Cesare Borgia Part 4: Taking the Romagna

Francois Arnaud as Cesare in “The Borgias”

If I’m honest, I was never expecting my Cesare series to go over so many posts. But it seems my favourite Renaissance man did a lot of stuff. So much stuff in fact that even all these posts couldn’t cover it all! And I could probably write an entire library on Cesare Borgia! Last time I wrote about Cesare’s departure from the church into the life of a soldier, and his marriage to Charlotte D’Albret in France. Today we pick up in 1499, after he left with Louis XII and helped take over Milan.

Louis rode into Milan on 6th October 1499 with Cesare at his side. It had by all accounts been an easy victory and Ludovico (Il Moro Sforza) had fled his city in September. In fact as Louis made his way towards Milan, taking over the various duchy’s, the Lords joined up with him with no qualms…just as they had when Charles VIII had invaded five years previously. And it was at this point when Pope Alexander VI decided it was time for Cesare to get his hands on his own Italian state in the north of Italy. The Romagna was to be Cesare’s, and so Cesare set out to take the Romagna. The Romagna, although technically under Papal rule was fiercely independent and the various rulers were petty and cruel. And these rulers were apostolic vicars or Lieutenants of the Church which meant they had to pay a yearly sum (known as the Census) to the Pope. According to Machiavelli; “Before those lords who ruled it were driven out by Pope Alexander VI, the Romagna was a nursery of all the worst crimes”. And as you can see from Machiavelli, the Pope decided to kick these vicars out, leaving everything for his son! The announcement made in the October sent many of the ruling lords running for protection and Lucrezia’s ex husband Giovanni fled from Pesaro to Venice looking for help. But alas Venice was more than happy to give Pesaro to the Borgias if it meant saving Rimini and Faenza! Caterina Sforza of Forli sent pleas for help to Florence, but Florence decided to remain neutral not wanting to offend Louis and so abandoned her to her fate.

At this stage Cesare was just twenty four years old and it was to be his first military experience. He wouldn’t be going it alone either. He himself would command 100 french troops, but shared the command with other seasoned French captains. And he was confidant that taking both Forli and Imola would be easy. For one thing, the ruling family of Imola and Forli had made themselves very unpopular for their cruelty and Cesare knew their citizens weren’t likely to lay down their lives to defend them. Also their ruler was a woman…Caterina Sforza! But she was no ordinary woman – incredibly beautiful and exceptionally courageous, she had more military experience coming from the Sforza family than many of the young men she would face. After the death of Sixtus IV, the uncle of her first husband, she had held the Castel Sant Angelo in the violent days that followed, and would stride the battlements with a steel corslet over her dress. And in 1488 when the citizens of Forli had threatened to murder her children it is said she lifted her skirts and cried, “Look, I have the mould to make more!”And in times of war she wore a full suit of armour like that of a man, except for the curved breastplate to accommodate her bosom. Cesare would have his work cut out.

Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza in “The Borgias”
Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo Di Credi

Caterina’s position was precarious, as Cesare knew very well. But she was not someone to underestimate. So much so that even before he reached Imola, he had to turn back and ride quickly to Rome having heard that Caterina had attempted to assassinate the Pope. Plague had been raging in Forli and so Caterina took a cloth that had been wrapped around a corpse for several days, this impregnated with the disease. She sent the cloth in a tube containing apparent letters of surrender. Unfortunately the messenger she deployed was employed by the Vatican also, and he confided the plot to another servant. Both men were arrested and thrown into the Castel Sant Angelo where they were tortured and confessed. Cesare arrived on 18th November to check on his father and confer for a few days before riding north again.

Cesare was right in his predictions, taking Imola and Forli was easy. Caterina’s plot amounted to nothing and her citizens offered themselves up to Cesare before his troops even began to make their way into the city of Imola. He took Imola properly on 27th November. On 15th December he left for Forli, which he entered on 17th December. And again the citizens yielded. The only problem left for Cesare after entering Forli was Caterina herself, who had holed herself up in the citadel. At Christmas, Cesare made a personal attempt to draw her out, riding up to the ramparts to speak with her. She would have none of it however, and according to a report from a Venetian ambassador, tried to trap him by luring him onto the drawbridge and raising it! A personal war had begun. On 10th January Cesare set up his siege guns which, it is said, he took personal charge over day and night; and by 12th January 1500 a breach had been opened in the wall. Cesare’s troops stormed through and vicious hand to hand fighting ensued. Caterina was seized by a Swiss constable who was eager to get his hands on the ransom money. Cesare then rode to the keep and emerged several hours later with Caterina and taken through to the town to where Cesare was lodged. She was to be taken to Rome and held as a…guest…of the Borgia family.

Following Caterina’s imprisonment, rumours were yet again beginning to spread. Many said that he abused her and raped her, although there are also reports at the time that mention nothing of any abuse. Other reports said that he kept her in his room and the two of them had the ‘pleasure’ of each other. Is this likely? We will never know, but it cannot be ruled out that he raped her due to his cruel streak.

On 26th January, Cesare headed to Pesaro. As previously noted Giovanni Sforza had already fled the castle, but on the way he received news that Ludovico was marching on the town of Como. His army was also shaken with the recall of his French troops, and left with only 1500 men he had no hope. And so he left a small garrison of troops to look after the Romagna and headed to Rome, with Caterina with him. He was back in Rome in the last week of February, slap bank in the middle of Carnival, and he made a triumphant entry with thousands of his men dressed in beautiful livery. Cesare himself simply wore black, with just the gold collar of the Order of St Michael on his cloak. This is the Cesare that came to be famous, the Cesare who dressed in black and reflected his own personality. There was a stark difference in him from when he left Rome 18 months previously dressed in brightly coloured silks! The Pope was delighted with Cesare, and during Cesare’s formal papal welcome was unable to contain his joy, hugging his son close. He even greeted Caterina warmly, giving her a comfortable prison in the Belvedere Villa in the Vatican.Whilst in Rome, Cesare’s victory in the Romagna was celebrated and on 29th March 1500 he was given the offices of Gonfalonier and Captain General of the Church. As well as this, when Alexander created new cardinals it gave him enough money to give to Cesare so he could hire condottieri and resume his career in the Romagna.

However he stayed in Rome in the summer of 1500, where he took a mistress by the name of Fiametta De’Michelis. This lady was a rich courtesan who owed three houses in the city and was exceptionally well educated. And during the summer he took part in feats that amazed the people of Rome such as taking part in a bull fight, killing 7 bulls and fighting them on horseback in the Spanish style. During this summer there was also a nasty accident at the Vatican, when a storm hit making a chimney collapse and the roof fall in. Three men died, but the Pope was saved by a fallen beam that protected him from the masonry. Just over 2 weeks later, Lucrezia’s second husband Alfonso was attacked as he crossed the piazza of St Peter and badly wounded. He was taken into the Vatican where he was looked after by Lucrezia, and he began to recover. But on 18th August Micheletto burst into the room and took hold of Alfonso’s uncle and the envoy of Naples, binding their hands. Lucrezia asked what was going on and Micheletto replied that he was obeying orders, but if she wanted to she could go to the Pope and obtain their release. So off she an, and when she returned with the Pope was barred entry to the room, the guard announcing that Alfonso was dead. Micheletto told the story that Alfonso had stood up and collapsed from his head wound, spilling much blood and dying. This was untrue, and Buchard wrote that Alfonso had been strangled by Micheletto.

Alfonso of Aragon, aged 7, by Pinturicchio

It was said afterwards that this murder was ordered by Cesare, for political reasons, to show people that the Borgias now worked with France. Yet Cesare had no need to show it this way. Lucrezia was so in love with Alfonso, and Cesare was exceptionally close to his sister (which is where the incest rumours come from, more on that in another post), so could he have ordered the murder due to his jealousy of Alfonso? To me, this is the most likely explanation – that Cesare saw Alfonso as a threat to himself and his relationship with his sister, as well as for complex political reasons. Following this, Cesare became known as the “terrible” Valentino, and he now had a reputation for ruthlessness. After the incident any murder of importance was attributed to Cesare, and the rumour resurfaced that he had killed his own brother.

Five days after Alfonso’s death, Louis XII arrived in Rome. It was time for him to take up his military standard again. And his reputation would proceed him, making him one of the most feared military commanders in Italy. Yet he would also prove to be an extremely gifted military leader, who used his head in difficult situations. By 1507 Cesare would be dead, but his accomplishments would go down in history.

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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