40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties

Tim Flight - October 27, 2019

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lady with a Unicorn, painted by Luca Longhi in 1535-1540, is thought to be a portrait of Giulia Farnese. WGA

29. Alexander had a high-profile affair with Giulia Farnese, and made her brother Cardinal

In 1489, a beautiful young girl named Giulia Farnese married Orsino Orsini in one of the then-Rodrigo’s palaces. Almost immediately, she became Rodrigo’s mistress, and her politically-motivated husband went home. Giulia’s beauty was famous in Rome, and people referred to her as La Bella, making this a very public arrangement. When Giulia returned to her husband, apparently ending the affair, Cardinal Rodrigo threatened to excommunicate her, and she duly returned. But such loyalty – however under duress – meant a lot to Rodrigo. When he became Pope Alexander VI, he made Giulia’s brother a Cardinal.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c.1498. WordPress

28. Alexander didn’t care how corrupt he was, and laughed when Savonarola publically accused him

In the early 1490s, the firebrand Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola whipped Florence into a pious frenzy. His calls for ecclesiastical reform and claims that God was angered by Italy’s debauchery drew additional gravitas from the French invasion of 1494. Unfortunately for Pope Alexander, Savonarola especially hated corruption in the church, and soon the two were on a collision course. First hearing of Savonarola’s public denunciations, Alexander apparently laughed out loud and refused to reform himself or the Church. Alexander excommunicated Savonarola, and gave his permission for him to be burned alive in Florence in 1498.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Christopher Columbus lands in the New World, Spain, 1601. WordPress

27. One of Alexander’s Papal Bulls endorsed slavery in the New World

In 1493, Alexander attempted to quell tensions between Portugal and Spain over territory in the New World. He issued a Papal Bull called Inter Caetera, which divided the new lands up between the two nations. However, it also endorsed slavery in the New World. Alexander ordered them to conquer lands so that ‘barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith [Catholicism] itself’. Alexander explicitly legitimized slavery, giving Spain and Portugal permission ‘to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Valencia in 1563, painted by Anton van der Wyngaerde. Medievalists

26. Alexander’s bastard son, Cesare, became a canon at age 7, and Archbishop of Venice at 17 through his father’s influence

Like his uncle, Pope Callixtus III, Alexander VI was guilty of outrageous nepotism. In 1493, he made his violent and debauched son, Cesare, a Cardinal, at 18. But at least Cesare had experience of church office. He became Canon of the Cathedral of Valencia aged 7 via a Borgia relation, and Archbishop of Valencia at 17. Despite these achievements, Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) was by far the most unpopular name on the list of Cardinals. In response to vociferous opposition, a furious Alexander vowed to ‘show them who is pope!’

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Portrait of Cesare Borgia, after Bartolomeo Veneto, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons

25. Cesare had at least 11 illegitimate children

Cesare Borgia was a man after his father’s own heart. In all, he fathered a confirmed 11 illegitimate children, with others no doubt lost to history. He had many mistresses and one, Sancha de Aragon, was also his sister-in-law. But also like his father, Cesare did not abandon his illegitimate kids. Many, such as Girolamo and Lucrezia, went on to have good marriages and lives, and kept the Borgia family name. Humorously, Lucrezia Borgia became Abbess of San Bernardino, following in her father’s (unwillingly) ecclesiastical footsteps.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Cesare Borgia Leaving the Vatican by Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

24. Cesare was the first man in history to resign as Cardinal

As you’ve probably guessed, Cesare wasn’t all that keen on being a Cardinal. In 1498, King Louis XII of France wanted to divorce his wife, and found a willing ear in Alexander VI. Alexander agreed to the split in exchange for lots of money, a duchy, and a politically-important wife for Cesare. Louis also named Cesare a member of the French Royal chivalric Order of St Michael and promised him a garrison. To accept this mighty bribe, Cesare became the first man in history to resign as Cardinal. Cesare became a fearsome soldier, acquiring wealth and power by force.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Possible portrait of Cesare Borgia by Altobello Melone, first quarter of the 16th century. Wikimedia Commons

23. Cesare may have had his brother, Juan, murdered, to take all his possessions

In 1497, Juan Borgia was riding back to the Vatican with his brother Cesare from dinner at their mother’s house. Cesare decided to ride off to continue his evening, and Juan was never seen alive again. The following day, fishermen dragged his body from the river. Juan’s corpse had numerous stab wounds, but curiously a purse containing 30 ducats was still strapped to his belt. Juan was Alexander VI’s favorite son, and suspicion soon fell on Cesare. Although his guilt has never been established, Cesare almost immediately succeeded Juan as Head of the Papal Army. Hmmm…

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
16th-century tomb of Charlotte of Albret, Cesare’s wife, at La Motte-Feuilly. Archives36

22. On his wedding night, Cesare allegedly took a laxative rather than an aphrodisiac by accident

The bride promised by the King of France was Charlotte of Albret (1480-1514), the King of Navarre’s French sister. The wedding was glorious as fitting such an alliance, but things otherwise didn’t get off to a good start. Court gossips reported that on their wedding night, Cesare asked an apothecary for an aphrodisiac to consummate his marriage. Somehow or other, Cesare was given a powerful laxative, and ‘never ceased going to the privy the whole night’. This was a sign of things to come, for the couple only managed to produce one daughter, Louise Borgia.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The Ducal Palace and Cathedral at Urbino, one of the many places conquered by Cesare. Wikimedia Commons

21. Cesare used his position as Head of the Papal army to conquer lands for himself

Cesare was a far better soldier than Cardinal. Two months after his wedding, he helped the French defeat the Sforza family of Milan. King Louis gave him command of a battalion of French troops, and Cesare rode north to conquer lands for himself. Alexander and Cesare claimed that this was to reassert Papal authority, but both knew this was really a campaign for Borgia gain. Cesare was desperate to become a prince of independent means before Alexander’s death. Aut Caesar, aut nihil (‘either Caesar or nothing’) was his motto. Many cities fell to Cesare between 1499 and 1502.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Engraving of a syphilitic man by Albrecht Durer, 1496. Science Photo Library

20. Cesare contracted syphilis at the age of 22, and had to wear a mask later in life to hide his disfigurement

One of Cesare’s final acts as Cardinal was crowning the King of Naples. According to Machiavelli, after carrying out his duty the 22-year-old Cesare hired a prostitute. Shining a lamp on the woman after having sex, the horrified Cesare discovered she was a grotesque, toothless crone. He instantly vomited on his lover, but she left him with more than just nausea. The prostitute gave Cesare syphilis, a horrible STD that rots the flesh and causes hideous disfigurement. Cesare was never cured, and in later life wore a mask in public to hide his mutilated face.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
1550 edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Wikimedia Commons

19. Niccolo Machiavelli’s notorious political tract, The Prince, was based on Cesare’s outrageous life

During his victorious campaign over Senigallia, Cesare met a Florentine ambassador named Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli was so impressed with Cesare’s ruthlessness and political instincts that he wrote a political treatise based on his life. Il Principe (‘The Prince’) instructs the reader to emulate Cesare’s tyrannical use of power and political cunning. Machiavelli taught that Cesare’s opportunism, aggression, and ruthlessness were vital qualities for anyone wishing to become a prince. Machiavelli’s text was crucial in establishing Cesare’s posthumous reputation. The famous term for someone like Cesare may be ‘Machiavellian’, but ‘Borgian’ would be far more accurate.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Leonardo da Vinci’s plan of Imola, drawn to impress Cesare in 1502. Wikimedia Commons

18. Cesare hired Leonardo da Vinci as his military architect and engineer

Cesare’s success in his campaign in northern Italy came from smart delegation as well as his ruthlessness. Helping Louis destroy the Sforza family not only gained Cesare an army but made the great Leonardo da Vinci unemployed. This ultimately proved an unexpected boon for Cesare. Meeting da Vinci in Cesena, Cesare hired da Vinci as his military architect and engineer. During his year working for Cesare, Leonardo built the canal between Cesena and Porto Cesenatico and produced plans of cities to attack. It’s an intriguing thought that Cesare, Leonardo, and Machiavelli were once in the same room together…

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
The altar of the Church of Santa Maria in Viana, Spain, next to which Cesare was originally buried. VinTurismoRioja

17. Cesare died horribly, after losing his temper one too many times

People were so scared of Cesare that whole cities sometimes surrendered without a shot being fired. But just as he set his sights on Tuscany, where he could become an independent prince, Alexander VI died. The next pope was a Borgia nemesis who made Cesare surrender all his conquered cities and threw him in prison. He escaped but was rearrested and taken to Spain. There he escaped again, and joined his brother-in-law (the King of Navarre)’s army. Besieging the castle of Viana, Cesare was furious to see several enemy knights escaping. He foolishly gave chase alone, and was butchered.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Cesare and Lucrezia get a little too close for siblings in the TV series, The Borgias. Chicago Tribune

16. Cesare and his siblings were accused of incest

One of the most famous rumors dogging the Borgias is incest. Johann Burchard wrote that ‘in the home of the Pontiff… acts of incest are countless’. Most of the rumors concerned Cesare and his sister, Lucrezia, but all of Pope Alexander’s illegitimate children were implicated. There is no real evidence to support this accusation, however. It may have been inspired by the love triangles arising from the Borgia brothers having the same mistresses. Another cause could be the Borgias’ loathed nepotism. Most importantly, though, they were very unpopular and held much-coveted positions of power.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Possible portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto, c.1520-30. Wikimedia Commons

15. Lucrezia Borgia was both beautiful and formidably intelligent

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Italy. ‘Her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her neck is slender and fair, and the bust is admirably proportioned’, noted one contemporary. But what made her most unusual was her education. Lucrezia was schooled in Latin, Greek, Italian, and French, by Alexander VI’s cousin, Adriana Orsini. Whenever Alexander encountered a new intellectual, he ensured that they taught Lucrezia. This was very unusual for a girl in 15th-century Italy. Most women would be lucky to be taught basic scripture by a group of nuns.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
c.1498 coin bearing the profile of Giovanni Sforza, Lucrezia’s first husband. VCoins

14. Her first marriage was annulled once her husband was no longer useful to the Borgias

Most of Europe’s most prominent families wanted to marry their children to the pope’s 13-year-old daughter. In 1493, Alexander identified Giovanni Sforza as the most useful political alliance, and he married Lucrezia. But when the Sforza family sided with France against the pope in 1494, Giovanni was no longer a desirable match. He escaped before Cesare could murder him, but was forced into publically proclaiming his impotency to dissolve the marriage. This meant that the marriage hadn’t been consummated and was thus dissolvable. After the annulment, Lucrezia was still legally a virgin and a prize to be coveted.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, by Frank Cadogan Cowper, c.1908-14. Twitter

13. Her first husband accused Lucrezia of paternal incest

Giovanni’s public announcement of his impotency came at the cost of keeping Lucrezia’s dowry. And he wasn’t content with that. Hoping to save face, Giovanni spread a rumor that Lucrezia was guilty of incest with her father. He said the marriage was annulled because the pope wanted his daughter all to himself! Again, like the claims of Cesare and Lucrezia sleeping together, this is baseless. Giovanni was pressured into ‘admitting’ his impotence by the Sforzas, who wanted to keep the dowry. Though the incest gossip was probably just his parting, vengeful shot at the Borgias, it found a receptive audience.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia (in a red gown, right) depicted in the late 15th-century Borgia Apartments at the Apostolic Palace. Flickr

12. Her second husband was probably murdered by Cesare

At 18, Lucrezia married again. Her second husband was Alfonso of Aragon, son of Alexander VI’s close ally against the French, the King of Naples. But when the French bribe that made Cesare quit as Cardinal came, the Borgias were allied with King Louis against Naples. Alfonso had to go, and Lucrezia warned him that Cesare planned to murder him. After dining with the pope in 1500 a group of assassins near-fatally stabbed him. When he’d recovered, Cesare’s men arrested Alfonso, who ‘tragically’ fell and died of the old injuries en route to prison. Lucrezia was heartbroken.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Spoleto, Italy. San Gemini Travel Hub

11. Lucrezia ruled Spoleto alone, despite being a woman

Lucrezia’s education, and close observation of her father, made her a very capable ruler. When Alexander VI left Rome on papal business, he’d often leave Lucrezia in charge of the Vatican in his absence. In 1499, when Alfonso had sensibly fled Rome after the French bribe, Alexander named Lucrezia as governor of Spoleto. Though this would be normal for a son, to put a daughter in such a position of power was unheard of. But Lucrezia was no ordinary woman, and happily ruled Spoleto whilst pregnant. No doubt such ‘masculine’ abilities helped inspire many of the slanderous tales about her.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Portrait of Alfonso I d’Este, Lucrezia’s third husband, by Battista Dossi, c.1530. Wikimedia Commons

10. She had 8 children with her third husband, but simultaneously had numerous affairs

After Giovanni’s death, Lucrezia was inconsolable. She retreated from Rome, and signed her letters La Infelicissima (‘the saddest one’). But scheming Alexander and Cesare didn’t care – they married her off for the third time in 1501. Lucrezia’s third and final husband was Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534), the Duke of Ferrara’s heir. Ferrara lay in northern Italy, where Cesare was busy conquering cities, and so the alliance was very useful. Lucrezia bore Alfonso 8 children, but also had many high-profile affairs. Notable lovers included the famous poet Petro Bembo and the legendary knight, the Chevalier de Bayard.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Francesco II Gonzaga, Lucrezia’s lover and brother-in-law, 16th century. Pinterest

9. She even had a love affair with her own brother-in-law

Most scandalous of all, Lucrezia had a long sexual relationship with Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua (1466-1519). What made this particular infidelity unacceptable was the fact that Francesco was her brother-in-law. He was married to Isabella d’Este, Alfonso d’Este’s sister. Isabella and Lucrezia did not get along at all well, though their ill feeling predated the affair. Francesco also had syphilis, though Lucrezia doesn’t seem to have caught it. The two bonded over their love of culture, which Lucrezia dated from her unusual schooling as a girl.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Portrait of Lucrezia by Battista Dossi, c.1519-30. Wikimedia Commons

8. Lucrezia has been remembered as a prolific poisoner by history

Incest aside, Lucrezia is best-remembered as a murderer with a penchant for poison. Lucrezia’s enemies claimed that she manipulated others through her beauty and intelligence, resorting to murder when charm failed. However, there is no evidence that she poisoned anyone. Perhaps the legend was a literal version of reports of Lucrezia poisoning the minds of others through her charm. Additionally, people believing the fraternal-incest rumor have suggested Lucrezia conspired with Cesare to murder her second husband. As we’ve seen, evidence strongly suggests the opposite. The poisoning rumor seems to have been brewed from these diverse strands but has proved indelible.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia Borgia portrayed by Holliday Grainger in The Borgias TV series, with prominent rings. Pinterest

7. Both Cesare and Lucrezia are alleged to have kept poison in a ring

Cesare didn’t escape the smear of poison, either. One night, he and Alexander VI dined at Cardinal Adriano Castellesi’s villa, and everyone at the feast fell sick. Even though Cesare was dangerously ill, and Alexander died of the sickness, Cesare has been blamed. Alexander probably died of malaria, but gossips immediately claimed the Borgias had accidentally quaffed their own poison. Perhaps this ‘fact’ also implicated Lucrezia. Either way, popular legend held that Cesare and Lucrezia kept poison in a hollowed ring. The ring’s wearer could poison wine at short notice, and anyone who respectfully kissed the ring would die.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia Borgia. Biography.

6. Lucrezia was a very popular ruler in her time

However history has remembered her, Lucrezia was actually a very popular ruler in her day. Alfonso d’Este inherited the dukedom of Ferrara in 1505, and as duchess, Lucrezia really flourished. Her court was a seat of Renaissance learning, music, and culture. She hosted jousts and invited intellectuals to Ferrara from far and wide. Like her father, Lucrezia was a very effective ruler, too. She listened to her people and got things done to improve their well-being. In turn, the people of Ferrara adored her, praising her beauty and ‘inner grace of personality’.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Lucrezia and her third husband were buried together under this slab at the Corpus Domini Convent, Ferrara, Italy. Find A Grave

5. She died after giving birth to her 9th child aged just 39

Lucrezia’s later life was full of grief. By 1518, both her parents, her firstborn son with Giovanni, all of her siblings, and Francesco were all dead. Aged 39, her health was very poor, and she was wracked with sadness. She fell pregnant again, and her health worsened. On June 15, 1519, Lucrezia gave birth prematurely to a little girl, who died within hours. 9 days later, Lucrezia herself passed away. Duke Alfonso was so inconsolable that he passed out at her funeral. He lived for another 15 years and was buried alongside his beloved wife in 1534.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
16th-century portrait of Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, one of Lucrezia’s many children. Wikimedia Commons

4. Without Papal influence, the family fell into decline

Cesare fell on hard times as soon as Pope Alexander VI died, and others didn’t fare well either. In fact, after the death of Lucrezia, the whole Borgia family went into steady decline. Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este protected her from the many Borgia enemies, but subsequent generations weren’t so lucky. They hardly lived impoverished lives but never reached the pinnacle of power that Alexander and his children managed. Without a scheming, corrupt Pope on their side, later generations were at the mercy of other powerful Machiavellian figures. By the middle of the 18th century, the Borgias were extinct.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Saint Francis Borgia by Alonso Cano, 1624. Wikimedia Commons

3. Francis Borgia was unusually pious and was canonized in 1670

The most notable Borgia after Lucrezia was St Francis Borgia (1510-74). He was the great-grandson of Pope Alexander VI via the murdered Juan Borgia’s son. Francis is famous for the most un-Borgia reason: he was such a good Christian that he became a saint. Although Duke of Gandia, Francis renounced his titles and devoted himself to religion, becoming a Jesuit. He did missionary work in the New World and founded numerous colleges in Spain and a university in Rome. Pope Clement X canonized him in 1670, after Francis conducted numerous post-mortem miracles. For Catholics, Francis redeemed the Borgia name.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Thérèse Tietjens portrays Lucrezia Borgia in the opera named after the latter, 1870. Wikimedia Commons

2. The reputation of the Borgias has been a vast cultural influence

Once Lucrezia was dead, rumors about the Borgias spread like wildfire. They’d already been fermenting during Alexander’s reign, but with no one powerful to quash them the family’s popular image developed. Cesare’s reputation was secured by Machiavelli’s The Prince, published after both men died. Lucrezia and Alexander’s evil repute was immortalized in Barnabe Barnes’s 1606 play, The Devil’s Charter. Lucrezia’s legendary deeds also inspired Victor Hugo’s 1833 play, Lucrèce Borgia, which in turn became Donizetti’s 1834 opera. The 20th century produced numerous Borgia books and films, and the recent TV series further popularised the historic allegations.

40 Facts About the Borgias, One of History’s More Scandalous Dynasties
Pope Alexander VI in prayer, depicted on a fresco in the late 15th-century Borgia Apartments. Wikimedia Commons

1. But much of the above may be false…

How bad were the Borgias? We will never know, but allegations of incest and poison rings must be viewed skeptically. As foreigners rose to the top of Renaissance Italy, the Borgias made many powerful enemies. Most of the rumors are unsubstantiated, and the products of envy and malice. But there is no doubt that the Borgias were corrupt, sexually promiscuous, and did bump off rivals. They did what was necessary to achieve power, and were hardly unusual in this. Renaissance Italy was a place of murder, corruption, and political intrigue. The Borgias were just the most successful at it.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bradford, Sarah. Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Bradford, Sarah. Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy. London: Viking, 2004.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Borgias. London: Constable, 2011.

Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Mallett, Michael. The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Family. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969.

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. San Francisco: Harper, 2000.

Meyer, G. J. The Borgias: The Hidden History. New York: Random House, 2013.

Alexander VI: Demon or Angel? Jason Rodarte. Medium. Dec 7, 2020

Sinister Facts About Cesare Borgia, The Dark Lord Of Rome. Kyle Climans. Fascinate. May 21, 2020

The Banquet of the Chestnuts — The Pope’s Halloween Party Turned Orgy. Carlyn Beccia. History of Yesterday. Oct 29, 2020

The Pope Who Threw Orgies And Tortured His Enemies. Melissa Sartore. Ranker. September 23, 2021