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The Borgias

Part 2

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Cesare Borgia

Cesare Borgia

Wikimedia Commons
France then entered the arena, competing for Italian land, and in 1494 King Charles VIII invaded Italy. His advance was barely stopped, and as Charles entered Rome Alexander retired to a palace. He could have fled, but stayed to use his ability against the neurotic Charles. He negotiated both his own survival and a compromise which ensured an independent papacy, but which left Cesare as both a papal legate and a hostage… until he escaped. France took Naples, but the rest of Italy came together in a Holy League in which Alexander played a key role. However, when Charles retreated back through Rome Alexander thought it best to leave this second time.

Juan Borgia

Alexander now turned on a Roman family who stayed loyal to France: the Orsini. The command was given to Alexander’s son Duke Juan, who was recalled from Spain, where he had earned a reputation for womanising. After initial success, Juan became Captain-General of the Papal Army, although practical command rested with an aide. Juan had more success and some failure, leading to the Orsini buying their way back in and Juan being given such large rewards by Alexander they alienated other commanders. Meanwhile Rome echoed to the rumours of the excesses of the Borgia children. Alexander meant to give Juan first the vital Orsini land, and then strategic papal lands, but Juan was assassinated and his corpse thrown into the Tiber. He was 20. No one knows who did it.

The Rise of Cesare Borgia

Juan had been Alexander’s favourite and his commander; that honour (and the rewards) were now diverted to Cesare, who wished to resign his cardinal’s hat and marry. Cesare seemed the future to Alexander partly because the other male Borgia children were dying or weak. Cesare secularised himself fully in 1498. He was immediately given replacement wealth as the Duke of Valence through an alliance Alexander brokered with the new French King Louis XIII, in return for papal acts and aiding him in gaining Milan. Cesare also married into Louis’ family and was given an army. His wife became pregnant before he left for Italy, but neither she nor the child ever saw Cesare again. Louis was successful and Cesare, who was only 23 but with an iron will and strong drive, began a remarkable military career.

The Wars of Cesare Borgia

Alexander looked at the condition of the Papal States, left in disarray after the first French invasion, and decided military action was needed. He thus ordered Cesare, who was in Milan with his army, to pacify large areas of central Italy for the Borgias. Cesare had early success, although when his large French contingent returned to France he needed a new army and returned to Rome. Cesare seemed to have control over his father now, and people after papal appointments and acts found it more profitable to seek out the son instead of Alexander. Cesare also became Captain-General of the churches armies, and a dominant figure in central Italy. Lucrezia’s husband was also killed, possibly on the orders of an angry Cesare, who also was rumoured to be acting against those who badmouthed him in Rome by assassinations. Murder was common in Rome, and many of the unsolved deaths were attributed to the Borgias, and usually Cesare.

With a substantial war chest from Alexander, Cesare conquered., and at one point marched to remove Naples from the control of the dynasty who had given the Borgias their start. When Alexander went south to oversee the division of land, Lucrezia was left behind in Rome as regent. The Borgia family gained great amounts of land in the Papal States, which were now concentrated in the hands of one family more than ever before, and Lucrezia was packed off to marry Alfonso d’Este to secure a flank of Cesare’s conquests.

The Fall of the Borgias

As the alliance with France now seemed to be holding Cesare back, plans were made, deals struck, wealth acquired and enemies murdered to take a change of direction, but in mid-1503 Alexander died of malaria. Cesare found his benefactor gone, his realm not yet consolidated, large foreign armies in the north and south, and himself also deeply ill. Furthermore, with Cesare weak, his enemies rushed back from exile to threaten his lands, and when Cesare failed to coerce the papal conclave he retreated from Rome. He persuaded the new pope to re-admit him safely, but that pontiff died after twenty six days and Cesare had to flee. He supported a great Borgia rival, Cardinal della Rovere, as Pope Julius III, but with his lands conquered and his diplomacy rebuffed an annoyed Julius arrested Cesare. Borgias were now thrown out of their positions, or forced into keeping quiet. Developments allowed Cesare to be released, and he went to Naples, but he was arrested by Ferdinand of Aragon and locked up again. Cesare did escape after two years, but was killed in a skirmish in 1507. He was just 31.

Lucrezia the Patron and the end of the Borgias

Lucrezia also survived malaria, and the loss of her father and brother. Her personality reconciled her to her husband, his family and her state, and she took up court positions, acting as regent. She organised the state, saw it through war, and created a court of great culture through her patronage. She was popular with her subjects, and died in 1519.

No Borgias ever rose to become as powerful as Alexander, but there were plenty of minor figures who held religious and political positions, and Francis Borgia (d. 1572) was made a saint. By Francis’ time the family was declining in importance, and by the end of the eighteenth century it had died out.

The Borgia Legend

Alexander and the Borgias have become infamous for corruption, cruelty and murder. Yet what Alexander did as pope was rarely original, he just took things to a new extreme. Cesare was perhaps the supreme intersection of secular power wielded to spiritual power in Europe’s history, and the Borgias were renaissance princes no worse than many of their contemporaries. Indeed, Cesare was given the dubious distinction of Machiavelli, who knew Cesare, saying the Borgia general was a grand example of how to tackle power.
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