During the Renaissance, popes appointed friends and family members to important posts in the Church to surround themselves with loyal followers. Cardinal Francesco della Rovere, elected Pope Sixtus IV in 1471, took nepotism to a completely higher level. Throughout his pontificate, Sixtus surrounded himself with handsome men. He appointed twenty-three cardinals, most of whom were young, attractive clergymen. He reportedly had a habit of rewarding his lovers and one-night stands with a cardinal’s hat.
However, it was Sixtus’ relationship with his nephew, Pietro Riario, that made heads turn. Pietro’s parentage became the subject of much debate: the son of the pope’s sister, many gossipmongers assumed that Sixtus had fathered the child himself. Regardless of Riario’s paternity, the pope took his nephew as his lover, spoiling the vain Pietro with land and wealth. He lived one of the most extravagant lifestyles in Rome, funded by the papal treasury. When Pietro died, he left the papacy in so much debt that Sixtus had to raise taxes and sell offices to the highest bidder.
Although historians make much of Sixtus’ homosexuality, he was actually bisexual. He had six illegitimate children, whom he also provided for with papal money. The Church soon ran out of funds: Sixtus established taxes on prostitution, and he penalized priests and cardinals for having mistresses. After passing these taxes, the pope continued to take male lovers. Sixtus’ romping sex life didn’t affect his legacy. Upon his death in 1484, no one cared who he took into his bed. Something reprehensible darkened his memory: he signed the papal bull that authorized the Spanish Inquisition.
8. Julius II, “The Warrior Pope,” Had Syphilitic Scars
Julius II, the “Warrior Pope” who conquered parts of Italy to add to papal holdings, dedicated his life to making the Church a secular power. In his distaste for his predecessor, Julius took a moral stand against Alexander VI, but he didn’t have a leg to stand on regarding sexual relations. Julius also conveniently bypassed the celibacy vow, fathering three daughters before he took the papacy. Like his uncle, Sixtus IV, Julius was most likely bisexual. Rumors of his attraction to men persisted throughout his pontificate, although there isn’t much evidence to confirm or deny his activities.
Accused of frequenting the male prostitutes of Rome, Julius’ fondness for his close associates opened him up to ridicule. The pope hauled the governor of Bologna to Rome to answer accusations of corruption and to beg Julius’ forgiveness. The ordinarily intransigent pope buckled in the presence of the governor, indicating to witnesses and the public, that Julius had romantic feelings – or at least an attraction – to the man. Upon the murder of one of his closest companions, Cardinal Alidosi, Julius grieved horrendously; he barricaded himself in his rooms, and he refused to eat. After he emerged, the pope traveled from Ravenna to Rimini in a closed litter, from which passers-by could hear the pope sobbing.
After a famous spat with Julius, King Louis XII of France called the Fifth Council of the Lateran to check the pope’s power. However, the council really gathered religious officials intent on deposing Julius. At the meeting, Louis’ supporters shamed Julius as a sodomite, declaring that ulcers covered the pope’s skin from complications of syphilis. This particular accusation seems to be true. On Good Friday in 1508, the pope refused to let the people of Rome kiss his feet because of the painful lesions on them.
7. Leo X Charged the Public for their Transgressions While Flaunting His Lovers
When Innocent VIII married his son to Lorenzo de Medici’s daughter, the latter secured a cardinal’s hat for his son, Giovanni. When his son left for Rome, Lorenzo warned him that it would be difficult to live a virtuous lifestyle in the city. Giovanni didn’t heed the advice: he had numerous affairs with men, well into his reign as the first Medici pope, Leo X. He chose handsome page boys to wait on him, and his sexual appetite resulted in a string of one-night stands across the city.
Leo’s predecessor Julius II bankrupted the papal treasury on conquering land and decorating the Vatican. To raise funds, the pope forced the public to pay fines for transgressions such as incest, premarital sex, and sodomy. While the people of Rome paid for their sins, Leo X openly flaunted his favorite lover, the singer Solimondo, at the papal court. When the people of Rome resisted paying the taxes, the pope threatened them, claiming that they would languish in purgatory – or worse – if they did not pay the fines.
When a measure came forward in the curia to pass a papal bull to limit the number of boys that cardinals kept as their lovers, Leo vetoed the motion. The pope’s behavior only increased the discontent with the Catholic Church across Europe; four years before Leo’s death, the German monk Martin Luther wrote his “95 Theses,” condemning the practice of selling indulgences for the forgiveness of one’s sins. The document kickstarted the Protestant Reformation, challenging the widespread corruption of the Catholic Church.
6. Sergius III Took His Cousin’s 15-year-old Daughter as His Mistress
At the beginning of the tenth century, a period known as the saeculum obscurum, the nobleman Theophylactus and his wife Theodora ruled the city of Rome. The papacy had no real power under the influence of the elite Theophylacti family. In 904, the ruler’s cousin Sergius invaded with an army, murdering anyone who stood in his path. With the power of the noble family and his soldiers behind him, he took control of the papacy, electing himself Pope Sergius III.
With such a violent beginning to his pontificate, Sergius shouldn’t have been surprised when two pretenders, the Antipope Christopher and Leo V, challenged him for the papal seat. The ruthless pope arrested them and executed them. After dispatching his enemies, the former nobleman embraced the trappings of wealth and power that came with his new position. Sergius frequently indulged in prostitutes, and his cardinals whispered that the pope was “the slave of every vice.” Just because he was pope didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun.
As if prostitutes in the Lateran Palace wasn’t shocking enough, the pope took his cousin’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Marozia, as his lover. In his late forties, the pope was thirty years older than her. Marozia gave birth to a son, who would later become pope himself, John XI. Despite his young mistress, Sergius continued to indulge in sexual excess until his death in 911. Later nineteenth-century Protestant historians ridiculed his reign, naming it “The Pornocracy.”
John X’s sex life would eventually lead to his downfall. When he was still a priest, Giovanni da Tossignano had an affair with Theodora, the wife of Theophylactus. Whether or not Theophylactus knew that his wife was sleeping with the family priest, Theodora pushed her husband to appoint her lover as the Archbishop of Bologna in 905. If the nobleman did know, it didn’t seem to bother him: Theophylactus elected Giovanni as Pope John X in 914. When Theodora died two years later, her daughter Marozia, the former mistress of Sergius III, took her mother’s place in politics, and supposedly, in John’s bed.
Rumors that Marozia was also John’s lover probably aren’t true, for her enemies recorded them as fact. John X reached unprecedented influence for a pope of the period. After the death of Theophylactus, he lost his influential friends. To curb John’s power, Marozia married Guy of Tuscany, and the couple invaded Rome in 927. Resentful of his relationship with her mother, Marozia arrested John and threw him in the fortress prison, the Castel Sant’Angelo. John X’s death one year later may have been the result of the prison’s conditions, but it is more likely that Marozia and Guy executed him.
After the death of John X, Marozia seized control of Rome and the papacy. She installed three puppet popes, including her son, John XI. Fed up with her antics, her other son, Alberic II, imprisoned her, and he took control of the city. On his deathbed in 954, he gathered the clergy and the nobility, convincing them to support his illegitimate son, Octavianus, as the next pope. The following year, Octavianus was elected Pope John XII.
In his first years as pope, the people of Rome accused John XII of incest, murder, and rape. John used the papal treasury as his personal spending account to finance his many vices. He indulged in the city’s prostitutes, housing many of them in the Lateran Palace for his own pleasure. When he wasn’t in his brothel, John seduced Roman widows and kidnapped female pilgrims on their way to St. Peter’s Basilica. As stories of his inclinations spread throughout Europe, the number of women traveling on pilgrimage significantly decreased.
The pope was a man ruled by his passions. Lavishing wealth and power on one of his mistresses, he made her governor of Rome. No woman was safe from John’s lust. When he seduced his father’s long-time mistress, she became pregnant, and she bled to death during childbirth. After almost a decade of his sexual antics, Pope John XII died in the bed of his latest mistress. Although the Church records state that he died of a stroke, other sources claim that the woman’s husband broke into the room and caught the lovers together. The cuckolded husband beat John to death in a jealous rage.
3. Alexander VI’s Love For Orgies and His Illegitimate Children Defined His Papacy
Born Rodrigo Borgia, the late-fifteenth century Pope Alexander VI enjoyed a long career as Vice-Chancellor of the Church before he bullied and bribed the curia into electing him in 1492. He was notoriously corrupt, selling indulgences and offices to enhance his own wealth. Highly regarded for his good looks and charm, Rodrigo fascinated both men and women. With his wealth and power came the attention of women; Rodrigo was no stranger to sexual liaisons, fathering several children before he became pope.
In 1460, Borgia attended an orgy, for which Pope Pius II wrote a stern letter, admonishing his behavior, even though the pope was no angel himself. Rodrigos’ favorite mistress, Vannozza dei Catanei, a member of a minor noble family in Rome, gave birth to four of his eight (perhaps more) children – Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Gioffre. Although Vannozza remained his mistress for over twenty years, he cast her aside in favor of the beautiful Giulia Farnese, the teenaged daughter-in-law of his cousin. Despite his numerous affairs, Alexander’s children by Vannozza would play front and center throughout his papacy.
Arranging diplomatic marriages for his children to enhance his political power, Alexander’s notoriety grew as one of the most morally corrupt popes in the history of the papacy. His children’s reputations didn’t fare much better: his son Cesare, a Cardinal himself, fathered eleven illegitimate children, and Lucrezia had multiple affairs during her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este. In 1501, the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Johannes Burchard, recorded an example of Alexander’s sexual appetites. At a sex party known as the “Joust of Whores,” the pope – accompanied by his children Lucrezia and Cesare – watched as fifty prostitutes stripped in front of him. Given his history with women, whether or not he solicited their services afterwards is up for debate.
2. Benedict IX Liked the Occasional Bestiality Session to Spice Up His Sex Life
At only twenty years old, the election of Pope Benedict IX in 1032 elected one of the youngest popes to the throne of St. Peter. Already a wealthy man through the patronage of his two uncles, Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX, Benedict IX’s father bought his papal crown, appointing an immature, licentious youth to the throne of St. Peter. Benedict IX’s sexual antics became the scandal of eleventh century Rome. You can’t be called “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest” if you don’t engage in a little sinful behavior.
In addition to seducing young boys in the Lateran Palace, his contemporaries accused him of theft, rape, and murder. To spice things up, Benedict enjoyed orgies and bestiality sessions. The Romans tolerated him for twelve years before they exiled him from the city in 1044. Two months into the reign of his successor, Benedict returned to Rome. In the only example of the same man serving as pope more than once throughout history, Benedict excommunicated his replacement and took back the papacy, starting his second pontificate with as much sexual debauchery as the first.
By May 1045, the city of Rome hated the pope so much that he sold the papal chair to his godfather, who took the name Pope Gregory VI. Benedict retired from religious life, marrying his cousin. Two years later, the restless Benedict launched yet another return to the papacy. The people of Rome had enough of the pope’s antics the third time around, the memories of his first two terms recalling the “Pornocracy” of previous years. The population exiled him from the city permanently. One of Benedict’s successors, Pope Victor III criticized Benedict “as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”
1. The Bisexual Boniface VIII Took Male Lovers and Had a Threesome with a Mother and Daughter
Boniface VIII’s papacy was so brutal and scandalous that it was immortalized in classic literature. In 1294, he badgered his predecessor, the morally infallible Celestine V, into resigning; after his election, Boniface threw Celestine into prison, where he died less than a year later. Known for his volatile temper, Boniface bullied Rome and the powers of Europe into acknowledging his authority in both religious and secular matters. If they refused to comply, he burned their cities to the ground.
The pope’s open view of sexuality made him the talk of medieval Europe. The bisexual Boniface liked to seduce young boys, allegedly declaring that sodomy “was no more a sin than rubbing your hands together.” Two of his male lovers publicly quarreled on the streets of Rome, fighting over which one the pope loved more and who received the finer gifts. Most importantly, they argued over which one of them had the right to call himself “the Pope’s whore.”
Pope Boniface VIII did enjoy some dalliances with women, so much so that he had two at one time. He reportedly had regular ménage-a-trois sessions with a mother and a daughter. According to his contemporaries, the pope broke the cardinal sins of incest and adultery and violated his vow of celibacy, all in one turn. After his death in 1303, the result of a kidnapping and beating by his enemies, Boniface’s name endured for his appearance in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. As shocking as the pope’s sexual escapades were to medieval society, the author condemned him to the eighth circle of Hell for simony.
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