The Rise and Fall of the Borgia Family

Painting of Cesare Borgia Leaving the Vatican, by Gatteri Giuseppe Lorenzo.

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The Borgias are the most infamous family of Renaissance Italy, and their history normally hinges around four key individuals: Pope Calixtus III, his nephew Pope Alexander IV, his son Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia. Thanks to the actions of the middle pair, the family name is associated with greed, power, lust, and murder.

The Rise of the Borgias

The most famous branch of the Borgia family originated with Alfonso de Borgia (1378–1458, and or Alfons de Borja in Spanish), the son of a middling status family, in Valencia, Spain. Alfons went to university and studied canon and civil law, where he demonstrated talent and after graduation began to rise through the local church. After representing his diocese in national matters, Alfons was appointed secretary to King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458) and became deeply involved in politics, sometimes acting as envoy for the monarch. Soon Alfons became Vice-Chancellor, a trusted and relied upon aide, and then regent when the king went to conquer Naples. While demonstrating skills as an administrator, he also promoted his family, even interfering with a murder trial to secure his kin’s safety.

When the king returned, Alfons led negotiations over a rival pope who was living in Aragon. He secured a delicate success which impressed Rome and became both a priest and a bishop. A few years later Alfons went to Naples—now ruled by Alfonso V of Aragon—and reorganized the government. In 1439 Alfons represented Aragon at a council to try and unite the eastern and western churches. It failed, but he impressed. When the king finally negotiated papal approval for his hold of Naples (in return for defending Rome against central Italian rivals), Alfons did the work and was appointed a cardinal in 1444 as a reward. He thus moved to Rome in 1445, aged 67, and changed the spelling of his name to Borgia.

Oddly for the age, Alfons was not a pluralist, keeping only one church appointment, and was also honest and sober. The next generation of Borgia would be very different, and Alfons’s nephews now arrived in Rome. The youngest, Rodrigo, was destined for the church and studied canon law in Italy, where he established a reputation as a ladies man. An elder nephew, Pedro Luis, was destined for military command.

Calixtus III: The First Borgia Pope

Illustrated portrait of Calixtus III
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On April 8th, 1455, shortly after being made a cardinal, Alfons was elected Pope, largely because he belonged to no major factions and seemed destined for a short reign due to age. He took the name Calixtus III. As a Spaniard, Calixtus had many ready-made enemies in Rome, and he began his rule carefully, keen to avoid Rome’s factions, even though his first ceremony was interrupted by a riot. However, Calixtus also broke with his former king, Alfonso V, after Calixtus ignored Alfonso's request for a crusade.

While Calixtus punished Alonso by refusing to promote his sons, he was busy promoting his own family. Nepotism was not unusual in the papacy, indeed, it allowed the Popes to create a base of supporters. Calixtus made his nephew Rodrigo (1431–1503) and his slightly older brother Pedro (1432–1458) cardinals in their mid-20s, acts which scandalized Rome because of their youth and ensuing debauchery. Rodrigo, sent to a difficult region as a papal legate, was skilled and successful. Pedro was given an army command, and the promotions and wealth flowed in: Rodrigo became second in command of the church, and Pedro a Duke and Prefect, while other family members were given a range of positions. When King Alfonso died, Pedro was sent to seize Naples which had defaulted back to Rome. Critics believed Calixtus intended to give Naples to Pedro. However, matters came to a head between Pedro and his rivals over this, and he had to flee enemies, although he died shortly after of malaria. In aiding him, Rodrigo demonstrated a physical bravery and was with Calixtus when he too died in 1458.

Rodrigo: Journey to the Papacy

Painting of Portrait of Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) Pope Alexander VI
Painting of Portrait of Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) Pope Alexander VI. German School / Getty Images

In the conclave following Calixtus’s death, Rodrigo was the most junior cardinal, but he played a key role in electing the new Pope—Pius II—a role that required courage and gambling his career. The move worked, and for a young foreign outsider who had lost his patron, Rodrigo found himself a key ally of the new pope and confirmed Vice-Chancellor. To be fair, Rodrigo was a man of great ability and was perfectly capable in this role, but he also loved women, wealth, and glory. He thus abandoned the example of his uncle Calixtus and set about acquiring benefices and land to secure his position: castles, bishoprics, and money. Rodrigo also earned official reprimands from the Pope for his licentiousness. Rodrigo’s response was to cover his tracks more. However, he had many children, including a son called Cesare in 1475 and a daughter called Lucrezia in 1480.

In 1464, Pope Pius II died, and when the conclave to select the next pope began Rodrigo was powerful enough to influence the election of Pope Paul I (served 1464–1471). In 1469, Rodrigo was sent as a papal legate to Spain with permission to approve or deny the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and thus the union of the Spanish regions of Aragon and Castile. In approving the match, and working to get Spain to accept them, Rodrigo earned the support of King Ferdinand. On returning to Rome, Rodrigo kept his head down as the new pope Sixtus IV (served 1471–1484) became the center of plotting and intrigue in Italy. Rodrigo's children were given routes to success: his eldest son became a Duke, while daughters were married to secure alliances.

A papal conclave in 1484 installed Innocent VIII rather than making Rodrigo pope, but the Borgia leader had his eye on the throne, and worked hard to secure allies for what he considered his last chance, and was aided by the current pope causing violence and chaos. In 1492, with the death of Innocent VIII, Rodrigo put all his work together with a huge amount of bribes and was finally elected Pope Alexander VI. It has been said, not without validity, that he bought the papacy.

Alexander VI: The Second Borgia Pope

Illustrated portriat of Alexander VI on a pedestal.
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Alexander had widespread public support and was capable, diplomatic, and skilled, as well as rich, hedonistic, and concerned with ostentatious displays. While Alexander at first tried to keep his role separate from family, his children soon benefited from his election, and received huge wealth; Cesare became a cardinal in 1493. Relatives arrived in Rome and were rewarded, and the Borgias were soon endemic in Italy. While many other Popes had been nepotists, Alexander went farther, promoting his own children and had a range of mistresses, something that further fueled a growing and negative reputation. At this point, some of the Borgia children also began to cause problems, as they annoyed their new families, and at one point Alexander appears to have threatened to excommunicate a mistress for returning to her husband.

Alexander soon had to navigate a way through the warring states and families which surrounded him, and, at first, he tried negotiation, including the marriage of a twelve-year-old Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza. He had some success with diplomacy, but it was short-lived. Meanwhile, Lucrezia’s husband proved a poor soldier, and he fled in opposition to the pope, who then had him divorced. Accounts claim Lucrezia's husband believed rumors of incest between Alexander and Lucrezia that persist to this day.

France then entered the arena, competing for Italian land, and in 1494 King Charles VIII invaded Italy. His advance was barely stopped, and as Charles entered Rome, Alexander retired to a palace. He could have fled but stayed to use his ability against the neurotic Charles. He negotiated both his own survival and a compromise which ensured an independent papacy, but which left Cesare as both a papal legate and a hostage… until he escaped. France took Naples, but the rest of Italy came together in a Holy League in which Alexander played a key role. However, when Charles retreated back through Rome, Alexander thought it best to leave this second time.

Juan Borgia

Alexander now turned on a Roman family who stayed loyal to France: the Orsini. The command was given to Alexander’s son Duke Juan, who was recalled from Spain, where he had earned a reputation for womanizing. Meanwhile, Rome echoed to the rumors of the excesses of the Borgia children. Alexander meant to give Juan first the vital Orsini land, and then strategic papal lands, but Juan was assassinated and his corpse thrown into the Tiber. He was 20. No one knows who did it.

The Rise of Cesare Borgia

Painted portrait of Cesare Borgia from the 16th Century.
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Juan had been Alexander’s favorite and his commander: that honor (and the rewards) were now diverted to Cesare, who wished to resign his cardinal’s hat and marry. Cesare represented the future to Alexander, partly because the other male Borgia children were dying or weak. Cesare secularized himself fully in 1498. He was immediately given replacement wealth as the Duke of Valence through an alliance Alexander brokered with the new French King Louis XIII, in return for papal acts and aiding him in gaining Milan. Cesare also married into Louis’ family and was given an army. His wife became pregnant before he left for Italy, but neither she nor the child ever saw Cesare again. Louis was successful and Cesare, who was only 23 but with an iron will and strong drive, began a remarkable military career.

The Wars of Cesare Borgia

Alexander looked at the condition of the Papal States, left in disarray after the first French invasion, and decided military action was needed. He thus ordered Cesare, who was in Milan with his army, to pacify large areas of central Italy for the Borgias. Cesare had early success, although when his large French contingent returned to France, he needed a new army and returned to Rome. Cesare seemed to have control over his father now, and people after papal appointments and acts found it more profitable to seek out the son instead of Alexander. Cesare also became Captain-General of the churches armies and a dominant figure in central Italy. Lucrezia’s husband was also killed, possibly on the orders of an angry Cesare, who also was rumored to be acting against those who badmouthed him in Rome by assassinations. Murder was common in Rome, and many of the unsolved deaths were attributed to the Borgias, and usually Cesare.

With a substantial war chest from Alexander, Cesare conquered., and at one point marched to remove Naples from the control of the dynasty who had given the Borgias their start. When Alexander went south to oversee the division of land, Lucrezia was left behind in Rome as regent. The Borgia family gained great amounts of land in the Papal States, which were now concentrated in the hands of one family more than ever before, and Lucrezia was packed off to marry Alfonso d’Este to secure a flank of Cesare’s conquests.

The Fall of the Borgias

As the alliance with France now seemed to be holding Cesare back, plans were made, deals struck, wealth acquired and enemies murdered to take a change of direction, but in mid-1503 Alexander died of malaria. Cesare found his benefactor gone, his realm not yet consolidated, large foreign armies in the north and south, and himself also deeply ill. Furthermore, with Cesare weak, his enemies rushed back from exile to threaten his lands, and when Cesare failed to coerce the papal conclave, he retreated from Rome. He persuaded the new pope Pius III (served September-October 1503) to re-admit him safely, but that pontiff died after twenty-six days and Cesare had to flee.

He next supported a great Borgia rival, Cardinal della Rovere, as Pope Julius III, but with his lands conquered and his diplomacy rebuffed an annoyed Julius arrested Cesare. Borgias were now thrown out of their positions, or forced into keeping quiet. Developments allowed Cesare to be released, and he went to Naples, but he was arrested by Ferdinand of Aragon and locked up again. Cesare did escape after two years but was killed in a skirmish in 1507. He was just 31.

Lucrezia the Patron and the End of the Borgias

Painting of Lucrezia Borgia facing right.
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Lucrezia also survived malaria and the loss of her father and brother. Her personality reconciled her to her husband, his family, and her state, and she took up court positions, acting as regent. She organized the state, saw it through war, and created a court of great culture through her patronage. She was popular with her subjects and died in 1519.

No Borgias ever rose to become as powerful as Alexander, but there were plenty of minor figures who held religious and political positions, and Francis Borgia (d. 1572) was made a saint. By Francis’ time the family was declining in importance, and by the end of the eighteenth century it had died out.

The Borgia Legend

Alexander and the Borgias have become infamous for corruption, cruelty, and murder. Yet what Alexander did as pope was rarely original, he just took things to a new extreme. Cesare was perhaps the supreme intersection of secular power wielded to spiritual power in Europe’s history, and the Borgias were renaissance princes no worse than many of their contemporaries. Indeed, Cesare was given the dubious distinction of Machiavelli, who knew Cesare, saying the Borgia general was a grand example of how to tackle power.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Fusero, Clemente. "The Borgias." Trans. Green, Peter. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972. 
  • Mallett, Michael. "The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Family. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969. 
  • Meyer, G. J. "The Borgias: The Hidden History." New York: Random House, 2013.