I have made several posts about the infamous Borgia family, but I realize I never actually created one for Cesare himself. Lucrezia got her turn last year I believe, so today, I turn the spotlight to her elder brother. Many have heard of the man who supposedly murdered both his brother and brother-in-law, the “Prince In All But Name” who is said to have romanced his own sister, but how much truth is there in the slandering?
The date of Cesare Borgia’s birth is debated upon, but the popular consensus is that he was born on the 13th of September in 1476. His mother was Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of many mistresses to Cesare’s father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. By his father, Cesare was of both Spanish and Italian descent, born in Rome as the first of the couple’s four children – behind him were Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffredo. However, the children were not openly acknowledged as Rodrigo’s until years later, perhaps because Vannozza was married during her affairs with him, thus he claimed to have been their uncle before his election as Pope in 1492 allowed him to legitimize the brood. Still, he doted on his children, allowing them all to have a good education, but Cesare was given a special upbringing. As a boy, Cesare was groomed to have a career in the Catholic Church just like Rodrigo. He studied law at the Universities of Perugia and Pisa before he was given his status as a Cardinal at the age of just eighteen.
But Cesare was restless with a fierce temper. It soon became clear that the life of a clergyman was not what he desired, especially when his younger brother Giovanni was given the Dukedom of Gandia. Giovanni even took a royal bride, Maria Enriquez de Luna, the niece of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Sicily and Isabella I of Castile. Cesare was a handsome man and, like his father, had an insatiable appetite for sex, as is evidenced by the fact that he fathered at least eleven illegitimate children in his lifetime, all of whom he took a great risk in acknowledging while a member of the Church. There is no question that he felt jealousy for his younger brother, which came from the fact that Giovanni had been given title while he, the elder brother, was given a life he did not want nor enjoy.
Soon, in 1497, Giovanni Borgia’s murdered corpse was pulled from the Tiber River with his gold and silk clothes still in place. Though the killer was never caught, rumors began to circulate through Rome that Cesare had his brother murdered in cold blood, either by one of the mercenaries he kept by his side or his own hand. Whatever the case, Giovanni was not yet dead a year when Cesare became the first man in history to resign from the position of Cardinal and became a soldier in the Papal Army. This would not be the last familial murder he would be accused of either. In August 1500, rumors began to circulate that Cesare had been responsible for a vicious attack on his brother-in-law Alfonso that took place on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. A few nights later, while he was still recovering from his wounds, Alfonso was strangled in his bed, leaving Cesare as one of the only suspects in his murder; Cesare’s French marriage was threatened by Alfonso’s presence since the nineteen-year old prince was the son of the King of Naples and both countries were at war. When questioned, Cesare claimed that Alfonso that threatened him with a crossbow and that any action he may or may not have taken would have been in self defense, yet witnesses claimed that the man who carried out the prince’s murder was Michelotto Corella, captain of a mercenary free company and one of Cesare’s close confidantes.
Cesare had a reputation for his military prowess, especially while fighting with the French. The King of France gave him the title of Duke of Valentinois just before he gained his military status, when he assisted in granting the king a divorce from his wife. Cesare even gained a wife out of the deal – Charlotte d’Albret, sister to Jean III of Navarre. Despite his victories at Naples, Capua, Rimini and Forli, his hold on power depended heavily on the influence of his father. Author and historian of the time Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that had Cesare succeeded in getting into the papacy’s good graces after Pope Alexander VI died, he would have remained in power, but this was not meant to be.
In the summer of 1503, both Cesare and his father grew deathly ill from what many believed to have been poison. While Cesare recovered, the Pope died at the age of seventy-two and Cesare’s enemies made their moves to depose him. The new Pope’s reign barely lasted a month and the next elected pontiff was Giuliano della Rovere, an enemy of the House of Borgia who took the name Julius II. His lands were retaken and Cesare was forced to leave Italy, but he was later captured and imprisoned in Spain. When he escaped, he took his place at his brother-in-law’s side as military commander of the Navarran forces.
He was fighting in Navarra when on 7 March 1507, he was killed by knights who did not realize who he was. Stripped of all valuables and armor, Cesare’s body was left to rot with no less than twenty-five stab wounds in it. When the identity of the man they had killed was discovered, the knights’ employer, Luis de Beaumonte – a man loyal to Jean III’s enemy Ferdinand II and held the town of Viana on the latter’s behalf – erupted into a rage at having lost the high bounty on Cesare. He was only 31 when he died.
Cesare’s body recovered by Jean III and buried in the Church of Santa Maria, the epitaph reading “Here lies in a little earth he whom everyone feared, he who held peace and war in his hand.” The marble tomb was later demolished by a bishop who did not want a murderer buried in the church and he was reinterred under the street there so everyone who walked by would step on “that degenerate”. In 2007, on the 500th anniversary of his death, Cesare’s remains were brought back inside the church and reburied.
Since his death, Cesare has been the subject of much scorn, portrayed as an incestuous killer with a lust for power and blood. Whatever he may have been, his story continues to fascinate. He has been the subject of many books – including, most famously Machiavelli’s The Prince – television shows, and even video games. Whatever crimes he may or may not have committed, he has earned his place among Royalty Most Cruel.