Rome applauded him for his internal administration, and his successful though hesitant diplomacy. It reproved him mildly for his love affairs, vigorously for feathering the nests of his children, bitterly for appointing to office in Rome a host of Spaniards whose alien mien and speech set Italian teeth on edge. A hundred Spanish relatives of the Pope had flocked to Rome; “ten papacies,” said one observer, “would not have sufficed for all these cousins.”27 Alexander himself was by this time fully Italian in his culture, policy, and ways, but he still loved Spain, spoke Spanish too frequently with Caesar and Lucrezia, elevated nineteen Spaniards to the cardinalate, and surrounded himself with Catalan servants and aides. Finally the jealous Romans, half in humor, half in wrath, called him “the marrano Pope,”28 implying his descent from Christianized Spanish Jews. Alexander excused himself on the ground that many Italians, especially in the college of cardinals, had proved faithless to him, and that he had to have about him a nucleus of supporters bound to him by a personal loyalty based on their awareness that he was their sole protector in Rome.
He—and the princes of Europe down to Napoleon—argued likewise in promoting relatives to positions of trust and power.* He hoped for a while that his son Giovanni might help him to protect the Papal States, but Giovanni had inherited his father’s sensitivity to women without Alexander’s capacity to govern men. Perceiving that of his sons only Caesar had in him the iron and gall necessary to play the game of Italian politics in that violent age, Alexander conferred upon him a maze of benefices whose income would finance the youth’s rising power. Even the gentle Lucrezia was an instrument of policy, and found herself promoted to the governorship of a city or the bed of a valuable duke. The Pope’s fondness for Lucrezia led him to such shows of affection that cruel gossip accused him of incest, and pictured him as competing with his sons for her love.29 On two occasions when he had to be absent from Rome, Alexander left Lucrezia in charge of his rooms in the Vatican, with authority to open his correspondence and attend to all routine business. Such delegation of power to a woman was frequent in the ruling houses of Italy—as in Ferrara, Urbino, Mantua—but it mildly shocked even blasé Rome. When Giofre and Sancia arrived from Naples after their wedding, Caesar and Lucrezia went out to meet them; all four then hurried to the Vatican, and Alexander was happy to have them near him. ‘Other popes, to conceal their infamy,” says Guicciardini, “were wont to term their offspring nephews; but Alexander took delight in letting all the world know that they were his children.”30
The city had forgiven the Pope his pristine Vanozza, but marveled at his current Giulia. Giulia Farnese was noted for her beauty, above all for her golden hair; when she let it down, and it hung to her feet, it was a sight that would have stirred the blood of men less mettlesome than Alexander. Her friends called her La Bella. Sanudo speaks of her as “the Pope’s favorite, a young woman of great beauty and understanding, gracious and gentle.”31 In 1493 Infessura described her as attending Lucrezia’s nuptial banquet in the Vatican, and called her Alexander’s “concubine”; Matarazzo, the Perugian historian, used the same term for Giulia, but probably copied Infessura; and a Florentine wit in 1494 called her sposa di Cristo, bride of Christ, a phrase usually reserved for the Church.32Some scholars have sought to clear Giulia on the ground that Lucrezia—who has been made respectable by research—remained her friend to the end, and that Giulia’s husband, Orsino Orsini, built a chapel to her honored memory.33 In 1492 Giulia gave birth to a daughter Laura, who was officially listed as begotten by Orsini, but Cardinal Alessandro Farnese recognized the girl as Alexander’s child.34* By yet another woman the Pope was credited with having a mysterious son, born about 1498, and known in Burchard’s diary as Infans Romanus.35 It is not certain, but one more or less hardly matters.
There is no question that Alexander was a sensual man, full-blooded to a degree painfully uncongenial to celibacy. When he gave a public festival in the Vatican, at which a comedy was performed (February, 1503), he rumbled with amusement, and was pleased to have fair women crowd about him and seat themselves gracefully on footstools at his feet. He was a man.
He seems to have felt, like many clergymen of the time, that clerical celibacy was a mistake of Hildebrand’s, and that even a cardinal should be permitted the pleasures and tribulations of female company. He showed feelings of husbandly tenderness for Vanozza, and perhaps a paternal solicitude for Giulia. On the other hand his devotion to his children, sometimes overriding his fidelity to the interests of the Church, could well be used to argue the wisdom of the canon law requiring celibacy of a priest.
In these middle years of his pontificate, before Caesar Borgia overshadowed it, Alexander had many virtues. Though he bore himself with proud dignity at public functions, in private he was jovial, good-natured, sanguine, eager to enjoy life, capable of a hearty laugh at seeing, from his window, a parade of masked men “with long false noses of great size in the form of the male member.”36 He was a bit stout now, if we may trust Pinturicchio’s apparently honest picture of him, praying, on the Appartamento wall; and yet all reports concur that he lived frugally, on so plain a fare that the cardinals shunned his table.37 He was unsparing of himself in administration, working till late at night, and watching actively over the affairs of the Church everywhere in Christendom.
Was his Christianity a pretense? Probably not. His letters, even those concerning Giulia, are warm with phrases of piety that were not indispensable in private correspondence.38 He was so much a man of action, and had so thoroughly absorbed the easy morals of his time, that he only sporadically noted any contradiction between Christian ethics and his life. Like most persons completely orthodox in theology, he was completely worldly in conduct. He seems to have felt that in his circumstances the papacy needed a statesman, not a saint; he admired sanctity, but thought it belonged to monasticism and private life rather than to a man compelled to deal at every step with subtle and acquisitive despots or unscrupulous and treacherous diplomats. He ended by adopting all their methods, and the most questionable devices of his predecessors in the papacy.
Needing funds for his government and his wars, he sold offices, took over the estates of dead cardinals, and exploited the jubilee of 1500 to the full. Dispensations and divorces were given as profitable parts of political bargains; so King Ladislaus VII of Hungary paid 30,000 ducats for the annulment of his marriage with Beatrice of Naples; had Henry VIII such an Alexander to deal with he would have remained to the end a Defender of the Faith. When the jubilee threatened to be a financial disappointment because would-be pilgrims stayed home through fear of robbery, pestilence, or war, Alexander, not to be cheated, and following pontifical precedents, issued a bull (March 4, 1500) detailing by what payments Christians might obtain the jubilee indulgence without coming to Rome, at what cost penitents might gain absolution from consanguineous marriages, and how much a clergyman should pay to be forgiven simony and “irregularity.”39 On December 16 he extended the jubilee till Epiphany. The collectors promised payors that the funds gathered in by the jubilee would be used in a crusade against the Turks; the promise was kept in the case of Polish and Venetian collections; but Caesar Borgia used jubilee proceeds to finance his campaigns for the recovery of the Papal States.40
To further celebrate the jubilee, Alexander (September 28, 1500) created twelve new cardinals, who paid a total of 120,000 ducats for their appointment; and these promotions, says Guicciardini, were made “not of such as had the most merit, but of those that offered the most money.”41 In 1503 he named nine additional cardinals at a commensurate price.42 In the same year he created ex nihilo eighty new offices in the Curia, and these places, according to the hostile Venetian ambassador Giustiniani, were sold at 760 ducats each.43 A satirist attached to the statue of Pasquino (1503) a stinging pasquinade:
Vendit Alexander claves, altaria, Christum;
vendere iure potest, emerat ipse prius44—
“the keys, the altars, Alexander sells, and Christ; with right, since he has paid for them.”
By canon law the property left by an ecclesiastic at his death reverted to the Church, except as the pope might allow otherwise.45 Alexander regularly gave such dispensations except in the case of cardinals. Under pressure from the victorious but money-consuming Caesar Borgia, Alexander made it a general principle to appropriate the fortunes left by high ecclesiastics; in this way substantial sums came into the treasury. Some cardinals eluded the Pope by making large gifts in expectation of death, and some, during their lives, deliberately squandered great sums on their funeral monuments. When Cardinal Michiel died (1503), his house was immediately stripped of its wealth by the agents of the Pope, who, if we may believe Giustiniani, netted 150,000 ducats; Alexander complained that only 23,832 were in cash.46
Deferring fuller consideration of the alleged poisonings, by Alexander or Caesar Borgia, of high ecclesiastics who took too long to die, we may provisionally accept the conclusion of recent research—that “there is no evidence that Alexander VI poisoned anybody.”47 This does not quite clear him; he may have been too clever for history. But he could not escape the satirists, pamphleteers, and other wits who sold their deadly epigrams to his opponents. We have seen how Sannazaro belabored Pope and son with lethal couplets in the strife between the papacy and Naples. Infessura served the Colonna with his scandalmongering pen; and Geronimo Mancione was worth a regiment to the Savelli barons. Alexander, as part of his campaign against the Campagna nobles, issued in 1501 a bull detailing the crimes and vices of the Savelli and the Colonna. Its exaggerations were bettered in Mancione’s famous “Letter to Silvio Savelli,” retailing the vices and crimes of Alexander and Caesar Borgia. This document was widely circulated, and did much to create the legend of Alexander as a monster of perversions and cruelty.48 Alexander won the battle of the sword, but his noble foes, unchecked by his enemy Pope Julius II, won the battle of the word, and transmitted their picture of him to history.
He paid too little attention to public opinion, and rarely answered the slanders that so mercilessly multiplied the reality of his faults. He was resolved to build a strong state, and thought that it could not be done by Christian means. His use of the traditional tools of statecraft—propaganda, deception, intrigue, discipline, war—was bound to offend those who preferred a Christian Church to a strong one, and those to whose advantage it was that the papacy and the Papal States should be disorganized and weak among the nobles of Rome and the powers of Italy. Occasionally Alexander stopped to examine his life by evangelical standards, and then he admitted himself to be a simoniac, a fornicator, even—through war—a destroyer of human lives. Once, when his lucky star seemed suddenly to fall, and all his proud and happy world seemed shattered, he lost his Machiavellian amoralism, confessed his sins, and vowed to reform himself and the Church.
He loved his son Giovanni even more than his daughter Lucrezia. When Pedro Luis died, Alexander saw to it that Giovanni should receive the duchy of Gandia in Spain. It was easy to love the lad, he was so handsome, kindly, gay. The fond father did not perceive that the youth was made for Eros, not for Mars; he made him a general, and the young commander proved incompetent. Giovanni thought a beautiful woman more precious than a captured city. On June 14, 1497, he supped with his brother Caesar and other guests at the home of his mother Vanozza. As they were returning, Giovanni parted from Caesar and the rest, saying that he wished to visit a lady of his acquaintance. He was never seen alive again. When his disappearance was noted the anxious Pope sent out an alarm. A boatman confessed that he had seen a body thrown into the Tiber on the night of the 14th; asked why he had not reported it he replied that in the course of his life he had seen a hundred such disposals, and had learned not to trouble himself about them. The river was dragged, the body was found, stabbed in nine places; apparently the young Duke had been attacked by several men. Alexander was so broken with grief that he shut himself up in a private chamber and refused food, and his moans could be heard in the street.
He ordered a search for the murderers, but perhaps he soon reconciled himself to letting the case remain a mystery. The body had been recovered near the castle of Antonio Pico della Mirandola, whose pretty daughter had allegedly been seduced by the Duke; many contemporaries, like the Mantuan ambassador Scalona, ascribed the death to thugs hired by the Count; and this is still the likeliest explanation.49 Others, including the Florentine and Milanese ambassadors at Rome, attributed the crime to some member of the Orsini clan, then at war with the Pope.50 Some scandal-sippers said that Giovanni had made love to his sister Lucrezia, and had been killed by retainers of her husband Giovanni Sforza.51 No one at the time accused Caesar Borgia. Caesar, now twenty-two, had apparently been on the best terms with his brother; he was a cardinal, and was moving in his own line of advancement; not till fourteen months later did he turn to a military career; he derived no advantage from his brother’s death; he could hardly have anticipated that Giovanni would leave him on the way home from Vanozza. Alexander, so far from suspecting Caesar at this time, appointed him Giovanni’s executor. The first known mention of Caesar as the possible murderer occurs in a letter written by the Ferrarese ambassador Pigna on February 22, 1498, eight months after the event. Not till Caesar had shown his character in all its ruthless force did popular opinion connect him with the crime; then Machiavelli and Guicciardini agreed in laying it at his door. He might have been capable of it at a later stage of his development, had Giovanni opposed him in some vital policy; but of this particular murder he was almost certainly innocent.52
When the Pope had recovered his self-control he called a consistory of the cardinals (June 19, 1497), received their condolences, told them that he had “loved the Duke of Gandia more than anyone else in the world,” and attributed the blow—“the heaviest that could have befallen” him—to God as a punishment for his sins. He went on: “We on our part are resolved to amend our life, and to reform the Church…. Henceforth benefices shall be given only to deserving persons, and in accordance with the votes of the cardinals. We renounce all nepotism. We will begin the reform with ourselves, and so proceed through all ranks of the Church till the whole work is accomplished.”53 A committee of six cardinals was appointed to draw up a program of reform. It labored earnestly, and presented to Alexander a bull of reform so excellent that if its provisions had been put into effect they might have saved the Church from both the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. But when Alexander faced the question how the revenues of the papacy, without the fees paid for ecclesiastical appointments, could finance the papal government, he found no acceptable answer. Meanwhile Louis XII was preparing a second French invasion of Italy, and soon Caesar Borgia proposed to recapture the Papal States from their recalcitrant “vicars.” The dream of a powerful political structure that would give the Church a physical and financial leverage in a rebellious and fluent world absorbed the spirit of the Pope; he deferred the reforms from day to day; at last he forgot them in the exciting successes of a son who was conquering a realm for him and making him every ounce a king.