First published 2008, The House of Borgia, is historian Christopher Hibbert’s highly readable study of one of the leading dynasties in Renaissance Italy, newly available from the Folio Society. This is a companion volume to Hibbert’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, already published by the Folio Society.
The Borgias rose to significance in history during the return of the popes from Avignon. The seat of the papacy was in Avignon 1309 to 1376 due to a dispute between the French crown and the papacy. A series of French Popes resided in the Kingdom of Arles until it became clear that a return to Rome was necessary to secure the Roman estates of the Pope. Lord Alfonso de Borja, Bishop of Valencia, was elected by a conclave of cardinals as a compromise candidate. He was elected on the twin virtues that he was neither French nor expected to live long. “By the time of the conclave of April 1455, he was living in Rome, an austere, modest and increasingly gouty old man in his late seventies, in such poor health that it was doubted that he would survive the arduous ceremonies of his consecration.”
The expectation was that an elderly scholar – albeit a well-connected and worldly one – would be non-interventionist stop-gap figure. Pope Calixtus III proved to be otherwise. In his reign of three years, he dedicated the Holy See to protect Christendom against the Turkish invasion, selling and pawning valuables to back military expenses. The favours of Calixtus III and subsequent Popes advanced members of the Borgia family, including Cardinal Rodrigo (1431-1503). Corruption and brigandage threatened Roman inhabitants and pilgrims during the reign of ineffectual popes.
Popes were called to adjudicate legitimacy of claimants and were hardly disinterested in the tax revenues involved. Popes faced the real threat of deposition should they side with a power that was more militarily powerful than the Vatican and its allies.
Assisted by considerable bribes, Rodrigo Borgia was nominated and enthroned as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He would rule until 1503. In part, he was chosen for his toughness and political skills. “Alexander VI was both conscientious and competent in the discharge of his duties. Approachable, affable and good-natured, he was also determined to put a stop to the riotous lawlessness into which Rome had fallen during the pontificate of his predecessor, Innocent VIII.”
Alexander VI took steps to secure his family as a dynasty in Italy by marrying daughter Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, cousin of Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. Son Jofrè became a Neapolitan grandee and his brother Juan (Duke of Gandia) married the cousin of King Ferdinand of Aragon. Illegitimate son Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) was appointed cardinal.
Alexander VI’s papal bulls affirmed Spain’s authority in the New World, playing a major part in the colonial development of the Americas. Alexander VI’s reign coincided with the period of the High Renaissance in Italy (1490 or 1500 to 1520) and saw a flourishing of the arts, patronised by the princes, churchmen and merchants of Italy. Not least of the patrons was Alexander VI. He commissioned work by Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pinturicchio; the latter painted murals for the Borgia Apartments (now the library) in the Vatican.
The French captured Naples in 1494, marching through Rome. Cesare and Alexander VI used wily diplomacy and Cesare used ruthless violence to undermine Charles VIII’s occupation of Naples. A virulent outbreak of syphilis and ill discipline among his troops forced Charles to withdraw. Alexander VI evaded the irate French king by moving his court out of his way as he marched home northwards through Rome. Harried in battle on his retreat by mercenaries of the Holy League, Charles won a military victory but lost some of his plunder, which included holy relics and erotica.
It was during the reign of Alexander VI that troublesome firebrand Savonarola rose to demagogue status by rousing the populace of Florence to millenarian fervour. In 1495, with the flight of the Medici, his radical preaching whipped congregations into states of pious anger, ready to follow the preacher’s lead in not only preventing the return of the Medici but the overthrowing of the church authorities. There was no shortage of evidence of corruption, as it was a part of everyday life. Using the populace’s political defiance of the Medici, Savonarola became the de facto theological ruler of Florence. Citing authority from God, Savonarola claimed he was founding a New Jerusalem, a holy republic. He instigated a crusade of theft and intimidation, in which children would search out and possess items of value to commit them to a bonfire of the vanities. Children would urge elders to abandon vice and adopt virtue, informing authorities of instances of moral turpitude. In a climate that mixed piety and fear, Florentines abandoned ostentatiousness and comfort. Alexander VI attempted to rein in the prior but Savonarola refused to submit to the Pope’s authority. In 1498, after being arrested and convicted of heresy, Savonarola and two fellow priors were publicly burned alive. Leonardo sketched the preacher hanging in chains.
Cesare was more soldier than cardinal. He seduced Jofrè’s wife Sancia. Hibbert describes how the high-spirited Lucrezia and Sancia would “leave their seats during the tedious service to go up together to the choir reserved for their ladies, and to chatter and laugh together, oblivious to the boring sermon.” Juan also seduced Sancia. In 1497 Juan was murdered in a planned assassination. Alexander was appalled and vowed to bring the killer to justice. A few weeks later, he dropped the subject. It seems he had been appraised that Cesare (and maybe Jofrè) had been behind the killing. Reports are that the other Borgias believed Cesare had ordered the murder of his half-brother.
The marital estrangement between Giovanni Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia was exacerbated by political rivalry between the two clans. There were accusations of impotence and incest made by the families. A this time, Cesare murdered the lover of his sister. (Even in an age of violence, Cardinal Cesare was judged particularly cruel and dangerous. On one occasion he took pleasure in shooting arrows at confined prisoners. His temper was not improved by recurrent effects of syphilis. He pursued vice with dedication, neglected the duties of his position and generally wore a nobleman’s finery rather than holy robes.) The newly divorced Lucrezia was married to Alfonso, illegitimate son of King Federigo of Naples. Meanwhile, the Pope fathered a child.
The accession of Louis XII to the French throne, following the death of Charles VIII, was an advantage to the Borgias. Upon the request of the new king, the Pope dissolved his barren marriage, allowing the king to marry advantageously. The Pope also saw the Borgias interests aligning with Louis XII in the matter of Milan. He gave secret approval for Louis XII to invade and occupy Milan, which he did in 1499, aided by Cesare. This alliance caused tension between the Spanish crown and the Vatican.
Cesare became a terror in Italy. He led his mercenaries fearlessly, fighting on behalf of the French (and himself), sacking any town that did not pay a ransom. He was accused of kidnapping and rape. Whilst disguised, Cesare would provoke fights with strangers. (Physicians suggested that secondary syphilis had impaired his mind.) Another pastime was go game hunting with trained leopards. He became Duke of Romagna and an honorary nobleman of Venice, using the symbols of the Pope and the French crown in his heraldry. He briefly employed Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect. For 10 months over 1502-3, Leonardo toured the Papal States, surveying towns and local geography; he suggested improvements to their defences and waterways. Another courtier of Cesare was Niccolò Macchiavelli, who would write his treatise on leadership The Prince, which was informed by his first-hand observations of Cesare.
Cesare would have his sister’s husband Alfonso murdered. This led to an arranged marriage between the widowed Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este, heir to the Duchy of Ferrara. Hibbert describes the arduous journey through the winter of the bride to Ferrara and the spectacles (including, jousts, balls, parades and theatrical performances) arranged for her welcome. The d’Este sisters Isabella and Elisabetta, fumed bitterly and in private, jealous of their beautiful and accomplished sister-in-law.
In the summer of 1503, Alexander VI became sick. The Roman summer the miasma and mosquitos brought illness of all types. He suffered a fever and bleeding and died on 18 August. Crucially, when this occurred, Cesare was in the Vatican and also sick with the same malady. Gravely ill, Cesare was in no position to influence the conclave that would elect the next pope. Thus the election of Pius III was out of the hands of the Borgias. He was a compromise candidate, already very ill. He died on the tenth day of his reign. Julius II succeeded Pius III. He was an opponent of the Borgias. Mentally, Cesare was a broken man. He was indecisive and made poor decisions. His captains deserted him as it became clear he was a spent force. He was imprisoned in Spain, at the orders of the Spanish crown. In 1507, shortly following his escape, he died fighting for the king of Navarre. In 1519 Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara died, weakened by a multiple pregnancies.
Hibbert concludes, “Alexander VI had been extraordinarily ambitious for his children; yet, in the end, few traces of the Borgia name appear in the annals that trace the history of the illustrious families of Rome.”
Hibbert quotes eyewitness sources and marshals the rich evidence in an easily comprehensible and energetic narrative. Sources are included, as is an index. The new edition of The House of Borgia is a sumptuous production. The patterned red satin (with designs of the Borgia bull and the Papal armorial bearings), top edge gilt and protective slipcase are handsome and very appropriate for the subject. The maps allow us follow the narrative more clearly and the art chosen as colour-plate illustrations comprise portraits of significant figures, places and events. So much great art was produced under the patronage of the Borgias (and contemporaneous to their reign) that 24 illustrations are a mere fraction of the available images. However, so vivid is Hibbert’s writing, and so ingrained in our memories are Renaissance paintings, that we can follow the story of the Borgias very satisfactorily with no more than 24 illustrations.
Christopher Hibbert, The House of Borgia, Folio Society, 2017, cloth hardback in slipcase, top-edge gilt, 280pp, 24 col. illus., 2 maps, £44.95. The Folio Society edition of Christopher Hibbert’s The House of Borgia is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com
(c) 2020 Alexander Adams
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[i] P. 12
[ii] P. 32
[iii] P. 76
[iv] P. 241