Review: Cesare Borgia His Life And Times by Sarah Bradford

“Either Caesar or nothing” was the motto of Cesare Borgia, whose name has long been synonymous with evil. Almost five centuries have passed since his death, yet his reputation still casts a sinister shadow. He stands accused of treachery, cruelty, rape, incest and especially murder – assassination by poison, the deadly white powder concealed in the jewelled ring, or by the midnight band of bravos of Renaissance Rome. Yet the real Cesare Borgia was a fascinating figure in the mould of the great Shakespearean hero. During the brief space of time in which he occupied the stage he shocked and stunned his contemporaries by the loftiness of his ambitions, the boldness and daring of their execution. His rise to fame was meteoric. Born the illegitimate son of a Spanish cardinal who became Pope Alexander VI, he was, by his twenty-seventh year the most hated, feared and envied man of his day, flattered and courted by the rulers of France, Spain and the Empire, admired by Machiavelli who immortalized him in The Prince. He was within an ace of achieving his goal of a great Italian state when a dramatic blow of fate robbed him of everything he had won. At thirty-one he was dead, dying in an ambush in northern Spain as violently and spectacularly as he had lived. The story of Cesare Borgia is the drama if a man of exceptional gifts and a driving lust for power. He dared fortune for the highest goals and when fate turned against him he fell like Lucifer. Set against the brilliant backcloth of High Renaissance Italy, his life had the perfect proportions of a Greek tragedy.

When I discovered this book, I was a little disheartened at the price of it. New copies were not available and used copies were being sold for anything between £50 and £100. This is why when I discovered a copy of it on Amazon for £15 I got rather excited. Cesare Borgia is a man who interests me greatly, and having a book dedicated to his life in its entirety was a very exciting prospect.

From the moment I opened this book I could barely put it down. Despite the fact that this is now one of the older biographies of Cesare Borgia and some of the information may be slightly out of date, I found Bradford’s writing style to flow almost flawlessly and as she described the events taking place in Renaissance Rome I could almost see them coming to life in front of my eyes. If anything, it read very much like a fast paced novel, telling the tales of political intrigue in a wonderful manner. We start out with the story of the stage, the world in which Cesare Borgia would come to live in and the tales of the ruling families of Italy that would one day come to hate Cesare. This was a very interesting chapter, and I learned a lot about the ruling families of the Italian states during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and how Italy was not united under one ruler and rather that it was split up into independent states that all jostled for power with each other. The major players in Renaissance Italy were Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papacy – all of which would play a huge part in Cesare’s life.

Once Bradford had painted the backdrop of the world in which Cesare Borgia was born, we are told the tale of his early life. It seems no one knows of his exact birthdate – some say he was born in September 1475 (particularly the 14th) whilst others say he was born in 1476. Either way, Cesare Borgia was born in Rome as the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia and Vanozza de’ Cattanei. Vanozza had been the mistress of Rodrigo for at least two years at this point, and Cesare was certainly not the son of Vanozza’s husband. We then learn something of Rodrigo and the story of his own family, how they came to Italy from Spain and how even before he met Cesare’s mother he had fathered at least three other illegitimate children. Following the birth of Cesare, Vanozza gave birth to three more of Rodrigo’s children – Juan, Lucrezia and Jofre. She must have been a remarkable woman to have held Rodrigo’s attentions for so long although later on Rodrigo expressed doubts as to whether he was actually the father of Juan, although he later legitimized his younger son after he became pope. We are certain however that Rodrigo held his four children in much higher regard than his children by his previous mistresses, that he loved them and cherished them beyond anything else. All four of his children inherited his physical resilience and both Cesare and Lucrezia in particular came out with his strength, his buyout good spirits and his charm. Although none of them inherited his heaviness, although Cesare has always been described as being tall like his father. Bradford notes that whilst no contemporary images of Cesare survive, the painting thought to be Cesare shows a young, handsome man with long dark hair, strong dark eyes and a long nose.

Cesare’s early life was spent in the church, the career chosen for him by his father. His brother Juan was the one who would be the soldier and this was something that Cesare held great jealousy of. And whilst Cesare became Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15 and a cardinal at the age of 18, he was much more interested in the military life. He certainly resented his life in the church, and was hugely jealous of his brother. When Juan was found murdered in 1497, rumours soon began to circulate that it was Cesare who had Juan murdered. Whilst I don’t believe these rumours, as there seems to be no evidence to support this, Bradford seems to believe that Cesare may have had some part to play as he had something to gain. I can certainly see her point, as following Juan’s death; Cesare was made Captain General of the Papal Armies and gonfaloniere however we must remember that the Borgia family were surrounded by enemies who despised their Spanish roots. Indeed these may just be dark rumours circulated during the time when Cesare was hated the most, to make him seem even worse than he really was. I can understand why people think he may have had a hand in it, and whilst Cesare certainly was a jealous man, I really don’t think he had a hand in his brother’s death. Unfortunately we have no way of proving this unless some other documentation comes to light as Cesare kept everything a closely guarded secret and he may have taken this one to his grave. It was shortly after this that Cesare resigned as a cardinal, the first man to ever resign from the College of Cardinals, so he could take up the sword and take a wife. He ended up travelling to France to grant Louis XII his papal dispensation for his own marriage, and was rewarded with a marriage to Charlotte D’Albret.

The story of Charlotte and Cesare is very sad, and although I’m not sure if Cesare had genuine feelings for her (he never really seemed to hold much score in love and feelings, preferring to concentrate on his future, and his military career), he certainly seemed to care for her and spent a lot of money on her during the few months they spent together following their wedding. Charlotte gave Cesare a daughter, Luisa, who Cesare never saw. And when Cesare left France he left Charlotte behind. He never saw her again. Although when Charlotte found out about Cesare’s death she went into mourning for the rest of her life, and never remarried. I feel immensely sorry for her, she knew him for a matter of months before he disappeared from her life for good. She must have heard the terrible rumours circulating about his cruelty and the sickness that affected him. Nevertheless, the fact that she never remarried, I feel, certainly shows that she did love him.

Bradford tells us then about the campaign that Cesare went on through the Romagna, sieging towns and taking them over to rid them of their rulers. It was during this time that Bradford tells us of a particularly horrific moment in Cesare’s career, when he had the young Astorre Manfredi drowned. Cesare was not one to leave his enemies where they could affect his efforts, and Astorre would have been a threat to him and his work to unite Italy. But like everything, the murder of Astorre was done in secrecy, and again it was only rumour that crept through to implicate Cesare. However it cannot be denied that for a time at least, Cesare united these parts of Italy and kept them peaceful which is something that had not been seen in a very long time despite the cruel way in which Cesare had taken the towns. It was around this time also that Cesare took Catarina Sforza captive, a woman who had frequently been a thorn in his side.

Something that I found very interesting was that Cesare suffered immensely with bouts of Syphilis, or the “French disease” which disfigured his face. Cesare was fond of masking himself when he went anywhere – was this to hide his disfigured face or just as a method of secrecy? However, these bouts often cleared themselves up but Cesare was often known to suffer from bouts of severe depression to go along with it. However he was a strong man, surviving a life threatening fever in 1503 that claimed the life of his father.

It was the death of Alexander VI (Rodrigo) that sent Cesare’s military career spiralling out of control. Cesare, although allowed to keep his office of Commander of the Papal Armies by his father’s successor, ended up being captured whilst visiting Navarre in 1504 and held as a prisoner until he could be brought to trial for his alleged crimes of murdering his brother and his sister’s second husband. Cesare, after having been transferred to his prison at the Medina Del Campo managed to escape and joined the armies of his brother in law John D’Albret. Cesare was killed in 1507 whilst in a skirmish with the forces of the Constable of Navarre. He was set upon and stabbed, and then stripped naked of his armour – his killers not knowing who he was. Cesare’s squire was the one who knew his master had been killed upon seeing Cesare’s armour being shown off by the opposition whereupon he broke down in tears. Cesare, once his body had been located, was buried in the small church of Santa Maria in Vianna although after a few short years his remains were exhumed and buried outside on account of his grievous sins.

I found reading about Cesare’s death to be hugely sad. He had been a brilliant soldier and exceptionally intelligent, his so called sins being based solely upon rumour of upon his own secrecy. The fact that he was moved to a grave outside the church where he was walked over for many hundreds of years is something that I think he would have hated to know. Although there was a somewhat happy ending for Cesare, as just before the 500th anniversary of his death he was moved back into the church and buried properly with the consent of the Catholic church, there forgiven for his sins against mankind.

Overall I found this a wonderful book that told Cesare’s story brilliantly. This clever young man certainly had a great mind and knew how to use it to get what he wanted. He had always wanted to be a soldier, and got that and once he had what he wanted he rose quickly through the ranks proving that Italy could be ruled as one large state rather than lots of warring states. On his way he gained the respect of Kings and Princes as well as the respect of Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli who based a chapter of his famous work The Prince on Cesare and Leonardo who ended up working for him as a warfare engineer. And whilst Cesare may not have been able to show his feelings to many people, indeed the only woman who he was ever able to love truly was his sister Lucrezia, I think that over time he has been severely misunderstood. Rather than going down in history as a nasty piece of work who would resort to cruelty over anything else, I think that we as historians should realise that even though Cesare could be cruel, he only did what he did out of necessity. He killed those who stood in his way or who proved a threat, even those who he believed were hurting his beloved Lucrezia (and it was these that sparked the rumours of an incestuous relationship between the two of them), but what he did he did out of necessity and as a stepping stone on to greater things. Whilst I do not condone his ways of doing things, I think at that time he went about things in the way he thought was right, using the mind-set that he needed to get where he needed to go. And do to do that he looked up to his namesake Caesar, as inspiration to get where he wanted to be. Bradford really did a wonderful job of telling Cesare’s story and showing the reader that he certainly is not the evil man that history has made him out to be. Instead he is a fascinating character made up on many layers, rather than an individual who should immediately be cast as evil when his name is mentioned.

I certainly recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning anything on this colourful individual, as it is a wonderful resource and a great stepping stone into learning about not only the man behind the myth but also his place in the politics of renaissance Italy.

3 thoughts on “Review: Cesare Borgia His Life And Times by Sarah Bradford

  1. I would love to add this 2001 edition to my personal library. Can somebody please explain to me why a decent used copy is so expensive? Is it really THAT rare already?

  2. Hiya, thanks so much for your comments. Sadly this book is now out of print, and I think due to how brilliant it is it's just expensive. I also don't think that many copies were prnted. It's quite rare to find a cheap copy ~ When I recommended it to Mark Ryder he managed to find one for £6 on amazon (lucky), but mine was almost £40. Keep an eye on amazon, and hopefully you should find a cheap copy

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