Rodrigo Borgia Part 1: Early Church Career

Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI) in Showtime’s The Borgias

I’m sure most of you have gathered from my previous pieces on Lucrezia, Cesare and Juan Borgia that I am a big fan of this most notorious family. And I’m sure you all noticed my flailing over the fresco of Lucrezia on my post about the Vatican in Rome. But so far I have done very little writing about the head of the Borgia family, quite possibly one of the most hated Pope’s of all time.

Rodrigo Borgia. More commonly known as Pope Alexander VI. Father of at least 8 children and a man who rather enjoyed his mistresses.

So why have I decided to write about Rodrigo Borgia? Well, like his children, he is hugely vilified, and rumours still abound that he was a nasty piece of work. For instance when we were in the Sistine Chapel, our tour guide started harping on about how evil Alexander VI was, how he poisoned everyone and how he enjoyed sexual relations not only with his mistresses but with his daughter as well. I had to bite my tongue and walk away quick sharp else I probably would have ended up yelling at him. And yelling in the Sistine Chapel is probably frowned on. I say probably, more like definitely. Anyway, it’s these sort of misconceptions that made me want to do a piece about Rodrigo, from his birth to his death and hopefully clear up a lot of said misconceptions. I’ll admit it now, Rodrigo Borgia was not perfect and yes, he did do some pretty bad stuff (especially considering as how he was y’know, Pope!). Hopefully, this will start to dismiss many of the rumours that Rodrigo Borgia was inherently evil.

Rodrigo Borgia as Cardinal

Rodrigo Borgia was born on 1st January 1431 at Xatvia, not far from Valencia in Spain. His parents were Jofre Lancol and Isabella Borgia, who was the sister of Cardinal Alfonso Borgia (later to become Pope Calixtus III). As a young child Rodrigo used his father’s surname, but after his Uncle Alfonso was elected to the Papacy in 1455. And once Calixtus was Pope, Rodrigo’s profession was chosen for him – there was no question of him taking on a clerical role. Oh no, he would follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

By the age of 25, likely thanks to his being a relation of the Pope, Rodrigo Borgia had been made a Cardinal. He had previously been sent to Bologna by Calixtus to study law. There, he received his degree in canon law after less than a years study. Normally, these degrees took five years to complete and it lead to rumours that money had changed hands to get him his degree earlier. There was however, no doubt, that Rodrigo was brilliant. By the age of 27, after having many rich benefices thrust upon him and a very brief military career, he was made vice-chancellor to the Pope. This of course did not pass without much grumbling from the rest of the College of Cardinals. There is of course, very little doubt that Rodrigo got these posts because of who his uncle was. But he was a very able young man with a sound head on his shoulders. And it would serve him well in the future. Pius II even commented that Rodrigo was an “extremely able man”.

 Calixtus III – Rodrigo’s uncle

Although, it must be said that when Rodrigo held these offices he used them very much to his advantage. And when I say to his advantage, I mean he used his position to accept bribes to grant favours for people including issuing licences so that incestuous couples could marry! Doing this made Rodrigo Borgia exceptionally rich, and allowed himself to stray somewhat from his office in the church. And when I say stray, I mean he didn’t take his vows of celibacy very serious at all. That and he was fond of his food, fond of gambling at cards and hugely fond of his drink. These actions earned him a letter from Pius II, telling him off for his bad behaviour! Pius basically turns around to Rodrigo and tells him to stop sleeping around and being all un-cardinal-like:

We have learned that three days ago a large number of women from Siena, adorned with all worldly vanity, assembled at the gardens of…Giovanni di Bichio, and that your Eminence, in contempt of the dignity of your position, remained with them from one o’clock until six and that you were accompanied by another cardinal…we are told that the dances were immodest and the seduction of love beyond bounds and that you yourself behaved as though you were one of the most vulgar men of the age…Your faults reflect upon us, and upon Calixtus, your uncle of happy memory, who is accused of a grave fault of judgement for having laden you with undeserved honours. Let your Eminence then decide to put an end to these frivolities.

Pius II

Suffice to say, Rodrigo didn’t pay any attention to that! He was however a little more careful to do such things away from anyone who could whisper in Pius’ ear. But due to his indiscretions, the wealth that Rodrigo Borgia was amassing meant that he could begin building extravagant palaces. However despite spending so ostentatiously and always made sure he had enough to help out the Holy See.

In 1468, Rodrigo was ordained into the priesthood. And in 1471 he was ordained as bishop and made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. By the time that Rodrigo came to be elected as Pope in 1492, he had served the Vatican under 5 different Popes, and thus had a considerable amount of experience that, in his eyes, made him perfect for the job.

After the death of Pius II in 1464, and after Rodrigo himself had recovered from a rather nasty illness, he was present for the conclave in which the new Pope was chosen. Paul II is the man who designed grand palaces in the Palazzo San Marco (now the Palazzo Di Venezia, close to the Capitoline museums in Rome). Following Paul’s death, Rodrigo played a massive role in helping Frances Della Rovere (Sixtus IV). This Sixtus soon became known as a man who lavished gifts and offices on his nephews, particularly the famous Giuliano Della Rovere who would become Rodrigo’s greatest enemy in the years to come. After Sixtus’ death, Rodrigo went to his episcopal seat in Valencia. There he was greeted with rapture and displayed all his best qualities. He was after all, Bishop of Valencia. Fourteen months later he left Spain and when he returned to Piza after a rather nasty trip, he met the woman who would end up the mother of his three best known children: Vanozza De Cattanei. Vanozza was a courtesan, and Rodrigo found himself intrigued by her. So intrigued in fact that he arranged a marriage for her to a compliant husband so he could cultivate a long and lasting relationship with her. In 1475, the year Rodrigo stepped out in his cardinal’s robes, his mistress gave birth to a son: Cesare Borgia. Sixtus VI showed his approval by legitimising the child After her husband died shortly after, she remarried twice and gave birth to more of Rodrigo’s children – Juan, Lucrezia and Jofre.

 A portrait said to be of Vanozza Dei Cattanei by Innocenzo Francucci da Imola

When Sixtus died in 1484, his successor was Innocent VIII. This guy got his way in by promising people offices but then making up new offices and selling them to the highest bidder. During Innocent’s reign as Pope, Rodrigo prospered in his role at the Vatican. In 1492, Innocent fell seriously ill. His time as Pope had been a shambles as it was, with the city descending into anarchy, and as they sat by Innocent’s deathbed Rodrigo and Guiliano ended up having a massive row that could have easily ended up in violence.

When Innocent died on July 25th 1492, all eyes were on the next Papal conflict. Who would the conclave vote in as Pope? And the following story has gone down in history as the episode that put the cornerstone in Rodrigo Borgia’s reputation as a cold, manipulative and corrupt member of the clergy.

Further reading

Burchard, J, 1963 (translated from original), At the Court of the Borgia, The Folio Society: London
Bradford, S,1976, Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times, Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London
Bradford, S, 2004, Lucrezia Borgia, Penguin: London
Hibbert, C, 200, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner Books: Boston

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