« Prev Pope Alexander VI--Borgia. 1492-1503 Next »

§ 54. Pope Alexander VI—Borgia. 1492–1503.

The pontificate of Alexander VI., which coincides with the closing years of the 15th century and the opening of the 16th, may be compared with the pontificate of Boniface VIII., which witnessed the passage from the 13th to the 14th centuries. Boniface marked the opening act in the decline of the papal power introduced by the king of France. Under Alexander, when the French again entered actively into the affairs of Italy, even to seizing Rome, the papacy passed into its deepest moral humiliation since the days of the pornocracy in the 10th century.

Alexander VI., whom we have before known as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, has the notorious distinction of being the most corrupt of the popes of the Renaissance period. Even in the judgment of Catholic historians, his dissoluteness knew no restraint and his readiness to abase the papacy for his own personal ends, no bounds.786786    Pastor, III. 278, says that, "from the moment he received priestly consecration to the end of his life, he was a slave to the demon of sensuality." Hefele-Knöpfler, Kirchengesch., p. 485, speaks of his career before he reached the papal office as having been "very dissolute"—sehr dissolut. Prof. Villari, Machiavelli, I. 279, calls Alexander the worst of the popes, whose "crimes were sufficient to upset any human society." Gregorovius and Pastor have carried on the most notable researches in this period, and rivalled one another in the brilliant description of Alexander’s reign and domestic relations. His intellectual force, if used aright, might have made his pontificate one of the most brilliant in the annals of the Apostolic see. The time was ripe. The conditions offered the opportunity if ever period did. But moral principle was wanting. Had Dante lived again, he would have written that Alexander VI. made a greater refusal than the hermit pope, Coelestine V., and deserved a darker doom than the simoniac pope, Boniface VIII.

At Innocent VIII.’s death, 23 cardinals entered into the conclave which met in the Sistine chapel. Borgia and Julian Rovere were the leading candidates. They were rivals, and had been candidates for the papal chair before. Everything was to be staked on success in the pending election. Openly and without a blush, ecclesiastical offices and money were offered as the price of the spiritual crown of Christendom. Julian was supported by the king of France, who deposited 200,000 ducats in a Roman bank and 100,000 more in Genoa to secure his election. If Borgia could not outbid him he was, at least, the more shrewd in his manipulations. There were only five cardinals, including Julian, who took nothing. The other members of the sacred college had their price. Monticelli and Soriano were given to Cardinal Orsini and also the see of Cartagena, and the legation to the March; the abbey of Subiaco and its fortresses to Colonna; Civita Castellana and the see of Majorca to Savelli; Nepi to Sclafetanus; the see of Porto to Michïel; and rich benefices to other cardinals. Four mules laden with gold were conducted to the palace of Ascanio Sforza, who also received Rodrigo’s splendid palace and the vice-chancellorship. Even the patriarch of Venice, whose high age—for he had reached 95—might have been expected to lift him above the seduction of filthy lucre, accepted 5,000 ducats. Infessura caustically remarks that Borgia distributed all his goods among the poor.787787    P. 281. In his despatch to the duchess of Este, published by Pastor, 1st ed., III. 879, Giovanni Boccaccio, bishop of Modena, gives an estimate of Borgia’s ability to pay for the tiara, the vice-chancellorship worth 8,000 ducats, the cities of Nepi and Civita Castellana, abbeys In Aquila and Albano, each worth 1,000 ducats a year, two large abbeys in the kingdom of Naples, the abbey of Sabiaco, worth 2,000 a year., abbeys in Spain, 16 bishoprics in Spain, the see of Porto, worth 1,200 ducats, and numerous other ecclesiastical places.

The ceremonies of coronation were on a scale which appeared to the contemporaries unparalleled in the history of such occasions. A figure of a bull, the emblem of the Borgias, was erected near the Palazzo di S. Marco on the line of the procession, from whose eyes, nostrils and mouth poured forth water, and from the forehead wine. Rodrigo was 61 years of age, had been cardinal for 37 years, having received that dignity when he was 25. His fond uncle, Calixtus III., had made him archbishop of Valencia, heaped upon him ecclesiastical offices, including the vice-chancellorship, and made him the heir of his personal possessions. His palace was noted for the splendor of its tapestries and carpets and its vessels of gold and silver.788788    The letter of Cardinal Sforza to his brother, dated 1484, and publ. by Pastor, III. 876, gives a description of his associate’s palace. The new pope possessed conspicuous personal attractions. He was tall and well-formed, and his manners so taking that a contemporary, Gasparino of Verona, speaks of his drawing women to himself more potently than the magnet attracts iron.789789    Sigismondo, II. 53, ascribes to Alexander majestas formae. The reproof which his gallantries of other days called forth from Pius II. at Siena has already been referred to.

The pre-eminent features of Alexander’s career, as the supreme pontiff of Christendom, were his dissolute habits and his extravagant passion to exalt the worldly fortunes of his children. In these two respects he seemed to be destitute at once of all regard for the solemnity of his office and of common conscience. A third feature was the entry of Charles VIII. and the French into Italy and Rome. During his pontificate two events occurred whose world-wide significance was independent of the occupant of the papal throne,—the one geographical, the other religious,—the discovery of America and the execution of the Florentine preacher, Savonarola. As in the reign of Calixtus III., so now Spaniards flocked to Rome, and the Milanese ambassador wrote that ten papacies would not have been able to satisfy their greed for official recognition. In spite of a protocol adopted in the conclave, a month did not pass before Alexander appointed his nephew, Juan of Borgia, cardinal, and in the next years he admitted four more members of the Borgia family to the sacred college, including his infamous son, Caesar Borgia, at the age of 18.790790    Burchard, I. 577.

Alexander’s household and progeny call for treatment first. It soon became evident that the supreme passion of his pontificate was to advance the fortunes of his children.791791    Seine Kinder zu erhöhen war sein vorzüglichstes Ziel is the statement of the calm Catholic historian, Funk, p. 373. His parental relations were not merely the subject of rumor; they are vouched for by irresistible documentary proof.

Alexander was the acknowledged father of five children by Vanozza de Cataneis: Pedro Luis, Juan, Caesar, Lucretia, Joffré and, perhaps, Pedro Ludovico. The briefs issued by Sixtus IV. legitimating Caesar and Ludovico are still extant.792792    They are given in Burchard, Supplement to vol. III, and dated Oct. 1, 1480, and Nov. 4, 1481. Two bulls were issued by Alexander himself in 1493, bearing on Caesar’s parentage. The first, declaring him to be the son of Vanozza by a former husband, was intended to remove the objections the sacred college naturally felt in admitting to its number one of uncertain birth. In the second, Alexander announced him to be his own son.793793    See W. H. Woodward, Two Bulls of Alex. VI., Sept., 1493, in Engl. Hist. Rev., 1908, pp. 730-734. Tiring of Vanozza, who was 11 years his junior, Alexander put her aside and saw that she was married successively to three husbands, himself arranging for the first relationship and making provision for the second and the third.794794    Vanozza outlived Alexander 15 years, dying 1518. Her epitaph formerly in S. Maria del Popolo reads, Vanotiae Cathanae, Caesare Valentiae, Joane Candiae, Jufredo Scylatii et Lucretiae Ferrariae, ducibus filiis, etc. See Creighton, III. 163, Pastor, III. 279. Pastor says that to deny the authenticity of this inscription as Ollivier does is nothing less than ridiculous—geradezu lächerlich. On Ollivier’s attempt to rehabilitate Alexander, see Pastor’s caustic words in 1st ed., I. 589. Burchard constantly calls Lucretia papae filia, II. 278, 386, 493, etc., and Joffré and the other boys his sons. So also Sigismondo II. 249, 270, etc. The nativity of Pedro Ludovico is not absolutely certain, but it is highly probable that Vanozza was his mother. In her later correspondence with Lucretia she signed herself, thy happy and unhappy mother—la felice ed infelice matre.

These were not the only children Alexander acknowledged. His daughters Girolama and Isabella were married 1482 and 1483.795795    Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 19, and Appendix, Germ. ed., where the marriage contract of Girolama is given. Another daughter, Laura, by Julia Farnese, born in 1492, he acknowledged as his own child, and in 1501 the pope formally legitimated, as his own son, Juan, by a Roman woman. In a first bull he called the boy Caesar’s, but in a second he recognized him as his own offspring.796796    These two bulls, extant at Mantua and first published by Gregorovius, Lucr. Borgia, Appendix, 76-85, were issued the same day. Burchard, III. 170, calls the child’s mother quaedam Romana. Following Burchard, Gregorovius and Pastor have no doubt that it was Alexander’s own child. Pastor, III. 475, says that the bull is unquestionably genuine. A satire of the year 1500 ascribes to Alexander 3 or 4 children by Julia Farnese. According to Villari, Life of Savonarola, p. 376, note, the Civilta cattolica, the papal organ at Rome, March 15, 1873, acknowledged the existence of Giovanni, as Alexander’s sixth or seventh child.

Among Alexander’s mistresses, after he became pope, the most famous was cardinal Farnese’s sister, Julia Farnese, called for her beauty, La Bella. Infessura repeatedly refers to her as Alexander’s concubine. Her legal husband was appeased by the gift of castles.

The gayeties, escapades, marriages, worldly distinctions and crimes of these children would have furnished daily material for paragraphs of a nature to satisfy the most sensational modern taste. Don Pedro Luis, Alexander’s eldest son, and his three older brothers began their public careers in the service of the Spanish king, Ferdinand, who admitted them to the ranks of the higher nobility and sold Gandia, with the title of duke, to Don Pedro. This gallant young Borgia died in 1491 at the age of 30, on the eve of his journey from Rome to Spain to marry Ferdinand’s cousin. His brother, Don Juan, fell heir to the estate and title of Gandia and was married with princely splendor in Barcelona to the princess to whom Don Pedro had been betrothed.

Alexander’s son, Caesar Borgia was as bad as his ambition was insolent. The annals of Rome and of the Vatican for more than a decade are filled with his impiety, his intrigues and his crimes. At the age of six, he was declared eligible for ordination. He was made protonotary and bishop of Pampeluna by Innocent VIII. At his father’s election he hurried from Pisa, where he was studying, and on the day of his father’s coronation was appointed archbishop of Valencia. He was then sixteen.

Don Joffré was married, at 13, to a daughter of Alfonso of Naples and was made prince of Squillace.

The personal fortunes of Alexander’s daughter, Lucretia, constitute one of the notorious and tragic episodes of the 15th century.

The most serious foreign issue in Alexander’s reign was the invasion of Charles VIII., king of France. The introductory act in what seemed likely to be the complete transformation of Italy was the sale of Cervetri and Anguillara to Virginius Orsini for 40,000 ducats by Franceschetto, the son of Innocent VIII. This papal scion was contented with a life of ease and retired to Florence. The transfer of these two estates was treated by the Sforza as disturbing the balance of power in the peninsula, and Ludovico and Ascanio Sforza pressed Alexander to check the influence of Ferrante, king of Naples, who was the supporter of the Orsini. Ferrante, a shrewd politician, by ministering to Alexander’s passion to advance his children’s fortunes, won him from the alliance with the Sforza. He promised to the pope’s son, Joffré, Donna Sancia, a mere child, in marriage. Ludovico Sforza, ready to resort to any measure likely to promote his own personal ambition, invited Charles VIII. to enter Italy and make good his claim to the crown of Naples on the ground of the former Angevin possession. He also applauded the French king’s announced purpose to reduce Constantinople once more to Christian dominion.

On Ferrante’s death, 1494, Alfonso II. was crowned king of Naples by Alexander’s nephew, Cardinal Juan Borgia. Charles, then only 22, was short, deformed, with an aquiline nose and an inordinately big head. He set out for Italy at the head of a splendid army of 40,000 men, equipped with the latest inventions in artillery. Julian Rovere, who had resisted Alexander’s policy and fled to Avignon, joined with other disaffected cardinals in supporting the French and accompanying the French army. Charles’ march through Northern Italy was a series of easy and almost bloodless triumphs. Milan threw open its gates to Charles. So did Pisa. Before entering Florence, the king was met by Savonarola, who regarded him as the messenger appointed by God to rescue Italy from her godless condition. Rome was helpless. Alexander’s ambassadors, sent to treat with the invader, were either denied audience or denied satisfaction. In his desperation, the pope resorted to the Turkish sultan, Bajazet, for aid. The correspondence that passed between the supreme ruler of Christendom and the leading sovereign of the Mohammedan world was rescued from oblivion by the capture of its bearer, George Busardo.797797    These letters are given in full by Burchard, II. 202 sqq. Alexander’s letters Gregorovius pronounces to be genuine beyond a doubt. The sultan’s are matter of dispute. Ranke discredited them, but Gregorovius regards their contents as genuine, though the form may be spurious. Creighton, III. 300 sqq., gives reasons for accepting them. 40,000 ducats were found on Busardo’s person, a payment sent by Bajazet to Alexander for Djem’s safe-keeping. Alexander had indicated to the sultan that it was Charles’ aim to carry Djem off to France and then use him as the admiral of a fleet for the capture of Constantinople. In reply, Bajazet suggested that such an issue would result in even greater damage to the pope than to himself. His papal friend, whom he addressed as his Gloriosity—gloriositas, might be pleased to lift the said prisoner, Djem, out of the troubles of this present world and transfer his soul into another, where he would enjoy more quiet.798798    Dictum Gem levare facere ex angustiisistius mundi et transferre ejus animan in aliud seculum ubi meliorem habebit quietem, Burchard, II. 209. For performing such a service, he stood ready to give him the sum of 300,000 ducats, which, as he suggested, the pope might use in purchasing princedoms for his children.

On the last day of 1494, the French army entered the holy city, dragging with it 36 bronze cannon. Such military discipline and equipment the Romans had not seen, and they looked on with awe and admiration. To the king’s demand that the castle of S. Angelo be surrendered, Alexander sent a refusal declaring that, if the fortress were attacked, he would take his position on the walls surrounded with the most sacred relics in Rome. Cardinals Julian Rovere, Sforza, Savelli and Colonna, who had ridden into the city with the French troops, urged the king to call a council and depose Alexander for simony. But when it came to the manipulation of men, Alexander was more than a match for his enemies. Charles had no desire to humiliate the pope, except so far as it might be necessary for the accomplishment of his designs upon Naples. A pact was arranged, which included the delivery of Djem to the French and the promise that Caesar Borgia should accompany the French troops to Naples as papal legate. In the meantime the French soldiery had sacked the city, even to Vanozza’s house. Henceforth the king occupied quarters in the Vatican, and the disaffected cardinals, with the exception of Julian, were reconciled to the pope.

On his march to Naples, which began Jan. 25, 1495, Charles took Djem with him. That individual passed out of the gates of Rome, riding at the side of Caesar. These two personages, the Turkish pretender and the pontiff’s son, had been on terms of familiarity, and often rode on horseback together. Within a month after leaving Rome, and before reaching Naples, the Oriental died. The capital of Southern Italy was an easy prize for the invaders. Caesar had been able to make his escape from the French camp. His son’s shrewdness and good luck afforded Alexander as much pleasure as did the opportunity of joining the king of Spain and the cities of Northern Italy in an alliance against Charles. In 1496, the alliance was strengthened by the accession of Henry VII. of England. After abandoning himself for several months to the pleasures of the Neapolitan capital, the French king retraced his course and, after the battle of Fornuovo, July 6, 1495, evacuated Italy. Alexander had evaded him by retiring from Rome, and sent after the retreating king a message to return to his proper dominions on pain of excommunication. The summons neither hastened the departure of the French nor prevented them from returning to the peninsula again in a few years.799799    The French left behind them a terrible legacy in the disease which they are said to have carrried during the Crusades and again a century ago, under Napoleon, to Syria, and known as the French disease. See Pastor, III. 7.

The misfortunes and scandals of the papal household were not interrupted by the French invasion, and continued after it. In the summer of 1497, occurred the mysterious murder of Alexander’s son, the duke of Gandia, then 24 years old. It was only a sample of the crimes being perpetrated in Rome. The duke had supped with Caesar, his brother, and Cardinal Juan Borgia at the residence of Vanozza. The supper being over, the two brothers rode together as far as the palace of Cardinal Sforza. There they separated, the duke going, as he said, on some private business, and accompanied by a masked man who had been much with him for a month past. The next day, Alexander waited for his son in vain. In the evening, unable to bear the suspense longer, he instituted an investigation. The man in the mask had been found mortally wounded. A charcoal-dealer deposed that, after midnight, he had seen several men coming to the brink of the river, one of them on a white horse, over the back of which was thrown a dead man. They backed the horse and pitched the body into the water. The pope was inconsolable with grief, and remained without food from Thursday to Sunday. He had recently made his son lord of the papal patrimony and of Viterbo, standard-bearer of the church and duke of Benevento. In reporting the loss to the consistory of cardinals, the father declared that he loved Don Juan more than anything in the world, and that if he had seven papacies he would give them all to restore his son’s life.

The origin of the murder was a mystery. Different persons were picked out as the perpetrators. It was surmised that the deed was committed by some lover who had been abused by the gay duke. Suspicion also fastened on Ascanio Sforza, the only cardinal who did not attend the consistory. But gradually the conviction prevailed that the murderer was no other than Caesar Borgia himself, and the Italian historian, Guicciardini, three years later adopted the explanation of fratricide. Caesar, it was rumored, was jealous of the place the duke of Gandia held in his father’s affections, and hankered after the worldly honors which had been heaped upon him.

When the charcoal-dealer was asked why he did not at once report the dark scene, he replied that such deeds were a common occurrence and he had witnessed a hundred like it.800800    Burchard’s account of the tragedy, II. 387-390. Gregorovius, VIII. 424, confidently advocates the theory of fratricide. This explains why Alexander dropped the investigation two weeks after it was begun, and why he and Caesar in the first meetings after the event were silent in each other’s presence. However, it is almost too much to believe that Alexander would at once begin to heap honors upon Caesar, as he did, if the father believed him to be the murderer. Roscoe, I. 153 sq., and Pastor discredit the theory of fratricide, to which Creighton, III. 388, also inclines. Don Juan was the only one of the Borgias that founded a family.

In the first outburst of his grief, Alexander, moved by feelings akin to repentance, appointed a commission of six cardinals to bring in proposals for the reformation of the curia and the Church. His reforming ardor was, however, soon spent, and the proposals, when offered, were set aside as derogatory to the papal prerogative. For the next two years, the marriages and careers of his children, Caesar and Lucretia, were treated as if they were the chief concern of Christendom.

Lucretia, born in 1480, had already been twice betrothed to Spaniards, when the father was elected pope and sought for her a higher alliance. In 1493, she was married to John Sforza, lord of Pesaro, a man of illegitimate birth. The young princess was assigned a palace of her own near the Vatican, where Julia Farnese ruled as her father’s mistress. It was a gay life she lived, as the centre of the young matrons of Rome. Accompanied by a hundred of them at a time, she rode to church. She was pronounced by the master of ceremonies of the papal chapel most fair, of a bright disposition, and given to fun and laughter.801801    Burchard, II. 280, 493, filia clarissima, filia jocosa et risoria. The charges of incest with her own father and brother Caesar made against her on the streets of the papal city, in the messages of ambassadors and by the historian, Guicciardini, seem too shocking to be believed, and have been set aside by Gregorovius, the most brilliant modern authority for her life. The distinguished character of her last marriage and the domestic peace and happiness by which it was marked seem to be sufficient to discredit the damaging accusations.

The marriage with the lord of Pesaro was celebrated in the Vatican, after a sermon had been preached by the bishop of Concordia. Among the guests were 11 cardinals and 150 Roman ladies. The entertainment lasted till 5 in the morning. There was dancing, and obscene comedies were performed, with Alexander and the cardinals looking on. And all this, exclaims a contemporary," to the honor and praise of Almighty God and the Roman church!"802802    Infessura, p. 286 sq., closes his account by saying he would not tell all, lest it might seem incredible. The account of Boccaccio, ambassador of Ferrara, who was present, is given by Gregorov., Lucr. Borgia, pp. 59-61.

After spending some time with her husband on his estate, Lucretia was divorced from him on the charge of his impotency, the divorce being passed upon by a commission of cardinals. After spending a short time in a convent, the princess was married to Don Alfonso, duke of Besiglia, the bastard son of Alfonso II. of Naples. The Vatican again witnessed the nuptial ceremony, but the marriage was, before many months, to be brought to a close by the duke’s murder.

In the meantime Donna Sancia, the wife of Joffré, had come to the city, May, 1496, and been received at the gates by cardinals, Lucretia and other important personages. The pope, surrounded by 11 cardinals, and with Lucretia on his right hand, welcomed his son and daughter-in-law in the Vatican. According to Burchard, the two princesses boldly occupied the priests’ benches in St. Peter’s. Later, it was said, Sancia’s two brothers-in-law, the duke of Gandia and Caesar, quarrelled over her and possessed her in turn. Alexander sent her back to Naples, whether for this reason or not is not known. She was afterwards received again in Rome.

Caesar, in spite of his yearly revenues amounting to 35,000 ducats, had long since grown tired of an ecclesiastical career. Bishop and cardinal-deacon though he was, he deposed before his fellow-cardinals that from the first he had been averse to orders, and received them in obedience to his father’s wish. These words Gregorovius has pronounced to be perhaps the only true words the prince ever spoke. Caesar’s request was granted by the unanimous voice of the sacred college. Alexander, whose policy it now was to form a lasting bond between France and the papacy, looked to Louis XII., successor of Charles VIII., for a proper introduction of his son upon a worldly career.803803    Alexander had courteously attended a mass for the repose of the soul of his old enemy, Charles, in the Sistine chapel, Burchard, II. 461. Louis was anxious to be divorced from his deformed and childless wife, Joanna of Valois, and to be united to Charles’ young widow, Anne, who carried the dowry of Brittany with her. There were advantages to be gained on both sides. Dispensation was given to the king, and Caesar was made duke of Valentinois and promised a wife of royal line.

The arrangements for Caesar’s departure from Rome were on a grand scale. The richest textures were added to gold and silver vessels and coin, so that, when the young man departed from the city, he was preceded by a line of mules carrying goods worth 200,000 ducats on their backs. The duke’s horses were shod with silver. The contemporary writer gives a picture of Alexander standing at the window, watching the cortege, in which were four cardinals, as it passed towards the West. The party went by way of Avignon. After some disappointment in not securing the princess whom Caesar had picked out, Charlotte d’Albret, then a young lady of sixteen, and a sister of the king of Navarre, was chosen. When the news of the marriage, which was celebrated in May, 1499, reached Rome, Alexander and the Spaniards illuminated their houses and the streets in honor of the proud event. The advancement of this abandoned man, from this time forth, engaged Alexander VI.’s supreme energies. The career of Caesar Borgia passes, if possible, into stages of deeper darkness, and the mind shrinks back from the awful sensuality, treachery and cruelty for which no crime was too revolting. Everything had to give way that stood in the hard path of his vulgar ambition and profligate greed. And at last his father, ready to sacrifice all that is sacred in religion and human life to secure his son’s promotion, became his slave, and in fear dared not to offer resistance to his plans.

The duke was soon back in Italy, accompanying the French army led by Louis XII. The reduction of Milan and Naples followed. The taking of Milan reduced Alexander’s former ally and brought captivity to Ascanio Sforza, the cardinal, but it was welcome news in the Vatican. Alexander was bent, with the help of Louis, upon creating a great dukedom in central Italy for his son, with a kingly dominion over all the peninsula as the ultimate act of the drama. The fall of Naples was due in part to the pope’s perfidy in making an alliance with Louis and deposing the Neapolitan king, Frederick.

Endowed by his father with the proud title of duke of the Romagna and made captain-general of the church, Caesar, with the help of 8,000 mercenaries, made good his rights to Imola, Forli, Rimini and other towns, some of the victories being celebrated by services in St. Peter’s. At the same time, Lucretia was made regent of Nepi and Spoleto. As a part of the family program, the indulgent father proceeded to declare war against the Gaetani house and to despoil the Colonna, Savelli and Orsini. No obstacle should be allowed to remain in the ambitious path of the unscrupulous son. Upon him was also conferred that emblem of purity of character or of high service to the Church, the Golden Rose.

The celebration of the Jubilee in the opening year of the new century, which was to be so eventful, brought hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the holy city, and the great sums which were collected were reserved for the Turkish crusade, or employed for the advancement of the Borgias. The bull announcing the festival offered to those visiting Rome free indulgence for the most grievous sins.804804    Burchard, II. 591-593. On Christmas eve, 1499, Alexander struck the Golden Gate with a silver mallet, repeating the words of Revelation, "He openeth and no man shutteth."

In glaring contrast to the religious ends with which the Jubilee was associated in the minds of the pilgrims, Caesar entered Rome, in February, surrounded with all the trappings of military conquest. Among the festivities provided to relieve the tedium of religious occupations was a Spanish bull-fight. The square of St. Peter’s was enclosed with a railing and the spectators looked on while the pope’s son, Caesar, killed five bulls. The head of the last he severed with a single stroke of his sword.

Another of the fearful tragedies of the Borgia family filled the atmosphere of this holy year with its smothering fumes, the murder of Lucretia’s husband, the duke of Besiglia, to whom she had borne a son.805805    Rodrigo, who was baptized in St. Peter’s, Nov. 1, 1499, the 16 cardinals then in Rome, many ambassadors and other dignitaries being present. In 1501 he was invested with the duchy of Sermoneta. Burchard, II. 675, 578; III. 170. On returning home at night he was fallen upon at the steps of St. Peter’s and stabbed. Carried to his palace, he was recovering, when Caesar, who had visited him several times, at last had him strangled, August 18, 1500. The pope’s son openly declared his responsibility, and gave as an explanation that he himself was in danger from the prince.

With such scenes the new century was introduced in the papal city. But the end was not yet. The appointment of cardinals had been prostituted into a convenient device for filling the papal coffers and advancing the schemes of the papal family. In 1493 Alexander added 12 to the sacred college, including Alexander Farnese, afterwards Paul III., and brother to the pope’s mistress. From these creations more than 100,000 ducats are said to have been realized.806806    Infessura, p. 293. In 1496 four more were added, all Spaniards, including the pope’s nephew, Giovanni Borgia, and making 9 Spaniards in Alexander’s cabinet. When 12 cardinals were appointed, Sept. 28, 1500, Caesar reaped 120,000 ducats as his reward. He had openly explained that he needed the money for his designs in the Romagna. In 1503, just before his father’s death, the duke received 130,000 more for 9 red hats. He raised 64,000 by the appointment of new abbreviators. Nor were the dead to go free. At the death of Cardinal Ferrari, 50,000 ducats were seized from his effects, and when Cardinal Michïel died, nephew of Paul II., 150,000 ducats were transferred to the duke’s account.

One iniquity only led to another, Cardinal Orsini, while on a visit to the pope, was taken prisoner. His palace was dismantled, and other members of the family seized and their castles confiscated. The cardinal’s mother, aged fourscore, secured from Alexander, upon the payment of 2,000 ducats and a costly pearl which Orsini’s mistress had in her possession and, dressed as a man, took to Alexander,807807    Burchard, III. 236. the privilege of supplying her son with a daily dole of bread. But the unfortunate man’s doom was sealed. He came to his death, as it was believed, by poison prepared by Alexander.808808    So Pastor, though with some hesitation, III. 491. Even Creighton, IV. 40, is unwilling to dismiss the charge as groundless. But in another place, p. 265, he seems to contradict himself.

The last of Alexander’s notable achievements for his family was the marriage of Lucretia to Alfonso, son of Hercules, duke of Ferrara, 1502. The young duke was 24, and a widower. The prejudices of his father were removed through the good offices of the king of France and a reduction of the tribute due from Ferrara, as a papal fief, from 400 ducats to 100 florins, the college of cardinals giving their assent. While the negotiations were going on, Alexander, during an absence of three months from Rome, confided his correspondence and the transaction of his business to the hands of his daughter. This appointment made the college of cardinals subject to her.

Lucretia entered with zest into the settlement of the preliminaries leading up to the betrothal and into the preparations for the nuptials. When the news of the signing of the marriage contract reached Rome, early in September, 1501, she went to S. Maria del Popolo, accompanied by 300 knights and four bishops, and gave public thanks. On the way she took off her cloak, said to be worth 300 ducats, and gave it to her buffoon. Putting it on, he rode through the streets crying out, "Hurrah for the most illustrious duchess of Ferrara. Hurrah for Alexander VI."809809    Burchard, III. 161 sq. For three hours the great bell on the capitol was kept ringing, and bonfires were lit through the city to "incite everybody to joy." The pope’s daughter, although she had been four times betrothed and twice married, was only 21 at the time of her last engagement. According to the Ferrarese ambassador, her face was most beautiful and her manners engaging.810810    The letter is given in Gregor., Lucr. Borgia, p. 212. In the brilliant escort sent by Hercules to conduct his future daughter-in-law to her new home, were the duke’s two younger sons, who were entertained at the Vatican. Caesar and 19 cardinals, including Cardinal Hippolytus of Este, met the escort at the Porto del Popolo. Night after night, the Vatican was filled with the merriment of dancing and theatrical plays. At her father’s request, Lucretia performed special dances. The formal ceremony of marriage was performed, December 30th, in St. Peter’s, Don Ferdinand acting as proxy for his brother. Preceded by 50 maids of honor, a duke on each side of her, the bride proceeded to the basilica. Her approach was announced by musicians playing in the portico. Within on his throne sat the pontiff, surrounded by 13 cardinals. After a sermon, which Alexander ordered made short, a ring was put on Lucretia’s finger by Duke Ferdinand. Then the Cardinal d’Este approached, laying on a table 4 other rings, a diamond, an emerald, a turquoise and a ruby, and, at his order, a casket was opened which contained many jewels, including a head-dress of 16 diamonds and 150 large pearls. But with exquisite courtesy, the prelate begged the princess not to spurn the gift, as more gems were awaiting her in Ferrara.

The rest of the night was spent in a banquet in the Vatican, when comedies were rendered, in which Caesar was one of the leading figures. To their credit be it said, that some of the cardinals and other dignitaries preferred to retire early. The week which followed was filled with entertainments, including a bull-fight on St. Peter’s square, in which Caesar again was entered as a matador.

The festivities were brought to a close Jan. 6th, 1502. 150 mules carried the bride’s trousseau and other baggage. The lavish father had told her to take what she would. Her dowry in money was 100,000 ducats. A brilliant cavalcade, in which all the cardinals and ambassadors and the magistrates of the municipality took part, accompanied the party to the city gates and beyond, while Cardinal Francesco Borgia accompanied the party the whole journey. In this whole affair, in spite of ourselves, sympathy for a father supplants our indignation at his perfidy in violating the sacred vows of a Catholic priest and the pledge of the supreme pontiff. Alexander followed the cavalcade as far as he could with his eye, changing his position from window to window. But no mention is made by any of the writers of the bride’s mother. Was she also a witness of the gayeties from some concealed or open standing-place?

Lucretia never returned to Rome. And so this famous woman, whose fortunes awaken the deepest interest and also the deepest sympathy, passes out from the realm of this history and she takes her place in the family annals of the noble house of Este. She gained the respect of the court and the admiration of the city, living a quiet, domestic life till her death in 1519. Few mortals have seen transpire before their own eyes and in so short a time so much of dissemblance and crime as she. She was not forty when she died. The old representation, which made her the heroine of the dagger and the poisoned cup and guilty of incest, has given way to the milder judgment of Reumont and Gregorovius, with whom Pastor agrees. While they do not exonerate her from all profligacy, they rescue her from being an abandoned Magdalen, and make appeal to our considerate judgment by showing that she was made by her father an instrument of his ambitions for his family and that at last she exhibited the devotion of a wife and of a mother. Her son, Hercules, who reigned till 1559, was the husband of Renée, the princess who welcomed Calvin and Clement Marot to her court.

Death finally put an end to the scandals of Alexander’s reign. After an entertainment given by Cardinal Hadrian, the pope and his son Caesar were attacked with fever. It was reported that the poison which they had prepared for a cardinal was by mistake or intentionally put into the cups they themselves used.811811    The question of whether or no poison was the cause of the pope’s death must be regarded as an open one. This is the view taken by Gregorovius, Roscoe, I. 193 sq., Reumont, Pastor, III. 499. Creighton, IV. 43, and Hergenröther, III. 987, are against the theory of poisoning. Neither Burchard nor the ambassador of Venice speak of poison. The ambassador of Mantua, writing on the 19th, denies the charge, which was freely made on the streets. Ranke, D. röm. Päpste, p. 35, distinctly decides for poisoning. So also Hase, Kirchengesch., III. 353. Many contemporary writers pronounced for poisoning, Guicciardini, Cardinal Bembo, Jovius, Cardinal Aegidius, etc. Alexander’s physician gave as the immediate cause of death apoplexy. Against the theory of poisoning is the fact that Cardinal Hadrian was also taken sick. On the other hand is the evidence that Alexander’s body immediately after death was bloated and disfigured and his mouth was filled with foam, and that Caesar was taken sick at the same time with the same symptoms, a fact which Gregorovius, VII. 521, pronounces the strongest evidence for the theory of poisoning. The pontiff’s sickness lasted less than a week. The third day he was bled. On his death-bed he played cards with some of his cardinals. At the last, he received the eucharist and extreme unction and died in the presence of five members of the sacred college. It is especially noted by that well-informed diarist, Burchard, that during his sickness Alexander never spoke a single word about Lucretia or his son, the duke. Caesar was too ill to go to his father’s sick-bed but, on hearing of his death, he sent Micheletto to demand of the chamberlain the keys to the papal exchequer, threatening to strangle the cardinal, Casanova, and throw him out of the window in case he refused. Terrified out of his wits,—perterritus,—the cardinal yielded, and 100,000 ducats of gold and silver were carried away to the bereaved son.

In passing an estimate upon Alexander VI., it must be remembered that the popular and also the carefully expressed judgments of contemporaries are against him.812812    There is one exception, the address made in the conclave after Alexander’s death by the bishop of Gallipolis. See Garnett’s art. Engl. Hist. Rev., 1892, p. 311 sq., giving the text of the British Museum, the only copy in existence. The rumor was current that the devil himself was present at the death-scene and that, paying the price he had promised him for the gift of the papacy 12 years before, Alexander replied to the devil’s beckonings that he well understood the time had come for the final stage of the transaction.813813    The duke of Mantua, whose camp was near Rome, wrote to his duchess that seven devils appeared in the pope’s room at the moment of his death, that the body swelled and was dragged from the bed with a cord. Gregorovius, Lucr. Borgia, p. 288.

Alexander’s intellectual abilities have abundant proof in the results of his diplomacy by which be was enabled to plot for the political advancement of Caesar Borgia, with the support of France, at whose feet he had at one time been humbled, by his winning back the support of the disaffected cardinals, and by his immunity from personal hurt through violence, unless it be through poison at last. That which marks him out for unmitigated condemnation is his lack of principle. Mental ability, which is ascribed to the devil himself, is no substitute for moral qualities. Perfidy, treachery, greed, lust and murder were stored up in Alexander’s heart.814814    Bishop Creighton, IV. 44, lays stress on the fact that hypocrisy was not added to Alexander’s other vices. While he shrank from the commission of no crime to reach the objects of his ambition, he was wont to engage in the solemn exercises of devotion, and even to say the mass with his own lips. To measure his iniquity, as has been said, one need only compare his actions with the simple statement of the precepts, "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal." Elevation to a position of responsibility usually has the effect of sobering a man’s spirit, but Rodrigo Borgia degraded the highest office in the gift of Christendom for his own carnal designs. The moral qualities and aims of Gregory VII. and Innocent III., however much we may dissent from those aims, command respect. Alexander VI. was sensual, and his ability to govern men, no matter how great it was, should not moderate the abhorrence which his depraved aims arouse. The man with brute force can hold others in terror, but he is a brute, nevertheless. The standards, it must be confessed, of life in Rome were low when Rodrigo was made cardinal, and a Roman chronicler could say that every priest had his mistress and almost all the Roman monasteries had been turned into lupinaria — brothels.815815    Infessura, p. 287. But holy traditions still lingered around the sacred places of the city; the solemn rites of the Christian ritual were still performed; the dissoluteness of the Roman emperors still seemed hellish when compared with the sacrifice of the cross. And yet, two years before Alexander’s death, October 31, 1501, an orgy took place in the Vatican by Caesar’s appointment whose obscenity the worst of the imperial revels could hardly have surpassed. 50 courtezans spent the night dancing, with the servants and others present, first with their clothes on and then nude, the pope and Lucretia looking on. The women, still naked, and going on their hands and feet, picked up chestnuts thrown on the ground, and then received prizes of cloaks, shoes, caps and other articles.816816    Burchard, III. 167, who reports the wild scene, was reticent about many of the evil happenings in the papal palace. The other authorities for the orgy may be seen in Thuasne’s ed. of Burchard. See also Villari, Machiavelli, I. 538. When we are taken to the square of St. Peter’s, where the pope and the cardinals watched a feat of tight-rope walking, an expert walking with a child in his arms, we may easily applaud or tolerate the recreation, Burchard, III. 210; but the dark furies of evil seem at will to have had mastery over Alexander’s soul.

To Alexander nothing was sacred,—office, virtue, marriage, or life. As cardinal he was present at the nuptials of the young Julia Farnese, and probably at that very moment conceived the purpose of corrupting her, and in a few months she was his acknowledged mistress. The cardinal of Gurk said to the Florentine envoy, "When I think of the pope’s life and the lives of some of his cardinals, I shudder at the thought of remaining in the curia, and I will have nothing to do with it unless God reforms His Church." It was a biting thrust when certain German knights, summoned to Rome, wrote to the pontiff that they were good Christians and served the Count Palatine, who worshipped God, loved justice, hated vice and was never accused of adultery. "We believe," they went on, "in a just God who will punish with eternal flames robbery, sacrilege, violence, abuse of the patrimony of Christ, concubinage, simony and other enormities by which the Christian Church is being scandalized."817817    Burchard, III. 110.

It is pleasant to turn to the few acts of this last pontificate of the 15th century which have another aspect than pure selfishness or depravity. In 1494, Alexander canonized Anselm without, however, referring to the Schoolman’s great treatise on the atonement, or his argument for the existence of God.818818    Mansi, XXXII. 533 sq. He promoted the cult of St. Anna, the Virgin Mary’s reputed mother, to whom Luther was afterwards devoted.819819    Calvin spoke of having been taken as a child by his mother to the abbey of Ourscamp, near Noyon, where a part of St. Anna’s body was preserved, and of having kissed the relic. He almost blasphemously professed himself under the special protection of the Virgin, to whom he ascribed his deliverance from death on several occasions, by sea and in the papal palace.

In accord with the later practice of the Roman Catholic Church, Alexander restricted the freedom of the press, ordering that no volume should be published without episcopal sanction.820820    Decretum de libris non sine censura imprimendis, 1501. Reusch, Index, p. 54. His name meets the student of Western discovery in its earliest period, but his treatment of America shows that he was not informed of the purposes of Providence. In two bulls, issued May 4th and 5th, 1493, he divided the Western world between Portugal and Spain by a line 100 leagues west of the Azores, running north and south. These documents mention Christopher Columbus as a worthy man, much to be praised, who, apt as a sailor, and after great perils, labors and expenditures, had discovered islands and continents—terras firmas — never before known. The possession of the lands in the West, discovered and yet to be discovered, was assigned to Spain and Portugal to be held and governed in perpetuity,—in perpetuum,—and the pope solemnly declared that he made the gift out of pure liberality, and by the authority of the omnipotent God, conceded to him in St. Peter, and by reason of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which he administered on earth.821821    , De nostra mera liberalitate ... auctoritate omnip. Dei, nobis in beato Petro concessa, ac vicariatus J. Christi, qua fungimur in terris. For the bull, see Mirbt, pp. 174-176. Also Fiske, Disc. of Am., I. 454-458; II. 581-593. Nothing could be more distinctly stated. As Peter’s successor, Alexander claimed the right to give away the Western Continent, and his gift involved an unending right of tenure. This prerogative of disposing of the lands in the West was in accordance with Constantine’s invented gift to Sylvester, recorded in the spurious Isidorian decretals.822822    Pastor, III. 520, seeks to break the force of the charge that Alexander’s gift was a short-sighted piece of work by putting the unnatural interpretation upon donamus et assignamus, that it referred only to what Portugal and Spain had already acquired. But the very wording of the bull makes this impossible, for it is distinctly said that all islands and continents were given to Spain and Portugal which were to be discovered in the future, as well as those which were already discovered—omnes insulas et terras firmas inventas et inveniendas, detectas et detegendas. For the bull of Sept. 26, 1493, giving India to Spain, see Davenport in Am. Hist. Rev., 1909, p. 764 sqq.

If any papal bull might be expected to have the quality of inerrancy, it is the bull bearing so closely on the destinies of the great American continent, and through it on the world’s history. But the terms of the bull of May 4th were set aside a year after its issue by the political treaty of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494, which shifted the line to a distance 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. And the centuries have rudely overturned the supreme pontiff’s solemn bequest until not a foot of land on this Western continent remains in the possession of the kingdoms to which it was given. Putting aside the distinctions between doctrinal and disciplinary decisions, which are made by many Catholic exponents of the dogma of papal infallibility, Alexander’s bull conferring the Americas, as Innocent III.’s bull pronouncing the stipulations of the Magna Charta forever null, should afford a sufficient refutation of the dogma.

The character and career of Alexander VI. afford an argument against the theory of the divine institution and vicarial prerogatives of the papacy which the doubtful exegesis of our Lord’s words to Peter ought not to be allowed to counteract. If we leave out all the wicked popes of the 9th and 10th centuries, forget for a moment the cases of Honorius and other popes charged with heresy, and put aside the offending popes of the Renaissance period and all the bulls which sin against common reason, such as Innocent VIII.’s bull against witchcraft, Alexander is enough to forbid that theory. Could God commit his Church for 12 years to such a monster? It is fair to recognize that Catholic historians feel the difficulty, although they find a way to explain it away. Cardinal Hergenröther says that, Christendom was delivered from a great offence by Alexander’s death, but even in his case, unworthy as this pope was, his teachings are to be obeyed, and in him the promise made to the chair of St. Peter was fulfilled (Matt. 23:2, 3). In no instance did Alexander VI. prescribe to the Church anything contrary to morals or the faith, and never did he lead her astray in disciplinary decrees which, for the most part, were excellent."823823    Hergenröther-Kirsch, II. 987.

In like strain, Pastor writes:824824    III. 503 In spite of Alexander, the purity of the Church’s teaching continued unharmed. It was as if Providence wanted to show that men may injure the Church, but that it is not in their power to destroy it. As a bad setting does not diminish the value of the precious stone, so the sinfulness of a priest cannot do any essential detriment either to his dispensation of her sacraments or to the doctrines committed to her. Gold remains gold, whether dispensed by clean hands or unclean. The papal office is exalted far above the personality of its occupants, and cannot lose its dignity or gain essential worth by the worthiness or unworthiness of its occupants. Peter sinned deeply, and yet the supreme pastoral office was committed to him. It was from this standpoint that Pope Leo the Great declared that the dignity of St. Peter is not lost, even in an unworthy successor. Petri dignitas etiam in indigno haeredo non deficit." Leo’s words Pastor adopts as the motto of his history.

In such reasoning, the illustrations beg the question. No matter how clean or unclean the hands may be which handle it, lead remains lead, and no matter whether the setting be gold or tin, an opaque stone remains opaque which is held by them. The personal opinion of Leo the Great will not be able to stand against the growing judgment of mankind, that the Head of the Church does not commit the keeping of sacred truth to wicked hands or confide the pastorate over the Church to a man of unholy and lewd lips. The papal theory of the succession of Peter, even if there were no other hostile historic testimony, would founder on the personality of Alexander VI., who set an example of all depravity. Certainly the true successors of Peter will give in their conduct some evidence of the fulfilment of Christ’s words "the kingdom of heaven is within you." Who looks for an illustration of obedience to the mandates of the Most High to the last pontiff of the 15th century!825825    Pastor, in the course of prolonged estimates, Gesch. der Päpste, III. pp. vi, 601sq., etc., says: "The life of this voluptuary—Genussmenschen —a man of untamed sensuality, contradicted at every point the demands of him he was called upon to represent. With unrestrained abandon, he gave himself up to a vicious life until his end." Ranke thus expresses himself, Hist. of the Popes, Germ. ed., I. 32. "All his life through, Alexander was bent on nothing else than to enjoy the world, to live pleasurably, to satisfy his passions and ambitions." The estimate of Gregorovius, City of Rome, VII. 525, is this: "No one can ever discover in Alexander’s history any other guiding principle than the contemptible one of aggrandizing his children at any cost. To the despicable objects of nepotism and self-preservation he sacrificed his own conscience, the happiness of nations, the existence of Italy and the good of the Church." Bishop Creighton, IV. 43-49, lays such elaborate emphasis upon Alexander’s knowledge of politics, firmness of purpose and affability of manners that one loses the impression of the baseness of his morals and the sacrilege to which he subjected his office and himself. He seems to have been influenced by Roscoe’s presentation of Alexander’s "many great qualities," I. 195.


« Prev Pope Alexander VI--Borgia. 1492-1503 Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |