An article by Mr. A.G. Ritchie
Pope Alexander VI
"Was Pope Alexander VI the moral monster of legend, and was he truly concerned about the wellbeing of the Church?"
The most infamous of all the Popes, father of several children, and politician extraordinaire. The second Borgia Pope, the most misunderstood and most unexplainable character to have ever sat upon the throne of Saint Peter, dynamic, enigmatic, and intelligent, this man was a shrewd political leader, with a very clear understanding of the politics of his day. Alexander was not a Churchman, he belonged else where, yet he did not neglect his responsibilities to the Church. By no means was he an exemplary Christian, however, he did bring back a prestige and power to the Church that made Her enemies tremble, and Her faithful gasp in wonder and awe.
On 1 January 1431 at Xativa, near Valencia, in Spain, Isabella de Borja gave birth to Rodrigo de Borja, the future Pope Alexander VI. The young Rodrigo had not decided upon any particular profession, however this all changed in 1455.Isabella’s brother, Cardinal Alfonso de Borja, who become Pope Callixtus III in 1455, opened up a completely new host of opportunities for the ambitious Rodrigo. Rodrigo was adopted into Callixtus’ immediate family and entered into the Church, not to serve as a spiritual leader, the thought of a clerical vocation was not even considered, but rather it was the perfect opportunity for him to further himself politically, socially, and financially. The Italians knew Rodrigo de Borja henceforward as Rodrigo Borgia.
Rodrigo’s uncle, Pope Callixtus III, bestowed many rich benefices upon Rodrigo, and then sent him to study law at the University of Bologna for a year. Then in 1456, he was made Cardinal-Deacon of St. Nicolo in Carcere at the age of twenty-five, and he held that title until 1471, when he was made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, then in 1476, he was made Cardinal-Bishop of Porto and Dean of the Sacred College. Rodrigo’s official position in the Curia of the Church, after 1457, was that of Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church, which earned him the envy of many. This was an important and lucrative position, and it seems in his long position in the administration of the Papal Chancery to have given a satisfactory service. Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a Florentine politician and historian, wrote of Rodrigo, “…in him [Rodrigo Borgia] were combined rare prudence and vigilance mature reflection, marvelous power of persuasion, skill and capacity for the conduct of the most difficult affairs…” The list of archbishoprics, bishoprics, abbacies, and other dignitaries that Rodrigo held were many; he had a magnificent household, and had a passion for card playing. He was a moderate eater and drinker, and a careful administrator, all was well for Rodrigo, and it should not come as a surprise to find that he quickly became one of the richest men of his time.
At the age of twenty nine Rodrigo upset the entire town and court of Sienna, after having received a letter from Pope Pius II condemning his misconduct which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “…had been so notorious as to shock the whole town and court.” In 1468, Rodrigo was ordained into the Priesthood, yet he continued with his immoral ways. In 1470, his relations with the Roman woman, Vanozza de Catanei, begun, she was the mother of Rodrigo’s four children: Juan, Caesar, Lucrezia, and Jofre.
Rodrigo’s contemporaries described him as tall and handsome. Sigismondo de Conti speaks of him as a large, robust man, with a sharp gaze, great amiability, and "wonderful skill in money matters." Others admired his florid complexion, dark eyes, and full mouth; he was praised for his imposing figure, his cheerful countenance, persuasive manner, brilliant conversation, and intimate mastery of the ways of polite society. It is no wonder that a man with handsome features, and the characteristics of prince or politician, did not make a good Priest, yet alone a Pope.
With the death of Pope Innocent VIII on the 25 July 1492, the struggle for the seat of Saint Peter had begun. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Rodrigo had won the Conclave by a two-thirds majority, which was likely due to vast sums of money, promises, and favors. Rodrigo was a brilliant negotiator and was very good at persuading people to do what he wanted. According to legend, Rodrigo had paid Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who was the final vote needed to secure a two-thirds majority, four mule loads of silver to sway him to vote for Rodrigo at the Conclave. This story has since been discredited, as Cardinal Ascanio stood to gain more by voting for Rodrigo, because he would become the Pope’s Chief Adviser, which was a lucrative position. Furthermore, there is actually not a single piece of irresistible evidence to prove that Rodrigo had bribed anyone at all. The Conclave was not contested, and according to the law at the time, it was found to be a valid Conclave, which would disprove the fact that Rodrigo had obtained the Papacy through simony.
Francesco Guicciardini wrote that on the 11 August 1492, Rodrigo Borgia become Pope Alexander VI, and this caused great “alarm and horror” in Rome. However, there seems to be no justification for this statement, because there was a massive celebration in Rome on that day. Huge bonfires were lit, there were torchlight processions, garlands of flowers and, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “…triumphal arches were erected with extravagant inscriptions.” Furthermore, on the 26 August 1492, the day of his coronation at Saint Peter’s basilica, and during his progression to the basilica of Saint John Lateran, he was met, according to “The Diarist”, an unknown Papal biographer, with an ovation “…greater than any Pontiff had ever received.” The people of Rome considered Alexander as one of their own, and were confident that he would be a good Pope, bringing peace and dignity back to Rome. It did not take long for Alexander to meet the expectations of the people.
Before Alexander’s ascension to the throne of Saint Peter, Rome was in a terrible state. Two very powerful, baronial families were constantly vying for control of the city. It was not uncommon to see fighting in the streets, and assassinations were commonplace too. According to a historian, Infessura, who lived at the time, there were over two hundred and twenty assassinations in the few months before Alexander’s rise to the Papacy. Rome was falling apart; the Eternal City was in squalor, thieves ran amok and it was in no way a city that was supposed to represent the centre, and seat of power of Christianity. One may ask why previous Popes had not done anything to solve this. The answer is simple; the two baronial families that were mentioned earlier had an almost complete and crippling control of the city.
To answer this question more fully we need to look at the political situation of the time. Nicolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine politician who wrote a book called “The Prince”; this book explains the political situation of Italy and gives a very good insight into the Papacy of Alexander VI. Italy was divided up into many minor states, the main ones being; the Papal States, ruled by the Pope, the state of Venice, which was a Republic, the state of Florence, which was also a Republic, the Kingdom of Naples, which was run by the King of Naples, and lastly the Dukedom of Milan, which was run by the Duke of Milan. There were also a few other smaller states, which were not major players in the political field. These Italian states had two fears, that of foreign invasion, and that of another state taking more territory. Now excluding the fear of foreign invasion, the Italians were most afraid of two states taking more territory, and those were the states of Venice, and the Papal States. In order to restrain the Venetians the different Italian states formed an alliance against them, not to conquer them completely, but just to keep them within their own territory. In order to stop the Popes from taking more land, the Italians made use of the Barons of Rome.
There were two baronial families in Rome, and both were very powerful. The Orsini and the Colonna, they hated each other, and there continual fighting caused the Popes to focus their attentions on solving family feuds, rather than running the Papal States and seeing to the needs of the Church. The Orsini and the Colonna would buy Cardinals, and would use them to vote in a Pope that was sympathetic to their family. Now, as Nicolò points out in his book, that Pope would try to destroy the other family, however, due to a Pope’s short lifespan, usually ten years, the opposing family would never be completely destroyed. When a new Pope came into power, he would be sympathetic to the other family, and would start to destroy the opposing family. Thus, the situation could never be resolved, and as Nicolò says, “This was the reason why the temporal powers of the Pope were little esteemed in Italy.”
Alexander VI changed all of that. With his vast sums of money, his army, and by using Duke Valentino, his son Caesar, Alexander managed to crush both families, and regain power over Rome. No longer would a particular family lay claim to Rome, the Eternal City once again belonged to the successor of Saint Peter. Alexander immediately set out to restore the beauty and grandeur of Rome. Alexander split up the city into four districts, each with its own magistrate. Investigations were made into murders, especially assassinations, the guilty were hanged on the spot, and their houses razed to the ground. Alexander even allowed on a Tuesday for anyone, man or woman, to bring their grievances before him, and he would then resolve them himself, and according to “The Diarist”, “he set about dispensing justice in an admirable manner.” Although Alexander was not a well-educated man, he surrounded himself with learned men, and became a patron of the arts and sciences. He had the University of Rome rebuilt, and hired the greatest professors to teach there. Alexander also loved the theatre, and became a patron of the dramatic arts too.
Alexander then looked to the defense of the city; he turned the Mausoleum of Adrian into a fortress, capable of withstanding a siege, and by fortifying the Torre di Nona, he made Rome safe from a naval attack too. By allowing the growth of art, many great artists and architects came to the city, hoping to find a patron, and Alexander was only too happy to oblige. Artists such as Bramante and Pinturicchio worked for Alexander, in fact, the beautiful Mysteries of Faith, by Pinturicchio was commissioned by Alexander, and they still adorn the walls of the Appartimento Borgia in the Vatican today. The amazing ceiling of the Santa Maria Maggiore was commissioned by Alexander, using the first gold brought from the Americas by Columbus.
Alexander loved Pontifical ceremonies, and fine music. He would listen to good sermons with a critical ear, and he wrote two treaties on canonical subjects, as well as a defense of the Christian Faith. Alexander also passed decrees on prayers and devotions to the Virgin Mary that are still in place today. In 1493, Alexander released a Papal Bull that separated the world into two halves, giving all undiscovered lands in the west to the Spanish, and all undiscovered lands in the east to the Portuguese, thus solving a problem that may have resulted in war between the two nations. Alexander also sent the first missionaries into the Americas and issued a decree that banned certain books that would have caused major uprisings. Alexander was also very lenient on Rome’s Jews by allowing them to live in the city without persecution. He also tried to establish, like his uncle before him, an alliance against the Turks, and he tried his best to persuade Charles VIII of France from invading Italy. In the Jubilee year of 1500, Alexander also managed to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims that came to visit the city, and he did not spare a single coin, in order to ensure the safety and comfort of his “guests”.
Besides all of these things, Alexander still lived an immoral life, in 1492, before he became Pope, Alexander had put aside his mistress, Vanozza de Catanei, and replaced her with the younger Guilia Faranese, who bore another two or three of Alexander’s children. Contrary to popular belief, Alexander had not hosted wild orgies in the Vatican, nor did he fund the Banquet of Chestnuts, a massive orgy, that involved over 50 prostitutes. These tall tales have been found to be just the stories of Alexander’s enemies. Alexander was extremely fond of his children, and he spent lots of money on keeping them pleased, not ashamed of flaunting his children, he earned the disrespect of many of his Cardinals. Alexander’s two favorite children were Lucrezia and Caesar, and with their help, Alexander would become more powerful and rich. Alexander had made his mistress’ brother, Alessandro Faranese a Cardinal, and he was later to become Pope Paul III.
Alexander married his daughter off three times, the first marriage he had annulled, the second marriage was ended when Caesar had killed her husband, and the third she lived out peacefully until her death. Lucrezia was often put in charge of the Church when her father went on his travels, and the rumors that her and her father had sexual relations was just the heated lies of Alexander’s many enemies. Lucrezia is often portrayed in popular media as a vile and immoral person, but she was much more moral and upstanding than she is given credit for.
On the 31 December 1494, the French entered into the city of Rome, Charles VIII was upset that Alexander had refused to crown him King of Naples. Alexander wanted to keep the very fragile peace that was in Italy and had instead crowned Alfonso II, the rightful heir to the throne. At the sight of the French canons, everyone had abandoned Alexander, and he was left alone to face the upset King. Cardinal della Rovere, who supported the French invasion, as he wanted Alexander deposed, had lead a rebellion against Alexander, and had the support of half of the Cardinals. Alexander’s closest ally, his commander of the army, Virginio Orsini had also abandoned him, which was a very harsh blow, yet under all these pressures, Alexander did not give in. After a fortnight, it was Charles who finally gave in, he acknowledged Alexander as the true Pope, and he performed his filial obedience with utmost humility. Charles could still not get Alexander to accept his claims to the Neapolitan crown. Charles entered into Naples and disposed of the unpopular Alfonso, and then wasted two months in trying to convince the Pope that he was in fact the true King of Naples, by this time an alliance of the Italian states, Spain, and the Empire had formed to chase the French out of Italy
Alexander had regained the respect of many, and was now a major player in the political scene. With everything fine in Rome, Alexander turned his attentions to the Papal States. After many years of neglect, the Papal States had been ruled by petty tyrants and rogues, and were in a state of chaos. With the help of his cruel and ruthless son, Alexander managed to bring the Papal States under his control again. Caesar was the head of the Papal army, he was a brilliant military leader, but his cruelty earned not only fear, but disrespect amongst his officers. Some of Caesar’s closest officers were plotting against him, and when he found out, he had no remorse or pity when he had them killed. With the Papal States under his control again, Alexander now wanted to exact revenge on the people who had betrayed him at the French invasion. He had them all excommunicated, and in their powerlessness they handed the keys to their castles to the Sacred College, but Alexander wanted them for himself. When Alexander found out that Cardinal Orsini had been involved in the conspiracy against his son, he showed no mercy on the Orsini at all. Caesar was sent to destroy them completely, and all that remained of them was the fortress of Bracciano, the Pope was truly in control.
On the 18 August 1503, Pope Alexander VI had died of Roman Fever. Contrary to popular belief, he did not die by mistakenly drinking a poisoned wine destined for his Cardinal host. The death of Alexander quickly brought down the empire of his son Caesar, who died in 1507, but the power that Alexander had brought to the Church was never lost.
To the uneducated person it may seem extremely strange as to why, or how, could a man of such ill repute be given the position of power over a religious institution. Furthermore, if we look into Catholic Theology, we shall see that the papacy is a function of extreme importance within the life of the Church. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth! So again, we ask, how can this be?
Well it is important to remember that before the reforming Council of Trent, in the mid 16th Century, the papacy was viewed, by the Renaissance world, as an office. It was a position of power, and the thought of it being a religious calling was rarely thought of. The political situations at the time called for a more worldly or secular man to hold the title of Successor of Saint Peter. The Church was fine in terms of spirituality, but in terms of temporal powers, She was in a shambles. A Pope who was concerned about spirituality could not deal with the influences of outside, non-Church related parties. What the Church needed at that time, was a man who could pull the Church out of the clutches of feuding families and barons, and make the Church powerful again, so that the Church could rule Herself, and not be dictated to by kings and princes.
The man to fill that gap was Pope Alexander VI. If he was born in another time, there would have been little chance of him becoming a Priest, yet alone a Pope, but one cannot deny the fact that Pope Alexander did indeed restore the Church to Her former glory. Once Alexander had restored power back to the Church, from then on, more spiritual men could take charge, and see to the needs of the Church.
What is the importance of this investigation? Well it is simple. History has dealt Pope Alexander VI a bad hand, his name deserves to be cleared from the lies he was usually subscribed to. There is a need to show the truth, and whether that truth is bad, or good, it must be shown. Pope Alexander VI has been a bit of a black sheep for the Church, but this investigation wishes to show that there is no need for the Church to see Alexander in that light. Although the chances of Alexander ever being declared a Saint are near impossible, he should at least be given some credit for restoring the dignity of the Holy See, and the might of the Church.
One can look over all the evidence for one’s self and one can interpretate this evidence in a variety of manners; however, the burden of proof will rest on your shoulders in trying to prove that Alexander was the moral monster of legend. The majority of the evidence points out Alexander’s faults, and even less point’s out his strengths, yet only a fool, bigot, or completely ignorant person would still cling to the notion that he was a lustful, power maddened, and blood-thirsting creature.
Pope Alexander VI, was he the moral monster of legend? No, although he was not an upstanding moral spiritual leader, and by no means was he a good example of Christian virtues, he was not the vile man he is popularly made out to be. He was ruthless, yet the politics of the time called for it. It must be understood that the Papacy was viewed as an office, not a vocation, and it must be said that there were many times that Alexander performed in a manner that most other men would have shrunk away from. He was resilient, intelligent, and brave, he would have, and did, make a brilliant secular leader. De Maistre in his book “Du Pape” said it right when, “…the vices lightly passed over in a Louis XIV become most offensive and scandalous in an Alexander VI.” He did nothing that is wrong when viewed from the perspective of a secular leader, but as a spiritual one, he became the infamous “Borgia Pope”.
Was he truly concerned about the wellbeing of the Church? At times, it may seem that he was only concerned about himself, and his family, which was true, yet he did a great many things for the Church, and he ensured the propagation of the Faith to those people in the New World. Although not a great Churchman, he did bring back glory and dignity to the Holy See, and made the Church powerful and rich. It is important to realize, as Pope Leo the Great once said, “…the dignity of Peter suffers no diminution even in an unworthy successor.” Therefore, as much as an unworthy successor Alexander may have been, this does in no way damage or harms the truth of the Faith or the validity of the Catholic Church.
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Gardner, E. (1910). Francesco Guicciardini. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.Retrieved June 1, 2008 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07064a.htm
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