Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reigning at the Vatican

Lucrecia Borgia

Lucrecia Borgia (1480-1519 C.E.) was the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503 C.E.) who reigned as Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), and his chief mistress Vanozza de Cartaneis.1

The Borgias were a family from Catalonia in modern day Spain called in Catalonia Borja. Rodrigo owed his rise to the fact that his uncle Calixtus III became Pope in 1455 C.E., In 1456 Calixtus III made his nephew Rodrigo a Cardinal. Calixtus died in 1458 C.E. The following decades were characterized by the steady rise to power of Rodrigo who steadily added to his power and influence along with having a string of children by various mistresses. About the year 1475 C.E., Rodrigo met Vanozza and she became his chief mistress and one of his chief advisers until he died. Aside from Lucrecia she also was the mother of several other children by Rodrigo including the brilliant but very sinister Cesare (1475-1507 C.E.) and Juan (1476-1497 C.E.).2

The Borgias during Alexander’s reign acquired a sinister reputation for treachery, ruthlessness and depravity which has stuck with them until the present day. In many respects this is entirely well deserved Rodrigo or Alexander VI, has I will from now on refer to him, acquired the Papal throne in 1492 likely through mass intimidation and bribery. Some modern writers downplay or deny this; given Alexander VI’s subsequent record this seems very unlikely that he didn't engage in massive intimidation and bribery. It appears that that massive quantities of gold and silver flowed to make Alexander VI Pope. One of the stories is that that Alexander VI bribed one Cardinal with four donkey loads of Silver.3

Pope Alexander VI

The ruthlessness and corruption that existed all round the family, combined with Alexander’s predilection for high living and luxury resulted in all sorts of rumours floating round about the family. Including incest between Lucrecia and Alexander and / or between Cesare and Lucrecia, along with some inter family murder. Also Lucrecia’s entirely false reputation as a poisoner. Those rumours were false, but given just how corrupt the family could be hardly surprising.4 For example in 1501 there occurred the infamous Banquet or Ballet of the Chestnuts. It was described in a contemporary diary. At this banquet, after dinner, 50 courtesans danced at first clothed and then naked. Chestnuts were then scattered on the floor then diary states:
…which the courtesans, crawling on hands and knees among the candelabra, picked up, while the Pope, Cesare and his sister Lucrecia looked on.5
Sex with the courtesans followed with prizes:

..for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans.6

In another example of family corruption; Lucrecia’s brother Cesare after failing to successfully poison Lucrecia’s second husband Alfonso cut him to pieces after Alfonso, who well knew who had tried to kill him, tried to kill Cesare.7

The financial corruption and greed of the family beggars belief in how ruthlessly Alexander sought to enrich himself and establish his family as great potentates in Italy. Unfortunately for Alexander VI and his family he died in 1503 and the family, especially the terrifying Cesare lacked political support without father around. Cesare was rapidly ousted from Italy and died in exile. Lucrecia who had been married to Alfonso d’Estes Duke of Ferrara in 1501 managed to survive the family debacle, eventually becoming a well loved figure in Ferrara.8

However even more than the Banquet of the Chestnuts one incident indicates the almost incredible corruption of the Borgia family. In the summer of 1501 Alexander VI while visiting parts of the Papal state outside of Rome left his daughter Lucrecia in charge of the Vatican. She was given authority to open his mail, see officials and took the place of the Pope at several meetings. Not surprisingly this caused quite a bit of scandal at the time. I suppose it could be compared to what would happen if a president of the United States left the day to day running of the USA to his mistress while on a foreign trip. Some modern day commentators have been absurdly blasé about the whole thing.9

While Alexander was away on this journey, Lucrecia was left in charge of the Vatican. This choice astonished and shocked contemporaries but is itself adequate testimony of Alexander’s completely secular view of Papal administration.10
Sometimes people are just a little to complacent about outrageous acts. The bottom line is that this was an act that showed an astounding amount of contempt for the moral reputation of the church and has such was not surprisingly considered incredibly scandalous at the time, because it was!

It is not surprising that in less than 20 years after the death of Alexander VI the severe corruption within the church would really help to engender the Protestant Reformation and produce another serious religious split in Christendom.11

Painting: Lucrecia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the absence
Of her father Pope Alexander VI

1. Lucrezia Borgia, at Wikipedia, Here, Durant, Will, The Renaissance, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953, pp. 428-433, Mallett, Michael, The Borgias, Paladin, London, 1971, p. 99.

2. Durant, pp. 404-428, Mallett, pp. 60-79.

3. Durant, p. 406, Mallett, pp. 106-110, De Rosa, Peter, Vicars of Christ, Bantam Press, Toronto, 1988, p. 104, Tuchman, Barbara, The March of Folly, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984, p. 78.

4. Durant, pp. 411-417, Mallett, pp. 11-12, Tuchman, p. 85.

5. Quoted by Tuchman, p. 88. For other brief account of the Banquet of the Chestnuts see Mallett, pp. 205-206, and De Rosa, pp. 106-107.

6. IBID.

7. IBID, Tuchman, Durant, pp. 430-431, De Rosa, p. 108.

8. Mallett, pp. 215-227, 232-241, Durant, pp. 433-440., Tuchman, pp. 88-90.

9. Mallett, p. 162-163, Durant, p. 412.

10. Mallett, p. 162.

11. The first split was between Catholicism and Orthodox which became final in 1054 C.E. See Ostrogorsky, George, History of the Byzantine State, 2nd Edition, Basil Blackwell, Padstow Cornwall, 1968, pp. 336-338. For a short review of how papal corruption help provoke the Protestant Reformation see The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession: 1470-1530, in Tuchman, pp. 51-126.

Pierre Cloutier

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