#1 The real Rodrigo Borgia. Not the Assassin’s Creed one

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.

#2 Rodrigo the Catalan

Rodrigo Borgia, was born Roderic Llançol i de Borja, on 1st January 1431, in Xativa, Valencia, in the Crown of Aragon. His parents were Jofré Llançol i Escrivà, and Isabel de Borja y Cavanilles. His maternal uncle, Alonso, was a cardinal in Rome, and sent Rodrigo to Bologna to study law. Or maybe Rodrigo was eager for some top-notch pasta for a change, who knows…

Borgia's Coat of Arms. A red bull grazing
Coat of arms of the House of Borgia

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

#3 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.’

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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.

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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 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’.

#4 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

The Borgia bastardi 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’. Rodrigo married Giulia to Adriana’s only son, and promoted her brother, Alessandro (the future Pope Paul III), to Cardinal in 1493.

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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

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.

#5 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 were THE sea power in Europe.

Political map of Italy, 1494

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.

#6 Rodrigo Borgia and 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.

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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, retreated. The invaders were slowly repelled, and the Orsini, who had sided with the French, were duly punished and their lands forfeited.

After the assassination of his 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 Louis XII of France, Charles’ successor, Cesare and French troops invaded Milan in 1499. Naples was the real target, which was later divided between France and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Alexander backed the French in exchange for military support against the Romagna lords, where Cesare was to rule. Until 1503, Cesare succeeded, until 1503, proving himself a brilliant military leader under the patronage of his father.

Cesare Borgia
Alleged portrait of Cesare Borgia

#7 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. Many died of fever during Rome’s exceptional hot summer, so one is entitled to assume that the Romans were literally bored to death during the holidays.

Alexander’s 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 in Santa Maria Montserrato degli Spagnoli. Rome

#8 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, the new Julius II. Julius promised to support Cesare and confirmed his Romagna domains. Cesare abided by his election, but that proved to be his undoing. If you want to know Cesare’s story in more detail, check out his post here:


Alexander passed into history as the most evil Pope. But is that a just claim, considering how many others had its share of nepotism? The only difference is that it became Alexander VI’s ultimate goal, strengthening the Church along the way. Regarding the charges of poisoning cardinals, the evidence is 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.

Check this article pondering on the wherabouts of the Borgia, in the scale of malice of Renaissance Italy:


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