Alexander VI

August 11, 1492 - August 18, 1503




Pre-Clerical Period

As the nephew of Pope Callistus III, Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was the second member of the Borgia family of Spain to become pope.


Rodrigo, whose surname was originally Lançol/Llançol, was born in Játiva, near Valencia, in Spain.  Rodrigo came to Italy with his uncle Alonso de Borja (Borgia in Italian), who was Bishop of Valencia and a secretary to the King of Aragon.  In Italy, his uncle was made a cardinal in 1443 and elected Pope Callistus III in 1455.


Period after His Uncle Became Pope

After his uncle's election, Rodrigo changed his surname to "Borgia" and studied canon law for a year at the university in Bologna.


In 1456, when Rodrigo was 25 years old, the pope made him a cardinal.  The following year he made him Vice Chancellor, a position that brought both a high income and a great deal of political power within the Church.  Through political prowess and skillful handling of the job, Rodrigo retained this position through the four pontificates between his and his uncle's terms.





Bribery to Become Pope

Like that of his predecessor, Innocent VIII, Rodrigo's election as pope was the result of bribery by the candidates and other interested parties.  Other competitors for the papal throne included Giuliano della Rovere, who was supported by King Charles VIII of France, and Cardinal Ascanio Sforza.


Although some cardinals were prejudiced against him because of his Spanish nationality, Rodrigo's political skill, years of experience, and wealth enabled him to succeed in winning the papal throne.


Licentious Behavior

In licentious behavior, Alexander's excesses exceeded those of his predecessor Innocent VIII, who kept mistresses at the Vatican and conducted weddings for his children there.


As Cardinal, Rodrigo had flaunted his mistresses to such an extent that Pope Pius II rebuked him in a severe letter.


While he was pope, Alexander's favorite mistress was Julia Farnese.  It was on account of this relationship that Julia's brother Alessandro Farnese was made a cardinal.  Julia's husband, Orsino Orsini, was appeased with a castle.


Arbitrating Territorial Dispute Unfairly

In 1493, the pope was asked to arbitrate between Spain and Portugal in order to establish a line indicating the global territories that each might explore and colonize.  Alexander set a longitudinal line that gave all the New World to Spain while giving Africa and India to Portugal.  The bias toward Spain was obvious enough that the line had to be reset the following year.


Evaluation of Pontificate

Alexander VI's pontificate has often been cited as one of the most corrupt.  The pope lived a secular lifestyle, and his scandalous practices included nepotism, simony (buying or selling church offices), and the confiscation of property.


Despite the immorality of the pope's conduct, he was a talented politician. He skillfully maintained a balance of power in Italy by making a series of alliances in which he regularly switched sides.  Were it not for his skillful diplomacy, incursions into Italy by France and Spain might have come sooner and been more violent as had been the case in 1527, when Pope Clement VII's inept diplomacy resulted in the Sack of Rome.






Many of the alliances that Alexander formed were aimed at securing land and titles for his children.  Although the pope had children by several unknown women, the children that he favored most are the four that he had with Vanozza dei Catanei:  Cesare, Juan, Lucretia, and Jofré.


Juan (1474-1497)

Pope Alexander's favorite son, Juan, was married to a Spanish princess who was a cousin of King Ferdinand of Spain.  Alexander purchased Gandia, and gave Juan the title of Duke of Gandia.  Later, he obtained the title of Duke of Benevento.


Juan was murdered in 1497.  His body was found in the Tiber, his throat cut.  There was some suspicion that Cesare was involved.


In his grief, Pope Alexander vowed to reform both his dissolute life and the Church, but after a brief interval, he returned to his old life of worldly pleasures.


Cesare (1475-1507)

Pope Alexander named Cesare the Archbishop of Valencia when he became pope in 1492, and he made him a cardinal with many benefices the following year.


In 1498, the year after Juan's murder, Pope Alexander allowed Cesare to renounce his holy offices and replace his brother as the Commander of the papal army.  During Cesare's secular period as a conquering prince, Alexander poured a great deal of money into his campaigns.


That same year, the pope arranged a title and a marriage to a French princess for Cesare.  Cesare married Charlotte d'Albert, sister of the King of Navarre, a region between France and Spain.  As part of the arrangement, the pope granted the French king, Louis XII, a divorce, and the French king made Cesare the Duke of Valentinois.  (See more about Cesare under "Military Campaigns with Cesare.")


Lucretia (1480-1519)

During his papacy Alexander arranged three marriages for his daughter, Lucretia.


1)Giovanni Sforza of Pesaro. Lucretia was married to Giovanni Sforza of Pesaro (near Rimini) in 1493.  For political reasons, the pope annulled this union on the grounds that it had not been consummated.


2)Alfonso of Bisceglie. In 1498, Lucretia was married to Alfonso of Bisceglie, the illegitimate son of Alfonso II of Naples.  In 1500, Cesare had him killed for political reasons.


3)Alfonso d'Este. In 1501, Lucretia was married to the head of the Este family, Alfonso d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara.  She became the mother of several children, including her husband's heir, Ercole II.


Jofré (1481? - 1518?)

In 1493, the pope arranged with King Ferdinand of Naples for his thirteen-year-old son Jofré (Godfrey) to marry the king's granddaughter Sancha, the illegitimate daughter of Alfonso of Calabria, who was Ferdinand's heir.  Sancha's dowry was the principality of Squillace.





Conflicting Claims to Naples

The most important political event during Alexander's pontificate was the French invasion of Italy, a campaign launched to claim the throne of Naples for France after the death of King Ferdinand I.


In 1494, King Charles VIII of France led 40,000 men into Italy.


Pope Alexander's Role

Pope Alexander signed treaties supporting Charles' claim to the Neapolitan throne before Ferdinand's death.  However, he later came into conflict with King Charles when he changed course and affirmed the succession of Ferdinand's son, Alfonso, Duke of Calabria.  Alexander was motivated by family connections, as his son Jofré was by then married to Alfonso's daughter.


Ludovico Sforza's Invitation to Charles VIII

Ludovico Sforza of Milan, as part of an ongoing conflict with the rulers of Naples, encouraged Charles to invade and offered him free passage through Sforza territory in northern Italy.  Ludovico, who ruled as regent, wished to see the ruling family of Naples deposed because they were pressuring him to yield the throne of Milan to his nephew Giangaleazzo.  The rulers of Naples wanted to see Giangaleazzo in power because since coming of age, he had married a princess from their family.


Military Superiority of French Forces

The French army was fully equipped with the latest cannon and other gunpowder-powered weaponry.  This enabled them to thrust through medieval defenses and take Italian cities through siege if a negotiated surrender was not possible.


Charles VIII Ousts Medici from Florence

The immediate effect of the French presence in Florence was the removal of the Medici family from power and the rise of Savonarola, a reform-minded monk who called Charles "the Sword of God."  Under Savonarola, Florence briefly had a theocratic government.  Because of Savonarola's sharp criticism of Pope Alexander, the pope came into conflict with him in the ensuing years.


Papal Appeasement of Charles VIII in Rome

Pope Alexander feared the arrival of King Charles and took refuge in the Castel Sant' Angelo.  Charles was angry with Alexander for having affirmed the succession of King Ferdinand's son Alfonso.  The pope's situation was worsened by calls for his deposition by a group of cardinals led by Giuliano della Rovere.


To appease the French king, Alexander offered Charles' minister Briçonnet a cardinalate, guaranteed Charles free passage through the Papal States, and turned over custody of the prisoner Djem, the Turkish Sultan's brother, who had been held as a guest hostage at the Vatican since Pope Innocent VIII obtained custody of him in 1489.  Charles did not depose Alexander as pope.


With Djem and the pope's son Cesare, King Charles left Rome for Naples.  Djem's death on route was probably due to foul play.  Only shortly before it happened, the Sultan wrote a message to the pope in which he expressed his fear that the Christian countries would equip Djem and allow him to lead an uprising in the East.  The timely removal of Djem eliminated that threat and appeased the Sultan.


Charles VIII Claims Naples

Charles' claim to Naples met no immediate resistance because after the pope dropped support for King Ferdinand's heirs, they fled to Sicily.


Papal Joining of League Against Charles

Alarmed at the ease with which France had taken over the Kingdom of Naples, which occupied southern Italy, most of the interested parties of the Italian peninsula formed a league ostensibly to defend European territory from the Turks.  The pope joined the league, which included Venice, Milan, and the Holy Roman Empire.


Understanding that the alliance was ready to check his power, King Charles withdrew his forces from Italy in 1495.





Florence's Refusal to Join Defense League

The pope came into conflict with the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola in 1495 when Florence, who had benefited from the French ouster of the Medici, refused to join the alliance formed by the other large Italian states to drive the French from Italy.


Savonarola's Message of Reform

Savonarola rose to prominence in Florence by preaching of the need for reform.  He called on individuals to eschew personal luxuries, and he called for the Church to reform itself and depose Pope Alexander because his election had been won by bribery and his conduct in office included simony and nepotism.


Savonarola's Disobedience

Because Savonarola claimed his pronouncements to be divine directives, the pope ordered him to come to Rome to answer questions.  Savonarola refused and made a series of excuses.


The pope ordered Savonarola to cease preaching, which he did for a time, but he later returned to the pulpit.  Savonarola also wrote letters to both Italian and foreign leaders about deposing the pope.


Excommunication of Savonarola

In 1497, the pope excommunicated Savonarola for disobedience and threatened to place Florence under the Interdict if they did not punish him.  This would have cut off trade and ruined Florence economically.


Franciscan Challenge of Trial by Ordeal

The Franciscans of Florence, who were suspicious of Savonarola's claims of divine revelation, challenged him to demonstrate his claims by undergoing an ordeal by fire.  One of Savonarola's Dominican followers accepted the challenge in which representatives of both orders would walk through a fire to see which one God would protect.


Due to a rain and the failure of the participants to re-schedule the event, the disappointed people were angry, and Savonarola suddenly lost credibility with the masses, who had supported him.


Arrest, Torture, and Execution

Savonarola and two followers were arrested and made to confess to heresy under torture.  They were condemned to death and hanged.  To prevent followers from saving relics, their bodies were burned completely in a great pyre in the Piazza della Signoria, and their ashes were dumped into the Arno River.





Need to Pay Troops

Military campaigns were expensive because of the need to pay and feed large numbers of troops.  Both papal forces and mercenary forces under the leadership of condottieri were employed.


Selling Cardinalates and Other Offices

Like Pope Innocent VIII, Pope Alexander found that selling church offices, especially the coveted position of cardinal, was an effective means of raising money. He raised 120,000 ducats (over five million dollars) when he awarded twelve cardinalates in 1500, and he raised 130,000 ducats from another nine in 1503.  Revenue was also raised by the sale of offices in the papal administration.


Selling Indulgences

The sale of indulgences, documents guaranteeing forgiveness from sins, was another important means of raising funds.  The Jubilee year of 1500 was an especially bountiful period because many of the faithful made pilgrimages to Rome, which brought many donations to Roman churches.


Confiscating Private Fortunes

One of Pope Alexander's most egregious practices was the confiscation of the property of wealthy families.  Sometimes, he ignored the inheritance laws and took over the property of rich men who died.  At other times he instigated the seizure by accusing the family patriarch of a crime, imprisoning or murdering him, and confiscating the family's property.


Using such means, the pope confiscated the fortunes of many Roman families including the Colonna, Savelli, and Caetani families.





Father-Son Partnership

Pope Alexander and his son Cesare formed a powerful partnership.  The pope made treaties and provided funding while Cesare conquered and ruled many of the cities of central and northern Italy that had come under the domain of local dictators.  It was Alexander's hope to unite these cities into an empire that was on a par with the major Italian states of Venice, Milan, Florence, and Naples.  Working in concert, the pope and Cesare were able to carve out a fair-sized portion of the Papal States as Borgia property.


Cesare's Talents

Cesare was talented as both a military Commander and a politician.  Machiavelli who met him, praised his statesmanship in The Prince, which examines the skills necessary to maintain power in such turbulent times.


Cesare's Later Loss of Territory

After Pope Alexander's death in 1503, Cesare lost the territory he had taken. The suddenness of Pope Alexander's death and Cesare's becoming ill at the same time left him unprepared to protect his acquisitions by controlling the election of the next pope.





Sudden Death

Pope Alexander died suddenly in 1503.  Both he and Cesare were taken ill after a dinner with a cardinal, but historians are split about the cause of the malady.


Many historians believe Pope Alexander and Cesare had malaria, which was prevalent in Rome at that time.


Other historians believe that poison was the cause, and that the pope and Cesare brought the poison for their host, who in turn bribed the servants to switch the portions.


Cesare's Survival and Imprisonment

After a short illness, Cesare recovered.  He tried to participate in the election of the next pontiff, but the cardinals bought him off with an agreement that allowed him to keep the land he took from the Papal States.  Following the premature death of Alexander's successor, Pius III, his old enemy Giuliano della Rovere was elected Julius II.  He reclaimed land taken by Cesare for the papacy and arranged for Cesare to be imprisoned in Spain.


Territorial Addition to Papal States

Cesare's conquests of lands that subsequently became a part of the Papal States was an important stage in both the expansion of papal authority and the unification of central Italy.





Remodeling the Castel Sant'Angelo. Pope Alexander remodeled the Castel Sant'Angelo.  He commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Elder to make several changes and additions, which are commemorated by a medal.  The defensive capacity was improved by reconstructing the cylindrical towers (added to the mausoleum's square base by Nicholas V) as polygonal bastions that could serve as firing platforms for cannon.  To provide himself with an escape route, the pope repaired a passage in the Leonine Walls between the Vatican Palace and the Castel Sant'Angelo.  Alexander also added features that would enable him to live there such as an apartment, a cistern for water collection, and several large storage rooms.  During the French invasion of Italy in 1494-95, Pope Alexander took refuge there before coming to terms with King Charles VIII.  


Adding Second Road through the Borgo. As part of the preparations for the 1500 Jubilee year, the pope laid out a road parallel to the Borgo St. Angelo.  These roads connected the Vatican with the Castel Sant' Angelo.  The new road was originally named the Via Alessandrina, but today, it is called the Borgo Nuovo. 


Building the Torre Borgia, Vatican. Pope Alexander built the Torre Borgia, a tower that stood at the west end of the Nicholas V wing of the Vatican palace.  Its rooms included a private chapel, which is well known for its frescoes.  The presence of a tower in this position meant that the north facing of the Vatican Palace would never achieve the symmetrical balance typical of Renaissance façades.


Decorating the Borgia Apartments, Vatican. The pope commissioned Pinturicchio to decorate the Borgia apartments, which consist of six rooms in the Vatican Palace.  Four of the rooms, including the Hall of Popes, the Hall of Liberal Arts and the Hall of the Mysteries, are on the second story of the Nicholas V wing.  The other two rooms, including the Hall of the Sibyls, are in the Torre Borgia.  The subject matter was Christian except for the ceiling of the Hall of the Mysteries, whose Egyptian theme reflects a myth that the Borgia family's origins lay with the Egyptian god Osiris.  The fifteenth-century discovery of ancient Roman decorative painting at the Domus Aurea is reflected in the presence of grotesques in the painted surrounds to these frescoes.


Completing the Benediction Loggia, Vatican. The pope completed the Benediction Loggia, an addition to the Vatican entrance that had been begun under Pope Pius II.


Adding Coffered Ceiling to Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. The pope commissioned a gilded coffered ceiling for Santa Maria Maggiore, an Early Christian church that was built in Rome in 432.  Its decoration featured images of bulls, which referred to the Borgia family, amid papal insignia referring to the two Borgia popes.












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