The Renaissance’s Bloody (and Papal) Borgia Clan… Makes for Super-Fun Reading

Borgia apartments built by Pope Alexander VI, vatican

Cunning, cruel, fickle, and anything but religious, the Borgia family hasn’t exactly gone down in history as one of Rome’s more-honorable noble clans. Making matters more scandalous, though, is that the Borgias contributed two popes — and the second proved to be one of the most scandalous leaders in the Church’s history.

When you go to Rome today, you’ll hardly see any signs of the family that kept Rome in its grasp for some 15 years. The Borgia crest has been wiped off of the walls in Castel Sant’Angelo, where Pope Alexander VI hid in mourning after his son was found murdered — perhaps by his other son. The once-sumptuous Borgia apartments, despite retaining some of their frescoes by Pinturrichio and their beautiful Spanish floor tiles, are all but ignored by the Vatican. (Some of the rooms now host the Vatican museum’s collection of modern art; others are supposed to be opened to the public soon, but they haven’t been opened yet, including the room in the picture above).

Ceramic tiles in floor of Borgia apartments, Vatican

Even the tomb of Pope Alexander VI — along with that of his uncle, Calixtus II — is relatively understated and unknown, in the rarely-open Spanish Church of Santiago y Monserrat.

Let’s face it: Pope Alexander VI’s rule, from 1492 to 1503, was pretty bad. People thought it was bad even at the time. And when you’re talking about an era when it was pretty commonplace for cardinals and the pope to be masters at nepotism, simony, and, er, illicit liaisons (Pope Julius II fathered three, or perhaps five, children while cardinal), that’s really saying something.

The good news? If the Borgias were bad, then learning about them — and, by proxy, about Renaissance Rome and Italy — is pretty, well, fun.

One way to do this: reading The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519, by Christopher Hibbert. It’s too bad the title is so dry, because the content is anything but. I recently devoured it like a beach read. (The only thing that makes a story about a ridiculously dysfunctional family even more fun… is when it’s true!).

Don’t believe me that the Borgias have some juicy stories? Some of the book’s best tidbits:

Portrait of Lucrezia from Borgia apartments, Vatican-When Lucrezia, Pope Alexander VI’s daughter, was just 13 years old, she was married to 24-year-old widower Giovanni Sforza. Reason: Giovanni’s cousin happened to be the ruler of Milan. Three years later, when the alliance between the Borgias and the Sforzas of Milan became less useful, the Pope decided to dissolve the marriage. How? By having Lucrezia sign a declaration saying it had never been consummated — and forcing her soon-to-be-ex-husband to declare, publicly, that he was impotent. The furious Giovanni, in turn, hinted that the Pope and Cesare wanted Lucrezia for themselves. (Above, a fresco from the closed Borgia apartments that shows Lucrezia, in blue with a scarlet cloak, on the left).

When the divorce was signed, Lucrezia was six months pregnant. But not by Giovanni: During the fracas, she’d been staying at a convent… where she’d received frequent visits from a Spanish valet who worked for her father. When Cesare, Lucrezia’s possessive older brother, discovered the affair, he went berserk, chasing the young man with his sword. The boy ran to Pope Alexander VI, who wrapped his robes around him — only for Cesare to slash at his father’s robes, staining them with blood.

A month before Lucrezia’s child, a son, was born, the young father’s body was fished out of the Tiber. As the prolific recorder Johannes Burchard, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, wrote, he “fell, not of his own free will, into the Tiber.”

The baby, a boy, was stillborn. At the same time, though, another baby was born to the Borgia clan. This one was the son not of Lucrezia, but of Pope Alexander VI himself. This, of course, led to whispers of incest, with gossips saying that the two sons were one and the same. (Below, the Borgia family crest — one of the rare ones that remains in the Vatican).

The Borgia family crest, in the Vatican-When the French invaded in 1494, Rome experienced its first major outbreak of… syphilis. (Fun!). Entertainingly, it became known as the “morbo gallico” or “mal francese” by the Italians. As for the French? They called it “le mal de Napoli”. Regardless of its origins, syphilis felled not only thousands of Romans, but no fewer than 17 members of Alexander VI’s family, including Cesare (who had been made a cardinal by his father). In fact, Cesare was such a frequent sufferer of syphilis, his personal physician wound up writing a treatise on the disease — and dedicating it to Cesare. 

-In 1497, Juan, another of Pope Alexander VI’s sons, disappeared. The circumstances couldn’t be more mysterious. What we know: That night, Juan dined with his brother Cesare before saying he wanted to “pursue pleasure” for the night. He left with only a footman and a masked man — identity unknown — who had been visiting him at the Vatican nearly every day for the past month.

At the Piazza degli Ebrei, Juan told the footman that he and the masked man would go on alone. Later that night, the footman was found in a puddle of blood, badly wounded, and brought into a nearby house — whose owner was so frightened, he didn’t report what happened until the next day, when the footman was dead.

When Juan still hadn’t returned, the Pope, anxious, started to investigate. A timber merchant, who unloaded his wood from boats on the river, told him he’d seen five men throw a corpse into the river on that night. When the Tiber was dredged, Juan’s body — stabbed multiple times, and with a purse with coins within — was found. The kicker? When the merchant was asked why he hadn’t reported what he’d seen earlier, his response was simple. Since he’d seen at least 100 bodies thrown into the river, he said, he hadn’t thought twice about it.

Castel Sant'Angelo and the Tiber, Rome

Told you it was juicy.

Now, of course, there’s a way to learn about the Borgias… beyond books. Showtime just had its first season of “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons, and while the facts aren’t all 100% (or even 75%), it’s a great glimpse into the weirdness of the time — especially the opulence of the Vatican compared to the gritty crime in the streets. And how the Borgias toed the line between the two. If you don’t get Showtime, consider Netflixing it (or you can purchase the first season on DVD below). Just be careful… the show is addictive.

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(Fun!) Books for Readin’ Up on Rome

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So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?

Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.

Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.

A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.

Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.

The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.

Next on my list (what should I add?):

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography, by Matthew Dennison

The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere, by Caroline Murphy

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

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