Cesare Borgia Part 2: From Cardinal to Soldier

Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia in Showtime’s “The Borgias”

Following Rodrigo Borgia’s ascension to the Throne of St Peter as Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia was kept out of Rome on his father’s orders. He stayed in Spoleto for a few months. His father certainly hadn’t forgotten him however and within a week of his ascension Cesare was given the archbishopric of Valencia worth 16000 ducats per year. Just a few months after the ascension all of the Borgia children were back in Rome, and when Cesare returned he took up residence in a grand palace in the Borgo, a newly built quarter around the Vatican. The 17 year old Cesare though seemingly had the good sense to not let his new importance go to his head, unlike his brother Juan who certainly wasn’t being modest and spent much of his time in the limelight. Even at such an early stage in his career, Cesare had no inclination towards the priesthood and Boccaccio commented that his manner was that of “a son of a great Prince; above all he is merry and fond of society”. This quote certainly doesn’t conjure up images of Cesare the evil Military Commander that have filtered down to us throughout the years!

Both Cesare and Juan had their place in their fathers plans and as mentioned in the previous post Cesare was always meant for the Church whilst Juan would be in the military. By early February 1493 the Pope’s plans for his sons were becoming evident and rumours were abound that Juan, Duke of Gandia, would be made Gonfaloniere of the Papal Armies and Cesare would be made a Cardinal. The main issue that Alexander had to deal with in making Cesare a Cardinal was the issue of his illegitimacy on on 20th September 1493 he issues a papal bull stating that Cesare was in fact the legitimate son of Vanozza De Cattanei and her husband Domenico. On the same day he issued a secret bull testifying that Cesare was his own son! This meant that the cardinals Pallavicini and Orsini who had been examining Cesare’s status, could say that he was legitimate and thus elligable to join the College of Cardinals. As should have been expected, Cesare’s joining of the College caused an uproar – when Guiliano Della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) heard the news he gave a massive yell of rage and took to his bed with a fever, saying that he would not allow the College to be so abused. Cesare was barely 18 years old when he was invested into his Cardinal robes and still hadn’t taken Holy Orders. And the main reason behind Giuliano’s rage was that he and his followers believed the new nominations, not only of Alexander’s Son but also that of Ippolito D’Este who was not yet 15 and Alessandro Farnese the brother of Alexander’s mistress Giulia, were a move by the Pope to fill the College with non-Italians. The College voted in consistory on 20th September and the decision had been close – 10 cardinal’s opposed allowing the nominees in whilst 11 agreed with the Pope. On 17th October Cesare made a formal entry into Rome to take up his seat as Cardinal of Valencia and councillor to his father.

For a long time Cesare stayed by his fathers side working on Church business and supporting his father in family business. For example whilst Juan was in Spain (getting married), Alexander received reports of Juan’s misbehaviour, his poor treatment of his new wife and gambling. Cesare wrote to his brother from Orvieto saying that whilst he didn’t really believe the reports he advised Juan to make sure only good reports came back to them.

1494 was a year that proved to be huge for Italy – up until that point Italy had been under threat of invasion from Charles VIII of France over the country of Naples. Charles had his eye on Naples for a long time, believing that it belonged to France. When King Ferrante of Naples died in January 1494, Charles sent an envoy to Rome saying that if the Pope favoured Ferrante’s son Alfonso over himself then there would be trouble. Charles had also been in talks with Della Rovere. On 17th March Charles officially announced that he would invade Italy and despite the cardinals who opposed Alexander fleeing to Charles’ side, Alexander kept on strengthening his bonds with Naples. Agreement was reached between the Pope and Alfonso of Naples – Alfonso would be crowned King of Naples and little Jofre was married to Sancia, given the title of Prince of Squillace and 40000 ducats as an annual income! Yet the threat of France did not go away, and by 18th December 1494 the French were at Rome. Cesare waited in the Vatican with his father. On Christmas Day Alexander told the cardinals that he decided to admit the French King into Rome and that night 3 envoys arrived in the City. Now all Cesare and Alexander could do was wait for Charles to enter the city. He chose his moment on 31st December, St Silvester’s Day and talks began. Charles demanded that Cesare accompany to him on his trip to Naples and that the Castel Sant Angelo be handed over to him. The Pope refused, invoking the French King’s wrath, and Cesare, Alexander and four Cardinals fled through the underground passages from the Vatican to the Castello. On 10th January the Pope capitulated after a section of the castello walls collapsed and killed three guards. On 15th January an agreement was signed; Cesare would go with Charles to Naples for three months, free passage was to be allowed throughout the Papal states and a pardon was to be given to the churchmen and nobles who had rebelled against the Pope. On 28th January Charles, Cesare and the army set out for Naples and it is during this trip that we see the first signs of the infamous Cesare. On 30th, just two days later whilst guests of Della Rovere at Velletri Charles received news that Cesare Borgia was missing, that he had escaped dressed as a groom of the Royal stables. It was said that he travelled so quickly that he was able to stay that night in Rome. He ended up going to Spoleto the next day. Charles flew into a rage, screaming, “All Italians are dirty dogs and the Holy Father is as bad as the worst of them!”. The Pope denied he had anything to do with his Son’s escape but I can imagine that the escape was secretly agreed between them before Cesare had even left! More bad news was to get to Charles though, when it was found that the chests taken on the journey had been emptied  of their gold and jewels. This daring escape was one that would set him up nicely for his future career, showing all the hallmarks he would become famous for: disguise, secrecy as well as a location very cleverly picked to snub both the French king and Della Rovere!

Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia

The years 1494-95 proved to be a huge learning curve for Cesare in which he gained first hand experience of politics, he had seen the power of the French army, watched as the Kingdom of Naples fell before the might of France. And he had watched as his father had outplayed the French, despite the young King having a massive army at his back. By this point, he was just 20 and his career was just getting started. He had gained a sense of power and an inate fascination with military tactics, and it was following this when Cesare Borgia would make his move.

The rivalry between Cesare and his brother Juan is the stuff of legend. After all, Juan was the son destined for the military, the son who had been made Gonfaloniere of the Papal armies and that was everything Cesare wanted. Instead he was stuck in Cardinal robes. In August 1496 Juan returned to Rome from Spain, leaving his pregnant wife and young son where they were. He arrived dressed ostentatiously, with a hat hung with pearls as well as a Turkish mantle hung with gold brocade. He had not outgrown his love of nice clothes it seemed. The prodigal son had returned, and just one month after his arrival it was reported that “these sons of the Pope are consumed with envy of each other”. Alexander doted on Juan, despite the fact that he relied on Cesare. But with Juan back in the picture, Cesare was no longer his fathers only right hand man.

David Oakes as Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia in Showtime’s “The Borgias”

On 8th June 1497 Alexander announced two new appointments for his sons. Cesare was made Legate for the coronation of the new King of Naples whist Juan was given the Duchy of Benevento as well as the cities of Terracina and Pontecorvo. This caused resentment, and Juan became the target of anti Borgia hostility particularly from the Orsini family after Juan had been involved in an initiative to take back the Orsini lands. Just one week later, 14th June, Juan disappeared. That very afternoon Cesare and Juan rode to have supper with their mother, returning as night was falling. As they reached the bridge leading to the Castel Sant Angelo Juan told his brother that he must leave them and go elsewhere on his own. According to a report given later both Juan and Cesare’s servants tried to tell him not to go alone but to no avail but Juan was adamant. All he did was send a groom back for his light armour. After he took his leave, a masked man got on the mule behind Juan and they rode off together. Juan’s groom was attacked on his way to the Vatican to get Juan’s armour but returned to wait for his master despite his stab wounds. But when Juan did not return the groom returned to the palace thinking that Juan was spending the night with a young lady. Thus the incident was not reported that night to the Pope. The next morning Juan’s servants told the Pope that he had not returned, but Alexander wasn’t overly worried because Juan often did such things. Worry began to set in as the day wore on and in the evening Cesare was summoned before his father to tell him where Juan was. Cesare told him what had happened to the groom and the Pope panicked, ordering a search to be made. On Friday 16th the body of a young man was pulled from the River Tiber near the church of Santa Maria Del Popolo. He was fully clothed, and a purse hung at his belt carrying 30 ducats. The body was that of Juan, covered in 9 stab wounds. Rumour flew around the city, who had killed Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia? The Orsini’s were blamed due to the recent fighting, as well as the Sforza family (but the Pope absolved them of the crime). A week later though, the search for Juan’s murderer was called off. Did the pope know something? Bad blood between Cesare and Juan was mentioned by various envoys, and the strange masked man is mentioned in all contemporary accounts of what happened. At the time though Cesare was not immediately thought of, blame lay mainly on the Orsini family. A year later though rumours started in Venice that Cesare was responsible – although it should be noted that the Orsini had many friends in Venice. This story began to believed though especially by Juan’s widow Maria, as well as Queen Isabella of Spain. The story began to take form as it spread and it was said that Cesare was so jealous of his brothers position and that Lucrezia had more affection for Juan that he had him killed and thrown in the Tiber. But was Cesare capable of killing his own brother? He would have been if he had something to gain from it, which he did. He gained massively from his brother’s death but there is absolutely NO contemporary evidence to support that Cesare was responsible. The story rests on rumours of alleged jealousy, the supposed incestuous relationship with Lucrezia and the fact that Cesare profited from the death of his brother. No contemporary accounts at all point the finger of blame at Cesare.

In fact, Cesare did not benefit from Juan’s death for over a year and he remained in the church until 17th August 1498 when he resigned as a Cardinal and embarked on a secular career in the military.

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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