When Rodrigo Borgia was 62, after 35 years as Cardinal and Vice-Chancellor, his character, habits, principies or lack of them, uses of power, methods of enrichment, mistresses and seven children were well enough known to his colleagues in the College and Curia to evoke from young Giovanni de’ Medici at his first conclave the comment on Borgia’s elevation to the Papacy, “Flee, we are in the hands of a wolf.” To the wider circle of the princes of Italy and the rulers of Spain, Borgia’s native land, and by repute abroad, the fact that, though cultivated and even charming, he was thoroughly cynical and utterly amoral was no secret and no surprise, although his reputation for depravity was not yet what it would become. His frame of mind was heartily temporal: to celebrate the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, in 1492, the year of his election, he staged not a Te Deum of thanksgiving but a bullfight in the Piazza of St. Peter’s with five bulls killed.
After serving under five popes and losing the last election, Borgia was not this time going to let the tiara pass from him. He simply bought the Papacy outright over his two chief rivals, Cardinals della Rovere and Ascanio Sforza. The latter, who preferred coin to promises, was brought round by four mule-loads of bullion that were despatched from Borgia’s palace to Sforza’s during the conclave, although it was supposedly to be held in camera. In later years, as the Pope’s habits became more exposed, almost any tale of monstrosities could be told and believed about him, and the bullion train may be one of them. Yet it had an inherent credibility in that it would have taken a great deal to bring round so wealthy a rival as Ascanio Sforza, who in addition received the Vice-Chancellorship.
Borgia was himself the beneficiary of nepotism, having been made Cardinal at 26 by his aged uncle Pope Calixtus III, who had been elected at age 77 when signs of senility suggested the likelihood of another choice soon. Calixtus had had time enough, however, to reward his nephew with the Vice-Chancellorship for his success in recovering certain territories of the Papal States. From revenues of papal offices, of three bishoprics he held in Spain and of abbeys in Spain and Italy, from an annual stipend of 8000 ducats as Vice-Chancellor and 6000 as Cardinal and from private operations, Borgia amassed enough wealth to make him over the years the richest member of the Sacred College. In his early years as Cardinal he had already acquired enough to build himself a palace with three-storied loggias around a central courtyard where he lived amid sumptuous furniture upholstered in red satin and gold-embroidered velvets, harmonizing carpets, halls hung with Gobelin tapestries, gold plate, pearls and sacks of gold coin of which he reportedly boasted that he had enough to fill the Sistine Chapel. Pius II compared this residence to the Golden House of Nero, which had once stood not far away.
Borgia was said never to have missed a consistory, the business meeting of cardinals, in 35 years except when ill or away from Rome. There was nothing about the workings and opportunities of the papal bureaucracy that he did not grasp. Intelligent and energetic, he had fortified the approaches to Rome, and as legate of Sixtus had accomplished the complex task of persuading the nobles and hierarchy of Spain to support the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the merger of their kingdoms. He was probably the ablest of the cardinals. Tall and large-framed, robust, urbane, he was dignified, even majestic in appearance, delighting in fine clothes of violet taffeta and crimson velvet and taking great care over the width of ermine stripes.
As described by contemporaries, he was usually smiling and good-tempered, even cheerful, and liked “to do unpleasant things in a pleasant way.” An eloquent speaker and well-read, he was witty and “took pains to shine in conversation,” was “brilliantly skilled in conducting affairs,” combined zest with self-esteem and Spanish pride and had an amazing gift for exciting the affections of women, “who are attracted to him more powerfully than iron to a magnet,” which suggests that he made his desire for them strongly felt. Another observer rather unnecessarily remarks that he “understood money matters thoroughly.”
As a young Cardinal, he had fathered a son and two daughters of unrecorded mothers and subsequently, when in his forties, three more sons and a daughter, born to his acknowledged mistress, Vanozza de Cataneis, who reputedly succeeded her mother in that role. All were his acknowledged family. He was able to acquire for the eldest son, Pedro Luis, the dukedom of Gandia in Spain and betrothal to a cousin of King Ferdinand. When Pedro died young, his title, lands and fiancée passed to his stepbrother Juan, his father’s favorite, destined for a death of the kind that was to make the Borgia family a byword. Cesare and Lucrezia, the two famous Borgias who helped to make it so, were children of Vanozza, together with Juan and another brother, Jofré. The paternity of an eighth child named Giovanni, born during the Borgia Papacy, seems to have been uncertain even within the family. Two successive papal Bulls legitimized him first as the son of Cesare and then of the Pope himself, while public opinion considered him a bastard child of Lucrezia.
Whether for a veil of respectability or for the pleasure of cuckolding, Borgia liked his mistresses to have husbands, and arranged two successive marriages for Vanozza while she was his mistress and another for her successor, the beautiful Giulia Farnese. At nineteen, with golden hair reaching to her feet, Giulia was married to an Orsini in Borgia’s palace and almost simultaneously became the Cardinal’s mistress. While a licentious private life was no scandal in the high Renaissance, this liaison between an old man, as he was considered at 59, and a girl forty years younger was offensive to Italians, perhaps because they found it inartistic. Made the subject of lewd jokes, it helped to tarnish Borgia’s reputation.
Upon Borgia’s election as Pope, the disgraceful traffic that gained him the place soon became common knowledge through the fury of the disappointed della Rovere and his partisans. Borgia himself openly boasted of it. This was a mistake because simony was an official sin that was to give the new Pope’s enemies a handle against him, which they very soon used. In the meantime, Alexander VI, as he now was, rode through Rome in a resplendent ceremony to take possession of the Lateran attended by thirteen squadrons of cavalry, 21 cardinals, each with a retinue of twelve, and ambassadors and noble dignitaries vying in the magnificence of their garments and equestrian draperies. Streets were decorated with garlands of flowers, triumphal arches, living statues formed by gilded naked youths and flags displaying the Borgia arms, a rather apt red bull rampant on a field of gold.
At this point, the shadow of France could be felt lengthening over Italy, preliminary to the era of foreign invasions that were to accelerate the decline of the Papacy and subject Italy to outside control. They were to ravage the peninsula for the next seventy years, wreck its prosperity, seize pieces of territory, diminish sovereignty and postpone the conditions for Italian unity by 400 years—all for no permanent gain to any of the parties involved. Fragmented by the incessant civil strife of its princes, Italy was an inviting and vulnerable target. It was envied too for its urban treasures, even if the region was not quite so tranquil, fertile, commercially prosperous and nobly adorned as in Guicciardini’s famous description of his country on the eve of penetration. No economic need propelled the invasions, but war was still the assumed activity of the ruling class, indemnities and expected revenues from taxable conquered territories its source of profit, as well as the source of payment for the cost of the campaign itself. It may be, too, that just as the first medieval crusades were a vent for baronial aggression, the campaigns in Italy represented simply a mood for nationalist expansion. France had recovered from the Hundred Years’ War, Spain had finally expelled the Moors, both acquiring national cohesion in the process. Italy, under its warm sun, divided against itself, was an attractive place to exert aggression.
In Italy, the scandal of Alexander’s election might have suggested to him that it would be useful to give some time and thought to religious governance. Instead, he immediately set about attending to his political fences. He married his daughter Lucrezia to a Sforza and his son Jofré to a granddaughter of the troublesome King of Naples, and in his first year as Pope, enlarged the Sacred College, to the rage and resentment of the opposition cardinals, who, as known partisans of della Rovere at the conclave, had not shared in the golden shower. Prevailing over their bitter resistance, Alexander named eleven new cardinals including Alessandro Farnese, brother of his mistress; a scion of the d’Estes, age fifteen, and his own son Cesare, whose unsuitability to an ecclesiastical career was so patent that he soon resigned it for the more congenial occupations of war, murder and associated skills. The other appointees were judiciously selected to please all the powers, one each for the Empire, France, England, Spain, Hungary, Venice, Milan and Rome, among them several men of piety and learning. The influx consolidated Alexander’s control of the College and caused della Rovere, when he learned of the appointments, to utter “a loud exclamation” and fall ill from outrage. Alexander was eventually to appoint a total of 43 cardinals, including seventeen Spaniards and five members of his own family, with the exact sum that each paid for his hat being meticulously recorded by Burchard in his diary.
The Papacy’s detachment from religion over the preceding fifty years, its sinking reputation and aversion to reform, gave the French plans for invasion an added impulse. In the general weakening of papal authority and revenues caused by the suction of the national churches over the past century, the French Church had won considerable autonomy. At the same time, it was troubled by ecclesiastical corruption in its own realm. Preachers castigated the decline in flaming sermons, serious critics discussed it, synods were held to draw up measures of reform—all without much practical effect. In these years, wrote a Frenchman, reform was the most frequent topic of conversation. In 1493, when the campaign to make good the French royal claim to Naples was under discussion, Charles VIII summoned a commission at Tours to prepare a program which would validate his march through Italy as a crusade for reform, with the understood if not explicit intention of calling a Council to depose Alexander VI on grounds of simony. This was not a spontaneous idea of the King’s. A poor ungainly creature of the decrepit Valois line, with his head full of dreams of chivalric glory and crusade against the Turks, he had added religious reform to his concerns under the fierce persuasions of Cardinal della Rovere, who, in his ungovernable hatred of Alexander, had come to France for the express purpose of destroying him. A Pope “so full of vices, so abominable in the eyes of the world” must be removed, he insisted to the King, in order that a new Pope might be elected.
Just such action, initiated by the Cardinals and resting on the support of France, had caused the Schism of recent memory, and nothing in Christian history had done the Church such irretrievable harm. That della Rovere and his party could even contemplate a repetition, no matter what argument Alexander’s crimes provided, was irresponsibility hardly explicable except by virtue of the folly that infected each of the Renaissance rulers of the Church.
Alexander had good reason to fear della Rovere’s influence on the King of France, especially if he were to direct the befuddled royal mind toward a reformation of the Church. According to Guicciardini, no admirer of the popes, reform was to Alexander a thought “terrible beyond anything else.” Considering that as time went on, Alexander poisoned, imprisoned or otherwise immobilized inconvenient opponents, including cardinals, it is a wonder that he did not lock up della Rovere, but his enemy and successor was already too outstanding, and besides, he was careful to stay outside Rome and take up his residence in a fortress.
Reports coming out of France set the Italian states into a frantic commotion of combining and recombining in preparation to resist the foreigner—or, if necessary, join him. The great question for the papal and secular rulers was whether larger advantage could be gained by siding with Naples or with France. Ferrante of Naples, whose kingdom was the French objective, engaged in a blizzard of deals and counter-deals with the Pope and princes, but, as a life-long conspirator, he could not wean himself from secretly arranging to undercut his own alliances. He died of his efforts within a year, succeeded by his son Alfonso. Mutual mistrust governed his neighbors while they gave themselves over (as George Meredith wrote in a very different context) to “drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities, planning short-sightedly, plotting dementedly.”
The move by Milan that precipitated the French invasion qualified in all these respects. It began with a complaint to Ferrante by his granddaughter Isabella, daughter of Alfonso and wife of the rightful heir to Milan, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, that she and her husband were deprived of their rightful place and made subordinate in everything to the regent, Ludovico il Moro, and his wife, the capable Beatrice d’Este. Ferrante responded with such furious menaces as to convince Ludovico that his regency, which he had no intention of resigning, would be safer if Ferrante and his house were deposed. Ludovico allied himself with the disaffected barons of Naples who shared this aim, and, to make sure of the outcome, he invited Charles VIII to enter Italy and establish his claim to the Neapolitan throne. This was taking a serious risk, because the French monarchy through the Orléans line had a stronger claim to Milan than to Naples, but Ludovico, an adventurer at heart, felt confident he could contain that threat. That was an error as events proved.
Out of such motives and calculations, Italy was opened to invasion, although at the last moment it almost failed to take place. Charles’ advisers, doubtful of the enterprise, caused the King so much worry by stressing the difficulties that lay ahead and the untrustworthiness of Ludovico and Italians in general that he halted his army when it was already on the march. The timely appearance of della Rovere, fervent in exhortation, rekindled his enthusiasm. In September 1494, a French army of 60,000 crossed the Alps carrying with them, in Guicciardini’s words, for once not exaggerated, “the seeds of innumerable calamities.”
At the outset, after swinging this way and that in something of a panic, Alexander joined a league of defense with Florence and Naples, which came apart as soon as made. Florence defected owing to a crisis of nerves on the part of Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who had died two years earlier. Suddenly fainthearted in the face of the enemy, Piero secretly arranged terms for opening his city to the French. From this triumph in Florence, Charles’ army moved on unresisted to Rome, where the Pope, after desperate twists to avoid receiving him, succumbed to superior might. The invaders’ armed parade on entering Rome took six hours to pass, in a train of cavalry and foot, archers and crossbowmen, Swiss mercenaries with halberds and lances, mailed knights, royal bodyguard carrying iron maces on their shoulders, all followed by the fearful rumble of 36 wheeled cannon drawn over the cobblestones. The city quaked under the huge influx. “Requisitions are fearful,” reported the envoy of Mantua, “murders innumerable, one hears nothing but moaning and weeping. In all the memory of man the Church has never been in such evil plight.”
Negotiations between the conquerors and the Papacy were pressed hard. Though forced to abandon Naples and hand over Prince Djem (who shortly died in French custody), Alexander held firm against two demands: he refused to deliver Castel Sant’ Angelo into French hands, or formally to invest Charles with the crown of Naples. Beleaguered as Alexander was, this took strength of mind, even if he had to give the French the right of passage to Naples through papal territory. The one subject that was not at issue during all the sessions was reform. Despite constant prodding by Cardinal della Rovere and his party, the frayed, fumbling French King was no man to shoulder a Council, sponsor reform or depose a Pope. That cup passed from Alexander; he was left in place. The French moved out and on to Naples without meeting combat; the only violence was their own sack and brutality in places seized along the way. King Alfonso avoided the crisis by abdicating and entering a monastery; his son Ferrante II threw away his sword and fled.
The reality of French presence in southern Italy galvanized at last a union of resistance, initiated by Spain. Determined not to allow French control of Naples, which Spain wanted for herself, King Ferdinand induced the Emperor Maximilian, who already feared French expansion, to join him, offering as inducement his daughter Joanna in a marriage of fateful consequence to Maximilian’s son Philip. With Spain and the Empire as allies, the Papacy and Milan could now safely turn against France. When even Venice joined, a combination called the League of Venice, later called the Holy League, came into being in 1495, causing the French, who had made themselves hated in Naples, to fear being cut off in the Italian boot. They marched for home and, after fighting at Fornovo in Lombardy on their way out, the only battle of the campaign, a scrambled combat without decisive effect, made their way back to France. Alfonso and his son promptly reappeared to resume the rule of Naples.
Although no one, least of all France, emerged with profit from this momentous if senseless adventure, the powers, undeterred by empty result, returned again and again to the same arena to compete over Italy’s body. From this time on, wars, leagues, battles, tangled diplomacy, fluid and shifting alignments succeeded one another until they were to culminate in ferocious climax—the Sack of Rome in 1527 by Spanish and Imperial troops. Every twist and maneuver of the Italian wars of these 33 years has been devotedly followed and exhaustively recorded in the history books far beyond the general interest they can sustain today. The significance of the particulars in history’s permanent annals is virtually nil except as a study in the human capacity for conflict. There were certain historic consequences, some important, some minor but memorable: the Florentines, outraged by Piero’s surrender, rose against him, threw out the Medici and declared a republic; the Spanish-Hapsburg marriage produced in the future Emperor Charles V the controlling factor of the next century; Ludovico il Moro, the hotspur of Milan, paid for his folly in a French prison, where he died; at Pavia in the most famous battle of the wars, a King of France, Francis I, was captured and grasped immortality in the quotation books with “All is lost save honor.”
Otherwise, the Italian wars are significant for their effect in further politicizing and debasing the Papacy. Taking the same part as any secular state, treating and dealing, raising armies and fighting, it became entirely absorbed in the things that are Caesar’s, with the result that it was perceived as no better than secular—a factor that was to make possible the Sack of Rome. In proportion to their absorption in the realm of Caesar, the popes had less time or concern for the things of God. Continually engaged in the quid pro quos of one alliance or another, they neglected more than ever the internal problems of the Church and the religious community and hardly noticed the signs of coming crisis in their own sphere.
In Florence, beginning in 1490, the frenzied preaching of a Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, prior of San Marco, was a voice of religious distress which Alexander managed to ignore for seven years while it took control of an entire city and aroused echoes throughout Italy. Savonarola was not so much a forerunner of Luther as the type of zealot and scourge of sin that can arise in any disturbed time and sway mobs by his fanaticism. He represented his own time in that his impulse came from revulsion at the low estate and corruption of the Church and in his espousal of reform as necessary to reopen the way to Heaven through a purified clergy. His prophecy that reform would be followed by a period of happiness and well-being for all Christendom exerted a strong appeal. Preaching neither doctrinal reform nor separation from Rome, he poured wrath upon the sins of the people and clergy, whose source he traced to the wickedness of popes and hierarchy. His scoldings and apocalyptic prophesies, according to Pico della Mirandola, “caused such terror, alarm, sobbing and tears that everybody went about the city bewildered, more dead than alive.” His prophecy that Lorenzo the Magnificent and Innocent VIII would both die in 1492, which they shortly did, endowed him with awesome power. He inspired bonfires into which crowds with sobs and hysteria threw their luxuries and valuables, their paintings, fine garments and jewelry. He roused bands of children to scour the city for “vanities” to be burned. He called upon his followers to reform their own lives, to renounce profane festivals and games, usury and vendettas, and to restore religious observance.
It was when he castigated the Church that Savonarola’s outrage rang fiercest. “Popes and prelates speak against pride and ambition and they are plunged in it up to their ears. They preach chastity and keep mistresses.… They think only of the world and worldly things; they care nothing for souls.” They have made the Church “a house of ill-fame … a prostitute who sits upon the throne of Solomon and signals to the passers-by. Whoever can pay enters and does what he wishes, but he who wishes for good is thrown out. Thus, O prostituted Church, you have unveiled your abuse before the eyes of the entire world and your poisoned breath rises to the heavens.”
That there was some truth in this verbiage did not excite Rome, long accustomed to censorious zealots. Savonarola became politically dangerous, however, when he hailed Charles VIII as the instrument of reform sent by the Lord, “as I have long predicted,” to cure the ills of Italy and reform the Church. Championship of the French was his fatal move, for it made him a threat to the new rulers of Florence and brought him unpleasantly to the notice of the Pope. The former demanded his suppression, but Alexander, anxious to avoid a popular outcry, took action only when Savonarola’s denunciations of himself and the hierarchy became too pointed to ignore, most especially when Savonarola called for a Council to remove the Pope on grounds of simony.
At first, Alexander attempted to silence Savonarola quietly by simply forbidding him to preach, but prophets filled with the voice of God are not easily silenced. Savonarola defied the order on the ground that Alexander, by his crimes, had lost his authority as Holy Father and “is no longer a Christian. He is an infidel, a heretic and as such has ceased to be Pope.” Alexander’s answer was excommunication, which Savonarola promptly defied by giving communion and celebrating Mass. Alexander then ordered the Florentine authorities to silence the preacher themselves under pain of excommunicating the whole city. Public sentiment had by now turned against Savonarola owing to a test by fire into which he was drawn by his enemies and could not sustain. Imprisoned by the authorities of Florence and tortured to extract a confession of fraud, tortured again by papal examiners for a confession of heresy, he was turned back for execution by the civil arm. To the howls and hisses of the mob, he was hanged and burned in 1498. The thunder was silenced but the hostility to the hierarchy it had voiced remained.
Itinerant preachers, hermits and friars took up the theme. Some fanatic, some mad, all had disgust with the Church in common and responded to a widespread public sentiment. Anyone who assumed a mission to preach reform could be sure of an audience. They were not a new phenomenon. As a form of entertainment for the common people, one of the few they had, lay preachers and preaching friars had long wandered from town to town attracting huge multitudes who listened patiently for hours at a time to lengthy sermons held in the public squares because the churches could not hold the throngs. In 1448 as many as 15,000 were reported to have come to hear a famous Franciscan, Roberto da Lecce, preach for four hours in Perugia. Lashing the evils of the time, exhorting the people to lead better lives and abandon sin, the preachers were important for the popular response they evoked. Their sermons usually ended with mass “conversions” and gifts of gratitude to the speaker. A favorite prophecy as the century turned was of an “angelic Pope” who would initiate reform, to be followed, as Savonarola had promised, by a better world. A group of some twenty working-class disciples in Florence elected their own “pope,” who told the followers that until reform was accomplished, it was useless to go to confession because there were no priests worthy of the name. His words spread as token of some great approaching change.
Borgia family affairs had now succeeded in scandalizing an age inured to most excesses. Conceiving that marriage ties to the royal family of Naples would be in his interest, Alexander annulled the marriage of his daughter Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza in order to marry her to Alfonso, the Neapolitan heir. The outraged husband, fiercely denying the charge of non-consummation, resisted the divorce loudly and publicly, but under heavy political and financial pressures engineered by the Pope was forced to give way, and even to return his wife’s dowry. Amid revelry in the Vatican, Lucrezia was married to a handsome new husband, whom according to all accounts she genuinely loved, but the insult to the Sforzas and offense to the marriage sacrament increased Alexander’s disrepute. Giovanni Sforza added to it with the charge that Alexander had been activated by incestuous desire for his own daughter. Though hard to sustain in view of her rapid remarriage, the tale aided the accretion of ever more lurid slanders that clustered around Alexander and gathered credibility from the vices of his son Cesare.
In the year of Lucrezia’s remarriage, the Pope’s eldest surviving son, Juan, Duke of Gandia, was found floating one morning in the Tiber, his corpse pierced by nine stab wounds. Although he had numerous enemies, owing to the large slices of papal property bestowed upon him by his father, no assassin was identified. The longer the mystery and whispers lasted, the more suspicion came to rest on Cesare based on a supposed desire to supplant his brother in the paternal largesse or, alternatively, as the outcome of an incestuous triangle with brother and sister. In the bubbling stew of Rome’s rumors, no depravity appeared beyond the scope of the Borgias (although historians have since absolved Cesare of the murder of his brother).
Stunned with grief at—or perhaps frightened by—the death of his son, Alexander was afflicted with remorse and a sudden rare introspection. “The most grievous danger for any Pope,” he told a consistory of cardinals, “lies in the fact that encompassed as he is by flatterers, he never hears the truth about his own person and ends by not wishing to hear it.” It was an unheard message to every autocrat in history. In his moral crisis the Pope further announced that the blow he had suffered was God’s judgment upon him for his sins and that he was resolved to amend his life and reform the Church. “We will begin the reform with ourselves and so proceed through all levels of the Church till the whole work is accomplished.” He at once appointed a commission of several of the most respected cardinals to draw up a program, but, except for a provision to reduce plural benefices, it hardly went to the heart of the matter. Beginning with the cardinals, it required reduction of incomes, which had evidently climbed, to 6000 ducats each; reduction of households to no more than eighty (of whom at least twelve should be in holy orders) and of mounted escorts to thirty; greater restraint at table with only one boiled and one roast meat per meal and with entertainment by musicians and actors to be replaced by reading of Holy Scriptures. Cardinals were no longer to take part in tournaments or carnivals or attend secular theatricals or employ miscellaneous “youths” as body servants. A provision that all concubines were to be dismissed within ten days of publication of the Bull embodying the reforms may have modified the Holy Father’s interest in the program. A further provision calling for a Council to enact the reforms was enough to bring him back to normal. The proposed Bull, In apostolicae sedis specula, was never issued and the subject of reform was dropped.
In 1499, the French under a new King, Louis XII, returned, now claiming through the Orléans line the succession to Milan. Another churchman, the Archbishop of Rouen, as the King’s chief adviser, was the mover behind this effort. He was himself moved by ambition to be Pope and believed he could make a great thrust in the papal stakes through French control of Milan. Alexander’s role in the new invasion, doubtless affected by his experience in the last, was entirely cynical. Louis had applied for an annulment of his marriage to his sad, crippled wife, Jeanne, sister of Charles VIII, in order to marry the much coveted Anne of Brittany, widow of Charles VIII, for the sake of finally attaching her duchy to the French Crown.
Although Louis’ plea for annulment was furiously condemned by Oliver Maillard, the late King’s Franciscan confessor, and resented by the French people, who warmly sympathized with the discarded Queen, Alexander was indifferent to public opinion. He saw a means toward gold for his coffers and advancement for Cesare, who, having renounced his ecclesiastical career, had ambitions to marry the daughter of Alfonso of Naples, a ward and resident of the French court. Cesare’s unprecedented resignation of the red hat, antagonizing many of the cardinals, evoked from a Venetian diarist of events a sigh that summarized the Renaissance Papacy. “Thus now in God’s Church tutto va al contrario” (everything is upside-down). In return for 30,000 ducats and support for Cesare’s project, the Pope granted Louis’ annulment plus a dispensation to marry Anne of Brittany and threw in a red hat for the Archbishop of Rouen, who became Cardinal d’Amboise.
In this second scandalous annulment and its consequences, folly was compounded. In ducal splendor, Cesare bearing the dispensation journeyed to France, where he discussed with the King the projected campaign for Milan on the basis of papal support. Alexander’s partnership with France, arranged for the sake of his maligned son, whom he now described as more dear to him than anything else on earth, angered a field of opponents—the Sforzas, the Colonnas, the rulers of Naples and, of course, Spain. Acting for Spain, Portuguese envoys visited the Pope to reprimand him for his nepotism, simony and French policy, which they said endangered the peace of Italy and indeed of all Christendom. They, too, raised the threat of a Council unless he changed course. He did not. Sterner Spanish envoys followed on the same mission, ostensibly for the welfare of the Church although their motive—to frustrate France—was as political as Alexander’s. Conferences were heated; reform by Council was again used as a threat. A wrathful envoy told Alexander to his face that his election was invalid, his title as Pope void. In return, Alexander threatened to have him thrown into the Tiber, and scolded the Spanish King and Queen in insulting terms for their interference.
When Cesare’s marriage fell through, owing to the princess’ stubborn aversion to her suitor, the French alliance threatened to crumble, leaving Alexander deserted. He felt so endangered that he held audiences accompanied by an armed guard. Rumors circulated in Rome of withdrawal of obedience by the powers and a possible schism. The French King, however, arranged another marriage for Cesare with the sister of the King of Navarre, rejoicing Alexander, who in return endorsed Louis’ claim to Milan and joined France in a league with Venice, always ready to oppose Milan. The French army crossed the Alps once more, reinforced by Swiss mercenaries. When Milan fell to this assault, Alexander expressed delight regardless of the odium this aroused throughout Europe. In the midst of war and turmoil, pilgrims arriving in Rome for the Jubilee Year of 1500 found no security, but instead public disorder, robberies, muggings and murders.
Cesare was now embarked on a full military career to regain control of those regions of the Papal States which had strayed too far into autonomy. That his objective was a temporal domain, even a kingdom for himself in central Italy, was the belief of some contemporaries. The cost of his campaigns drained huge sums from the papal revenues, amounting in one period of two months to 132,000 ducats, about half the Papacy’s normal income, and in another period of eight months to 182,000 ducats. In Rome he was overlord, callous in tyranny, an able administrator served by spies and informers, strong in the martial arts, capable of beheading a bull at one blow. He too loved art, patronized poets and painters, yet did not hesitate to cut off the tongue and hand of a man reported to have repeated a joke about him. A Venetian supposed to have circulated a slanderous pamphlet about the Pope and his son was murdered and thrown into the Tiber. “Every night,” reported the helpless Venetian Ambassador, “four or five murdered men are discovered, bishops, prelates and others, so that all Rome trembles for fear of being murdered by the Duke.” Sinister and vindictive, the Duke disposed of opponents by the most direct means, sowing dragon’s teeth in their place. Whether for self-protection or to hide the blotches that disfigured his face, he never left his residence without wearing a mask.
In 1501 Lucrezia’s second husband, Alfonso, was attacked by five assailants but escaped although severely wounded. While devotedly nursed by Lucrezia, he was convinced that Cesare was the perpetrator and would try to finish the deed by poison. In this fear Alfonso rejected all physicians and was nevertheless recovering when he saw from a window his hated brother-in-law walking below in the garden. Seizing a bow and arrow, he shot at Cesare and fatally missed. Within minutes he was hacked to death by the Duke’s bodyguard. Alexander, perhaps by now himself intimidated by the tiger he had reared, did nothing.
For his son-in-law the Pope suffered no further spasms of morality. Rather, judging from Burchard’s diary, the last inhibitions, if any, dropped away. Two months after Alfonso’s death, the Pope presided over a banquet given by Cesare in the Vatican, famous in the annals of pornography as the Ballet of the Chestnuts. Soberly recorded by Burchard, fifty courtesans danced after dinner with the guests, “at first clothed, then naked.” Chestnuts were then scattered among candelabra placed on the floor, “which the courtesans, crawling on hands and knees among the candelabra, picked up, while the Pope, Cesare and his sister Lucrezia looked on.” Coupling of guests and courtesans followed, with prizes in the form of fine silken tunics and cloaks offered “for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans.” A month later Burchard records a scene in which mares and stallions were driven into a courtyard of the Vatican and equine coupling encouraged while from a balcony the Pope and Lucrezia “watched with loud laughter and much pleasure.” Later they watched again while Cesare shot down a mass of unarmed criminals driven like the horses into the same courtyard.
The Pope’s expenses emptied the treasury. On the last day of 1501, Lucrezia, robed in gold brocade and crimson velvet trimmed with ermine and draped in pearls, was married off for the third time to the heir of the d’Estes of Ferrara in a ceremony of magnificent pomp followed by a week of joyous and gorgeous festivities, feasts, theatricals, races and bullfights to celebrate the Borgia tie to the most distinguished family of Italy. Alexander himself counted out 100,000 ducats of gold to the bridegroom’s brothers for Lucrezia’s dowry. To finance such extravagance as well as Cesare’s continuing campaigns, the Pope, between March and May 1503, created eighty new offices in the Curia to be sold for 780 ducats each, and appointed nine new cardinals at one blow, five of them Spaniards, realizing from their payments for the red hat a total of 120,000 to 130,000 ducats. In the same period, great wealth was seized on the death of the rich Venetian Cardinal, Giovanni Michele, who expired after two days of violent intestinal illness, generally believed to have been poisoned for his money by Cesare.
This was the last year of Alexander’s life. Hostilities surrounded him. The Orsini with many partisans were fighting an extended war against Cesare. Spanish forces had landed in the south and were fighting the French for control of Naples, which they were shortly to win, establishing Spanish control of the kingdom for the next three and a half centuries. Serious churchmen concerned for the faith were raising more insistently the issue of a Council—a treatise by Cardinal Sangiorgio, one of Alexander’s own appointees, stated that continued papal refusal to call one harmed the Church and scandalized all Christian people, and if all remedies failed, the cardinals themselves had a duty to convene a Council.
In August 1503 at the age of 73, Alexander VI died, not of poison, as was of course the immediate supposition, but probably of susceptibility at his age to Rome’s summer fevers. Public emotion, released as if at the death of a monster, exploded in ghastly tales of a black and swollen corpse with tongue protruding from a foaming mouth, so horrible that no one would touch it, leaving it to be dragged to the grave by a rope fastened around the feet. The late Pontiff was said to have gained the tiara by a pact with the Devil at the price of his soul. Scandal sheets, to which Romans were much given, appeared every day hung around the neck of Pasquino, an ancient statue dug up in 1501 which served the Romans as a display center for anonymous satire.
Cesare, for all his military might, proved unable to sustain himself without the support of Rome, where an old enemy had succeeded a fond father. The dragon’s teeth now rose around him. He surrendered at Naples under a Spanish promise of safe conduct, promptly violated by his captors, who took him to prison in Spain. Escaping after two years, he made his way to Navarre and was killed there in a local battle within a year.
So many had been Alexander’s offenses that his contemporaries’ judgments tend to be extreme, but Burchard, his Master of Ceremonies, was neither antagonist nor apologist. The impression from his toneless diary of Alexander’s Papacy is of continuous violence, murders in churches, bodies in the Tiber, fighting of factions, burnings and lootings, arrests, tortures and executions, combined with scandal, frivolities and continuous ceremony—reception of ambassadors, princes and sovereigns, obsessive attention to garments and jewels, protocol of processions, entertainments and horse races with cardinals winning prizes—with a running record throughout of the costs and finances of the whole.
Certain revisionists have taken a fancy to the Borgia Pope and worked hard to rehabilitate him by intricate arguments that dispose of the charges against him as either exaggeration or forgeries or gossip or unexplained malice until all are made to vanish in a cloud of invention. The revision fails to account for one thing: the hatred, disgust and fear that Alexander had engendered by the time he died.
In the history books the pontificate is treated in terms of political wars and maneuvers. Religion, except for an occasional reference to Alexander’s observance of Lenten fasts or his concern to maintain the purity of Catholic doctrine by censorship of books, is barely mentioned. The last word may belong to Egidio of Viterbo, General of the Augustinians and a major figure in the reform movement. Rome under Pope Alexander VI, he said in a sermon, knows “No law, no divinity; Gold, force and Venus rule.”