The Borgias were one of the most important and powerful Italian families between the 15th and 16th centuries. Of Spanish origin (their surname was originally Borja, although even in their country they are known by the Italianized surname), they have often been portrayed by detractors and political opponents as monsters capable of any villainy. Certainly, they used every means to further the power of their house.
Alonso Borgia – Pope Callixtus III
The Borgia family was powerful in the Kingdom of Valencia as early as the 14th century. Alonso Borgia made a diplomatic career at the Court of Aragon and, in 1429, he was appointed Bishop of Valencia. Towards the middle of the 15th century, he moved to Naples in the service of King Alfonso V and became a cardinal in 1444. He then decided to abandon his political commitments and devote himself exclusively to an ecclesiastical career. In 1555, he was elected pope with the name of Callixtus III and his family then joined him in Rome. During the years of his papacy, he favored the ecclesiastical career of his two nephews: Luis Juan de Milà and Rodrigo Borgia.
Rodrigo Borgia – Pope Alexander VI
Rodrigo graduated in canon law in Bologna and, thanks to his uncle’s influence, became a cardinal at the age of 25. Since then, he lived like a prince; his personal court counted 113 people and was built, as the seat of the Apostolic Chancellery, one of the most beautiful palaces in Rome, Palazzo Sforza Cesarini. In 1492, he was elected pope with the name of Alexander VI.
Rodrigo had many children; some of which he had with women unknown to us. Three of them, Pedro, Isabella and Girolama, before the ecclesiastical rise; Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia and Goffredo, his favorites, while he was a cardinal. The mother of the latter was the Mantuan noblewoman, Vannozza Cattanei, who was very beautiful with fair complexion and light hair, like her daughter Lucrezia. An image of her returns to us in a portrait preserved in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. But Vannozza was also a free and unscrupulous businesswoman who ran several inns in Rome where influential noblemen stopped not only to eat, but also to hang out with prostitutes. Vannozza, too, started with that ancient profession. At that time, Rome was the city of prostitutes for the many single men who lived there: papal army guards, priests and seminarians. The pope’s bond with Cattanei lasted about twenty years, even though the noblewoman in the meantime contracted three marriages, organized to save her appearance.
At that time, people pretended to ignore the love affairs of high ecclesiastical offices and their illegitimate offspring, but there was a ban on conceiving children during the pontificate; a rule that Alexander VI ignored.
Rodrigo had another daughter the year he became pope, Laura Orsini, from the very young Giulia Farnese, daughter of wealthy landowners from northern Lazio and the same age as his daughter, Lucrezia. The family acquired prestige thanks to the relationship that Giulia, at fifteen, had with the pope who was 58 years old. There is no certain portrait of Giulia, also known as La Bella or, as the Roman people nicknamed her with her particular cynicism, The Bride of Christ. Some recognize her in Raphael’s The Transfiguration of Christ, others in the sculpture Allegory of Justice, at the foot of the funeral monument of her brother, Pope Paul III, in St. Peter’s, but the most certain representation is that of the Infant Jesus by Pinturicchio, where Pope Alexander VI is depicted bowing at the feet of his lover in the guise of the Madonna with the Child in her arms. Giulia, who was married, was even excommunicated and threatened on a trip to visit her husband in Bassanello by her lover who, in a fit of jealousy, ordered her not to go be impregnated by that stallion of her husband.
Alexander VI conceived two other children during his pontificate. One of them was Giovanni, also known as the Infans romanus, who, since birth, was the protagonist of a controversial story that first wanted him to be the illegitimate son of Lucrezia and a young Spanish lover in the service of his father, then the son of incest between the pope and Lucrezia and finally son of the pope and a married woman. Through two conflicting declarations, one of which was a secret, Alexander VI still managed to circumvent the law that prevented the popes from recognizing illegitimate children and to leave the Duchy of Nepi to the child. According to other historians, however, the paternity of the child could be attributed to another Borgia,
Francesco, Cardinal of Cosenza.
For his private and political conduct, Pope Alexander VI was heavily criticized by his opponents and especially by Savonarola, the Dominican preacher who was burned at the stake in 1498 on charges of heresy.
Martin Luther, who arrived in Rome in 1500, after having seen the roles of the papal court also wrote: “if there is hell, Rome is built on it”.
The causes of the death of Pope Alexander VI, which occurred in 1503, remain unclear. In all likelihood he was killed with poison, although official sources attributed the death to tertian fever, an infectious disease transmitted by anopheles mosquitoes.
Among the descendants of Pope Alexander VI, a leading role was undoubtedly played by his daughter Lucrezia, a symbolic figure of an era of light and dark.
Italy, in the 16th century, was a relatively small territory, fragmented into an infinity of states and small territories without any possibility of militarily resisting the desire for conquest of two enormous political forces opposed to each other: The Kingdom of France and that of Spain. For our country, it was an era of intellectual glory and artistic wonders, but also of murky and criminal political relations.
Born in Subiaco in 1480, Lucrezia was given in marriage at the age of thirteen and for political reasons to Giovanni Sforza who was twenty-six and already a widower. The lover of her father who was the same age as her, Giulia Farnese, also participated in her sumptuous wedding party. Four years later, the pope had her marriage with Sforza canceled because he considered him an inefficient political ally and often reproached him for not sufficiently defending family interests. After becoming aware of a warp plan to get him out of the family, Giovanni agreed to sign a document in which he affirmed that he had not concluded the marriage because he was impotent but, once away from the Borgias, he accused the pope of incest with his daughter.
Soon the rumors about Lucrezia’s incestuous behavior also concerned her brother Cesare, one of the most cruel, determined and brilliant men of the time. It was to him that Machiavelli dedicated the seventh chapter of The Prince and statements such as: there are appreciable wickedness and cruelty if used in the general interest.
In 1498, immediately after the cancellation of the marriage with Sforza, Lucrezia was involved in a new scandal. The corpses of one of his ladies and of Pedro Calderon, known as Perotto, 22-year-old Spaniard, the pope’s first waiter, were found in the Tiber River. Lucrezia had received many visits from the young man in her convent where she had retired after the end of the marriage, and it is rumored that she became pregnant. But at the same time, her father and her brother Cesare were conducting negotiations for her second marriage with Alfonso of Aragon and nothing could stand in the way of the wedding.
The chronicles tell that Cesare chased the young man in the corridors of the Holy See, while the pope was in a meeting with the cardinals. Perotto reached the room where the meeting was held and threw himself at the pope’s feet invoking his grace, but Cesare pierced the young man behind him, bleeding on the white papal robe.
The same year, Lucrezia married Alfonso and proved that she knew how to juggle the affairs of politics and the government of the cities of Foligno and Spoleto that her young husband entrusted to her. The marriage passed calmly until in 1500, Alfonso was victim to an ambush, suffering serious injuries to the head and limbs. The patron was again Cesare Borgia who, after a change of political alliances and exchanges of favors with the French crown (the pope canceled the wedding of King Louis XII to allow him to marry Anne of Brittany and Cesare marries a French noblewoman, obtaining the title of Duke of Valentinois, for this reason he is nicknamed Valentino), now saw the alliance with Spain as useless and thus the marriage of Lucrezia, who had to make herself available again for a further marriage alliance.
Lucrezia looked after her husband day and night and in fear that he could be poisoned, she personally prepared his food. But when Alfonso was on the mend, she was called out of the room with a deception and the hitman of her brother strangled him.
Cesare then accompanied the descent of King Louis of France in Italy and became Duke of the two Romagna, and to maintain control over the territories that he governed, he resorted to brisk means: conspiracies, murders and betrayals.
Lucrezia, after a period of mourning and illness, moved away from her father and brother, going to Nepi with her son Rodrigo, whom she had had with Alfonso. Back in Rome, she refused the marriage proposal of the Count of Gravina because, as she said, her husbands were unfortunate.
Before the third and last marriage of Lucrezia with Alfonso d’Este, during the preparations and the prenuptial negotiations in which Lucrezia actively participated, a further episode occurred which threw a sinister light on the relationship that attached Lucrezia to her father and also on the customs of the papal court. It was an orgiastic feast held on October 31, 1501, known as the Banquet of Chestnuts, reported in great detail in the memoirs of an apostolic notary at the papal court, Giovanni Burcardo, without adding personal judgments. One scholar believes that these were premarital rituals back then that, to a modern sensibility and the fact that ecclesiastical offices participated in them, were absolutely inappropriate and inconvenient, but the incident well describes the pope as sovereign in all respects, with his state, his court and his immense power, at a time when many moral references had fallen.
After the third and last marriage with Alfonso d’Este, Lucrezia moved to the splendid Ferrara, home to one of the most cultured courts in Europe. Alfonso’s father, Duke Ercole, was not in favor of marriage due to Lucrezia’s bad reputation, however, he did not displease the pope who favored the union of the two families by giving Lucrezia a substantial dowry. But thanks to her diplomacy, her refined manners and her attractive appearance, Lucrezia soon won the resistance of her father-in-law and at that court, as a cultured woman like she was, she founded a circle with the intellectual elite of the time. Among the best-known names is that of Ludovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo and Ercole Strozzi. In Ferrara, during her husband’s absences, she governed the duchy very well and approached the Franciscan Third Order with religious fervor, she wore a cilice and also founded the pawnshop of Ferrara.
During the regency of the duchy, the rumors about her disappeared, only to reappear after her death. At 39 she, still very beautiful, gave birth to a premature baby who died shortly after. Lucrezia did not survive and died on June 24, 1519. She was buried as she requested, in the tradition of a Franciscan tertiary, her last gesture of redemption.