black again, he appeared before his father in the Vatican to make his report.
The following day, February 27, Rome witnessed one of the highlights of the Carnival season, the cavalcade of elaborately decorated carts in the Piazza Navona, and it was watched eagerly by the crowds who had lined the streets to see the parade as it made its way from the piazza to the Vatican Palace. The theme that year was the Triumphs of Caesar and the tableaux depicted on the wagons celebrated the military successes of Julius Caesar, the victorious general of ancient Rome, who appeared on the final wagon, crowned with his victor's wreath of laurels.
With his usual relish for such occasions, Cesare accompanied the cavalcade astride his magnificent charger. The pope, who was watching the display in the piazza of St. Peter's from a balcony in the Vatican Palace, was so impressed that he asked for an encore, and his son duly turned the procession around to allow it to pass once more beneath his father's window.
The programme for the Carnival pageant, drawn up by humanists employed by the pope and executed by artists working on papal projects in the Vatican, was clearly designed to draw parallels between Caesar and Cesare. And the message would not have been missed by those onlookers who had watched Cesare's triumphal entry into the city the day before, where they had seen the victorious soldier carrying his own sword, which was engraved with the letters CESAR, and the same letters embroidered on the clothes of his personal bodyguard. Cesare was soon to adopt as his motto "aut Caesar aut nihil"—Caesar or nothing—a very ambitious declaration of intent.