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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