Power in the city-states of Renaissance Italy was frequently a family affair.

And the families in question were truly formidable. The Visconti and Sforza of

Milan, the Medici of Florence, the d'Este of Ferrara, the Boccanegra of Genoa or

the Barberini, Orsini and della Rovere families shared some or, more often, all of

the symptoms characteristic of their breed.

They were intensely greedy for wealth and status, and could not resist enriching their relatives with high-ranking titles and the lavish lifestyles that went with them. Their power could frequently be secured by violence, murder and bribery and ruthlessness comparable only to the methods of the Italian families involved in organized crime centuries later.

Alexander was probably the most controversial pope ever to have reigned, and remains infamous today.

The greatest power of all resided, of course, in the papacy and the immense influence the popes exerted over both the religious and the secular life of Catholic Europe. Several rich and famous families, including the Medici, the Barberini, the Orsini and the della Rovere, provided the Church with popes from their own ranks, but the most notorious of them all were the Borgias. The first of the two Borgia popes was the aged Calixtus III, formerly Alonso de Borja, who was elected in 1455.

From the start, Calixtus III excelled at nepotism. He set out to pack the Vatican bureaucracy with his relatives and place them in lucrative Church posts. Two of his nephews - Rodrigo was one of them - became cardinals in 1456. Such positions were normally occupied by mature or elderly men, but these two were had not yet reached 30, which both alarmed and astounded the College of Cardinals. They had agreed to the appointments under a false premise, expecting the elderly Calixtus to die soon, before the two young cardinals could be confirmed in their new positions. Instead, Calixtus stubbornly survived long enough for Rodrigo to be made Vice-Chancellor of the Church in 1457, which made him second in importance only to the pope himself. It also provided Rodrigo with the opportunity to acquire considerable wealth.

Another nephew, Rodrigo's brother and Calixtus' special favourite, Pedro Luis Borgia was created Captain-General of the Church, in command of the papal armed forces. Pedro Luis was also made governor of 12 cities. It was a particularly powerful post, because these cities dominated important strongholds in Tuscany and the Papal States, the pope's own territory in central Italy.


The de Borja family (as the surname was originally spelt) came from Torre de Canals, which lay in the foothills of the mountains to the south of Valencia in the kingdom of Aragon. The de Borjas became landed gentry when they were granted estates as a reward for their services fighting Muslim Moors who had ruled in Spain since the eighth century CE. Essentially, though, the Borjas were adventurers and opportunists, with ambitions to rise above their minor status. The member of the family who made these ambitions come true was Alonso de Borja.

Born in 1378, Alonso was a brilliant student, entering Lerida University to study law when he was only 14 years old. While still in his teens, he became a university lecturer and afterwards entered the service of King Alfonso V of Aragon as a diplomat and advisor. De Borja's greatest success came when he helped bring an end to the so-called Great Western Schism in which rival popes, mainly based in Avignon (now in France), disputed their claims to the papacy with the popes in Rome. Alonso de Borgia used a mixture of promises, charm and threats to make the rival antipope, Clement VIII, give in and recognize Martin V, the pope in Rome, as the true pontiff. In reward, a grateful Pope Martin appointed Alonso de Borja to the prestigious post of Bishop of Valencia.

In 1444, de Borja was made a cardinal. Now 66, years of age, he had led an exemplary life of strict piety and virtue. This was in sharp contrast to many of his fellow cardinals who preferred to enjoy worldly pleasures and luxuries with their mistresses and illegitimate children. In 1455, when Pope Nicholas V died and the time came to choose a successor. Cardinal de Borja was a frail 77-year-old. He was crippled by gout and spent most of his time propped up in bed. Consequently, when the cardinals met in conclave to elect a new pope, de Borja was not even considered as a candidate. But the two would-be pontiffs who fought the election were compromised, for they were, respectively, the representatives of the rival Colonna and Orsini families. A stalemate ensued and the conclave was forced to look for a third candidate.

The only possible alternative was Cardinal de Borja, for he was the only one with an unblemished reputation and was not bound to powerful family interests. He was also extremely old, not likely to survive for long, and his meek and mild manner promised to make him a fairly malleable pope.

However, anyone who thought that was very much mistaken. It was true that Pope Calixtus III, as de Borja became known, reigned for only three years. But these were years in which he tied the Catholic Church up in a Borgia stranglehold that prepared the ground for his nephew, Rodrigo who bribed his way to the Throne of St Peter in 1492. And, as Alexander VI, Rodrigo still holds the record as the most infamous pontiff of all time.

This painting shows Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, being made a cardinal by Calixtus III in 1456.



An indulgence,was pardon or part padon grantedl as remission from eternal damnation in hell for mortal sins committed during life. An important condition though, was that the Church must first forgive the sin. This meant an indulgence was only granted once a sinner had confessed his wrongdoing and had received absolution (forgiveness). Unfortunately in time the system became abused, and an indulgence came to be regarded! as a payment made to let a sinner off punishment altogether. When the German priest and theologian Martin Luther made hjs famous protest in 1517 (a protest that led to the creation of the Protestant church) the Indulgence came under fire as the worst of several abuses.

         From the starts Calixtus III excelled at nepotism. He set out to pack the

Vatican bureaucracy with his

relatives and place them in lucrative

Church posts.


Just as shocking was the means Calixtus adopted to finance his crusade to liberate Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks who had conquered the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 - a situation no self-respecting pope could tolerate. The Ottomans were Muslims and Constantinople, the most Christian of cities after Rome, could not be left in the hands of infidels. A crusade was arguably the most expensive expedition that could be undertaken, and to pay for it, Calixtus sold everything at his disposal, including gold and silver, works of art, valuable books, lucrative offices and grants of papal territories. He also put 'indulgences' up for sale - fees that Catholics paid to set aside punishments for their sins after death.

... Calixtus sold everything at his

disposal including gold and silver

works of art, valuable books,

lucrative offices and grants

of papal territories.

But the great papal sale was for nothing. The important rulers of Christian Europe, like the kings of France and Germany, were not interested in another holy war. When they declined to contribute troops and weaponry to the pope's crusade that was the end of it. As a result, Constantinople was never retrieved for Christendom. Unsurprisingly, Pope Calixtus III became seriously unpopular in Rome. The situation was so grave that after he died in 1458, the Spanish commanders and administrators he had brought to the Vatican felt seriously threatened and fled from Rome in panic.


Rodrigo Borgia had to wait for 34 years and the reigns of four more popes before he came within reach of the Throne of St Peter. By then he was 61 years of age and had lost his youthful good looks and slim figure. But what he had retained was much more significant. As a young man, Pope Pius II, the successor to Rodrigo's Uncle Calixtus warned him that his penchant for attending orgies was 'unseemly', and urged him to take care of his honour 'with greater prudence'. It was a waste of papal breath - some 40 years later, nothing had changed Rodrigo's taste for debaucheries, which were euphemistically termed 'garden parties', was as keen as ever. He fathered eight children on three or four mistresses - the last when he was aged 61 - and, as he was once described, he remained 'robust, amiable', with a 'wonderful skill in money matters'. The wealth this 'wonderful skill' brought him both before and after he became pope, was dazzling. One of his contemporaries wrote that

... his papal offices, his numerous abbeys in Italy and Spain and his three bishoprics of Valcncia, Porto and Cartagena, yield him a vast income and it is said that the office of Vice-Chancellor alone brings him in 8000 gold florins. His plate, his pearls, his stuffs embroidered with silk and gold and his books in every department of learning are very numerous... I need not mention the innumerable bed hangings, the trappings for his horses... nor the magnificent wardrobe, nor the vast amount of gold coin in his possession.

Calixtus III, was also responsible for issuing a papal bull that gave permission for Portugal to engage in the transatlantic slave trade.

Rodrigo was not a man likely to

follow the saintly path to papal

acclaim. To him the papacy was a

business to be milked and exploited

for gain and a great deal of it.

This was not a man likely to follow the saintly path to papal acclaim. To him, the papacy was a business to be milked and exploited for gain, and a great deal of it. This was certainly the view of Francesco Guicciardini the historian and another contemporary of Rodrigo Borgia who wrote of him as pope:

There was in him and in full measure, all vices both of flesh and spirit... There was in him no religion, no keeping of his word. He promised all things liberally, but bound himself to nothing that was not useful to him. He had no care for justice since, in his days, Rome was a den of thieves and murderers. Nevertheless, his sins meeting with no punishment in this world, he was to the last of his days most prosperous. In one word, he was more evil and had more luck than perhaps any other pope for many ages before.

(The papal states had issued their own currency since the ninth century. This is a coin from the reign of Pope Alexander VI)

With a character reading like this, it followed that Rodrigo Borgia's personal ambition knew no bounds and had lost none of its fire in old age. He deliberately set out to create a dynasty that had fingers in all the most vital political pies in Europe. He began as dishonestly as he meant to go on when the conclave of cardinals met to choose a successor to Pope Innocent VIII, who had died in 1492. Borgia's chance of winning the election appeared bleak even before Innocent was dead. Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who detested him, put in the poison by reminding the pope that Borgia was a 'Catalan', as Spaniards were commonly known in the Vatican, and was therefore unreliable. Rodrigo Borgia was there to hear this slur. He fought his corner with vigour and a range of insults so inflammatory that the rivals were on the brink of a fist fight before they were persuaded to back down out of respect for the dying pontiff.

Rodrigo Borgia's personal

ambition knew no bounds and had

lost none of its fire in old age.


But already, behind the scenes, the wheeling, dealing and conniving were in full swing as the cardinals sought to outmanoeuvre each other and ensure victory for their personal candidates. Their choices had not been made on the basis of perception of the will of God or the workings of the Holy Spirit - the traditional criteria in papal elections - but on the wishes of the rulers in the city-states of Italy, each wanting a new pope sympathetic to their interests.

There was an enormous amount of money on the table for this exercise. For instance, King Ferrante of Naples offered a fortune in gold to buy the votes of cardinals willing to elect a pontiff who would advance Neapolitan interests at the Vatican. There was no holding back on the dirty tricks, either. For example, propaganda claiming that the Milanese were planning to subjugate the whole of Italy was spread around to scupper the chances of any candidate who came from, or was backed, by the city of Milan. Rodrigo Borgia was not involved in any of this power play if only because, being a Spaniard, the other, Italian, cardinals deeply distrusted him.  This,  though, gave Borgia an advantage because it meant

Rodrigo also possessed another

advantage that few, if any,

of the others had. He was so wealthy

he could dispense enormous bribes

that could 'buy' votes at the

conclave on a grand scale.

he was not tainted by the brute self-interest and venal machinations in which most of the other cardinals at the conclave were embroiled. Rodrigo also possessed another advantage that few, if any, of the others had. He was so wealthy he could dispense enormous bribes that could 'buy' votes at the conclave on a grand scale.

In this 16th-century satire, coins fall like rain while Pope Alexander VI (far right) and his favourites stretch out hands to catch them.


Created for Rodrigo Borgia over many years by the leading Renaissance artists and artisans of the day, the palace was approached through a courtyard featuring elegantly decorated Tuscan columns. It was no wonder that Cardinal Sforza was unable to resist this wondrous place when it was offered him. He wrote:

The palace is splendidly decorated. The walls of the great entrance hall are hung with fine tapestries; the carpets on the floor harmonized with the furnishings which included a sumptuous day bed upholstered in red satin with a canopy over it, and a chest on which was laid out a vast and beautiful collection of gold and silver plate. Beyond this, there were two more rooms, one hung with fine satin, carpeted and with another canopied bed covered with Alexandrine velvet; the other even more ornate with a couch covered in cloth of gold. In this room, the central table was covered with a cloth of Alexandrine velvet and surrounded by finely carved chairs.

His chief rivals for the papal succession were Cardinal Ascanio Sforza of Milan and Cardinal Giuliani della Rovere, the latter being bankrolled to the tune of 200,000 gold ducats by the King Charles VIII of France. The Republic of Genoa contributed another 100,000 gold ducats to his campaign funds as well. Della Rovere and Sforza ran neck and neck for the lead in the first three ballots with Rodrigo Borgia coming third. But it was not a distant third, and the deadlock between the other two candidates enhanced Borgia's chances of victory.

These bribes included bishoprics in

Spain and Italy, extensive lands and

estates, abbeys castles, and

fortresses, governorship, 

Church offices, gold jewels and

treasure of all kinds.

Believing now that he could, after all, slip past della Rovere and Sforza and seize the prize, Rodrigo swamped the cardinals with offers he was sure they would find impossible to refuse. These bribes included bishoprics in Spain and Italy, extensive lands and estates, abbeys, castles and fortresses, governorships. Church offices, gold, jewels and treasure of all kinds.


Rodrigo reserved the most valuable temptations for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the Milanese candidate, to whom he offered his position as Vice-Chancellor and as an additional lure, his fabulous palace, which stood by the River Tiber opposite the Vatican. There were many magnificent mansions in Rome, but none excelled this one.

All this represented possibly the greatest bribe ever offered to a cardinal and Sforza managed to resist it for some five days before finally succumbing. One diarist recorded that, shortly afterwards, a train of four mules loaded with a large quantity of silver left Rodrigo's palace and made its way through the streets of Rome to Sforza's splendid but, by comparison much more modest, mansion.

With Sforza's withdrawal from the papal race, the entire pro-Milanese faction switched their support to Rodrigo Borgia. Cardinal della Rovere, who had made it known that anyone would be preferable to another Borgia pope, was forced to swallow his words and vote for Rodrigo, if only as a gesture to save face. The other cardinals quietly pocketed their own rewards and marked their ballot papers in the same way. It was said that the last of them was a 96-year-old cardinal who was so far gone in senility that he barely knew where he was or what he was doing. Only five cardinals refused the incentives offered by Borgia. Those who accepted, of course, vastly outnumbered them.

The decision was finally reached after an all-night session. It was just before dawn on 11 August 1492 that Rodrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, dressed in papal vestments, appeared on the first-floor balcony of the Vatican before a large crowd to make the traditional pronouncement: 'I am Pope and Vicar of Christ... I bless the town, I bless the land, I bless Italy, I bless the world.'

It was a tradition in Rome to mark papal elections with bouts of rioting and looting and the triumph of the second Borgia pope was no exception. Some 200 people died in the tumult before the result was announced and church bells rang throughout the city to mark the event. What was unique about this election, though, was the astonishment, rage and fear it provoked. 'Now we are in the power of a wolf commented Cardinal Giovanni di Lorenzo de'Medici of Florence,

(The Palazzo Sforza Cesarini, given to Ascanio Sforza as a bribe to ensure he dropped out of contention for the papacy, still stands in a much altered state today)

himself a future pope as Leo X, 'the most rapacious, perhaps, that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.'


Several others - Venetians, Ferrarans and Mantuans - vociferously cried 'foul' and there was talk of declaring the election corrupt and therefore void. Cheating on a truly shameless scale had, of course, taken place but the cardinals who fell for the Borgia bribes were giving nothing away and the new pope had himself been very

Cheating on a truly shameless scale

hadj of course^ taken place but the

cardinals who fell for the Borgia

bribes were giving nothing away .

careful to leave behind no proof that could be used against him. King Ferrante of Naples wept when he heard how the vast sums of money he had put up for his own candidate had failed to win the papal crown.

But it was not all sour grapes and some of the fears roused by the election of Alexander VI were not justified. Corrupt, immoral and faithless he might be, but the second Borgia pope also possessed qualities that enabled him to cope well with the greedy, materialistic, luxury-loving world of Renaissance Italy that would have flummoxed a more saintly, less worldly pontiff. During the reign of his uncle, Pope Calixtus and the four popes after him, Rodrigo Borgia had become a master diplomat, and administrator. He also knew how to use the amiable approach to personal relations rather than the 'order from on high' method to get what he wanted. Courtiers at the Vatican were agreeably surprised at the friendly, patient pope they had unexpectedly acquired. They noticed particularly Alexander's willingness to attend to the problems of poor widows and other humble folk, and take action to ameliorate their troubles.

Even more amazing for a man who had surrounded himself in luxury and self-indulgence for several decades, was the careful budgeting Pope Alexander

           Alexander also sought ways and means of keeping his sex life - and

its results - out of the public eye.

He realized that his children could

be an embarrassment to him now

that he was pope.

introduced into the Vatican. Once, not too long ago, the Borgia banquets held at Rodrigo's Roman castle had been the talk of the town. They were so lavish they were said to excel the feasts of the emperors of ancient Rome: the richest of rich foods were served on solid gold plates accompanied by the finest wines drunk from extravagantly decorated goblets. Now, as pope, he reduced the Vatican menus from their former lavish size to one course per meal. This reduction was so drastic that invited guests started looking around for excuses to avoid papal dinners.

An anti-Catholic satire fom the 16th century, showing Alexander VI as the Devil wearing the triple crown of the popes.


Alexander's coronation, which took place on 26 August 1492, was in such an extravagant vein that even the Triumphs accorded Roman emperors would have been outclassed by it. The procession was more than three kilometres long and comprised 10,000 horsemen, the entire papal household, foreign ambassadors and cardinals on horseback, each of them attended by a 12-man retinue. Pope Alexander himself rode beneath a canopy that shaded him from the intense late August sun. The papal guard and all the officials of the Vatican court followed him.

Making its way slowly through crowds crammed in on both sides, the procession passed under specially erected arches carrying slogans, some of which were frankly blasphemous. 'Alexander the invincible', 'Alexander the most magnificent' and 'The Coronation of the great god Alexander' were among them. But all were outdone by the message inscribed in gold on another of the arches: 'Rome was great under Caesar, greater far under Alexander. The first was a mortal, the latter is a god.'

The heat and the crush were so great that Alexander fainted twice under the strain, but these moments of weakness were moments only. Once the coronation and its attendant celebrations were over, Alexander lost no time asserting himself as a pope who meant business.   .


Alexander also sought ways and means of keeping his sex life - and its results - out of the public eye. He realized, or claimed he realized, that his children could be an embarrassment to him now that he was pope, and at his coronation, he promised Giovanni Boccaccio, the ambassador from the Duchy of Ferrara that he would make sure they remained at a distance from the Vatican and Rome. This was probably impossible for a man as fond of his offspring as Pope Alexander was. Yet, though loving them intensely, he was also determined to use them and his other close relatives to cement his papal power-base. As a result, the Boccaccio promise ran out after only five days when Alexander appointed his eldest son, Cesare Borgia, to the Archbishopric of Valencia. This made him, at 17 years of age, the primate of all Spain. The pope ignored the fact that young Cesare had not even been ordained a priest. In addition, Alexander appointed another of his sons, the 11-year-old Jofre to the Diocese of Majorca and made him an archdeacon of the cathedral at Valencia.