Nothing says happy home life like a little blackmail, sexual depravity, and gratuitous killing. Well, if your last name is Borgia that is. The list of bad behaviors for the Borgias includes incest, orgies, poisoning—heck, if it’s possible, there’s probably a rumor they did it. What, however, in the tangled web of speculation and innuendo is true and what’s not? Let’s take a closer look and see if we can separate some of the fact from the fiction.
The first thing you should know is that the only thing Italian about the Borigas was their dinner. They were actually Spanish, their real name being Borja. Alfonso Borja was from Valencia. His rise to fame began when he helped the King of Spain, Alfonso V make nice with Pope Martin V. “He’s a V, you’re a V—with that much in common you two should be friends,” he said. From that point on the boys played well together. To thank him the pope made Borja bishop of Valencia.
Working his way up the ladder, Alfonso arrived in Rome in 1445. Al decided along with a new home he should have a new name, changing Borja into the Borgia we all know and love. 10 years later, Al found himself wearing the Papal crown, he was now Pope Callixtus III.
Al’s new position brought many benefits, like being able to advance family members. Now, Al wasn’t the first Pope—or the last—to do this. Nepotism, or the promoting of nephews, was a common practice of the time. He therefore brought his nephew Rodrigo up through the ranks of the clergy making him Cardinal of Valencia then Vice Chancellor. As Vice Chancellor he would collect revenues, grant favors, and oversee the courts. Rodrigo was more powerful than any other man in the church except the pope himself.
Uncle Al soon died and four popes came and went. Rodrigo continued to balanced the budgets, enlarged his wallet, and keep an ongoing list of his colleagues sins. All this kept him pretty busy, but he did manage to find time for some lovin’ with the ladies.
I thought Catholic clergy were supposed to be celibate you’re thinking. Well, you’re right. Unfortunately, it was a rule that many chose to ignore including our Rodrigo. This was a time when church positions were mainly given for political or dynastic reasons, not because of the candidates holiness. We can pretty much sum up the situation using advice given by Ludovico Ganzaga to his son; “Although you are a cardinal, be religious.”
Now one of Rodrigo’s love affairs was with a woman named Giovanna Cattanei, or Vannozza as she was called. Vannozza bore four children to the Cardnial: Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffre. Together they lived your typical my-dad’s-a-(supposedly) celibate-Catholic Cardinal kind of life. Then one day the current pope died and something big happened.
Rodrigo Borgia you’ve just won the papacy, what are you going to do next?
I’m going to Disney World—Right after I have these adorable women kiss my ring.
That’s right boys and girls, Rodrigo Borgia, was now Pope Alexander VI. The race had been tight. 23 men were locked in makeshift accommodations in the Sistine chapel. Michaelangelo hadn’t yet worked his magic, there was no natural lighting, the air was stale, and the AC was broken. Unfortunately for them it was August.
Eventually the race came down to two, Rodrigo and Giuliano della Rovere. Some say Rodrigo won because he had more dirt and more money with which to bribe the cardinals. Some say it was because he was the politically safer choice. Maybe it was because the Cardinals wanted to make a decision so they could get back to their comfy palaces. Regardless of the reason Rodrigo came out the victor and Della Rovere, who already hated his guts, went off to think of 101 ways to torture anyone bearing the Borgia name. The children, however, were real proud of dad. They put balloons on the mailbox and a big cardboard papal crown in the front yard with ” VATICAN OR BUST” written in big red letters.
There was a reason Rodrigo took the name Alexander, and it was the same reason he named his son Cesare. These were names associated with strong leadership and the power to conqueror; both things Rodrigo wanted to emulate. To convey his greatness to the people he made his coronation into a papal extravaganza, the likes of which had never been seen. Clergy were gathered from across Europe to join him in a decadent march of triumph. There were flowers, wild animals and barbarians on display. Here I Am, it yelled Love me or be destroyed.
Despite his love of—well himself—Rodrigo did have his good points. He was a competent administrator for one thing and he knew how to parlay with the European Elite. He followed through on the be destroyed bit too. In the interim between the popes people went nuts with at least 200 murders being committed. Rodrigo brought swift justice and soon had the city under control. He also strengthened the defense of Rome and tried to change the decor from beyond rustic informal to something a little more with the times.
True to his party-boy nature he threw a dazzling party for the Jubilee of 1500 attracting thousands of visitors to the city. He was a patron of artists, architects, and scholars. If people had bad things to say about him, so what. “Rome is a free city, where everyone can say or write whatever he pleases. They say much evil of me, but I don’t mind,” he declared.
There was one thing he did mind, however.
Now, there was one thing about that house, and that yard that his children were living in. The aura that surrounded it was just full of negative waves. Rodrigo had seen first hand upon the death of Callixtus how much hatred there could be towards the Spanish. There were attacks, killings, and houses set on fire. Rodrigo’s children were only half Spanish, but that actually made their situation worse. Half was enough for the Italians, they saw them as Spanish and would have been more than happy to get rid of them. Only problem was the Spanish didn’t like them either.
“We don’t want no meatball lovers around here,” they told them. Dad may have been a philanderer, but he did want something more than this for his children. So he came up with a plan, a very good plan, to make sure the Borgias would gain the upper hand and their name would live on forever. . . .
Wanna know more? Tune in next week for a special edition of Borgia 101!