Cesare Borgia and the Great Pox

Cesare Borgia by Altobello Melone
One of the most well known facts about Cesare Borgia, aside from the fact that he was a bit (a lot) of a sociopath who seemed to enjoy having people killed, is that he suffered from Syphilis and often tended to go about wearing a mask. It is said that he wore the mask to cover up the disfigurement on his face that came from the disease – he was considered to be the most handsome man of his day and so it must have been a bit of a shock when he started noticing the tell tale symptoms of the Great Pox making a show of itself on his face. Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent that should be happening later on in the post. How did Cesare Borgia contract syphilis? How did he cope with it? How did he have it treated? By the time he died in Navarre was he cured or did it send him mad enough to rush to his own death?
The disease itself was really first noticed after the French invasion of Naples in 1495 where it began to spread across Europe. In a way, it was as if Naples was the epicenter of the disease. But how was it spread by the invading French? It is thought that the disease was spread through Spanish mercenaries serving under Charles VIII, who caught it in the New World and then spread it amongst the citizens of Naples who then spread it back to the French. The French then spread it further and thus across Europe. Complicated. The disease back then was incredibly lethal and led to thousands and thousands of people developing it and it’s deformities, even leading to widespread death. 
In 1497, Cesare Borgia was sent to Naples as Papal Legate. It had been just six weeks since the death of his brother Juan, Duke of Gandia and he left with a small army of retainers. When I say small, small involves retainers, camp followers and prelates as well as over 700 horse. Cesare Borgia certainly didn’t do things by half. They headed to Capua, where the Coronation of Federigo as King of Naples was to take place on the 6th August but soon after they arrived he fell ill – Sancia and Jofre were dispatched from Rome to nurse him back to health and by 11th August he was well enough to crown Federigo. The ceremony itself was lavish but the barons of the Kingdom of Naples failed to show up – it was one of Cesare’s jobs to reconcile them with their new King, but that went down the pan rather quickly. In the end, the only people of note at the ceremony were his brother Jofre and his wife Sancia – the Prince and Princess of Squillace. Following the coronation ceremony, Cesare was determined to enjoy the Kingdom of Naples. Before he left Naples on 22nd August, Cesare and his travelling court had almost impoverished the already poor King of Naples. He also brought something else back with him…
“Monsignor of Valencia has returned from the Kingdom after crowning King Federigo and he is too sick of the French disease”
After Cesare contracted the disease, his physician Gaspare Torella condemned the use of mercury in treating  it and prescribed Cesare a course of ointments, potions and sweating in hot baths. Obviously it wouldn’t have made all that much difference but within a month or so of returning to Rome it would have seemed like the disease had gone, and no doubt Torella thought his ointments and potions had cured him. It really didn’t. The first stage of Syphilis tends to disappear within ten to ninety days before reappearing later as the secondary stage. 
Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Cesare in the traditional black mask
By August of 1498, Cesare began working towards getting rid of his Cardinal’s robes. By this point he was determined to step into his brothers shoes and become a soldier. He took part in bullfights on horseback and practiced leaping astride mules and horses in one leap without touching the harness. He was incredibly proud of both his athletic body and his appearance but by now the symptoms of secondary syphilis were starting to show. The rash began to show itself on his face, somewhat disastrously for the handsome young man who was planning on impressing his intended new wife and the French court with his good looks. 
Gian Ludicco Cattaneo wrote, “He is well enough in countenance at present, although he has his face blotched beneath the skin as is usual with the great pox”
At this point, Cesare was just twenty three. Can you imagine how such a young man would have felt when this started happening, when the disease he thought himself cured of suddenly slapped him in the face again? He wasn’t to know that it would disappear on it’s own (only to reappear later on again – it would haunt him until the end of his life, appearing and reappearing) and he must have been really worried about the blotches on his face spoiling his marriage prospects – it seems he was so worried he even kept signing his letters as “Cardinal Valentino” as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe in his secular future and that the disease would mean he wouldn’t marry and would end up back in the church. Even Cattaneo mentions this, “Nonetheless he signed himself up to the last moment as Cesar, Card. Valentino…and this perhaps as a precaution if things did not come out as he wished or that perhaps, because of that face of his, spoiled by the French disease, his wife might refuse him”.
Shortly after Cesare arrived in Marseilles in the October of 1498, he was struck down again with the malady; as was Cardinal Giuliano della Roverre. Both seemed to recover quickly enough, and Cesare’s illness didn’t stop him from marrying the wealthy heiress Charlotte D’Albret in May of 1499.
As can be seen in the screencap above, many still believe that Cesare spent much of his time hiding his blotched face behind a mask. It seems that most of these descriptions come from contemporaries hostile to the Borgias who always jumped at the chance of discrediting the family – and according to Bradford in her biography of Cesare, the image we have of Cesare hiding in the mask is completely fictitious based on a description written by Paolo Giovio in which he said Cesare looked swarthy and he was disfigured by the blotches of Syphilis. It seems that after the blotches disappeared the chances of disfigurement were really small and would only have appeared many many years later! At the point in which Giovio was describing Cesare as ravaged by the disease, others such as Capello in around 1500 (and it must be said, many others!!) were pointing out that Cesare at the age of “twenty five is physically most beautiful, he is tall and well made…” – although this same man later goes on to describe Cesare as a sadistic murderer who had his own brother killed.
Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Cesare in the traditional black mask
The next mention we have of Cesare’s syphilis is in 1504, just after his fathers death and after his imprisonment in the Vatican by Pope Julius II. The year previously, just before his father’s death, he had fallen ill with the same fever that killed Pope Alexander – It was most likely to be a malarial fever although many attribute it to either poison or some sort of food poisoning. In April 1504 Cesare had made his way to Naples where he was still quite unwell and Carvarjal reported that at Ostia Cesare had been in a lot of pain with the “French disease” and his face was hideously blotched with nasty looking pustules. It should be noted that we know now that fever, and in particularly malarial fever, was used as a treatment and cure for Syphilis up until the advent of penicillin – Cesare’s nasty illness the previous year would very likely have cured him and the after effects of said fever. and his imprisonment was probably what caused him to look so rough.
By the time Cesare was killed in Viana in 1507, did he still have syphilis? Some say he did and it has been suggested that the disease had affected the senses in his brain so much that he had gone mad and so, in a fit of madness had ridden to his death. It is however an unlikely explanation – Cesare contracted syphilis in 1497 and tertiary syphilis can appear at any point from 5-20 years after the first stage manifests itself. He had syphilis for less than ten years and it’s really quite dramatic and unlikely to say that in ten years it would have progressed so far as to make him go mad, and indeed in the lead up to the day of his death there is no evidence at all that he had gone mad at all. He certainly seemed to be in control of his senses and even in the bleakest moments he never lost hope and always kept his mind on the prize. He was a reckless man certainly, and the way he rode to his death on his own is very similar to a description made of him in 1503 when he rode at a group of Orsini’s (again, completely on his own), saying he would rather die in the saddle than his bed. And as mentioned previously, it’s really very likely that he didn’t even have the disease thanks to the dangerous fever that he suffered from in 1503. 
We must remember though that after 506 years it is almost impossible to say whether he died as a result of syphilis affecting his brain or whether he did indeed still have it at the time of his death. All that we can say is that he did have it, and that it certainly affected his life in many ways although, like many things with Cesare’s story most of what we think about his illness today comes from anti-Borgia propaganda  Did he hide his ravaged face behind a mask? Probably not. Did he wear a mask? Yes, but it was more likely to keep himself disguised so he wouldn’t be noticed, not to hide a blotched face away – the blotches would have disappeared any way, and physical disfigurement in such a short space of time was highly, highly unlikely. But, like the incest stories, it’s another of these stories that many seem determined to hold on to and why? Because it makes the man come across as more monstrous than he ever, truly was.
Further Reading
Sarah Bradford – Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times
Sarah Bradford – Lucrezia Borgia
Christopher Hibbert – The Borgias & Their Enemies

Caterina Sforza Part 4 – 1488: The Death of Girolamo Riario

San Mercuriale, Forli

In May 1487, Caterina Sforza began to take the reigns of power. Her husband had suddenly been taken ill with a mysterious illness and as he lay in his sick bed she had to govern Forli and Imola in his stead. Yet Caterina had to watch herself. Girolamo was seriously unwell and her eldest son was still only eight years old and there was those who had their eyes on Forli. Thankfully Girolamo recovered, but thanks to his illness as well as his weak character, Caterina knew that he was not a fit ruler. She had to take centre stage, and so she did. And in 1488, her life would change forever.

As Caterina began ruling Forli in mid 1487, she began to make plans should her husband die. She renewed her alliance with Milan and sent feelers to the Bentivoglio family in Bologna. However, the fortress of Ravaldino was under the protection of a man who she distrusted, Melhiorre Zaccheo. He had showed up in Forli as Girolamo was desperate for cash, and in return for a few loans was installed as commander of Ravaldino. Caterina made it one of her first jobs to get rid of the man and, at 8 months pregnant rode to Ravaldino. She then got off her horse and called to Zaccheo to relinquish the castle. He, of course, refused saying that he had heard Girolamo was already dead and he would only vacate the fortress on his terms and when he was damn well good and ready. Caterina rode back to Imola, a plan formulating in her mind. On August 10th, Innocenzo Codronchi turned up at Ravaldino. There was already bad blood between him and Caterina after she had ousted him from the Castel Sant Angelo. But Girolamo had rewarded Codronchi’s loyalty and made him castellan of Ravaldino, which would have displeased Caterina greatly. And when Girolamo had made Zaccheo castellan of Ravaldino in his stead, he was made captain of Girolamo’s personal guard. And Codronchi would have a massive part to play in helping Caterina take back her fortress. The two men knew each other well, and had played cards together often. And when Codronchi returned, it is no surprise that Zaccheo welcomed him, and the two men played at dice. The loser would have to provide lunch the next day. Of course Codronchi lost and the next morning he left Ravaldino, promising to return with lunch. His servant appeared the next morning with a fowl for lunch and Zaccheo admitted him so that he could prepare the meal. As lunch was served, the manservant waited behind Zaccheo’s chair, and as Zaccheo rose from the table Codronchi grabbed him and the servant hit him on the head! Next, Zaccheo’s own servant stabbed his master over and over again. It was Codronchi himself who dealt the final blow, by stabbing Zaccheo with his own sword. Zaccheo’s body was then unceremoniously thrown down a well, and Codronchi threatened to do the same to Zaccheo’s followers. They fled and Codronchi raised Ravadino’s drawbridge. As Caterina was due to give birth on the 11th August, her brother in law brought news of Zaccheo’s murder to her. Despite being so close to giving birth, she rode hard to Forli and rode up to the moat, calling to Codronchi to explain himself. He replied:

“Madam, you shouldn’t entrust your fortress to drunkards and people with no brains”

And that he murdered Zaccheo because he “felt like it”. What a brilliant excuse! Yet as he looked down at Caterina and saw her exhausted from her long ride and being “pregnant up to her throat”, he advised Caterina to get some rest and invited her to lunch the very next day. Yet there was a condition, she was only allowed to bring one servant with her. And the next morning, she and a maidservant rode to Ravaldino. Her maidservant had prepared lunch, to make it look as though she were afraid of a poisoning attempt. Yet as she disappeared into Ravaldino, she and Codronchi disappeared alone where they discussed what was going to happen, and allowed their servants only a glimpse of various documents being signed. Not long after, Caterina got back on her horse and rode back to Imola. Three days later she returned to Ravaldino with a new castellan, Tommaso Feo. The two of them entered the fortress and not long after she emerged with Codronchi at her side. They rode together into Forli and stopped before the steps of the Riaro palace, claiming that Rivaldino was back in her hands and she had chosen a castellan who was suitable. Following dinner within the palace, Codronchi left the palace and was never heard from again.

The next day, Caterina gave birth to Francesco who was lovingly nicknamed “Sforzino”. And at the same time she was busy dealing with international politics. Her main issue was with Erole D’Este, who owned the lands next to hers, and she had to keep an eye on him. Ercole and Caterina often clashed and Ercole never seemed to pass up an opportunity to goad Caterina. Two days after little Sforzino was born, Caterina had finally had enough and built a farmhouse on their borders where she stationed soldiers to constantly watch the Ferrara lands for signs of invasion. Ercole realised what was going on and on 19th August 1487 sent his peasants to tear down the little farmhouse on the basis that Caterina had built it on his territory. Caterina took the case before a tribunal but lost to Ercole. In September of the same year, the old Ordelaffi claimants made their move and stormed Forli’s western gate. Thankfully this was stopped before it could really have begun, and despite only being a month out of her child bed insisted on interrogating the prisoners herself. Upon interrogation, she discovered that the man behind the plot was a farmer by the name of Passi. Yet as she brought Passi before her, Passi shouted that he hadn’t spoken to these men in over eight months. The man who made the acusation was hanged, and Passi was set free.

Yet all the while, Girolamo remained in his sickbed with his mysterious illness. Yet even as he began to recover, he stared back with some of his old tricks. Despite telling his people he would get rid of the dazzi tax, he reinstated it. And the outcome was not a happy one.

Following the reinstatement of the dazzi in 1488, as wedding bells rang throughout the country as Lorenzo de Medici’s daughter married the son of Pope Innocent VIII, two of Girolamo Riario’s enemies united. Riario feared both Rome and Florence following his involvement in the assassination of Giuliano de Medici, and the fact that both states supported the Ordelaffi claimants to Forli. In his fear, Girolamo began to upset the nobles of his own town by trying to relieve the taxes paid by the poor. Riario tried to shift the tax to the rich town dwellers and the move was not a popular one. Ludovico Orsi, a one time friend of Riario, took it upon himself to rebuke Girolamo as acting up to the peasant class would only make things worse. Yet Riario would have none of it, and Orsi grew angry and told Riario that the people would tear him to shreds. And sadly for Girolamo Riaro, these words would become truth soon enough. Riario however accused Orsi of never having been his friend and demanded, “Perhaps you would rather that I die?”. Orsi fled, and having met up with his brother agreed that the Count should die. Giralomo, already paranoid about assassination attempts, kept a constant watch on the piazza and often spotted as Orsi tried to make his way in disguise through the town. On one occasion Girolamo dragged Orsi to his quarters and demanded to know why he didn’t visit any more. Orsi muttered something about needing money for the count but as soldiers stepped forward, he panicked and fled. And now that the Orsi had fully broken with the Riario’s, they decided to act before Riario could. And plans to murder the Riario family began in earnest.

Girolamo Riario took his midday meal in his “hall of the mymphs”, away from his family and in the afternoon, following a small siesta, held audiences. The Orsi assasins already knew how to get a couple of minutes with the count, and persuaded Riario’s new page that his uncle Gasparino needed a few minutes alone with the count. Gasparino was, of course, one of those involved in the plot. Gasparino then agreed to signal from the open window when Girolamo was taking his siesta.

Girolamo Riario

Moday, April 14th was the day when it would all happen. The town was busy with the market, but by lunch time the main piazza had quietened down. Caterina was busy having lunch with her children, and as Riario went to lay down, Gasparino signalled. Six members of the Orsi family, all dressed in armour, climbed the stairs towards the hall of the nymphs and there, Cecco Orsi stabbed Riario over and over. And as they did so they cried “Liberty!”. As the Orsi family ransacked the palace the servants fought amongst themselves, trying to work out if their lord had beenn killed or not, and the gathered townspeople did the same.

Three soldiers dragged the naked, battered corpse of Girolamo Riario and threw him over the balcony into the piazza. The people circled the mangled body, recognising the facial figures of their count. And they ran to the palace in horror. And as they ran, the palace was ransacked.

Girolamo’s body was left laying in the piazza like meat. His body was dragged through the piazza, being spat upon and kicked and some fanatics tried to tear him to shreds. Yet the fraternity of the Battuti Neri stopped them, and they took the body to the cathedral.

Caterina was having lunch with her children at the time, and when she heard the cries of ” Liberty”. Gathering her children to her, she went to the window with little Ottaviano and called for help for the little heir of Forli. The palace was however now in the hands of the Orsis, and there was no help that would come for her, and Caterina knew what was at stake. The assassins would look to kill her children and so she barricaded herself  inside her rooms, and called to those loyal to her that there was no point in fighting as the Orsi family had control. And as she spoke those words, her attackers pounded on her doors. Yet Caterina would not allow her town to fall completely. She was the widow of Forli and mother of the heir. She ordered that those loyal to her meet in Ravaldino, and as she did so, the Orsi burst into her rooms.

It was at Ravaldino in 1488 that those mythical words were cried, “I have the means to make ten more sons!”. Did Caterina Sforza really speak these words?

Alas, as it is late, I feel that the myth of Caterina and “ten more sons” should be saved for the next entry. So please do keep your eyes pealed.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli, 
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Paul Strathern, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
Ernst Breisach, Caterina Sforza: A Renaissance Virago
Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and Their Enemies
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance In Italy
Christopher Hare, The Most Illustrious Ladies of the Italian Renaissance
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Will Durant, The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 AD