Scandal in the House of Borgia

29 Dec

Today is December 29th.  Since the first day of the new year is upon us and I will be busy as a result, I thought I would post my next article a bit early, though New Years Day would be much more fitting to do so, because on 1 January 1431, one of Italy’s most controversial figures was born in Xatvia, Spain near Valencia; Pope Alexander VI, more commonly known by his true name – Rodrigo Borgia.

Most people know the Borgia family by the legends that the notorious family have left behind; rumors of murder, incest, poisoning, lust, and much more surround them relentlessly.  Rodrigo himself and two of his children in particular stand out; Cesare and Lucrezia.  Their supposed story has been told in novels, films, video games, and plays, but what is the truth behind them?

Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo in The Borgias (2011-2013)

Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo in The Borgias (2011-2013)

Borgia, or Borja for the correct Spanish spelling, is actually not Rodrigo’s true family name, but his mother’s maiden name;he adopted his mother’s name upon his elevation to the papacy during the rule of his uncle Alonso de Borja (Pope Callixtus III).  He studied law at Bologna and was ordained, created Cardinal-Deacon the the age of twenty-five, and in 1457, was named vice-chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church and later became Bishop of Albano and of Valencia.  He served under five Papal heads, and in doing so, acquired enormous influence, wealth, and power.

In 1470, Rodrigo began a passionate affair with a noblewoman named Vannozza dei Cattanei, whom would be mother to four of his children; Giovanni, called Juan; Cesare; Lucrezia; and Gioffre, or Geoffredo.  By the time of his elevation in the papacy, the passion died out, and Vannozza’s life became more relaxed, though Rodrigo dotted heavily on his children and spoiled them.  All four would eventually become pawns in Rodrigo’s political game of intrigue.

On 11 August 1492, Rodrigo was elected Pope of Rome, allegedly by bribing the Cardinals with silver in order to obtain votes.  Cesare studied at the University of Perugia and later the University of Pisa, gaining degrees in cannon and civil law, but he was always being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Rodrigo wanted Cesare to have a career in the Church, while Giovanni, Cesare’s older brother, was given title of Duke of Gandia in Spain and became head of the Papal Army, a position that Cesare was said to have coveted.  While Giovanni held titles such as Grand Constable of Naples, Governor of St. Peter’s, and Captain General of the Church, Cesare became Bishop of Pamplona at age fifteen and, at eighteen, a Cardinal. 

Lucrezia, on the other hand, had been betrothed twice, but both engagements were called off by her father.  Finally, on 12 June 1493 at the age of thirteen, she was married to Giovanni Sforza, a member of the powerful and wealthy Sforza family and a man nearly twice her age, though before long, Sforza’s importance began to dwindle and rumors spread that the Pope would soon order his death.  In fear, Sforza fled for his life.  Soon, Rodrigo decided to try and have Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the groom’s cousin, convince him to agree to a divorce, but he refused.  On grounds that the marriage had not been consummated, the marriage was declared invalid, and Sforza, in a rage, accused Lucrezia of having committed incest with both her father and brother Cesare, with whom she was very close.  Nevertheless, he was convinced to sign the annulment papers before witnesses and, for a short time, Lucrezia was free to do as she pleased, though she would never quite rid herself of the scandalous stain her first husband had placed upon her.

Juan (Stanley Weber) and Cesare (Mark Ryder) in Borgia: Faith and Fear

Juan (Stanley Weber) and Cesare (Mark Ryder) in Borgia: Faith and Fear

Soon after, however, a crushing blow was delivered to the Borgia family.  On the evening of 14 June 1497, Giovanni and Cesare had dinner at their mother Vannozza’s house and the two went their separate ways late that night.  Two days later, Giovanni Borgia’s mutilated corpse was dredged from the Tiber River, dressed in his fine clothes and with his gold still in his pockets and nine knife holes in his arms, legs, neck, and face.  The Pope was devastated.  A search was carried out for the murderer, but nothing turned up.  The murder has long been a highly speculated mystery, but most believed it to be the work of Giovanni’s own brother Cesare, who was said to be jealous of not only Giovanni’s position in the military, but of the fact that the two shared a mistress.  The fire was fueled when Cesare became the first person in history to resign as Cardinal, exchanging his church robes for a suit of armor and was granted the Dukedom of Valentinois by King Louis XII of France the same day, from which his nickname “il Valentino” is derived.  Maria Enriquez de Luna, Giovanni’s widow and mother of two of his children, believed so strongly in these rumors that after Rodrigo’s death, she tried to have Cesare charged with her husband’s murder, even asking her aunt Isabella I of Castile for assistance, however, she was unsuccessful.  His true involvement in the crime is unknown and it is also suspected that Giovanni was the victim of a jealous husband or lover, as he was known for his amorous affairs, but again, nothing was proved and there were no arrests and within a year, the investigation was called off.  Thus the myth of the Borgias grew more sinister.

Lucrezia and Alfonso in Los Borgia

Lucrezia and Alfonso in the Spanish film Los Borgia

The same year, Lucrezia married again, this time to the Prince of Salerno and Duke of Bisceglie, seventeen-year-old Alfonso of Aragon.  The couple was said to have fallen in love almost instantly and the marriage, which took place in July 1498, would be a short one.  Alfonso was the son of the King of Naples, and Rodrigo wanted to ally himself with France.  The problem was that France was an enemy to the Kingdom of Naples.  The French alliance was cemented when Cesare married the sister to the King of Navarre and poor Alfonso, who was no longer needed, deserted Rome in 1499, leaving behind a distraught and pregnant Lucrezia, whom he wrote to constantly, begging her to join him.  Soon, the couple reunited in the town of Nepi and returned to the Vatican in September.  In late October or early November, Lucrezia gave birth to a son, whom she named Rodrigo after her father.  The couple’s happiness would be cut short when Alfonso was attacked by mercenaries at the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica in July 1500.  Gravely injured, he was cared for by his wife, half-sister, and many doctors, and slowly began to recover from his stabbing wounds, but nothing could help him when he was strangled in his bed by an unknown assassin in the night.  Again, rumors began to circulate that Cesare had ordered the murder or had even killed the boy himself, but again, nothing could be proven.  Either way, Alfonso was out of the way and the Papacy allied with France.  Two years later, Lucrezia was married off again, this time to the Duke of Ferrara.   She would never see Little Rodrigo again and the sickly boy died at the age of twelve.

Cesare Borgia

Cesare Borgia

Before the scandal of Alfonso’s murder took place, Cesare, hoping to marry the beautiful Carlotta d’Aragona, struck a deal with the King of France; if he granted him a divorce from his wife, Louis would support him in his anticipated marriage.  Cesare went to France, spending his money wildly in an attempt to impress the court as well as his intended bride, who was Lady-in-Waiting to the French Queen.  However, Carlotta rejected him immediately, not caring for his arrogance.  Instead, the king proposed a new bride, Charlotte d’Albret, sister to the King of Navarre and a woman of reportedly great beauty.  Cesare was pleased and, after nearly two months of negotiations, the two were married on the 12th of May.  They spent their honeymoon in Blois and Cesare lavished her with gifts, but soon, he was called back to Italy, and in July, he left his wife behind, never to see her again, nor their only child, a daughter named Louise.

In 1503, both Cesare and Rodrigo dined together and both fell gravely ill.  Cesare, who was already suffering from syphilis, eventually recovered, though for some time he “lay in bed, his skin peeling and his face suffused to a violet color.”  Rodrigo, however, was no match for the disease and died on 6 August at the age of 72.  Some say the cause of death was poison, but it is thought to be malaria or a similar pestilence that was also plaguing Europe at the time.  Cesare, his handsome face heavily scarred from the disease, wore a mask for the rest of his life.

With his father’s death came Cesare’s downfall; it is remarked by historian Niccolò Machiavelli that his one weakness was that he depended too much on his father’s Papal rule for protection.  Now that Rodrigo was dead, his enemies sought him out and the greatest known of them, Giuliano della Rovere, who next became Pope Julius II, retook his lands and he was forced to flee from Rome.  He sought aid in Naples, but was imprisoned and later taken to Spain, managing to escape his confinement with assistance.  He went to Navarre and took on the position of commander of the troops of its king, John III, his wife’s brother.

On 12 March 1507, during a skirmish with soldiers of the Constable of Navarre, Cesare Borgia died fighting in Vienna at the age of 31.   Upon his death, unaware of who he was, the attacking soldiers had him stripped of his armor and clothes and left him naked in the weeds with twenty-five stab wounds and a simple rock to protect his modesty.  When they at last discovered his identity, the Constable erupted in a fit of rage, because the price on Cesare’s head was high, and he would have been a valuable prisoner had he been left alive, but the damage was done.  John had his brother-in-law’s body carried back to Vienna, where he was buried.  Charlotte would never remarry, and instead entered a convent with little Louise and became a nun.

The only confirmed portrait of Lucrezia Borgia in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia in the Vatican

Finally, Lucrezia was the last Borgia left alive.  Her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este made her Duchess of Ferrara in 1502.  Together they had a total of six children and in addition, she was also caretaker to at least one of Cesare’s illegitimate children and possibly mother to another son named Giovanni of Rome (however the child’s parentage is uncertain.  It is not even known if Lucrezia was really his mother or if he was a product of one of her brothers’ many liaisons.)  On 14 June 1519, at the age of thirty-nine, Lucrezia gave birth to her final child, a stillborn daughter named Isabella Maria, and ten days later, she too died of complications following the birth.

The history which I have provided here is short, mostly because of the facts being shrouded in legend and scandal that cannot be proved, as stated earlier.  The myths surrounding the Borgia family are still quite fascinating and have been told and retold by writers such as Machiavelli, whom famously used Cesare as his model in his book, The Prince.

Particularly Cesare seems to be known for his extreme cruelty both inside and outside the field of battle.  He was a brilliant military leader, having in his term ruthlessly captured towns such as Forli and Rimini.  It was even recorded by Rodrigo’s papal master of ceremonies that Cesare once had a group of prisoners rounded up in St. Peter’s Square, where from a high balcony perch, he proceeded to shoot them down with rifles until all were dead, allthewhile the Pope and his sister looked on.  In the French court, he showed off by bullfighting on horseback, and in one day killed eight bulls.  Yet despite his brutal ways, he was still said to be handsome and charming, always armed and dressed in fine silk.  He was highly intelligent, but his temper was fierce to the point where even his own father was said to have feared him.  Even his original epitaph read “Here lies the man whom all the world feared, who held peace and war in his hand.”

Cesare as portrayed in the Assassin's Creed video game franchise

Cesare as portrayed in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise.

Rodrigo is known best perhaps for his promiscuous love affairs and was one of the only Popes to acknowledge his illegitimate children.  His relations were subject to the gossips of the time, namely his mistress Giulia Farnese, sister to the man who would become Pope Paul III and with whom he had a daughter named Laura.  She was slandered with the epithet “the Pope’s Whore” before she was cast aside in 1500 due to her age.  Rodrigo loved women.  He was also said to have rid himself of rivals with use of poison, most notably one called Cantarella, which may in itself be mythical, as no recipe for such a poison has ever been found.

This toxic myth also concerns Lucrezia, who was famously said to have been in possession of a hollow ring that she used to poison drinks.  However, modern historians are beginning to look at her in a more positive light.   Her beauty is also remarked on, namely her heavy long blond hair, which fell past her hips, a lock of which is on display. What is known is that she too had several affairs in her lifetime, most notably with the poet Pietro Bembo, with whom she exchanged several love letters that still survive.  Lord Byron dubbed them “the most beautiful love letters in the world”.

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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Italian Renaissance


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