A Family Affair: The Borgias’ Scandalous Legacy

Under the aegis of Smithsonian Associates, art historian Elizabeth Lev presents an informative and entertaining lecture – illustrated by fine art – that untangles the often disputed history of the quattrocento Borgia family described in shelves and shelves of books and the sensationalist Showtime series. Lev describes the family as “an intertwining of power and religion that sweeps away any question of actual faith.” Mario Puzo (The Godfather) called them the first family of crime.

The Borgias were landowners/minor nobility in the tiny hill town Jativa, Valencia. We know their stature because when Lucrezia Borgia was supposed to marry the pretender to the throne of Naples, a background check was done on her. “Though not aristocracy. She passed muster.” This lecture includes 11 Borgias with spotlights on Alfonso and Rodrigo, the two Popes that secured the family’s place in history (and infamy).

The first to leave home was Alfons de Borja/Alfonso (1378-1458) who successively became a lawyer, diplomat, Bishop of Valencia, Cardinal and, at 77, notably without pursuing the position, Pope Callixtus III. It’s theorized he was elected because he looked so close to death, he’d be a perfect interim pontiff. “There’s a difference between being a spiritual leader of souls and what it meant to be Pope in the Renaissance.”

Borgia Family Crest; Crest of Pope Alexander VI

It was a time of aggressive annexing of territory and exploration. Power stemming from religion or at least the church and politics were one. The Pope was King of Central Italy and head of a single Christian church. To become Pope, we’re told, was the only way for a person to achieve sovereign power without bloodline. A couple of Popes had parents who were pig farmers. “That kind of prize was sought by many who were unworthy.”

Alfonso, now Callixtus III made his nephews, Rodrigo (1431-1503), and Luis Juan, Cardinals in their twenties. (He also declared Joan of Arc innocent of heresy and instituted the ringing of noontime bells often continued today.) At 14, Rodrigo Borgia was declared a boy of “probity of life and conduct.” At 17, he became a Canon, at 22, an impressive law student.

Signs of his becoming the disreputable person about whom we’ve heard began with the young man’s attending a party in Sienna that was described as packed with unaccompanied woman “dancing without restraint, where no allurements to love were spared.” In a letter, Callixtus’ successor, conservative Pope Pius II, warned, “This is how contempt for us arises.” Rodrigo was ordained as a priest at 39 and then became Vice Chancellor of the Papal Chancery.

The position put him in charge of seeing which petitions and requests the Pope actually saw – concessions of land, licenses, disputes…”If you wanted your petition to get to the top, you’d add a little gift, so it became the wealthiest office in the church.” Rodrigo was the gatekeeper for three Popes, then fabulously wealthy, became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. It was a highly contested election and likely he bought the station. Those who voted against him were poisoned or disappeared. Among historical changes that year were the death of Lorenzo de Medici (a competitive family for Popes) and the discovery of the New World about which Spain and Portugal argued how to evangelize.

Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) by
Cristofano dell’Altissimo

Scandals  including banquets, orgies, and incest, circulated widely. Lev dismisses some as born of jealousy – some. (She later quotes several letters which the historian feels may have been misconstrued as referring to incest.) This Pope openly acknowledged fathering a number of children by mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei, and later, flouting propriety, installed her successor La Bella Giulia Farnese in papal apartments. Though he married her off, it was publicly known that Alexander VI gave his lover the sacrilegious name “Uxor Christi,” wife of Christ.

Master of Ceremonies for five Popes and Renaissance chronicler Johann Burchard is a major source. According to Lev, he made so much money publishing reports on the scandals, the writer bought a fabulous house in downtown Rome and retired in clover. “There is no longer any crime or shameful act that does not take place in public in Rome and the home of the Pontiff…monstrous acts of lechery…no respect for God or man…” (Burchard) When asked by an attendee today whether the Borgias retaliated, the historian says, “Nope, they just doubled down.” Laws were made for lessers.

Also spreading gossip was historian and lawyer Stefano Infessura who Lev compares with a reporter from The National Enquirer. He “inserted every fragment of the most preposterous and malevolent gossip current in Roman society, and is therefore not considered a reliable chronicler.” (New Catholic Dictionary.) At the time, however, Infessura was as well read as the latter day tabloid and probably as reliable. The Pope also met resistance from and was disparaged by apocalyptic preacher Girolamo Savanorola who was excommunicated and burned at the stake for being outspoken.

It was observed that Alexander VI’s priority, even above duty, was advancement of his children, Lucrezia (1480-1519), and Cesare (1475-1507). There were two more offspring: Giovanni, the heir apparent, married well and became head of the papal army, but was assassinated in 1497. Gioffre married the Princess of Aragon and lead a quiet life elsewhere.

Lucrezia Borgia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lucrezia was successively wed to promote the family dynasty. Fluent in four languages plus Latin and Greek, the adolescent was bred for lofty liaison. She was 12 when first married to Giovanni Sforza. Certain they could do better, papa had the marriage annulled requiring a declaration of her husband’s impotency. That his first wife died in childbirth did nothing to prevent proceedings.

Her second husband became, according to Lev, “too big for his britches and was likely murdered by Cesare.” The third, Alfonso l D’Este, Duke of Ferrara, was a catch. Wealthy, well positioned, cultured, sophisticated, and clever, he gave Lucrezia the appearance of respectability, ostensibly fathering eight children. Neither party was faithful. “So where do we get these crazy stories of poisoning?” Lev asks rhetorically. (There’s apparently no historical record.)

Alexander VI trusted Lucrezia so much that she often stood in for him when he was away. In fact, needing a governor for the town of Spolito, he sent the young woman, not her husband. When later asked how the young Borgia was received in powerful positions, Lev responds, “There were so many big noisy people in the room, but there were also wise experienced men…” One can’t help but wonder. “The first daughter” retired from public life at 22.

Unknown artist: 1701 / 1800

Meanwhile, groomed for a career in the church, Cesare became a Cardinal, then in 1498, the first person in history to resign the cardinalate, in order to pursue a military career. Like his brother, he was appointed commander of the papal armies. The titles Duke of Romagna and Lordship of Piombino followed. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince. He pillaged his way down the coast created a private fifedom, becoming the most feared man in Italy.

Lev shows us some of the extraordinary art legacy of the Borgia Popes, then wraps up with Alexander VI’s great-grandson, Francis Borgia, 4th Duke of Gandía, known as St. Francis Borgia. Making up for some of his family’s destructive behavior, when his wife died, Francis became a Jesuit priest, founded a dozen colleges and was responsible for missionaries in the East and West Indies.

“They started in sinners and ended up with saints.”

The Jesuit Franciscus Borgia standing at two tables with crowned skull, tray with two pitchers, book and a candlestick. Top left a chalice with a host.

Asked what books she recommends about the Borgias, two hit the top of Elizabeth Lev’s list: Christopher Hibbet’s The Borgias and Their Enemies and Alexander Dumas’ “swashbuckling” The Borgias Celebrated Crimes: Free ebook: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2741

All quotes are Elizabeth Lev.
To reach Elizabeth Lev: elizabeth-lev.com

Elizabeth Lev- photo Courtesy of Ms. Lev

I’m new to Smithsonian Associates programs, but on the basis of this lecture, a fan.
Smithsonian Associates Streaming Programs

Photo credits:

Borgia Family Crest: El escudo de la familia Borgia by Enchando una mano. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original.

Coat of Arms of Alexander VI: Escudo del papa Alejandro VI by Enchando una mano. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. No changes were made to the original.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI (Cristofano dell’Altissimo) Public domain.

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) Public domain.

Print of Cesare Borgia. Public Domain

Print of the Jesuit Franciscus Borgia from Bigstock

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.