At the end of the last post, Rodrigo Borgia had just been voted in by the college of Cardinals as Pope Alexander VI. And it is from the time of his being voted in, and beyond, that we get some of the most debauched stories about this infamous pope. But was he really all that bad? Was he really a sexual deviant who had orgies in his Papal Palace? Did he really poison his enemies? The tour guide who took us around the Vatican certainly seemed to think so, as do many who have delved into the history of this infamous family.
This post isn’t going to be in the same vein as my other posts on Rodrigo, where I write a massive essay on a certain part of his life. What I’m going to do in this one is split the post into parts, going into a couple of the rumours that surround his Papacy and hopefully going some way to dismiss some of them. Some of what I will be going into are rather famous incidents, and some of them are very debauched. I guess I should mark this post 18+ but well…if you’re reading about the Borgias then you should expect quite a bit of debauchery…
The Banquet of Chestnuts, 1501 (often known as the “Ballet of Chestnuts”)
This has to be one of the best known party incidents of Pope Alexander VI’s reign, but certainly not the last. The party, or banquet, was actually thrown by the Pope’s son Cesare, in his apartments in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. Johanne Buchard describes the incident in “At The Court Of The Borgia2:
“On Sunday evening, October 30th, Don Cesare Borgia gave a supper in his apartment at the apostolic palace, with fifty decent prostitutes or courtesans in attendance, who after the meal danced with the servants and others there, first fully dressed and then naked. Following the supper too, lampstands holding lighted candles were placed on the floor and chestnuts strewn about, which the prostitutes, naked and on their hands and knees, had to pick up as they crawled in and out amongst the lampstands. The pope, Don Cesare and Donna Lucrezia were all present to watch. Finally, prizes were offered – silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats and other garments – for those men who were most successful with the prostitutes. This performance was carried out in the Sala Reale and those who attended said in fact the prizes were presented to those who won the contest.” (Buchard, J, Parker, G, 1963, 194)
As you can see from Buchard’s account, it’s pretty debauched. It’s hard not to imagine the Pope, dressed all in his white gear, sat at a table with Cesare and Lucrezia clapping and laughing as these courtesans crawled around naked. It’s certainly not an image you would expect when thinking about the head of the Catholic church? However, whilst Buchard is a most famous chronicler of Renaissance Italy, and indeed the reign of Pope Alexander VI, he was not actually as this banquet. This is made evident by Peter De Roos, a Vatican researcher in the 19th century who suggests: “It is evident that Burchard was not an eyewitness of the orgy, and nowhere does he, in his long diary, write such foul matter, nowhere does he, even from hearsay, report any occurrence apt to injure the good reputation of any of the Borgias. How could he here suddenly descend from his accustomed decent ways to the lowest rank of a filthy writer, how could he describe a scene calculated to ruin the character of all the Borgias at once? Burchard is certainly not himself on this occasion. It is no wonder, therefore, if every modern historian either denies or discusses the genuineness of this Diary’s passage.”(De Roos Vol 5, 1924, 195). This work however, was put together hundreds of years after the incident. Can we be clear if Buchard was actually there or not? Not really. But as Pope Alexander’s Master of Ceremonies, Buchard must have been privy to what was going in at the court.
Did Pope Alexander VI cover for Cesare after the death of Juan Borgia in 1497?
As I have written previously, on 14th June 1497 Juan Borgia, second son of Alexander VI (not counting his children by mistresses other than Vanozza De Cattanei), went missing. That night Juan had gone off with another man following. He had sent his groom back to the Vatican to fetch his light armour on the advice of his brother Cesare and his uncle, also named Juan, yet the groom had been viciously attacked. The next morning it was reported that Juan had not come back – but Alexander was used to his antics and half expected him to come ambling in later, fresh from a whorehouse. But he didn’t. Later that day, as panic rose in the Pope, Cesare told his father what had happened before he had left his brother, and a search was mounted. Around midday on 16th June, a body was pulled from the river covered in stab wounds. Yet his purse, carrying 30 ducats has not been taken. The body was Juan Borgia, duke of Gandia and Gonfaloniere of the Papal armies. The Pope, of course, went into deep mourning for his son. On the 19th June, the Pope made a statement:
“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 began to circulate over who had killed Juan Borgia. Was it the Sforza’s due to resentment over the annulment of Lucrezia and Giovanni’s marriage? was it his younger brother Goffre, who was said to be jealous over his brothers relationship with Sancia, Goffre’s wife? Or was it the Duke of Urbino who harboured resentment over his imprisonment by Juan during the Orsini war? Or was it Cesare, his own brother who harboured so much jealousy that his younger brother was Gonfaloniere, jealousy that his younger brother was Alexander’s favourite, jealousy that he instead of Juan was made to wear the Cardinal’s skirts?
At any rate, almost exactly a week later the search was called off. Had Alexander learned the truth? It seems a little fishy that the father who had been so grief stricken and determined to find his son’s murderer called the search off just one week later. The rumour that Cesare had murdered his brother did not surface until almost a year later in Venice where, funnily enough, many supporters of the Orsini family lived.
Is it feasible that Cesare murdered his brother. After all, it is well known that he was jealous of his brother and wanted to get out of the Church. Showtime’s “The Borgias” show this really rather well:
Whilst of course the clip is based solely on rumour, it does a fantastic job of showing the whole “what if Cesare killed his brother?”. Plus, we must remember that the Pope dropped everything just one week…ONE WEEK…after his son’s death. had Cesare confessed? Was that why Alexander let his son resign his place as a cardinal? Alas, we will never know.
Whist these are but two of the stories that surround this most maligned Pope, of course there are many more rumours that surround Alexander VI’s Papacy:
- He bribed his way to the chair of St Peter’s
- He poisoned his adversaries
- He sold offices to those who had helped him become Pope
- He was poisoned by his own son, Cesare Borgia.
There are of course many more rumours that haunt the history of Pope Alexander VI and his family. As I have said previously, our tour guide at the Vatican during our recent visit to Rome spewed out many inaccuracies of the Borgia family including those rather daft rumours that Lucrezia Borgia had an incestuous relationship with her father and brother and that Alexander had poisoned his enemies. There is literally no evidence that the Pope had these relationships with his daughters and even the evidence of his chestnut banquet cannot be taken at face value. Throughout my research of this fascinating family I have found no convincing evidence of incest or poisoning; yet the idea has come down to us through centuries of rumour…
Will we ever be able to quash these rumours? Probably not…
But I’ll give it a damn good go.
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
De Roos, 1924, Material for a history of Pope Alexander VI:
Hibbert, C, 2009, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner Books: Boston
Hollingsworth, M, 2011, The Borgias: Histories Most Notorious Dynasty, Quercus: London