Rodrigo Borgia Part 2 – Becoming Alexander VI

Rodrigo Borgia – part of a fresco in the Borgia Apartments

The story of Rodrigo Borgia’s rise to the chair of St Peter has gone down in history as one of the most corrupt periods in the history of the Roman Catholic church. It is said that he bribed his way into the chair, and paid off his fellow cardinals to get what he wanted. Despite it’s many historical inaccuracies, Showtime’s “The Borgias” does a fantastic job of showing how Rodrigo is said to have gotten to be Pope – in the show we see Rodrigo’s son Cesare sending donkey’s laden with gold and treasure to the palaces of Cardinals, as well as notes being smuggled into the conclave and hidden in food. Did it happen this way? Probably not, it’s Michael Hirst writing the show to appeal of course. Yet you can’t deny that something fishy was what got Rodrigo Borgia to where he ended up. And today’s post will go into the Conclave that lead to his election as Pope.

After Pope Innocent’s death on 25th July 1492, the conclave to election the new pope opened on Monday 6th August 1492. A grand total of 23 cardinal’s moved into the Sistine Chapel. This beautiful chapel with it’s fresco’s painted by Michelangelo, is still used for conclaves today – although is mainly full of tourists these days (and it’s super hard to even move through it as it’s so full of people!

The Sistine Chapel, Rome

Of course, Michelangelo’s paintings deserve a post all to themselves and that will be coming soon. For now however, back to Rodrigo Borgia.

During the first few days of the conclave, the first scruinity happened on the wednesday. Each cardinal voted for up to three candidates and Rodrigo Borgia came up on top, alongside Oliviero Carafa and Jorge de Costa. Both Oliviero and Jorge were part of Guiliana Della Rovere’s party. The second vote on 9th August, and so was the third on 10th August. Carafa had 10 votes at this point, Rodrigo had 8 and Guiliano Della Rovere had 7. To become Pope on this occasion, 16 votes were needed, and the winner needed 2/3’s of the vote to win.

The guadians of the conclave began to despair because it was taking far too long to elect a new pope, and it was ordered that until a Pope was elected the Cardinals would be restricted to one meal a day which would consist of just bread and water. On the evening of 10th August, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza began trying to convince his fellow Cardinals to back Rodrigo.

And on 11th August, in the morning, it was announced that Rodrigo Borgia had been elected Pope. As I’m sure many of us are aware from the relatively recent election of Pope Benedict XVI, when Rodrigo was elected white smoke would have started pouring from the small chimney at the Vatican.

White smoke announcing the election of a new pope

Just before dawn it was announced that Rodrigo Borgia had taken the name of Alexander. From that moment on he would be known as Pope Alexander VI. The remarkable thing was that in that final vote, the only vote against him had been his own. Everyone else had been unanimous. However Hibbert also mentions that one vote against Rodrigo, although Hibbert says that the vote belonged to Guiliano Della Rovere. I have to say, I am more inclined to agree with Hibbert in this case (although it’s possible that Rodrigo may have put a different name in the hat, or indeed his own) as we know that Guiliano was opposed to Rodrigo from the get go.

The election was a happy affair in Rome, although there were those that were against the election. He was well known in Rome as a generous man, yet his enemies were livid. For example, the government of Venice were exceptionally angry that it’s own Cardinal had voted for Rodrigo, rather than acting on the goverrnments wishes.

Cardinal Ascanio Sforza

After his election, and the white moke announcing the new Pope, papers were thrown from the windows announcing the new pope as Alexander VI, and shortly after the new Pope himself appeared at the window. And instead of calling out the tradiional call to the crowds of “volo”, it is said that he shouted, “I am Pope! I am Pope!”.

Following his election, rumous began to spread that he had bribed his fellow cardinal’s into giving him the Papal crown. Cardinal Ascanio Sforza is said to have agreed to put aside his own ambitions and help Rodrigo for the promise of gold (this is where the gold laden mules come into the story, with them being lead through the dead of night to the Sforza palace) as well as the office of Vice-Chancellor. With the office of Vice Chancellor, Ascanio would also get the official residence that came with the office – today known as the Palazzo Sforza-Cesarini (nothing of the original building remains however, having been rebuilt in 1888).

On 12th August, 800 men rode through the city to meet the new Pope at the Vatican Palace.

After his election, even his enemies had to admit that Rodrigo was certainly competent despite the accusations of Simony, bribery ad sexual corruption. Plus, Rodrigo was also determined to put an end to the lawlessness that had spread through the city during Innocent’s reign.

So, did Rodrigo bribe his way into the seat of St Peter? I have to say, having read a lot about his election, it seems very likely. Not only did the day before Rodrigo have nowhere near the amount of votes needed only to get an almost unanimous vote the next day, but after his election he gave lavish gifts to all those who had backed him. For instance, as we know, Sforza was made vice chancellor while others such as Cardinal Savelli was given Civita castello and others received thousands of ducats for their help. Only 5 cardinals came away with nothing, and all 5 said that the papal vote should be given freely and not brought. It does seem a little fishy, and even Johannes Buchard (Pope Alexander’s Master of Ceremonies)  writes of the rumours that were flying around Rome at the time, and it is Buchard who tells us of the gifts that Alexander lavished on his backers. Do I think he bribed his way in? Yes I do, but it was certainly not the first time a Cardinal had bribed his way in. Stories abound through the history of the Catholic Church in the Renaissance, stories of bribery and corruption, so the story of Rodrigo Borgia was nothing new. Yet why was a stink kicked up at Rodrigo’s election? Quite simply, Rodrigo Borgia had enemies, enemies who did not want a Spaniard in the papal chair, enemies who wanted an Italian as their Pope.

And these rumours of bribery and corruption, as well as sexual misdemeanours followed Pope Alexander VI until his death in 1503.

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, 2009, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner Books: Boston
Hollingsworth, M, 2011, The Borgias: Histories Most Notorious Dynasty, Quercus: London

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