Chapter 3

A Man of Endless Virility


THE MOST TALENTED of Calixtus III's nephews, Rodrigo Borgia had been created a cardinal at the age of twenty-five. He had made a brief study of canon law at Bologna University, where he took his degree after less than a year's residence, which, since the normal course of study was five years, led to a widespread supposition that money had exchanged hands, a not unusual occurrence.

Nor did Rodrigo Borgia's appointment to the influential and lucrative position of vice-chancellor at the age of twenty-seven, after an equally brief military career, pass without angry complaint; nor had his appointment to his uncle's valuable see of Valencia. Yet it had to be conceded that while nepotism had been largely responsible for these appointments, Rodrigo was a highly competent administrator, "an extraordinarily able man," as Pius II commented, and that if indeed he did take immoderate care to ensure that his tenure in the office of vice-chancellor was an extremely profitable one—thanks to the bribes he readily accepted for all manner of favours, from the arranging of divorces to the licensing of incestuous marriages by means of forged documents—it could not be denied that he performed the duties of the post conscientiously. He was enormously rich, with a taste for extravagance; as Jacopo Gherardi da Volterra commented:

Borgia's various offices, his numerous abbeys in Italy and Spain, and his three bishoprics of Valencia, Porto and Cartagena yield him a vast fortune; and it is said that that the office of Vice-Chancellor alone brings him in 8,000 gold florins. His plate, his pearls, his clothes embroidered with silk and gold, and his books in every department of learning are very numerous, and all are magnificent. I need not mention the innumerable bed-hangings, the trappings of his horses ... the gold embroideries, the richness of his beds, his tapestries in silver and silk, nor his magnificent clothes, nor the immense amount of gold he possesses.

"Beautiful women are attracted to him in a most remarkable way, more powerfully than iron is drawn to the magnet," wrote one observer. He was also, in the guarded words of Johannes Burchard, who later became his master of ceremonies, a man of "endless virility." It was well known that his sexual appetite was consuming and that attractive women who came to him for advice or favours were more than likely to take part in such orgies as those that were brought to the notice of Pius II, who thus admonished his vice-chancellor in these terms:

We have learned that three days ago a large number of women of Siena, adorned with all worldly vanity, assembled in the gardens of ... Giovanni di Bichio, and that your Eminence, in contempt of the dignity of your position, remained with them from one o'clock until six and that you were accompanied by another cardinal.... We are told that the dances were immodest and the seduction of love beyond bounds and that you yourself behaved as though you were one of the most vulgar young men of the age.... I should blush to record all that I have been told. The mere mention of such things is a dishonour to the office you hold. In order to have more freedom for your amusements you forbade entry to the husbands, fathers, brothers and other male relations who came with these young women.... It seems at present nothing else is spoken of in Siena.... We are more angry than we can say.... Your behaviour gives a pretext to those who accuse us of using our wealth and our high office for orgies.... The Vicar of Christ himself is an object of scorn because it is believed he closes his eyes to these excesses.... You rule the pontifical chancellery; and what renders your behaviour more reprehensible is that you are close to us, the Sovereign Pontiff, as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy See. We leave it to your own judgement to say if it befits your high office to flaunt with women, to drink a mouthful of wine and then have the glass carried to the woman who pleases you most, to spend a whole day as a delighted spectator of all kinds of lewd games.... Your faults reflect upon us, and upon Calixtus, your uncle of happy memory, who is accused of a grave fault of judgement for having laden you with undeserved honours. Let your Eminence then decide to put an end to these frivolities.

Rodrigo had no intention of putting an end to such "frivolities"; but he did take considerably more care in the future not to take part in them in places or in company from which reports were likely to reach the ears of the stern Pius II. Such entertainments as those enjoyed in the garden at Siena were now to be held within the walls of his luxurious palace, which the vice-chancellor's new wealth, both legitimately and fraudulently acquired, enabled him to build in Rome.

During Easter week in 1462, a grand procession was held in Rome to escort the skull of St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter, which Pius II had acquired after the relic had been saved from the Turks invading Greece. "Such crowds had blocked the streets that the soldiers guarding the Pope, who were armed with truncheons, were hardly able to open a path for him." The whole city was adorned. Narrow streets were "covered with canopies and branches of greenery to shade them from the sun and all the houses were decked with hangings and tapestries in canopies," wrote Pius II. "Everyone vied with each other in doing honour to the Apostle." Of all the magnificently ornamented palaces along the route, none was more lavishly decorated than that of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. As the pope wrote in his memoirs:

All the cardinals who lived along the route of the procession had decorated their houses splendidly.... But all were eclipsed in cost and ingenuity by that of Rodrigo, the Vice-Chancellor. His huge towering house, built on the site of the ancient mint, was bedecked with marvellous and costly tapestries.... He had decorated his neighbours' houses as well as his own, so that the surrounding square was transformed into a sort of park, filled with music and song and his own palace seemed to be gleaming with gold, such as they say the Emperor Nero's palace once did.

The interior of the Borgia palace was equally splendid. One visitor described the ever-increasing magnificence:

The walls of the entrance hall are hung with tapestries depicting various historical scenes. A small drawing-room, also decorated with fine tapestries, leads off it. The carpets on the floor harmonize with the furniture, which includes a sumptuous day-bed upholstered in red satin with a canopy over it, and a chest on which is displayed a large and beautiful collection of gold and silver plate. Beyond this drawing-room there are two more reception rooms, one of them with another canopied day-bed covered with velvet, the other with a sofa covered with cloth-of-gold. In this latter room is a large table on which is spread a fine velvet cloth and around which is a set of finely carved chairs.

In this palace and its outbuildings and stables, as many as two hundred servants, several of them slaves, lived and worked, wearing the dark mulberry red and yellow of the Borgia livery. In addition to the grooms and guards and domestic servants, there were numerous courtiers, secretaries, and clerks installed in the rooms above, as well as the cardinal's lawyer, Camillo Beneimbene, discreet and reliable, the repository of many secrets.

In the square outside the palace on festive occasions, the populace was regaled with allegories and pantomimes, fireworks, the roar of cannons, and the savagery of bullfights, while cups of wine were offered to the crowds of spectators by Rodrigo's numerous servants.

Despite the huge sums expended upon his palace and its furnishings, Rodrigo had enough money to spare for such gestures as the supply and equipment of a galley for the Venetian fleet in Christendom's war against the Turkish infidels, and for generous contributions to the crusade, which Pius II was planning with missionary zeal and which he intended to lead in person. Accompanied by Rodrigo, he left Rome for Ancona, where, already a gravely ill man, he died in the episcopal palace on August 15, 1464.

Rodrigo, too, fell ill at Ancona, a notoriously unhealthy city, possibly with the plague or with some sexually transmitted disease. "The Vice-Chancellor is stricken with illness," the governor of Ancona was informed, "and this is its symptom: he has pain in his ears and a swelling under his arm. The doctor who has seen him says that he has little hope of curing him, especially considering that a short while ago he did not sleep alone in his bed." Certainly on his way to Ancona, Rodrigo had not stinted himself in enjoying the masked balls and nocturnal parties that were given at his request so that the "passage of the dignitaries of the Holy Church," northeast across the Apennines to the Adriatic coast, would not "depress the social life" of the towns through which he passed.

Rodrigo, however, turned out not to be as seriously ill as his doctors first thought, and he was back in Rome in time to attend the conclave to choose the new pope. The cardinals' choice this time was a Venetian, Pietro Barbo, a handsome, self-regarding, and pleasure-loving man who had originally intended becoming a merchant like his rich father; but when his uncle had been elected to succeed Martin V as Pope Eugenius IV, he decided that the Church might well offer a life more suited to his character. His love of display, indeed, was soon indulged by building a fine palace in central Rome, the Palazzo San Marco, now the Palazzo di Venezia; he moved the papal court there in 1466 and lived in the palace, in ostentatious splendour, surrounded by his superb collection of antique cameos, bronzes, marble busts, and precious gems until his death in 1471.

At the conclave following Paul II's death, Rodrigo played a key role in manoeuvring the election of Francesco della Rovere, who took the name Sixtus IV. A large, ambitious, gruff, and toothless man with a huge head, a flattened nose, and an intimidating presence, Sixtus IV had been born into an impoverished fishing community in Liguria and became a Franciscan, rising though the ranks of the order to become its minister general. "This pope was the first," claimed Niccolò Machiavelli, "to show just how much a pontiff could do and how many actions which would have been called errors in earlier times were now hidden under the cloak of papal authority." Others praised his nobility, "not of birth but of character and erudition," and many commented on his fervent devotion to the Virgin.

From the moment of his election, this apparently austere friar was unremitting in granting to his relations offices, money, and profitable lordships in the Papal States—those lands in central Italy that belonged to the pope, the Patrimony of St. Peter. He soon became notorious for the particularly lucrative preferments he lavished upon two young nephews, Pietro Riario and Giuliano della Rovere, both of whom he made cardinals within months of his election and appointed to numerous abbacies, benefices, and bishoprics. He also gave red hats to another four of his relations, a total of six of the thirty-four cardinals he created during his long pontificate, not all of whom were as unworthy as his family.

The two nephews played a prominent part in the reception of the young Neapolitan princess Eleonora of Aragon as she passed through Rome in June 1473 on her way north to marry Ercole d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara. Such was the grandeur of the apartments furnished for her at Pietro Riario's palace at Santi Apostoli that, as she recounted in a letter to her father, the king of Naples, even her chamber pot was a vessel of gilded silver. "The treasure of the Church," she wrote, in astonishment, "is being put to such uses." The sumptuous banquet Pietro hosted for her lasted six hours, a relentless succession of opulent dishes, eaten to the accompaniment of music, poetry, and dancing: gilded and silvered breads, peacocks, pies filled with live quail that ran about the table when the crust was removed, a whole bear, plates of silvered eels and sturgeon, and ships made of sugar filled with silver acorns, the della Rovere emblem.

Pietro Riario and Giuliano della Rovere, who had both followed their uncle into the Franciscan order, rapidly abandoned their vows to poverty and chastity once they were cardinals. Pietro, described by one contemporary as another Caligula, was the pope's favourite; indeed, it was widely rumoured that he was in fact Sixtus IV's son. With an income of over 50,000 ducats a year from his benefices, he could indulge freely in the luxuries of life and flaunt his mistress, whom he installed in his palace at Santi Apostoli, where her shoes, reputedly, were sewn with pearls. He died suddenly in January 1474, leaving debts of over 60,000 ducats, after suffering severe stomach pains that many thought were the result of poison but were more probably due to appendicitis. Giuliano now became Sixtus IV's right-hand man in the college and started to build up his position at the papal court, where he would soon begin to rival Rodrigo.

Yet for all his persistent nepotism, Sixtus IV was a great benefactor to Rome and to the Roman people; and, largely by means of the heavy taxation of foreign churches and the sale of ecclesiastical offices, he was able to carry out numerous public works. Streets were paved and widened; at the same time the numerous conduits of ancient Rome, which had once brought fresh water to hundreds of the city's fountains, were cleared and once again gave the Roman people a clean supply.

Hundreds of churches were repaired and rebuilt, so many indeed that Sixtus IV was hailed by his humanists as a second Augustus, following in the footsteps of the emperor who had found Rome built in brick and left it in marble. He sold off Paul II's magnificent collection of valuable antiquities, for money or for political favour, and spent the proceeds on improving the city of Rome. A foundling hospital was established; new palaces appeared where desolate ruins had once stood; the city's main market was moved to the Piazza Navona, the site of ancient Rome's imperial circus, the infamous Stadium of Domitian.

The University of Rome, the Sapienza, was re-formed; in preparation for the Holy Year of 1475, the pope laid the foundation stone of the Ponte Sisto, standing up in a boat as he dropped several gold coins into the murky waters of the Tiber. Most memorably of all, it was Sixtus IV who was responsible for the Sistine Chapel, which was built for him by Giovannino de' Dolci with its walls decorated with scenes of the lives of Moses and Christ by some of the most gifted artists of his time, including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Pinturicchio.

Sixtus IV had been quick to reward Rodrigo for his support in the conclave, promoting him to the cardinal-bishopric of Albano and giving him the lucrative abbey of Subiaco, which included the lordship of the surrounding area and a castle that would provide the cardinal and his family with a pleasing summer retreat. The pope also appointed him as papal legate to Spain, to sort out the tricky situation that had developed there regarding the consanguineous marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, which had already taken place using a forged papal dispensation, much to the fury of the archbishop of Seville, who opposed the union of the two Spanish kingdoms.

Rodrigo left Rome in May 1472 and received a rapturous reception in Valencia, his episcopal seat. In Spain he displayed his intelligence, tact, discretion, good humour, and confidence to do what was necessary to regularize the marriage and to negotiate peace with the archbishop, who was placated with a cardinal's hat; he also gained Spanish support for another crusade against the Turks. He left Spain fourteen months later, but on his journey home his galley ran into a violent storm and was wrecked off the coast of Tuscany. He was taken to Pisa to recover from his ordeal, and while there he was invited as guest of honour to a banquet, where he met an attractive and intelligent woman some ten years younger than himself, named Vannozza de' Catanei.

A courtesan of charm and discretion from a family of the lesser nobility, Vannozza de' Catanei seems to have intrigued the cardinal from the very beginning of their acquaintance. So as to facilitate what was to become a loving and lasting relationship, Rodrigo's confidential legal adviser and notary, Camillo Beneimbene, arranged for her marriage to a complaisant husband, an elderly lawyer called Domenico da Rignano, who could be relied upon not to make any unwanted demands upon his wife.

In 1475, a year after Rodrigo had made his appearance, dressed in the red robes befitting a cardinal, at the marriage of his mistress, she gave birth to a son, who was named Cesare—Sixtus IV showed his approval of his vice-chancellor by legitimizing the boy. Soon after this Vannozza's well-rewarded husband died, and the widow gave birth to two more of Rodrigo's children—another boy, Juan, a year younger than Cesare, and four years after that a girl, Lucrezia. Vannozza did not remain a widow long; she was married twice again to men selected by the cardinal and gave birth to Jofrè, yet another son for Rodrigo, and Ottaviano, who may or may not have been his progeny.

Certainly their good-natured mother profited from the arrangement, being able to establish herself in a comfortable house in Rome and to buy a plot of land near the Baths of Diocletian on which she had another house built. She also acquired a lucrative interest in three of Rome's best inns, while her third husband, Carlo Canale, made a handsome profit from his appointment as governor of Rome's prison, the Torre Nuova, where the incarcerated men were charged for such privileges as they could afford.

Vannozza's were by no means the only children who were generally believed to have been fathered by Cardinal Rodrigo. There were at least three others, all older than Vannozza's offspring, who were widely assumed to be his, although very few people in Rome knew who their mother was. Two of these children were girls—one of them, Gerolama, having been quietly married into an unassuming though noble family, died young; the other, Isabella, lived into old age, dying in the middle of the sixteenth century, an object of much curiosity that she haughtily ignored. The third was a son, named Pedro Luis after Rodrigo's brother, and he was created Duke of Gandía but, like Gerolama, died young, having spent much of his short life as an apparently worthy officer in the army in Spain.

Around 1483, when Cesare was eight years old and his brother Jofrè still a baby, Rodrigo had taken his children away from their mother and placed them in the care of his cousin Adriana da Mila. Despite her evident charms and his affection for her, Vannozza's background made her unsuitable for the upbringing of their family; Adriana, on the other hand, was a Spanish noblewoman and had married into one of the most powerful clans in Rome, the Orsini. In 1489 her son, Orsino Orsini, was married in Rodrigo's palace in Rome to Giulia Farnese, a beautiful nineteen-year-old girl of very modest fortune. Giulia—"la Bella" as she was known throughout Rome—now became Rodrigo's new mistress, while her husband withdrew to his family's country estate at Bassanello.

Rodrigo seemed to be obsessed by the Farnese girl, his lovely carefree young mistress who now lived in a house shared with Adriana da Mila and the children of the pliable, good-natured Vannozza. Indeed, he appeared, for the first time in his life, to be capable of an intense jealousy, even of Giulia's tiresome husband, whom she insisted on going to see in the country from time to time, provoking Rodrigo to write such letters as this:

We have heard that you have again refused to return to us [from Bassanello] without Orsini's consent. We know the evil of your soul and of the man who guides you but we would never have thought it possible for you to break your solemn oath not to go near Orsino. But you have done so ... to give yourself once more to that stallion. We order you, under pain of eternal damnation, never again to go to Bassanello.

Evidently alarmed by this letter, Orsini sent his wife back to the cardinal. Although almost forty years older than Giulia Farnese, Rodrigo was quite as virile as he had ever been; his sexual appetite was still said to be voracious. Sumptuous as were the meals served in his palace, he ate sparingly himself, often contenting himself with a single course. And while other cardinals were carried about Rome on litters or in carriages, he preferred to walk. He hunted; he wrestled; he enjoyed falconry; he took pride in having "the slender waist of a girl."

Sixtus IV had died in August 1484, and his successor was the affable and ineffective Giovanni Battista Cibò, Innocent VIII, not a man of much distinction. Having obtained the papal tiara by undertaking to grant favours to various cardinals the night before his election, he was soon reduced to creating various supererogatory offices and selling them to the highest bidder, to meet the vast debts incurred by his predecessor. His finances were further strained by the importunities of several illegitimate children and by his quarrel with King Ferrante I of Naples, who refused to pay his papal dues.

Meanwhile Cardinal Rodrigo's career prospered. Jovial and carefree by nature, he was nevertheless most conscientious in his attendance to the business of his office as vice-chancellor, an office that he was to hold in five pontificates.

"It is now thirty-seven years since his uncle Calixtus III appointed him a cardinal and in that time he never missed a Consistory except when prevented by illness, and that was rare indeed," his secretary was to write in 1492. "[For almost forty years] he was at the centre of affairs.... He well knew how to dominate, how to shine in conversation and how to impose his will on other men. Also, majestic in stature, he had the advantage over other men."

He also became steadily richer and more influential, well able to afford the bribes that he would need to offer discreetly at the next conclave. "Altogether it is thought," wrote Jacopo Gherardi da Volterra, "that he possesses more gold and riches of every kind than all the other cardinals combined, excepting only d'Estouteville," the wealthy cardinal of Rouen.

Rome, however, under the easygoing and unassertive leadership of Innocent VIII, known as "the Rabbit," had relapsed into the kind of anarchy that had been all too familiar a century before. Armed men again roamed through the city at night, and in the mornings the bodies of men who had been stabbed lay dead and dying in the streets; pilgrims and even escorted ambassadors were regularly robbed outside the city gates; cardinals' palaces became fortified strongholds with crossbowmen and artillery at the windows and on the castellated roofs.

Justice had become a commodity to sell, like every other favour in this corrupt city. A man who had murdered his two daughters was permitted to buy his liberty for 800 ducats. Other murderers purchased their pardons from the Curia, the papal administration, as well as safe-conduct passes that allowed them to walk the streets with armed guards to protect them from avengers. When an important official was asked why malefactors were not punished, he answered with a smile in the hearing of the historian Stefano Infessura, "Rather than the death of a sinner, God wills that he should live—and pay."

During the unpleasantly hot summer of 1492, Innocent VIII fell seriously ill, unable to keep down any nourishment other than mother's milk. Among the cardinals who had gathered, as was the custom, at his bedside were Rodrigo Borgia and Giuliano della Rovere, who were soon involved in a heated argument. Rodrigo voiced his disapproval of the pope's decision to distribute the reserves of cash in the papal coffers—some 47,000 ducats—to his relatives, and Giuliano defended the action, which, after all, had been agreed by the college, and made an insulting remark about Rodrigo's Spanish heritage. The vice-chancellor retorted that, were they not in the presence of the pope, he would show Giuliano who he was, and the unseemly quarrel would have quickly deteriorated into a fight had the two not been restrained by some of their colleagues.

It was soon clear that Innocent VIII was dying, and the sacred college was much preoccupied with the choice of a suitable successor. No scholar was needed now, still less a saint. The next pope, they agreed, must be one of strong personality rather than moral worth, a man who could protect the Patrimony of St. Peter from its rivals and enemies, and one who could restore order to Rome and inject some vigour into its artistic and scholarly life. Innocent VIII died on July 25, 1492, and it was with these thoughts in mind that the cardinals entered the Vatican on August 6 in order to elect his successor.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!