When one hears the name Borgia, one thinks about incest, nepotism, corruption, poison schemes and the pure evil antagonists of Assassin’s Creed 2. The Borgias are a sort of a bogeyman for modern Rome. But history, an artificial product, is seldom fair and able to filter truth from gossip. So who was the real Rodrigo Borgia and why is their name so associated with evil deeds comparable to those of the most vilified Roman emperors such as Caligula and Nero?

#1 Rodrigo the Catalan

Rodrigo Borgia, was born Roderic Llançol i de Borja, on 1st January 1431. His birthplace was Xativa, Valencia, in the Crown of Aragon, and his parents were Jofré Llançol i Escrivà, and Isabel de Borja y Cavanilles. His maternal uncle, Alonso, was a cardinal in Rome, and later in life he sent Rodrigo to Bologna to study law and eat some good pasta for a change.

Coat of arms of the House of Borgia. Author: Echando una mano (Wikipedia user). Source

When uncle Alonso was elected Pope under the name Calixtus III, Rodrigo was made cardinal, being just 26 years old. Later, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Church. Sort of like the schemes of politicians who appoint themselves to several positions at once, in order to secure multiple wages. That didn’t help to get the Romans to trust the Borgia camarilla, dubbed ‘Catalans’ by the Roman populace. As a Catalan myself, I’m not sure if I should feel ashamed or proud of having been in Rome’s heart in such fashion.

#2 From Borgia Pope to Borgia Pope

Despite his uncle’s eventual demise, the four Popes that succeeded him kept Rodrigo in his lucrative position. Then in 1492, Rodrigo, by now filthy rich, skilful, and influential, was elected as the new Pope. Bribery was known to be the only effective vote in the conclaves when electing Popes. And the Romans joked about it themselves: ‘Rodrigo has sold the keys, the altar and Christ himself. But he had a right to, for he bought them.’

Once elected Pope, Rodrigo combined his coat of arms of the bull, together with the the golden and black strips of the Dukedom of Gandía (passed through his family) and the three tiered crown and keys, symbols of Papal office. Author: Echando una mano (Wikipedia user). Source

Rodrigo choose the name Alexander VI, and since he bore the name of the greatest pagan conqueror, held a parade worthy of the Caesars, with hundreds of naked youths, their bodies gilded while they served wine. A bit paganish for the Pope. But if history has chastised Alexander, it’s because of his unabated sponsorship of his children. Wait, a Pope having children? Rodrigo wasn’t the first using the confessional for something else besides hearing confessions. His predecessor, Innocent VIII (cynical name for a Pope), set a precedent by openly acknowledging his bastardi, rather than calling them ‘nephews’.

#3 Behind every great Pope there are…many women?

Rodrigo, who at least didn’t have to buy votes to win the contest for sex-symbol of the Church, had several mistresses. The most famous was Vannozza de Cattanei, was married three times to other men, but still bore Rodrigo four children: Giovani, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré.

Giovanna dei Cattanei
Giovanna dei Cattanei. Known as Vannozza. Potrait by Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola. Photrography. Source

The Borgia bastards were brought up by Rodrigo’s cousin, Madonna Adriana. Ironically, it was in Madonna’s home that Rodrigo met another lover, Giulia Farnese, La bella Giulia. Rome, probably more amused than outraged, called her ‘The Pope’s Whore’, or the kinder ‘Christ’s Bride’. For the sake of appearance, Rodrigo married Giulia to Adriana’s only son, and promoted her brother, Alessandro (the future Pope Paul III), to Cardinal in 1493.

The Lady and the Unicorn. Alleged portrait of Giulia Farnese by Luca Longhi. Source

With Alexander’s accession, his daughter’s Lucrezia value as a bride multiplied. She was already engaged, but the Pope conveniently ‘forgot’ it and married her instead to Giovanni Sforza, cousin of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. He was Rodrigo’s competitor, and his family were rulers of Milan.

Lucrezia Borgia portrait
Lucrezia Borgia. By Bartolomeo Veneziano, 1510. Collection of National Gallery, London. Source

Once Giovanni’s political advantage waned, the marriage was declared null, on the grounds of Giovanni’s impotence. The latter claimed that Alexander had an incestuous relationship with Lucrezia, and accused Cesare of the murder of his own brother, Giovanni Borgia.

#4 Sono pazzi questi Italiani

Alexander found Italy to be a boiling pot of nobleman, squabbling with each other for bits and pieces around the Papal States. In the south, the Kingdom of Naples dominated, and in the north, the Romagna lords did what they pleased, while the Venetians remained the unchallenged sea power in Europe.

Political map of Italy, 1494
Created by MapMaster (Wikipedia user). Source

Not everyone believed Alexander to be an old pervert dressed in the tidy pontifical cassock. Machiavelli for example, a Florentine politician and the author of the famous treatise on ruling, The Prince. He defended Rodrigo’s success, saying it was based in a strategy to weaken Naples, Venice and the Romagna lords, together with the Orsini and the Colonnesi, Rome’s dominant families.

If nobody could be trusted in Italy, why it is Alexander promotion of his own kin so criticized? Besides, their position depending on Alexander’s pontificate, made them unlikely to betray him.

#5 The Italian Wars

Alexander’s greatest trial would come in the form of Charles VIII of France, who, spurred on by another rival of Alexander, the Cardinal della Rovere, invaded the Italian boot, to claim the Kingdom of Naples as its legitimate heir. He was aided by the Sforza, who threatened to dethrone Alexander for simony (buying votes). Unopposed, Charles entered Rome, while Alexander, sealed himself off in Castel Sant’Angelo.

Originally built on the orders of Roman Emperor Hadrian as his intended mausoleum, it survived the sacking or Rom in 410 and became a Papal fortress in the 14th century, when it was connected to St Peter’s Basilica with a corridor known as Passeto di Borgo, allowing the Popes to escape in dangerous situations. Author: Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de

Out of allies, Rodrigo contacted Bajazet, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Bajazet’s brother, Djem, was a semi-prisoner of the Pope, who had attempted, unsuccessfully, to oust Bazajet. Alexander used Djem to blackmail assistance and money from the Sultan, who was already paying a yearly bribe to Alexander. Overstretched and unwelcomed, Charles, now nominal King of Naples, was eventually forced to retreat. The invaders were slowly repelled, and the Orsini, who had sided with the French, were duly punished and their lands forfeited.

After the murky assassination of his eldest son Giovanni, in 1497, a grieving and distressed Alexander vowed to purge the Church. But his reform was quickly discarded in favour of a plan to carve out a principality for his other son, Cesare. Allied with the new French king, Louis XII, Alexander threw his full support behind the french invasion of Milan in 1499, together with Cesare’s aid. Naples remained France’s real target, which was later divided between France and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Alexander backed the French in exchange for further military support against the Romagna lords, because that’s where he intended Cesare to rule. And until 1503 Cesare proved him right, demonstrating a brilliant grasp of military strategy and just ruling under the papal patronage.

Alleged portrait of Cesare Borgia. Painted by: Altobello Melone. Collection of Accademia Carrara. Source: Wikipedia
Alleged portrait of Cesare Borgia. Painted by: Altobello Melone. Collection of Accademia Carrara. Source: Wikipedia

#6 Rodrigo Borgia’s death

After dining with Cardinal Adriano Castellesi on 6th August 1503. Both Cesare and Alexander fell extremely ill. Cesare slowly recovered, but the ageing pontiff’s appointment with St Peter was already scheduled. On Friday 18th, after receiving Extreme Unction, Alexander VI died.

Ever loyal to their conspiracy theories, the Romans believed that Alexander and Cesare had attempted to poison Castellesi (dead cardinal’s possessions reverted to the Church) but had idiotically poisoned themselves instead. However, the truth is that many Romans had died of fever during 1503 exceptional hot summer, so that and not a botched poisoning attempt was the likely cause of death for Alexander VI.

His body was hidden until Sunday, to prevent the mobs, forefathers of modern hooligans, from desecrating it. However, when the corpse was uncovered to be prepared for burial, the skin was a dark mulberry colour, and lips and tongue were distorted, giving the former Pope a devilish appearance. Alexander was so swollen that he wouldn’t fit in the coffin. He had to be rolled up in a carpet and hammered in.

Tomb of Alexander VI and Calixtus III
Burial sarcophagus of Alexander VI and Calixtus III (Alexander’s uncle) in Santa Maria Montserrato degli Spagnoli. Rome. Author: Livioandronico2013. Source

#7 The real Rodrigo

Pius III was elected as his successor, but died just 26 days later (allegedly poisoned of course), and was succeeded by Giuliano della Rovere (Alexander’s foe) as Julius II. Julius promised to support Cesare and confirmed his Romagna domains, thus tricking Cesare to abide and even syppurt his election, but that proved to be his undoing.

Alexander passed into history as the most evil Pope. But is that a just claim, considering how many others had its share of boundless nepotism? The only difference is that it became Alexander VI’s ultimate goal, to strengthen the Church along the way. Regarding the charges of poisoning cardinals, the evidence is flimsy to non-existent. Rodrigo’s biggest crime was his unconditional love for Giovanni, Lucrezia, Cesare and Jofré, and the lengths he took to ensure their futures, whatever the cost. Only a Pope can be criticised for loving his children.

If you want to know more about the Borgias check this interesting article.
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