Alfonso, king of Aragon & Naples, pursued his own territorial aims rather than supporting the Pope’s war against the Turks in Constantinople, so Pope Callixtus determined to appoint his own family as the next king of Naples. He also put two nephews in as cardinals, and made one nephew Prefect of Rome. The papal court started to look like a Spanish club.
It didn’t last, but Rodrigo Borgia did well. He studied in Valencia and then specialised in law at Bologna. In 1456, Uncle Alonso made him a cardinal, and then vice chancellor of the Curia. Apparently this was a VERY lucrative position; Rodrigo held it during the next four pontificates.
Rodrigo was endowed with bishoprics and abbeys around Rome. These benefices brought him so much money that he build the most luxurious palace in all of Italy. Rodrigo’s plate, pearls, his stuffs embroidered with silk and gold, his books were all of such quality as would befit a king or a pope. He possessed more gold and riches of every sort than all the other cardinals put together.
Rodrigo had many children, including 3 acknowledged children early on, and another four (Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Joffre) with Vannozza Catanei. At 61, Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). So how did a man who openly made a fortune out of his family connections in the papacy, and who opened fathered children all over Rome, become Pope? He bribed his way through the entire college of cardinals! They said of him "Alexander sells the Key, the Altar, Christ Himself - he has a right to, for he bought them".
Portrait of Rodrigo Borgia
by Cristofano dell'Altissimo
Pope Alexander VI wanted to make the city a fitting centre of world Christendom, using his princely patronage to display family power. The two parts of Rome (the Vatican and the main city) were replanned and expanded, with imposing new buildings and monuments. Roads between the major churches were straightened, and important gates and bridges made pilgrimage and religious processions easy. The new St Peter's dominated the Vatican district, and the popes dominated St Peter's. Rome's population doubled.
But somehow we mostly seem to remember his nepotism. Nepotism was already widely practised in the papacy; after all, a pope could trust his own family marginally more than he could trust strangers. But the Borgias raised nepotism to record levels.
Son Juan was made Spanish duke and married the cousin of the King of Castille. Daughter Lucrezia was left as regent in charge of official business when the Pope had to leave Rome. Son Joffre was married off to a Neapolitan princess. Teenage son Cesare was given a number of bishoprics, and on the day of his father's coronation, Cesare received the premier Archbishopric in Spain, Valencia. In time, Pope Alexander changed in his attitudes towards Spain, marrying Cesare to a French princess, and agreeing to partition the Kingdom of Naples between France and Spain.
At the end Pope Alexander had been well; suddenly he and his son Cesare were desperately ill. Was it malaria? was it poison? Pope Alexander VI died and was buried in St Peter's, later to be moved to the Spanish national church in Rome, Santa Maria di Monserrato. He was buried with the other Borgia pope, his uncle.
Sarah Dunant's novel, 2017
In the Name of the Family
So some popes were sexually active during their lives in the church; consider for example Popes Paul II, Sixtus IV, Leo X and Julius III. After all, the Second Vatican did not make celibacy a pre-requisite for ordination until 1139 AD. Yet when Sarah Dunant wrote on the campaigns of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) in her novel In the Name of the Family (by Virago), it still came as a bit of a shock.
Cesare Borgia’s military campaigns were at the centre of the novel. As was Lucrezia third marriage, to Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara. I was not thrilled to read about the French Pox, which hit Naples in the 1490s, despite clearly understanding its shocking impact.
Diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) became more central to this novel because he really did witness the fierce state-building methods of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare Borgia. Another important source of “information” for Sarah Dunant was the poet-scholar and Cardinal, Pietro Bembo (1470–1547).
Can we learn history from imagined data, even if it sounds substantial? And can we rethink the reputations of disreputable, defamed characters we have known for a long time? Donizetti opera presented Lucrezia Borgia as a mass murderer who slept with most of the men in her own and other leading families, as did Victor Hugo in his play by the same name. The Prince was a political treatise by Niccolò Machiavelli that proposed Cesare was a clever, ultra-ambitious and deceitful man who never did what anyone expected. Eventually “Machiavellian” has gone into the language as an adjective for this extreme ambition.
One reviewer described in gross detail, how Dunant’s characters copulated, defecated and menstruated; they got flu and suffered constipation, sweated from fever, shivered from cold, and scratched at pox-scabs note what prostitutes used for greasy contraception and how people cleaned their teeth with vinegar mixtures. Mark Lawson also focused on dramatic natural events: sea storms, plagues and childbirth.
Dunant’s novel about Machiavelli and the Borgias is a good way to learn Italian history, but don’t read it if you already know a great deal about this historical era. You will feel obligated to make corrections on the novel’s pages, over and over again.