The Borgia family was a dominant one in Renaissance Italy. Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, his son Cesare and his daughter Lucrezia passed the test of time, being remembered as greedy and vicious but also charming.
Rodrigo Borgia became pope in 1492 by bribing the cardinals which had to vote for the new pope. As soon as he gain his position as head of the most powerful Church at the time, the Catholic Church, he started a strategy of nepotism and greed. He placed his children in important positions: cardinals, dukes and so on and arranged marriages for them that would bring material benefices, as well as military protection in case of need. He forbade the practice of simony (bribing cardinals in order to vote for you in the papal elections) and went on with his politics of acquiring wealth and living an amoral life (he was frequently reported to have been seen taking part in orgies).
Cesare was Rodrigo’s eldest son from his second mistress. He started to acquire wealth and power even before his father became the Pope, at a very young age. He was appointed in numerous important offices of the Vatican and gifted with valuable properties by Pope Sixtus IV, predecessor of his father. He was made a cardinal by his father at the age of 18, but five years later he renounced the privileges of clergy for those of secular power. His father didn’t waste any time and quickly arranged a marriage for him. The marriage was meant to form an alliance with France, which brought Cesare the position of a general in the French army.
The decay of the family deepened in the 1500. Burchard, the chancellor of the Pope, recorded in his diary the actions that entertained the Borgias: Cesare shooting and killing slaves, killing his sister’s second husband, the whole family bringing prostitutes to watch them having sex with slaves for their entertainment, few of them ending up death for daring to speak against Cesare, murdered his sister’s lover, attempt to poison a cardinal which wasn’t in the Pope’s good graces.
Lucrezia was Pope’s second favorite child. She was married three times in order to forge allegiances, declared a virgin by Vatican judges while she was pregnant with a servant, she was given the office of a governor, which was usually held by a cardinal, often left as a regent of Vatican when the Pope was travelling. The birth of her illegitimate son led to accusations of incest; the child was born in secrecy and he remained unknown until he was 3 years old. The Pope firstly declared him his grandson, the child of Cesare, and afterwards his own son, so he could offer him titles and properties.
The Pope and his son became famous in Machiavelli’s writing “The Prince”. The book is supposed to be a guide of how a man should acquire and maintain government. Machiavelli took the two notorious men as models, due to the way they increased their power. Cesare had all the qualities a ruler needed: he was fearless, charming and proved ruthless, so he made people obedient, which kept them from revolting. Every crime, lie or braking of his promises was justified in the game of politics in Machiavelli’s view; according to him, in politics the end justifies the means; so all Cesare’s actions were entirely justified in his pursuit of power.
Despite their politics of nepotism, greed, vanity and even cruelty the Borgias survived the history as examples of great leaders, the family members being transformed in charming, romanticized characters through literature.
1. Machiavelli, Niccolo,1998 second edition, The Prince, printed by The University of Chicago Press
2. Frederick Baron Corvo, 1901, Chronicles of the House of Borgia, printed by Grant Richards
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