The Faithful Wellspring

Reintroducing the Faith to the St. Tarcissus Parish Community

“But may God, who grants pardon and loves to save man, in his goodness, give strength to us and make prosperous the Holy See.” ~Pope Alexander VI (Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, Peter de Roo)

The Origins


The Papacy is an institution that dates back two-thousand years into history. Throughout its lifetime, thus far, two-hundred sixty-six (266) men were invested with the title of Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. As a result, whether intended or unintended, each of these individuals have altered the Papacy with their deeds and words; both during their respective reigns and afterwards. No single figure, however embodies this aspect more profoundly than Pope Alexander VI. Born Rodrigo Lanzol y de Borja (Italianized: Rodrigo Borgia) on January 1st, 1431 A.D. in Xativa (Jativa) near Valencia, Spain. The eldest child of Jofré Llançol i Escrivà and Isabel de Borja y Cavanilles; he was born into the Spanish branch of the prominent and prestigious House of Borgia. Needless to say, he was destined for greatness. Unfortunately, this destiny was severely shaken when, on March 24th, 1437 A.D., tragedy struck the Borgia clan with the death of Jofre; Rodrigo’s father. The life of Rodrigo and the entire Borgia clan was at severe risk of being extinguished forever for there was no greater travesty to befall a prominent family than the premature demise of its patriarch.

Nevertheless, the family withstood this crisis, and Rodrigo was taken under the wing of his powerful paternal uncle; Alfonso de Borgia, bishop of Valencia and whom would later become Pope Calixtus III. It was under his tutelage that Rodrigo attended the prestigious University of Bologna where he studied law. After graduating from his studies, wherein he was hailed as being “the most eminent and judicious jurisprudent”, and becoming a Doctor of Law; Rodrigo became a Deacon of the Church. Shortly after this bestowal, he was (further) elevated to the Cardinalate by becoming Cardinal-Deacon of San Nicola in Carcere, which was a title gifted to him by his uncle Alfonso who (by that time) had been elected to the Papacy. The following year he became Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church: a post that was specifically tasked with the collection of monies for the formation and maintenance of the Papal Armies. Unsurprisingly, it is from this post that over the course of five Papacies — Calixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VIII — that (then) Cardinal Rodrigo amassed an immense fortune in wealth, administrative experience, and political influence; all the traits he’d require in order to attain the Papacy and which he would later employ as Pope.

“Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all” ~Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (James Reston, Dogs of God, 2005, p.287)

The Rise


That day eventually arrived with the death of Pope Innocent VIII on July 25th, 1492 A.D. and the eventual conclave that was called shortly afterwards. It is amidst this clandestine gathering — a meeting which still lingers to this very day — that tales of greed, corruption, and various other forms of intrigue stem from. Books of various genre’s tantalize us (for instance) with prose of dialog’s wherein Rodrigo threatens to unleash a particularly embarrassing screed about a certain prelate’s indiscretion(s) in an effort to secure votes to his own cause all the whilst piously gripping a wooden cross which dangles from neck. Movies and/or television miniseries tantalize us with images of Rodrigo releasing a carrier-pigeon, which has a note attached to its tiny foot, through a specially-placed portal that was carved into his private quarters at the conclave; this scene quickly transitions into another that depicts servants hastily loading a train of four mules with countless glittering silver coins; and in the final scene of this little narrative we see those fully-laden mules being guided to their intended destination where those vast sums of silver are to be “invested” into — a destination we as an audience are told throughout as a result of the fully-narrated note.

Although these, as well as countless other, stories scintillate us with their exoteric expressions of scandalous misdeeds; and I’d be the ultimate hypocrite if I were to deny to never experiencing a sense of outrage or contempt upon reading or witnessing these scenes as they unfolded; it becomes difficult to maintain such animosities upon closer inspection of these events. The tale of the “silver mules” (for instance) is a wonderful example of creative licensing: an amalgamation of populist ideals of “plotting prelates vying for their quest for power and fortune”. Unfortunately, this incident has never been verified by any source, and thus it can only be considered as unsubstantiated rumors. The further emphasis upon Rodrigo Borgia’s (seemingly exclusive) use of simony in order to advance his cause is also unjust, not because they are untrue (they are), but because such claims are applicable to all parties involved. Although simony was strictly forbidden; both in ecclesiastical and secular law; it was a system that had become well-established prior to, during, and after this conclave. As Professor Michael Edward Mallett (1932-2008) clearly illustrates:

“[Rodrigo] Borgia was in the lead from the start and that the rumours of bribery began after the election with the distribution of benefices; Sforza and della Rovere were just as willing and able to bribe as anyone else.” (The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty, 1932, pp. 123–6)

This claim is further legitimized by the personal diary entries of Johann Burchard, who was the Masters of Ceremonies for the ensuing conclave, and a leading figure in the household’s of several preceding Pope’s. It is is from said diary that he’s quoted as saying, “[this conclave] was a particularly expensive campaign.” Although this is a rather vague statement; it is from these entries that we also get the following details: Ascanio Sforza was supported by Milan and that Giuliano della Rovere (who’d later become Pope Julius II) was supported by both France and Genoa at the immense cost of 300,000 ducats. It was in such an environment that investitures (lands) and offices were promised by all candidates in exchange for votes. Regardless of the exact proceedings which transpired; Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, on August 11th, 1492 A.D., ascended to the throne of St. Peter’s and was adorned with the Three-Tiered Papal Tiara.

“(To Lucrezia Borgia) Do people say that I am both your father and your lover? Let the world, that heap of vermin as ridiculous as they are feeble-minded, believe the most absurd tales about the mighty! You must know that for those destined to dominate others, the ordinary rules of life are turned upside down and duty acquires an entirely new meaning. Good and evil are carried off to a higher, different plane.” ~Pope Alexander VI

The Reign


The initial start of Pope Alexander VI’s reign began rather innocently. In fact, he seemed to have been interested in a judicial administration of justice as well as the creation of an orderly government. According to various contemporary sources at the time, lawlessness was described as being a veritable epidemic which needed to be addressed immediately. It was in response to this very pressing issue that Alexander ordered investigations to be made against suspected culprits who were caught inciting mayhem and/or destruction. Additionally, he decreed that if these troublemakers were found guilty, they were to be hung on the spot, and their homes razed to the ground. Furthermore, he divided the city into four districts, assigning magistrates with plenary powers to them in order to enforce and maintain civil order. Despite these overtures, however, a change was afoot and it became apparent as to its nefarious nature. Alexander VI’s eldest son — although he had always claimed that his children were in fact his nieces and nephews —  Giovanni Borgia became Duke of Gandia and he endowed Cesare Borgia, his second son, who was only seventeen (17) and a student at Pisa at the time, with the title of Archbishop of Valencia. Pope Alexander VI further proposed to aggrandize his son’s Giovanni and Gioffre Borgia (his youngest son) by granting them fiefdoms, which would be carved-out of certain Papal State territories in addition to portions of the Kingdom of Naples. This plan, of course, brought him into direct conflict with King Ferdinand I of Naples, who was already facing many threats to his rule; both internally and externally. A fascinating side-note pertaining to King Ferdinand I of Naples is recorded herein:

“his pleasures were of two kinds: he liked to have his opponents near him, either alive in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime,” and furthermore “fearing no one, he would take great pleasure in conducting his guests on a tour of his prized ‘museum of mummies.'” (Jacob Burkhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1.5 – The Greater Dynasties)

Europe, as a whole, was readying itself for war. The Papacy and Naples (it had seemed at the time) were exhibiting every outward appearance of intending to slaughter each other. Alliances were struck. Alexander VI allied himself with King Charles VIII of France, who was interested in legitimizing the rule of his ally Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza over Naples, whilst King Ferdinand I of Naples allied himself with Florence, Milan, and Venice. The soldiers were all arrayed; the battlefield(s) were decorated with the proper “implements” of war. However, at the last hour, a most intriguing peace treaty was reached between Naples and the Papacy; its terms solidified with the marriage of (Pope Alexander VI’s son) Gioffre and Doña Sancha (King Ferdinand I of Naples granddaughter). But just as the specter of one scandal started to fade, another took its place. Alexander VI — in an act of shrewd political maneuvering, supreme power, and callous indifference to the ramifications of these actions that would follow thereafter — created twelve (12) new Cardinals in an effort to solidify his power-base within the Sacred College of Cardinals. Amongst those newly-created Cardinal’s was Cesare Borgia, who was only eighteen (18) years old at that time, and Alessandro Farnese, who was the brother of Giulia Farnese—one of his many (supposed) mistresses.

A Most-Unseen Maneuver


In spite of this most-daring move, another threat loomed over the Papacy — one that was neither of his making nor could he have imagined — and its severity was undeniable. King Charles VIII of France, upon the death of King Ferdinand I of Naples on 25 January 1494 A.D. and the assumption of his son Alfonso II of Naples onto the throne, declared war upon the Italian States by advancing his (dubious) claim(s) upon the Kingdom of Naples. So frightened, contemporaries sources of the time(s) proclaimed, that:

“Alfonso, terrified by a series of portents, as well as unusual dreams (perhaps attributable to memories of his victims), abdicated in favour of his son, Ferdinand II (Ferrandino), and fled, entering a Sicilian monastery. He died in Messina later that year.”

Thus, the French armies swept through the Italian peninsula, conquering one State after the other, practically unopposed. Charles VIII and his armies took a short respite in Florence only to resume their march; but, this time, towards Rome. Pope Alexander VI, fully-awakened and panicked as to the situation, sought aid from any and every willing party; he even sought help from the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II. But no one came to the Pope’s rescue and so on 31 December 1494 A.D., Charles VIII entered Rome with his troops along with his coterie of French cardinals and Giuliano della Rovere. The odds were stacked against him. Fearing  that he’d be deposed for simony and that a new council would be called to nominate another Pontiff in his stead. It seemed, for all the world, like his enemies had him checkmated—even Niccolo Machiavelli used this occasion to illustrate a point in his seminal work The Prince. Despite his dire situation, however, Alexander VI found a “friend” in Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Saint-Malo, who had the king’s ear and was very influential therein. Of course, a price was to be paid for this act of extreme “charity” and that payment came in the form of a Cardinal’s hat for Briconnet, which was bestowed upon him in a special consistory that was called on 16 January 1495 A.D. and given in the king’s presence.

King Charles VIII, on 16 January 1495 A.D., acquiesced to his ambitions, at least in regards to Rome. But further compensations and overtures was required, which came in the form of the town of Civitavecchia; to send Cesare as legate to Naples; and to transfer Cem Sultan, who had fled from his native homeland of Egypt as a result of warring with his brother Bayezid II for the throne of the Ottoman Empire, and was being held captive by the latter’s request over to French hands. Once all these things were agreed upon; King Charles VIII of France, along with all his troops and their coteries, departed, on 28 January 1495 A.D., from Rome; their next destination being Naples, which fell with surprising ease. Nevertheless, the balance of powers were tipped, and the other European powers of that era could not countenance the belligerence of King Charles VIII of France and his armies. Thus, a unified force was created, and it was called the Holy League; but it was also referred to as the League of Venice. Those within this “league” were The Papacy; The Holy Roman Empire; Spain; Venice; and even Lodovico il Moro of Milan, who you will remember was an ally of King Charles VIII but he had altered his allegiance due fears that (eventually) France might suddenly be interested in capturing his territories.


Antique Hourglass

The Waning Hours


As war raged and battles were fought, a family tragedy struck the Borgia’s when, on 15 June 1497 A.D., the body of Giovanni, the Duke of Gandia and Duke of Benevento (recently-named), was found floating in the Tiber River. So stricken with grief, it is said, that Pope Alexander VI locked himself up in the Castel Sant’Angelo, proclaiming that thenceforth he’d dedicate himself, and the rest of his Pontificate, to the moral reform of the Church—a vow that was sadly short-lived. This tragedy caused even one of his bitterest enemies, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, to write a heartfelt letter of condolence in which he penned:

“Faith, most Holy Father, is the one and true source of peace and consolation for the heart of men. Let your Holiness respond to this call and you will see how quickly sadness is turned into joy. All other consolation is trivial and deceitful. Faith alone brings consolation from a far-off country. Let your Holiness then forward the work of faith for which I labour even unto bonds, and do not give ear to the wicked. These things I have written to you under the prompting of charity and in all humility, desiring the your Holiness may find God in that true comfort, which does not deceive. May He console you in your distress.” (Michael de la Bedoyere, The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope, 1957, p.24)

Every effort was made, no expense too much to spend, in search of those responsible for the death. Shadows were cast upon various, and countless, members of highly-established families. This included certain members of the Orsini family, whom Giovanni had just returned from warring against, and Ascanio Sforza, from the famed House of Sforza, was also suspected due to an apparent “row” he had with the deceased just days before his death. In spite of all these efforts, and the endless possibilities; the investigation(s) were suddenly stopped. No formal declaration(s) as to why this occurred was ever announced and the mystery as to who perpetrated this crime remains unknown to this day. It was rumored, however, and very shortly after the finding of Giovanni’s body, that the murderer was Cesare himself. Whether it was by his own hand(s) or those of an infinite number of “agents” at his disposal; this conclusion seems the most rational explanation, especially in relation to how rapidly and completely the innumerable investigations were concluded. It is upon this tragic/salacious note that I will, rapidly, begin to conclude this already extensive retrospective upon the Papacy of Pope Alexander VI.

The remaining years of the Pontificate of Pope Alexander VI was mainly spent on warring and (eventually) subduing the Orsini and Colonna families who were continuously vying for the domination of Rome. The war, meanwhile, between France and Spain over the Kingdom of Naples ensued. And it was within this arena that Alexander VI constantly meddled in; allying himself with one side, after being promised great favors, only to switch to the other whence offered even great rewards. As an example of his incessant “intriguing”, he readily offered to aid King Louis XII of France, who succeeded to the throne in 1498, in exchange for Sicily being given to his son Cesare. But then he offered aid to Spain in exchange for Pisa, Siena, and Bologna. Nevertheless, time, amongst other things, finally caught-up with His Holiness and within the month of August 1503 A.D., in unison with his son Cesare, became deathly ill. It was said of Cesare that his skin would peel-off, whether a result of illness or treatment; but he would, nonetheless, overcome his bout with the sickness. Pope Alexander VI, unfortunately, succumbed to the illness on 18 August 1503 A.D. He was seventy-two (72) years old. He died, apparently, very repentant. Alexis Celadoni, bishop of Gallipoli, spoke of his contrition during the funeral oration to those elector’s whom selected Alexander’s successor, Pope Pius III:

“When at last the pope was suffering from a very severe sickness, he spontaneously requested, one after another, each of the last sacraments. He first made a very careful confession of his sins, with a contrite heart, and was affected even to the shedding of tears, I am told; then he received in Communion the most Sacred Body and Extreme Unction was administered to him.”

The body of the deceased Pontiff was exhibited to the Roman citizenry, lay and clergy alike, but it was covered by an old tapestry (“antiquo tapete”) as a result of having become greatly disfigured by decomposition. Raphael Volterrano — who was an Italian humanist; historian and theologian; and member of the Servite Order — wrote of it like so:

“It was a revolting scene to look at that deformed, blackened corpse, prodigiously swelled, and exhaling an infectious smell; his lips and nose were covered with brown drivel, his mouth was opened very widely, and his tongue, inflated by poison, fell out upon his chin; therefore no fanatic or devotee dared to kiss his feet or hands, as custom would have required.”

Although the above description seems to offer a glimpse into murder, specifically poison; it has never, according to my research, been conclusively shown to be as such and (instead) is attributed to the summer heat. But to each there own.

That's all folks!

“I am coming; I am coming. It is just. But wait a little.” ~Pope Alexander VI, Last Words (Rafael Sabatini – The Life of Cesare Borgia, 1912)

The Legacy/Conclusion


Dearest reader(s), I have taken you on a journey through time that I hoped you enjoyed. I did not (originally) intend to go as far as I have; this entry can be fully attributed to my research/interest driving me forward. Whether I’ve done the subject justice can only be judged by you. Nevertheless, I want to make two things resoundingly clear. Firstly, this is not meant to be a definitive version of events surrounding this Pope; his childhood; his personal life; his Papacy; the times and their respective events; etcetera. Secondly, I don’t want it to be inferred that I am an “authority” upon these or any other subject-matters. I am not; I never claim(ed) to be; and (most-likely) never will be. I am simply a fan of history and write what interests me. Also, I’m fully cognizant that I omitted a very significant character in Alexander VI’s life and that is (of course) Lucrezia Borgia. This woman haunted me throughout my writing(s) and I’ve tried—God is my ultimate witness to this fact—on many occasions to include her herein. However, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find any opportunity to fit her into my recounting of the events without it seeming forced or a complete distraction from my wider goal(s). Furthermore, there is far too much speculation surrounding her than fact that it is a near-scholarly task to separate the two. Plus, her actual role(s) within these events, was that of a pawn. I don’t mean this in a misogynistic manner, but, regardless of what version of her tale you may read, even those laughable attempts to make her a “liberated” woman who was in full-control of her destiny, she pawn to the men in her life. Thus, her omission.

But having stated all that: what of the legacy of Pope Alexander VI? Speaking only for myself, he was a scandalous figure, regardless through which prism one wishes to view him through; both in Church and Secular history. He was astoundingly greedy and self-indulgent; as seen in his numerous benefices and/or investitures he acquired throughout his life. He was politically adept and very conniving; as seen in his ascendancy through the various ecclesiastical ranks as well as the maneuvers he instigated/curtailed during his Pontificate. He was hedonistic, as visible through his mistresses—Vannozza Dei Cattanei and Giulia Farnese (already mentioned)—and all the children borne unto him. A clarification on the subject of the children, however, is required; their are four (4) recognized children—Giovanni, whose either considered the eldest or second, depending on source(s); Cesare; Lucrezia; and Gioffre—but there also supposedly five (5) additional children—Girolama, Isabella, Pedro-Luiz, Bernardo, and Laura—though these are of unknown parentage and I doubt that, aside from Pedro-Luiz (Italianized: Pier Luigi), that they even existed. But I may be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time and it certainly won’t be the last. Nevertheless, continuing onwards. He was extremely ambitious, as visible through the many machinations of his Pontificate; both in domestic and foreign affairs.

And, yet, despite all these flaws; he also brought many positive aspects as well. He brought order to Rome after his ascendancy to the Papacy (as I stated above) and created a judicial system that continued far after his death. Also overlooked is the Curia reforms that sought to introduce new rules on the sale(s) of Church property; restricting Cardinal’s to one bishopric; and stricter moral codes for clergy. It was also under his patronage that artists as well as architects—such as Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Pinturicchio—came flocking to the Eternal City; their individual works-of-art still standing, attracting, and amazing peoples’ of all types at their splendors. Pope Alexander VI also initiated the development of education, issuing a papal bull (in 1495) that (essentially) established King’s College, Aberdeen in addition to approving the University of Valencia (1501). He was also very amenable to people of the Jewish faith, as seen in his acceptance of nearly nine-thousand (9,000) Iberian Jews into the Papal States, declaring that they are:

“permitted to lead their life, free from interference from Christians, to continue in their own rites, to gain wealth, and to enjoy many other privileges.”

And the integrity of this proclamation remained true for those Jews who sought refuge within the walls of Rome after their further expulsions from Portugal (1497 A.D.) and Provence (1498 A.D.). So what is my “verdict” upon this infamous figure—a figure whose very name is associated with extravagance; greed; gluttony; hedonism; and so forth?  Well, I think I’ll leave it to the French philosopher; writer; lawyer; diplomat; and key-figure in the Counter-Enlightenment movement named Joseph-Marie de Maistre who stated it exceptionally eloquently that:

“The latter are forgiven nothing, because everything is expected from them, wherefore the vices lightly passed over in a Louis XIV become most offensive and scandalous in an Alexander VI.”

History, Musings, Reflections

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