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Pope Alexander VI inspired the Showtime mini-series “The Borgias”,

Pope Alexander VI: Unscrupulous Borgia Patriarch With a Lust for Power


Alexander VI was a pope who lived during the 15 th century, when Italy was experiencing the Renaissance. He is considered to be one of the most controversial popes in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead of focusing on spiritual matters, Alexander was more concerned with material wealth and earthly power. Moreover, Pope Alexander VI was willing to fulfil his worldly ambitions by any means necessary. On the other hand, it has been argued that Alexander’s behavior was not exceptional when compared to other popes of the period. Some historians claim that his reputation deteriorated more than it should partly due to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Originally Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI came from a Spanish noble family prominent in both ecclesiastical and political affairs

Originally Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI came from a Spanish noble family prominent in both ecclesiastical and political affairs. (Public domain)

Rodrigo Borgia: Benefits of Familial Connections in the Church

Alexander VI was originally known as Rodrigo de Borja y Doms (Italianized as Rodrigo Borgia). Son of Jofre Lançol and Isabella Borgia, he was born in 1431 in Xàtiva, a town in Valencia, which was then part of the Crown of Aragon, and today part of Spain. It was through his mother that the future pope was related to the House of Borgia. This noble family was prominent in both ecclesiastical and political affairs during the 15 th and 16 th centuries. Two of its members became popes, one of them being Rodrigo. The other was Alfonso de Borgia, who became Callixtus III in 1455.

Alfonso de Borgia, was the brother of Isabella and the uncle of Rodrigo. In 1456, less than a year after Alfonso became pope, Rodrigo was made Cardinal Deacon of San Nicola in Carcere. This, however, was not the first time that Rodrigo benefitted from his uncle’s ecclesiastical office. Before being made a cardinal in 1444, Alfonso served as the Bishop of Valencia. Thus, Rodrigo’s education was supervised by his uncle, and whilst still a teenager he received ecclesiastical benefices from him as well. Later on, Alfonso sent his nephew to the University of Bologna to study law for a year. When Rodrigo was created cardinal, he was only 25 years old.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI by Cristofano dell'Altissimo

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI by Cristofano dell'Altissimo. (Public Domain)

Rising the Ranks of Church Hierarchy

The papacy of his uncle, and his appointment as a cardinal deacon, meant that Rodrigo could entertain the idea of having a career in the Church. Indeed, in 1457, Rodrigo was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church. This was an office envied by many, as it gave Rodrigo access to the lucrative Papal Chancery. Rodrigo used this opportunity to greatly enrich himself, so much so that he received a severe rebuke from his uncle’s successor, Pius II, in 1460. In spite of that, Rodrigo did not mend his ways, and continued to amass his fortune. Notwithstanding his self-enrichment, Rodrigo’s prudence and ability at handling the Papal Chancery is acknowledged.

As the decades went by, Rodrigo continued to rise through the ranks of the Church’s hierarchy. In 1471, he was promoted to Cardinal Bishop of Albano, and five years later, was made Cardinal Bishop of Porto. In 1476, he was also made Dean of the Sacred College, another important position in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1492, Rodrigo attained the highest position in the hierarchy of the Church, when he was elected as pope, taking the papal name Alexander VI.

Caricature of Pope Alexander VI

Caricature of Pope Alexander VI. (Public domain)

Did Pope Alexander VI Buy the Papacy?

There have been rumors that in order to obtain the votes of his fellow cardinals, Rodrigo offered them bribes. One source, the diary of an Italian lawyer Stefano Infessura, claims that Rodrigo bribed the cardinals with four mule loads of silver. This tale, however, has since been discredited. Whilst the buying of ecclesiastical offices (known as simony) was common during the Renaissance, there is no irrefutable evidence that Rodrigo paid any of the cardinals during the conclave. It has also been pointed out that one of the main factors that led to Rodrigo’s election was the vote and influence of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who was not interested in Rodrigo’s silver, but the prospect of becoming his chief advisor.

In any case, Rodrigo, now Pope Alexander VI, received the acclaim of the people of Rome when he emerged from the conclave. The Romans celebrated by lighting bonfires, having torchlight processions, and the erecting triumphant arches with extravagant inscriptions. Since Alexander had already been in Rome for such a long time, the Romans saw him as one of them. Moreover, he seems to have had a way with people, as his contemporaries wrote about “his handsome and imposing figure, his cheerful countenance, persuasive manner, brilliant conversation, and intimate mastery of the ways of polite society.” Lastly, his track record as Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church was further evidence of his capabilities as an administrator. Therefore, there were high hopes that Alexander’s papacy would be a splendid and energetic one.

Pope Alexander VI dispensing justice

Pope Alexander VI dispensing justice in artwork by Zacarías González Velázquez. (Public domain)

Corruption and Excess of the Papal Court Under Alexander VI

At the start of his papacy, Alexander instituted a number of reforms. Some of these related to the finances of the Church, whilst others concerned the city and people of Rome. At that time, the city was plagued by lawlessness. Infessura, for instance, asserts that within a period of several months, over 220 assassinations had taken place around the city. Alexander dealt with this problem by ordering investigations to be made. Once the assassins were found, they were dealt with severely: they were hanged on the spot and their houses razed to the ground. Apart from that, Alexander is reported to have set aside a day each week (Tuesday) to personally hear the grievances of any man or woman, after which the pope would administer justice himself. Alexander is also said to have dispensed justice so well that the standard of living in Rome improved markedly.

As time went by, however, Alexander turned out to be quite an unscrupulous pope, though it was probably the wealthy who suffered the most under his papacy. In order to enhance his own material wealth, Alexander would confiscate the property of the rich. Rich cardinals, noblemen, or officials would be accused of some crime, imprisoned, and perhaps murdered, after which their property was confiscated by the pope. This not only allowed Alexander to enrich himself, but also gave him an opportunity to get rid of rivals. It was partly by these means that Alexander subjugated the Orsini, one of the most foremost families in Rome at that time. Alexander’s confiscations claimed many other victims, including his own secretary.   

Cesare Borgia (his son), Lucrezia Borgia (his daughter), Pope Alexander VI and a young man with an empty glass.

Cesare Borgia (his son), Lucrezia Borgia (his daughter), Pope Alexander VI and a young man with an empty glass. The painting entitled “A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia” (1893) by John Collier, is said to represent the popular view of the treacherous and unscrupulous nature of the Borgias family, implying that the young man can’t be sure the wine hasn’t been poisoned. (Public domain)

One of Alexander’s greatest opponents was Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar who became the de facto leader of Florence after the overthrow of the Medicis in 1494. Amongst other things, Savonarola preached against the corruption and excesses of the papal court, which greatly irked Alexander. Savonarola also made enemies amongst the secular rulers, whom he denounced as tyrants. Eventually, Savonarola’s enemies got the better of him. The preacher was excommunicated in 1497, and in the following year, was put on trial and executed. Savonarola is sometimes considered to be the precursor of the Protestant Reformation.

Hanging and burning of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria in Florence in 1498

Hanging and burning of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria in Florence in 1498. (Public domain)

Power Struggles and the Italian War

Further afield, Alexander tried to launch a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. His uncle, when he became Pope Callixtus III, made it the first order of his pontificate to recover Constantinople from the Ottomans, who had captured the city two years earlier. Despite Callixtus’ best intentions and efforts, his plans never materialized. Alexander’s plan to wage war against the Ottomans is thought to have been motivated by the political situation in Italy, rather than by purely spiritual considerations. By the time of Alexander’s pontificate, the institution of the pope had lost a great deal of political power, and its territories were being threatened by external enemies, most notably France and the various Italian principalities. Therefore, in an attempt to divert their attention, Alexander sought to form an alliance against the Ottomans. Alexander also hoped that this move would enable him to get rid of the French from Italy.

Unfortunately for Alexander, his plan did not work out as he had expected. In 1494, the King of Naples, Ferdinand, died, and was succeeded by his son, Alfonso II. As the King of France, Charles VIII had a vague claim to the Kingdom of Naples through his Angevin ancestors, and the succession was challenged. Other factors, such as the appeal of the Milanese, who were threatened by Alfonso, also prompted the French king to invade Naples. Alexander authorized Charles to move his troops through Italy, since he understood that the French king was on his way to fight the Ottomans. The pope, however, was unaware of Charles’ true intentions.

On the 4th May 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull that granted Spain rights to the lands recently discovered by Christopher Columbus and called for the evangelization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas

On the 4 th May 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull that granted Spain rights to the lands recently discovered by Christopher Columbus and called for the evangelization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. (Public domain)

The French invasion of Italy in 1494 marks the beginnings of the Italian War, which was fought intermittently until 1559. When Charles invaded Italy in October 1494, he had an army of 25,000 men. As the French advanced southwards, they encountered little resistance, and those who did resist were easily defeated. By February 1495, Naples had fallen to Charles. The French, however, were unable to enjoy their initial success, as the Italians were beginning to unite against them. Alexander was the main force behind the creation of the anti-French League of Venice, a coalition consisting of Papal States, Venice, Naples, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Milan. When Charles realized that he would not be able to keep his gains in Italy, he retreated back to France. When the French returned in 1499 (under Louis XII), Alexander switched sides, supporting the French against the Milanese. Nevertheless, the French failed once again to make any permanent gains in Italy.

The Borgia Family by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Borgia Family by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Public domain)

Pope Alexander VI as Patriarch of the Borgia Family

Alexander’s personal life has also received a great deal of attention over the ages. Despite being a churchman, Alexander was not concerned with celibacy at all and fathered many children. Although Alexander had many mistresses, his favorite was a woman by the name of Vannozza dei Cattani. Relations between the two began as early as 1470, and between them they had four children – Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre - all of whom Alexander recognized as his own. News of a churchman having mistresses and fathering children would almost certainly cause a scandal today, but during the Renaissance this practice seems to have been quite common amongst the clergy. Another pope, Julius II, also had many children, while others were rumored to have been homosexual.

Alexander not only recognized the children he had with Vannozza, but seems to have loved them dearly. The pope showered his children with gifts and titles. As an example, Cesare was made a cardinal in 1493, when he was just 18 years old. Incidentally, Cesare resigned as a cardinal five years later, following the death of his brother, Giovanni. Cesare was more inclined towards politics and warfare, rather than church affairs. Giovanni’s death meant that Alexander needed a new secular lieutenant, a position perfect for Cesare.

Alexander’s love for his children was also evidenced in the sorrow he felt after Giovanni’s murder in 1497. The grief-stricken pope announced that he would focus on reform for the rest of his life. These reforms included restraining the luxury of the papal court, the reorganization of the Papal Chancery, and the repression of simony and concubinage. Alexander, however, failed to keep his promises and soon returned to his old ways.

The Pope’s son Giovanni was murdered in 1497, in what was later named the Piazza della Giudecca in Rome. Rumors abounded as to who killed him and why. In the image Juan Borgia’s corpse is brought in as Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Lucrezia (his daughter) and Cesare Borgia (his son) watch

The Pope’s son Giovanni was murdered in 1497, in what was later named the Piazza della Giudecca in Rome. Rumors abounded as to who killed him and why. In the image Juan Borgia’s corpse is brought in as Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Lucrezia (his daughter) and Cesare Borgia (his son) watch. (Public domain)

Alexander died at the age of 72 on the 18 th of August 1503. His cause of death is not entirely clear, though it is commonly suspected that he was accidentally poisoned by Cesare when he drank wine laced with cantarella, a poison allegedly used by the Borgias. As Cesare also drank the poisoned wine, he too fell ill, though he survived. The poison was most likely meant to be used against the enemies of the Borgias. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Alexander was a victim of malaria, which was quite common in Rome at that time. Contemporary sources, however, describe the unusual level of decomposition of the pope’s body, lending support to the accidental poisoning hypothesis.

Pope Alexander VI is considered to have been one of the worst popes in history, and he has maintained this reputation for centuries. During the middle of the 19 th century, the Italian historian Cesare Cantù claimed that Alexander was the only pope who never found an apologist. In more recent times, however, Alexander’s life has been reassessed by historians. Although Alexander continues to be regarded as a terrible pope, these reassessments suggest that he may not have been as bad as the sources claim, thus turning him into a controversial figure.

Top image: Pope Alexander VI inspired the Showtime mini-series “The Borgias”, starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Alexander VI. Photo source: Claudio Russeau / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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