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The Borgias


Pope Alexander VI - Rodrigo Borgia

Pope Alexander VI - Rodrigo Borgia

Wikimedia Commons

The Borgias are the most infamous family of Renaissance Italy, and their history normally hinges around four key individuals: Pope Calixtus III, his nephew Pope Alexander IV, his son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia. Thanks to the actions of the middle pair, the family name is associated with greed, power, lust and murder.

The Rise of the Borgias

The most famous branch of the Borgia family originated with Alfons Borja from Valencia in Spain, the son of a middling family. Alfons went to university and studied canon and civil law, where he demonstrated talent and after graduation began to rise through the local church. After representing his diocese in national matters, Alfons was appointed secretary to King Alfonso V of Aragon and became deeply involved in politics, sometimes acting as envoy for the monarch. Soon Alfons became Vice-Chancellor, a trusted and relied upon aide, and then regent when the king went to conquer Naples. While demonstrating skills as an administrator, he also promoted his family, even interfering with a murder trial to secure his kin’s safety.

When the king returned, Alfons led negotiations over a rival pope who was living in Aragon. He secured a delicate success which impressed Rome, and became both a priest and a bishop. A few years later Alfons went to Naples - now ruled by the King of Aragon – and reorganised the government. In 1439 Alfons represented Aragon at a council to try and unite the eastern and western churches. It failed, but he impressed. When the king finally negotiated papal approval for his hold of Naples (in return for defending Rome against central Italian rivals), Alfons did the work, and was appointed a cardinal in 1444 as a reward. He thus moved to Rome in 1445, aged 67, and changed his name to the Italicised Borgia.

Oddly for the age, Alfons was not a pluralist, keeping only one church appointment, and was also honest and sober. The next generation of Borgia would be very different, and Alfons’s nephews now arrived in Rome. The youngest, Rodrigo, was destined for the church and studied canon law in Italy, where he established a reputation as a ladies man. An elder nephew, Pedro Luis, was destined for military command.

Calixtus III: the First Borgia Pope

On April 8th 1455, a brief time after being made a cardinal, Alfons was elected as Pope, largely because he belonged to no major factions and seemed destined for a short reign due to age. He took the name Calixtus III. As a Spaniard, Calixtus had many ready made enemies in Rome, and he began his rule carefully, keen to avoid Rome’s factions, even though his first ceremony was interrupted by a riot. However, Calixtus also broke with his former king, Alfonso, after the former ignored the latter’s request for a crusade.

While Calixtus refused to promote King Alfonso’s sons as a punishment, he was busy promoting his own family: nepotism was not unusual in the papacy, indeed, it allowed the Popes to create a base of supporters. Rodrigo was made a cardinal at 25, and a slightly older brother the same, acts which scandalized Rome because of their youth, and ensuing debauchery. But Rodrigo, sent to a difficult region as a papal legate, was skilled and successful. Pedro was given an army command and the promotions and wealth flowed in: Rodrigo became second in command of the church, and Pedro a Duke and Prefect, while other family took a range of positions. Indeed, when King Alfonso died, Pedro was sent to seize Naples which had defaulted back to Rome. Critics believed Calixtus intended to give it to Pedro. However, matters came to a head between Pedro and his rivals over this and he had to flee enemies, although he died shortly after of Malaria. In aiding him, Rodrigo demonstrated a physical bravery, and was with Calixtus when he too died in 1458.

Rodrigo: Journey to the Papacy

In the conclave following Calixtus’s death, Rodrigo was the most junior cardinal. He played a key role in electing the new Pope – Pius II – a role that required courage and gambling his career. The move worked, and from a young foreign outside who has lost his patron, Rodrigo found himself a key ally of the new pope and confirmed Vice Chancellor. To be fair, Rodrigo was a man of great ability and was perfectly capable in this role, but he also loved women, wealth and glory. He thus abandoned the example of his uncle Calixtus and set about acquiring benefices and land to secure his position: castles, bisphorics and money flowed in. Rodrigo also earned official reprimands from the Pope for his licentiousness. Rodrigo’s response was to cover his tracks more. However, he had many children, including a son called Cesare in 1475 and a daughter called Lucrezia in 1480, and Rodrigo would give them key positions.

Rodrigo then survived a plague and welcomed a friend as Pope, and stayed on as Vice-Chancellor. By the next conclave Rodrigo was powerful enough to influence the election, and was sent as a papal legate to Spain with permission to approve or deny the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and thus the union of Aragon and Castile. In approving the match, and working to get Spain to accept them, Rodrigo earned the support of King Ferdinand. On returning to Rome, Rodrigo kept his head down as the new pope became the centre of plotting and intrigue in Italy. His children were given routes to success: his eldest son became a Duke, while daughters were married to secure alliances.

A papal conclave in 1484 demurred from making Rodrigo pope, but the Borgia leader had his eye on the throne, and worked hard to secure allies for what he considered his last chance, and was aided by the current pope causing violence and chaos. In 1492, with the death of the Pope, Rodrigo put all his work together with a huge amount of bribes and was elected Alexander VI. It has been said, not without validity, that he bought the papacy.

Alexander VI: the Second Borgia Pope

Alexander had widespread public support, and was capable, diplomatic and skilled, as well as rich, hedonistic and concerned with ostentatious displays. While Alexander at first tried to keep his role separate from family, his children soon benefited from his election, and received huge wealth; Cesare became a cardinal in 1493.. Relatives arrived in Rome and were rewarded and the Borgais were soon endemic in Italy. While many other Popes had been nepotists, Alexander was promoting his own children and had a range of mistresses, something that further fuelled a growing and negative reputation. At this point some of the Borgia children also began to cause problems, as they annoyed their new families, and at one point Alexander appears to have threatened to excommunicate a mistress for returning to her husband.

Alexander soon had to navigate a way through the warring states and families which surrounded him, and at first he tried negotiation, including the marriage of a twelve year old Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza. He had some success with dipomacy, but it was short lived. Meanwhile Lucrezia’s husband proved a poor soldier, and he fled in opposition to the pope, who then had him divorced. We don’t know why he fled, but accounts claim he believed rumours of incest between Alexander and Lucrezia that persist to this day.

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