January 1, 1431
August 18, 1503
"Once he became Pope Alexander VI, Vatican parties, already wild, grew wilder."
Voltaire in Philosophical Dictionary.
Alexander VI was pope (supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church) from 1492 to 1503 and stands as one of the most controversial of all Renaissance popes. He has been widely condemned for disregarding the priestly vows of celibacy (not engaging in sexual relations) and placing his political goals above spiritual leadership. He shocked his contemporaries by openly acknowledging his illegitimate (born out of wedlock) children. Alexander practiced simony, or selling church offices, and was notorious for his nepotism (favoritism based on kinship). He used his power as pope to enrich his children, he supported a mob of Spanish relatives in Rome, and he created positions for nineteen Spanish cardinals. Although many of the tales about Alexander's corrupt activities have been discounted by historians, he remains a notorious figure in the popular imagination.
Encounters success and mistrust
Alexander VI was born Rodrigo Borja in Játiva, Spain. Both his father and mother were members of the Borja family, perhaps the most notorious family of Renaissance Italy. He studied at the University of Valencia and later, in the early 1450s, worked toward a degree in canon (church) law at the University of Bologna. His uncle Alonso was bishop of Valencia and a cardinal. Rodrigo had been preparing for a career within the church since childhood. He first rose to prominence in 1455, when Alonso was elected Pope Calixtus III (1378–1458; reigned 1455–58). Like his uncle, Rodrigo changed his name to Borgia, the Italian form of Borja. When Borgia was twenty-five, his uncle made him a cardinal, and at twenty-six he became vice chancellor of the papal court, a position he held for thirty-five years.
Borgia lived a secular (nonreligious) life in Rome and did not become a priest until 1468, when he was thirty-seven years old. His many connections made him extremely wealthy, and being a priest did not change his life. Handsome and attractive to women, Borgia was intelligent, a good public speaker, and popular with the citizens of Rome. While he was a cardinal he fathered at least seven illegitimate children. Historians are certain about the identity of only one woman, Vanozza de' Catanei (1470–1492), as being the mother of four of his children: Cesare (c. 1475–1507), Juan (1476–1497), Lucrezia (1480–1519), and Jofré (1481–1517). Despite his popularity amongst the general populace, Borgia's colleagues initially mistrusted him. He had little experience outside Rome (except for his service as a legate, or official representative, in Spain from 1472 to 1473), but he was keenly interested in politics. He became a major figure in the college of cardinals (a committee of cardinals who elect the pope). His immense wealth and political connections allowed him to secure this importance and overcome the doubts of his detractors.
Becomes Alexander VI
At a meeting of church officials held in August 1492, the sixty-one-year-old Borgia was elected pope. He took the name of Alexander VI in honor of the ancient emperor Alexander the Great. His reign began well. The people were pleased by his election, and he began extensive building projects, working diligently at papal business. Trouble began in 1494, however, after the death of King Ferdinand I of Naples (1423–1494; ruled 1458–94). The Kingdom of Naples had once been a possession of the French throne, and King Charles VIII of France (1470–1498; ruled 1483–98) decided to reclaim it. He invaded Italy and reached Rome in December 1494, thus starting the Italian Wars (1494–1559), a conflict between France and Spain over control of Italy. Alexander feared that he would be removed from his position by the French, but he managed to negotiate his freedom. He then joined forces with Germany, Spain, Milan, and Venice and expelled Charles from Italy.
Considerable opposition to Alexander among the cardinals began during the French campaign in Italy. Many felt that Alexander was driven more by a desire to increase his family's importance and wealth rather than to promote the welfare of the Catholic Church. During the conquest of Naples it seemed that Alexander exploited the vulnerable position of King Alfonso II of Naples (1449–1496; ruled 1494–95), trading Vatican support in order to gain land, titles, and marriage partners for some of his children. Nevertheless, Alexander was credited with keeping the French out of Italy. He was also praised for his handling of negotiations with Charles when the king passed through Rome in December 1494 and January 1495. Meanwhile, Alexander faced the monumental task of regaining control of the Papal States (territories in Italy under the direct control of the pope), which had fallen into the hands of local nobles during the reign of his predecessor, Innocent VIII (1432–1492; reigned 1484–92). Alexander delegated this task to his son Cesare Borgia, who accomplished it with brutal determination.
In 1499 Cesare's marriage to the French princess Charlotte d'Albret forced Alexander into a very unwise course of action. The marriage committed Alexander to friendship with the new French king, Louis XII (1462–1515; ruled 1498–1515). In exchange for French help in once again conquering the Papal States, Alexander did not interfere with Louis's conquest of Milan and granted the king an annulment (an order that declares a marriage invalid) of his marriage. In this way Alexander betrayed his countrymen and reversed his anti-French policy.
Cesare Borgia's duchy of Romagna was the most substantial of the endowments Alexander gave to his children. He arranged for his daughter Lucrezia to marry Alfonso d'Este (1486–1534) after her two previous husbands had been disposed of when they no longer suited Alexander's plans. The marriage was intended to provide support for Cesare from Ferrara. Lucrezia and other Borgia children (including Giovanni, the son of one of Alexander's mistresses) were given lands taken from leading Roman baronial families. By the end of Alexander's reign, most of the barons were in exile (forced absence from the country) and their lands were in the possession of the Borgias. Though the barons soon recovered their land after the pope's death. Again, some historians have argued that Alexander intended to impose order and increase the authority of the papacy. At the time, however, many church officials considered Alexander an opportunist who was more interested in family matters than in church policies.
One of Alexander's harshest critics was Girolamo Savonarola (pronounced sah-voh-nah-RO-lah; 1452–1498), head of the monastery of San Marco in Florence and an advocate of church reform. Angered by the corrupt behavior of church officials, Savonarola demanded stricter adherence to the spiritual values and greater awareness of the poor. Savonarola was also known for his visions, with which he claimed to predict the future. Earning the title of the "Preacher of the Despairing," Savonarola gave immensely popular sermons. His sermons reached a peak during Advent (the period beginning the four Sundays preceding Christmas) in 1492, when Alexander became the new pope. Savonarola prophesied the coming of the "Scourge [whip] of Italy," a vision that may have been prompted by Alexander's controversial behavior. Determined to reform the church in Florence, Savonarola formed his own congregation, which was soon expanded to include monasteries (houses for monks, members of a religious order) in other parts of Italy. He had also been criticizing the Florence city government. In 1494 Savonarola's prophecy of the "Scourge of Italy" was fulfilled when Charles VIII invaded Italy. Piero de' Medici (1471–1503), duke of Florence, fled from Italy and threw himself upon the mercy of the French king. The Signoria (ruling body of Florence) elected Savonarola to ask Charles to protect Florence. Savonarola then turned to the problem of a new government without the Medicis. In 1495 he was opposed by a group of priests, nuns, and monks called the Tiepidi (the lukewarm), who objected to his strict reforms. The Tiepidi received support from the Holy League, which needed backing from Florence. But first they had to remove Savonarola from power.
The reign of Pope Alexander VI came to symbolize the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. During Alexander's reign, critics such as the Florentine monk Girolamo Savonarola began calling for reform and a renewed commitment to Christian values. Within twenty years after Savonarola's death, the rapid rise of Protestantism brought more demands for reform. In keeping with a practice dating back to early times, many religious and political leaders wanted to hold a general council of bishops to discuss problems. The council met at Rome from 1515 until 1517. This gathering, called the Fifth Lateran Council, agreed to make various reforms.
Popes showed no serious interest in reform until 1537, when Pope Paul III (1468–1549; reigned 1534–49) appointed a committee of cardinals to study problems in the church. It adjourned shortly before the German reformer Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, a list of criticisms of the church, at Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. Their report, A Council … for Reforming the Church, denounced evils and abuses at all levels. Most of these abuses were laid at the door of the papacy itself. The report was part of the first stage of the movement called the Catholic Reformation (also known as the Counter Reformation). For the next few years Pope Paul tried to convene a council, but it had to be postponed several times. In the meantime he initiated his own reforms. He encouraged many new religious communities and approved the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) for men in 1540 and the Order of Saint Ursula for women in 1544. In 1542 he founded the Congregation of the Roman Inquisition as the final court of appeal in trials of heresy.
The first session of a council of bishops finally met at Trent in northern Italy in 1545. Called the Council of Trent, the group clarified and affirmed many practices of the church, mostly in response to the charges of Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546). The second session met at Trent in 1551 and 1552 under Pope Julius III (1487–1555; reigned 1550–55), and the participants clarified more church doctrines. The next pope, Paul IV (1476–1559; reigned 1555–59), opposed the council as a threat to papal authority, so he started his own reform measures. In 1555 he strengthened the Roman Inquisition. At that time the Roman Catholic Church wrongly suspected Jews of influencing the Protestant Reformation, so the pope established the Jewish ghetto (a part of the city in which a minority group is forced to live) in Rome. He also required all Jews to wear an identifying badge, thus separating them from Christians. In 1559 Paul IV issued the first edition of his Index of Prohibited Books, a list of works that the church considered to be heretical. It was used in conjunction with the Inquisition to stop the flow of heretical ideas. The next pope, Pius V (1504–1572; reigned 1566–72), was not so brutal as Paul IV, but he was determined to suppress heresy and all other violations of church laws. In fact, Pius V himself took part in many Inquisition pro ceedings. During his reign, Protestantism was completely eliminated in Italy.
In 1495 Alexander sent a letter to Savonarola stating that he had been accused of heresy (violation of church laws), false prophecy, and troubling the peace of the church. Alexander summoned Savonarola to Rome. Savonarola was ill at the time, so the pope let him stay in Florence on the condition that he stop preaching. In 1496 the people of Florence persuaded Alexander to allow Savonarola to preach Lenten sermons. By that time city leaders were distancing themselves from him, and in 1497 the Signoria began limiting his preaching. When a riot took place during one of Savonarola's sermons, Florentine leaders identified him as the source of discontent in the city. Alexander then excommunicated (forced to officially leave the church) Savonarola and his followers for heresy. The final showdown between Alexander and Savonarola began in February 1498, when Alexander ordered the Signoria to silence the disobedient monk. In April, Florentine officials put Savonarola on trial, then a church trial took place in May. Savonarola and two of his followers were convicted of heresy and executed by hanging.
A pope to be feared—and respected
Alexander was infamous throughout Europe, but he was especially unpopular in Rome. One reason was that he was a Spanish pope in a court increasingly dominated by Italians. But the main reason was that people genuinely feared him. He threatened those who crossed him, and suspicious deaths were linked to him. Even some cardinals did not feel safe in Rome and went into exile. In Alexander's favor, however, it must be said that his morals were no worse than those of his contemporaries and he sincerely loved his family. For instance, he was devastated with grief when his son Giovanni was mysteriously murdered. Although Alexander used his daughter Lucrezia as a political pawn in her three marriages, he could hardly bear to be separated from her. He was frequently maligned (spoken ill of) and satirized (criticized through irony) in his own day, but the most vicious rumors (that he poisoned his enemies, for example) are unfounded.
Despite the fears and uncertainties about his character, Alexander was a cultivated man. As head of the church, his act of most lasting significance was his division of newly discovered lands between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1493). He also encouraged the University of Rome and supported artistic projects. In the Vatican he had the Borgia apartments decorated by the Italian painter Pinturicchio (Betto di Biago; c. 1454–1513). He had an elevated corridor built, linking the Vatican with the papal fortress Castel Sant'Angelo. He had the castle strengthened by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder (1455–1535) and decorated by Pinturcchio. He also commissioned work on several churches in Rome and on fortresses in the Papal States, notably at Civita Castellana. Alexander VI died in 1503, perhaps of malaria (a disease transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes) or complications from fever. He was not killed, as was rumored, by poison prepared for a rich cardinal.
For More Information
Bellonci, Maria. The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia, translated by Bernard and Barbara Wall. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.
Erlanger, Rachel. Unarmed prophet: Savonarola in Florence. New York: Mc-Graw-Hill, 1987.
Knight, Kevin. "Alexander VI." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01289a.htm, April 4, 2002.
Alexander VI (1431–1503)
Alexander VI (1431–1503)
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
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.
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.
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.
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). □