The final years of Alexander were apparently happy and prosperous. His daughter was married into a ducal family, and was respected by all Ferrara; his son had brilliantly accomplished his assignments as general and administrator, and the Papal States were flourishing under excellent government. The Venetian ambassador describes the Pope, in those last years, as cheerful and active, apparently quite easy of conscience; “nothing worries him.” He was seventy years old on January 1, 1501, but, reported the ambassador, “he seems to grow younger every day.”108
On the afternoon of August 5, 1503, Alexander, Caesar, and some others dined in the open air at the villa of Cardinal Adriano da Corneto, not far from the Vatican. All remained in the gardens till midnight, for the heat indoors was exhausting. On the 11th the Cardinal was attacked by a severe fever, which lasted three days and then subsided. On the 12th both the Pope and his son were bedded with fever and vomiting. Rome, as usual, talked of poison; Caesar, said gossip, had ordered the poisoning of the Cardinal to secure his fortune; by mistake the poisoned food had been eaten by nearly all the guests. Historians now agree with the physicians who treated the Pope, that the cause was malarial infection, invited by prolonged exposure to the night air of midsummer Rome.109In that same month malarial fever laid low half the household of the Pope, and many of these cases proved fatal;110 in Rome there were hundreds of deaths from the same cause in that season.
Alexander lingered for thirteen days between life and death, occasionally recovering to the extent of resuming the conferences of diplomacy; on August 13 he played cards. The doctors bled him repeatedly, probably once too much, depleting his natural strength. He died on August 18. Soon afterward the body became black and fetid, lending color to hasty rumors of poison. Carpenters and porters, “joking and blaspheming,” says Burchard, had trouble forcing the swollen corpse into the coffin designed for it.111 Gossip added that a little devil had been seen, at the moment of death, carrying Alexander’s soul to hell.112
The Romans rejoiced at the passing of the Spanish Pope. Riots broke out, the “Catalans” were chased from the city or were killed in their tracks; their houses were plundered by the mob; one hundred dwellings were burned to the ground. The armed troops of the Colonna and the Orsini entered the city on August 22 and 23, over the protests of the college of cardinals. Said Guicciardini, the patriotic Florentine:
The whole city of Rome ran together with incredible alacrity, and crowded about the corpse in St. Peter’s Church, and were not able to satisfy their eyes with the sight of a dead serpent, who, with his immoderate ambition and detestable treachery, with manifold instances of horrid cruelty and monstrous lust, and exposing to sale all things without distinction, both sacred and profane, had intoxicated the whole world.113
Machiavelli agreed with Guicciardini: Alexander
did nothing but deceive, and thought of nothing else during the whole of his life; nor did any man vow with stronger oaths to observe promises which he afterwards broke. Nevertheless he succeeded in everything, for he was well acquainted with this part of the world.114
These condemnations were based on two assumptions: that the tales told of Alexander in Rome were true, and that Alexander was unjustified in the methods that he used to reclaim the Papal States. Catholic historians, while defending Alexander’s right to restore the temporal power of the papacy, generally join in condemning Alexander’s methods and morals. Says the honest Pastor:
He was universally described as a monster, and every sort of foul crime was attributed to him. Modern critical research has in many points judged him more fairly and rejected some of the worst accusations made against him. But even though we must beware of accepting without examination all the tales told of Alexander by his contemporaries… and though the bitter wit of the Romans found its favorite exercises in tearing him to pieces without mercy, and attributing to him in popular pasquinades and scholarly epigrams a life of incredible foulness, still so much against him has been clearly proved that we are forced to reject the modern attempts at whitewashing him as an unworthy tampering with truth…. From the Catholic point of view it is impossible to blame Alexander too severely.115
Protestant historians have sometimes shown a generous lenience to Alexander. William Roscoe, in his classic Life and Pontificate of Leo X (1827), was among the first to say a good word for the Borgia Pope:
Whatever were his crimes, there can be no doubt that they have been highly overcharged. That he was devoted to the aggrandizement of his family, and that he employed the authority of his elevated station to establish a permanent dominion in Italy in the person of his son, cannot be doubted; but when almost all the sovereigns of Europe were attempting to gratify their ambition by means equally criminal, it seems unjust to brand the character of Alexander with any peculiar and extraordinary share of infamy in this respect. While Louis of France and Ferdinand of Spain conspired together to seize upon and divide the Kingdom of Naples, by an example of treachery that can never be sufficiently execrated, Alexander might surely think himself justified in suppressing the turbulent barons, who had for ages rent the dominions of the Church with intestine wars, and in subjugating the petty sovereigns of the Romagna, over whom he had an acknowledged supremacy, and who had in general acquired their dominions by means as unjustifiable as those which he adopted against them. With respect to the accusation so generally believed, of a criminal intercourse between him and his own daughter… it might not be difficult to show its improbability. In the second place the vices of Alexander were accompanied, though not compensated, by many great qualities, which in the consideration of his character ought not to be passed over in silence…. Even by his severest adversaries he is allowed to have been a man of elevated genius, of a wonderful memory, eloquent, vigilant, and dexterous in the management of all his concerns.116
Bishop Creighton summarized Alexander’s character and achievements in general agreement with Roscoe’s judgment, and far more mercifully than Pastor.117 A later judgment is more favorable still—by the Protestant scholar Richard Garnett in The Cambridge Modern History:
Alexander’s character has undoubtedly gained by the scrutiny of modern historians. It was but natural that one accused of so many crimes, and unquestionably the cause of many scandals, should alternately appear as a tyrant and a voluptuary. Neither description suits him. The groundwork of his character was extreme exuberance of nature. The Venetian ambassador calls him a carnal man, not implying anything morally derogatory, but meaning a man of sanguine temperament, unable to control his passions and emotions. This perplexed the cool unimpassioned Italians of the diplomatic type then prevalent among rulers and statesmen, and their apprehensions have unduly prejudiced Alexander, who in truth was not less but more human than most princes of his time. This excessive “carnality” wrought in him for good and ill. Unrestrained by moral scruples, or by any spiritual conception of religion, he was betrayed by it into gross sensuality of one kind, though in other respects he was temperate and abstemious. In the more respectable guise of family affection it led him to outrage every principle of justice, though even here he only performed a necessary work which could not, as one of his agents said, have been accomplished by “holy water.” On the other hand his geniality and joyousness preserved him from tyranny in the ordinary sense of the term.… As a ruler, careful of the material weal of his people, he ranks among the best of his age; as a practical statesman he was the equal of any contemporary. But his insight was impaired by his lack of political morality; he had nothing of the higher wisdom which comprehends the characteristics and foresees the drift of an epoch, and he did not know what a principle was.118
Those of us who share Alexander’s sensitivity to the charms and graces of woman cannot find it in their hearts to throw stones at him for his amours. His prepapal deviations were no more scandalous than those of Aeneas Sylvius, who fares so well with the historians, or of Julius II, whom time has graciously forgiven. It is not recorded that these two Popes took such care of their mistresses and their children as Alexander did of his. Indeed there was something familial and domestic about Alexander that would have made him a relatively respectable man if the laws of the Church, as well as the customs of Renaissance Italy and Protestant Germany and England, had allowed the marriage of the clergy; his sin was not against nature but against a rule of celibacy soon to be rejected by half of Christendom. We cannot say that his relation with Giulia Farnese was carnal; so far as we know, neither Vanozza, nor Lucrezia, nor Giulia’s husband expressed any objection to it; perhaps it was the simple delight of a normal man in the lure and vivacity of a beautiful woman.
Our judgment of Alexander’s politics must distinguish between his ends and his means. His purposes were entirely legitimate—to recover the “Patrimony of Peter” (essentially the ancient Latium) from disorderly feudal barons, and to regain from usurping despots the traditional States of the Church. The methods used by Alexander and Caesar in realizing these aims were those used by all other states then and now—war, diplomacy, deceit, treachery, violation of treaties, and desertion of allies. Alexander’sabandonment of the Holy League, his purchase of French soldiers and support at the price of surrendering Milan to France, were major crimes against Italy. And those secular means that states use, and consider indispensable, in the lawless jungle of international strife, offend us when employed by a pope pledged to the principles of Christ. Whatever danger the Church ran of becoming subject to some domineering government—as to France at Avignon—if she lost her own territories, it would have been better for her to sacrifice all temporal power, and be as poor again as the Galilean fishermen, than to adopt the ways of the world to achieve her political ends. By adopting them, and financing them, she gained a state and lost a third of Christendom.
Caesar Borgia, slowly recovering from the same illness that had killed the Pope, found himself enmeshed in a dozen unanticipated perils. Who could have foreseen that he and his father would be incapacitated at the same time? While the doctors bled him the Colonna and the Orsini quickly recovered the castles that he had taken from them; the deposed lords of the Romagna, with the encouragement of Venice, began to reclaim their principalities; and the Roman mob, already out of hand, might at any moment, now that Alexander was dead, plunder the Vatican and seize the funds upon which Caesar depended for the payment of his troops. He sent some armed men to the Vatican; they compelled Cardinal Casanuova, at swords’ points, to give up the treasury; so Caesar repeated Caesar after fifteen centuries. They brought back to him 100,000 ducats in gold, and 300,000 ducats’ worth of plate and jewelry. At the same time he sent galleys and troops to prevent his strongest enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, from reaching Rome. He felt that unless he could persuade the conclave to elect a pope favorable to him, he was lost.
The cardinals insisted that the troops of Caesar, the Orsini, and the Colonna should leave Rome before an unintimidated election could be held. All three groups yielded. Caesar retired with his men to Civita Castellana, while Cardinal Giuliano entered Rome and led, in the conclave, the forces hostile to all Borgias. On September 22, 1503, the rival factions in the College chose Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini as a compromise pope. He took the name Pius III, in honor of his uncle Aeneas Sylvius. He was a man of learning and integrity, though he was also the father of a large family.119 He was sixty-four, and suffered from an abscess in his leg. He was friendly to Caesar, and allowed him to return to Rome. But on October 18 Pius III died.
Caesar saw that he could no longer prevent the election of Cardinal della Rovere, who was clearly the ablest man in the College. In a private interview with Giuliano, Caesar effected an apparent reconciliation: he promised Giuliano the support of the Spanish cardinals (who were loyal to Caesar), and Giuliano promised, if elected, to confirm him as Duke of the Romagna and commander of the papal troops. Some other cardinals Giuliano bought with simple bribery.120 Giuliano della Rovere was chosen pope (October 31, 1503), and took the name Julius II, as if to say that he too would be a Caesar, and better Alexander. His coronation was postponed till November 26 because the astrologers predicted for that day a propitious conjunction of stars.
Venice did not wait for a lucky star; it seized Rimini, besieged Faenza, and gave every sign of taking over as much of the Romagna as possible before the Church could organize her forces. Julius bade Caesar go to Imola and recruit a new army for the protection of the Papal States. Caesar agreed, and proceeded to Ostia with a view to sailing to Pisa. At Ostia a message from the Pope commanded him to surrender his control of the Romagna fortresses. In a crucial error suggesting that sickness had impaired his judgment, Caesar refused, though it should have been obvious that he was now dealing with a man whose will was at least as strong as his own. Julius ordered him to return to Rome; Caesar obeyed, and was subjected to house arrest. There Guidobaldo, who now not only was restored to Urbino but was the newly appointed commander of the papal armies, came to see the fallen Borgia. Caesar humbled himself before the man whom he had deposed and despoiled, gave him the watchwords of the fortresses, returned to him some precious books and tapestries left from the Urbino pillage, and begged his intercession with Julius. Cesena and Forlì refused to honor the watchwords until Caesar was set at liberty; Julius refused to release him until Caesar persuaded the Romagna castles to yield to the Pope. Lucrezia implored her husband to help her brother; Alfonso (still only heir, not occupant, of the ducal throne) did nothing. She appealed to Isabella d’Este; Isabella did nothing; probably she and Alfonso knew that Julius was immovable. Caesar finally gave the word of surrender to his loyal supporters in the Romagna; the Pope freed him, and he fled to Naples (April 19, 1504).
There he was welcomed by Gonzalo de Córdoba, who gave him a safe-conduct. His courage returning sooner than his good sense, he organized a small force, and was preparing to sail with it to Piombino (near Leghorn) when he was arrested by Gonzalo on orders from Ferdinand of Spain; the “Catholic King” had been urged to the action by Julius, who did not propose to have Caesar start a civil war. In August Caesar was transported to Spain, and fretted in prison there for two years. Lucrezia again sought to have him freed, but in vain. His deserted wife pled for him with her brother Jean d’Albret, King of Navarre; a plan of escape was devised; and in November, 1506, Caesar was again a free man, at the court of Navarre. He soon found a chance to repay d’Albret. The Count of Lerin, a vassal of the King, rebelled; Caesar led part of Jean’s army against the Count’s fortress at Viana; the Count made a sortie, which Caesar repulsed; Caesar pursued the defeated too recklessly; the Count, reinforced, turned upon him, Caesar’s few troops fled; Caesar, with only one companion, stood his ground, and fought till he was cut down and killed (March 12, 1507). He was thirty-one years old.
It was an honorable end to a questionable life. There are many things in Caesar Borgia that we cannot stomach: his insolent pride, his neglect of his faithful wife, his treatment of women as mere instruments of passing pleasure, his occasional cruelty to his enemies—as when he condemned to death not only Giulio Varano, lord of Camerino, but Giulio’s two sons, and apparently ordered the death of the two Manfredi; severities that compare shamefully with the calm mercies of the man whose name he bore. Usually he acted on the principle that the achievement of his purpose justified any means. He found himself surrounded with lies, and managed to lie better than the rest until Julius lied to him. He was almost certainly innocent of his brother Giovanni’s death; he was probably the man who set the thugs upon the Duke of Bisceglie. He lacked—perhaps through illness—the strength to face his own misfortunes with courage and dignity. Only his death brought a gleam of nobility into his life.
But even he had virtues. He must have had extraordinary ability to rise so rapidly, to learn so readily the arts of leadership, negotiation, and war. Given the difficult task of restoring, with only a small force at his command, the papal power in the Papal States, he accomplished it with surprising rapidity of movement, skill of strategy, and economy of means. Empowered to govern as well as to conquer, he gave the Romagna the fairest rule and most prosperous peace that it had enjoyed in centuries. Ordered to clear the Campagna of rebellious and troublesome vassals, he did it with a celerity that Julius Caesar himself could hardly have surpassed. With such achievements mounting to his head, he may well have played with the dream that Petrarch and Machiavelli entertained: to give Italy, if necessary by conquest, the unity that would enable her to stand against the centralized strength of France or Spain.* But his victories, his methods, his power, his dark secrecy, his swift incalculable attacks, made him the terror instead of the liberator of Italy. The faults of his character ruined the accomplishments of his mind. It was his basic tragedy that he had never learned to love.
Except, again, Lucrezia. What a contrast she offered to her fallen brother in the modesty and prosperity of her final years! She who in Rome had been the subject and victim of every scandalmonger was loved by the people of Ferrara as a model of feminine virtue.121 She tried there to forget all the horrors and tribulations of her past; she recaptured, with due restraint, the joyousness of her youth, and added to it a generous interest in the needs of others. Ariosto, Tebaldeo, Bembo, Tito and Ercole Strozzi praised her profitably in their verse; they called her pulcherrima virgo, “most beautiful maiden,” and no one blinked an eye. Perhaps Bembo tried to play Abélard to her Héloïse, and Lucrezia now became something of a linguist, speaking Spanish, Italian, French, and reading a “little Latin and less Greek.” We are told that she wrote poetry in all these tongues.122 Aldus Manutius dedicated to her his edition of the Strozzi poems, and implied, in the preface, that she had offered to underwrite his great printing enterprise.123
Amid all these learned concerns she found time to bear to her third husband four sons and a daughter. Alfonso was well pleased with her in his uneffusive way. In 1506, having occasion to leave Ferrara, he appointed her his regent; and she fulfilled her duties with such good judgment that the Ferrarese were inclined to pardon Alexander for having once left her in charge of the Vatican.
In the last years of her brief life she devoted herself to the education of her children, and to works of charity and mercy; she became a pious Franciscan tertiary. On June 14, 1519, she was delivered of her seventh child, but it was stillborn. She never rose from that bed of pain. On June 24, aged thirty-nine, Lucrezia Borgia, more sinned against than sinning, passed away.