Cesare and Jofre, together with their sister Lucrezia and another son, Juan, were the children of Alexander's first mistress, the three-times married Vannozza dei Cattani. Two more sons, Giralomo and Pier Luigi and another daughter, Isabella, were born to different mothers and the last, Laura, was the daughter of the pope's final mistress, Giulia Farnese. In 1492, Giulia was in an awkward position and so was her lover, the new pope. As Rome's greatest celebrity and one whose comings and goings were under constant scrutiny, Alexander could not, obviously, continue his habit of visiting Giulia at the Monte Giordano palace where he had installed her. A handy alternative was the palace of Santa Maria in Portico, which lay only a few metres from the steps of the church of St Peter in the Vatican.

Courtiers at the Vatican were  agreeably surprised at the friendly patient pope they had unexpectedly acquired.

The only problem was that a certain Cardinal Zeno already occupied Santa Maria in Portico. This was a minor difficulty, though, and was quickly removed, however, after the venerable cardinal was persuaded that his best interests would be served by loaning his palace to the pope. Giulia, who was pregnant, moved in with the pope's daughter Lucrezia and Lucrezia's nurse Adriana del Mila. Later on in 1492, Giulia gave birth to Laura. But the secrecy Alexander sought eluded him. The little girl, who grew to resemble her father closely, was soon the subject of gossip all over Europe. Diarists wrote of Giulia as 'Alexander's concubine' and one satirist called her 'the Bride of Christ', an appellation that, it was said, amused her greatly.

Alexander VI's family, including his extended family, had a particular value for him because Rome seemed to be full of his enemies. Among them were cardinals he had

Pope Alexander gave a lavish party at the papal palace to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Lucrezia to her first husband Giovanni Sforza in 1493.

superseded at the conclave of 1492, their frustrated backers and the leading families of Rome who feared a strong man like Alexander and would have preferred a pontiff they could manipulate to do their bidding.

One satirist called her

the Bride of Christ

an appellation that it was said,

amused her greatly.

Many Italians were suspicious of Alexander because he was a 'Catalan' and therefore a devious foreigner who, despite his years of service in the Vatican, was unlikely to do right by the papacy.

Zampieri Domenichino (1581-1641), who painted this picture of a woman with a unicorn, may have based her face on that of Giulia Farnese, Pope Alexander VI's mistress.

The answer, as Alexander saw it, was to surround himself with his own relatives, the only people he could really trust. This nepotism was, of course, nothing new in the Vatican. Uncle Calixtus had been expert at it in his time and many other popes had seen the papacy as a prime opportunity to enrich and elevate their families by giving them titles, wealth and status otherwise beyond their reach. Even so, Alexander VI outdid them all. In his hands, the workings of this despotic, secretive and exclusive papacy came to resemble those of the Mafia - violent and exploitative where necessary, and propelled by fabulous amounts of money.

The appointments to high office of Alexander's young sons Cesare and Jofre were only the start.

Pope Alexander VI's disagreements with his son Cesare did not stop him appointing him a cardinal at the age of 18.

Alexander filled the Sacred College of Cardinals with Borgias and members of related families. The most important new cardinal was Cesare Borgia, although Alexander had to use trickery to get round the rule that only legitimately born candidates were eligible. Cesare was, of course, illegitimate but he was deftly 'legitimized' by his father who issued a papal bull declaring him to be the son of his mistress Vanozza de'Cattanei and her first husband, the late Domenico Giannozzo Rignano.

But another bull, issued on the same day, reversed the first and acknowledged the truth - that Pope Alexander was Cesare's father. The second Bull was conveniently overlooked and Cesare duly qualified. But more than that, Pope Alexander insisted that all other cardinals of the Sacred College must be there to greet Cesare when he made his formal entry into Rome. It was unprecedented, but the pope was adamant. Predictably, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere voiced the most strident protest, declaring that he would not stand by and let the College be 'profaned and abused' in this way. Nevertheless, this is precisely what he was forced to do and, with the other cardinals, had to offer to Cesare the homage the pope demanded of them.

The cardinals were already apoplectic with rage over admitting the pope's bastard into their ranks when Alexander created another, similar, controversy: he proposed that Alessandro, the younger brother of Giulia Farnese, should also become a cardinal. This was seen as a reward for Giulia's sexual services, which served to heighten the temperature at the College of Cardinals even further. Once again, though, Pope Alexander forced the appointment through, this time by threatening to replace all members of the College with more nominees of his own and make Alessandro a cardinal that way.

In addition, the Pope spread Borgia influence both inside and outside Italy by arranging advantageous unions for his children. The marriage of Alexander's son Jofre to Sancia of Aragon, a granddaughter of King Ferrante of Naples, brought the pope a link with the royal family that ruled both Naples and Aragon. Jofre's sister, Lucrezia Borgia, the only daughter of the pope and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattenei, was more a victim than the vicious purveyor of poison portrayed in so many Borgia legends. Her father, it appears, adored her, but that did not prevent him marrying her off three times for his own political advantage. Her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, who wed the 13-year-old Lucrezia in 1493, was supposed to bring Alexander a valuable connection with Milan. Giovanni, however,

                              the Pope spread Borgia influence

both inside and outside Italy

by arranging advantageous unions

for his children.

proved less than satisfactory. He was more attuned to French interests than to those of his father-in-law and persistently refused to perform the military service in the papal army Alexander required of him.


Alexander, aided and abetted by Cesare, decided to get rid of the unsatisfactory Giovanni. He was bullied into confessing something that was patently untrue, and totally mortifying for a Renaissance man to admit, that his marriage to Lucrezia had never been consummated, due to his own impotence. The fact that Lucrezia was pregnant at this time was conveniently overlooked. The divorce that followed opened the way for the pope to choose Lucrezia's second husband, the handsome 17-year-old Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie. Alexander had had designs on Naples for a number of years and Alfonso, whose Aragonese family exercised power over the city, seemed like the ideal means for implementing those ambitions.

The marriage took place in 1498, but like Giovanni Sforza, before him, Alfonso soon ran out of usefulness. An assault by French and Spanish forces put an end to Aragonese control of Naples and so made young Alfonso disposable. In July of 1500, probably with the connivance of the pope, Cesare Borgia sent armed henchmen to attack Alfonso as he was walking past the church of St Peter in the Vatican. They failed to kill

Pope Alexander made his son Cesare a cardinal at the age of 18. This picture, painted by Giuseppe-Lorenzo Gatteri (1829-86), shows Cesare leaving the Vatican.

Portrait of a woman by Bartolomeo Veneziano (1502-1555), thought to be Lucrezia Borgia, eldest daughter of Pope Alexander. Lucrezia was used as a pawn by her father to conclude advantageous marriages.

him this time, but Cesare completed the job, apparently in person, by strangling his brother-in-law as he convalesced. Lucrezia, a widow at the age of 20, was heartbroken, for she had genuinely loved Alfonso.

Pope Alexander at last achieved what he wanted from a son-in-law when he arranged a third marriage for Lucrezia, with another, but much better, Alfonso.

Giovanni was bullied into

confessing that his marriage to

Lucrezia had never been

consummated due to his

own impotence.

This was Alfonso d'Este, whose family ruled the city-state of Ferrara. At first, d'Este baulked at the idea of marrying into Lucrezia's unsavoury family. This was not surprising when sensational gossip of all kinds, including allegations of murder, incest, immorality, debauchery and virtually every other crime it was possible to commit constantly surrounded the Borgias. Eventually, though, Alfonso came round and the couple were married on 30 December 1501. Unlike Lucrezia's first two husbands, Alfonso and the d'Estes were fully in control of their city, which bordered on the northern boundary of the Papal States, and was able to lend power and influence to Alexander and all his successor pontiffs until the end of the sixteenth century. After that, Ferrara was absorbed by the Papal States.


But however generous he was towards his other children the lion's share of paternal bounty went to Alexander's favourite, his son Juan Borgia. In 1488, four years before Alexander became pope, the 11-year-old Juan had been gifted the Duchy of Gandia, the Borgia family estate in Spain, in the will left by his half-brother Pedro Luis. Juan's older brother Cesare was infuriated to find himself passed over for the sake

The tomb of Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie, the second husband of Lucrezia Borgia, who was murdered by her brother Cesare in 1500.

of a pampered sibling who was known in the Vatican as 'the spoiled boy' (and lived up to it for most of the time). Cesare was so enraged he swore that he would kill Juan, even though, as a member of the clergy, he

Cesare Borgia sent armed

henchmen to attack Alfonso.

Lucrezia a widow at the age of 20

was heartbroken.

was not eligible to take on Juan's essentially secular honours. But Cesare was himself only 13 years old at the time and the threat was not taken seriously.