THE most interesting of the Renaissance popes was born at Xativa, Spain, on January 1, 1431. His parents were cousins, both of the Borjas, a family of some slight nobility. Rodrigo received his education at Xativa, Valencia, and Bologna. When his uncle became a cardinal, and then Pope Calixtus III, a straight path was opened for the young man’s advancement in an ecclesiastical career. Moving to Italy, he respelled his name Borgia, was made a cardinal at twenty-five, and at twenty-six received the fruitful office of vice-chancellor—head of the entire Curia. He performed his duties competently, earned some repute as an administrator, lived abstemiously, and made many friends in either sex. He was not yet—would not be till his thirty-seventh year—a priest.
He was so handsome in his youth, so attractive in the grace of his manners, his sensual ardor and cheerful temperament, his persuasive eloquence and gay wit, that women found it hard to resist him. Brought up in the easygoing morality of fifteenth-century Italy, and perceiving that many a cleric, many a priest, allowed himself the pleasure of women, this young Lothario in the purple decided to enjoy all the gifts that God had given him and them. Pius II reproved him for attending “an immodest and seductive dance” (1460), but the Pope accepted Rodrigo’s apology, and continued him as vice-chancellor and trusted aide.1 In that year Rodrigo’s first son, Pedro Luis, was born or begotten, and perhaps also his daughter Girolama, who was married in 1482;2 their mothers are not known. Pedro lived in Spain till 1488, came to Rome in that year, and died soon afterward. In 1464 Rodrigo accompanied Pius II to Ancona, and there contracted some minor sexual disease “because,” said his doctor, “he had not slept alone.”3 About 1466 he formed a more permanent attachment with Vanozza de’ Catanei, then some twenty-four years old. Unfortunately, she was married to Domenico d’Arignano, but Domenico left her in 1476.4 To Rodrigo (who had become a priest in 1468) Vanozza bore four children: in 1474Giovanni, in 1476 Cesare (whom we shall call Caesar), in 1480 Lucrezia, in 1481 Giofre. These four were ascribed to Vanozza on her tombstone, and were at one time or another acknowledged by Rodrigo as his own.5 Such persistent parentage suggests an almost monogamous union, and perhaps Cardinal Borgia, in comparison with other ecclesiastics, may be credited with a certain domestic fidelity and stability.* He was a tender and benevolent father; it was a pity that his efforts to advance his childern did not always bring glory to the Church. When Rodrigo set his eye on the papacy he found a tolerant husband for Vanozza, and helped her to prosperity. She was twice widowed, married again, lived in modest retirement, rejoiced in the rise of her children to fame and wealth, mourned her separation from them, earned a reputation for piety, died at seventy-six (1518), and left all her substantial property to the Church. Leo X sent his chamberlain to attend her ceremonious funeral.7
We should betray a lack of historical sense were we to judge Alexander VI from the moral standpoint of our age—or rather of our youth. His contemporaries looked upon his prepapal sexual sins as only canonically mortal, but, in the moral climate of his time, venial and forgivable.8 Even in the generation between the reproof given him by Pius II and Rodrigo’s elevation to the papacy, public opinion had become more lenient toward unobtrusive sexual digressions from clerical celibacy. Pius II himself, besides spawning some love children in his presacerdotal youth, had once advocated the marriage of priests; Sixtus IV had had several children; Innocent VIII had brought his into the Vatican. Some condemned the morals of Rodrigo, but apparently no one mentioned them when the conclave met to choose a successor to Innocent. Five popes, including the reasonably virtuous Nicholas V, had granted him lucrative benefices through all these years, had entrusted him with difficult missions and responsible posts, and had apparently (Pius II for a moment excepted) taken no notice of his philoprogenitive exuberance.9 What men remarked in 1492 was that he had been vice-chancellor for thirty-five years, had been appointed and reappointed to that office by five successive popes, and had administered the office with conspicuous industry and competence; and that the external magnificence of his palace concealed a remarkable simplicity of private life. Iacopo da Volterra, in 1486, described him as “a man of an intellect capable of anything, and of great sense; he is a ready speaker, is of an astute nature, and has wonderful skill in conducting affairs.”10 He was popular with the Romans, having amused them with games; when news reached Rome that Granada had fallen to the Christians, he regaled Rome with a bullfight in Spanish style.
Perhaps the cardinals assembling in conclave on August 6, 1492, were also interested in his wealth, for in five administrations he had become the richest cardinal—excepting d’Estouteville—in the memory of Rome. They relied upon him to make substantial presents to those who should vote for him; and he did not fail them. To Cardinal Sforza he promised the vicechancellorship, several rich benefices, and the Borgia palace in Rome; to Cardinal Orsini the see and ecclesiastical revenues of Cartagena, the towns of Monticelli and Soriano, and the governorship of the Marches; to Cardinal Savelli Civita Castellana and the bishopric of Majorca; and so on; Infessura described the process as Borgia’s “evangelical distribution of his goods to the poor.”11 It was not an unusual procedure; every candidate had used it for many conclaves past, as every candidate uses it in politics today. Whether money bribes were also used is uncertain.12 The decisive vote was cast by Cardinal Gherardo, ninety-six years old, and “hardly in possession of his faculties.”13 Finally all the cardinals rushed to the winning side, and made the election of Rodrigo Borgia unanimous (August 10, 1492). When asked by what name he wished to be called as pope, he answered, “By the name of the invincible Alexander.” It was a pagan beginning for a pagan pontificate.