Tempted To Convert To Rome? Behold Your “Apostolic Succession”

when Rodrigo Borgia was 62, after 35 years as Cardinal and Vice Chancellor, his character, habits, principles or lack of them, uses of power, methods of enrichment, mistresses and seven children were well enough known to his colleagues in the College and Curia to evoke from young Giovanni de’ Medici at his first conclave the comment on Borgia’s elevation to the pPapacy, “Flee, we are in the hands of a wolf.” To the wider circle of the princes of Italy and the rulers of Spain, Borgia’s native land, and by repute abroad, the fact that, though cultivated and even charming, he was thoroughly cynical and utterly amoral was no secret and no surprise, although his reputation for depravity was not yet what it would become. His frame of mind was heartily temporal: celebrate the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, in 1492, the year of his election, he staged not a Te Deum of Thanksgiving but a bullfight in the piazza of St Peter’s with five bulls killed.

After serving under five popes and losing the last election, Borgia was not this time going to let the tiara pass from him. He simply bought the papacy outright over his two chief rivals, Cardinals Della Rovera and Ascanio Sforza. The latter, who preferred coin to promises, was brought round by four mule-loads of bullion that were despatched from Borgia’s Palace to Sforza during the conclave, although it was supposedly to be held in camera. In later years, as the Pope’s habits became more exposed, almost any tale of monstrosities could be told and believed about him, and the bullion train may be one of them. Yet it had an inherent credibility in that it would have taken a great deal to bring round so wealthy arrival as Ascanio Sforza, who in addition received the Vice-Chancellorship.

Borgia was himself the beneficiary of nepotism, having been made cardinal at 26 by his aged uncle Pope Calixtus III, who had been elected at age 77 when signs of senility is suggested the likelihood of another choice soon. Calixtus had had time enough, however, reward his nephew with the vice chancellor ship for his success in recovering certain territories of the Papal States. From revenues of papal offices, of three bishoprics he held in Spain and of Abbeys in Spain and Italy, from an annual stipend of 8,000 ducats as Vice-Chancellor and 6,000 as Cardinal from private operations, Borgia amassed enough wealth to make him over the years the richest member of the Sacred College. In his early years as Cardinal he had already acquired enough to build himself a palace with three storied loggias is around a central courtyard where he lived amid sumptuous furniture upholstered in red satin and gold-embroidered velvets, harmonizing carpets, halls hung with Gobelin tapestries, gold-plate pearls and sacks of gold coin of which he reportedly boasted that he had enough to fill the Sistine chapel. Pius II compared this residence to the Golden House of Nero, which had once stood not far away.

… As a young Cardinal, he had fathered a son and two daughters of unrecorded mothers and subsequently, when in his forties, three more sons and a daughter, born to his acknowledged mistress, Vanozza de Cataneis, who reputedly succeeded her mother in that role. All were his acknowledged family. He was able to acquire for the eldest son, Pedro Luis, the dukedom of Gandia in Spain and betrothal to a cousin of king Ferdinand. When Pedro died young, his title, lands and fiancée passed to his step-brother Juan, his father’s favorite, destined for a death of the kind that was to make the Borgia family a byword. Cesare and Lucrezia, the two famous Borgias who helped to make it so, were children of Vanozza, together with Juan and another brother, Jofré. Paternity of an eighth child named Giovanni, born during the Borgia papacy, seems to have been uncertain even within the family. Two successive papal Bulls legitimized him first as the son of Cesare and then of the Pope himself, while public opinion considered him a bastard child of Lucezia.

Whether for a veil of respectability or for the pleasure of cuckolding, Borgia liked his mistress to have husbands, and arranged to successive marriages for Vanozza while she was his mistress and another for her successor, the beautiful Giulia Farnese. Nineteen, with golden hair reaching to her feet, Giulia was married to an Orsini in Borgia’s palace and almost simultaneously became the Cardinal’s mistress. While a licentious private life was no scandal in the high Renaissance, this liaison between an old man, as he was considered at 59, and a girl forty years younger was offensive to Italians, perhaps because it was considered inartistic. The subject of lewd jokes, it helped to tarnish Borgia’s reputation.

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 75–77


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One comment

  1. I undertand that he also brought about the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal; and was an ancestor of Luisa de Guzman, Queen Regent of Portugal, and through her of many other European royals. He was also said to be well-versed in Scripture–although, perhaps, he took little of it to heart.

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