He is one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes, and his Italianized Valencian surname, Borgia, became a byword for libertinism and nepotism, which are traditionally considered as characterizing his papacy. It has been noted that this was one pope for whom there are no apologists.
At the time of his election as pope, the Spaniard Rodrigo Borja (Italianized as “Borgia”) had been in Rome 35 years as Cardinal and Vice-Chancellor of the papal curia and Vatican offices. His character, habits, lack of principles, uses of power, methods of enrichment, mistresses and seven children were all well known in the College of Cardinals.. His election cause the cry form the young Cardinal Lorenzo (later Leo X), “Flee, we are in the clutches of a wolf.” Surely the pot calls the kettle, black.
For new readers, a note: this is a series, not on the popes, but on the context and events leading up to the period of church schism known as the Reformation. Borrowing from the historian Barbara Tuchman, it is a story of a march of folly. Those called to spiritually lead the Church were “asleep at the wheel.”
The clutches of the wolf. Having lost the last two papal election, Borgia was elected the old fashioned way – he bought it. While some historians question the veracity of this claim, when one looks at the well know habits before and after, this account is consistent. It also explains how he was able to secure the vote of his opponent Cardinal Sforza of Milan. Accounts of the time have Alexander boasting of the “acquisition,” as good sense and business, when in fact, it would be simony.
Alexander was a skilled and knowledgeable cleric. His understanding of Scripture and Canon Law was unsurpassed, his administrative skills unparalleled, and in contrast to the preceding pontificate, Alexander adhered initially to strict administration of justice and orderly government. Before long, however, he began endowing his relatives at the church’s and at his neighbors’ expense. But then he was no stranger to nepotism.
After the election of his uncle as Pope Callixtus III, Borgia was ordained deacon and created Cardinal-Deacon of San Nicola in Carcere at the age of twenty-five in 1456. The following year, he was appointed vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church a job he held for 35 years. At age 38, he was ordained to the priesthood and, at age 40 he was consecrated bishop and appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. Having served in the Roman Curia under five popes – Calixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII – Rodrigo Borgia acquired considerable administrative experience, influence and wealth.
He mastered the art of nepotism – and where other popes have promoted nephews and nieces, Alexander’s concern was for his children. Before becoming cardinal, Borgia fathered four children or uncertain parentage. At the time they were hidden from public knowledge. The year before he became cardinal he took up a long time affair with a mistress Giovanna (Vanozza) dei Cattani. It was said that she was the daughter of a former mistress from his early days in Rome. Giovanna she bore him four children whom he openly acknowledged as his own.
Before his elevation to the papacy Cardinal Borgia’s passion for Giovanna somewhat diminished, and she subsequently led a very retired life. Her place in his affections was filled by the beautiful Giulia Farnese (Giulia Bella), wife of an Orsini, but his love for his children by Giovanna remained as strong as ever and proved, indeed, the determining factor of his whole career. He lavished vast sums on them and lauded them with every honor.
The vast majority of Alexander’s energy was not directed at the much needed religious reform, rather he attended to political alliances via his seven children. Alexander arranged marriages that secured alliances with France, England, Spain, Hungary, Venice, Milan, and Rome. He is an ancestor of virtually all royal houses of Europe.
Most of the history of his pontificate is spent describing the political intrigues with, for, against Spain, France, and all the smaller players show on the map. It was complicated, shifting, and all consuming. The biggest threat on the horizon was France under the rule of Charles VIII. It was a threat to the Papal states as a political entity, to the pope personally as the French bishops wanted to excommunicate Alexander for the sin of simony associated with his election as pope, to privileges and positions of his children, and to the way of Roman curial life as the French position was one of reform. Alexander responded with armies headed by his son Cesare (who proved to be a capable general and strategist, militarily and politically) and by changing the marriage of his daughter Lucrezia, many years married to Giovanni Sforza of a powerful Milan family (…and yes this is the famous Lucrezia Borgia of history and scandal). Alexander needed her to be wed to Alfonso, whom it seemed Lucrezia had already taken as a lover, and Alfonso was the heir to the throne of Naples . This was needed in order to secure the alliance to ward off all the above threats (Naples was the key to the formation of the Holy League which stood against the machinations of France).
Pope Alexander trumped up a charge that Giovanni was unable to consummate the marriage – a charge hotly contested – but under enormous political and financial pressure – Giovanni was forced to give way but at least he was allowed to keep the very substantial dowry. By the way, Giovanni had already fathered children before his marriage to Lucrezia. While this is a small detail of “the way things were” it also is an example of the milder things that were the hallmarks of Alexander’s papacy. Even the sacraments of the Church were but tools of the trade to accomplish secular power.
A historical note: the reputation of Lucrezia is completely rooted in rumors by Alexander’s opponents. Nonetheless, her name is now associated with deadly inter-family and political intrigue of the highest order. So deadly, that Buffalo Bill Cody used a Springfield Model 1866, caliber .50-70 rifle, nicknamed Lucrezia Borgia, to shoot buffalo for feeding the track workers employed by Kansas Pacific Railroad during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. You did not really need to know this, but it is interesting.
But it was this intrigue and details attending it that the toxic cocktail of Italian politics, nepotism, a crescendo of rumors about the depraved Borgia family – including the pope – lead to the murder of Alexander’s oldest son found floating in the Tiber. There were no lack of suspects, but the investigation abruptly ended one week later. Alexander suffered a moral crisis in which he viewed the murder as God’s judgment upon him and his papacy. He resolved to amend his life and reform the church He wrote, “We will begin the reform with ourselves and so proceed through all levels of the Church until the whole work is accomplished.” He appointed a commission, made initial attempts, even drafted a papal bull calling for a Council to enact reforms from top to bottom, but in the remaining 6 year of his pontificate he never could gain a critical mass of support and he was continually distracted by the quagmire of European politics.
In the meantime, the papal treasury was exhausted, the Dominican Savronola of Florence was denouncing clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor – and Savronola’s message was finding resonance across Italy. In the end he was excommunicated by Alexander and burned at the stake by the leaders of Florence. Savonarolan religious ideas found a reception elsewhere. In Germany and Switzerland the early Protestant reformers, most notably Martin Luther himself, read some of the friar’s writings and praised him as a martyr and forerunner whose ideas on faith and grace anticipated Luther’s own doctrine of justification by faith alone. In France many of his works were translated and published and Savonarola came to be regarded as a precursor of evangelical, or Huguenot reform. Within the Dominican Order Savonarola was repackaged as an innocuous, purely devotional figure until Phillip Neri, founder of the Oratorians, a Florentine who had been educated by the San Marco Dominicans, defended Savonarola’s memory.
The needed reforms of the Church languished and in 1503 Alexander died of what was likely malaria (although rumors of poison were ever present).
The papal master of ceremonies, Burchard, neither antagonist nor apologist for Alexander kept a diary of the pontificate. It is a toneless tale of continuous violence, murders in churches, bodies in the Tiber, fighting between factions, burnings, lootings, arrests, tortures and executions, scandal, sexual excess, money, more money and even more money, and in the end an exhausted treasury. The descriptions of Alexander’s enemies are far worse than the diary. There is little in the way of religious matters that are memorable during this pontificate.