The Death of Cesare Borgia

Cesare Borgia

506 years ago today, one of the greatest military commanders that Italy had ever seen was killed at the Siege of Viana. On 12th March 1507, Cesare Borgia rode to his death following a life of extraordinary feats – son (possibly, please see this post for more information on that) of a Pope, the first man ever to resign from the College of Cardinals, Gonfalonier and commander of the Papal armies; he died as he had spent most of the final years of his life, alone. As I’m sure many of my readers are aware, I have the greatest respect for Cesare Borgia and am a huge advocate of dismissing the terrible rumours that surround his life – and so today I will write about his death, the circumstances surrounding it and how its wider effects.

Sergio Peris-Mancheta as Cesare in Los Borgia
Having escaped from his imprisonment in Spain, Cesare headed to Navarre where he joined forces with his father in law Jean D’Albret. There, he spent his time fighting with Jean and helping the King of Navarre besiege various towns. There is a fantastic story in which an old man remembered Cesare passing through the town of Mendigorria at the head of a massive army. The old man spoke of how Cesare was, “a big man, strong, handsome, and soro” (Soro is an untranslatable word used to describe young falcons). It is said that Cesare carried a particular weapon which is incredibly unusual, but mentioned many times by other chroniclers who described Cesare’s time in Navarre – a short, thick, double pointed lance. Cesare Borgia, a man who had been imprisoned and suffered great hardship since 1503, was back in the saddle and at the height of health and fitness.
During the first week of March, Cesare joined up with King Jean of Navarre at the town of Viana. The plan was to besiege and take the town from Luis de Beaumonte, a man who held the town on behalf of the Spanish monarchs. Considering as how this town was in the kingdom of Navarre, King Jean wanted the town back in his control and Cesare, the man who had made the Romagna fall to his knees, would have found the town and its castle an easy target. It seems however that Cesare was overconfident and the wariness he was so famous for when it came to warfare had relaxed. In a way, the events of the next few days were somewhat inevitable, given the overconfidence of Borgia, and the lack of experience he had in commanding a fully trained army rather than paid mercenaries.
Mark Ryder as Cesare in Borgia: Faith & Fear
On the night of 11th March, Cesare withdrew his troops into the safety of the town due to a harsh rainstorm. He didn’t think that Beaumonte would attack during such bad weather, but this was a mistake and Beaumonte had been waiting for Cesare to make such a move. Under the cover of darkness, Beaumonte lead mules into the town – they were loaded with flour and bread and escorted by 200 lances. They entered the castle unnoticed. At dawn the next day, they noticed a body of cavalry approaching and thought they were reinforcements and so raised their cry. As the words “Beaumonte, Beaumonte!” were cried, the alarm was raised in the town.
Despite the confusion, Cesare leapt onto his horse dressed in light armour and rode out of the town with seventy horseman and his squire, Grasica. He left a note for King Jean to follow. Accounts of what happened during the next few hours conflict quite a lot, but it seems as Cesare galloped out of the Solana gate his horse slipped in the mud and almost fell. Cesare gained control of the horse and rode out of the town shouting:
“Where is he, this little Count?”
Cesare out rode his men, and caught sight of the Beaumonte soldiers as they were retreating to where Beaumonte waited for them. And Cesare Borgia, who had out ridden his men, did not realise he was alone. And as Beaumonte observed the lone horseman galloping forward with his unusual double pointed lance, he sent forward three of his best knights. These men included Garcia de Agreda and Pedro de Allo as well as some foot soldiers. These men waited in ambush, and as Cesare approached they fell upon him. As Cesare raised his arm to strike, Ximenes Garcia stabbed him with a lance under the arm, at the point unprotected by his armour.
Cesare fell from his horse, mortally wounded, yet he still had hold of his lance. He fought desperately, something that is shown fantastically in the Spanish movie “Los Borgia”, but it wasn’t long until he fell, completely overwhelmed by his attackers.
Cesare’s death: Los Borgia

Cesare’s death: Los Borgia

Cesare’s death: Los Borgia
As he lay there, dead of his wounds, Cesare Borgia was stripped of his armour and left there naked and bleeding. One of the men, it is unknown which, had the decency to cover his genitals with a rock. Later, when his body was examined, at least twenty five stab wounds were found. It was just three days short of the Ides of March when he died, the day that had proven to be fateful to his hero Caesar. It seems that the men who attacked him were completely unaware that it was Cesare Borgia whom they had killed. Cesare’s squire, Juanito grasica was found desperately searching for his master and when he was shown the armour that was taken, he burst into tears. It was at that moment that the attackers realised who they had killed. Beaumonte erupted in a rage. He had lost a valuable prize, for the price that was on the head of Duke Valentino alive was a high one. But nothing could be done, and so Beaumonte lead the squire to where Cesare’s corpse lay. King Jean of Navarre had Cesare’s body carried to Viana.
Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and the Romagna; ex cardinal and son of Pope Alexander VI was buried in the parish church of Santa Maria in Viana. He was just thirty one when he was killed, and by the time of his death had achieved more than most men of his age ever had. He was buried in an elaborate marble tomb with the inscription:
“Here, in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared”
It has since been suggested that Cesare deliberately rode out to his death in a sort of suicidal charge. Historians have previously argued that it was the syphilis that made him do this, that it had affected his brain so much that it made him go mad. However, Bradford has argued that by the time of his death it is more than likely that he was cured of the disease thanks to the malarial fever that he suffered in 1503. Plus, the final stages of syphilis can take up to 25 years to appear, and when he died in 1503 it would have been just 9 years since he first contracted the disease. There is also no evidence of madness in the lead up to his death. Had Cesare given up hope and ridden to his own death? It is unlikely for even under the bleakest of circumstances he had never lost hope. So why should he have done so now? Yet it is impossible now to arrive at the real reasoning behind his death – had he just gotten carried away and ridden out faster than his men, or had he indeed gone mad? Was he bored of being stuck in a little war which he believed meant nothing? Indeed, Cesare died alone – mostly as he lived. He had spent so many years fighting the odds and succeeding, and he may well have succeeded here – for he had a huge sense of his own destiny and of fortuna. He had such a lust for power and was prepared to sacrifice everything to succeed. Yet despite his single handed desire to succeed, and to rule, he failed. He was blessed with his desire to succeed, he was ruthless and in many ways amoral but in the same way he was also bordering on genius. And had he lived, he could have ruled the whole of Italy, if not the world.
There were not many who mourned Cesare’s passing. The main few were the three women in his life: Charlotte D’Albret, Lucrezia Borgia and Vanozza Cattanei. Charlotte ended up spending the rest of her life in mourning, dressing in black and replacing the decorations of her home with black hangings. Lucrezia also sank into a massive mourning process – the two had been exceptionally close and been subject to horrific rumours that they had been lovers. His mother, Vanozza, also mourned him deeply. Cesare had always respected his mother greatly and after his death ended up contributing charitably to various religious institutions – so much so that Pope Leo X, Cesare’s fellow student at the University of Pisa, demanded that his entire court attend her funeral.
Cesare’s body was moved outside the church of Viana after the Bishop of Calahorra destroyed his tomb. His body remained under a pavement until 27 August 1945 when a grave was opened in front of the steps of the church. There, a human body was found – it was incomplete and mixed with the bones of a child as well as domestic animals. The body was lifted out and the bones examined. Experts deduced that the skeleton was of a man aged between twenty five and forty years of age, and had lain in its grave for at least two hundred years. The bones showed clear evidence of a wound at least two centimetres in diameter which had happened while the man was still alive. It was deduced that the skeleton did indeed belong to Cesare Borgia, the lance wound fitting to the stories of his death. Shoulder wounds were also found on the skeleton, which fitted to his fall from when he escaped La Mota. In 1953, the bones were reinterred inside the church in Viana with considerable ceremony, permission having been given for Cesare Borgia’s reburial.
Cesare Borgia, if indeed the bones do belong to him, was reburied in front of the main door of the church of Santa Maria. Above his grave lies a simple slab reading “Cesar Borgia, Generalisimo of the Navarrese and Pontifical armies died in the fields of Viana 12 March 1507”. There he lies to this day, his simple grave still able to be viewed by the curious tourist. Next to the church is a bronze bust of Cesare which stands in the middle of a little park next to the church in Viana.
Cesare Borgia died alone, just three short days before the death of his hero, Caesar. Yet he lived by his motto “Aut Caesar, Aut Nihil”, and it really rings true in the lead up to his death. “Either Caesar, Or Nothing”. Whilst many still believe Cesare Borgia to be the big, bad villain; if you study his life in depth he really wasn’t the monster that many still make out. 
Rest in peace Cesare Borgia, duca de Valentinois é la Romagna. I shall raise a glass of wine to you this evening.
Further Reading

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