Alexander had many reasons to be proud of his now oldest son. Caesar was blonde of hair and beard, as many Italians wanted to be; keen of eye, tall and straight, strong, and a stranger to fear. Of him, as of Leonardo, the story was told that he could twist a horseshoe with his bare hands. He rode with wild control the spirited horses collected for his stable; he went to the hunt with the eagerness of a hound sniffing blood. During the jubilee he astonished a crowd by decapitating a bull with one stroke in a bullbaiting contest in a Roman square; on January 2, 1502, in a formal bullfight arranged by him in the Piazza San Pietro, he rode into the enclosure with nine other Spaniards, and attacked singlehanded, with his pike, the more ferocious of two bulls let loose there; dismounting, he played torero for a while; then, having sufficiently proved his courage and skill, he left the arena to the professionals.54 He introduced the sport into the Romagna as well as at Rome; but after a few amateur matadors had been gored it was sent back to Spain.

To think of him as an ogre is to miss him widely. One contemporary called him “a young man of great and surpassing cleverness and excellent disposition, cheerful, even merry, and always in good spirits”;55 another described him as “far superior in looks and wit to his brother the Duke of Gandia.”56 Men noted his grace of manner, his simple but costly garb, his commanding glance, and air of one who felt that he inherited the world. Women admired but did not love him; they knew that he took them lightly and lightly cast them aside. He had studied law in the University of Perugia, enough to sharpen the natural shrewdness of his mind. He spared little time for books or “culture,” though like everybody he wrote verses now and then; later he flaunted a poet on his staff. He had a discriminating appreciation of the arts; when Cardinal Raffaello Riario refused to buy a Cupid because it was no antique but the work of an unknown Florentine youth, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Caesar gave a good price for it.

He was clearly not made for an ecclesiastical career, but Alexander, having bishoprics rather than principalities at his disposal, made him archbishop of Valencia (1492), then cardinal (1493). No one took such appointments as religious; they were means of supplying income to youths who had influential relatives, and who might be trained for the practical management of ecclesiastical property and personnel. Caesar took minor orders, but never became a priest. Since canon law excluded bastards from the cardinalate, Alexander, in a bull of September 19, 1493, declared him the legitimate son of Vanozza and d’Arignano. It was inconvenient that in a bull of August 16, 1482, Sixtus IV had described Caesar as the son of “Rodrigo, bishop and vice-chancellor.” The public winked and smiled, accustomed to see legal fictions veil untimely truths.

In 1497, shortly after Giovanni’s death, Caesar went to Naples as papal legate, and had the thrill of crowning a king. Perhaps the touch of a crown stirred his blood. On his return to Rome he importuned his father to let him renounce his ecclesiastical career. There was no way of releasing him from it except through Alexander’s frank admission to the college of cardinals that Caesar was his illegitimate son; it was so done, and the appointment of the young bastard to the cardinalate was duly declared invalid (August 17, 1498).57 His illegitimacy restored, Caesar turned with zest to the game of politics.

Alexander hoped that Federigo III, King of Naples, would accept Caesar as husband for his daughter Carlotta, but Federigo had different tastes. Deeply offended, the Pope turned to France, hoping to secure its help in reclaiming the Papal States. An opportunity came when Louis XII asked for the annulment of a marriage that had been forced upon him in his youth, and which, he claimed, had never been consummated. In October, 1498, Alexander sent Caesar to France bearing a decree of divorce for the King, and 200,000 ducats with which to woo a bride. Pleased with the divorce, further pleased by a papal dispensation to marry Anne of Brittany, widow of Charles VIII, Louis offered Caesar the hand of Charlotte d’Albret, sister to the king of Navarre; moreover, he made Caesar duke of Valentinois and Diois, two French territories to which the papacy had some legal claim. In May, 1499, the new Duke—Valentino, as he was henceforth called in Italy—married the good, beautiful, and wealthy Charlotte; and Rome, told the news by Alexander, lit bonfires of rejoicing over the marriage of their prince. The marriage committed the papacy to an alliance with a king who was openly planning to invade Italy and take Milan and Naples. Alexander was as guilty in 1499 as Lodovico and Savonarola had been in 1494. This alliance undid all the work of the Holy League that Alexander had helped to form in 1495, and it prepared the scene for the wars of Julius II. Caesar Borgia was among the notables who escorted Louis XII into Milan on October 6, 1499; Castiglione, who was there, described Duke Valentino as the tallest and handsomest man in all the King’s stately retinue.58 His pride matched his appearance. His ring bore the inscription, Fays ce que dois, advien que pourra—“Do what you must, whate’er betide.” His sword was engraved with scenes from the life of Julius Caesar, and bore two mottoes: on one side, Alea iacta est— “The die is cast”; on the other, Aut Caesar aut nullus—”Either Caesar or nobody.”59

In this bold youth and happy warrior Alexander found at last the general he had long sought to lead the armed forces of the Church in the reconquest of the Papal States. Louis contributed three hundred French lances, four thousand Gascons and Swiss were recruited, and two thousand Italian mercenaries. It was a small army with which to overcome a dozen despots, but Caesar was eager for the adventure. To add spiritual to military weapons, the Pope issued a bull solemnly declaring that Caterina Sforza and her son Ottaviano held Imola and Forlì—Pandolfo Malatesta held Rimini—Giulio Varano held Camerino—Astorre Manfredi held Faenza—Guidobaldo held Urbino—Giovanni Sforza held Pesaro—only by usurping lands, property, and rights long pertaining in law and justice to the Church; that they were all tyrants who had abused their powers and exploited their subjects; and that they must now resign or be expelled by force.60 Possibly, as some charged, Alexander dreamed of welding these principalities into a kingdom for his son; it is unlikely, for Alexander must have known that neither his successors nor the other states of Italy would long tolerate a usurpation more illegal and unwelcome than any that it would have replaced. Caesar himself may have dreamed of such a consummation; Machiavelli hoped so, and would have rejoiced to see so strong a hand unite all Italy and expel all invaders. But to the end of his life Caesar protested that he had no other aim than to win the States of the Church for the Church, and would be content to be governor of the Romagna as a vassal of the pope.61

In January, 1500, Caesar and his army marched over the Apennines to Forlì. Imola surrendered at once to his deputy, and the citizens of Forlì threw open the gates to welcome him; but Caterina Sforza, as she had done twelve years before, bravely held the citadel with her garrison. Caesar offered her easy terms; she preferred to fight. After a brief siege the papal troops forced their way into the rocca, and put the defenders to the sword. Caterina was sent to Rome, and was lodged as an unwilling guest in the Belvedere wing of the Vatican. She refused to resign her right to rule Forlì and Imola; she tried to escape, and was transferred to Sant’ Angelo. After eighteen months she was released, and entered a nunnery. She was a brave woman, but quite a virago.62 “She was a feudal ruler of the worst type, and in her dominions, as elsewhere in the Romagna, Caesar was regarded as an avenger commissioned by Heaven to redress ages of oppression and wrong.”63

But Caesar’s first triumph was brief. His foreign troops mutinied because Caesar had insufficient funds to pay them; they were hardly appeased when Louis XII recalled the French detachment to help him recapture the Milan that Lodovico had for a moment regained. Caesar led his remaining army back to Rome, and received almost the honors of a victorious Roman general. Alexander gloried in his son’s success; “the Pope,” reported the Venetian ambassador, “is more cheerful than ever.”64 He appointed Caesar papal vicar for the conquered cities, and began to lean fondly on his son’s advice. The receipts from the jubilee and from the sale of red hats replenished the treasury, and Caesar could now plan a second campaign. He offered a convincing sum to Paolo Orsini to join the papal forces with his armed men; Paolo came, and several other nobles followed suit; with this clever stroke Caesar enlarged his army and protected Rome from baronial raids during the absence of the papal troops beyond the Apennines. Perhaps by similar inducements, and the promise of spoils, he enlisted the services and soldiers of Gianpaolo Baglioni, lord of Perugia, and engaged Vitellozzo Vitelli to lead the artillery. Louis XII sent him a small regiment of lancers, but Caesar was no longer dependent upon French reinforcements. In September, 1500, at Alexander’s urging, he attacked the castles occupied by hostile Colonna and Savelli in Latium. One after another surrendered. Soon Alexander was enabled to make a tour in safety and triumph through regions long lost to the papacy. He was received everywhere with popular acclaim,65 for the feudal barons had not been loved by their subjects.

When Caesar set out on his second major campaign (October, 1500), he had an army of 14,000 men, with a retinue of poets, prelates, and prostitutes to service his troops. Anticipating their arrival, Pandolfo Malatesta vacated Rimini, and Giovanni Sforza fled from Pesaro; the two cities welcomed Caesar as a liberator. At Faenza Astorre Manfredi resisted, and the people supported him loyally. Borgia offered generous terms, Manfredi rejected them. The siege lasted all winter; finally Faenza surrendered on Caesar’s promise of leniency to all. He behaved handsomely to the citizens, and was so warm in praising Manfredi’s resolute defense that the defeated apparently fell in love with the victor, and remained with him as part of his staff or retinue. Astorre’s younger brother did the same, though both were free to go wherever they wished.66 For two months they followed Caesar in all his wanderings, and were treated with all respect. Then suddenly, on reaching Rome, they were thrown into the Castel Sant’ Angelo. There they remained for a year; then, on June 2, 1502, their bodies were thrown up by the Tiber. What made Caesar—or Alexander—condemn them is not known. Like a hundred other strange events in the history of the Borgias, the case remains a mystery that only the uninformed can solve.

Caesar, now adding duke of Romagna to his titles, studied the map, and decided to complete the task assigned him by his father. Camerino and Urbino remained to be taken. Urbino, though doubtless papal in law, was almost a model state as politics then went; it seemed a disgraceful thing to depose so loved a couple as Guidobaldo and Elisabetta; and perhaps they would now have consented to be papal vicars in fact as well as name. But Caesar argued that the city blocked his easiest avenue to the Adriatic, and might, in hostile hands, cut off his communications with Pesaro and Rimini. We do not know if Alexander agreed; it seems incredible, for about this time he persuaded Guidobaldo to lend the papal army his artillery.67 It is more likely that Caesar deceived his father, or changed his own plans. On June 12, 1502, now with Leonardo da Vinci as his chief engineer, he set out on his third campaign, apparently headed for Camerino. Suddenly he turned north, and approached Urbino so rapidly that its invalid ruler had barely time to escape, leaving the city to fall undefended into Caesar’s hands (June 21). If this move was made with Alexander’s knowledge and consent, it was one of the most despicable treacheries in history, though Machiavelli would have been thrilled by its subtlety. The victor treated the inhabitants with feline gentleness, but appropriated the precious art collection of the fallen Duke, and sold it to pay his troops.

Meanwhile his general Vitelli, apparently on his own authority, seized Arezzo, long since an appanage of Florence. The shocked Signory sent the bishop of Volterra, with Machiavelli, to appeal to Caesar at Urbino. He received them with successful charm. “I am not here to play the tyrant,” he told them, “but to extinguish tyrants.”68 He agreed to check Vitelli and restore Arezzo to Florentine allegiance; in return he demanded a definite policy of mutual friendliness between Florence and himself. The bishop thought him sincere, and Machiavelli wrote to the Signory with undiplomatic enthusiasm:

This lord is splendid and magnificent, and is so bold that there is no enterprise so great that it does not seem to him small. To gain glory and dominions he robs himself of repose, and knows neither danger nor fatigue. He comes to a place before his intentions are understood. He makes himself well liked among his soldiers, and has chosen the best men in Italy. These things make him victorious and formidable, with the aid of perpetual good fortune.69

On July 20 Camerino surrendered to Caesar’s lieutenants, and the Papal States were papal again. Directly or by proxy Caesar gave them such good government as seemed to vindicate his claim to be a deposer of tyrants; later all of them but Urbino and Faenza would mourn his fall.70—Hearing that Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (Elisabetta’s brother and Isabella’s husband) had gone with several other prominent men to Milan to turn Louis XII against him, Caesar hurried across Italy, confronted his enemies, and quickly regained the favor of the King (August, 1502). It is deserving of note that up to this point, and even after his most questionable exploit, a bishop, a king, and a diplomat later famous for subtlety, should have joined in admiring Caesar, and accepting the justice of his conduct and his aims.

Nevertheless Italy was dotted with men who prayed for his fall. Venice, though it had made him an honorary citizen (gentiluomo di Venezia), was not happy to see the Papal States so strong again, and controlling so much of the Adriatic shore. Florence fretted at the thought that Forlì, only eight miles from Florentine territory, was in the hands of an incalculable and unscrupulous young genius of statecraft and war. Pisa offered itself to his rule (December, 1502); he politely refused; but what if he changed his course—as on the way to Camerino? The gifts that Isabella sent him were perhaps a blind to disguise the resentment she and Mantua felt against his rape of Urbino. The Colonna and Savelli, and in less degree the Orsini, had been ruined by his victories, and merely bided their time to raise some coalition against him. His own “best men,” who had led his cohorts brilliantly, were not sure but that he might attack their territories next, some of which were also claimed by the Church. Gianpaolo Baglioni trembled for his hold on Perugia, Giovanni Bentivoglio for his rule in Bologna; Paolo Orsini and Francesco Orsini, Duke of Gravina, wondered how long it would be before Caesar would do to the Orsini clan what he had done to the Colonna. Vitelli, raging at being forced to relinquish Arezzo, invited these men, and Oliverotto of Fermo, and Pandolfo Petrucci of Siena, and representatives of Guidobaldo, to meet at La Magione on Lake Trasimene (September, 1502). There they agreed to turn their troops against Caesar, capture and depose him, end his rule in the Romagna and the Marches, and restore the dispossessed lords. It was a formidable plot, whose success would have brought to a sorry issue the best-laid plans of Alexander and his son.

The conspiracy began with brilliant victories. Revolts were organized in Urbino and Camerino, with the support of the people; the papal garrisons there were expelled; Guidobaldo returned to his palace (October 18, 1502); everywhere the fallen lords raised their heads and planned to return to power. Caesar suddenly found that his lieutenants would not obey him, and that his forces were reduced to a point where he could not possibly hold his conquests. In this crisis Cardinal Ferrari opportunely died; Alexander hurriedly appropriated the 50,000 ducats left by him, and sold some of the Cardinal’s benefices; he turned over the receipts to Caesar, who rapidly raised a new army of six thousand men. In the meantime Alexander negotiated individually with the conspirators, made them fair promises, and won so many of them back to obedience that by the end of October they had all made their peace with Caesar; it was an astonishing feat of diplomacy. Caesar received their apologies with silent skepticism; and he noted that though Guidobaldo again fled from Urbino, the Orsini still held the duchy’s strongholds with their troops.

In December Caesar’s lieutenants, at his bidding, besieged Senigallia, on the Adriatic. The town soon yielded, but the governor of the castle refused to surrender it except to Caesar himself. A messenger was sent to the Duke at Cesena; he hastened down the coast, followed by twenty-eight hundred soldiers especially devoted to him. Arriving at Senigallia he greeted with apparent cordiality the four leaders of the conspiracy—Vitellozzo Vitelli, Paolo and Francesco Orsini, and Oliverotto. He invited them to a conference with him in the governor’s palace; when they came he had them arrested; and that very night (December 31, 1502) he had Vitelli and Oliverotto strangled. The two Orsini were kept in prison till Caesar could communicate with his father; apparently Alexander’s views agreed with his son’s; and on January 18 the two men were put to death.71

Caesar prided himself on his clever stroke at Senigallia; he thought Italy should thank him for ridding it so neatly of four men who were not only feudal usurpers of Church lands but had been reactionary oppressors of helpless subjects. Perhaps he felt a qualm or two, for he excused himself to Machiavelli: “It is proper to snare those who are proving themselves past masters in the art of snaring others.”72 Machiavelli fully agreed with him, and considered Caesar, at this time, the bravest and wisest man in Italy. Paolo Giovio, historian and bishop, called the quadruple extinction of the conspirators bellissimo inganno—a “most lovely ruse.”73 Isabella d’Este, playing safe, sent Caesar congratulations, and a hundred masks to amuse him “after the fatigues and struggles of this glorious expedition.” Louis XII hailed the coup as “a deed worthy of the great days of Rome.”74

Alexander was now free to express his full rage at the conspiracy against his son and the reclaimed cities of the Church. He claimed to have evidence that Cardinal Orsini had plotted with his relatives to assassinate Caesar;75 he had the Cardinal and several other suspects arrested (January 3, 1503); he seized the Cardinal’s palace, and confiscated all his goods. The Cardinal died in prison on February 22, probably through excitement and exhaustion; Rome speculated that the Pope had had him poisoned. Alexander advised Caesar to root out the Orsini completely from Rome and the Campagna. Caesar was not so anxious; perhaps he too was exhausted; he delayed returning to the capital, and then set out unwillingly76 to besiege Giulio Orsini’s mighty fortress at Ceri (March 14, 1503). In this siege—perhaps in others—Borgia used some of Leonardo’s war machines; one was a movable tower holding three hundred men and capable of being raised to the top of the enemy’s walls.77 Giulio surrendered, and went with Caesar to the Vatican to ask for peace; the Pope granted it on condition that all Orsini castles in papal territory should be given up to the Church; it was done. In the meantime Perugia and Fermo had quietly accepted the governors sent them by Caesar. Bologna was still unredeemed, but Ferrara had joyfully received Lucrezia Borgia as its duchess. Aside from these two major principalities—which would occupy Alexander’s successors—the reconquest of the Papal States was complete, and Caesar Borgia, at twenty-eight, found himself the governor of a realm equaled in size, in the peninsula, only by the Kingdom of Naples. He was now by common consent the most remarkable and powerful man in Italy.

For a time he remained in unwonted quiet at the Vatican. We should have expected him at this point to send for his wife; he did not. He had left her with her family in France, and she had borne him a child during his wars; occasionally he wrote to her and sent her gifts; but he never saw her again. The Duchesse de Valentinois lived a modest and retired life in Bourges, or in the château de La Motte-Feuilly in the Dauphiné, waiting hopefully to be sent for, or to have her husband come to her. When he was ruined and deserted she tried to go to him; when he died she hung her house with black, and remained in mourning for him until her death. Perhaps he would have sent for her later, had he been given more than a few months of peace; more likely he looked upon the marriage as purely political, and felt no obligation to tenderness. There was apparently only a modicum of tenderness in him, and he kept most of that for Lucrezia, whom he loved as much as he could love a woman. Even when hurrying from Urbino to Milan to circumvent his foes with Louis XII, he had gone considerably out of his way to visit his sister at Ferrara, then dangerously ill. Returning from Milan he stopped there again, held her in his arms while physicians bled her, and stayed with her till she was out of danger.78 Caesar was not made for marriage; he had mistresses, but none for long; he was too consumed by the will to power to let any woman enter possessively into his life.

In Rome he lived in privacy, almost in concealment. He worked at night and was rarely seen by day. But he worked hard, even in this period of seeming rest; he kept close watch on his appointees in the States of the Church, punished those who misused their position, had one appointee put to death for cruelty and exploitation, and always found time to see men who needed his instructions on the government of the Romagna or the maintenance of order in Rome. Those who knew him respected his shrewd intelligence, his capacity for going directly to the heart of the matter, for seizing every opportunity that chance presented, and for taking quick, decisive, and effective action. He was popular with his soldiers, who secretly admired the saving severity of his discipline. They highly approved of the bribes, stratagems, and deceits by which he reduced the number and persistence of his enemies and the battles and casualties of his troops.79 Diplomats were chagrined to find that this swift-moving and fearless young general could outthink them and outreason them in their shrewdest subtleties, and could, at need, match all their charm and tact and eloquence.80

His flair for secrecy made him an easy victim for the satirists of Italy, and for the ugly rumors that hostile ambassadors or deposed aristocrats might invent or spread; it is impossible today to separate fact from fiction in these lurid reports. A favorite story was that Alexander and his son made a practice of arresting rich ecclesiastics on trumped up charges, and releasing them on the payment of large ransoms or fines; so, it was alleged, the bishop of Cesena, for a crime whose nature was not divulged, was cast into Sant’ Angelo, and was freed on paying 10,000 ducats to the Pope.81 We cannot say whether this was justice or robbery; in fairness to Alexander we should bear in mind that it was then the custom of both secular and ecclesiastical courts to make crime pay the court by replacing expensive imprisonment with lucrative fines. According to the Venetian ambassador Giustiniani and the Florentine ambassador Vittorio Soderini, Jews were frequently arrested on charges of heresy, and could prove their orthodoxy only by substantial contributions to the papal treasury.82 It is possible; but Rome was known for its relatively decent treatment of the Jews, and no Jew was considered a heretic—or was prosecuted by the Inquisition—for being a Jew.

Many rumors charged the Borgias with poisoning rich cardinals to accelerate the reversion of their estates to the Church. Some such casualties seemed so well attested—rather by repetition than by evidence—that Protestant historians generally accepted them as late as the judicious Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97)’83 and the Catholic historian Pastor believed it “extremely probable that Caesar poisoned Cardinal Michiel in order to obtain the money that he wanted.”84 This conclusion was founded on the fact that under Julius II (extremely hostile to Alexander) a subdeacon, Aquino da Colloredo, being put to the torture, confessed that he had poisoned Cardinal Michiel at the behest of Alexander and Caesar.85 A twentieth-century historian may be excused for being skeptical of confessions elicited by torture. An enterprising statistician has shown that the death rate among cardinals was no higher in Alexander’s pontificate than before or afterward;86 but there is no doubt that Rome, in the last three years of that reign, thought it dangerous to be a cardinal and rich.87 Isabella d’Este wrote to her husband to be careful what he said about Caesar, for “he does not scruple to conspire against those of his own blood”;88 apparently she accepted the tale that he had killed the Duke of Gandia. Roman gossip talked about a slow poison, cantarella, whose base was arsenic, and which, dropped as a powder upon food or into drink—even into the sacramental wine of the Mass-would produce a leisurely death difficult to trace to its human cause. Historians now generally reject the slow poisons of the Renaissance as legendary, but believe that in one or two cases the Borgias poisoned rich cardinals.89* Further research may reduce these cases to zero.

Worse stories were told of Caesar. To amuse Alexander and Lucrezia, we are assured, he released into a courtyard several prisoners who had been sentenced to death, and, from a safe point, showed his bowmanship by shooting fatal arrows into one after another of the convicts as they sought some refuge from his shafts.90 Our sole authority for this tale is the Venetian envoy Capello; it is rather less probable that Caesar did this than that a diplomat should lie. Much history of the Renaissance popes has been written on the authority of war propaganda and diplomatic lies.

The most incredible of the Borgia horrors appears in the usually reliable diary of Alexander’s master of ceremonies, Burchard. Under October 30, 1501, the Diarium describes a dinner in the apartment of Caesar Borgia in the Vatican, at which nude courtesans chased chestnuts scattered over the floor while Alexander and Lucrezia looked on.91 The story appears also in the Perugian historian Matarazzo, who took it not from Burchard (for the Diarium was still secret) but from gossip that ranged out of Rome through Italy; “the thing was known far and wide,” he says.92 If so, it is strange that the Ferrarese ambassador, who was in Rome at the time, and was later commissioned to investigate the morals of Lucrezia and her fitness to marry Alfonso, son of Duke Ercole, made no mention of the story in his report, but (as we shall see) gave a most favorable account of her; either he was bribed by Alexander, or he ignored unverified gossip. But how did the story get into Burchard’s diary? He does not profess to have been present, and could hardly be, for he was a man of sturdy morals. Normally he included in his notes only such events as he had witnessed, or such as had been reported to him on good authority. Was the story interpolated into the manuscript? Of the original manuscript only twenty-six pages survive, all concerning the period following Alexander’s final illness. Of the remainder of the Diarium only copies exist. All these copies carry the story. It may have been interpolated by a hostile scribe who thought to liven a dry chronicle with a juicy tale; or Burchard may for once have allowed gossip to creep into his notes, or the original may have marked it as gossip. Probably the story was based on an actual banquet, and the lurid fringe was added by fancy or spite. The Florentine ambassador Francesco Pepi, always hostile to the Borgias since Florence was almost always at odds with them, reported, on the morrow of the affair, that the Pope had stayed up till a late hour in the apartments of Caesar the night before, and there had been “dancing and laughter”;93 there is no mention of the courtesans. It is incredible that a pope who was at this time making every effort to marry his daughter to the heir of the duchy of Ferrara should have risked the marriage and a vital diplomatic alliance by allowing Lucrezia to witness such a spectacle.94

But let us look at Lucrezia.

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