DARK  HISTORY  OF  THE  POPES  -  the  Borgias #3

The Duchy of Gandia was not the only bequest Juan received from Pedro Luis. He also inherited Pedro's intended bride, Maria.Enriquez de Luna. The 16-year-old Juan set sail for Spain and his Duchy in 1493 and did so in a grandiose style more suited to the travels of an emperor. His doting father had provided him with gold, jewels, silver, coin and a mass of other

Gossips and other observers put it

about that the famity was in the

process of shifting the Vatican

treasures to Spain.

booty, which required the holds of four galleys to transport it from Italy to Spain. Gossips and other observers put it about that the family was in the process of shifting the Vatican treasures to Spain.

'They say that he will return within a year,' reported Gian Lucido Cattaneo, an envoy from the Italian city-state of Mantua 'but will leave all that in Spain and come for another harvest.'


Pope Alexander also loaded his favourite son with instructions on how to behave properly, telling him to be 'pious' and 'God-fearing', to refrain from staying out late at night, to shun gambling and take care not to embezzle the revenues of his Duchy. Nevertheless, according to rumour, Juan quickly proved to be a chip off the old Borgia block once he was a safe distance away from his father. He spent his nights in taverns, drinking, gambling and consorting with prostitutes and, worst of all, neglecting his wife Maria. It was even whispered that Juan had been so busy carousing and debauching that he had not found the time to consummate his marriage. This was soon proved untrue for Maria Enriquez quickly became pregnant and Juan, in any case, denied the rest of the gossip as fictions put about by 'people with little brain or in a state of drunkenness'.

But it did not take a great deal of brain or drink to recognize that the young Duke of Gandia had inherited his father's extravagant tastes. One thing Juan failed to understand about Spain was that opulence

A portrait painted by Bernardino di Betto, or Pinturicchio (1454-1513) which is said to depict Lucrezia Borgia.

and excessive show were unwelcome in a country that favoured ascetic Christianity and regarded the luxuriant splendours of Renaissance Italy with disdain.

Pope Alexander also loaded his

favourite son with instructions on

how to behave properly

telling him to be 'pious'

and 'God-fearing'...

Juan, of course, had never known anything but luxury and its gaudy manifestations, so that it was natural for him to create a palace in Gandia that contained magnificent furnishings and brilliantly ornate decor.

When complaints about his son's inappropriate behaviour reached Alexander, he rushed off a furious letter demanding that Juan cultivate greater care for local sensibilities.

However, a while later, in 1497, it became apparent that Juan had roused enmities that needed to be answered by much more than mere grumbling. Despite his protestations, he was a Borgia through and through, leading a decadent life and displaying an excessively arrogant manner. 'A very mean young man,' was how one contemporary described him, 'full of false ideas of grandeur and bad thoughts, haughty, cruel and unreasonable.'

Late in the summer of 1496, Juan came to Rome to be installed by his father as Captain-General of the Church. This was a highly prestigious post that placed Juan in charge of the papal army, even though he had no military experience, training or talent for the task. There were far better qualified nobles in Rome, such as the prominent condotierre, Guidobaldo de Montefeltre, Duke of Urbino, to name only one. Naturally they were furious at being upstaged by a callow and overindulged youth. And their worst suspicions were confirmed. Juan's immediate brief was to bring to heel the powerful but rebellious Orsini family who were backed by a strong French presence. After several attempts in which dozens of papal

Pope Alexander VI and Jacopo Pesaro, Bishop of Paphos paying their respects to St Peter (seated, left) in an oil painting by Titian (c.1485-1576), leader of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.

soldiers were needlessly sacrificed through Juan's ineptitude, the Orsini were finally brought to heel and their French backers driven off.

The hero of the hour should have been Gonsalvo di Cordova, an aristocrat and renowned general known in his native Spain as El Gran Capitan (the Great Captain). It was di Cordova, nominally Juan's 'lieutenant', who masterminded the final, victorious, siege and assault of the 'Orsini wars'. However, Pope Alexander wanted his beloved Juan to take all the credit and gave him the place of honour at the celebration banquet. The infuriated di Cordova refused to take his seat and walked out. The pope, blinded by inordinate love of his favourite son, fooled himself that this hostility was due to jealousy of Juan, and planned new honours for him. One of his ideas was to make Juan King of Naples after the incumbent, Ferrante II, died in 1496. It was only when threatening noises reached him from King Ferdinand of Aragon that Alexander backed off.


However, favouring Juan did not account for all the ambitions of Alexander at this time. He was, in fact, aiming to use his son as a means of expanding Borgia power throughout Italy. As pope, Alexander already controlled the Papal States, which occupied a large swathe of central Italy. Although he had been thwarted in his plans to absorb Naples, he was able to use papal cities that lay within the Neapolitan boundaries - Benevento, Terracina and Pontecorvo - to make a sizeable new territory for Juan. When this move was announced in June of 1497, a

Gonsalvo di Cordova, Duke of Terranova and Santangelo, was the Spanish general who made Spain the premier military power of the 16th and 17th centuries.

wave of protest swept Rome. Alexander's enemies did not find it difficult to guess its significance. It was, they believed, a preliminary move to absorb the Kingdom of Naples by more furtive means. There was, though, a terrible method by which this expansion, and any others Alexander had in mind, could be halted in its tracks - assassination.

Pope Alexander was devastated when he heard how horribly Juan had been killed. It was said that he let out a great roar like an injured animal when he saw Juan's bloated, muddied body. The diarist Johann Burchard, Master of Ceremonies to Pope Alexander, wrote:

The pope, when he heard that the duke had been killed and flung into the river like dung, was thrown into a paroxysm of grief, and for the pain and bitterness of his heart shut himself in his room and wept most bitterly.

a highly prestigious post placed

Juan in charge of the papal

army even though he had

no military experience.


On the evening of 14 June 1497, Juan's mother Vannozza held a special dinner at her country village near Rome to celebrate the honours that were being heaped on her son. Juan's elder brother Cesare Borgia was there, together with Jofre and his wife Sancia and their cousin Cardinal Juan Borgia-Lanzel.The environs of Rome could be dangerous at night for wealthy people, who could easily fall prey to marauders, so the party broke up around dusk and Juan rode off with Cesare and a group of friends and their servants. Somewhere along the way, Juan parted company with the others and rode on with two companions, heading for the pope's palace, the Castel Sant'Angelo. Juan never reached the palace, nor was he ever seen alive again.

When it was discovered that he was missing, search parties totalling some 300 men were sent out to comb the route Juan had taken. They found nothing. Pope Alexander ordered his Spanish guards to make a fingertip search of the city. They discovered the groom who had accompanied Juan, but he was so badly beaten he was almost dying and could tell them nothing about the fate of his master. They also found Juan's horse whose trappings, particularly the stirrups, showed clear evidence of a violent struggle. Still, Juan was nowhere to be found and the Borgia guards began bullying householders to betray what, if anything, they knew about the missing duke. The Orsini family, recently trounced by the Borgia pope and his upstart offspring, realized they might be prime suspects and barricaded themselves into their homes rather than confront the fury of the pope's 'heavies'.


Then, at last, an eyewitness was located. Giorgio Schiavi, a timber merchant who unloaded his wood on an island in the middle of the River Tiber, revealed that around two o'clock in the morning, he had seen two men, acting furtively, throw a body into the water. The searchers dragged the river all night and for half the following day, until at noon, a corpse clad in rich brocade and carrying the insignia of Captain-General of the Church was discovered. It was Juan. He had been brutally hacked about as many as eight times and his throat was cut. His hands were tied together and a stone had been hung about his neck to make sure he sank to the bottom of the river. The murder had all the hallmarks of a contract killing.

A modern illustration of Juan's murder, showing his body about to be thrown into the River Tiber.


Alexander refused to let anyone in for several hours, and neither ate nor drank anything for more than three days. In his overwhelming grief, he imagined that Juan had been killed because of his own sinful excesses. He said:

God has done this perhaps for some sin of ours and not because he deserved such a cruel death... We are determined henceforth to see to our own reform and that of the church. We wish to renounce all nepotism. We will begin therefore with ourselves and so proceed through all the ranks of the church till the whole work is accomplished.

It was the grief talking, of course. Alexander was too much of a dyed-in-the-wool sinner, too far gone in excess and pleasure to convert himself in the overnight manner he seemed to suggest. Instead, he reverted to

The pope blinded by inordinate

love of his favourite son fooled

himself that this hostility

was due to jealousy of Juan.

type and to his long-established immoralities and his intrigues in politics. His cardinals and other clergy did not mind too much for they, too, were loath to give up their own pleasures.

Juan was buried in the family chapel a few hours after he was found. He was accompanied to his grave by 120 torchbearers. As the procession reached the place on the shore of the River Tiber where the body was found, men of the Borgia's own private army unsheathed their swords and swore vengeance on   whoever had perpetrated the crime. Despite the offer of a generous reward, the murderer was never found, but there were plenty of suspects. One of the noble Roman families, deprived by Juan and his father of the honours they believed were their due, might have done the deed. In particular, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the great enemy of the Borgias, who had links with the Orsini family, could have contrived the killing.


Another possible culprit may have been closer to home, too close, in fact, for comfort. Pope Alexander had ordered an investigation shortly after the murder, but this was suddenly closed only three weeks later. It was never reopened. This mystery fed the speculation that surrounded Juan's death and it was whispered that the investigation had already done its job and revealed a murderer whose name the pope did not want publicized. The most likely candidate, according to the gossip, was his son, Cesare Borgia, who had been one of the last to see Juan alive. Juan's young widow, Maria Enriquez de Luna and her family seemed certain that Cesare had murdered his brother. Nine years after

When the procession reached the

place where the body was founds

men of the Borgia's own private

army unsheathed their swords and

swore vengeance.

swearing to kill Juan, they believed, he had made his threat come true, and there appeared to be evidence to support this theory.

For one thing, Cesare's ruthless, rapacious nature and his penchant for intrigue were already well known. Murder, it was said, was well within his compass. Besides that, Cesare had everything to gain from Juan's death. Ever since 1488, Cesare had coveted the Duchy of Gandia and all the other honours and riches their father had conferred on Juan. Now, with Juan removed from the scene, he had his chance but was checked at first by his father's protests. Alexander had taken a great deal of trouble to place Cesare in the College of Cardinals and was convinced that from this springboard, his son would one day become pope. But Cesare was too much a man of the world and in particular, a man of the sensual Renaissance world. He was more interested in hunting than in prayer, coveted wealth and women rather than spiritual integrity and preferred land and estates to a life of humility and sacrifice.

Juan's young widow

Maria Enriquez de Luna and her

family seemed certain that Cesare

had murdered his brother.

In 1503 the artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci received this commission, with seal, from Cesare Borgia to take charge of building fortifications in the Romagna region.

Ultimately, Cesare got his way, if only because Jofre, the son Pope Alexander planned would take Juan's place, proved too weak and diffident to face up to the challenges involved. Cesare, an inspiring militant leader and a first-class strategist, was much more the vigorous strong man required to realize his father's ambitions. This was why, however reluctantly, Alexander allowed Cesare to resign holy orders in 1498, the first cardinal ever to do so.


Now, Cesare's secular aims were within his reach. He was created Captain-General of the Church in his brother's stead and in 1499, acquired a wife - the 16-year-old Charlotte d'Albray, who was the ideal daughter-in-law for a pope who aspired to all-embracing political power. Charlotte, the sister of King John III of Navarre, belonged to an aristocratic Gascon family related to the royal family of France and according to Italian envoys at the French court, was 'unbelievably beautiful'.

But the two-month honeymoon Cesare and his unbelievably beautiful young wife spent at a castle in his duchy of Valentinois created for him in 1498 by Pope Alexander, was the only time the newlyweds spent together. After July 1499, when he left the castle for the wars, Cesare never saw Charlotte again, nor their daughter, Luisa, who was born in the spring of 1500. Cesare fought first in support of his ally King Louis XII of France in the

One story told of a supper hosted by

Cesare Borgia at the end of October

1501 where 50 courtesans danced

naked with 50 servants.

siege and capture of Milan and next at the head of the papal army against rebellious feudal lords in the Romagna, which lay adjacent to the Papal States in the northeast of Italy. Tribute to the pope was overdue and Alexander sent Cesare to teach the lords of the Romagna a lesson.

Both campaigns were extremely successful and in Jubilee year, 1500, Cesare and his father provided Rome with the greatest bonanza celebration the Borgias had ever staged. It featured, for a start, a bloody spectacle reminiscent of the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, in which Cesare, resplendent on horseback, cut off the heads of six bulls in St Peter's Square to wild applause from the watching crowd. According to rumours and stories circulating in Rome, and supported by the diaries of Johann Burchard, the celebrations continued with a session of debauchery that exceeded virtually all other acts of depravity the Borgias had so far committed.


One story told of a supper hosted by Cesare Borgia at the end of October 1501 where 50 courtesans danced naked with 50 servants. This was followed by an orgy in which whoever made love to the prostitutes the most times or produced the 'best performances' received prizes. The onlookers, who included Pope Alexander, Cesare and Lucrezia, selected the winners. Foreign diplomats in Rome, who regularly transmitted salacious gossip about the Borgias to their masters at home spread the news that the papal apartments had been turned into a private brothel where at least 25 women came into the Vatican each night to provide the 'entertainment' at parties attended by Pope Alexander, Cesare and large numbers of cardinals. Pope Alexander had increased membership of the Cardinals' College by nine new candidates, each having paid thousands of ducats for the privilege.

The money went to line the pockets of the pope and Cesare who were already rich enough to make the fabled King Croesus of Lydia envious. Probably the most scurrilous purveyor of gossip about the Borgias was one of their greatest enemies, a certain Baron Silvio Savelli, whose lands had been confiscated by the pope. Savelli hated Alexander with savage intensity. After receiving an anonymous letter from Naples that overflowed with the most scandalous details about the pontiff and his family.

Lucrezia danced for her father, Pope Alexander VI, and his guests at one of his infamous parties.

Savelli had it translated into every European language and circulated it around the royal courts of Europe. The letter named Pope Alexander as 'this monster' and 'this infamous beast' and continued:

Who is not shocked to hear tales of the monstrous lascivity openly exhibited at the Vatican in defiance of God and all human decency? Who is not repelled by the debauchery, the incest, the obscenity of the children of the pope... the flocks of courtesans in the palace of St Peter? There is not a house of ill fame or a brothel that is not more respectable!

Although the case was overstated in order to defame the Borgias to the maximum, these accusations hit the target for many more of the family's enemies in Rome. For years, cardinals, clerics and nobles had been crushed under the wheels of Pope Alexander's ambition, his flagrant nepotism, his greed for lands and estates, the presence in the Vatican of his mistresses and bastard children, and the insults his debauched life had offered to the Church. But it was not until 1503, when he died at the papal palace in Rome, probably of malaria, that they were able, at last, to hit back. Cesare, too, contracted the disease that had been spread through the city by clouds of mosquitoes, but he was younger and healthier and survived.

Despite, or maybe because of, his physicians' efforts, which included bleeding him regularly, Pope Alexander expired after almost a week, on 18 August. The news was kept secret for several days. Nevertheless, panic gripped members of the Borgia family still in the Vatican, for they knew, as Cesare did, that with the pope gone all guarantee of their safety had disappeared with him. Some of them fled Rome immediately. Others remained behind only long enough to loot Alexander's treasury and ransack the papal apartments for gold, silver, jewels, gold and emerald cups, a gold statue of a cat with two large diamonds for eyes and the mantle of St Peter, which was covered in precious stones. The loot was hidden in the Castel Sant'Angelo and only then was the announcement made that the pope was dead. Death and the sweltering August weather had so distorted moment he had died. This may have been one of the reasons why priests at the church of St Peter refused to accept the pope's body for burial. Others were disgusted at the condition of the corpse, or the disrepute the Borgia pontiff and his family had brought on the Catholic Church. Frightening threats were required to make the priests give in, and do their funerary duty.

A painting of the death of Pope Alexander VI by the German realist painter Wilhelm Trubner (1851-1917). Rumour had it the pope was poisoned, but it is more likely that he died of malaria.

Alexander's body that it became a thing of horror to look upon. Johann Burchard recorded:

Its face had changed to the colour of mulberry or the blackest cloth and it was covered in blue-black spots. The nose was swollen, the mouth distended where the tongue was doubled over and the lips seemed to fill everything.

Even when the grossly swollen corpse had been forced into its coffin, no one wanted to come near or touch it. A rumour had gone round that Pope Alexander had made a pact with the Devil in order to make himself pope in 1492, and that demons had been seen in the exact

For year cardinals clerics and nobles had been crushed under the wheels of Pope Alexander's ambition his flagrant nepotism his greed for lands and estates the ... mistresses and bastard children and the insults his debauched life had offered to the Church.


The adjective 'machiavellian', which is synonymous with cunning; scheming or unscrupulous, comes from the name of an Italian writer, Niccolo Machiavelli. He wrote a book entitled The Prince, published in 1532, which made a case for unethical methods of acquiring and exercising power. One of Machiavelli's models for this exercise was Cesare Borgia, Duke of Gandia.

Machiavelli met Cesare when he went to his court as Secretary of the Florentine Chancellery in 1502, and remained at the court for more than three months. This meant Machiavelli had plenty of time to study how Cesare conducted himself and his business. He used several of Cesare's exploits and strategies as examples of how to gain and retain power and advised politicians and rulers to emulate him.

In Chapter Seven of The Prince, Machiavelli cited one event that had particularly impressed him. It showed Borgia asserting his power by the most brutal means and told how he handled a difficult situation in Romagna, northern Italy. After he had conquered the region, Cesare found that it was wild, disorganized and almost ungovernable. Machiavelli wrote:

... wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he [Cesare Borgia] considered it necessary to give it a good governor. Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d'Orco de Lorqua, a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power. This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success. Afterwards the duke considered that it was not advisable to confer such excessive authority... And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself so... he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of [Ramiro]. Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza... with the block and a bloody knife at his side.


The black reputation of the Borgias also kept most prelates in the Vatican away from the Requiem Mass normally said for departed popes, and only four made an appearance. Francesco Piccolomini, who succeeded him as Pope Pius III, banned another Mass, for the repose of Alexander's soul. 'It is blasphemous,' Pius proclaimed 'to pray for the damned.' Eventually, Alexander was buried in the Spanish national church of Santa Maria di Monserrato in Rome.

The Borgia 'empire', which had taken Alexander so many years and so much intrigue and effort to build, soon fell apart after his death. While her father lived, Lucrezia had enjoyed some importance as a link with the pope that was used by ambassadors, envoys and other hopefuls seeking papal favours. Alexander's cousin, Adriana del Mila performed a similar function, for as one contemporary diarist wrote of the house in Rome the two women shared: "The majority of those wishing to curry favour with the pope pass through these doors.' All that came to an abrupt end once Alexander died.


Cesare's power vanished just as quickly. Old enemies - the Orsini, Guidobaldo da Montefeltre, Cesare's sometime brother-in-law Giovanni Sforza, the feudal lords of the Romagna - all came back to reclaim the rights and territories he had taken from them. In 1503, Alexander's greatest and most enduring enemy, Giuliani della Rovere became pope as Julius II and at once set about making it impossible for the Borgias to retain their

Panic gripped members of the

Borgia family. Some of them fled

Rome immediately.

hold over the Papal States. Captured and imprisoned by Gonsalvo di Cordova, another vengeful foe with ample reason to hate all Borgias, Cesare managed to escape and ended his life in 1507 as a humble mercenary fighting for his brother-in-law, King John III of Navarre. Cesare's much misused sister, Lucrezia, died in 1519 from complications caused by her eighth pregnancy.

With Lucrezia, the last major player of the infamous Borgia era was gone, but neither she, nor her father, nor her brother Cesare have ever been forgotten. The legend of Borgia nepotism, simony debauchery, murder and dirty dealings of almost every other kind lives on and their name has become a byword for infamy that persists to this day.

The bedroom of Lucrezia Borgia in the castle at Sermoneta, in which she lived from 1500-1503, has been preserved as a museum.