The Death of Juan Borgia

David Oakes as Juan Borgia in “The Borgias”

I have mentioned the death of Juan Borgia very briefly in passing when I was writing about the life of his brother Cesare. And due to the rather epic amount of Juan Borgia feels I am having today, I thought I would write about it in a little more detail. Or, at least, as much detail as I can fathom from the little evidence at my disposal. It’s not that there’s a huge lack of evidence, it’s just that it’s mostly rumours that have been written down and passed through the years. ANYWAY, the reason for my wanting to write about this today is that it is the 515th anniversary of Juan Borgia’s death.

A man said to be Juan Borgia by unknown

On 14th June 1497, just one week after being given the Duchy of Benevento and the cities of Terracina and Pontecorvo, Juan Borgia went missing. The story goes that on that very same afternoon, he and Cesare had eaten supper with their mother Vanozza in her country villa at Monte Martino dei Monti and they returned as night was falling. As they reached the bridge leading to the Castel Sant Angelo, Juan told his brother that he would leave him there as he needed to go somewhere on his own. Despite protestations that the streets of Rome were too dangerous for a man who had as many enemies as Juan did, all Juan would do is send a groom back to his rooms to fetch his light armour, and that he would meet the groom at the Piazza Judea. And as Cesare, and his cousin also named Juan Borgia (the younger) took their leave, Juan turned his mule towards the Ghetto. As he rode away, a masked man appeared behind him and they rode off together.

According to Hibbert, in his wonderful biography “The Borgias & Their Enemies”, less than an hour after Juan had dismissed the groom, the poor boy was attacked and horrifically wounded. He was discovered lying in a pool of blood and dragged into a nearby house. The owner of the house was apparently so frightened that she refused to report what had happened until the following day. Although according to Bradford in her authoritative biography “Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times”, the groom was attacked on his way to fetch Juan’s armour, but the wounds were mild and so he arrived at the Piazza to wait for his master, and so returned to the Palace thinking that Juan had spent the night with a woman as he so often did. At any rate, Juan’s disappearance was not reported until the next day but the Pope, Juan and Cesare’s father, was not overly worried. After all Juan was known for his amours. But as the day wore on and Juan still did not appear he began to panic, he sent for Cesare and demanded to know where Juan was. Cesare told his father what he had heard from the groom. And Pope Alexander, mad with terror, demanded a search to be made.

On the 16th, huge enquiries began to be made when Giorgio Schiavi reported that he had seen a body being thrown into the Tiber by two men. He was asked why he had not reported it sooner and Schiavi retorted that he saw bodies being thrown into the river all the time, “In the course of my life, on various nights, I have seen more than a hundred bodies thrown into the river right at this spot, and never heard of anyone troubling himself about them.” (Bradford 1976, 63). Following the report, all the boatmen of Rome were ordered to search the river and promised a reward. Around midday a fisherman brought up the body of a young man, fully clothed, with his gloves still on and a purse hung from his belt carrying 30 ducats. He was covered in stab wounds, 9 counted in total across his neck, head, body and legs…

It was Juan Borgia.

David Oakes as Juan Borgia in “The Borgias”

Juan’s body was taken to the Castel Sant Angelo where he was cleaned up and dressed in military uniform. He was then taken to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The procession was lead by over 100 torchbearers and members of his household. According to one observer at the funeral, Juan looked even more handsome in death than he had in life.

Understandably, Alexander VI was distraught and apparently shut himself up for many days, refusing to eat or drink. After he had recovered a little, he made a solemn announcement on 19th June, announcing his son’s death:

“The Duke of Gandia is dead. A greater calamity could not have befallen us for we bore him unbounded affection. Life has lost all interest for us. It must be that God punishes us for our sins, for the Duke has done nothing to deserve so terrible a fate.”

Rumours of course flew around Rome following the event and many suspects were named – Giovanni Sforza out of resentment over Lucrezia, Jofre who was immensely jealous of Juan and his own wife Sancia and the Duke of Urbino who had the motive of revenge for his imprisonment during the Orsini war. Rumours also spread that Cesare had been the one who orchestrated the murder. But within a week, the search for his murderer was called off. Had Alexander learnt the truth? Suspicion at first rested on the Sforza family due to bad blood between the families due to the issue of Lucrezia’s divorce from Giovanni. The most likely perpetrators were the Orsini’s as they had the strongest motive for a vendetta against him – he had headed the Borgia attack against them in the previous winter, and he had been the one who their lands had been intended for. The family also held the pope responsible for the death of their leader Virginio in the dungeons of the Castel Sant Angelo.

Had the murder been planned? Had he been tempted by the promise of a lady? Indeed his mule was found wandering by the house of the father of a lady who he had been hugely in love with. The Orsini’s even had links with the family of this lady and her father.

The rumours that Cesare had taken part in the murder did not surface until almost a year later in Venice where many friends of the Orsini family lived. The rumour also began to gain momentum in 1500 in a Venetian ambassadors report when Cesare was known to be guilty of at least one murder. Indeed his brothers widow Maria Enriquez seemed to believe it as did the King and Queen of Spain.

It must be noted however that there were no witnesses to Juan’s murder and so we will never, ever know who killed him. The rumour has come to us through the years that Cesare was responsible and in the latest episode of “The Borgias” we see Cesare stabbing his brother and throwing him into the Tiber. However there is no proof of this. There are many who could be implicated in his murder, and yet without solid proof all that can be given is accusations – maybe the Sforza’s did it, maybe the Orsini family or maybe even Cesare. At any rate, 515 years ago Juan Borgia was murdered – he who was Gonfalonier of the Papal armies and the apple of his fathers eye. Alexander VI rested all his dynastic hopes on Juan, and after his murder was understandably distraught. In history, from what I’ve read, Juan was not guilty of huge atrocities or even massive rumours of incest and murder like his brother had been, and no one deserves such a horrid death.

Rest in peace Juan Borgia, I raise a glass of red wine to you tonight.

Recommended Reading
Bouchard, J & Parker, G, 1963, At The Court of the Borgia, The Folio Society: London
Bradford, S, 1976, Cesare Borgia, His Life & Times, Butler & Tanner: London
Hibbert, C, 2009, The Borgias and Their Enemies, Mariner Books: New York

8 thoughts on “The Death of Juan Borgia

  1. Nice article it's very util to know it, was the only picture of juan borgia?? he had many similarities on his face to the picture of his brother

  2. A great article and an overview not just of the murder of Juan Borgia the Elder, but of the relationship and affection that he had with his father, Pope Alexander. A deep portrait of the grief felt at his son's murder and the despair of Alexander shows the family as human. It was never proven who killed or arranged for the murder of Juan, but it is almost a given fact that Cesare had his brother assassinated in order to claim his place at the head of the papal armies, a position denied him, while he was forced to the priesthood, a position against which his nature rebelled. A great article. Thanks

  3. thank you for your kind words. However, until I am given definite proof that Cesare had his own broter assassinated I will say, given the works I have studied, that it was likely the Orsini family.

  4. Did you see the European version of Borgia? It's now available on Netflix. They actually got a lot of details surrounding Juan's murder right, including rumors of Orsini, Gofredo, and the Duke of Urbino. The actual murderer in that show is unlikely but at least it's different from the usual “Cesare killed Juan”.

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