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Pope Alexander VI

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Alexander VI, (January 1, 1431 - August 18, 1503) pope (1492-1503), born Rodrigo Borgia[?] (1431), is the most memorable of the corrupt and secular popes of the Renaissance. He was born at Xativa[?], near Valencia in Spain, and his father's surname was Lanzol or Llancol; that of his mother's family, Borgia or Borja[?], was assumed by him on the elevation of his maternal uncle to the papacy as Callixtus III (April 8, 1455).

He studied law at Bologna, and after his uncle's election he was created successively bishop, cardinal and vice-chancellor of the church, an act of nepotism[?] characteristic of the age. He served in the Curia under five popes and acquired much administrative experience, influence and wealth, although no great power; he was economical in his habits; on occasion he displayed great splendour and lived in a fine palace. His manners were agreeable and his appearance fascinating, but, like many other prelates of the day, his morals were far from blameless, his two dominant passions being greed of gold and love of women, and he was devotedly fond of the children whom his mistresses bore him. Although ecclesiastical corruption was then at its height, his riotous mode of life called down upon him a very severe reprimand from Pope Pius II, who succeeded Calixtus III in 1458. Of his many mistresses the one for whom his passion lasted longest was a certain Vannozza (Giovanna) dei Cattani[?], born in 1442, and wife of three successive husbands. The connexion began in 1470, and she bore him many children whom he openly acknowledged as his own: Giovanni[?], afterwards duke of Gandia[?] (born 1474), Cesare (born 1476), Lucrezia (born 1480), and Goffredo or Giuffre (born 1481 or 1482). His other children — Girolamo, Isabella and Pier Luigi — were of uncertain parentage. Before his elevation to the papacy Cardinal Borgia's passion for Vannozza somewhat diminished, and she subsequently led a very retired life. Her place in his affections was filled by the beautiful Giulia Farnese[?] (Giulia Bella), wife of an Orsini, but his love for his children by Vannozza remained as strong as ever and proved, indeed, the determining factor of his whole career. He lavished vast sums on them and loaded them with every honour. A characteristic instance of the corruption of the papal court is the fact that Borgia's daughter Lucrezia lived with his mistress Giulia, who bore him a daughter Laura in 1492.

On the death of Pope Innocent VIII the three likely candidates for the Holy See were Cardinals Borgia, Ascanio Sforza and Giuliano della Rovere; at no previous or subsequent election were such immense sums of money spent on bribery, and Borgia by his great wealth succeeded in buying the largest number of votes, including that of Sforza, and to his intense joy he was elected on August 10, 1492, assuming the name of Alexander VI. Borgia's elevation did not at the time excite much alarm, except in some of the cardinals who knew him, and at first his reign was marked by a strict administration of justice and an orderly method of government in satisfactory contrast with the anarchy of the previous pontificate, as well as by great outward splendour. But it was not long before his unbridled passion for endowing his relatives at the expense of the church and of his neighbours became manifest. For this object he was ready to commit any crime and to plunge all Italy into war. Cesare, then a youth of sixteen and a student at Pisa, was made archbishop of Valencia, his nephew Giovanni received a cardinal's hat, and for the duke of Gandia and Giuffre the pope proposed to carve fiefs out of the papal states and the kingdom of Naples. Among the fiefs destined for the duke of Gandia were Cervetri[?] and Anguillara[?], lately acquired by Virginio Orsini[?], head of that powerful and turbulent house, with the pecuniary help of [Ferdinand of Aragon]], king of Naples (Don Ferrante). This brought the latter into conflict with Alexander, who determined to revenge himself by making an alliance with the king's enemies, especially the Sforza family, lords of Milan. In this he was opposed by Cardinal della Rovere, whose candidature for the papacy had been backed by Ferdinand. Della Rovere, feeling that Rome was a dangerous place for him, fortified himself in his bishopric of Ostia at the Tiber's mouth, while Ferdinand allied himself with Florence, Milan, Venice, and the pope formed a league against Naples (April 25, 1493) and prepared for war. Ferdinand appealed to Spain for help; but Spain was anxious to be on good terms with the pope to obtain a title over the newly discovered continent of America and could not afford to quarrel with him.

Alexander meditated great marriages for his children. Lucrezia had been married to the Spaniard Don Gasparo de Procida[?], but on her father's elevation to the papacy the union was annulled, and in 1493 she was married to Giovanni Sforza[?], lord of Pesaro[?], the ceremony being celebrated at the Vatican with unparalleled magnificence. But in spite of the splendours of the court, the condition of Rome became every day more deplorable. The city swarmed with Spanish adventurers, assassins, prostitutes and informers; murder and robbery were committed with impunity, heretics and Jews[?] were admitted to the city on payment of bribes, and the pope himself shamelessly cast aside all show of decorum, living a purely secular and immoral life, and indulging in the chase, dancing, stage plays and indecent orgies. One of his boon companions was Jem, the brother of the sultan Bayezid[?], detained as a hostage.

The general political outlook in Italy was of the gloomiest, and the country was on the eve of the catastrophe of foreign invasion. At Milan Lodovico Sforza[?] (il Moro) ruled, nominally as regent for the youthful duke Gian Galeazzo[?], but really with a view to making himself master of the state. He made many alliances to secure his position, but fearing himself isolated he sought help from Charles VIII of France, and as the king of Naples threatened to come to the aid of Gian Galeazzo, who had married his grand-daughter, he encouraged the French king in his schemes for the conquest of Naples. Alexander carried on a double policy, always ready to seize opportunities to aggrandize his family. But through the intervention of the Spanish ambassador he made peace with Naples in July 1493 and also with the Orsini; the peace was cemented by a marriage between the pope's son Giuffre and Doņa Sancha, Ferdinand's grand-daughter. In order to dominate the Sacred College more completely he created twelve new cardinals, among them his own son Cesare, then only eighteen years old, and Alessandro Farnese, the brother of Giulia Bella, one of the pope's mistresses, creations which caused much scandal. On the 25th of January[?] 1494 Ferdinand died and was succeeded by his son Alphonso II. Charles of France now advanced formal claims on the kingdom, and Alexander drew him to his side and authorized him to pass through Rome ostensibly on a crusade against the Turks, without mentioning Naples. But when the French invasion became a reality he was alarmed, recognized Alphonso as king, and concluded an alliance with him in exchange for various fiefs to his sons (July 1494). Preparations for defence were made; a Neapolitan army was to advance through the Romagna[?] and attack Milan, while the fleet was to seize Genoa; but both expeditions were badly conducted and failed, and on the 8th of September[?] Charles crossed the Alps and joined Lodovico il Moro at Milan. The papal states were in a turmoil, and the powerful Colonna faction seized Ostia in the name of France. Charles rapidly advanced southward, and after a short stay in Florence set out for Rome (November 1494). Alexander appealed to Ascanio Sforza[?] for help, and even to the sultan. He tried to collect troops and put Rome in a state of defence, but his position was most insecure, and the Orsini offered to admit the French to their castles. This defection decided the pope to come to terms, and on the 31st of December[?] Charles entered Rome with his troops and the cardinals of the French faction. Alexander now feared that the king might depose him for simony and summon a council, but he won over the bishop of St Malo, who had much influence over the king, with a cardinal's hat, and agreed to send Cesare, as legate, to Naples with the French army, to deliver Jem to Charles and to give him Civitavecchia[?] ([[January 16], 1495). On the 28th Charles departed for Naples with Jem and Cesare, but the latter escaped to Spoleto[?]. Neapolitan resistance collapsed; Alphonso fled and abdicated in favour of his son Ferdinand II, who also had to fly abandoned by all, and the kingdom was conquered with surprising ease. But a reaction against Charles soon set in, for all the powers were alarmed at his success, and on the 31st of March[?] a league between the pope, the emperor, Venice, Lodovico il Moro and Ferdinand of Spain[?] was formed, ostensibly against the Turks, but in reality to expel the French from Italy. Charles had himself crowned king of Naples on the 12th of May[?], but a few days later began his retreat northward. He encountered the allies at Fornovo, and after a drawn battle cut his way through them and was back in France by November; Ferdinand II. with Spanish help was reinstated at Naples soon afterwards. The expedition, if it produced no material results, laid bare the weakness of the Italian political system and the country's incapacity for resistance.

Alexander availed himself of the defeat of the French to break the power of the Orsini, following the general tendency of all the princes of the day to crush the great feudatories and establish a centralized despotism. Virginio Orsini, who had been captured by the Spaniards, died a prisoner at Naples, and the pope confiscated his property. But the rest of the clan still held out, and the papal troops sent against them under Guidobaldo duke of Urbino and the duke of Gandia were defeated at Soriano[?] (January 1497). Peace was made through Venetian mediation, the Orsini paying 50,000 ducats in exchange for their confiscated lands; the duke of Urbino, whom they had captured, was left by the pope to pay his own ransom. The Orsini still remained very powerful, and Alexander could count on none but his 3000 Spaniards. His only success had been the capture of Ostia and the submission of the Francophile cardinals Colonna and Savelli.

Now occurred the first of those ugly domestic tragedies for which the house of Borgia remained famous. On the 14th of June the duke of Gandia, lately created duke of Benevento, disappeared; the next day his corpse was found in the Tiber. Alexander, overwhelmed with grief, shut himself up in Castle St Angelo[?], and then declared that the reform of the church would be the sole object of his life henceforth--a resolution which he did not keep. Every effort was made to discover the assassin, and suspicion fell on various highly placed personages. Suddenly the rumour spread about that Cesare, the pope's second son, was the author of the deed, and although the inquiries then ceased and no conclusive evidence has yet come to light, there is every probability that the charge was well founded. No doubt Cesare, who contemplated quitting the church, was inspired by jealousy. of Gandia's influence with the pope. Violent and revengeful, he now became the most powerful man in Rome, and even his father quailed before him. As he needed funds to carry out his various schemes, the pope began a series of confiscations, of which one of the victims was his own secretary, in order to enrich him. The process was a simple one: any cardinal, nobleman or official who was known to be rich would be accused of some offence; imprisonment and perhaps murder followed at once, and then the confiscation of his property. The disorganization of the Curia was appalling, the sale of offices became a veritable scandal, the least opposition to the Borgia was punished with death, and even in that corrupt age the state of things shocked public opinion. The story of Alexander's relations with Savonarola is narrated under the latter heading; it is sufficient to say here that the pope's hostility was due to the friar's outspoken invectives against papal corruption and to his appeals for a General Council. Alexander, although he could not get Savonarola into his own hands, browbeat the Florentine government into condemning the reformer to death (May 23, 1498). The pope was unable to maintain order in his own dominions; the houses of Colonna and Orsini were at open war with each other, but after much fighting they made peace on a basis of alliance against the pope. Thus further weakened, he felt more than ever that he had only his own kin to rely upon, and his thoughts were ever turned on family aggrandizement. He had annulled Lucrezia's marriage with Sforza in 1497, and, unable to arrange a union between Cesare and the daughter of Frederick, king of Naples (who had succeeded Ferdinand II. the previous year), he induced the latter by threats to agree to a marriage between the duke of Bisceglie, a natural son of Alphonso II., and Lucrezia. Cesare, who renounced his cardinalate, was sent on a mission to France at the end of the year, bearing a bull of divorce for the new king Louis XII., in exchange for which he obtained the duchy of Valentinois (hence his title of Duca Valentino) and a promise of material assistance in his schemes to subjugate the feudal princelings of Romagna; he married a princess of Navarre. Alexander hoped that Louis's help would be more profitable to his house than that of Charles had been and, in spite of the remonstrances of Spain and of the Sforza, he allied himself with France in January 1499 and was joined by Venice. By the autumn Louis was in Italy and expelled Lodovico Sforza from the Milanese. In order to consolidate his possessions still further, now that French success seemed assured, the pope determined to deal drastically with Romagna, which although nominally under papal rule was divided up into a number of practically independent lordships on which Venice, Milan and Florence cast hungry eyes. Cesare, nominated gonfaloniere of the Church, and strong in French favour, proceeded to attack the turbulent cities one by one. But the expulsion of the French from Milan and the return of Lodovico Sforza interrupted his conquests, and he returned to Rome early in 1500. This year was a jubilee year, and crowds of pilgrims flocked to the city from all parts of the world bringing money for the purchase of indulgences, so that Alexander was able to furnish Cesare with funds for his enterprise. In the north the pendulum swung back once more and the French reoccupied Milan in April, causing the downfall of the Sforzas, much to Alexander's gratification. But there was no end to the Vatican tragedies, and in July the duke of Bisceglie, whose existence was no longer advantageous, was murdered by Cesare's orders; this left Lucrezia free to contract another marriage. The pope, ever in need of money, now created twelve new cardinals, from whom he received 120,000 ducats[?], and fresh conquests for Cesare were considered. But while a crusade was talked of, the real object was central Italy, and in the autumn Cesare, favoured by France and Venice, set forth with 10,000 men to complete his interrupted enterprise. The local despots of Romagna were dispossessed and an administration was set up, which, if tyrannical and cruel, was at least orderly and strong, and aroused the admiration of Machiavelli (q.v..)

On his return to Rome (June 1501) he was created duke of Romagna. Louis XII., having succeeded in the north, determined to conquer southern Italy as well, and concluded a treaty with Spain for the division of the Neapolitan kingdom, which was ratified by the pope on the 25th of June, Frederick being formally deposed. The French army proceeded to invade Naples, and Alexander took the opportunity, with the help of the Orsini, to reduce the Colonna to obedience. In his absence he left Lucrezia as regent, offering the astounding spectacle of a pope's natural daughter in charge of the Holy See. Shortly afterwards he induced Alphonso d'Este, son of the duke of Ferrara, to marry her, thus establishing her as heiress to one of the most important principalities in Italy (January 1502). About this time a Borgia of doubtful parentage was born, Giovanni, described in some papal documents as Alexander's son and in others as Cesare's.

As France and Spain were quarrelling over the division of Naples and the Campagna barons were quiet, Cesare set out once more in search of conquests. In June he seized Camerino and Urbino, the news of which capture filled the pope with childish joy. But his military force was uncertain, for the condottieri were not to be trusted. His attempt to draw Florence into an alliance failed, but in July Louis of France again invaded Italy and was at once bombarded with complaints from the Borgia's enemies. Alexander's diplomacy, however, turned the tide, and Cesare, in exchange for promising to assist the French in the south, was given a free hand in central Italy. A new danger now arose in the shape of a conspiracy against him on the part of the deposed despots, the Orsini and some of his own condottieri. At first the papal troops were defeated and things looked black for the house of Borgia. But a promise of French help at once forced the confederates to come to terms, and Cesare by an act of treachery seized the ringleaders at Senigallia, and put Oliverotto da Fermo and Vitellozzo Vitelli to death (Dec. 31, 1502). As soon as Alexander heard the news he decoyed Cardinal Orsini to the Vatican and cast him into a dungeon, where he died. His goods were confiscated, his aged mother turned into the street and numbers of other members of the clan in Rome were arrested, while Giuffre Borgia led an expedition into the Campagna and seized their castles. Thus the two great houses of Orsini and Colonna, who had long fought for predominance in Rome and often flouted the pope's authority, were subjugated, and a great step achieved towards consolidating the Borgia's power. Cesare then returned to Rome, where his father wished him to assist Giuffre in reducing the last Orsini strongholds; this for some reason he was unwilling to do, much to Alexander's annoyance, but he eventually marched out, captured Ceri and made peace with Giulio Orsini, who surrendered Bracciano. Three more high personages fell victims to the Borgia's greed this year, viz. Cardinal Michiel, who was poisoned in April, J. da Santa Croce, who had helped to seize Cardinal Orsini, and Troches or Troccio, one of the family's most faithful assassins; all these murders brought immense sums to the pope. About Cardinal Ferrari's death there is more doubt; he probably died of fever, but the pope immediately confiscated his goods.

The war between France and Spain for the possession of Naples dragged on, and Alexander was ever intriguing, ready to ally himself with whichever power promised at the moment most advantageous terms. He offered to help Louis on condition that Sicily be given to Cesare, and then offered to help Spain in exchange for Siena, Pisa and Bologna. Cesare was preparing for another expedition into central Italy in July 1503, when, in the midst of all these projects and negotiations, both he and his father were taken ill with fever. The occurrence was of course attributed to poison, although quite without foundation, being merely due to malaria, at that time very prevalent in Rome. On the 18th of August Alexander died at the age of 72. His death was followed by scenes of wild disorder, and Cesare, being himself ill, could not attend to business, but sent Don Michelotto, his chief bravo, to seize the pope's treasures before the demise was publicly announced. When the body was exhibited to the people the next day it was in a shocking state of decomposition, which of course strengthened the suspicion of poison. At the funeral a brawl occurred between the soldiers and the priests, and the coffin having been made too short the body without the mitre was driven into it by main force and covered with an oil-cloth. Alexander's successor on the chair of St Peter was Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini[?], who assumed the name of Pius III.

Alexander VI has become almost a mythical character, and countless legends and traditions are attached to his name. As a matter of fact he cannot be regarded in any sense as a great man. His career shows no great political ideas, and none of his actions indicate genius. His one thought was family aggrandizement, and while it is unlikely that he meditated making the papacy hereditary in the house of Borgia, he certainly gave away its temporal estates to his children as though they belonged to him. The secularization of the church was carried to a pitch never before dreamed of, and it was clear to all Italy that he regarded the papacy as an instrument of worldly schemes with no thought of its religious aspect. During his pontificate the church was brought to its lowest level of degradation. The condition of his subjects was deplorable, and if Cesare's rule in Romagna was an improvement on that of the local tyrants, the people of Rome have seldom been more oppressed than under the Borgia. Alexander was not the only person responsible for the general unrest in Italy and the foreign invasions, but he was ever ready to profit by them. Even if we do not accept all the stories of his murders and poisonings and immoralities as true, there is no doubt that his greed for money and his essentially vicious nature led him to commit a great number of crimes. For many of his misdeeds his terrible son Cesare was responsible, but of others the pope cannot be acquitted. The one pleasing aspect of his life is his patronage of the arts, and in his days a new architectural era was initiated in Rome with the coming of Bramante. Raphael, Michelangelo and Pinturicchio[?] all worked for him, and a curious contrast, characteristic of human nature, is afforded by the fact that a family so steeped in vice and crime could take pleasure in the most exquisite works of art.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.--The chief contemporary authorities for this reign are: the diary of Alexander's master of ceremonies, Johannes Burchardus, edited by L. Thuasne (Paris, 1883-1884), which is characterized by accuracy and extraordinary candour often amounting to gross indecency; the despatches of Giustiniani, the Venetian ambassador, edited by P. Villari (Florence, 1876), which show great insight and are based on the most accurate information; and Paolo Cappelli's "Diarii" in E. Alberi's Relazioni, series ii., iii. Among modern works the most important are: F. Gregorovius's Geschichte der Stadt Rom (3rd ed., Stuttgart, 1881), a work of immense research and admirable synthesis, giving a very unfavourable view of the Borgia; A. von Reumont's Geschichte der Stadt Rom (Berlin, 1867-1870), also a valuable book; M. Creighton's History of the Papacy (London, 1897) is very learned and accurate, but the author is more lenient towards Alexander; F. Gregorovius's Lucrezia Borgia (Stuttgart, 1874) contains a great deal of information on the Borgia family; P. Villari's Machiavelli (English translation, new ed., 1892) deals with the subject at some length. Of the Catholic writers L. Pastor, Geschichte der Päpste (Freiburg i. B, 1886) should be consulted, for although the author tries to extenuate the pope to some extent, on the whole he is fair.


Initial text from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica -- Please update as needed

Preceded by:
Pope Innocent VIII
List of popesSucceeded by:
Pope Pius III



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