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What you don't know about the Borgia Pope: Alexander VI (1492-1503).


"to dream the impossible dream ... to right the unrightable wrong ..."

Since the topic of this article is Pope Alexander VI, popularly known as the Borgia Pope, it may be wondered why a quotation from The Man From La Mancha has been placed at the head. The reason is quite simple. The lurid portrayal of this Pope depicted in popular writings and in the media generally has taken such possession of the popular mind that it is almost impossible to dislodge it. Toronto's Globe & Mail, of April 2, 2011, described Pope Alexander as the Don Corleone of Popes. The writer, we can assume, was trying to connect Alexander with the criminals of the Godfather movies, but, in a sense, she was right. Just as Don Corleone was pure fiction invented by Mario Puzo, I would suggest that the Borgia Pope depicted in history has also been invented by a series of writers over the centuries. Such is the power of the media that very many people believe Marion Brando's Don Corleone to be a real, historic person, and far more people believe the Pope Alexander depicted in traditional history to be the genuine article.

My purpose is not to show that there is some exaggeration or minor mistakes in this picture, but to demonstrate that it is a complete work of fiction whose only relation to the original person is his name. I realize that to dislodge a belief that has held sway for 500 years is a monumental task but, as, hopefully, will be seen, there are solid reasons for attempting it--to right the unrightable wrong!".

Let us begin by taking a look at what two historians with diverse views have written of this Pope. According to Francesco Guicciardini, as quoted in The Globe & Mail, April 2, 2011:

[His] virtues "were far outweighed by his vices: the most obscene manners, hypocrisy, immodesty, mendacity, infidelity, profanity, insatiable greed, unrestrained ambition, a predilection for violence that was worse than barbaric...."

According to Orestes Ferrara: (1) Alexander was a jovial, farsighted, moderate man, well-balanced in mind and body.... brave to the point of heroism in defence of the great Institution whose direction had been entrusted to him....

It is hard to believe that respected historians could come to such opposite conclusions about the same person, but this is what makes the study of the life of Pope Alexander VI so fascinating. My own research has depended mainly on the following texts:

1) Material for a History of Pope Alexander V1 His Relatives and His Time, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Peter De Roo, five volumes, The Universal Knowledge Foundation, N.Y., 1924;

2) The Borgia Pope, Alexander the Sixth, Orestes Ferrara, trans. F.J. Sheed, Sheed & Ward, London, 1942;

3) The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope, Michael de la Bedoyere, Hanover House, Garden City, N.Y., 1958;

4). The Greatest of the Borgias, Margaret Yeo, Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee, 1936.

For general background: 5) History of the Church of Christ, Henri Daniel-Rops, Dent & Sons, London, 1961: Vol. 3 "Cathedral and Crusade, 1050-1350, trans. John Warrington; V014, "The Protestant Reformation," 1350-1564, trans. Audrey Butler;

6) Lives of the Popes, Chevalier Artaud de Montor, trans. Rev. Dr. Neligan, N.Y. Sadlier & Co, 1865.

I would direct your attention to the first of these items. This five-volume work by Msgr. De Roo is probably the most complete research project I have ever found on any topic. He examined literally hundreds of documents in libraries throughout Europe, tested them for genuineness, and, among the genuine documents, which of them had suffered interpolations from other sources. So he is the primary source of my information.

In recent years, the term "revisionist history" has become common in scholarly circles. It means that some writers have taken the traditional view of an historical event and turned it upside down, maintaining that black is white or white is black. In many cases, this approach has been taken, not because of new evidence, but in order to make news or to satisfy personal interest.

In our own times, this has happened, as you know, in the case of Pope Pius XII. There has been a determined attempt to portray him as a supporter of the Nazis and, consequently, as a betrayer of his responsibilities as the spiritual leader of Christendom by keeping silent about their barbaric treatment of the Jews. Fortunately, the Church has effectively challenged this particular effort at disinformation, which consequently has not been able to achieve acceptance except among those who want to believe it.

In the whole gamut of history, however, it seems that the person who has been most subject to this treatment is the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI. Begun during his lifetime, this assessment has continued up to the present day. How did this come about? Rodrigo Borgia was born in Xativa, a village near Valencia on the western Spanish seacoast in 1431 or 1432. His father and mother both came from branches of the noble Borgia family.


Rodrigo was elected Pope in 1492, taking the name Alexander VI, and reigned until his death in 1503. He was not the first of his family to be so chosen. His mother's brother, Alphonso, was, in 1455, elected Pope taking the name Callistus III. Incidentally, in 1510 was born a grand-nephew of Rodrigo, St. Francis Borgia, who became the Fourth Duke of Gandia, and then the third Superior General of the Jesuits. He was canonized in 1671.

Rodrigo was the second of four brothers and, as such, was designated for the Church at an early age. When 16 or 17 years of age and, very likely under the auspices of his uncle Alphonso, now a Cardinal, he was sent to Bologna in northern Italy to study law at its famous university. When Cardinal Alphonso was elected Pope in 1455, Rodrigo's career advanced with amazing speed. Ordained a year later, in 1456, he was made a Cardinal in the same year, and, shortly afterwards, appointed Governor of Ancona, a district in the Papal States. It is important to remember that he spent the rest of his life in Italy, leaving there on only two occasions, both times as Papal Legate, to Spain in 1472-1473, and to Naples in 1477. This data is important for our argument.

Alexander VI: important dates

1431: Rodrigo born in Xativa, near Valencia, Spain.

1441: aged 10-school in Valencia

1446/7:aged 15/16-Rome

1449: aged 18-law student at Bologna, Italy

1455: aged 24-uncle elected Pope, appoints Rodrigo protonotary apostolic

1456: aged 25-ordained priest

1456: aged 26-appointed Cardinal, appointed Papal Vicar in Ancona

1457: aged 27-appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Church (Prime Minister)

1472-1473:Papal Legate in Spain

1477: Papal Legate to Naples

1492: aged 61-elected Pope

1503: aged 72-died

We need now to digress a little to explain why the Pope should bestow his favours so generously on his own relatives. Let us take a look first at the political situation in Spain and in Italy. For centuries, Spain had been almost completely overridden by the Moors. The Spaniards had been trying to take back their country from the Moors for almost 800 years. By the middle of the 15th century, this reconquest was almost complete, but Spain was still a hodgepodge of competing principalities and, because of its constant state of warfare, still a very backward country.

In Italy, on the other hand, the Renaissance, which had hardly begun in Spain, had reached its high point and the Italians in general did not look kindly on a citizen of this backward country being elevated to the highest post in the Church. Remember, too, that the Pope at the time, besides his spiritual powers, was a sovereign political power with large areas of the peninsula, nominally, at least, under his control. (see map) However, politically Italy was in a worse state than Spain. In the south, Naples was a fief of the Pope, but its ruler, King Ferrante, refused to acknowledge the Pope's authority. In the north of the peninsula, many small principalities vied for dominance and were often at war with one another, changing alliances as rapidly as opportunity invited. In the Papal States themselves, noble families, such as the Orsini and the Colonna, acted as petty tyrants in the cities and areas which they controlled, grinding down the people and constantly seeking to achieve their independence from their sovereign, the Pope.

These Roman families even sought to control the Papacy itself. It was probably only because they could not agree on an Italian successor to Nicholas V that the elderly Callistus had been elected; one who, in all probability, would not live long. (Remember that, in our own times, John XXIII was supposed to have been elected for the same reason).

Callistus III was acknowledged by all as religious and austere, though severely criticized for his largesse to his family. But he was surrounded by enemies both within the Church and among the rulers of Europe. When elected, he did what all leaders do, he surrounded himself with people whom he believed he could trust. A Spaniard in Italy, he was hard pressed to find such trustworthiness except from members of his own family; hence his patronage of them, though it is not to be denied that it was probably also for personal reasons.

But, to return to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and Ancona. The situation was very like that in Northern Africa at the present time where those in control, supported by their armies, refuse to abdicate since they are deriving great personal profit from their position though at equally great cost to their people. In spite of his youth, Cardinal Rodrigo proved himself eminently able for the challenge. He vanquished the tyrant barons, re-established the authority of the Papacy and enacted many just and reasonable laws. So impressed was the Pope that, in the following year, he made the astonishing decision to appoint the 26-year-old Rodrigo Vice-Chancellor of the Church, the equivalent of Prime Minister, the most sensitive position in the Church after the Pope himself.

When Callistus died, his successor Pius II (an Italian) was under great pressure to get rid of all the Spaniards in his administration. He acceded to this demand except that he kept Cardinal Rodrigo as his Vice-Chancellor. So successful was Rodrigo in this position that the three following Popes, Paul II, Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII, all Italians, maintained him in this sensitive post throughout their papacies, until Rodrigo was himself elected Pope in 1492, in all, a total of 37 years.






This is one of the strongest arguments in favour of Alexander's integrity. Four Popes in succession, all Italians, and some of them very holy men, maintained him in this position of highest importance for 37 years and gave him their absolute trust and confidence.


Let us look at what these Popes actually thought about him. Pius II, Callistus's successor, wrote that "Rodrigo Borgia is now in charge of the Chancellery; he is young in age assuredly, but he is old in judgment." (2) Sixtus IV declared that Rodrigo had been Chancellor for many years with the most eminent qualities and the most exact diligence. (3)

Innocent VIII wrote to Rodrigo in 1486: (4)

"Sometimes we send our thought to you, who are distinguished by noble gifts, abounding remarkable by your virtues, and it comes to our mind that while you have been clad in the splendour of cardinalational dignity, you have served the Church of Rome under the pontiffs of happy memory, Calixtus III, Plus II, Paul II, Sixtus IV, our predecessor, and also ourself, for almost thirty years. During this time you have aided us to bear the responsibilities of the Church, bending your shoulders in constant labour with unvarying diligence, assisting the Church with your exceptionaI prudence, your subtle intellect, your prompt judgment, your faithfulness to your sworn word, your long experience, and all the other virtues to be seen in you. Not once have you ceased to be useful to us.

How could they have said that he was "remarkable for his virtues" if his illegitimate children where walking around the streets of Rome? They would have been the laughing stock of Europe. Why would they have kept him in office if, as Guicciardini claims, he had "the most obscene manners, hypocrisy, immodesty, mendacity, infidelity, profanity, insatiable greed, unrestrained ambition, a predilection for violence that was worse than barbaric.

In his public life, during state visits, for example, Cardinal Rodrigo spent lavishly as became his position, but in his private life he was so parsimonious that his friends avoided dining with him since only one dish was served. Again, it is reported that he drank lightly and slept little. He repaired all the churches in his diocese, provided a galley (warship) for the Pope's crusade against the Turks, paid for 30 men-at-arms in the Papal army and rebuilt castles and fortresses in various places, all at his own expense. So, rather than enriching his family, he was constantly having to borrow to pay his huge debts.

In August 1493, Cardinal Rodrigo was elected Pope by the unanimous (5) vote of the 23 cardinals of whom 21 were Italians. He took the name of Alexander VI. As De Roo comments, there is no fact of his life better attested than this unanimous decision, which makes it all the more remark, able that so many historians, even Catholic ones, have claimed that he received "the bare requisite two-thirds majority; by one vote--his own" (6) If nothing else, it reveals the inadequacy of so much historical research in his regard.

Shortly after his election, a contemporary German historian, Hartman Schedel, wrote of him (7) "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." A far cry from the opinion of the author of the article on Alexander in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, that he was "the most memorable of the corrupt and secular Popes of the Renaisssance" Incidentally, this particular article contains an unusual amount of misinformation. It is not signed.

Alexander became Pope at a very challenging time in the history of the Church. (8) For the previous 150 years, it had been battered by a series of catastrophes. The Black Death in 1348-1350 had wiped out more than one-third of the population of Europe including an even greater proportion of the clergy, with the result that many unworthy men were ordained to replace them. The Great Schism, 1378-1417, when there were two or three rival claimants for the Papacy, had shaken people's faith and their morality. The Avignon captivity, as it was called, 1309-1378, the period when seven, mainly French, Popes lived in France and were subservient to the French King, had greatly reduced the authority of the Papacy. Finally, it was the period when the Turks once more threatened to overrun Europe, having taken Constantinople in 1453, and were only temporarily halted by the courageous Janos Hunyadi, who, in 1456, at the urging and with the financial support of Pope Callistus III, and with an army composed mainly of peasants, confronted and defeated a vastly superior force led by Mahommad II at the Battle of Belgrade in 1456. Seventy years later, in 1526, Vienna itself was to be besieged.

But it was also the time of the great Atlantic explorations, of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, and it was during Alexander's papacy that, when appealed to by the countries involved, he made his famous decision to draw the line of longitude dividing the New World between Portugal and Spain, which is why the Brazilians now speak Portuguese and the Argentinians Spanish.

Alexander's first appointment as Pope was to make Cardinal Ascanio Sforza his Vice-Chancellor. Sforza was the brother of Ludovico Moro, ruler of Milan. Unfortunately, this appointment aroused the bitter anger of another Cardinal, Guiliano della Rovere, who himself had aspirations for the Papacy. Guiliano immediately began to plot with King Ferrante of Naples against the Pope. I have mentioned already that Ferrante refused to acknowledge that he held his kingdom as a fief of the Papacy. Whether he was as evil a man as history has depicted him is hard to say, but he was certainly an ambitious, treacherous person. Determined to extend his rule to parts of the Papal States, he was blocked at every turn by Alexander. To obtain the Pope's approval for his plans, he offered his granddaughter in marriage to Jofre, the Pope's grandnephew but was refused. Finally, he decided that, to make any progress, he had to get rid of his nemesis. For this purpose, to convince the rulers to depose the Pope, he began to write a series of letters to his relatives, the sovereigns of Europe, accusing Alexander of all sorts of evil conduct, particularly of obtaining the papacy by simony.


Meanwhile, Cardinal della Rovere, believing that King Ferrante was about to attack Rome, took possession of the fortress at Ostia which commanded the mouth of the Tiber, and thus threatened to cut off supplies to Rome. Shortly afterwards, however, King Ferrante died, so Cardinal Guiliano fled to France and, with the Neapolitan nobility who had also fled there to escape the tyranny of Ferrante, joined in urging King Charles VIII, to claim the Neapolitan kingdom for himself; France had some rather dubious claim to the Kingdom.

Responding to this incitement, Charles set about invading Italy under the excuse of a crusade against the Turks but in reality to take over the Kingdom of Naples. Most of the Italian leaders supported this move, seeing in it an advantage for themselves. The whole House of Orsini, for instance, entered with their soldiers into the service of Charles. Even Virginio Orsini, the captain of the Papal army, deserted the Pope and went over to Charles. Many of the Cardinals did likewise, but Alexander refused to be moved even when Charles threatened to call a General Council of the Church and have him deposed. Defying Charles, Alexander solemnly crowned Ferrante's son Alfonso as King of Naples as he was legally bound to do.

Charles invaded Italy without opposition and then entered Rome itself. The Pope was completely isolated. He shut himself up in the Castle of St. Angelo and prepared to defend it. Here is what The Catholic Encyclopedia on-line has to say about the situation: (9)

The barons of the Pope deserted him one after the other. Colonna and Savelli were traitors from the beginning, but he felt most keenly the defection of Virginio Orsini, the commander of his army... IT]he most heroic of the popes could not have sustained the stability of the Holy See at this crucial moment with greater firmness. From the crumbling ramparts of St. Angelo, ... he looked calmly into the mouth of the French cannon; with equal intrepidity he faced the cabal of della Rovere's cardinals clamorous for his deposition. At the end of a fortnight it was Charles who capitulated. He could not extort from the Pontiff an acknowledgment of his claims to Naples.

Unfortunately, shortly after Alexander had occupied the castle, one of its walls collapsed, making defence impossible. The Pope send a deputation of four of the remaining Cardinals to negotiate with Charles. Their opening remarks to Charles deserve to be recorded for posterity: (10)

"Let slanderous tongues say what they like, Alexander VI was assuredly holier today than when he was elevated to the supreme pontificate, or at least as holy. He was neither a hypocrite nor a nobody, but one who had for thirty-seven years filled a high position which obliged him to make public not only his acts but also his words; and those who today are his detractors were then his leading supporters, so much so that he did not lose the vote of a single Cardinal."

An agreement was reached which included free passage for the King and his army through the Papal States and amnesty for the rebellious Cardinals, cities and barons. Cesar Borgia, the Pope's grandnephew, was to accompany the King, nominally as Papal Legate, but actually as a hostage. One curious condition was that Jem, the brother of the Sultan of Turkey, who had rebelled against his brother and was now a semi-prisoner in Rome, was to be handed over to the Sultan. The Sultan, who had provided 40,000 ducats annually to have him kept in Europe and thus out of harm's way; now apparently wanted him returned. Incidentally, as an additional inducement to keep Jem in Rome, the Sultan had originally sent to the Pope the Centurion's lance with which Our Lord's side had been pierced. This lance is still preserved in St. Peter's in Rome.


King Charles now set out for Naples. A few miles down the road, Cesar, not trusting the King, managed to disguise himself as a groom and escaped. For Jem the outcome was different. He was ill-prepared for the arduous journey south on horseback in almost constant rain. When almost in sight of Naples, he came down with the flu, and, a month after leaving Rome, he died what was almost surely a natural death. But Alexander was accused of poisoning him, the first time this notorious Borgia poison was mentioned. Not only was this almost certainly a physical impossibility--how could it work a month after it was injected?--but it meant the loss of the annual 40,000 ducats to the Pope's treasury.

Although King Charles took over Naples, his triumph did not last long and he soon had to beat a hasty retreat to France, leaving the Pope to deal with the aftermath. Alexander realized that he could not make any headway in re-establishing the authority of the Papacy and the rule of law in the Papal States unless the rebellious barons were brought under control For the rest of his pontificate, he strove vigorously to achieve this aim by both persuasion and force of arms.

This bitter struggle between the Roman nobles and the Pope naturally made those rebels most anxious to get rid of him. Here we need another digression. The question is: "How does one get rid of a head of a state who is also the Pope?" Normally, to replace the head of a country, one might invade it with an army as did the Americans in Iraq, or cause a rebellion as happened recently in Egypt. But this cannot be done with a Pope because he has to be elected by the College of Cardinals. Besides, there is the spiritual aura surrounding the Papacy; and remember, all the monarchs of the time where Catholics, even if they were bad ones. The only feasible way was to so destroy his reputation so that not only were the Cardinals convinced of his unsuitability and prepared to replace him, but that the ordinary Catholics were willing to accept his deposition. This these rebellious barons set out to do, and their efforts were highly successful. As Ferrara states: (11)

This was the beginning of the sinister reputation of the Borgias. These powerful Lords with their magnificent courts and poet-scholars, seeing themselves in danger, set on foot that campaign to discredit the Pope and his relatives, a campaign which grew steadily more intense as they lost their hold on all that they had so evilly acquired.

In spite of all these troubles, much of Pope Alexander's later years were devoted to attempting to reform his administration and the Church itself, without, it must be admitted, much success. The causes of these difficulties have already been discussed. Their effect still continued. Many years later, the committee of Cardinals preparing for the Council of Trent (15451563) had to report to the then reigning Pontiff, Paul III, (12) "With regard to the ordination of priests, Holy Father, no care whatever is taken. The most ignorant men and sprung from the dregs of society, and themselves depraved, mere youths, are everywhere admitted to Holy Orders." This Council put into effect many of the reforms which Pope Alexander had desired. Interestingly, the Pope who summoned the Council, Paul III, was a relative of Pope Alexander who had raised him to the Cardinalate

In the summer of 1503, fever was rampant in Rome. Alexander fell ill and died on August 16. Within days, the old barons had moved back into their previous territories and the citizens paid dearly for their brief freedom. A month later, Alexander's successor, Pius III, was elected Pope but lived only three months. Then Alexander's nemesis, Giuliano della Rovere became Pope as Julius II. His greatest achievement was starting the building of the new St. Peter's, now the glory of Rome, but his enmity towards Pope Alexander meant that the calumnies spread about the latter were given full rein and even encouraged.

To illustrate this last statement, let us recall the article April 2, 2011, in The Globe & Mail which quoted the writer Guicciardini;

"whose virtues "were far outweighed by his vices: the most obscene manners, hypocrisy, immodesty, mendacity, infidelity, profanity, insatiable greed, unrestrained ambition, a predilection for I violence that was worse than barbaric....

Guicciardini was born in 1483, so he was nine years of age when Alexander become Pope. He was of a noble Florentine family and Florence, through the influence of Savanorola, was firmly attached to France and opposed to Alexander. The Catholic Encylopedia says that he was an eye-witness of the events he described. Clearly this could not have been the case in his writings about Pope Alexander since Guiccardini was only 20 years of age and still a student in Florence when the Pope died. Because of his use of government documents in his History of Italy, he is considered the Father of Modern History. But listen to what Wikipedia says of him:

Guicciardini's autobiographical memories show that he was ambitious, calculating, avaricious and power-loving from his earliest years ... with an assured reputation ... to unravel plots and weave counter plots; to meet treachery with fraud, to parry force with sleights of hand, to credit human nature with the basest motives while the blackest crimes were contemplated with cold enthusiasm for their cleverness .... Although Guicciardini served three popes through a period of twenty years, or perhaps because of this, he hated the papacy with a deep and frozen bitterness, attributing the woes of Italy to the ambition of the Church, and declaring he had seen enough of sacerdotal abominations to make him a Lutheran.


And yet The Globe & Mail quotes him as if he were a disinterested historian rather than a deeply involved propagandist.

Shortly afterwards appeared the disruptive figure of Martin Luther who, like Guiccardini, was 20 years of age when Alexander died. His teachings and the social convulsions he aroused served to ensure that the reputation of Alexander VI could never be restored, for, to justify their rejection of the traditional faith, the leaders of the new religion were only too eager to grasp at any accusation which would blacken his and any other Pope's reputation.

"Vituperation once set free to express itself spat at all things Catholic, and particularly the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as well as at the main Officials of the Church. Long before any reply was provoked, the venom had far exceeded anything known before in the extravagances of human controversy." (13) Hilaire Belloc

Hopefully, the evidence presented here that Pope Alexander VI was a very different and a much better person than he is traditionally presented to be has at least opened the minds of readers to that possibility. Let us now proceed to examine specifically some of the major accusations against him.

1. That he obtained the Papacy by simony. Borgia, by a bare two-thirds majority, secured by his own vote, was proclaimed Pope on the morning of l l Aug., 1492, and took the name of Alexander VI.--The Catholic Encyclopedia on line

... at no previous or subsequent election were such immense sums of money spent on bribery, and Borgia by his great wealth succeeded in buying the largest number of votes, including that of Sforza--NNDB on line

One of the now discredited accusations again him is that he obtained the Papacy by simony, or, if you will, by bribery. The main accusation against him in this respect is that he bribed Cardinal Ascanio Sforza by promising him the chancellery with residence attached which he had built. But the fact is that when he appointed Sforza his Vice-Chancellor, Cardinal Sforza had no home or office in Rome. As Pope, Alexander himself had no further use of this building, so it was appropriate that he should transfer it to his successor in office. Otherwise another chancellery office and residence would have had to be built for Sforza from Papal funds.

Another such accusation, this time by the German Protestant historian Ranke, states that Alexander gave Cardinal Gherardo of Venice 5,000 ducats for his vote, but that when the citizens of Venice heard this, they refused Gherardo the revenues of all his benefices and forbade everybody to associate with him. However, the facts are that Cardinal Gherardo died on his journey back to Venice. He was a most saintly man, having been the Superior General of the Camaldolese Order (the strictest Order in the Church) before being appointed Patriarch of Venice. So strictly did he keep his vow of poverty that he had to borrow 2000 ducats from the Venice government to travel to Rome for the Conclave. There is no record in the Papal account books of the supposed 5,000 ducats but they do state that Gherardo was given 700 ducats as a free gift to defray the expenses of his return to Venice. This money was eventually used to pay for the transportation of his body back to his See where he was buried with every honour.




It should be noted that, to make the accusation of bribery credible, it was necessary that Pope Alexander be elected by a bare minimum of votes. Once it is admitted that he was elected unanimously, it loses all credence.

2. That Pope Alexander had mistresses and children.
   Of Alexander's many mistresses the one for whom his passion lasted
   longest was a certain Vannozza (Giovanna) dei Cattani, born in
   1442, and wife of three successive husbands. The connection began
   in 1470, and she bore him four children whom he openly acknowledged
   as his own:--Wikipedia

The popular accusation is that the Pope had at least one mistress, Vanozza (de Cathaneis) Borgia, with whom, while still a cardinal, he had five children: four boys, Luis-Pedro, Giovanni, Cesar and Jofre; and one girl, Lucretia. But the facts indicate otherwise. Vanozza was married to William-Raymond, son of Alexander's sister, Juana. The children listed above were the offspring of this marriage. William Raymond died in 1481, and some time later, Vanozza married again to Dominic de Arignano. According to the custom of the time, the children remained with their original family. Of the five, Pedro-Luis was mature enough to take over the family estate, while Giovanni was old enough to assist him. Cardinal Rodrigo brought the younger three, Cesar, Lucretia and Jofre, to Rome where an elderly relative, Adriana del Mila, cared for them, the Cardinal paying for their support and for the rent of the house. He, more or less, adopted them. Some years later, Vanozza and her husband moved to Rome, perhaps to be near her children or possibly because her husband had been offered a position in the Papal household. There is no record that Vanozza ever appeared in Rome before arriving with her second husband, nor is there any record that, having come there, she ever appeared at the Papal court. She lived in Rome, highly respected, until her death in 1518. On her tombstone is inscribed: (14) "...distinguished by her virtue, eminent by her piety as well as by her age and her prudence."

It was from the fact that these children were living in Rome and that in casual conversation, the Pope often spoke of them as his children that his enemies were able to spread the rumour that Cardinal Rodrigo was their father. If this were true, of course, Vanozza must have been his mistress, since all writers agree that they were her children. In formal documents they were invariably referred to as his nephews or niece. Writing to Lucretia when she was Duchess of Ferrara, the Pope called her his "daughter in Christ;' which he would hardly have done if he were her actual father. As for Pedro-Luis, King Ferdinand of Spain, in the official document appointing him Duke of Gandia declared: (15)
   ... you originate from glorious
   and noble parents," a compliment
   which he would hardly have made if
   Pedro-Luis were the son of a dissolute
   Pope and his mistress.

Physically, could Alexander have been their father? It seems impossible. Pedro Luis was born in Spain around 1460, Giovanni 1474, Cesar, 1476, Lucretia, 1480, Jofre 1482. Alexander was in Italy all these years except for a visit to Spain as Papal Legate in 1472-1473. Pedro-Luis lived all his life in Spain, the others, as authentic documents support, and as Cesar later solemnly asserted, were all born in Spain. In support of this we have the statement of Cardinal Bembo (17) that Lucretia spoke Italian "like a native" He would hardly have spoken thus if she were actually born in Rome as she would have been if Alexander were her father.

It is interesting that Savanarola, the Dominican Friar, who called for Alexander to be deposed because he was "guilty of simony, a heretic and an unbeliever.... having attained to the Chair of St. Peter by the shameful sin of simony ... I affirm he is not a Christian and does not believe in the existence of God," (17) does not accuse him of having a mistress and illegitimate children, which, if it were true, would surely have been the first target of his denunciations.

Once more, it is worth noting that, to support the claim that Alexander had children, it was necessary that Vanozza be his mistress since it was well known that they were her children. But once it is shown that such a relationship was impossible, the claim that he had children also loses all credibility.




3. That his daughter, Lucretia, was a dissolute person.

"To add to the intrigue, Rodrigo uses his amoral children as pawns in a game to see who controls Europe--Lucretia, of the poisonous history..." (18)

"The historical record portrays Borgia as a manipulative woman who participated in incest and sexual orgies with her father and brother. (19)

As has been noted, Lucretia was born in Valencia, in 1480, and, with her brothers, Cesar and Jofre, was brought to Rome in 1488, by her granduncle Cardinal Rodrigo. There she received an excellent education, becoming proficient in Italian, French, Latin and Greek. She also became an accomplished musician. In 1493, at the age of 13, she was married to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. After three unhappy years, this marriage was annulled because Giovanni was impotent and therefore incapable of marriage. In 1498, she was married to Alphonso, nephew of King Frederic of Naples. They fell deeply in love and the couple lived happily in Rome, where Alphonso had been made a captain in the Papal army Sadly, in July, 1500, Alphonso was assassinated; by whom is not certain although probably by the Orsinis. Lucretia was still very much desired and, in 1501, she married Alphonso of Este, son of the Duke of Ferrara. In 1519, she died in childbirth having given him several children.

As for her character we have the following witnesses. Before her final marriage, the Duke of Ferrara sent envoys to Rome to "check her out" as it were. They reported that "we found her to be very prudent and discreet, amiable and good natured, she is graceful in all things, modest, lovely, and chaste, and not less a sincere Catholic fearing God." (20)

The historian Gregorovius, who was no friend of the Borgias, said of her time in Ferrara that (21) she was the mother of the people, for she listened to, and assisted all sufferers. When wars brought about high prices and famine and the reduction of her income, Lucretia pawned her jewelry to help the poor. She gave up the pomps and vani ties of the world, to which she had been accustomed from youth, and became the leader of the Ferrarese society ladies in simplicity and modesty of dress.

The great poet Ariosto, several years later, celebrated not only her beauty, her intelligence and her works of piety, but above all the chastity for which she was extolled already before she came to Ferrara. (22)

Giovanni Gonzaga who went to Ferrara for her funeral wrote back to the Marquis that (23)

"The people here tell great things of her life; it is said that, since probably ten years, she has worn a cilice (a hairshirt), that she confessed every day these last two years, and received Holy Communion three or four times a month."

Finally, we have the testimony of a modern historian, C. H.Crocker: (24)

"Lucrezia is one of the most unjustly libeled and slandered figures in history, being in truth (and in contrast to the lurid imaginations of dramatists) a model of Renaissance Christian and feminine virtue; charming, educated, beautiful, pious..

As was asserted at the beginning of this article, if the above statements honouring Pope Alexander's life, his character, and his family are correct, then we would seem to have in his regard, the greatest example known of "revisionist" history. It seems clear that the Alexander depicted in popular history has nothing in common with the real Alexander except his name. The evidence suggests strongly that he was, in fact, a good man and a good Pope; not without his weaknesses, perhaps, but which of us is not? The unsavoury reputation that he and his family have acquired is the result, in the first place, of ambitious men's reaction to his firm defence of the rights of the Church both spiritual and secular, and later, to the bias and inadequate research of historians. It was his misfortune to be pontiff at a time when the spiritual life of the Church was at a very low ebb, and when the Pope was not only its spiritual head but also an important political ruler. As such, he was forced to engage in political activities which put him in conflict with the secular rulers of the time, rulers who had little, if any, ethical morality and who were willing to stoop to almost any means, even assassination, to achieve their ambitions. One of the weapons which they employed was to defame Pope Alexander's reputation in every possible way and at every possible opportunity with the hope of getting him deposed and replaced. While some members of his family, particularly his grand-nephew, Cesar, may not have lived up to acceptable standards, most of his family were the innocent sufferers from this same defamation, a defamation which, unfortunately, has continued, and even been added to, over the centuries, as witness the article from the Globe & Mail with which I began this discussion.

I leave it to readers to decide which is the real Alexander.


(1.) Ferrara, Orestes, The Borgia Pope, Alexander the Sixth, trans. F. J. Sheed, Sheed & Ward, London, 1942, p.4.

(2.) Ferrara, op.cit., p.40.

(3.) Idem.

(4.) Ibid. p.67.

(5.) For the evidence of this unanimity, confer De Roo, Vol. 2, p. 332ff.

(6.) Hilaire Belloc, How the Reformation Happened, Dodd, Mead & Co., Inc. 1928, p. 54.

(7.) John Farrow, Pageant of the Popes, N.Y. Sheed & Ward, 1943, p.218.

(8.) A 19th century writer has described the times in rather apocalyptic terms: "The Catholic missions of the East were paralyzed and for the greatest part destroyed at the beginning of the fifteenth century by the fearful plagues which had desolated the convents of Europe by the still more dreadful lukewarmness that hag-rode the sluggard orders, and by the great schism most terrible of all that for thirty-nine years rent the Western Church. The threefold scourge of God came on the people, then the Spirit breathed on the dry bones and they lived again. The work of the mission had to be begun afresh." Fr. C. E. Raymond Palmer, O.P., The Life of Philip Thomas Howard, O.P., Cardinal of Norfolk,...."., London, Thomas Baker, 1888, p.25.

(9.) The Catholic Encyclopedia on Line, "Pope Alexander VI." In future references to encyclopedias, it will be assumed that the quotation is from the article on the person being discussed.

(10.) Sigismondi dei Conti: Le Storie dei Suoi Tempi, quoted in Ferrara, p.202.

(11.) Ferrara, p.229.

(12.) John G. Clancy, Apostle For Our Time, Pope Paul VI, Kenedy & Sons, NY, 1963, p. 118.

(13.) Belloc, op.cit., p.63.

(14.) De Roo, Vol. 1, p.158.

(15.) Ibid., p.185.

(16.) Ibid., p. 303.

(17.) Quoted in Pageant of the Popes, John Farrow, N.Y. Sheed & Ward, 1943, p.218.

(18.) Elizabeth Benzetti, The Don Corleone Pope, Globe & Mail, April 2, 2011, p. R8.

(19.) ABC News, November 25, 2008.

(20.) De Roo, Vol. 1, p. 362.

(21.) Ibid. P. 357.

(22.) Ibid. p. 365.

(23.) Ibid. p.360-361

(24.) H. W. Crocker III, Triumph, The Power and the Glory of the Cathofic Church, Three Rivers Press, N.Y., 2001, p. 221.

Having received his early education at St. Bonaventure's College, Brother Joseph Bertrand Darcy joined the Congregation of the Christian Brothers in 1936. He is the author of Fair or Foul the Weather, Fire Upon the Earth, the award-winning play One Man's Journey, and of Miracle in Stone, the acclaimed musical drama based on the building of the Basilica by Bishop Fleming and performed in the Basilica as part of the 150th Anniversary celebrations of its foundation. He currently lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Darcy, J.B.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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