Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
The summer of 1492 brought death to Innocent and once again the opposing interests of the Cardinals della Rovere
Alexander VI. Reigned from 1492 to 1503.
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Pope Alexander VI.
The reputed father of Cesare Borgia, he burnt Savanarola. See pages 217 to 228.
and Borgia motivated the activities of the congregated electors. Twenty-three cardinals had assembled and after four days Rodrigo Borgia was able, by bribes and promises of future favours, to unite sixteen of his colleagues into a majority which proclaimed him to be Pope Alexander VI. He was sixty years old when so honored and his is the unhappy distinction of being considered by many as having been the worst of the popes. There are historians who consider him to be maligned and question most of the charges brought against him; but whatever exaggeration there may have been, the fact remains that he was not in any way fitted for his high office. The best that can be said of him is that if the moral tone of his private life were no better than that of contemporary temporal princes it was certainly no worse, and the incidents which make his story seem outrageous in the cold light of today excited no great surprise in his own time. Actually such an election was to be expected and was but the product of a natural evolution for, save in a few instances, Rome had found the protection of foreign rulers to be either tyrannical or insufficient; for survival in the vicious anarchy which was keeping Italy in a condition of almost permanent disorder, the Papal States felt themselves forced to have a ruler, Peter's successor though he might be, whose employment of device and intrigue, threat and force, could thwart the avarice of those predatory princes who were the neighbors of the ancient city. It was then a temporal lord and not a spiritual leader that the Romans saw in his person and the news of his elevation was received by them with boisterous applause; for his popularity was not only born of his singular grace of manner but of the knowledge that he was an extremely capable and resourceful leader and a generous patron of the arts. Prior to his acquisition of the tiara he had, as a rich and favored cardinal, lived with
the splendor of a prince and like most great noblemen his existence was untouched by the rigors of celibacy.
He had had mistresses, in particular Vanozza Catanei, who bore him four children. These were his weakness and the cause of most of his troubles, and their names, wrongly or rightly, have persisted through the years as a synonym for all that can be evil in human form. One son he married to the daughter of Alphonso II, the King of Naples, but this alliance was marred by the actions of the French monarch, Charles VIII, who put forth a claim upon the Neapolitan throne. To him went the Cardinal della Rovere with a suggestion that the Pope be deposed on the grounds of a simoniacal election. Charles marched towards Rome and the fair weather friends of Alexander fled. But with adroit maneuvering the Borgia effected an arrangement whereby without actually acknowledging the claims upon Naples he permitted the unhindered transit of French soldiery through the papal territory which thus was spared the ravages of war. In return for this service and much to the disappointment of della Rovere, Charles acknowledged Alexander as true pontiff. Meanwhile with characteristic guile Alexander was conducting negotiations with the holder of the Imperial title, Maximilian I, and the rulers of Spain and Venice who in a new unity became the formidable power which finally defeated the French.
One of the reasons which had prompted Charles to invade Italy was the encouragement he had received from the fiery tempered and vociferous Dominican, Savonarola, who hoped the French King would prove to be the instrument of punishment which would purge the papacy of iniquity. The hot blooded friar had, by the employment of high courage and brilliant oratory, effected the near miracle of bringing reform to the once riotously wicked Florence although, as wider territories invited his energies,
there were accusations that his sermons were motivated by political reasons. Certainly there was insubordination in them for not only was the papal court a subject of his candor and ire but the person of the Pope was, with increasing repetition, becoming the target of his scorn and denunciation. Before heed is given to the tirades of the fanatical friar justice demands that some audience be allowed those men of that time who had no great need to indulge in sycophancy and yet apparently did not believe Alexander to be either incapable or despicable. "It is now thirty seven years," wrote Sigismundo Conti, who knew him well, "since his uncle Calixtus III, made him a cardinal, and during that time he never missed a single Consistory unless prevented by illness from attending, which very seldom happened. Throughout the reigns of Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII, he was always an important personage; he had been Legate in Spain and in Italy. Few people understood etiquette so well as he did; he knew how to make the most of himself, and took pains to shine in conversation and to be dignified in his manners. In the latter point his majestic stature gave him an advantage. Also he was just at the age, about sixty, at which Aristotle says, men are wisest; robust in body and vigorous in mind, he was admirably equipped for his new position." From the pen of another writer who knew him, Hieronymus Portius, came the following description: "He is tall, in complexion neither fair or dark; his eyes are black; his mouth somewhat full. His health is splendid, and he has a marvellous power of enduring all sorts of fatigue. He is singularly eloquent in speech, and is gifted with an innate good breeding which never forsakes him." And in Germany the historian Hartman Schedel said that the Pope "is a large-minded man, gifted with great prudence, foresight, and knowledge of the world. In his youth
he studied at the University of Bologna, and obtained there so great a reputation for virtue, learning and capability that his mother's brother, Pope Calixtus III, made him a cardinal; and it is further proof of his worth and talents that he was called at such an early age to a place in this honorable and illustrious assembly, and was also made Vice-Chancellor. Such things being known of him he was quickly elected to govern and steer the barque of St. Peter. Besides being a man of noble countenance and bearing, he has, in the first place, the merit of being a Spaniard; secondly he comes from Valencia, thirdly, he is of an illustrious family. In book-learning, appreciation of Art, and probity of life he is a worthy successor of his uncle Calixtus of blessed memory. He is affable, trustworthy, prudent, pious, and well versed in all things appertaining to his exalted position and dignity. Blessed indeed therefore is he adorned with so many virtues and raised to so high a dignity. . . ."
Far different was the judgment of Savonarola who in a letter to the rulers of the Christian nations urged that a Council be convoked and that Alexander be deposed because he was "guilty of simony, a heretic and an unbeliever." "The hour of vengeance has arrived," he wrote in this intemperate document. "God desires me to reveal His secret counsels and to announce to all the world the dangers to which the barque of Peter is exposed . . . I assure you, in verbo Domini, that this Alexander is no Pope at all and should not be accounted as such for besides having attained to the Chair of St. Peter by the shameful sin of simony, and still daily selling Church benefices to the highest bidder, besides his other vices which are known to the world I affirm he is not a Christian and does not believe in the existence of God, which is the deepest depth of unbelief." Earlier, and it is but typical of many similar
utterances, Savonarola told his congregations that in Rome the clergy "buy preferments and bestow them on their children or their brothers, who take possession of them by violence and all sorts of sinful means. Their greed is insatiable, they do all things for gold. They only ring their bells for coin and candles; only attend Vespers and Choir and Office when something is to be got by it. They sell their benefices, sell the Sacraments, traffic in masses; in short, money is the root of everything, and then they are afraid of excommunication. When the evening comes one goes to the gaming tables, another to his concubine. When they go to a funeral a banquet is given, and when they ought to be praying in silence for the soul of the departed they are eating and drinking and talking. They are steeped in shameful vices. There is no faith left, no charity, no virtue. It is considered a disgrace to live well. If a priest or canon leads an orderly life he is mocked and called a hypocrite. No one talks now of his nephew, but simply of his son or his daughter. Every priest has his concubine. The poison is so rank in Rome that it has infected France and Germany and all the world. It has come to such a pass that all are warned against Rome and people say, 'if you want to ruin your son make him a priest. . . .' O, prostitute Church, thou hast displayed thy foulness to the whole world, and stinkest up to Heaven."
The influence of Savonarola was mighty and his enmity was a grave threat to the position of the Pope, for not only was the Friar the real ruler of Florence at this time but his words carried weight throughout Europe. Alexander was well aware that, all circumstances considered, a Council was not impossible and indeed very probable. The ambitions of della Rovere, the schemes of the various princes, his own deficiencies and excesses, were all ingredients that when brought together and touched by the flame of Savonarola's
anger could easily ignite into a disaster terrible for the Borgia name and aims. Yet with a commendable display of restraint he took no hasty action against his voluble assailant and gradually the latter's position was weakened until it was made clearly evident to all that driven by his anti-papal obsessions he was repeatedly breaking the oath he had taken as a priest to obey the Head of the Church. No matter how base his actions might be, Alexander was pope. After a considerable period had passed and the obstinate Friar had refused to abandon his campaign the sentence of excommunication was pronounced. There was no bitterness or malice in the Pope's action. "If the monk will prove his obedience," he told a Florentine official, "by abstaining from preaching for a reasonable time, I will absolve him. . . . If he persists in his disobedience we shall be obliged to proceed against him with the Interdict and all other lawful punishments to vindicate our own dignity and that of the Holy See."
The Friar persisted and his enemies, of whom there were many, including the powerful Medici family, were quick to seize the advantage when, even though excommunicated, he foolishly continued to preach and even administer the Sacraments. The Pope had threatened to put Florence under an Interdict if the Friar were not silenced and as he still had many supporters the city was faced with disorder and strife. Self-delusion made him believe he was the Voice of God and it was his habit to call dramatically upon the Divine Power to strike him dead if what he uttered was not of Divine origin. Repeatedly he offered to walk through flames in order to prove the righteousness of his teachings. Finally a Franciscan monk accepted the oft-repeated challenge saying, "I fully believe that I shall be burnt, but I am ready to sacrifice myself to free the people from this delusion. If Savonarola is not
burnt with me then you may believe him to be a prophet."
Now that the time had come the Friar seemed not over anxious to engage in such a dangerous joust, but one of his zealous henchmen, a fellow Dominican, accepted on his behalf with alacrity and fervor. When the news reached Rome of the proposed carnival Alexander voiced displeasure but as the plan was endorsed by the secular power of Florence, the Signoria, it was beyond his power to prevent it. The day of the contest arrived and great crowds hungry for excitement assembled to witness a miracle or a tragedy; but their eagerness changed to disappointment and rage when Savonarola's champion refused to enter the flames unless he be allowed to carry the Host with him. The Franciscans indignantly cried that such an action would be sacrilege and as the blaze grew less and the mob took to jeers and insults there were long arguments and a deadlock, followed by the announcement that there would be no Ordeal by Fire. After this fiasco Savonarola's influence dwindled rapidly and soon his enemies had him arraigned before the secular authorities. Some alleged confessions were wrung from him by torture and he was sentenced to be hanged on the grounds of heresy. Heretic he was not and he went to his death with fortitude and grandeur, a man thought by many to be a saint, but in reality a pitiful victim of self-delusion and disobedience and obstinacy.
Alexander continued his vicious ways. The pursuit of sensual pleasures and the enrichment of his family seemed to be his main occupation. With shocking regularity treasures, revenues, and hereditary properties were looted from the church to aggrandize the House of Borgia and the most obscure members of that clan were certain of wealth and security if they came to Rome. It was an opportunity seldom neglected and as one writer put it: "Not ten
papacies would suffice to support this swarm of cousins." Despite efforts from all directions there was only one time that Alexander gave serious thought to his errors and that was after his son, the dissolute Duke of Gandia, was murdered while engaged in some nocturnal adventure. The assassin was never discovered and rumor named his brother Caesar as being the criminal although reputable historians reject any theories of fratricide. The mutilated corpse was found in the Tiber and when the Pope was notified he became prostrated with grief, crying loudly that it was a punishment for his sins. Soon after he told the assembled Cardinals and Ambassadors that: "The blow which has fallen upon us is the heaviest we could possibly have sustained. We loved the Duke of Gandia more than anyone else in the world. We would give seven Tiaras to be able to recall him to life. God has done this in punishment for our sins, for the Duke had done nothing to deserve this mysterious and terrible death. . . . May God forgive the murderer. We, on our part, are resolved to amend our own life and reform the Church. The reform of the Church will be put into the hands of six Cardinals and two Auditors of the Rota. From henceforth benefices shall only be given to deserving persons, and in accordance with the votes of the cardinals. We renounce all nepotism. We will begin the reform with ourselves and so proceed through all ranks of the Church till the whole work is accomplished."
The promised Bill of Reform reached a draught stage but this was the limit of its progress and as the Pope quickly relapsed to his former ways even more affection and favors were lavished upon his surviving offspring. The dignity of the Cardinalate was not enough for his son Caesar, laden though it was with rich benefices and negotiable sinecures. He had even higher designs and the papacy became
the channel through which flowed to him a rich stream of Dukedoms and Principalities. A tradition of the Church was broken when he was allowed to resign from the Sacred College and a policy of the Papal States was changed when, to permit of his marriage to a Princess of the French Royal family, an alliance was made with her country.
Suspicion and hostility and discontent, particularly in Spain and Germany, greeted these happenings but the doting father ensconced on his sullied throne would listen to no advice save from his son who more and more was acting the tyrant. Arrogance, cruelty, and ambition, were the main characteristics of this vain man who after his doffing of the Red Hat first took the title of Duke of Valentinois and later still caused himself to be addressed as Caesar Borgia of France, by the Grace of God Duke of the Romagna and of Valencia and Urbino, Prince of Andria, Lord of Piombino, Standard-bearer and General-in-Chief of the Church. To the detriment of ecclesiastical revenues he lived on a sumptuous scale. 100,000 ducats were spent to equip him for his journey to France and not only did he and his attendants wear the costliest of garments and rarest of gems and jewels but even the saddle cloths of his horses were embroidered with splendid pearls and the harness joined with gold and silver. His tempestuous nature kept the Papal States embroiled in wars and trouble and even brought bloodshed to the inner circles of the family. After quarrelling with his brother-in-law, he caused him to be slain but not even for this crime could any law reach him or authority curb him; and Lucrezia was made to forget her sorrow by the donation of a new husband, the Duke dEste of Ferrara, who was able to bring more riches into the family. For eleven years the loathsome regime existed and it seemed fated to endure
much longer for the villains who sustained it seem blessed with sturdy health; then suddenly both Alexander and Caesar fell violently ill during the summer of 1503. The younger man managed to survive but the father perished and there were some who affirmed that both had sickened after mistakenly drinking poisoned wine they had destined for another. No great credence should be given this story for there was an epidemic of the dreaded Roman fever during that hot summer and it has been well established that the two had been contaminated by the malignant illness.
The dismal chronicle of this pontificate is relieved by a few bright chapters. Like most of the Renaissance popes Alexander gave lavish patronage to the arts and Rome gained greatly through his program of restoration and decoration. The swarm of poets and authors then thronging the city were allowed a wide scope in their efforts and this privilege was fully used and very often abused. A deluge of criticisms and lampoons and libels mocked and reviled the Pope but unlike his dark-tempered son he paid no heed, saying "Rome is a free city, and here everyone has a right to write and say what he likes." With interest but without anger he had read to him a particularly savagely worded document which amongst other things said "There is no sort of outrage or vice that it is not openly practised in the palace of the Pope. The perfidy of the Scythians and Carthaginians, the bestiality and savagery of Nero and Caligula are surpassed. Rodrigo Borgia is an abyss of vice, a subverter of all justices, human or divine . . ."
No revenge was taken against the author of the venomous words and how lightly Alexander regarded them is shown by the fact that he afterwards received the author in audience. Personal attacks were treated far differently from
attempted doctrinal innovations. The latter he would not suffer on any pretext and to prevent the new art of printing from spreading error he issued his Censorial Edict which stipulated that ecclesiastical opinion should be sought before the publication of a book. While profligacy and corruption flourished in Rome during his eleven years the machinery of Church administration continued to function without disturbance or hindrance. The voyages of Christopher Columbus had provided new fields for the spreading of the Faith and brave men, armed only with faith, were resolutely preparing to face the unknown dangers of the New World. Under the seal of Alexander great support was given to the Orders and able measures taken to suppress heresy and to frustrate the ever belligerent Turk.
Evil though he was, he never attempted to challenge or change the doctrines of the Church he headed. "Even his bitterest enemies are unable to formulate any accusation against him in this respect," states Pastor. "It seemed as though his reign was meant by Providence to demonstrate the truth that though men may hurt the Church they cannot harm her. In the Church there have always been unworthy priests as well as bad Christians and . . . just as the intrinsic worth of a jewel is not lessened by an inferior setting, so the sins of a priest cannot essentially affect his power of offering sacrifice or administering Sacraments or transmitting doctrine. The personal holiness of the priest is of course, of the highest importance for the lives of the faithful, inasmuch as he constitutes a living example for them to follow, and compels the respect and esteem of those who are outside. Still the goodness or badness of the temporary minister can exercise no substantial influence on the being, the divine character, or the holiness of the Church; on the word of revelation; on the
graces and spiritual powers with which she is endowed. Thus even the supreme high priest can in no way diminish the value of that heavenly treasure which he controls and dispenses, but only as a steward. The gold remains gold in impure as in pure hands. 'The Papal office belongs to a higher sphere than the personality of its occupant for the time being, and can neither gain nor lose its essential dignity by saintliness on one side, or unworthiness on the other.' Even the first Pope, St. Peter, had sinned deeply in denying his Lord and Master; and yet the office of Supreme Pastor was given to him. In the words of the great St. Leo: Petri dignitas etiam in indigno herede non deficit."