Cesare Borgia: Part 1 – Early Life

Cesare and Micheletto in Showtime’s “The Borgias”

I seem to have a bit of a thing for Cesare Borgia, I just can’t help myself. The man is an enigma, horrifically vilified yet he was the only man to have ever resigned from the College of Cardinals, he was exceptionally intelligent and one of the best military leaders that had ever lived. He made mistakes, and he made so many enemies yet to me, he is quite possibly one of the most, if not THE most, fascinating men in history. Maybe it’s because he’s the archetypal bad boy, or maybe it’s because of how Francois Arnaud plays him in The Borgias. I don’t know, but I thought that this man deserved a series of posts about his life, his relationships, and all the people that he thought it would be fun to murder. Because that’s what he did. Oh, and syphilis because he had that too. I will warn you in advance that these posts will probably end up with me going on…and on…and on about how perfect I think Cesare was and how the whole incest thing is made up. Hopefully though there will be more proper historical stuff than blatant fangirling, but we shall see. The plan is, like I have done in my previous mini series on Nell Gwynne and Barbara Villiers, to split Cesare’s life up into sections starting with his early life and finishing with his untimely death on the field of battle.

Cesare Borgia, bastard son of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and the Courtesan Vanozza de Cattanei was born in Rome and some point between September 1475 and April 1476. Unfortunately, as is often the case we do not know his exact date of birth. Cesare’s mother Vanozza was actually married to a man by the name of Domenico Gianozzo for the sheer sake of appearances and they had been married some time before Cesare was born. Vanozza had however been Rodrigo’s mistress for at least two years previous to the marriage so there was no doubt whatsoever that Cesare was Rodrigo’s son. As we know, the Borgia family were originally from Spain until in 1444 Cesare’s Great-Uncle Alonso travelled to Rome to become a Cardinal. Rodrigo Borgia however was in his youth an incredibly handsome young man (you would never guess from the portraits of him that survive!) with boundless energy. He had a great sense of humour but got bored very easily and he loved, more than anything, beautiful women. Rodrigo never ever attempted to conceal his love of women, even when he became Pope Alexander VI when he took Giulia Farnese as his mistress. He was also a man to be reckoned with as he would prove time and again as Pope.

Joanne Whalley as Vanozza in Showtime’s “The Borgias”
Vanozza went on to bear Rodrigo three more children, the names of which are synonymous with the infamous Borgia family: Lucrezia, Juan (Giovanni) and Jofre – although Rodrigo at first did not recognise Jofre as his own. The children were not brought up in their fathers house; as Rodrigo was a Cardinal it would not be seemly for him to fully acknowledge his illegitimate children. Cesare and Juan were brought up together in the same house both with their own household as would befit sons of the Church. Lucrezia spent the first years of her life with her mother before moving to the house of his first cousin Adriana De Mila. The children of course saw much of their father as he loved them dearly, and Rodrigo planned fully for his sons futures. Juan was destined to be a soldier whist Cesare would go into the Church. Jofre however would be used as a pawn by his father in marriage treaties to form alliances. Lucrezia of course would take up a good marriage. They were a tight family unit, and both Cesare and Lucrezia inherited from Rodrigo his resilience, strength and to some extent his good spirits. Cesare was described as having a “head most beautiful” and whilst there is no surviving contemporary portrait the one that does exist and is said to be of Cesare shows a young man with a startling resemblance to his mother.
Juan however was seen as an exceptionally spoiled child. He was said to have looked a lot like Cesare except his hair was lighter. He was handsome, incredibly vain and self indulgent, lacking Cesare’s self control. It was an attitude that would earn his many enemies and eventually lead to his death. Lucrezia however was exceptionally beautiful and good natured, the “darling of the family”. Both Cesare and his father adored her and her feminine, intelligent charm. 
David Oakes as Juan in Showtime’s “The Borgias”
A Lady said to be Lucrezia Borgia
Now we have a brief background of Cesare and his family, it’s time to look in a bit more depth at his early life. As we have already mentioned he was destined for a career in the church as laid down by his father. He would have started his education at an early age where he learnt Greek, Italian, French, Latin, arithmetic, geometry, music and drawing. Of course he could already speak and write Spanish. As early as 1481 at the age of just 6 years old Cesare was holding church benefices. At the age of 7 Cesare was made apostolic protonotary by Sixtus IV and in the July of 1482 he was given a canonry in his fathers bishopric of Valencia as well as becoming archdeacon of Jatvia and rector of Gandia. Whilst he was not yet of an age to take an active part in these benefices, the money went straught to Rodrigo for Cesare’s maintenance and education. For a child not yet 8 years old, that is a lot of church honours. By the age of 14 when he became a man, and for the next 3 years would complete his education at the Universities of Perugia and Piza. At Perugia he would see get his first experience at the harsh political life, and his eyes would open to the true position of how things stood in the States of the Church. Here he would also meet a man who would later become his condotierre, Gian Paulo of the unruly Baglioni family. In 1491 Cesare received more benefices that would advance his career in the church – in the September he received the bishopric of Pamplona, the ancient capital of Navarre and he was only 15. It caused an uproar with the people in his new bishopric as he had not yet taken holy orders and they believed the only reason he was given the bishopric was because of his father, the Cardinal. Rodrigo tried to calm them, saying Cesare was given the bishopric based on his merits, whilst Cesare wrote a hasty letter to them, giving them a representative of his to look after them. Yet the people of Navarre remained rebellious until Pope Innocent intervened.
After two years in Perugia, Cesare went to the university of Pisa where he studied for his doctorate in Law. This was also the territory of the powerful Medici family and Rodrigo wanted to be on good terms with them. Rodrigo wrote to Lorenzo De’ Medici (The Magnificent) asking that Cesare be placed under his protection. Lorenzo’s second son Giovanni was also destined for the church, yet the two did not end up being friends. This was mainly down to the style in which Cesare lived, as well as the rivalry between the two boys. Cesare was a brilliant student, whereas Giovanni was not so much. Cesare was awarded his doctorate long before Giovanni; and thus it is likely that Giovanni resented the bastard son of the Spanish Cardinal. 
In 1492, Pope Innocent’s health began to decline and this was Rodrigo’s hour. By July Innocent was dead and the Cardinals went into conclave. At this point Cesare would have been kept abreast of the news from Rome, knowing that his family’s future hung in the balance. At the age of 61 this was Rodrigo’s last chance at the papacy although his success certainly wasn’t definite – Rodrigo had little to no support, and his Spanish blood was seen as a huge set back. This was when Rodrigo played his cards, he began to offer various offices to his colleagues and pay them off – there is one story of four mules loaded with gold and silver were seen moving from Rodrigo’s palace in Rome to Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s palace, and Sforza was also offered the vice chancellorship. On the 11th August, thanks to his wheeling and dealing, Rodrigo Borgia was elected as Pope. And the next morning a courier brought the news to Cesare who hurried back to Piza to await his fathers orders. Ten days later he was at the castle of Spoleto – although he did not attend his fathers coronation (which sadly The Borgias got wrong!), his new life was about to begin and at the tender age of 18 years old he was made Cardinal, much to the upset of the church.
Further reading
Bradford, S, 1976, Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times, Butler & Tanner: London
Bradford, S, 2005, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, Penguin: London
Hibbert, C, 2008, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner: New York (originally published 1924
Strathern, P, 2010, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior, Vintage: London

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