Last week on Borgia 101: Rodrigo Borgia became Pope, Della Rovere was seething, and the Borgia kids were so excited they were doing the chicken dance.
Now as we said before nepotism was a common thing among the Roman clergy at the time. There was a two-fold benefit to this. If you were able to stuff the college of Cardinals with friends and family, your position was much safer, and the chance of passing the crown down to another family member, or someone loyal to your family, was greater. The other advantage went to your family. Basically, you became Daddy Warbucks.
So when Rodrigo negotiated advantageous marriages for Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffre, no one really cared. Transferring the archbishopric of Valencia to Cesare while he was still a teen? Well, it was in the family for two generations, what’s one more? Besides that this wasn’t just any guy, this was Cesare. Charming, handsome, lively, super intelligent Cesare. All the hopes for a third Borgia Pope rested on him.
“Cesare, you look wonderful really. Red is your color. Of course I’m not just saying that. I’m a Pope, I never lie.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t matter what the pope said, Cesare Borgia just wasn’t clergy material and everyone knew it. Sure he liked the castle and the riches his job as cardinal provided, but what he really wanted was to conquer and control. Have you ever tried to conquer while weighed down in the heavy red robes of a cardinal? It hides the blood stains pretty well, but other than that it’s very restricting. Nothing about it fit in with his GQ lifestyle either. So in an unprecedented move, and to the dismay of Rodrigo, he resigned his position.
With Rodrigo’s hopes for a next Borgia pope dashed, he put everything into making him a huge secular success. It was church funds therefore that Cesare used to make a grand entry into France. Church funds that helped him impress the king of France. Church funds that—as soon as his syphilis rash died down—won him a French princess. Now that he had free access to the Vatican bank accounts, personal ties to the French throne, and the backing of the French army the Borgia dream could come true.
We will build a land—Borgialand—and everything in it will be Borgia. Borgia car washes, Borgia convenience stores, Borgia fun-parks. We’ll even have our own theme song..The Hills Are Alive, With the Sound of Borgia . . .
Well, that’s a loose translation from the Italian anyway.
With all the green lights signaling go, the Pope became emboldened. He therefore gifted—as in gave away—as in freely handed over—a portion of the Papal States known as the Romagna to Cesare. It was a lawless area that had been in control of local warlords for years., Some of the families were practically dynastic.
Now put yourself in their shoes. Here you are, ruler of your own little kingdom. One day you’re sitting at your desk looking over the entries for the Ms. Tortillini contest when you’re handed a bull from the pope: “Surprise!” it says, “You’ve been excommunicated! Your lands are being repossessed by the Vatican and placed under control of Cesare Borgia. Remember to leave all valuables while exiting your city—and have a good day.” On the smiley face anger management scale where are you falling right now? Slight grimace, or bulging mad? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
At this point there’s tons of wheeling and dealing going on. Murder, backstabbing, and the Italian habit of making leagues in which cities pledged to be allies for a zillion years only to turn against each other in a matter of days. Add up all the mob movies you’ve ever seen, subtract the automatic weapons, and you’ve got Italy at the end of the 1400’s.
Rodrigo was obsessed with Cesare not only holding the Romagna, but expanding into neighboring cities as well. He did everything he could to keep the finances rolling in—and it wasn’t always nice. In fact the further things went the more evil they both became. There were setbacks here and there but the Borgialand welcome signs were designed and ready to be placed. Cesare was even given the title of Duke of the Romagna, a position created just for him. Cesare was on his way to becoming one of Europe’s big-wigs. Too bad it couldn’t last.
August in Renaissance Rome could be unbearable. The heat was oppressive and so were the mosquitos. Most people, therefore, left the city for a little rest in the countryside. Despite it’s drawbacks however, both the Pope and Cesare were in Rome in the summer of 1503. After a night of partying, both members of the dynamic duo became seriously ill. Malaria, it seems, was gifted to them by those pesky mosquitos. The disease was too much for Alexander, by August 18th he was dead.
Cesare, crafty as he was, couldn’t do much to protect himself at this point, he was still way too sick. So when it came time to choose the next pope, the man who could make or break all he had achieved, Cesare could do nothing. Lucky for him the new pope, Pius III, was a marginal friend. Things would have gone well for Cesare if the new Pope hadn’t died after only 28 days in office. His cause of death—Cardinal della Rovere. Years of seething made him so desperate for the papacy he had Pius III poisoned. After an evil chuckle and lots of deal making della Rovere became Pope Julius II. And that, boys and girls, was the beginning of the end for Cesare. Everything began crashing around him. A couple of bad decisions later he was killed in Spain at the age of 31. The Borgia dynasty had come to an end.
You can imagine if you make people as mad as the Borgias did there’s going to be plenty of talk with probably a few embellishments here and there. Della Rovere absolutely loathed the Borgias with every drop of blood in his body. He even had people loyal to Cesare tortured in order to find stories to spread. It’s important to keep in mind then, that many of the accusations against the family came about after their downfall.
There is no evidence contemporary with the Borgias that accuses Alexander VI of any sexual misconduct. Some historians argue the children weren’t actually his at all, but the offspring of his deceased nephew. Certainly there is a logistical issue since the children were born in Spain while Rodrigo was in Italy. He may get a pass on that one, but he definitely misused his power to raise Cesare to heights that would have been otherwise unobtainable.
Though we didn’t talk about her, Lucrezia is another one who seems to have been unjustly slandered. Contemporary writers portrayed her as a model of christian womanliness. Cesare was a true bad boy, and although there were people worse than him, (look up the Visconti-Sforzas . . . pure lunatics,) it doesn’t make his behavior good. In the end, what really happened probably doesn’t matter. No new evidence will stop the Borgia’s from being the Renaissance family everyone loves to hate.