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Alexander VI

Alexander VI

Alexander VI (1431-1503) was pope from 1492 to 1503. Because of his worldly life, he is often considered the most notorious of the Renaissance popes.

On Jan. 1, 1431, Alexander VI was born Rodrigo Borja at Játiva, Spain. He studied law at the University of Bologna and first rose to prominence in 1455, when his uncle was elected pope as Calixtus III. Like his uncle, Rodrigo changed his name to Borgia, the Italian form of Borja. When Borgia was 25, his uncle made him a cardinal, and at 26 he became vice chancellor of the papal court, a position he filled competently for 35 years. Borgia lived a secular life in Rome and did not become a priest until 1468, when he was 37 years old. Priesthood, however, did not change the character of his life. He had children by several mistresses, but there is certainty only about the mother of four of his children—Cesare (1475), Giovanni (1476), Lucrezia (1480), and Goffredo (1481); she was Vanozza de' Catanei. Handsome and attractive to women, Borgia was also intelligent, a good public speaker, and popular with the citizens of Rome.

The Pope

At the conclave of Aug. 6-10/11, 1492, the cardinals elected the 61-year-old Borgia as pope, and he took the name of Alexander VI in honor of the ancient empire builder Alexander the Great. His pontificate began well. The populace was pleased by his election, and he began extensive building projects and worked industriously at papal business. But trouble began in 1494, when King Ferrante of Naples died. The Kingdom of Naples had once been a possession of the French throne, and King Charles VIII of France decided to reclaim it. He invaded Italy and reached Rome in December 1494. Alexander feared deposition but managed to negotiate his freedom. He then joined forces with Venice, Germany, Spain, and Milan and expelled Charles from Italy.

Meanwhile, Alexander faced the monumental task of regaining control of the Papal States, which had fallen into the hands of local nobles during the pontificate of his predecessor, Innocent VIII. Alexander delegated this task to his son Cesare Borgia, who accomplished it with brutal determination. But Cesare's marriage to the French princess Charlotte d'Albret in 1499 forced his father into a very unwise course of action. The marriage committed Alexander to friendship with the new French king, Louis XII. In exchange for French help in reconquering the Papal States, Alexander did not hinder Louis's conquest of Milan. Thus Alexander betrayed his countrymen and reversed his anti-French policy. Alexander VI died on Aug. 18, 1503, perhaps of malaria.

An Evaluation

Alexander VI has been widely condemned for his conduct. He disregarded priestly celibacy and preferred political machinations to spiritual leadership. He practiced simony (selling Church offices) and was notorious for his nepotism. He used his position to enrich his children, supported a mob of Spanish relatives in Rome, and created 19 Spanish cardinals. He shocked his contemporaries by openly acknowledging his children.

In Alexander's favor it must be said that his morals were no worse than those of his contemporaries and that he had the real virtue of sincere love for his family. He was devastated with grief when his son Giovanni was mysteriously murdered; and although he used his daughter Lucrezia as a political pawn in her three marriages, he could hardly bear to be separated from her. Alexander was frequently maligned and satirized in his own day, but the more vicious rumors (that he poisoned his enemies, for example) are unfounded. Alexander VI was a genial, intelligent, and able man who reflected the morality of his times; if he is to be condemned as a pope, he should nevertheless not be judged too harshly as a man.

Further Reading

The classic account of Alexander VI's career is Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, vol. 6 (trans. 1923). Good discussions may be found in M. Creighton, A History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation (5 vols., 1882-1894; rev. ed., entitled A History of the Papacy from the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome, 6 vols., 1897), and in Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, vol.3 (1947). A shorter account, absorbing and vivid, is by Will Durant in The Story of Civilization vol. 5: The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 (1953). □

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Alexander VI (1431–1503)

Alexander VI (14311503)

Pope from 1492 until 1503, Alexander VI is known as one of the most charismatic, but also one of the most corrupt and decadent, church leaders in history. He was born as Rodrigo Lancol in the town of Xativa, near Valencia, Spain. After his uncle Cardinal Alfonso Borgia was elected as Pope Calixtus III in 1455, Rodrigo adopted the family name of Borgia and was appointed as a bishop. Under his uncle's patronage he studied law at the University of Bologna and in 1456 was made a cardinal. He was widely praised for his ability, energy, and gift for conversation and persuasion. When Pope Innocent VIII died in 1492, Borgia emerged as a leading candidate to succeed to the Papacy. He won the election by bribing the cardinals who met to choose a successor and promising his rivals high positions in the Curia, the papal administration.

On reaching the papal throne, Alexander began conducting himself more like a worldly king than a religious leader, making alliances and fighting wars to increase the power and wealth of his family. In Rome he dealt with a crime wave by ordering criminals hanged in public and their houses razed. He ordered magnificent palaces to be built in the city, as well as the raising of fortifications and the improvement of roads and bridges. He invited scholars, musicians, and theater troupes to the papal court, and organized magnificent processions and ceremonies.

In the meantime, he bestowed high church offices on his favored children, three sons and a daughter by his mistress Vannozza dei Cattani. He made Cesare Borgia the archbishop of Valencia and Giovanni Borgia a cardinal as well as the Duke of Gandia, a realm in Spain. He arranged the marriage of his daughter Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza.

While attempting to lay claim for the Borgias on papal lands, Alexander was opposed by the king of Naples, Ferdinand I, as well as the powerful Orsini clan of Rome. Ferdinand organized an alliance with Florence and Venice, while Alexander sought the help of Charles VIII, the king of France, a monarch who had plans for the conquest of Naples. In 1493, however, Alexander made peace with Naples, arranging the marriage of his son Giuffre to a granddaughter of Ferdinand. In order to ensure his authority in Rome, Alexander created twelve new cardinals, and also bestowed the title of cardinal on his son Cesare.

On the death of Ferdinand I in 1494, Alexander allied again with Charles VIII and invited the French to invade Italy and conquer Naples. After the French army arrived, however, Alexander began to fear French domination of Italy and formed a league against Charles. This alliance defeated the French at the Battle of Fornovo. Alexander afterward sent his papal armies against the Orsinis, who remained his determined enemies.

Under Alexander's rule the papal administration became a ruthless agency of blackmail and murder. The church sold indulgences (remissions and pardonings of sin) as well as church offices to raise enormous sums of money, and the pope spent this wealth in supporting Cesare Borgia's military campaigns in northern Italy. While Rome became the scene of rampant violence, the Vatican itself was used as a luxurious place of entertainment and sumptuous orgies. Alexander also had a great appreciation for art, however, and brought the most renowned Renaissance artists of Italy, including Donato Bramante, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raphael, to work in Rome.

The last years of Alexander's life were spent in fighting a conspiracy among the Orsini and Colonna families against him. To defeat his opponents, Alexander swept members of the Orsini clan into dungeons while Cesare lured two of the plotters to a palace in the town of Senigallia, where the men were strangled. In August 1503, Alexander and Cesare suffered some form of mysterious poisoning at a Vatican banquet. Although Cesare survived, Alexander died a slow and gruesome death. By this time he was widely despised and feared; only four church officials attended his funeral Mass.

See Also: Borgia, Cesare; Borgia, Lucrezia

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Alexander VI (pope)

Alexander VI, 1431?–1503, pope (1492–1503), a Spaniard (b. Játiva) named Rodrigo de Borja or, in Italian, Rodrigo Borgia; successor of Innocent VIII. He took Borja as his surname from his mother's brother Alfonso, who was Pope Calixtus III. Rodrigo became cardinal (1456), vice chancellor of the Roman Church (1457), and dean of the sacred college (1476). Cardinal Borgia had four illegitimate children by a Roman woman, Vannozza; among them were Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. Alexander was elected by a corrupt conclave. The foreign relations during his papacy were dominated by the increasing influence of France in Italy, which culminated in the invasion of Charles VIII in 1494. Alexander prevented Charles from taking the church property in Rome, but he turned over to the French the valuable Ottoman hostage Djem, brother of Sultan Beyazid II. Alexander's son, Cesare Borgia, was the principal leader in papal affairs, and papal resources were spent lavishly in building up Cesare's power. For his daughter Lucrezia, Alexander arranged suitable marriages. The favoritism shown his children and the lax moral tone of Renaissance Rome as well as the unscrupulous methods employed by Cesare and other papal officials have made Alexander's name the symbol of the worldly irreligion of Renaissance popes. Girolamo Savonarola was an outspoken opponent and critic of Alexander. Recent studies tend to minimize the pope's immorality and stress his solid achievements as a political strategist and church administrator. It was Alexander who proclaimed the line of demarcation that awarded part of the new discoveries in the world to Spain, part to Portugal (see Tordesillas, Treaty of). Alexander was a munificent patron of the arts. He was succeeded by Pius III.

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