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 âshow them who is pope!’
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.
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.
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…
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 ânever 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.
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 (âeither Caesar or nothing’) was his motto. Many cities fell to Cesare between 1499 and 1502.
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.
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 (âThe 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 âMachiavellian’, but âBorgian’ would be far more accurate.
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…
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.
16. Cesare and his siblings were accused of incest
One of the most famous rumors dogging the Borgias is incest. Johann Burchard wrote that âin 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.
15. Lucrezia Borgia was both beautiful and formidably intelligent
Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Italy. âHer 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.
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.
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 âadmitting’ 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.
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 âtragically’ fell and died of the old injuries en route to prison. Lucrezia was heartbroken.
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 âmasculine’ abilities helped inspire many of the slanderous tales about her.
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 (âthe 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.
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.
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.
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 âfact’ 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.
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 âinner grace of personality’.
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.
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.
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.
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, LucrÃ¨ce 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.
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: