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The House of Borgia was an Italo-Spanish noble family, who became one of the most prominent and powerful families of the Italian Renaissance. They were very active in the ecclesiastical and political affairs in Italy in the late 16th century. The family produced two Popes and Cesare Borgia, one of the most infamous figures of the Renaissance. The family was suspected of many crimes and they have become legendary figures.
This article will attempt to disentangle fact from fiction and evaluate the contribution of the Borgia Family to the Italian Renaissance and the Papacy. Ultimately, the family played a very important part in the evolution of the Papacy. Their ambitions also destabilized Renaissance Italy and Cesare Borgia's efforts to create a principality for himself out of the Papal States wreaked havoc on Italy.
The family originated from Valencia in modern Spain, then in the Kingdom of Aragon. There have been claims that the family was of Jewish origin. The first prominent Borgia was Alfonse de Borja (1372-1458) who was a distinguished law professor who later worked in the Curia, (Papal bureaucracy) and became a cardinal. He eventually became Pope Calixtus II, at an advanced age, but he only reigned as Pope for less than three years. He did not achieve much as Pope apart from appointing his nephew to the Curia. Rodrigo Borgia (1451-1503) was a brilliant and charismatic man who was a gifted canon lawyer and able diplomat. He was made a cardinal and proved an able administrator. Rodrigo was elected Pope in 1492 and became Alexander VI. Like many other clerics, at the time, he had illicit relationships with women and he had four children with the beautiful Giulia Farnese.
Pope Alexander was a loving father and did not hide his children from public view. Instead, he tried to arrange for their futures by marrying them to some of the most distinguished families in Europe. The family motto was ‘’Either a Caesar or nothing’’ and they lived up to this motto. They were ambitious and this was to make them very many enemies. Despite Alexander’s hopes, the family was soon embroiled in wars and feuds with the other leading families in Italy. Cesare was probably the most capable and the most notorious family and he tried to influence the papacy, after the death of his father. However, after his attempts to elect a puppet, Pope failed he was forced to flee Italy and this was to make the end of the power of the Borgia’s in Italy.
The family is widely seen as evil and responsible for every crime and outrage. In truth, the Borgias were no better or worse than other leading Renaissance families and were certainly no worse than some of their rivals such as the Sforza’s in Milan. The ‘Borgia’ myth is still very powerful to this day. This is seen in the best-known female Borgia, Lucrezia, often portrayed as a vicious poisoner and schemer, but she was nothing like her image. The Borgia’s were widely condemned and vilified in Renaissance Italy because of their Spanish heritage. Many Italians hated the Borgias because they were outsiders and resented their role in the Papacy and Italy and this led to the creation of the ‘Borgia myth.’
Calixtus II, the first Borgia Pope was an old man by the time he became Pope and had no real impact on the Papacy. His nephew, the future Alexander VI was a different matter. As Cardinal, he oversaw the Curia, and he was a reformer. He curbed corruption in the Papacy, and he reformed the bureaucracy, making it more efficient and flexible. When he became Pope, he continued to reform the Papacy and made sure that the Papal States were well-governed and justice was administered fairly. Prior to his reign the States had been lawless places, where nobles preyed on the poor, especially the Orsini Family. Alexander was never able to completely pacify the Papal States and the Orsini would defy him for many years. He also introduced new rituals and ceremonies.
During the Jubilee year 1500, Alexander began the custom of opening a holy door on Christmas Eve and closing it on Christmas Day the following year. Pope Alexander’s predecessors had been weak and inactive men, and the Papacy was no longer active in international affairs. Alexander once more established the diplomatic role of the Papacy in Europe. He issued a Papal Bull which divided the New World between Portugal and Spain and this prevented war from breaking out between the two kingdoms  Alexander was a committed reformer and he recognized that the Church was in need of reform. He decided to embark on an ambitious reform program and these included new rules prohibiting the sale of Church property, simony, and stricter moral codes for priests. He was not in office long enough to implement his plans. Many of his reforms would be implemented during the Counter-Reformation by his successors. Alexander VI was known for his patronage of the arts, his reign was associated with a new style of architecture in Rome and he commissioned great works by artists as diverse such as Bramante. Raphael and Michelangelo.
Despite these successes, Pope Alexander’s reign scandalized many and it was widely seen as corrupt. Many see his reign as Pope as the nadir of the Papacy. Pope Alexander was widely accused of holding orgies in the Vatican among other crimes. In 1494 a religious reformer, Savornola seized power in Florence and expelled the de Medici. He claimed he did so to save the city from the corrupt Pope Alexander. His successor, as Pope Julius II claimed that ‘’he desecrated the Holy Church as none before.’’ Alexander was probably a decent man and was widely praised as an able Pope by some of his later successors. It cannot be denied that he did not live up to the ideals of a Pope and he sacrificed the interests of the Church at times, for his family. His nepotism and the ‘Borgia’ myth probably contributed to the growing disillusionment with the Catholic Church and Papacy that contributed to the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.
Borgia Family and their enemies
Pope Alexander was very ambitious for his children, especially his sons. He was aware that after his death that his family could lose their position and be at the mercy of his enemies. This led him to secure their future through marriages to great families. However, Alexander was not satisfied with this and sought to establish principalities for his children, in Papal Lands. This was to lead to series of conflicts with some of the most powerful leaders and princes in Italy. Alexander’s aggrandizement of the Borgia Family was to destabilize Italy. They were engaged in many feuds with families such as the Sforza and the de Medici and this led to growing instability in the peninsula.
Alexander sought to carve out a principality for his youngest son in lands owned by the Pope but situated in the Kingdom of Naples. The King resisted this and this led Pope Alexander to enter an alliance with the French Monarch. Charles VII of France claimed the Kingdom of Naples. Pope Alexander vowed to recognize the claims of the French king and agreed to help him invade the Kingdom of Naples. In return, the King would create a principality for the youngest Borgia son. This led to an invasion of Italy by the French King, it seemed at one time that Charles VII would renege on his agreement and depose Alexander. The French army eventually occupied Naples but it was decimated by a plague and was forced to retreat.
The invasion by France was to mark a new and bloody era in the history of Italy. Spain, newly unified decided to contest French claims to Naples and this led to a series of bloody wars in Italy. These wars were eventually won by Spain and it came to dominate Italy until the eighteenth century. Under Spanish rule, the power of the Church grew and the Inquisition became more powerful leading to the end of the Renaissance. Pope Alexander VII selfish pursuit of his family’s interests greatly contributed to the outbreak of a series of wars in Italy that eventually led to the end of the Renaissance and leave Italy as only a dependency of Spain.
Alexander had supported his eldest son’s ambitions in the Papal States. Cesare was a capable soldier and an able politician and diplomat. Machiavelli used him as the model for his ideal ‘Prince’ in the classic work of political philosophy by that name. He re-established Papal control over large areas of Central Italy, where powerful local families and leaders of mercenary bands had ruled cities and towns as independent rulers. Cesare, who was head of the Papal armies, despite some setbacks was well on his way to conquering central Italy, he believed that he could carve out a principality for himself out of these conquests. However, he knew that if anything happened to his father his position would be untenable. Despite all his undoubted brilliance and cunning he knew that his position was vulnerable and he feared that after his father’s death his enemies would destroy him.
When his father died, he attempted to install a Pope who was predisposed to the Borgia’s and could be manipulated by him to safeguard the House of Borgia’s interests. Cesare sent his troops to ostensibly ‘guard’ the Conclave or the assembly of Cardinals during the election of the new Pope. Cesare secured the election of his preferred candidate Pius III. Cesare hoped to ensure that with the support of this Pope that he could safeguard his power base in the Papal States. For a time, it seemed that the Pope had become the pawn of the Borgia. Pius III confirmed Cesare as commander of the Papal army and this meant that he had the strength to intimidate his enemies. The new Pope was suddenly taken ill and he died, soon after his election. Just as Pope Pius III lay dying, by coincidence Cesare was also ill. This meant that Cesare could not intimidate the Cardinals, who elected the Borgia’s arch-enemy, Giuliano Della Rovere, as Pope Julius II.
According to Machiavelli, only Cesare’s illness prevented him from bringing his plans to fruition. If Cesare had been successful, he would have been the power behind the Papal Throne and indeed the Catholic Church. Instead the new Pope, Julius II undermined Cesare’s position and eventually he was betrayed by an ally and he was sent to Spain as a prisoner and later died at a siege. Cesare could have changed the history of the Catholic Church and indeed Italy if his plans had succeeded.
The Borgias were for a brief period a major force in Italy during the Renaissance. In a short few years, they rose from obscurity to a position of prominence in Italian and indeed European affairs. This was largely due to their personal abilities and driving ambition. They were truly a remarkable family in an age of remarkable individuals and families. The Borgias despite all their drive and talents did not make a positive contribution to the Italian Renaissance. Pope Alexander VII was undoubtedly a gifted man who reformed the Curia and brought some stability to Rome. He also had plans to reform the Church which was badly needed. However, he was too consumed with his family’s interests and this caused him to make bad decisions which harmed the image and interests of the Papacy.
The Borgia’s driving ambition was also a factor in destabilizing Italy and Pope Alexander played a part in encouraging France to invade Italy which was to lead to almost three decades of war. Cesare was as brilliant as his father but did further damage to the reputation of the Church and the Papacy and his ambitions in the Papal States led to unnecessary wars and conflicts. The Borgias were not particular, corrupt, or evil. However, the family and their ambitions did damage the institutions of the Renaissance Papacy, upset the balance of power among the City-States and they helped to usher in a new and bloody phase in Italian history.
- Fusero, Clemete. The Borgias. (New York, Praeger Publishers, 1966), p. 67
- Fusero, p. 112
- Bradford, Sarah (2005). Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy (Reprint ed.). Penguin. pp. 67–68
- Bradford, p. 112
- Fusero, p. 114
- Fusero, p. 116
- Hale, John R. Renaissance (New York, Time-Life Books, 1965) p. 85
- Hale, p 119
- Hale, p. 113
- Fusero, p. 214
- Hale, p 114
- Woodward, W.H. Cesare Borgia: A Biography, (Chapman & Hall, London, 1913), p. 78
- Hale, p. 119
- Hale, p. 120
- Machiavelli, Niccoli. The Prince (London, Penguin Books, London), p. 67
- Machiavelli, p. 78
- Machiavelli, p. 79
- Sarah Bradford. Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times, (Phoenix, London, 2001), p. 78
- Bradford, p. 117
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