HIS PORTRAIT depicts a jowly, balding, hook-nosed man with squinty eyes, bedecked in jewel-encrusted garments, hands clasped piously in front of him as he kneels. Although a balanced appreciation of his character reveals traits both admirable and detestable, Pope Alexander VI was certainly not a pious individual, in the usual understanding of that word. The most famously cunning and corrupt of the Renaissance popes, he is remembered variously for his roles in murder, incest, debauchery, simony, extortion, treachery and, above all, nepotism.
Born in 1431 near Valencia, in the Kingdom of Aragon, to the Spanish branch of the wealthy Borgia clan, Rodrigo Borgia was reputedly a noble vagabond in the Spanish countryside before his maternal uncle Alonso Borgia became Pope Calixtus III in 1455 and promptly made his young nephew a cardinal the following year. Rodrigo held this and several other church offices simultaneously. He studied law at the University of Bologna, taking his degree in one year instead of the usual five, incurring charges of bribery to obtain this distinction. Borgia was competent in business and politics, and not all of his wealth was derived from corrupt manipulation of his offices. He entered into shrewd business dealings with Muslims and Jews even as his church frowned on these transactions; later, as pope, he refused to persecute Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. As we have seen, early in his career he was instrumental in firming up the political and ecclesiastical support in Castile that enabled Isabella and Ferdinand to marry in the late 1460s. Yet even then his pliable morality and methods were on display: he used a forged document to sanction their union in spite of their consanguinity, and only later was the marriage officially endorsed. Pope Pius II, while frowning upon Borgia’s lifestyle, grudgingly admitted that he was superior at his job as vice-chancellor and “an extraordinarily able man,” noted for his tact, diplomacy and charisma. His political ambition was of the highest order, even if his morality wasn’t.
For many years, as Ferdinand and Isabella consolidated their power in Castile and began their assault on Granada, Rodrigo served as the vice-chancellor of the Holy See, amassing one of the greatest fortunes in Rome. He dwelt in an imposing palace on the Street of the Ancient Banks, with nearly two hundred servants and slaves to tend to the opulent furnishings and dozens of rooms. The Palazzo Borgia, as his three-storey mansion was called, was one of the grandest palaces in Italy; its lofty corridors were painted with fanciful and dramatic scenes from antiquity, its soaring rooms were adorned with sculptures and other works of art, priceless tapestries and carpets competed with finely carved ornate furnishings; silk, brocade and velvet were on display everywhere. He had a personal troupe of the most skilled musicians, and his armoured guards stood to attention displaying finely forged swords and polished armour. His feasts and balls were legendary; the guests dined from golden plates, devouring delicacies while enjoying exotic dancers and theatre, often lewd. Pope Pius II wrote in his memoirs that Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia’s palace “eclipsed in cost and ingenuity” the palaces of all the other cardinals and “seemed to be gleaming with gold, such as they say the Emperor Nero’s palace once did.” He maintained the beautiful house of a mistress at a respectable, though not too great, distance. One contemporary observer, Jacopo Gherardi da Volterra, described Borgia’s opulent dwelling: “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.” By 1490, Borgia reputedly possessed more gold than all the other cardinals combined; and he had plans for the gold he had been amassing.
Charming and handsome, Rodrigo Borgia was a notorious womanizer and a man “of endless virility.” One of his early tutors, Gaspare de Verone, observed that he “excites the weaker sex in a strange manner more powerfully than iron is drawn to magnet . . . Yet he skillfully hides his conquests.” Borgia continued his dissolute ways even after taking his vow of celibacy, at one time earning the rebuke of Pope Pius II: “My Dear Son,” the letter began before highlighting several scandalous rumours that were then circulating. “Shame forbids mention of all that took place, for not only the things themselves but their very names are unworthy of your rank. You and a few servants were leaders and inspirers of this orgy. It is said that nothing is now talked of in Siena but your vanity, which is the subject of universal ridicule! . . . We leave it to you to say if it befits your high office to flaunt with women and 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 judgment for having laden you with undeserved honours. Let your Eminence then decide to put an end to these frivolities.” Rodrigo dutifully apologized and toned down the more public spectacle of his dissolute lifestyle, concealing “these frivolities” behind the walls of his palazzo in Rome.
Rodrigo sired at least four, and probably six or more, illegitimate children, and used church resources to provide a rich living for them and many of his other Spanish followers. His two most famous children were Cesare and Lucrezia, born to his Roman mistress Vannozza dei Cattenei, whom he put aside when he ascended to the Papacy in favour of another mistress forty years his junior. He continued to love all of his children, however, and scandalously acknowledged them openly while lavishing procurements and wealth upon them. Cesare was so violent and unscrupulous that he was praised by Machiavelli in The Prince, whereas Lucrezia, with whom Alexander reputedly had an incestuous liaison, was left in charge of the Vatican while he was away from the office.
Under his tenure the Vatican was, unsurprisingly, known for lavish orgies and other sundry bacchanalia. Another contemporary observer, Johann Burchard, the master of ceremonies under several popes, wrote in his journal on October 30, 1501, that a great feast was held in which fifty prostitutes entertained Alexander, Cesare, Lucrezia and their entourage. “The women, after the banquet, danced unclothed. In one dance they had to flit, nude, between lighted candles and pick nuts from the floor,” with Alexander and Lucrezia, after viewing nude dancing of the participants, “distributing prizes of silk garments to those servants of the Vatican who had had carnal intercourse with the courtesans the largest number of times.”
As a cardinal and as pope, Rodrigo Borgia put on lavish entertainments in the large square fronting the mansion, including bullfights, musical and theatrical performances and fireworks displays. He was a great patron of the arts, commissioning works from Raphael and Michelangelo, among others. But he was not a lazy man; even while lavish platters of fine food were liberally distributed among his guests, he frequently ate sparingly. He enjoyed athletic pursuits and preferred to walk the streets of Rome rather than be carried in a litter. He was trim and muscular late into life. For him, the excessive debauchery he organized and promoted was more a form of entertainment. He seemed to take pleasure in watching the gluttony and sexual excesses of others rather than partaking of the activities himself. Perhaps he felt it gave him power over others to be party to their moral debasement; or perhaps it gave him a sense of superiority or satisfaction that while he himself was certainly engaged in activities considered immoral by his church, he had not fallen so low as many of his guests had. He was a voyeur rather than a principal actor. Many of his expenditures were designed to garner respect and support among the wealthy and influential in Rome, to make people aware of him, to elevate and maintain his profile, and to establish himself as one of the principal men about town.
Rodrigo Borgia also reputedly arrested, executed and poisoned many of his colleagues, bribed or threatened others and plundered their estates. His son Cesare waged an endless series of small wars to further the family interests. Rodrigo also auctioned off church offices, accepted bribes to arrange highly placed divorces and sold his blessing for incestuous marriages. The corruption, decadence and extravagance of not just his papacy, but of the leadership of the entire era, also undermined the moral authority of the church and led directly to the rise of Martin Luther and Protestantism a generation later. Yet at the time when Ferdinand and Isabella were unleashing the terrors of the Inquisition and expelling the Jews and Moors from Castile and Aragon, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, welcomed thousands of these refugees into the papal states and allowed them to live their lives relatively unmolested.
If the accounts are to be believed, Borgia was a dark and malevolent man, almost a caricature of evil and an embodiment of nearly everything base, sordid, foul and corrupt in the human soul. Many of his supposed crimes have been debunked by modern historians or are attributed to his vicious son Cesare. The accusations of incest, of the poisoning of colleagues and indeed the claims of open orgies were probably fabricated or at least exaggerated by his numerous and powerful enemies after his death. Certainly he was a man of the times—ambitious, worldly, pleasure-loving and a great dispenser of titles and land to his relations and supporters—but the demonic caricature of evil is mostly an elaborate myth, one that has been pared away by the scrutiny of modern scholarship. His flamboyantly dissolute and immoral lifestyle was hardly different from that of many other princes of the church in Renaissance Italy. But Borgia’s style was always to go a little further than others: he not only had numerous children, but also publicly acknowledged them and used his power and influence to gain fantastic favours and appointments for them; he was not only fabulously rich, but was also known to be the most fabulously rich, the one who threw the most memorable banquets, the most amusing and entertaining masques. His palace stood out for its opulence and extravagance, even among many other opulent and extravagant dwellings in Rome. It is hardly surprising that during his tenure as vice-chancellor, and later as pope, he collected enemies just as he amassed wealth and power.
Although the claims of Borgia’s scandalous private life and of his practising simony and nepotism have stood the test of time, these were not uncommon traits for high church officials of the time, although perhaps not in so blatant or gratuitous a manner. Claims of Borgia’s ethical failings, however, have overshadowed an appreciation of his keen administrative mind. Certainly he was morally pliable, and historians disagree on the extent to which his most important contribution to world history was based on principled reasoning or was a payback to his countrymen Ferdinand and Isabella for their aid in furthering his and his children’s political aspirations. Certainly it was to have far-reaching implications, beyond anything ever imagined. Borgia’s most important contribution to world affairs occurred less than a year after he took the highest office in the Christian church—and was not recognized as being particularly important at the time.
IN THE unpleasantly humid and hot summer of 1492, Pope Innocent VIII lay dying. So sick did he become that the only food he could ingest was mother’s milk. One rumour had it that a special elixir was prepared to extend his life, a foul tonic that included the fresh blood of three ten-year-old boys purchased in the slave markets. Whether he drank the noxious substance is unknown, but the old man expired on July 25, and the political jockeying of the cardinals for his position began in earnest.
Under the weak leadership of Pope Innocent VIII, law and order in Rome had, in the words of the Christopher Hibbert in The Borgias and Their Enemies, “relapsed into the kind of anarchy that had been all too familiar a century before. Armed men 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.” Things degenerated further after Innocent’s death; there were nearly two hundred assassinations in the weeks before the cardinals gathered in the Vatican to select a successor on August 6. Clearly, a man strong enough to bring order to the anarchy was needed.
For four days, the cardinals sequestered themselves in the Sistine Chapel while the intrigues swirled and the promises of gold and offices were made. Several of the papal states offered enormous sums for their chosen candidate while the king of France offered even more. But Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was well placed to win this contest: according to one probably apocryphal tale, four mule-loads of his silver and gold arrived at Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s palace one night, and soon thereafter Sforza, one of the strongest of the candidates, withdrew from the running and endorsed Borgia. Sforza was promised the lucrative position of vice-chancellor— the real payoff, worth far more than some cartloads of silver and gold, once the position was vacated by Borgia. Other cardinals were offered the revenues from wealthy towns, sprawling estates and high and lucrative offices. Rumours of bribery and blackmail abounded. According to one account, “only five cardinals [out of twenty-three] wished to receive nothing . . . they alone refused the gratuities, saying that the votes to elect a pope should be given freely and should not be purchased with presents.”
On August 11 the announcement was made: papers fluttered down from the window with a name written on it: Rodrigo Borgia of Valencia. Overcome with elation at his victory he reputedly raised his hands to the crowd and shouted, over and over, “I am pope! I am pope!” The victory celebration and coronation was, in true Borgia form, lavish and extravagant. The papal cavalry led a mighty procession of prelates, cardinals and powerful ambassadors, “seven hundred priests and cardinals with their retinues in splendid cavalcade with long lances and glittering shields,” through the streets of Rome, which were festooned with flowers and banners. The new pope, Alexander VI, rode a white stallion, looking confident and serene. “How wonderful is his tranquil bearing,” wrote one eyewitness, “how noble his face, how open, how frank. How greatly does the honour we feel him increase when we behold the dignity of his bearing . . . He showed himself to the people and blessed them . . . His glance fell upon them and filled every heart with joy.” The triumphal arches specially constructed for the ceremony were covered with images of the Borgia emblem, a black bull on a golden field.
The new pope was sixty-one years old. Although he had grown quite fat in recent years, he maintained his persuasive oratorical skills, charisma, eloquence and aura of power. He had also preserved his ruthlessness, vindictiveness and his desire for pre-eminence and adulation. The new pope was, however, remarkably efficient and competent in his duties, attuned to the politics and ever-sliding alliances of Europe. In the words of Jacopo Gherardi da Volterra, he was “brilliantly skilled in the conduct of affairs of state.”
COINCIDING WITH Rodrigo Borgia’s election as pope was Columbus’s departure on his first momentous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. After Columbus’s return from that voyage, and before he had even reached Spain to meet with his royal sponsors, King João IIwas already threatening to seize the new lands for Portugal. Although personal animosity and regrets over his own failure to finance Columbus’s project fanned the flames of João’s reaction, he surely remembered his defeat by Ferdinand at the Battle of Toro when they were both young. Although we cannot know his exact feelings, it can safely be assumed that there was no love lost between the monarchs of Castile and Portugal. A man as devious, ruthless and conscious of his image and honour as João II would not likely forgive and forget acts of betrayal and deceit, as he saw them, just because they occurred when he was young.
It wasn’t long before Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched an ambassador to Lisbon, warning João II to respect their discoveries across the Atlantic. But the Portuguese king, not one to be deterred by a mere technicality, forged ahead with his preparations, outfitting a squadron of ships to seize the new islands from Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella’s embassador to the Portuguese court beseeched João to delay the launching of his armada until the legal rights over the new lands had been discussed. The Portuguese king informally proposed to Isabella and Ferdinand that they divide the world between them, with all land south of the Canaries going to Portugal and all lands north going to Spain. João II then sent another ambassador the following month to mention the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas and to subtly threaten Ferdinand and Isabella with the suggestion that this treaty, with its papal support, specifically gave all the southern lands to Portugal and that Columbus had been trespassing in “Portuguese” waters when he undertook his voyage. João based his legal and moral claim to the new lands on a selective interpretation of the 1479 treaty, which had been ratified by the papal bull Aeterni Regis in 1481. According to Alcáçovas, Spain had agreed that any new territories or islands discovered in the Atlantic, except for the Canaries, would belong to Portugal. Treaties, of course, rely upon the principle that the terms remain binding only so long as the underlying facts remain substantially unchanged. Ferdinand and Isabella, who were among the original signatories to the treaty, were well aware that these new lands, or a new route to the Indies, represented something entirely different and unforeseen—something that lay outside the boundaries of the treaty and that was therefore outside of its binding terms.
Portugal’s maritime might dwarfed that of Spain, although Spain commanded a mightier army. Because of this imbalance, the matter of further naval exploration was a foregone conclusion if it was left to the two nations to settle it between themselves. These two powerful European nations were military powerhouses; if they entered into an all-out war over the exclusive right to Columbus’s new sailing route to what was still believed to be the eastern extremity of Asia, it would be devastating to European unity and could easily turn into a long drawn-out and mutually destructive conflict. So, in April 1493, in the midst of their negotiations with João II and only weeks after Columbus’s return to Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched an envoy to plead their case to Alexander VI. Would the newly discovered lands be owned by João II and Portugal, or by Ferdinand and Isabella and Spain? Although Alexander VI was already known for corruption and for pliable morality, he did possess a keen administrative mind, and the Spanish monarchs had other reasons to hope for favourable support.
The authority of the pope to bindingly arbitrate disputes between Christian nations had long been established and accepted, as was as his authority to determine temporal sovereignty over territories and lands not already claimed or ruled by a Christian prince, as well as control over relations between Christians and pagans. It is important to appreciate that the power of the hereditary monarchs of Christian Europe went far beyond anything conceivable in a modern liberal democracy with any form of responsible government. Monarchs were the actual owners of most of the land in the nation, and most of the citizens were merely servants or subjects. In theory the monarch’s power flowed down from God rather than up from the people. Acknowledged as God’s representative on earth, the pope therefore had considerable influence over the temporal as well as the spiritual lives of all people, from the lowest peasant to the highest king. The pope was the ultimate spiritual authority in a deeply religious age, and his decrees held tremendous persuasive and actual power: excommunication from the official and only church was a great incentive to bring quarrelling nations and individuals to the table, maintaining the peace.
Rodrigo Borgia had met Ferdinand and Isabella years earlier, before they were married, when he was a cardinal, and he had liked and respected them even as teenagers—he even went out of his way in 1468 to forge documents legalizing their marriage in the eyes of the church. They, in turn, had not forgotten his helpful intervention. Ferdinand had bestowed lands on Borgia before he became pope. When one of Rodrigo’s illegitimate sons, Giovanni, distinguished himself in the war against Granada, Ferdinand had elevated him into the Aragonese nobility as the duke of Gandia. Ferdinand had also bestowed honours upon one of Cardinal Borgia’s other illegitimate sons, the notorious Cesare, allowing him to assume the archbishopric of Valencia at the age of seventeen, after Rodrigo was elected pope. In contrast, Rodrigo Borgia owned no estates in Portugal and had no ties to the Portuguese nobility.
In April 1493, Ferdinand and Isabella’s first envoy arrived in Rome and began publicly announcing the news of Columbus’s (and Spain’s) triumphant discoveries. To drive the point home he brought with him printed copies of Columbus’s official letter, describing the adventure, and arranging for translations to be distributed. The envoy asked for Spanish dominion over the “western antipodes” as distinct lands from the “southern antipodes” that had been given to Portugal by previous popes. This line of argument was designed to counter João II’s claim that the Treaty of Alcáçovas gave Portugal dominion over all lands south of the Canaries, the very proposal João had so recently proffered to Ferdinand and Isabella for a north-south division of the world. Borgia studied the precedents that had been established in previous decades, when Portugal had asked papal sanction for a monopoly over its own maritime discoveries in Africa. Several popes, from Martin V to Sixtus IV, had granted Portugal exclusive rights to all the lands its navigators had discovered in Africa for trade and for the enslavement of non-Christians. Using these precedents as his theoretical and legal foundation, Alexander VI in 1493 issued in Spain’s favour the first in a series of three famous bulls. As Hugh Thomas wryly notes in Rivers of Gold, “Possibly the speed with which this [the pope’s] statement was made was assisted by the present of a little Spanish gold, some of which had been brought back by Columbus and given to the monarchs in Barcelona.”
Surely the three bulls issued by Alexander VI dated May 3 and May 4, 1493 (but probably drawn up in the following month and then backdated) rank as some of the most significant bulls ever issued, having the greatest historical impact on global events. These bulls are the sole basis for the European legal claim upon the new lands “discovered” by the explorers who had been sent out by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. They provide a justification for the conquest of indigenous America and were the wedge that drove European nations into hundreds of years of warfare, either defending or challenging the legitimacy of their claims.
The first bull, Inter Caetera, dated May 3, 1493, granted to Ferdinand and Isabella, and their heirs in perpetuity, “free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind” over all the new lands, “with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages” discovered by “our beloved son Christopher Columbus, whom you furnished with ships and men equipped for like designs, not without the greatest hardships, dangers, and expenses.” The document established that “by the authority of the Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ which we hold on earth,” Spain was to have the exclusive right to travel in, trade with or colonize Columbus’s new lands, “provided that the lands had not already been in the possession of another Christian ruler.” Importantly, the document extended the same rights to all other yet-to-be-discovered territory. It also forbade, under the penalty of excommunication, “all persons, no matter what rank, estate, degree, order or condition to dare, without your special permission to go for the sake of trade or any other reason whatever, to the said islands and countries after they have been discovered and found by your envoys or persons sent out for that purpose.”
After making this decree, Alexander VI busied himself with attending to the many details of his daughter Lucrezia’s marriage, which was to take place on June 12, and the interminable political jockeying that predominated in Rome at that time. But Ferdinand and Isabella were not satisfied with the imprecise wording of the bull and sent another envoy to Rome. To ensure that the pope continued to rule in their favour, they instructed their ambassadors, including the cardinal of Toledo and the count of Haro, to take a defiant stance in Rome. Instead of grovelling and begging a favour from the pope, on June 19 the count of Haro chastised him for his lack of support for his native land, a land that had been very good to him and his sons, furnishing them with substantial hereditary rents and income. He also harangued the new pope on the issue of his notorious corruption, his offering of asylum to Jewish refugees and other heretics fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, and his seeming support of the king of France in a land dispute on the border with Aragon. The count of Haro then suggested that because of these slights Ferdinand might hesitate in his offer of military aid to the Holy See, a claim that certainly snapped Alexander VI to attention.
In the fifteenth century, the territory we now know as Italy was a patchwork of independent principalities and minor states without a common language, culture or tradition. Warfare was endemic. In that respect it was similar to the Iberian peninsula that Ferdinand and Isabella sought to unify during their long reign, and also to the modern countries of France and Germany. Several larger political entities, such as the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice, dominated and, while the territorial jurisdiction of the Holy See was much larger than today, it too was constantly subjected to military raids and incursions and threats to its independence. In the 1490s the principal threat to peace in Italy came not by way of raids from the corsairs of the expanding Ottoman Empire, but from the kingdom of France. Its brash young king, Charles VIII, claimed sovereignty over the throne of Naples and prepared to invade the territory to claim his political prize. Pope Alexander VI, not surprisingly, sought an ally in Ferdinand of Aragon—who was also king of the nearby independent Kingdom of Sicily and a relative of the king of Naples—to help preserve the independence of Naples and prevent the further destabilization of Italy (in order to reach Naples, Charles VIII’s army would have to march south through the Papal States).
Although Alexander VI was preoccupied with the impending marriage of his daughter, he also worried about the French threat of invasion and saw Ferdinand as a possible defender of the independence. It was not an idle worry, either: by December 1494, CharlesVIII had marched 22,000 French troops south and occupied Rome, and a few months later he marched into Naples. Ferdinand did come to Alexander VI’s aid, organizing a league against France “for the peace and tranquility of Italy” and sending Spanish troops to join the league, which forced out the French in 1496. The battles continued until 1504, when Ferdinand finally emerged victorious and claimed sovereignty over all of Naples.
These political pressures undoubtedly led to Alexander VI’s favourable treatment of Spain’s requests to secure the rights to its discoveries across the Atlantic. He responded to Ferdinand and Isabella’s threats and blandishments by producing two new bulls, dated May 3 and May 4 so as to appear to be addendums to the original bull of donation, although they were not drawn up until late June or early July. The second of Alexander’s bulls, Eximiae Devotionis, officially dated May 3, 1493, clarifies and rephrases the first bull, placing emphasis on the rights granted to Portugal in previous years, and granting to Spain the same rights over the new lands as were granted to Portugal over their discoveries in “Africa, Guinea, and the Gold Mine, and elsewhere.”
Alexander’s third bull of that period, Inter Caetera, officially dated May 4, 1493, is in part a restatement of the first Inter Caetera, but with a change greatly favourable to Spain. The bull specifies which lands were to belong to Spain by replacing the vague language of the previous bulls with a precise delineation, that is, drawing the famous line of demarcation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. All lands, the document states, “discovered or to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said main-lands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter, the said line to be distant one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde.” (A league is the equivalent of three nautical miles.)
This third bull was the strongest in Spain’s favour, because it eliminated reference to prior Portuguese rights, and indeed does not mention Portugal by name at all, stating merely that the only lands not subject to the decree were those in the possession of a Christian prince before Christmas of 1492—that is to say, none, or perhaps the mythical land of Prester John. In addition, it contradicts Portugal’s seeming prior claim to the south Atlantic from the bull Aeterni Regis of 1481. All land east of the line of demarcation, north or south, was to belong to Portugal, while everything to the west was to be the sole domain of Spain, with no ships from other nations legally allowed to sail into either half of the world without the specific prior consent of either Spain or Portugal. Excommunication was the stated punishment for violating the decree.
The location of the line of demarcation in the mid-Atlantic was probably Columbus’s idea, based on his own pseudo-scientific observations. At around the 100 -league mark while sailing west from the Azores, Columbus said, he noticed changes in the wind and currents and a compass variation that seemed to indicate some (possibly divine) invisible frontier. Mariners and passengers sailing from Spain noted that here the sea became clogged with weeds, and “up to the Canaries and 100 leagues beyond, or in the region of the Azores, many are the lice that breed; but from there on they all commence to die, so that upon raising the first islands [in the Caribbean] there be no man that breedeth or seeth one.” On the return journey, however, the lice emerged in the same location “in great and disturbing numbers!” Surely this was a sign that the world should be divided at this point.
As the summer of 1493 progressed and a copy of Alexander’s bulls reached Barcelona in early August, the resounding implications were becoming clearer. Columbus was hastily arranging for his second voyage across the Atlantic, a much grander affair consisting of a seventeen-ship armada with plans for exploration, as well as intentions to found the first permanent Spanish colony on Hispaniola. João II and his ambassadors were furious at being outfoxed, but the Portuguese shadow fleet that he had threatened did not depart after all; the Portuguese king dared not shake the foundation of the underlying principle of prior discovery—a principle that, along with the earlier papal grants, was the legal underpinning for Portugal’s monopoly over trade and exploration along the African coast.
Alexander VI, meanwhile, lurched through the remaining years of his papacy. He died in 1503, at the age of seventy-two, a year before Isabella and three years before Columbus. Some claim he perished accidentally from taking poison that he intended for another, but it is just as likely that he died from malaria, then a common illness in Rome. Whatever the case, his end was a prolonged and agonizing bout of fever and bloody flux. His body was so ravaged and bloated from his illness that his corpse was described as the most ghastly, inhuman form ever seen. The master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard, recorded his impressions of Rodrigo Borgia’s corporal remains: “The face was very dark, the colour of a dirty rag or a mulberry, and was covered all over with bruise-coloured marks. The nose was swollen; the tongue had bent over in the mouth, completely double, and was pushing out the lips which were, themselves, swollen. The mouth was open and so ghastly that people who saw it said they had never seen anything like it before.” In death, Borgia’s body seemed to become a mirror for his earthly actions. Pope Pius III, who succeeded him in 1503, would not allow the traditional mass at his funeral, claiming: “It is blasphemous to pray for the damned.”
A CENTRAL point of the papal bulls of donation, something emphasized in all of them, was the provision for the conversion of the newly “discovered” peoples to Christianity and the spreading of the faith in general. Alexander VI’s final bull also stipulated that “in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” Part of the reason for granting the temporal power to Spain and Portugal over their respective halves of the world was the obligation to spread religion and thereby increase the territory of Christendom. As Alexander VI’s biographer Orestes Ferrara has written in The Borgia Pope, “The winning of souls is, in the spirit of the Vatican, a higher ground than any other. A Catholic expansion destined to set thousands of consciences on the way of salvation was something that no one would have disputed in the end of the fifteenth century.” Alexander VI felt that he could not exercise temporal power over new lands without imposing the spiritual requirements of spreading the faith. Ferrara continues: “The pope obviously realized that he could not impose duties of the ecclesiastical order upon a state in a given territory, unless that state were in a position to exercise continuous unmolested authority.” So the justification for the monopoly given to Spain and Portugal was the necessity of converting heathens to Christianity. The world would be divided in half, but each of the two temporal powers, Spain and Portugal, would have obligations placed upon them, responsibilities that could only be accomplished if they were undisputed in their authority.
It should be remembered that these documents are products not just of the Catholic church and papacy but, perhaps more importantly, of the fifteenth century. They reflected fifteenth-century values, ideology, customs, priorities and world view. The claims, assumptions and terminology that seem so perfidious and chauvinistic to modern sentiments were perfectly normal on the cusp of the Renaissance, and must be judged within the context of that age. Alexander VI was a Renaissance pope and quite naturally a product of his time, steeped in the prejudices, assumptions and social norms of his era. Although the boundless arrogance of the papal bulls and their grandiose assumptions of moral and spiritual superiority now seem laughably preposterous, at the time they seemed, if not normal or usual, at least reasonable, coming from a pope. Many of our own comfortable conceits and warmly held beliefs will be viewed just as skeptically by future generations.
But neither should the dividing of the world in half, merely for the propagation of the faith, be entirely excused or allowed to stand uncontested. Alexander VI’s proclamations have had an insidiously corrosive effect on indigenous cultures in large areas of the world, because of their linking of the exclusive right to travel and trade with the requirement to conquer and proselytize. King Ferdinand’s letter to the Taínos in the early sixteenth century is a classic example of this linking of conquest and conversion. The letter, meant to be read aloud to indigenous American peoples, announced Spain’s divine right to conquer, enslave and govern them because Pope Alexander VI had given the nation this obligation and responsibility.
As we have seen, Columbus, true to his fifteenth-century Genoese cultural heritage, was a great slaver, seizing and hauling back to Spain dozens of captives on his first voyage, and even more on his second and subsequent voyages. Indeed, slaves were one of the only profitable “goods” from the New World in the early years. During this era slavery was common in the Mediterranean basin between Christians and Muslims, and slaves arrived from Africa via both Arabic caravans and Portuguese voyages. Queen Isabella of Castile was herself horrified by and opposed to the practice, while the Catholic church also increasingly resisted the appalling atrocities and enslavement of “Indians.” Reversing earlier papal decrees from the mid-fifteenth century, in 1537 Pope John II proclaimed that “the Indians are truly men . . . notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.” Nevertheless, the practice of slavery was nearly impossible to stop—setting morality and suffering aside, what better way to make one’s fortune than with free labour? Hernán Cortés famously announced, before setting off on his own monumental conquests in Mexico in 1519, that “I came here to get rich, not to till the soil like a peasant.”
ALEXANDER VI’S decision to divide the world between Spain and Portugal was part politics, part sound decision and part disaster waiting to happen. He balanced his cultural affiliation for his homeland and his debt to Ferdinand and Isabella with the need to stave off a potentially devastating war between Christendom’s preeminent crusading nations. If he had had more time to study the matter or had not been swayed by cultural affiliations and political obligations, he likely would have foreseen the potential long-term dangers that lay in partitioning the world between two favoured nations; however dissolute his lifestyle, he was an intelligent and perceptive politician and leader. Although the immediate problem of Spanish and Portuguese hostility was solved by his proclamations, his decision planted the future diplomatic and political field with a series of volatile landmines that lay there waiting to detonate at some time in the future, damaging the unwary, or to be dredged up by opportunists as the moral and spiritual pretext for war, piracy or slavery.
None of this was immediately evident to Pope Alexander VI or to anyone else at the time. But it probably would have been, if the political situation hadn’t conspired to demand immediate action: if Columbus hadn’t been so infuriatingly eager to boast of his accomplishments to João in Lisbon, before even returning to Spain; if hot-headed João hadn’t threatened Ferdinand and Isabella before they had even read Columbus’s report, prompting them to rush to the Vatican for immediate support. All these actions, counteractions and papal proclamations occurred quickly, for the time—within a few months of Columbus’s return from his first voyage across the Atlantic. This was an era without fast, modern communications; important messages were hand-copied by scribes, rolled in leather tubes for protection and carried overland by galloping riders or over water aboard sailing ships. For the era, it all occurred with lightning speed and with little time to contemplate the long-term implications of these events.
Papal decisions, of course, could not be appealed. Nevertheless, João II immediately objected. He was not satisfied with a decision that might severely clip the wings of Portuguese maritime enterprise at the moment when Portugal, after decades of preparation and experience, was the most well-positioned naval power to take advantage of the new opportunities. But he did not dare to launch his shadow armada, which would surely have brought down upon him the wrath of papal authority and led to his excommunication. Instead he instructed his two envoys to Barcelona to entreat the Spanish monarchs to agree to limit their voyages to more northern waters, and to leave everything south of the Canaries to Portugal; in effect, to leave any new lands discovered to the south and west to Portugal, while leaving them with a monopoly over any new lands to the north and west.
In the midst of these negotiations, which took place in the month Columbus had departed on his second voyage across the Atlantic, Ferdinand and Isabella felt pressure from Portuguese negotiators to curtail their right to the lands so recently granted to them by Alexander VI. Rather than becoming involved in a lengthy dispute, they secretly sent another envoy to seek the aid of the pope in Rome. And in yet another bull, Dudum Siquidem, dated September 26, 1493, Alexander VI again affirmed the Inter Caetera of May 4, and went further. This new bull granted Spain rights over all lands to the west and south, even signalling India as a land open to Spanish ships. It reaffirmed that the ships of no other nations should go navigating, exploring or even fishing in these waters without written permission, “even for motives of charity or the faith,” and that the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies would “hold them [the lands] forever, and defend them against any who oppose.” When Castilian ambassadors in Lisbon suggested that João II t ake his grievances to arbitration in Rome, João seethed with anger and casually had the two men brought, as if by accident, into a courtyard and marched in front of an armed and mounted guard of cavalry. The threat was implicit, but unfulfilled. João II could ill-afford another war with Spain.
When the diplomatic row subsided, negotiations continued between the two powers. Spain certainly held most of the cards at this point. For decades, Portugal had relied on papal authority to justify and maintain its monopoly over “discovered” lands in Africa and over the right to enslave non-Christian peoples. So it would be very difficult for the nation to maintain its own monopoly position in Africa “as far as the Indies” while denying the right of the pope to establish a Spanish monopoly over the lands discovered by Columbus. Realizing that his bluster was getting no positive results, João II settled down to negotiate whatever he could salvage from the situation. A grand party of high-placed Spanish officials, including the brother of the Spanish ambassador to Rome, had visited the Portuguese court in November 1493, but had had no luck in pushing the matter forward. Five months later, in March 1494, another delegation of Portuguese officials, including the chief magistrate, visited Spain.
Again they debated, but they were unable to resolve the matter to their mutual satisfaction. Later that spring, a final delegation of high-placed commissioners from both Spain and Portugal settled down to finalize an agreement during a series of negotiations held at the Spanish town of Tordesillas, near the city of Valladolid, close to the Portuguese border. Discussions dragged on for months, as the Portuguese negotiators awaited the return of Columbus from his second voyage so that they might better understand the geography of the new regions and have a better appreciation of their value assessed by independent officials not under Columbus’s direct command.
On June 7, the Portuguese and Spanish negotiators reached the historic agreement known as the Treaty of Tordesillas—a treaty that had a pernicious influence in shaping world affairs for centuries after it was signed. “That, whereas a certain controversy exists between the said lords,” the treaty begins, with great understatement, before attempting to solve some of the difficulties. In most respects it upholds the provisions of the papal bulls. One of the few interesting new provisions was that within ten months of the signing of the treaty, Spain and Portugal were each to dispatch ships with the same number of marine specialists, such as astrologers, pilots and navigators, on board to meet in the Cape Verde Islands. They would then proceed west to determine the location of the boundary in the sea, and wherever the boundary should intersect land, joint boundary towers were to be constructed. But, of course, no method yet existed for accurately determining longitude, a problem that persisted for several decades, so these provisions of the treaty were never fulfilled.
The most significant deviation from Alexander VI’s proclamations was in the placement of the official line of demarcation. While João II acknowledged that Alexander had created legal rights for Spain, he sought to move the official line of demarcation further west. Portuguese ships, he argued, were constantly navigating these waters, and the boundary was too narrow. This was acceptable to the Spanish delegation; the new line of demarcation would run 370 leagues (nearly 1,200 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands instead of 100 leagues west, at approximately 46° longitude. This was to have other unintended, or only dimly appreciated, consequences in favour of Portugal that would not be apparent for another decade. João II suspected that there must be land in the Atlantic farther south from Columbus’s landfall, and it turned out that he was correct.
The shifting of the line of demarcation in the terms of the treaty was João II’s last great accomplishment. Less than a year later, after a period of weakness and lethargy, headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and confusion, he perished in agony at the age of forty, probably from uremia, or kidney failure. João had many enemies in the Portuguese nobility, and poisoning has never been ruled out as a factor. He had failed during his lifetime to have his illegitimate son Jorge legitimized, and was therefore succeeded as king by his cousin Manuel. The new king proved to be another ambitious leader who marshaled the nation’s resources for further state expeditions south along the coast of Africa, although he too would repeat some of the same mistakes as João.
Much has been said about the preposterous, overweening arrogance of a European religious leader making proclamations affecting the entire world, but it should be remembered that Alexander VI’s bulls were intended to regulate the actions of Christian nations in their overseas endeavours—not to regulate the actions of non-Europeans or non-Christians. The bulls were, however, audacious and presumptuous enough to exclude all European nations except Portugal and Spain from overseas voyaging, a situation that was inevitably going to lead to trouble. In the 1490s, however, no other nations had the shipbuilding technology, navigational expertise or geographical proximity to the new lands to be overly concerned with the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Isabella and Ferdinand, however poorly informed they were of the extent of the territory or its peoples during their lifetimes, viewed the new lands and the multitude of peoples who dwelt there as a part of their empire, so they believed they already owned it.
At the time, of course, no one had any real idea of what was being divided. The true extent of the world was not yet known, and was believed to be much smaller than it turned out to be. North America was still imagined to be the eastern extremity of Asia or the islands of Japan. In the succeeding years, however, as an ever-greater number of voyages ventured west across the Atlantic, came the inkling that something different existed. Spanish and Portuguese voyages, in particular, began to reveal an ever-greater world to Europeans. In spite of the papal prohibition against exploration, even England and France commissioned mariners to venture across the Atlantic. In 1497, Henry VII funded the first voyage of John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), another Genoese mariner, who landed in what is now Newfoundland but disappeared to history on a subsequent voyage, while Francis I of France commissioned the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazzano (also Genoese) to the central eastern North American mainland on a similar reconnaissance expedition. Neither England nor France profited greatly from these voyages, and their interest in the New World, once they realized that it was not the eastern extremity of Asia and therefore not the source of easily obtainable wealth, waned.
It was the third and fourth voyages of Columbus, and subsequent ships sent out by Spain and Portugal under the command of other mariners such as Amerigo Vespucci, that led to a more accurate appreciation of the complexity of the islands and the coastal geography of the Caribbean region, including Mexico, Florida and the Central and South American mainland. And most importantly, these voyages revealed that the lands, islands and waterways continued to both the north and the south, and who knew how deep the land was, or what lay farther to the west? Eventually there would have to be a route to the Orient, but what lay in between was revealed to be massive in scope, far beyond what anyone could have imagined.
Portuguese mariners, while focusing their maritime actions on the African coast, made some of their own intriguing discoveries. In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, fulfilling a Portuguese dream that had begun over half a century earlier and laying the foundations of Portugal’s overseas commercial empire. Although some historians speculate that João II knew of the existence of Brazil and that his insistence on moving the line of demarcation was to protect this discovery, the official “discovery” of Brazil came six years after the treaty was signed and two years after da Gama’s voyage, when Pedro Álvares Cabral was blown off course while leading a Portuguese fleet to India following da Gama’s route. Cabral spied a mountain on the horizon and went ashore on April 22, 1500. Cabral determined that the new land, which he thought was an island, was east of the line of demarcation and therefore in the Portuguese half of the world. After dispatching a ship back to Europe to relate the exciting news, he continued on his voyage to India. Unknown to Cabral, Brazil had been visited by Spanish mariners mere months before. They had captured some people to sell as slaves, and had officially claimed the land for Spain before departing.
It was not until after these voyages, with their potential for escalating tensions between the two countries, that the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas were confirmed by papal bull. At the request of King Manuel I of Portugal, Pope Julius II issued the bull, Ea Quae,dated 1506, that confirmed and gave papal sanction to the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas and its all-important line of demarcation. The great bulge of South America known as Brazil and the land we now know as the island of Newfoundland, discovered by the Portuguese mariner Gaspar Côrte-Real around the same time, now fell in the Portuguese half of the world, according to the line of demarcation of the Treaty of Tordesillas but not according to Alexander VI’s original line of demarcation. For Portugal, establishing the line according to the terms of Tordesillas suddenly had great value: it would allow that nation to stamp out the rival claims of Spain. With the discovery of a sea route to the Indian Ocean, by the turn of the sixteenth century the riches of the Indies were starting to trickle into Lisbon.
And there matters rested. Alexander VI had used his temporal and spiritual power to stave off war. His bulls had the desired effect of separating the spheres of activity of Spain and Portugal, turning them away from each other and encouraging them to battle non-Christians instead. It was a strategy that was brilliant in theory and worked in practice, so long as the underlying foundations did not change. But they did change, and surprisingly so, when the world was revealed to be much larger than supposed. Columbus’s “spices” from the “Indies” were soon revealed to be worthless fakes. They were similar to pepper, nutmeg and cloves but lacked the essential qualities of those rarefied substances. There was not much of great value to Spain in the New World, apart from some minor gold deposits. In the years before Spanish mercenaries conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico—aided by their viral compatriots of smallpox and other diseases, which killed up to 90 per cent of the indigenous people within a century—and the Inca Empire in Peru, releasing a gusher of gold and silver bullion into the royal coffers of Spain, it appeared that Portugal had gained the most from the Treaty of Tordesillas. The Spice Islands contained the perceived wealth of the world at that time, and these islands appeared to fall under the Portuguese monopoly.
But if the line of demarcation divided the world in the Atlantic Ocean, where exactly did it bisect the earth on the far side of the globe? Was the fortune that Portugal was deriving from the spice trade legitimately Portuguese, or did the line of demarcation perhaps place part, or even all, of the Spice Islands in Spanish hands? It was a purely academic question, one that likely would have remained a matter of scholarly debate or polite dinner speculation among merchants and the political classes. But a bold and vengeful Portuguese mariner had reason to sell his considerable knowledge of his nation’s evolving commercial empire to its bitter rivals. His decision to do so inspired one of the most fabled voyages of maritime history, and it would change the balance of power on the far side of the world forever.