The Life of Cesare Borgia
Part 2 out of 7
benefices--Roderigo bought the cardinal's votes, what then? He bought
them, true. But they--they sold him their sacred trust, their duty to
their God, their priestly honour, their holy vows. For the gold he
offered them they bartered these. So much admitted, then surely, in that
transaction, those cardinals were the prostitutes! The man who bought so
much of them, at least, was on no baser level than were they. Yet
invective singles him out for its one object, and so betrays the
aforethought malice of its inspiration.
Our quarrel is with that; with that, and with those writers who have
taken Alexander's simony for granted--eagerly almost--for the purpose of
heaping odium upon him by making him appear a scandalous exception to the
If, nevertheless, we hold, as we have said, that simony probably did take
place, we do so, not so much upon the inconclusive evidence of the fact,
as upon the circumstance that it had become almost an established custom
to purchase the tiara, and that Roderigo Borgia--since his ambition
clearly urged him to the Pontificate--would have been an exception had he
It may seem that to have disputed so long to conclude by admitting so
much is no better than a waste of labour. Not so, we hope. Our aim has
been to correct the adjustment of the focus and properly to trim the
light in which Roderigo Borgia is to be viewed, to the end that you may
see him as he was--neither better nor worse--the creature of his times,
of his environment, and of the system in which he was reared and trained.
Thus shall you also get a clearer view of his son Cesare, when presently
he takes the stage more prominently.
During the seventeen days of the interregnum between the death of
Innocent and the election of Alexander the wild scenes usual to such
seasons had been taking place in Rome; and, notwithstanding the Cardinal-
Chamberlain's prompt action in seizing the gates and bridges, and the
patrols' endeavours to maintain order, crime was unfettered to such an
extent that some 220 murders are computed to have taken place--giving the
terrible average of thirteen a day.
It was a very natural epilogue to the lax rule of the lethargic Innocent.
One of the first acts of Alexander's reign was to deal summarily with
this lawlessness. He put down violence with a hard hand that knew no
mercy. He razed to the ground the house of a murderer caught red-handed,
and hanged him above the ruins, and so dealt generally that such order
came to prevail as had never before been known in Rome.
Infessura tells us how, in the very month of his election, he appointed
inspectors of prisons and four commissioners to administer justice, and
that he himself gave audience on Tuesdays and settled disputes,
concluding, "et justitiam mirabili modo facere coepit."
He paid all salaries promptly--a striking departure, it would seem, from
what had been usual under his predecessor--and the effect of his improved
and strenuous legislation was shortly seen in the diminished prices of
He was crowned Pope on August 6, on the steps of the Basilica of St.
Peter, by the Cardinal-Archdeacon Piccolomini. The ceremony was
celebrated with a splendour worthy of the splendid figure that was its
centre. Through the eyes of Michele Ferno--despite his admission that he
is unable to convey a worthy notion of the spectacle--you may see the
gorgeous procession to the Lateran in which Alexander VI showed himself
to the applauding Romans; the multitude of richly adorned men, gay and
festive; the seven hundred priests and prelates, with their familiars the
splendid cavalcade of knights and nobles of Rome; the archers and Turkish
horsemen, and the Palatine Guard, with its great halberds and flashing
shields; the twelve white horses, with their golden bridles, led by
footmen; and then Alexander himself on a snow-white horse, "serene of
brow and of majestic dignity," his hand uplifted--the Fisherman's Ring
upon its forefinger--to bless the kneeling populace. The chronicler
flings into superlatives when he comes to praise the personal beauty of
the man, his physical vigour and health, "which go to increase the
veneration shown him."
Thus in the brilliant sunshine of that Italian August, amid the plaudits
of assembled Rome, amid banners and flowers, music and incense, the flash
of steel and the blaze of decorations with the Borgian arms everywhere
displayed--or, a grazing steer gules--Alexander VI passes to the Vatican,
the aim and summit of his vast ambition.
Friends and enemies alike have sung the splendours of that coronation,
and the Bull device--as you can imagine--plays a considerable part in
those verses, be they paeans or lampoons. The former allude to Borgia as
"the Bull," from the majesty and might of the animal that was displayed
upon their shield; the latter render it the subject of much scurrilous
invective, to which it lends itself as readily. And thereafter, in
almost all verse of their epoch, writers ever say "the Bull" when they
mean the Borgia.
At the time of his father's election to the throne of St. Peter, Cesare
Borgia--now in his eighteenth year--was still at the University of Pisa.
It is a little odd, considering the great affection for his children
which was ever one of Roderigo's most conspicuous characteristics, that
he should not have ordered Cesare to Rome at once, to share in the
general rejoicings. It has been suggested that Alexander wished to avoid
giving scandal by the presence of his children at such a time. But that
again looks like a judgement formed upon modern standards, for by the
standards of his day one cannot conceive that he would have given very
much scandal; moreover, it is to be remembered that Lucrezia and
Giuffredo, at least, were in Rome at the time of their father's election
to the tiara.
However that may be, Cesare did not quit Pisa until August of that year
1492, and even then not for Rome, but for Spoleto--in accordance with his
father's orders--where he took up his residence in the castle. Thence he
wrote a letter to Piero de'Medici, which is interesting, firstly, as
showing the good relations prevailing between them; secondly, as refuting
a story in Guicciardini, wherewith that historian, ready, as ever, to
belittle the Borgias, attempts to show him cutting a poor figure. He
tells us(1) that, whilst at Pisa, Cesare had occasion to make an appeal
to Piero de'Medici in the matter of a criminal case connected with one of
his familiars; that he went to Florence and waited several hours in vain
for an audience, whereafter he returned to Pisa "accounting himself
despised and not a little injured."
1 Istoria d'Italia, tom. V.
No doubt Guicciardini is as mistaken in this as in many another matter,
for the letter written from Spoleto expresses his regret that, on the
occasion of his passage through Florence (on his way from Pisa to
Spoleto), he should not have had time to visit Piero, particularly as
there was a matter upon which he desired urgently to consult with him.
He recommends to Piero his faithful Remolino, whose ambition it is to
occupy the chair of canon law at the University of Pisa, and begs his
good offices in that connection. That Juan Vera, Cesare's preceptor and
the bearer of that letter, took back a favourable answer is highly
probable, for in Fabroni's Hist. Acad. Pisan we find this Remolino duly
established as a lecturer on canon law in the following year.
The letter is further of interest as showing Cesare's full consciousness
of the importance of his position; its tone and its signature--"your
brother, Cesar de Borgia, Elect of Valencia"--being such as were usual
The two chief aims of Alexander VI, from the very beginning of his
pontificate, were to re-establish the power of the Church, which was then
the most despised of the temporal States of Italy, and to promote the
fortune of his children. Already on the very day of his coronation he
conferred upon Cesare the bishopric of Valencia, whose revenues amounted
to an annual yield of sixteen thousand ducats. For the time being,
however, he had his hands very full of other matters, and it behoved him
to move slowly at first and with the extremest caution.
The clouds of war were lowering heavily over Italy when Alexander came to
St. Peter's throne, and it was his first concern to find for himself a
safe position against the coming of the threatening storm. The chief
menace to the general peace was Lodovico Maria Sforza, surnamed Il
Moro,(1) who sat as regent for his nephew, Duke Gian Galeazzo, upon the
throne of Milan. That regency he had usurped from Gian Galeazzo's
mother, and he was now in a fair way to usurp the throne itself. He kept
his nephew virtually a prisoner in the Castle of Pavia, together with his
young bride, Isabella of Aragon, who had been sent thither by her father,
the Duke of Calabria, heir to the crown of Naples.
1 Touching Lodovico Maria's by-name of "Il Moro"--which is generally
translated as "The Moor," whilst in one writer we have found him
mentioned as "Black Lodovico," Benedetto Varchi's explanation (in his
Storia Fiorentina) may be of interest. He tells us that Lodovico was not
so called on account of any swarthiness of complexion, as is supposed by
Guicciardini, because, on the contrary, he was fair; nor yet on account
of his device, showing a Moorish squire, who, brush in hand, dusts the
gown of a young woman in regal apparel, with the motto, "Per Italia
nettar d'ogni bruttura"; this device of the Moor, he tells us, was a
rébus or pun upon the word "moro," which also means the mulberry, and was
so meant by Lodovico. The mulberry burgeons at the end of winter and
blossoms very early. Thus Lodovico symbolized his own prudence and
readiness to seize opportunity betimes.
Gian Galeazzo thus bestowed, Lodovico Maria went calmly about the
business of governing, like one who did not mean to relinquish the
regency save to become duke. But it happened that a boy was born to the
young prisoners at Pavia, whereupon, spurred perhaps into activity by
this parenthood and stimulated by the thought that they had now a son's
interests to fight for as well as their own, they made appeal to King
Ferrante of Naples that he should enforce his grandson-in-law's rights to
the throne of Milan. King Ferrante could desire nothing better, for if
his grandchild and her husband reigned in Milan, and by his favour and
contriving, great should be his influence in the North of Italy.
Therefore he stood their friend.
Matters were at this stage when Alexander VI ascended the papal throne.
This election gave Ferrante pause, for, as we have seen, he had schemed
for a Pope devoted to his interests, who would stand by him in the coming
strife, and his schemes were rudely shaken now. Whilst he was still
cogitating the matter of his next move, the wretched Francesco Cibo (Pope
Innocent's son) offered to sell the papal fiefs of Cervetri and
Anguillara, which had been made over to him by his father, to Gentile
Orsini--the head of his powerful house. And Gentile purchased them under
a contract signed at the palace of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, on
September 3, for the sum of forty thousand ducats advanced him by
Alexander protested strongly against this illegal transaction, for
Cervetri and Anguillara were fiefs of the Church, and neither had Cibo
the right to sell nor Orsini the right to buy them. Moreover, that they
should be in the hands of a powerful vassal of Naples such as Orsini
suited the Pope as little as it suited Lodovico Maria Sforza. It stirred
the latter into taking measures against the move he feared Ferrante might
make to enforce Gian Galeazzo's claims.
Lodovico Maria went about this with that sly shrewdness so characteristic
of him, so well symbolized by his mulberry badge--a humorous shrewdness
almost, which makes him one of the most delightful rogues in history,
just as he was one of the most debonair and cultured. He may indeed be
considered as one of the types of the subtle, crafty, selfish politician
that was the ideal of Macchiavelli.
You see him, then, effacing the tight-lipped, cunning smile from his
comely face and pointing out to Venice with a grave, sober countenance
how little it can suit her to have the Neapolitan Spaniards ruffling it
in the north, as must happen if Ferrante has his way with Milan. The
truth of this was so obvious that Venice made haste to enter into a
league with him, and into the camp thus formed came, for their own sakes,
Mantua, Ferrara, and Siena. The league was powerful enough thus to cause
Ferrante to think twice before he took up the cudgels for Gian Galeazzo.
If Lodovico could include the Pope, the league's might would be so
paralysing that Ferrante would cease to think at all about his
Foreseeing this, Ferrante had perforce to dry the tears Guicciardini has
it that he shed, and, replacing them by a smile, servile and obsequious,
repaired, hat in hand, to protest his friendship for the Pope's Holiness.
And so, in December of 1492, came the Prince of Altamura--Ferrante's
second son--to Rome to lay his father's homage at the feet of the
Pontiff, and at the same time to implore his Holiness to refuse the King
of Hungary the dispensation the latter was asking of the Holy See, to
enable him to repudiate his wife, Donna Leonora--Ferrante's daughter.
Altamura was received in Rome and sumptuously entertained by the Cardinal
Giuliano della Rovere. This cardinal had failed, as we have seen, to
gain the Pontificate for himself, despite the French influence by which
he had been supported. Writhing under his defeat, and hating the man who
had defeated him with a hatred so bitter and venomous that the imprint of
it is on almost every act of his life--from the facilities he afforded
for the assignment to Orsini of the papal fiefs that Cibo had to sell--he
was already scheming for the overthrow of Alexander. To this end he
needed great and powerful friends; to this end had he lent himself to the
Cibo-Orsini transaction; to this end did he manifest himself the warm
well-wisher of Ferrante; to this end did he cordially welcome the
latter's son and envoy, and promise his support to Ferrante's petition.
But the Holy Father was by no means as anxious for the friendship of the
old wolf of Naples. The matter of the King of Hungary was one that
required consideration, and, meanwhile, he may have hinted slyly there
was between Naples and Rome a little matter of two fiefs to be adjusted.
Thus his most shrewd Holiness thought to gain a little time, and in that
time he might look about him and consider what alliances would suit his
At this Cardinal della Rovere, in high dudgeon, flung out of Rome and
away to his Castle of Ostia to fortify--to wield the sword of St. Paul,
since he had missed the keys of St. Peter. It was a shrewd move. He
foresaw the injured dignity of the Spanish House of Naples, and
Ferrante's wrath at the Pope's light treatment of him and apathy for his
interests; and the cardinal knew that with Ferrante were allied the
mighty houses of Colonna and Orsini. Thus, by his political divorcement
from the Holy See, he flung in his lot with theirs, hoping for red war
and the deposition of Alexander.
But surely he forgot Milan and Lodovico Maria, whose brother, Ascanio
Sforza, was at the Pope's elbow, the energetic friend to whose efforts
Alexander owed the tiara, and who was therefore hated by della Rovere
perhaps as bitterly as Alexander himself.
Alexander went calmly about the business of fortifying the Vatican and
the Castle of Sant' Angelo, and gathering mercenaries into his service.
And, lest any attempt should be made upon his life when he went abroad,
he did so with an imposing escort of men-at-arms; which so vexed and
fretted King Ferrante, that he did not omit to comment upon it in
scathing terms in a letter that presently we shall consider. For the
rest, the Pope's Holiness preserved an unruffled front in the face of the
hostile preparations that were toward in the kingdom of Naples, knowing
that he could check them when he chose to lift his finger and beckon the
Sforza into alliance. And presently Naples heard an alarming rumour that
Lodovico Maria had, in fact, made overtures to the Pope, and that the
Pope had met these advances to the extent of betrothing his daughter
Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and cousin to Lodovico.
So back to the Vatican went the Neapolitan envoys with definite proposals
of an alliance to be cemented by a marriage between Giuffredo Borgia--
aged twelve--and Ferrante's granddaughter Lucrezia of Aragon. The Pope,
with his plans but half-matured as yet, temporized, was evasive, and
continued to arm and to recruit. At last, his arrangements completed, he
abruptly broke off his negotiations with Naples, and on April 25, 1493,
publicly proclaimed that he had joined the northern league.
The fury of Ferrante, who realized that he had been played with and
outwitted, was expressed in a rabid letter to his ambassador at the Court
"This Pope," he wrote, "leads a life that is the abomination of all,
without respect for the seat he occupies. He cares for nothing save to
aggrandize his children, by fair means or foul, and this is his sole
desire. From the beginning of his Pontificate he has done nothing but
disturb the peace, molesting everybody, now in one way, now in another.
Rome is more full of soldiers than of priests, and when he goes abroad it
is with troops of men-at-arms about him, with helmets on their heads and
lances by their sides, all his thoughts being given to war and to our
hurt; nor does he overlook anything that can be used against us, not only
inciting in France the Prince of Salerno and other of our rebels, but
befriending every bad character in Italy whom he deems our enemy; and in
all things he proceeds with the fraud and dissimulation natural to him,
and to make money he sells even the smallest office and preferment."
Thus Ferrante of the man whose friendship he had been seeking some six
weeks earlier, and who had rejected his advances. It is as well to know
the precise conditions under which that letter was indited, for extracts
from it are too often quoted against Alexander. These conditions known,
and known the man who wrote it, the letter's proper value is at once
It was Ferrante's hope, and no doubt the hope of Giuliano della Rovere,
that the King of Spain would lend an ear to these grievances, and move in
the matter of attempting to depose Alexander; but an event more important
than any other in the whole history of Spain--or of Europe, for that
matter--was at the moment claiming its full attention, and the trifling
affairs of the King of Naples--trifling by comparison--went all unheeded.
For this was the year in which the Genoese navigator, Cristofero Colombo,
returned to tell of the new and marvellous world he had discovered beyond
the seas, and Ferdinand and Isabella were addressing an appeal to the
Pope--as Ruler of the World--to establish them in the possession of the
discovered continent. Whereupon the Pope drew a line from pole to pole,
and granted to Spain the dominion over all lands discovered, or to be
discovered, one hundred miles westward of Cape Verde and the Azores.
And thus Ferrante's appeal to Spain against a Pope who showed himself so
ready and complaisant a friend to Spain went unheeded by Ferdinand and
Isabella. And what time the Neapolitan nursed his bitter chagrin, the
alliance between Rome and Milan was consolidated by the marriage of
Lucrezia Borgia to Giovanni Sforza, the comely weakling who was Lord of
Pesaro and Cotignola.
Lucrezia Borgia's story has been told elsewhere; her rehabilitation has
been undertaken by a great historian(1) among others, and all serious-
minded students must be satisfied at this time of day that the Lucrezia
Borgia of Hugo's tragedy is a creature of fiction, bearing little or no
resemblance to the poor lady who was a pawn in the ambitious game played
by her father and her brother Cesare, before she withdrew to Ferrara,
where eventually she died in child-birth in her forty-first year. We
know that she left the duke, her husband, stricken with a grief that was
shared by his subjects, to whom she had so deeply endeared herself by her
exemplary life and loving rule.(2)
1 Ferdinand Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia.
2 See, inter alia, the letters of Alfonso d'Este and Giovanni Gonzaga on
her death, quoted in Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia.
Later, in the course of this narrative, where she crosses the story of
her brother Cesare, it will be necessary to deal with some of the
revolting calumnies concerning her that were circulated, and, in passing,
shall be revealed the sources of the malice that inspired them and the
nature of the evidence upon which they rest, to the eternal shame alike
of those pretended writers of fact and those avowed writers of fiction
who, as dead to scruples as to chivalry, have not hesitated to make her
serve their base melodramatic or pornographic ends.
At present, however, there is no more than her first marriage to be
recorded. She was fourteen years of age at the time, and, like all the
Borgias, of a rare personal beauty, with blue eyes and golden hair.
Twice before, already, had she entered into betrothal contracts with
gentlemen of her father's native Spain; but his ever-soaring ambition had
caused him successively to cancel both those unfulfilled contracts. A
husband worthy of the daughter of Cardinal Roderigo Borgia was no longer
worthy of the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, for whom an alliance must
now be sought among Italy's princely houses. And so she came to be
bestowed upon the Lord of Pesaro, with a dowry of 30,000 ducats.
Her nuptials were celebrated in the Vatican on June 12, 1493, in the
splendid manner worthy of the rank of all concerned and of the reputation
for magnificence which the Borgia had acquired. That night the Pope gave
a supper-party, at which were present some ten cardinals and a number of
ladies and gentlemen of Rome, besides the ambassadors of Ferrara, Venice,
Milan, and France. There was vocal and instrumental music, a comedy was
performed, the ladies danced, and they appear to have carried their
gaieties well into the dawn. Hardly the sort of scene for which the
Vatican was the ideal stage. Yet at the time it should have given little
or no scandal. But what a scandal was there not, shortly afterwards, in
connection with it, and how that scandal was heaped up later, by stories
so revolting of the doings of that night that one is appalled at the
minds that conceived them and the credulity that accepted them.
Infessura writes of what he heard, and he writes venomously, as he
betrays by the bitter sarcasm with which he refers to the fifty silver
cups filled with sweetmeats which the Pope tossed into the laps of ladies
present at the earlier part of the celebration. "He did it," says
Infessura, "to the greater honour and glory of Almighty God and the
Church of Rome." Beyond that he ventures into no great detail, checking
himself betimes, however, with a suggested motive for reticence a
thousand times worse than any formal accusation. Thus: "Much else is
said, of which I do not write, because either it is not true, or, if
1 "Et multa alia dicta sunt; que hic non scribo, que aut non sunt; vel
si sunt, incredibilia" (Infessura, Diarium).
It is amazing that the veil which Infessura drew with those words should
have been pierced--not indeed by the cold light of fact, but by the hot
eye of prurient imagination; amazing that he should be quoted at all--he
who was not present--considering that we have the testimony of what did
take place from the pen of an eye-witness, in a letter from Gianandrea
Boccaccio, the ambassador of Ferrara, to his master.
At the end of his letter, which describes the proceedings and the
wedding-gifts and their presentation, he tells us how the night was
spent. "Afterwards the ladies danced, and, as an interlude, a worthy
comedy was performed, with much music and singing, the Pope and all the
rest of us being present throughout. What else shall I add? It would
make a long letter. The whole night was spent in this manner; let your
lordship decide whether well or ill."
Is not that sufficient to stop the foul mouth of inventive slander? What
need to suggest happenings unspeakable? Yet it is the fashion to quote
the last sentence above from Boccaccio's letter in the original--"totam
noctem comsumpsimus; judicet modo Ex(ma.) Dominatio vestra si bene o
male"--as though decency forbade its translation; and at once this
poisonous reticence does its work, and the imagination--and not only that
of the unlettered--is fired, and all manner of abominations are
Infessura, being absent, says that the comedies performed were licentious
("lascive"). But what comedies of that age were not? It was an age
which had not yet invented modesty, as we understand it. That Boccaccio,
who was present, saw nothing unusual in the comedy--there was only one,
according to him--is proved by his description of it as "worthy" ("una
M. Yriarte on this same subject(1) is not only petty, but grotesque. He
chooses to relate the incident from the point of view of Infessura, whom,
by the way, he translates with an amazing freedom,(2) and he makes bold
to add regarding Gianandrea Boccaccio that: "It must also be said that
the ambassador of Ferrara, either because he did not see everything, or
because he was less austere than Infessura, was not shocked by the
comedies, etc." ("soit qu'il n'ait pas tout vu, soit qu'il ait été moins
austère qu'Infessura, n'est pas choqué....")
1 La Vie de César Borgia.
2 Thus in the matter of the fifty silver cups tossed by the Pope into
the ladies' laps, "sinum" is the word employed by Infessura--a word which
has too loosely been given its general translation of "bosom," ignoring
that it equally means "lap" and that "lap" it obviously means in this
instance. M. Yriarte, however, goes a step further, and prefers to
translate it as "corsage," which at once, and unpleasantly, falsifies the
picture; and he adds matter to dot the I's to an extent certainly not
warranted even by Infessura.
M. Yriarte, you observe, does not scruple to opine that Boccaccio, who
was present, did not see everything; but he has no doubt that Infessura,
who was not present, and who wrote from "hearsay," missed nothing.
Alas! Too much of the history of the Borgias has been written in this
spirit, and the discrimination in the selection of authorities has ever
been with a view to obtaining the more sensational rather than the more
Although it is known that Cesare came to Rome in the early part of 1493--
for his presence there is reported by Gianandrea Boccaccio in March
of that year--there is no mention of him at this time in connection with
his sister's wedding. Apparently, then, he was not present, although it
is impossible to suggest where he might have been at the time.
Boccaccio draws a picture of him in that letter, which is worthy of
attention, "On the day before yesterday I found Cesare at home in
Trastevere. He was on the point of setting out to go hunting, and
entirely in secular habit; that is to say, dressed in silk and armed.
Riding together, we talked a while. I am among his most intimate
acquaintances. He is man of great talent and of an excellent nature; his
manners are those of the son of a great prince; above everything, he is
joyous and light-hearted. He is very modest, much superior to, and of a
much finer appearance than, his brother the Duke of Gandia, who also is
not short of natural gifts. The archbishop never had any inclination for
the priesthood. But his benefice yields him over 16,000 ducats."
It may not be amiss--though perhaps no longer very necessary, after what
has been written--to say a word at this stage on the social position of
bastards in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to emphasize the fact
that no stigma attached to Cesare Borgia or to any other member of his
father's family on the score of the illegitimacy of their birth.
It is sufficient to consider the marriages they contracted to perceive
that, however shocking the circumstances may appear to modern notions,
the circumstance of their father being a Pope not only cannot have been
accounted extraordinarily scandalous (if scandalous at all) but, on the
contrary, rendered them eligible for alliances even princely.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we see the bastard born of a
noble, as noble as his father, displaying his father's arms without
debruisement and enjoying his rank and inheritance unchallenged on the
score of his birth, even though that inheritance should be a throne--as
witness Lucrezia's husband Giovanni, who, though a bastard of the house
of Sforza, succeeded, nevertheless, his father in the Tyranny of Pesaro
Later we shall see this same Lucrezia, her illegitimacy notwithstanding,
married into the noble House of Este and seated upon the throne of
Ferrara. And before then we shall have seen the bastard Cesare married
to a daughter of the royal House of Navarre. Already we have seen the
bastard Francesco Cibo take to wife the daughter of the great Lorenzo
de'Medici, and we have seen the bastard Girolamo Riario married to
Caterina Sforza--a natural daughter of the ducal House of Milan--and we
have seen the pair installed in the Tyranny of Imola and Forli. A score
of other instances might be added; but these should suffice.
The matter calls for the making of no philosophies, craves no explaining,
and, above all, needs no apology. It clears itself. The fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries--more just than our own more enlightened times--
attributed no shame to the men and women born out of wedlock, saw no
reason--as no reason is there, Christian or Pagan--why they should suffer
for a condition that was none of their contriving.
To mention it may be of help in visualizing and understanding that direct
and forceful epoch, and may even suggest some lenience in considering a
Pope's carnal paternity. To those to whom the point of view of the
Renaissance does not promptly suggest itself from this plain statement of
fact, all unargued as we leave it, we recommend a perusal of Gianpietro
de Crescenzi's Il Nobile Romano.
The marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to Giovanni Sforza tightened the
relations between the Pope and Milan, as the Pope intended. Meanwhile,
however, the crafty and mistrustful Lodovico, having no illusions as to
the true values of his allies, and realizing them to be self-seekers like
himself, with interests that were fundamentally different from his own,
perceived that they were likely only to adhere to him for just so long as
it suited their own ends. He bethought him, therefore, of looking about
him for other means by which to crush the power of Naples. France was
casting longing eyes upon Italy, and it seemed to Lodovico that in France
was a ready catspaw. Charles VIII, as the representative of the House of
Anjou, had a certain meagre claim upon the throne of Naples; if he could
be induced to ride south, lance on thigh, and press that claim there
would be an end to the dominion of the House of Aragon, and so an end to
Lodovico's fears of a Neapolitan interference with his own occupation of
the throne of Milan.
To an ordinary schemer that should have been enough; but as a schemer
Lodovico was wholly extraordinary. His plans grew in the maturing, and
took in side-issues, until he saw that Naples should be to Charles VIII
as the cheese within the mouse-trap. Let his advent into Italy to break
the power of Naples be free and open; but, once within, he should find
Milan and the northern allies between himself and his retreat, and
Lodovico's should it be to bring him to his knees. Thus schemed Lodovico
to shiver, first Naples and then France, before hurling the latter back
across the Alps. A daring, bold, and yet simple plan of action. And
what a power in Italy should not Lodovico derive from its success!
Forthwith he got secretly to work upon it, sending his invitation to
Charles to come and make good his claim to Naples, offering the French
troops free passage through his territory.(1) And in the character of
his invitation he played upon the nature of malformed, ambitious Charles,
whose brain was stuffed with romance and chivalric rhodomontades. The
conquest of Naples was an easy affair, no more than a step in the
glorious enterprise that awaited the French king, for from Naples he
could cross to engage the Turk, and win back the Holy Sepulchre, thus
becoming a second Charles the Great.
1 See Corlo, Storia di Milano, and Lodovico's letter to Charles VIII,
quoted therein, lib. vii.
Thus Lodovico Maria the crafty, to dazzle Charles the romantic, and to
take the bull of impending invasion by the very horns.
We have seen the failure of the appeal to Spain against the Pope made by
the King of Naples. To that failure was now added the tightening of
Rome's relations with Milan by the marriage between Lucrezia Borgia and
Giovanni Sforza, and Ferrante--rumours of a French invasion, with Naples
for its objective being already in the air--realized that nothing
remained him but to make another attempt to conciliate the Pope's
Holiness. And this time he went about his negotiations in a manner
better calculated to serve his ends, since his need was grown more
urgent. He sent the Prince of Altamura again to Rome for the ostensible
purpose of settling the vexatious matter of Cervetri and Anguillara and
making alliance with the Holy Father, whilst behind Altamura was the
Neapolitan army ready to move upon Rome should the envoy fail this time.
But on the terms now put forward, Alexander was willing to negotiate, and
so a peace was patched up between Naples and the Holy See, the conditions
of which were that Orsini should retain the fiefs for his lifetime, but
that they should revert to Holy Church on his death, and that he should
pay the Church for the life-lease of them the sum of 40,000 ducats, which
already he had paid to Francesco Cibo; that the peace should be
consolidated by the marriage of the Pope's bastard, Giuffredo, with
Sancia of Aragon, the natural daughter of the Duke of Calabria, heir to
the throne of Naples, and that she should bring the Principality of
Squillace and the County of Coriate as her dowry.
The other condition demanded by Naples--at the suggestion of Cardinal
Giuliano della Rovere--was that the Pope should disgrace and dismiss
his ViceChancellor, Ascanio Sforza, which would have shattered the
pontifical relations with Milan. To this, however, the Pope would not
agree, but he met Naples in the matter to the extent of consenting to
overlook Cardinal della Rovere's defection and receive him back into
On these terms the peace was at last concluded in August of 1493, and
immediately afterwards there arrived in Rome the Sieur Peron de Basche,
an envoy from the King of France charged with the mission to prevent any
alliance between Rome and Naples.
The Frenchman was behind the fair. The Pope took the only course
possible under the awkward circumstances, and refused to see the
ambasssador. Thereupon the offended King of France held a grand council
"in which were proposed and treated many things against the Pope and for
the reform of the Church."
These royal outbursts of Christianity, these pious kingly frenzies to
unseat an unworthy Pontiff and reform the Church, follow always, you will
observe, upon the miscarriage of royal wishes.
In the Consistory of September 1493 the Pope created twelve new cardinals
to strengthen the Sacred College in general and his own hand in
Amongst these new creations were the Pope's son Cesare, and Alessandro
Farnese, the brother of the beautiful Giulia. The grant of the red hat
to the latter appears to have caused some scandal, for, owing to the
Pope's relations with his sister, to which it was openly said that
Farnese owed the purple, he received the by-name of Cardinal della
Gonella--Cardinal of the Petticoat.
That was the first important step in the fortunes of the House of
Farnese, which was to give dukes to Parma, and reach the throne of Spain
(in the person of Isabella Farnese) before becoming extinct in 1758.
THE BULL PASCANT
Roma Bovem invenit tunc, cum fundatur aratro, Et nunc lapsa suo est ecce
From an inscription quoted by Bernardino Coaxo.
THE FRENCH INVASION
You see Cesare Borgia, now in his nineteenth year, raised to the purple
with the title of Cardinal-Deacon of Santa Maria Nuova--notwithstanding
which, however, he continues to be known in preference, and, indeed, to
sign himself by the title of his archbishopric, Cardinal of Valencia.
It is hardly necessary to mention that, although already Bishop of
Pampeluna and Archbishop of Valencia, he had received so far only his
first tonsure. He never did receive any ecclesiastical orders beyond the
minor and revocable ones.
It was said by Infessura, and has since been repeated by a multitude of
historians, upon no better authority than that of this writer on hearsay
and inveterate gossip, that, to raise Cesare to the purple, Alexander was
forced to prove the legitimacy of that young man's birth, and that to
this end he procured false witnesses to swear that he was "the son of
Vannozza de' Catanei and her husband, Domenico d'Arignano." Already has
this been touched upon in an earlier chapter, here it was shown that
Vannozza never had a husband of the name of d'Arignano, and it might
reasonably be supposed that this circumstance alone would have sufficed
to restrain any serious writer from accepting and repeating Infessura's
But if more they needed, it was ready to their hands in the Bull of
Sixtus IV of October 1, 1480--to which also allusion has been made--
dispensing Cesare from proving his legitimacy: "Super defectum natalium
od ordines et quoecumque beneficia."
Besides that, of what avail would any false swearing have been,
considering that Cesare was openly named Borgia, that he was openly
acknowledged by his father, and that in the very Bull above mentioned he
is stated to be the son of Roderigo Borgia?
This is another instance of the lightness, the recklessness with which
Alexander VI has been accused of unseemly and illicit conduct, which it
may not be amiss to mention at this stage, since, if not the accusation
itself, at least the matter that occasioned it belongs chronologically
During the first months of his reign--following in the footsteps of
predecessors who had made additions to the Vatican--Alexander set about
the building of the Borgia Tower. For its decoration he brought
Perugino, Pinturicchio, Volterrano, and Peruzzi to Rome. Concerning
Pinturicchio and Alexander, Vasari tells us, in his Vita degli Artefici,
that over the door of one of the rooms in the Borgia Tower the artist
painted a picture of the Virgin Mary in the likeness of Giulia Farnese
(who posed to him as the model) with Alexander kneeling to her in
adoration, arrayed in full pontificals.
Such a thing would have been horrible, revolting, sacrilegious.
Fortunately it does not even amount to a truth untruly told; and well
would it be if all the lies against the Borgias were as easy to refute.
True, Pinturicchio did paint Giulia Farnese as the Madonna; true also
that he did paint Alexander kneeling in adoration--but not to the
Madonna, not in the same picture at all. The Madonna for which Giulia
Farnese was the model is over a doorway, as Vasari says. The kneeling
Alexander is in another room, and the object of his adoration is the
Saviour rising from His tomb.
Yet one reputable writer after another has repeated that lie of Vasari's,
and shocked us by the scandalous spectacle of a Pope so debauched and
lewd that he kneels in pontificals, in adoration, at the feet of his
mistress depicted as the Virgin Mary.
In October of that same year of 1493 Cesare accompanied his father on a
visit to Orvieto, a journey which appears to have been partly undertaken
in response to an invitation from Giulia Farnese's brother Alessandro.
Orvieto was falling at the time into decay and ruin, no longer the
prosperous centre it had been less than a hundred years earlier; but the
shrewd eye of Alexander perceived its value as a stronghold, to be used
as an outpost of Rome or as a refuge in time of danger, and he proceeded
to repair and fortify it. In the following summer Cesare was invested
with its governorship, at the request of its inhabitants, who sent an
embassy to the Pope with their proposal,--by way, no doubt, of showing
their gratitude for his interest in the town.
But in the meantime, towards the end of 1493, King Ferrante's uneasiness
at the ever-swelling rumours of the impending French invasion was
quickened by the fact that the Pope had not yet sent his son Giuffredo to
Naples to marry Donna Sancia, as had been contracted. Ferrante feared
the intrigues of Milan with Alexander, and that the latter might be
induced, after all, to join the northern league. In a frenzy of
apprehension, the old king was at last on the point of going to Milan to
throw himself at the feet of Lodovico Sforza, who was now his only hope,
when news reached him that his ambassadors had been ordered to leave
That death-blow to his hopes was a death-blow to the man himself. Upon
receiving the news he was smitten by an apoplexy, and upon January 25,
1494, he departed this life without the consolation of being able to
suppose that any of his schemes had done anything to avert the impending
ruin of his house.
In spite of all Alexander's intercessions and representations, calculated
to induce Charles VIII to abandon his descent upon Italy; in spite, no
less, of the counsel he received at home from such far-seeing men as had
his ear, the Christian King was now determined upon the expedition and
his preparations were well advanced. In the month of March he assumed
the title of King of Sicily, and sent formal intimation of it to
Alexander, demanding his investiture at the hands of the Pope and
offering to pay him a heavy annual tribute. Alexander was thus given to
choose between the wrath of France and the wrath of Naples, and--to put
the basest construction on his motives--he saw that the peril from an
enemy on his very frontiers would be more imminent than that of an enemy
beyond the Alps. It is also possible that he chose to be guided by his
sense of justice and to do in the matter what he considered right. By
whatever motive he was prompted, the result was that he refused to accede
to the wishes of the Christian King.
The Consistory which received the French ambassador--Peron de Basche--
became the scene of stormy remonstrances, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere,
of course, supporting the ambassador and being supported in his act of
insubordination by the Vice-Chancellor Ascanio Sforza (who represented
his brother Lodovico in the matter) and the Cardinals Sanseverino,
Colonna, and Savelli, all attached to French interests. Peron de Basche
so far presumed, no doubt emboldened by this support, as to threaten the
Pope with deposition if he persisted in his refusal to obey the King of
You see once more that kingly attitude, and you shall see it yet again
presently and be convinced of its precise worth. In one hand a bribe of
heavy annual tribute, in the other a threat of deposition; it was thus
they conducted their business with the Holy Father. In this instance his
Holiness took the threat, and dismissed the insolent ambassador. Della
Rovere, conceiving that in France he had a stouter ally than in Naples,
and seeing that he had once more incurred the papal anger by his open
enmity, fled back to Ostia; and, not feeling safe there, for the
pontifical forces were advancing upon his fortress, took ship to Genoa,
and thence to France, to plot the Pope's ruin with the exasperated
Charles; and, the charge of simony being the only weapon with which they
could attack Alexander's seat upon the papal throne, the charge of simony
was once more brandished.
His Holiness took the matter with a becoming and stately calm. He sent
his nephew, Giovanni Borgia, to Naples to crown Alfonso, and with him
went Giuffredo Borgia to carry out the marriage contract with Alfonso's
daughter, and thus strengthen the alliance between Rome and Naples.
By the autumn Charles had crossed the Alps with the most formidable army
that had ever been sent out of France, full ninety thousand strong. And
so badly was the war conducted by the Neapolitan generals who were sent
to hold him in check that the appearance of the French under the very
walls of Rome was almost such as to take the Pope by surprise. Charles's
advance from the north had been so swift and unhindered that Alexander
contemptuously said the French soldiers had come into Italy with wooden
spurs and chalk in their hands to mark their lodgings.
Charles had been well received by the intriguing Lodovico Sforza, with
whom he visited the Castle of Pavia and the unfortunate Gian Galeazzo,
who from long confinement, chagrin, and other causes was now reduced to
the sorriest condition. Indeed, on October 22, some days after that
visit, the wretched prince expired. Whether or not Lodovico had him
poisoned, as has been alleged--a charge, which, after all, rests on no
proof, nor even upon the word of any person of reliance--his death most
certainly lies at his ambitious uncle's door.
Charles was at Piacenza when the news of Gian Galeazzo's death reached
him. Like the good Christian that he accounted himself, he ordered the
most solemn and imposing obsequies for the poor youth for whom in life he
had done nothing.
Gian Galeazzo left a heart-broken girl-widow and two children to succeed
him to the throne he had never been allowed to occupy--the eldest,
Francesco Sforza, being a boy of five. Nevertheless, Lodovico was
elected Duke of Milan. Not only did he suborn the Parliament of Milan to
that end, but he induced the Emperor to confirm him in the title. To
this the Emperor consented, seeking to mask the unscrupulous deed by a
pitiful sophism. He expounded that the throne of Milan should originally
have been Lodovico's, and never Galeazzo Maria's (Gian Galeazzo's
father), because the latter was born before Francesco Sforza had become
Duke of Milan, whereas Lodovico was born when he already was so.
The obsequies of Gian Galeazzo completed, Charles pushed on. From
Florence he issued his manifesto, and although this confined itself to
claiming the kingdom of Naples, and said no word of punishing the Pope
for his disobedience in crowning Alfonso and being now in alliance with
him, it stirred up grave uneasiness at the Vatican.
The Pope's position was becoming extremely difficult; nevertheless, he
wore the boldest possible face when he received the ambassadors of
France, and on December 9 refused to grant the letters patent of passage
through the Pontifical States which the French demanded. Thereupon
Charles advanced threateningly upon Rome, and was joined now by those
turbulent barons Orsini, Colonna, and Savelli.
Alexander VI has been widely accused of effecting a volte-face at this
stage and betraying his Neapolitan allies; but his conduct, properly
considered, can hardly amount to that. What concessions he made to
France were such as a wise and inadequately supported man must make to an
army ninety thousand strong. To be recklessly and quixotically heroic is
not within the function of Popes; moreover, Alexander had Rome to think
of, for Charles had sent word that, if he were resisted he would leave
all in ruins, whereas if a free passage were accorded him he would do no
hurt nor suffer any pillage to be done in Rome.
So the Pope did the only thing consistent with prudence: he made a virtue
of necessity and gave way where it was utterly impossible for him to
resist. He permitted Charles the passage through his territory which
Charles was perfectly able to take for himself if refused. There ensued
an interchange of compliments between Pope and King, and early in January
Charles entered Rome in such warlike panoply as struck terror into the
hearts of all beholders. Of that entrance Paolo Giovio has left us an
The vanguard was composed of Swiss and German mercenaries--tall fellows,
these professional warriors, superb in their carriage and stepping in
time to the beat of their drums; they were dressed in variegated, close-
fitting garments that revealed all their athletic symmetry. A fourth of
them were armed with long, square-bladed halberts, new to Italy; the
remainder trailed their ten-foot pikes, and carried a short sword at
their belts, whilst to every thousand of them there were a hundred
arquebusiers. After them came the French infantry, without armour save
the officers, who wore steel corselets and head-pieces. These, again,
were followed by five thousand Gascon arbalisters, each shouldering his
arbalest--a phalanx of short, rude fellows, not to be compared with the
stately Swiss. Next came the cavalry, advancing in squadrons, glittering
and resplendent in their steel casings; 2,500 of these were in full heavy
armour, wielding iron maces and the ponderous lances that were usual also
in Italy. Every man-at-arms had with him three horses, mounted by a
squire and two valets (four men going to the lance in France). Some
5,000 of the cavalry were more lightly armed, in corselets and head-piece
only, and they carried long wooden bows in the English fashion; whilst
some were armed with pikes, intended to complete the work of the heavier
cavalry. These were followed by 200 knights--the very flower of French
chivalry for birth and valour--shouldering their heavy iron maces, their
armour covered by purple, gold-embroidered surcoats. Behind them came
400 mounted archers forming the bodyguard of the king.
The misshapen monarch himself was the very caricature of a man, hideous
and grotesque as a gargoyle. He was short of stature, spindle-shanked,
rachitic and malformed, and of his face, with its colossal nose, loose
mouth and shallow brow, Giovio says that "it was the ugliest ever seen on
Such was the person of the young king--he was twenty-four years of age at
the time--who poured his legions into Rome, and all full-armed as if for
work of immediate destruction. Seen, as they were, by torchlight and the
blaze of kindled bonfires--for night had fallen long before the rearguard
had entered the city--they looked vague, fantastic, and terrifying. But
the most awe-inspiring sight of all was kept for the end; it consisted of
the thirty-six pieces of artillery which brought up the rear, each piece
upon a carriage swiftly drawn by horses, and the longest measuring eight
feet, weighing six thousand pounds, and discharging an iron ball as big
as a man's head.
The king lay in the Palace of San Marco, where a lodging had been
prepared for him, and thither on the day after his entrance came Cesare
Borgia, with six Cardinals, from the Castle of Sant' Angelo, whither the
Pope had withdrawn, to wait upon his Christian Majesty. Charles
immediately revealed the full and exigent nature of his demands. He
required the Pope's aid and counsel in the conquest of Naples, upon which
he was proceeding; that Cesare Borgia be delivered into his hands as a
hostage to ensure the Pope's friendliness; and that the Castle of Sant'
Angelo be handed over to him to be used as a retreat in case of need or
danger. Further, he demanded that Prince Djem--the brother of Sultan
Bajazet, who was in the Pope's hands--should be delivered up to him as a
This Djem (Gem, or Zizim, as his name is variously spelled) was the
second son of Mahomet II, whose throne he had disputed with his brother
Bajazet on their father's death. He had raised an army to enforce his
claim, and had not lacked for partisans; but he was defeated and put to
flight by his brother. For safety he had delivered himself up to the
Knights of Rhodes, whom he knew to be Bajazet's implacable enemies. They
made him very welcome, for d'Aubusson, the Grand Master of Rhodes,
realized that the possession of the prince's person was a very fortunate
circumstance for Christianity, since by means of such a hostage the Turk
could be kept in submission. Accordingly d'Aubusson had sent him to
France, and wrote: "While Djem lives, and is in our hands, Bajazet will
never dare to make war upon Christians, who will thus enjoy great peace.
Thus is it salutary that Djem should remain in our power." And in France
Djem had been well received and treated with every consideration due to a
person of his princely rank.
But he appears to have become a subject of contention among the Powers,
several of which urged that he could be of greater service to
Christianity in their hands than in those of France. Thus, the King of
Hungary had demanded him because, being a neighbour of Bajazet's, he was
constantly in apprehension of Turkish raids. Ferdinand of Spain had
desired him because the possession of him would assist the Catholic King
in the expulsion of the Moors. Ferrante of Naples had craved him because
he lived in perpetual terror of a Turkish invasion.
In the end he had been sent to Rome, whither he went willingly under the
advice of the Knights of Rhodes, whose prisoner he really considered
himself. They had discovered that Bajazet was offering enormous bribes
to Charles for the surrender of him, and they feared lest Charles should
succumb to the temptation.
So Prince Djem had come to Rome in the reign of Pope Innocent VIII, and
there he had since remained, Sultan Bajazet making the Pope an annual
allowance of forty thousand ducats for his brother's safe custody. He
was a willing prisoner, or rather a willing exile, for, far from being
kept a prisoner, he was treated at Rome with every consideration,
associating freely with those about the Pontifical Court, and being
frequently seen abroad in company with the Pope and the Duke of Gandia.
Now Charles was aware that the Pope, in his dread of a French invasion,
and seeing vain all his efforts to dissuade Charles from making his
descent upon Italy, had appealed for aid to Bajazet. For so doing he has
been severely censured, and with some justice, for the picture of the
Head of Christianity making appeal to the infidel to assist him against
Christians is not an edifying one. Still, it receives some measure of
justification when we reflect what was the attitude of these same
Christians towards their Head.
Bajazet himself, thrown into a panic at the thought of Djem falling into
the hands of a king who proposed to make a raid upon him, answered the
Pope begging his Holiness to "have Djem removed from the tribulations of
this world, and his soul transported to another, where he might enjoy a
greater peace." For this service he offered the Pope 300,000 ducats, to
be paid on delivery of the prince's body; and, if the price was high, so
was the service required, for it would have ensured Bajazet a peace of
mind he could not hope to enjoy while his brother lived.
This letter was intercepted by Giovanni della Rovere, the Prefect of
Sinigaglia, who very promptly handed it to his brother, the Cardinal
Giuliano. The cardinal, in his turn, laid it before the King of France,
who now demanded of the Pope the surrender of the person of this Djem as
a further hostage.
Alexander began by rejecting the king's proposals severally and
collectively, but Charles pressed him to reconsider his refusal, and so,
being again between the sword and the wall, the Pope was compelled to
submit. A treaty was drawn up and signed on January 15, the king, on his
side, promising to recognize the Pope and to uphold him in all his
On the following day Charles made solemn act of veneration to the Pontiff
in Consistory, kissing his ring and his foot, and professing obedience to
him as the kings of France, his forbears, had ever done. Words for
Charles remained twelve days longer in Rome, and set out at last, on
January 28, upon the conquest of Naples. First he went solemnly to take
his leave of the Pope, and they parted with every outward mark of a
mutual esteem which they most certainly cannot have experienced. When
Charles knelt for the Pope's blessing, Alexander raised him up and
embraced him; whilst Cesare completed the show of friendliness by
presenting Charles with six beautiful chargers.
They set out immediately afterwards, the French king taking with him his
hostages, neither of which he was destined to retain for long, with
Cesare riding in the place of honour on his right.
The army lay at Marino that night, and on the following at Velletri. In
the latter city Charles was met by an ambassador of Spain--Antonio da
Fonseca. Ferdinand and Isabella were moved at last to befriend their
cousins of Naples, whom all else had now abandoned, and at the same time
serve their own interests. Their ambassador demanded that Charles should
abandon his enterprise and return to France, or else be prepared for war
It is eminently probable that Cesare had knowledge of this ultimatum to
Charles, and that his knowledge influenced his conduct. However that may
be, he slipped out of Velletri in the dead of that same night disguised
as a groom. Half a mile out of the town, Francesco del Sacco, an officer
of the Podestá of Velletri, awaited him with a horse, and on this he sped
back to Rome, where he arrived on the night of the 30th. He went
straight to the house of one Antonio Flores, an auditor of the Tribunal
of the Ruota and a person of his confidence, who through his influence
and protection was destined to rise to the eminence of the archbishopric
of Avignon and Papal Nuncio to the Court of France.
Cesare remained at Flores's house, sending word to the Pope of his
presence, but not attempting to approach the Vatican. On the following
day he withdrew to the stronghold of Spoleto.
Meanwhile Rome was thrown into a panic by the young cardinal's action and
the dread of reprisals on the part of France. The quaking municipality
sent representatives to Charles to assure him that Rome had had nothing
to do with this breach of the treaty, and to implore him not to visit it
upon the city. The king replied by a special embassy to the Pope, and
there apparently dropped the matter, for a few days later Cesare
reappeared at the Vatican.
Charles, meanwhile, despite the threats of Spain, pushed on to accomplish
his easy conquest.
King Alfonso had already fled the kingdom (January 25), abdicating in
favour of his brother Federigo. His avowed object was to withdraw to
Sicily, retire from the world, and do penance for his sins, for which no
doubt there was ample occasion. The real spur was probably--as opined by
Commines--cowardice; for, says that Frenchman, "Jamais homme cruel ne fut
Federigo's defence of the realm consigned to him was not conspicuous, for
the French entered Naples almost without striking a blow within twenty
days of their departure from Rome.
Scarcely had Charles laid aside his armour when death robbed him of the
second hostage he had brought from the Vatican. On February 25, after a
week's illness, Prince Djem died of dysentery at the Castle of Capua,
whither Charles had sent him.
Rumours that he had been poisoned by the Pope arose almost at once; but,
considering that twentyeight days had elapsed since his parting from
Alexander, it was, with the best intentions in the world, rather
difficult to make that poisoning credible, until the bright notion was
conceived, and made public, that the poison used was a "white powder" of
unknown components, which did its work slowly, and killed the victim some
time after it had been administered. Thus, by a bold and brazen
invention, an impossible falsehood was made to wear a possible aspect.
And in that you have most probably the origin of the famous secret poison
of the Borgias. Having been invented to fit the alleged poisoning of
Prince Djem, which it was desired to fasten upon the Pope by hook or by
crook, it was found altogether too valuable an invention not to be used
again. By means of it, it became possible to lay almost any death in the
world at the door of Alexander.
Before proceeding to inquire further into this particular case, let us
here and now say that, just as to-day there is no inorganic toxin known
to science that will either lie fallow for weeks in the human system,
suddenly to become active and slay, or yet to kill by slow degrees
involving some weeks in the process, so none was known in the Borgian or
any other era. Science indeed will tell you that the very notion of any
such poison is flagrantly absurd, and that such a toxic action is against
all the laws of nature.
But a scientific disquisition is unnecessary. For our present needs
arguments of common sense should abundantly suffice. This poison--this
white powder--was said to be a secret of the Borgias. If that is so, by
what Borgia was the secret of its existence ever divulged? Or, if it
never was divulged, how comes it to be known that a poison so secret, and
working at such distances of time, was ever wielded by them?
The very nature of its alleged action was such as utterly to conceal the
hand that had administered it; yet here, on the first recorded occasion
of its alleged use, it was more or less common knowledge if Giovio and
Guicciardini are to be believed!
Sagredo(1) says that Djem died at Terracina three days after having been
consigned to Charles VIII, of poison administered by Alexander, to whom
Bajazet had promised a large sum of money for the deed. The same is
practically Giovio's statement, save that Giovio causes him to die at a
later date and at Gaeta; Guicciardini and Corio tell a similar story, but
inform us that he died in Naples.
1 In Mem. Storiche dei Monarchi Ottomani.
It is entirely upon the authority of these four writers that the Pope is
charged with having poisoned Djem, and it is noteworthy that in the four
narratives we find different dates and three different places given as
the date and place of the Turk's death, and more noteworthy still that in
not one instance of these four is date or place correctly stated.
Now the place where Djem died, and the date of his death, were public
facts about which there was no mystery; they were to be ascertained--as
they are still--by any painstaking examiner. His poisoning, on the other
hand, was admittedly a secret matter, the truth of which it was
impossible to ascertain with utter and complete finality. Yet of this
poisoning they know all the secrets, these four nimble writers who cannot
correctly tell us where or when the man died!
We will turn from the fictions they have left us--which, alas! have but
too often been preferred by subsequent writers to the true facts which
lay just as ready to their hands, but of course were less sensational--
and we will consider instead the evidence of those contemporaries who do,
at least, know the time and place of Djem's decease.
If any living man might have known of a secret poison of the Borgias at
this stage, that man was Burchard the Caeremoniarius, and, had he known
of it, not for a moment would he have been silent on the point. Yet not
a word of this secret poison shall you find in his diaries, and
concerning the death of Djem he records that "on February 25 died at the
Castle of Capua the said Djem, through meat or drink that disagreed with
Panvinio, who, being a Neapolitan, was not likely to be any too friendly
to the Pope--as, indeed, he proves again and again--tells us positively
that Djem died of dysentry at Capua.(1)
1 Vitis Pontif. Rom.
Sanuto, writing to the Council of Ten, says that Djem took ill at Capua
of a catarrh, which "descended to his stomach"; and that so he died.
And now mark Sanuto's reasoning upon his death, which is the very
reasoning we should ourselves employ finally to dispose of this chatter
of poisoning, did we not find it awaiting quotation, more authoritative
therefore than it could be from us, and utterly irrefutable and
conclusive in its logic. "This death is very harmful to the King of
France, to all Italy, and chiefly to the Pope, who is thereby deprived of
40,000 ducats yearly, which was paid him by his [Djem's] brother for his
custody. And the king showed himself greatly grieved by this death, and
it was suspected that the Pope had poisoned him, which, however, was not
to be believed, as it would have been to his own loss."
Just so--to his own infinite loss, not only of the 40,000 ducats yearly,
but of the hold which the custody of Djem gave him upon the Turks.
The reason assigned by those who charged Alexander with this crime was
the bribe of 300,000 ducats offered by Bajezet in the intercepted letter.
The offer--which, incidentally, had never reached the Pope--was instantly
taken as proof of its acceptance--a singular case of making cause follow
upon effect, a method all too prevalent with the Borgian chroniclers.
Moreover, they entirely overlooked the circumstance that, for Djem's
death in the hands of France, the Pope could make no claim upon Bajazet.
Finally--though the danger be incurred of becoming tedious upon this
point--they also forgot that, years before, Bajazet had offered such
bribes to Charles for the life of Djem as had caused the Knights of
Rhodes to remove the Turk from French keeping. Upon that circumstance
they might, had it sorted with their inclinations, have set up a stronger
case of poisoning against Charles than against the Pope, and they would
not have been put to the necessity of inventing a toxin that never had
place in any earthly pharmacopoeia.
It is not, by this, suggested that there is any shadow of a case against
Charles. Djem died a perfectly natural death, as is established by the
only authorities competent to speak upon the matter, and his death was
against the interests of everybody save his brother Bajazet; and against
nobody's so much as the Pope's.
THE POPE AND THE SUPERNATURAL
By the middle of March of that year 1495 the conquest of Naples was a
thoroughly accomplished fact, and the French rested upon their victory,
took their ease, and made merry in the capital of the vanquished kingdom.
But in the north Lodovico Sforza-now Duke of Milan de facto, as we have
seen--set about the second part of the game that was to be played. He
had a valuable ally in Venice, which looked none too favourably on the
French and was fully disposed to gather its forces against the common
foe. The Council of Ten sent their ambassador, Zorzi, to the Pope to
propose an alliance.
News reached Charles in Naples of the league that was being formed. He
laughed at it, and the matter was made the subject of ridicule in some of
the comedies that were being performed for the amusement of his Court.
Meanwhile, the intrigue against him went forward; on March 26 his
Holiness sent the Golden Rose to the Doge, and on Palm Sunday the league
was solemnly proclaimed in St. Peter's. Its terms were vague; there was
nothing in it that was directly menacing to Charles; it was simply
declared to have been formed for the common good. But in the north the
forces were steadily gathering to cut off the retreat of the French, and
suddenly Lodovico Sforza threw aside the mask and made an attack upon the
French navy at Genoa.
At last Charles awoke to his danger and began to care for his safety.
Rapidly he organized the occupation of Naples, and, leaving Montpensier
as Viceroy and d'Aubigny as Captain-General, he set out for Rome with his
army, intent upon detaching the Pope from the league; for the Pope, being
the immediate neighbour of Naples, would be as dangerous as an enemy as
he was valuable as an ally to Charles.
He entered Rome on June 1. The Pope, however, was not there to receive
him. Alexander had left on May 28 for Orvieto, accompanied by Cesare,
the Sacred College, 200 men-at-arms, and 1,000 horse and 3,000 foot,
supplied by Venice. At Orvieto, on June 3, the Pontiff received an
ambassador from the Emperor, who had joined the league, and on the 4th he
refused audience to the ambassador of France, sent to him from
Ronciglione, where the King had halted. Charles, insistent, sent again,
determined to see the Pope; but Alexander, quite as determined not to see
the king, pushed on to Perugia with his escort.
There his Holiness abode until the French and Italians had met on the
River Taro and joined battle at Fornovo, of which encounter both sides
claimed the victory. If Charles's only object was to win through, then
the victory undoubtedly was his, for he certainly succeeded in cutting a
way through the Italians who disputed his passage. But he suffered
heavily, and left behind him most of his precious artillery, his tents
and carriages, and the immense Neapolitan booty he was taking home, with
which he had loaded (says Gregorovius) twenty thousand mules. All this
fell into the hands of the Italian allies under Gonzaga of Mantua, whilst
from Fornovo Charles's retreat was more in the nature of a flight. Thus
he won back to France, no whit the better for his expedition, and the
only mark of his passage which he left behind him was an obscene ailment,
which, with the coming of the French into Italy, first manifested itself
in Europe, and which the Italians paid them the questionable compliment
of calling "the French disease"--morbo gallico, or il mal francese.
During the Pope's visit to Perugia an incident occurred which is not
without importance to students of his character, and of the character
left of him by his contemporaries and others.
There lived in Perugia at this time a young nun of the Order of St.
Dominic, who walked in the way of St. Catherine of Siena, Colomba da
Rieti by name. You will find some marvellous things about her in the
Perugian chronicles of Matarazzo, which, for that matter, abound in
marvellous things--too marvellous mostly to be true.
When he deals with events happening beyond the walls of his native town
Matarazzo, as an historian, is contemptible to a degree second only to
that of those who quote him as an authority. When he deals with matters
that, so to speak, befell under his very eyes, he is worthy, if not of
credit at least of attention, for his "atmosphere" is valuable.
Of this Sister Colomba Matarazzo tells us that she ate not nor drank,
save sometimes some jujube fruit, and even these but rarely. "On the day
of her coming to Perugia (which happened in 1488), as she was Crossing
the Bridge of St. Gianni some young men attempted to lay hands upon her,
for she was comely and beautiful; but as they did so, she showed them the
jujube fruit which she carried in a white cloth, whereupon they instantly
stood bereft of strength and wits."
Next he tells us how she would pass from life for an hour or two, and
sometimes for half a day, and her pulse would cease to beat, and she
would, seem all dead. And then she would quiver and come to herself
again, and prophesy the future, and threaten disaster. And again: "One
morning two of her teeth were found to have fallen out, which had
happened in fighting with the devil; and, for the many intercessions
which she made, and the scandals which she repaired by her prayers, the
people came to call her saint."
Notwithstanding all this, and the fact that she lived without
nourishment, he tells us that the brothers of St. Francis had little
faith in her. Nevertheless, the community built her a very fine
monastery, which was richly endowed, and many nuns took the habit of her
Now it happened that whilst at Perugia in his student days, Cesare had
witnessed a miracle performed by this poor ecstatic girl; or rather he
had arrived on the scene--the Church of St. Catherine of Siena--to find
her, with a little naked boy in her lap, the centre of an excited,
frenzied crowd, which was proclaiming loudly that the child had been dead
and that she had resurrected him. This was a statement which the Prior
of the Dominicans did not seem disposed unreservedly to accept, for, when
approached with a suggestion that the bells should be rung in honour of
the event, he would not admit that he saw any cause to sanction such a
In the few years that were sped since then, however, sister Colomba had
acquired the great reputation of which Matarazzo tells us, so that,
throughout the plain of Tiber, the Dominicans were preaching her fame
from convent to convent. In December of 1495 Charles VIII heard of her
at Siena, and was stirred by a curiosity which he accounted devotional--
the same curiosity that caused one of his gentlemen to entreat Savonarola
to perform "just a little miracle" for the King's entertainment. You can
picture the gloomy fanatic's reception of that invitation.
The Pope now took the opportunity of his sojourn in Perugia to pay
Colomba da Rieti a visit, and there can be no doubt that he did so in a
critical spirit. Accompanied by Cesare and some cardinals and gentlemen
of his following, he went to the Church of St. Dominic and was conducted
to the sister's cell by the Prior--the same who in Cesare's student-days
had refused to have the bells rung.
Upon seeing the magnificent figure of the Pontiff filling the doorway of
her little chamber, Sister Colomba fell at his feet, and, taking hold of
the hem of his gown, she remained prostrate and silent for some moments,
when at last she timidly arose. Alexander set her some questions
concerning the Divine Mysteries. These she answered readily at first,
but, as his questions grew, she faltered, became embarrassed, and fell
silent, standing before him white and trembling, no doubt a very piteous
figure. The Pope, not liking this, turned to the Prior to demand an
explanation, and admonished him sternly: "Caveto, Pater, quia ego Papa
This had the effect of throwing the Prior into confusion, and he set
himself to explain that she was in reality very wonderful, that he
himself had not at first believed in her, but that he had seen so much
that he had been converted. At this stage Cesare came to his aid,
bearing witness, as he could, that he himself had seen the Prior
discredit her when others were already hailing her as a saint, wherefore,
if he now was convinced, he must have had very good evidence to convince
him. We can imagine the Prior's gratitude to the young cardinal for that
timely word when he saw himself in danger perhaps of being called to
account for fostering and abetting an imposture.
What was Alexander's opinion of her in the end we do not know; but we do
know that he was not readily credulous. When, for instance, he heard
that the stigmata were alleged to have appeared upon the body of Lucia di
Narni he did what might be expected of a sceptic of our own times rather
than of a churchman of his superstitious age--he sent his physicians to
That is but one instance of his common-sense attitude towards
supernatural manifestations. His cold, calm judgement caused him to
seek, by all available and practical means, to discriminate between the
true and the spurious in an age in which men, by their credulity, were
but too ready to become the prey of any impostor. It argues a breadth of
mind altogether beyond the times in which he had his being. Witches and
warlocks, who elsewhere--and even in much later ages, and in Protestant
as well as Catholic States--were given to the fire, he contemptuously
ignored. The unfortunate Moors and Jews, who elsewhere in Europe were
being persecuted by the Holy Inquisition and burnt at the stake as an act
of faith for the good of their souls and the greater honour and glory of
God, found in Alexander a tolerant protector and in Rome a safe shelter.
These circumstances concerning him are not sufficiently known; it is good
to know them for their own sake. But, apart from that, they have a great
historical value which it is well to consider. It is not to be imagined
that such breadth of views could be tolerated in a Pope in the dawn of
the sixteenth century. The times were not ripe for it; men did not
understand it; and what men do not understand they thirst to explain, and
have a way of explaining in their own fashion and according to their own
A Pope who did such things could not be a good Pope, since such things
must be abhorrent to God--as men conceived God then.
To understand this is to understand much of the bad feeling against
Alexander and his family, for this is the source of much of it. Because
he did not burn witches and magicians it was presently said that he was
himself a warlock, and that he practised black magic. It was not,
perhaps, wanton calumny; it was said in good faith, for it was the only
reason the times could think of that should account for his
restraint. Because he tolerated Moors and Jews it was presently said by
some that he was a Moor, by others that he was a Jew, and by others still
that he was both.
What wonder, then, if the rancorous Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere
venomously dubbed him Moor and Jew, and the rabid fanatic Savonarola
screamed that he was no Pope at all, that he was not a Christian, nor did
he believe in any God?
Misunderstood in these matters, he was believed to be an infidel, and no
crime was too impossible to be fastened upon the man who was believed to
be that in the Italy of the Cinquecento.
Alexander, however, was very far from being an infidel, very far from not
being a Christian, very far from not believing in God, as he has left
abundant evidence in the Bulls he issued during his pontificate. It is
certainly wrong to assume--and this is pointed out by l'Espinois--that a
private life which seems to ignore the commandments of the Church must
preclude the possibility of a public life devoted to the service of the
Church. This is far from being the case. Such a state of things--such a
dual personality--is by no means inconsistent with churchmen of the
fifteenth, or, for that matter, of the twentieth century.
The whole truth of the matter is contained in a Portuguese rhyme, which
may roughly be translated:
Soundly Father Thomas preaches.
Don't do as he does; do as he teaches.
A debauchee may preach virtue with salutary effect, just as a man may
preach hygiene without practising the privations which it entails, or may
save you from dyspepsia by pointing out to you what is indigestible
without himself abstaining from it.
Such was the case of Alexander VI, as we are justified in concluding from
the evidence that remains.
Let us consider the apostolic zeal revealed by his Bull granting America
to Spain. This was practically conceded--as the very terms of it will
show--on condition that Spain should employ the dominion accorded her
over the New World for the purpose of propagating the Christian faith and
the conversion and baptism of the heathen. This is strictly enjoined,
and emphasized by the command that Spain shall send out God-fearing men
who are learned in religion and capable of teaching it to the people of
the newly discovered lands.
Thus Alexander invented the missionary.
To King Manuel the Fortunate (of Portugal), who sought his authority for
the conquest of Africa, he similarly enjoined that he should contrive
that the name of the Saviour be adored there, and the Catholic faith
spread and honoured, to the end that the king "might win eternal life and
the blessing of the Holy See."
To the soldiers going upon this expedition his Holiness granted the same
indulgences as to those who fought in the Holy Land, and he aided the
kings of Spain and Portugal in this propagation of Christianity out of
the coffers of the Church.
He sent to America a dozen of the children of St. Francis, as apostles to
preach the Faith, and he invested them with the amplest powers.
He prosecuted with stern rigour the heretics of Bohemia, who were
obscenely insulting Church and Sacraments, and he proceeded similarly
against the "Picards" and "Vaudois." Against the Lombard demoniacs, who
had grown bold, were banding themselves together and doing great evil to
property, to life, and to religion, Alexander raised his mighty arm.
Then there is his Bull of June 1, 1501, against those who already were
turning to evil purposes the newly discovered printing-press. In this he
inveighed against the printing of matter prejudicial to healthy doctrine,
to good manners, and, above all, to the Catholic Faith or anything that
should give scandal to the faithful. He threatened the printers of
impious works with excommunication should they persist, and enlisted
secular weapons to punish them in a temporal as well as a spiritual
manner. He ordered the preparation of indexes of all works containing
anything hurtful to religion, and pronounced a ban of excommunication
against all who should peruse the books so indexed.
Thus Alexander invented the Index Expurgatorius.
There is abundant evidence that he was a fervid celebrant, and of his
extreme devotion to the Blessed Virgin--in whose honour he revived the
ringing of the Angelus Bell--shall be considered later.
Whatever his private life, it is idle to seek to show that his public
career was other than devoted to the upholding of the dignity and honour
of the Church.
THE ROMAN BARONS
Having driven Charles VIII out of Italy, it still remained for the allies
to remove all traces of his passage from Naples and to restore the rule
of the House of Aragon. In this they had the aid of Ferdinand and
Isabella, who sent an army under the command of that distinguished
soldier Gonzalo de Cordoba, known in his day as the Great Captain.
He landed in Calabria in the spring of 1496, and war broke out afresh
through that already sorely devastated land. The Spaniards were joined
by the allied forces of Venice and the Church under the condotta of the
Marquis Gonzaga of Mantua, the leader of the Italians at Fornovo.
Lodovico had detached himself from the league, and again made terms with
France for his own safety's sake. But his cousin, Giovanni Sforza,
Tyrant of Pesaro--the husband of Lucrezia Borgia--continued in the
pontifical army at the head of a condotta of 600 lances. Another command
in the same ranks was one of 700 lances under the youthful Giuffredo
Borgia, now Prince of Squillace and the husband of Doña Sancia of Aragon,
a lady of exceedingly loose morals, who had brought to Rome the habits
acquired in the most licentious Court of that licentious age.
The French lost Naples even more easily than they had conquered it, and
by July 7 Ferdinand II was able to reenter his capital and reascend his
throne. D'Aubigny, the French general, withdrew to France, whilst
Montpensier, the Viceroy, retired to Pozzuoli, where he died in the
Nothing could better have suited the purposes of Alexander than the state
of things which now prevailed, affording him, as it did, the means to
break the power of the insolent Roman barons, who already had so vexed
and troubled him. So in the Consistory of June 1 he published a Bull
whereby Gentile Virginio Orsini, Giangiordano Orsini, and his bastard
Paolo Orsini and Bartolomeo d'Alviano, were declared outlawed for having
borne arms with France against the Church, and their possessions were
confiscated to the State. This decree was to be enforced by the sword,
and, for the purposes of the impending war, the Duke of Gandia was
recalled to Rome. He arrived early in August, having left at Gandia his
wife Maria Enriquez, a niece of the Royal House of Spain.
It was Cesare Borgia who took the initiative in the pomp with which his
brother was received in Rome, riding out at the head of the entire
Pontifical Court to meet and welcome the young duke.
In addition to being Duke of Gandia, Giovanni Borgia was already Duke of
Sessa and Prince of Teano, which further dignities had been conferred
upon him on the occasion of his brother Giuffredo's marriage to Donna
Sancia. To these the Pope now added the governorship of Viterbo and of
the Patrimony of St. Peter, dispossessing Cardinal Farnese of the latter
office to bestow it upon this well-beloved son.
In Venice it was being related, a few months later,--in October--that
Gandia had brought a woman from Spain for his father, and that the latter
had taken her to live with him. The story is given in Sanuto, and of
course has been unearthed and served up by most historians and essayists.
It cannot positively be said that it is untrue; but it can be said that
it is unconfirmed. There is, for instance, no word of it in Burchard's
Diarium, and when you consider how ready a chronicler of scandalous
matter was this Master of Ceremonies, you will no doubt conclude that, if
any foundation there had been for that Venetian story, Burchard would
never have been silent on the subject.
The Pope had taken into his pay that distinguished condottiero, Duke
Guidobaldo of Urbino, who later was to feel the relentless might of
Cesare. To Guidobaldo's command was now entrusted the punitive
expedition against the Orsini, and with him was to go the Duke of Gandia,
ostensibly to share the leadership, in reality that, under so able a
master, he might serve his apprenticeship to the trade of arms. So on
October 25 Giovanni Borgia was very solemnly created Gonfalonier of the
Church and Captain-General of the pontifical troops. On the same day the
three standards were blessed in St. Peter's--one being the Papal Gonfalon
bearing the arms of the Church and the other two the personal banners of
Guidobaldo and Gandia. The two condottieri attended the ceremony,
arrayed in full armour, and received the white truncheons that were the
emblems of their command.
On the following day the army set out, accompanied by the Cardinal de
Luna as papal legate a latere, and within a month ten Orsini strongholds
So far all had been easy for the papal forces; but now the Orsini rallied
in the last three fortresses that remained them--Bracciano, Trevignano,
and Anguillara, and their resistance suddenly acquired a stubborn
character, particularly that of Bracciano, which was captained by
Bartolomeo d'Alviano, a clever, resourceful young soldier who was
destined to go far. Thus the campaign, so easily conducted at the
outset, received a check which caused it to drag on into the winter. And
now the barons received further reinforcements. Vitellozzo Vitelli, the
Tyrant of Città di Castello, came to the aid of the Orsini, as did also
the turbulent Baglioni of Perugia, the della Rovere in Rome, and all
those who were inimical to Alexander VI. On the other hand, however, the
barons Colonna and Savelli ranged themselves on the side of the Pope.
Already Trevignano had fallen, and the attack of the pontifical army was
concentrated upon Bracciano. Hard pressed, and with all supplies cut
off, Bartolomeo d'Alviano was driven to the very verge of surrender, when
over the hills came Carlo Orsini, with the men of Vitellozzo Vitelli, to
take the papal forces by surprise and put them to utter rout. Guidobaldo
was made prisoner, whilst the Duke of Gandia, Fabrizio Colonna, and the
papal legate narrowly escaped, and took shelter in Ronciglione, the
Pope's son being slightly wounded in the face.
It was a severe and sudden conclusion to a war that had begun under such
excellent auspices for the Pontificals. Yet, notwithstanding that
defeat, which had left guns and baggage in the hands of the enemy, the
Pope was the gainer by the campaign, having won eleven strongholds from
the Orsini in exchange for one battle lost.
The barons now prepared to push home their advantage and complete the
victory; but the Pope checkmated them by an appeal to Gonzalo de Cordoba,
who promptly responded and came with Prospero Colonna to the aid of the
Church. He laid siege to Ostia, which was being held for the Cardinal
della Rovere, and compelled it to a speedy surrender, thereby bringing
the Orsini resistance practically to an end. For the present the might
of the barons was broken, and they were forced to pay Alexander the sum
of 50,000 ducats to redeem their captured fortresses.
Gonzalo de Cordoba made a triumphal entry into Rome, bringing with him
Monaldo da Guerra, the unfortunate defender of Ostia, in chains. He was
received with great honour by the Duke of Gandia, accompanied by his
brother-in-law, Giovanni Sforza, and they escorted him to the Vatican,
where the Pope awaited him.
This was but one of the many occasions just then on which Giovanni Sforza
was conspicuous in public in close association with his father-in-law,
the Pope. Burchard mentions his presence at the blessing of the candles
on the Feast of the Purification, and shows him to us as a candle-bearer
standing on the Pope's right hand. Again we see him on Palm Sunday in
attendance upon Alexander, he and Gandia standing together on the steps
of the pontifical throne in the Sixtine Chapel during the Blessing of the
Palms. There and elsewhere Lucrezia's husband is prominently in the
public eye during those months of February and March of 1497, and we
generally see him sharing, with the Duke of Gandia, the honour of close
attendance upon the Pontiff, all of which but serves to render the more
marked his sudden disappearance from that scene.
The matter of his abrupt and precipitate flight from Rome is one
concerning which it is unlikely that the true and complete facts will
ever be revealed. It was public gossip at this time that his marriage
with Lucrezia was not a happy one, and that discord marred their life
together. Lucrezia's reported grievance upon this subject reads a little
vaguely to us now, whatever it may have conveyed at the time. She
complained that Giovanni "did not fittingly keep her company,"(1) which
may be taken to mean that a good harmony did not prevail between them,
or, almost equally well, that there were the canonical grounds for
complaint against him as a husband which were afterwards formally
preferred and made the grounds for the divorce. It is also possible that
Alexander's ambition may have urged him to dissolve the marriage to the
end that she might be free to be used again as a pawn in his far-reaching
1 "Che non gli faceva buona compagnia."
All that we do know positively is that, one evening in Holy Week, Sforza
mounted a Turkish horse, and, on the pretext of going as far as the
Church of Sant' Onofrio to take the air, he slipped out of Rome, and so
desperately did he ride that, twenty-four hours later, he was home in
Pesaro, his horse dropping dead as he reached the town.
Certainly some terrible panic must have urged him, and this rather lends
colour to the story told by Almerici in the Memorie di Pesaro. According
to this, the Lord of Pesaro's chamberlain, Giacomino, was in Lucrezia's
apartments one evening when Cesare was announced, whereupon, by
Lucrezia's orders, Giacomino concealed himself behind a screen. The
Cardinal of Valencia entered and talked freely with his sister, the
essence of his conversation being that the order had been issued for her
The inference to be drawn from this is that Giovanni had been given to
choose in the matter of a divorce, and that he had refused to be a party
to it, whence it was resolved to remove him in a still more effective
Be that as it may, the chroniclers of Pesaro proceed to relate that,
after Cesare had left her, Lucrezia asked Giacomino if he had heard what
had been said, and, upon being answered in the affirmative, urged him to
go at once and warn Giovanni. It was as a consequence of this alleged
warning that Giovanni made his precipitate departure.
A little while later, at the beginning of June, Lucrezia left the Vatican
and withdrew to the Convent of San Sisto, in the Appian Way, a step which
immediately gave rise to speculation and to unbridled gossip, all of
which, however, is too vague to be worthy of the least attention.
Aretino's advices to the Cardinal Ippolito d'Este suggest that she did
not leave the Vatican on good terms with her family, and it is very
possible, if what the Pesaro chroniclers state is true, that her
withdrawal arose out of her having warned Giovanni of his danger and
enabled him to escape.
At about the same time that Lucrezia withdrew to her convent her brother
Gandia was the recipient of further honours at the hands of his fond
father. The Pope had raised the fief of Benevento to a dukedom, and as a
dukedom conferred it upon his son, to him and to his legitimate heirs for
ever. To this he added the valuable lordships of Terracina and
Cesare, meanwhile, had by no means been forgotten, and already this young
cardinal was--with perhaps the sole exception of the Cardinal
d'Estouteville--the richest churchman in Christendom. To his many other
offices and benefices it was being proposed to add that of Chamberlain of
the Holy See, Cardinal Riario, who held the office, being grievously ill
and his recovery despaired of. Together with that office it was the
Pope's avowed intention to bestow upon Cesare the palace of the late
Cardinal of Mantua, and with it, no doubt, he would receive a proportion
of the dead cardinal's benefices.
Cesare was twenty-two years of age at the time; tall, of an athletic
slenderness, and exceedingly graceful in his movements, he was
acknowledged to be the handsomest man of his age. His face was long and
pale, his brow lofty, his nose delicately aquiline. He had long auburn
hair, and his hazel eyes, large, quick in their movements, and singularly
searching in their glance, were alive with the genius of the soul behind
them. He inherited from his father the stupendous health and vigour for
which Alexander had been remarkable in his youth, and was remarkable
still in his old age. The chase had ever been Cesare's favourite
pastime, and the wild boar his predilect quarry; and in the pursuit of it
he had made good use of his exceptional physical endowments, cultivating
them until--like his father before him--he was equal to the endurance of
almost any degree of fatigue.
In the Consistory of June 8 he was appointed legate a latere to go to
Naples to crown King Federigo of Aragon--for in the meanwhile another
change had taken place on the Neapolitan throne by the death of young
Ferdinand II, who had been succeeded by his uncle, Federigo, Prince of
Cesare made ready for his departure upon this important mission, upon
which he was to be accompanied by his brother Giovanni, Duke of Gandia.
They were both to be back in Rome by September, when Gandia was to return
to Spain, taking with him his sister Lucrezia.
Thus had the Pope disposed; but the Borgia family stood on the eve of the
darkest tragedy associated with its name, a tragedy which was to alter
all these plans.
THE MURDER OF THE DUKE OF GANDIA
On June 14, 1497, the eve of Cesare and Giovanni Borgia's departure for
Naples, their mother Vannozza gave them a farewell supper in her
beautiful vineyard in Trastevere. In addition to the two guests of
honour several other kinsmen and friends were present, among whom were
the Cardinal of Monreale and young Giuffredo Borgia. They remained at
supper until an advanced hour of the night, when Cesare and Giovanni took
their departure, attended only by a few servants and a mysterious man in
a mask, who had come to Giovanni whilst he was at table, and who almost
every day for about a month had been in the habit of visiting him at the
The brothers and these attendants rode together into Rome and as far as
the Vice-Chancellor Ascanio Sforza's palace in the Ponte Quarter. Here
Giovanni drew rein, and informed Cesare that he would not be returning to
the Vatican just yet, as he was first "going elsewhere to amuse himself."
With that he took his leave of Cesare, and, with one single exception--in
addition to the man in the mask--dismissed his servants. The latter
continued their homeward way with the cardinal, whilst the Duke, taking
the man in the mask upon the crupper of his horse and followed his single
attendant, turned and made off in the direction of the Jewish quarter.
In the morning it was found that Giovanni had not yet returned, and his
uneasy servants informed the Pope of his absence and of the circumstances
of it. The Pope, however, was not at all alarmed. Explaining his son's
absence in the manner so obviously suggested by Giovanni's parting words
to Cesare on the previous night, he assumed that the gay young Duke was
on a visit to some complacent lady and that presently he would return.
Later in the day, however, news was brought that his horse had been found
loose in the streets, in the neighbourhood of the Cardinal of Parma's
palace, with only one stirrup-leather, the other having clearly been cut
from the saddle, and, at the same time, it was related that the servant
who had accompanied him after he had separated from the rest had been
found at dawn in the Piazza della Giudecca mortally wounded and beyond
speech, expiring soon after his removal to a neighbouring house.
Alarm spread through the Vatican, and the anxious Pope ordered inquiries
to be made in every quarter where it was possible that anything might be
learned. It was in answer to these inquiries that a boatman of the
Schiavoni--one Giorgio by name--came forward with the story of what he
had seen on the night of Wednesday. He had passed the night on board his
boat, on guard over the timber with which she was laden. She was moored
along the bank that runs from the Bridge of Sant' Angelo to the Church of
Santa Maria Nuova.
He related that at about the fifth hour of the night, just before
daybreak, he had seen two men emerge from the narrow street alongside the
Hospital of San Girolamo, and stand on the river's brink at the spot
where it was usual for the scavengers to discharge their refuse carts
into the water. These men had looked carefully about, as if to make sure
that they were not being observed. Seeing no one astir, they made a
sign, whereupon a man well mounted on a handsome white horse, his heels
armed with golden spurs, rode out of that same narrow street. Behind
him, on the crupper of his horse, Giorgio beheld the body of a man, the
head hanging in one direction and the legs in the other. This body was
supported there by two other men on foot, who walked on either side of
Arrived at the water's edge, they turned the horse's hind-quarters to the
river; then, taking the body between them, two of them swung it well out
into the stream. After the splash, Giorgio had heard the horseman
inquire whether they had thrown well into the middle, and had heard him
receive the affirmative answer--"Signor, Si." The horseman then sat
scanning the surface a while, and presently pointed out a dark object
floating, which proved to be their victim's cloak. The men threw stones
at it, and so sank it, whereupon they turned, and all five departed as
they had come.
Such is the boatman's story, as related in the Diarium of Burchard. When
the Pope had heard it, he asked the fellow why he had not immediately
gone to give notice of what he had witnessed, to which this Giorgio
replied that, in his time, he had seen over a hundred bodies thrown into
the Tiber without ever anybody troubling to know anything about them.
This story and Gandia's continued absence threw the Pope into a frenzy of
apprehension. He ordered the bed of the river to be searched foot by
foot. Some hundreds of boatmen and fishermen got to work, and on that
same afternoon the body of the ill-fated Duke of Gandia was brought up in
one of the nets. He was not only completely dressed--as was to have been
expected from Giorgio's story--but his gloves and his purse containing
thirty ducats were still at his belt, as was his dagger, the only weapon
he had carried; the jewels upon his person, too, were all intact, which
made it abundantly clear that his assassination was not the work of
His hands were still tied, and there were from ten to fourteen wounds on
his body, in addition to which his throat had been cut.
The corpse was taken in a boat to the Castle of Sant' Angelo, where it
was stripped, washed, and arrayed in the garments of the Captain-General
of the Church. That same night, on a bier, the body covered with a
mantle of brocade, the face "looking more beautiful than in life," he was
carried by torchlight from Sant' Angelo to Santa Maria del Popolo for
burial, quietly and with little pomp.
The Pope's distress was terrible. As the procession was crossing the
Bridge of Sant' Angelo, those who stood there heard his awful cries of
anguish, as is related in the dispatches of an eye-witness quoted by
Sanuto. Alexander shut himself up in his apartments with his passionate
sorrow, refusing to see anybody; and it was only by insistence that the
Cardinal of Segovia and some of the Pope's familiars contrived to gain
admission to his presence; but even then, not for three days could they
induce him to taste food, nor did he sleep.
At last he roused himself, partly in response to the instances of the
Cardinal of Segovia, partly spurred by the desire to avenge the death of
his child, and he ordered Rome to be ransacked for the assassins; but,
although the search was pursued for two months, it proved utterly
That is the oft-told story of the death of the Duke of Gandia. Those are
all the facts concerning it that are known or that ever will be known.
The rest is speculation, and this speculation follows the trend of malice
rather than of evidence.
Suspicion fell at first upon Giovanni Sforza, who was supposed to have
avenged himself thus upon the Pope for the treatment he had received.
There certainly existed that reasonable motive to actuate him, but not a
particle of evidence against him.
Next rumour had it that Cardinal Ascanio Sforza's was the hand that had
done this work, and with this rumour Rome was busy for months. It was
known that he had quarrelled violently with Gandia, who had been grossly
insulted by a chamberlain of Ascanio's, and who had wiped out the insult
by having the man seized and hanged.
Sanuto quotes a letter from Rome on July 21, which states that "it is
certain that Ascanio murdered the Duke of Gandia." Cardinal Ascanio's
numerous enemies took care to keep the accusation alive at the Vatican,
and Ascanio, in fear for his life, had left Rome and fled to
Grottaferrata. When summoned to Rome, he had refused to come save under
safeconduct. His fears, however, appear to have been groundless, for
the Pope attached no importance to the accusation against him, convinced
of his innocence, as he informed him.
Thereupon public opinion looked about for some other likely person upon
whom to fasten its indictment, and lighted upon Giuffredo Borgia,
Gandia's youngest brother. Here, again, a motive was not wanting.
Already has mention been made of the wanton ways of Giuffredo's
Neapolitan wife, Doña Sancia. That she was prodigal of her favours there
is no lack of evidence, and it appears that, amongst those she admitted
to them, was the dead duke. Jealousy, then, it was alleged, was the spur
that had driven Giuffredo to the deed; and that the rumour of this must
have been insistent is clear when we find the Pope publicly exonerating
his youngest son.
Thus matters stood, and thus had public opinion spoken, when in the month
of August the Pope ordered the search for the murderer to cease. Bracci,
the Florentine ambassador, explains this action of Alexander's. He
writes that his Holiness knew who were the murderers, and that he was
taking no further steps in the matter in the hope that thus, conceiving
themselves to be secure, they might more completely discover themselves.
Bracci's next letter bears out the supposition that he writes from
inference, and not from knowledge. He repeats that the investigations
have been suspended, and that to account for this some say what already
he has written, whilst others deny it; but that the truth of the matter
is known to none.
Later in the year we find the popular voice denouncing Bartolomeo
d'Alviano and the Orsini. Already in August the Ferrarese ambassador,
Manfredi, had written that the death of the Duke of Gandia was being
imputed to Bartolomeo d'Alviano, and in December we see in Sanuto a
letter from Rome which announces that it is positively stated that the
Orsini had caused the death of Giovanni Borgia.
These various rumours were hardly worth mentioning for their own values,
but they are important as showing how public opinion fastened the crime
in turn upon everybody it could think of as at all likely to have had
cause to commit it, and more important still for the purpose of refuting
what has since been written concerning the immediate connection of Cesare
Borgia with the crime in the popular mind.
Not until February of the following year was the name of Cesare ever
mentioned in connection with the deed. The first rumour of his guilt
synchronized with that of his approaching renunciation of his
ecclesiastical career, and there can be little doubt that the former
sprang from the latter. The world conceived that it had discovered on
Cesare's part a motive for the murder of his brother. That motive--of
which so very much has been made--shall presently be examined.
Meanwhile, to deal with the actual rumour, and its crystallization into
history. The Ferrarese ambassador heard it in Venice on February 12,
1498. Capello seized upon it, and repeated it two and a half years
later, stating on September 28, 1500: "etiam amazó il fratello."
And there you have the whole source of all the unbridled accusations
subsequently launched against Cesare, all of which find a prominent place
in Gregorovius's Geschichte der Stadt Rom, whilst the rumours accusing
others, which we have mentioned here, are there slurred over.
One hesitates to attack the arguments and conclusions of the very eminent
author of that mighty History of Rome in the Middle Ages, but conscience
and justice demand that his chapter upon this subject be dealt with as it
The striking talents of Gregorovius are occasionally marred by the
egotism and pedantry sometimes characteristic of the scholars of his
nation. He is too positive; he seldom opines; he asserts with finality
the things that only God can know; occasionally his knowledge,
transcending the possible, quits the realm of the historian for that of
the romancer, as for instance--to cite one amid a thousand--when he
actually tells us what passes in Cesare Borgia's mind at the coronation
of the King of Naples. In the matter of authorities, he follows a
dangerous and insidious eclecticism, preferring those who support the
point of view which he has chosen, without a proper regard for their
He tells us definitely that, if Alexander had not positive knowledge, he
had at least moral conviction that it was Cesare who had killed the Duke
of Gandia. In that, again, you see the God-like knowledge which he
usurps; you see him clairvoyant rather than historical. Starting out
with the positive assertion that Cesare Borgia was the murderer, he sets
himself to prove it by piling up a mass of worthless evidence, whose
worthlessness it is unthinkable he should not have realized.
"According to the general opinion of the day, which in all probability
was correct, Cesare was the murderer of his brother."
Thus Gregorovius in his Lucrezia Borgia. A deliberate misstatement!
For, as we have been at pains to show, not until the crime had been
fastened upon everybody whom public opinion could conceive to be a
possible assassin, not until nearly a year after Gandia's death did
rumour for the first time connect Cesare with the deed. Until then the
ambassadors' letters from Rome in dealing with the murder and reporting
speculation upon possible murderers never make a single allusion to
Cesare as the guilty person.
Later, when once it had been bruited, it found its way into the writings
of every defamer of the Borgias, and from several of these it is taken by
Gregorovius to help him uphold that theory.
Two motives were urged for the crime. One was Cesare's envy of his
brother, whom he desired to supplant as a secular prince, fretting in the
cassock imposed upon himself which restrained his unbounded ambition.
The other--and no epoch but this one under consideration, in its reaction
from the age of chivalry, could have dared to level it without a careful
examination of its sources--was Cesare's jealousy, springing from the
incestuous love for their sister Lucrezia, which he is alleged to have
disputed with his brother. Thus, as l'Espinois has pointed out, to
convict Cesare Borgia of a crime which cannot absolutely be proved
against him, all that is necessary is that he should be charged with
another crime still more horrible of which even less proof exists.
This latter motive, it is true, is rejected by Gregorovius. "Our sense
of honesty," he writes, "repels us from attaching faith to the belief
spread in that most corrupt age." Yet the authorities urging one motive
are commonly those urging the other, and Gregorovius quotes those that
suit him, without considering that, if he is convinced they lie in one
connection, he has not the right to assume them truthful in another.
The contemporary, or quasi-contemporary writers upon whose "authority" it
is usual to show that Cesare Borgia was guilty of both those revolting
crimes are: Sanazzaro, Capello, Macchiavelli, Matarazzo, Sanuto, Pietro
Martire d'Anghiera, Guicciardini, and Panvinio.
A formidable array! But consider them, one by one, at close quarters,
and take a critical look at what they actually wrote:
SANAZZARO was a Neapolitan poet and epigrammatist, who could not--his
times being what they were--be expected to overlook the fact that in
these slanderous rumours of incest was excellent matter for
epigrammatical verse. Therefore, he crystallized them into lines which,
whilst doing credit to his wit, reveal his brutal cruelty. No one will
seriously suppose that such a man would be concerned with the veracity of
the matter of his verses--even leaving out of the question his enmity
towards the House of Borgia, which will transpire later. For him a ben
trovato was as good matter as a truth, or better. He measured its value
by its piquancy, by its adaptability to epigrammatic rhymes.
Conceive the heartlessness of the man who, at the moment of Alexander's
awful grief at the murder of his son--a grief which so moved even his
enemies that the bitter Savonarola, and the scarcely less bitter Cardinal
della Rovere, wrote to condole with him--could pen that terrible epigram:
Piscatorem hominum ne te non, Sexte, putemus,
Piscaris notum retibus ecce tuum.
Consider the ribaldry of that, and ask yourselves whether this is a man
who would immolate the chance of a witticism upon the altar of Truth.
It is significant that Sanazzaro, for what he may be worth, confines
himself to the gossip of incest. Nowhere does he mention that Cesare was
the murderer, and we think that his silence upon the matter, if it shows
anything, shows that Cesare's guilt was not so very much the "general
opinion of the day," as Gregorovius asks us to believe.
CAPPELLO was not in Rome at the time of the murder, nor until three years
later, when he merely repeated the rumour that had first sprung up some
eight months after the crime.
The precise value of his famous "relation" (in which this matter is
recorded, and to which we shall return in its proper place) and the
spirit that actuated him is revealed in another accusation of murder
which he levels at Cesare, an accusation which, of course, has also been
widely disseminated upon no better authority than his own. It is Capello
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