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Borgia, House of

Borgia, House of

During the 1400s, the Spanish Borja family established roots in Italy and became known there as the House of Borgia. This powerful family produced 2 popes, 11 cardinals, 1 saint, and several dukes and princes. Of all the Borgias, the two who made the greatest impact on Renaissance history were Rodrigo, later Pope Alexander VI, and his son Cesare. They used the political and financial resources of the papacy* to advance family interests.


Rise to Power. Alfonso de Borja (1378–1458) founded the family fortunes. A Spanish religious scholar trained in church law, he served as secretary to Alfonso V of Aragon. In 1429 he became bishop of Valencia. Within a few years he moved to Italy, where he helped King Alfonso gain control of the kingdom of Naples. He also played a key role in negotiating a treaty with the pope that recognized Aragon's claim to Naples. Soon after, Borja was made a cardinal, a high official of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1455 his fellow cardinals chose him as pope in the hope that his Spanish connections would be useful in a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks*.

As pope, Alfonso took the name Calixtus III. He tried to rally European naval forces against the Ottoman Turks, but he failed to gain support for this plan. Even Alfonso of Aragon and Naples, his former employer, refused to cooperate. Pope Calixtus's most enduring legacy was the rise of his young nephew, Rodrigo Borgia (1431–1503).

Marked from an early age for a career in the church, Rodrigo was greatly helped along that path by Calixtus. In 1456 the pope appointed him cardinal. Rodrigo was only 25 years old at the time, and the appointment aroused sharp criticism. Calixtus also named Rodrigo vice-chancellor of the church, a position that gave him responsibility for much of the church's day-to-day administration. Although Calixtus died two years later, Rodrigo held the powerful post for 35 years and accumulated riches and influence.


Pope Alexander VI and His Descendants. Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He was the most controversial of all Renaissance popes. Some feared him, and with reason. He threatened those who crossed him, and there were suspicious deaths among his opponents.

Alexander had several mistresses and fathered eight or nine illegitimate children. However, it was his unconcealed ambitions for his family that shocked people the most. He gave his children lands seized from noble Roman families and arranged advantageous marriages for them. His daughter Lucrezia (1480–1519) married three times, each time to advance the fortunes of the House of Borgia. Her third marriage sealed an alliance between the Borgias and Italy's powerful Este family. During this marriage, as Duchess of Ferrara, she presided over a court of highly influential and educated figures.

Alexander made Juan, his favorite child, a military leader. After Juan was murdered in 1497, Alexander shifted his attention to his oldest son, Cesare (1475–1507). Then Cesare, a cardinal, resigned his position in the church and took on military duties for his father. As part of Alexander's plan to create a permanent Borgia state, Cesare conquered several regions in central Italy. Alexander's death in 1503, however, deprived Cesare of necessary resources. Furthermore, the new pope, Julius II, did not support the Borgias. In an effort to win the pope's approval, King Ferdinand of Spain had Cesare jailed. Cesare escaped, only to die in a battle in 1507. Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli discussed this Borgia in The Prince, his famous analysis of statecraft. He argued that Cesare failed because of his reliance on the power and money of his father.

After Alexander's death, the Borgias returned to Spain where they held a dukedom. Francisco Borgia (1510–1572), great-grandson of Alexander, was an important figure at the court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor*. After the death of his wife, Francisco joined the Jesuits*, becoming head of the order in 1565. A century after his death in 1572, the Roman Catholic Church declared Francisco a saint.

(See alsoFerdinand of Aragon; Ottoman Empire; Popes and Papacy. )

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* Jesuit

belonging to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

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