Monday, April 18, 2011

History of St. Peter's Basilica: Orgies, murders, and family fun in the Vatican

Alexander VI in one of his more pious moments
Well, if you read yesterday’s entry and heard about the pope who died while eating melons and being sodomized by a page boy or the pope with sixteen illegitimate children who was worried about witchcraft in Germany or the one who was a pen-pal of Dracula’s, you may have thought they represented an all time papal low, but never think it can’t be worse.  (Actually go back to the entry about Pope Formosus and the entry about the lovely mother-daughter team of papal harlots, Theodora and Marozia,  on January 24 and 15 respectively and you will find what must be the all time low in papal morals—not to mention pontifical weirdness.)  Nevertheless, the debauchery and violence of the 9th and 10th centuries didn’t discourage 15th century popes from trying for the distinction as we will see today.   We had left off with Innocent VIII—Innocent of the sixteen bastards and paranoia about German warlocks. Well, Innocent—bad as he was—was succeeded by Alexander VI  Borgia.  Borgia!  Does the name ring a bell?
the lovely Lucrezia
Born in Spain in 1431, Rodrigo Llançol y Borja was brought to Italy to study by his maternal uncle, Alfons de Borja, who had been made a Cardinal by Eugene IV in gratitude for Borja’s diplomatic efforts with the King of Aragon.  When the uncle became pope Callistus III (we spoke of him yesterday—he was the pope who was pushing the Portuguese Slave Trade and posthumously retrying Joan of Arc), Rodrigo was made a bishop, then a Cardinal, and then named vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, vice being the operative word and any illusions that the Roman Church was holy were soon dispelled by this fellow.  After his uncle’s death, Cardinal Rodrigo served the next four popes—while acquiring vast power and making himself quite wealthy. No one knows quite how much he spread around in bribes in order to be elected pope in the 1492 conclave, but his arch-rival, Giuliano de Medici was bankrolled ( by the King of France and the Republic of Genoa) to the tune of 300,000 ducats (which is worth almost fifty million dollars in today’s gold).  O well, as they say it takes money to make money.  Borja was supported by various kings as well, notably Spain and Portugal and it was he who issued the Bull  Inter Caetera in 1493, dividing colonization rights in the newly discovered worlds of Asia and the Americas between Spain and Portugal—which did not make the English, French, or others very happy.  
Alexander (Rodrigo’s’s regnal name as pope) had had a long-time lady friend, Vanozza dei Cattani, who lived just around the corner from the Borja palace and there raised his four children: Juan, Caesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre.  They were real darlings—as we will see.  By the way you can still see both Vanozza’s home in the Piazza Sforza Caesarini and Rodrigo’s palace in the courtyard of the palazzo just the other side of the Via Sforza Caesarinni today.  Juan, the oldest son, was made Duke of Gandia in Spain—though he continued to live in Rome and was also given various fiefs in Italy.  Caesare was made a Cardinal, a singularly inappropriate choice for a budding young satyr with sociopathic tendencies.  Alexander carved out fiefs from the papal domain and stole others fromm neighboring states not only for the Duke of Gandia but for his youngest son, Gioffre as well.  Lucrezia was subjected to a series of political marriages. The first of her marriages, to an illegitimate scion of the Sforza family—rulers of Milan—ended in divorce and annulment when the husband proved to be a political liability.  Caesare didn’t want to bother with an annulment; murders were easier to arrange and much less expensive, but someone warned the husband (possibly Lucrezia) and he fled.  The second marriage ended with the husband murdered, presumably by his brother-in-law, Caesare, who was jealous because his sister was happy in the marriage and he, Caesare felt displaced in her affections.  He was such a sensitive soul!  The third marriage with the Duke of Ferrara lasted and she became a respectable Renaissance Duchess, though never a faithful wife, carrying on with a number of men—all men of quality, of course—she was a Duchess not a tramp.  Of course her being such a fine lady never dispelled allegations of incest between Lucrezia and both her father, the pope, and her brother Caesare.   The former are probably untrue, the affair with her brother—well, I wouldn’t rule it out.  When it comes to the Borja’s you can’t rule anything out.     
Caesare Borja was a first class sociopath. (By the way, the name in Italian is Borgia.)  A rageaholic, Caesare could make even his father quake in fear.   Named a bishop at 15 and a Cardinal at 18, both he and his brother Juan were lovers of the third brothers’ wife—Sancha of Aragon.  She was another one of those easy-going women in the family.  When Juan was murdered in 1497, Caesare was suspected of fratricide (because of his reputed jealousy of Juan for both his political power and the affections of sister-in-law Sancha).  The charges were never followed through; Caesare was protected by his father—whose favorite child he seemed to have been, although Alexander was way over-indulgent with each of his children.  Similarly if he were the father of a child born in 1497 and rumored to be Lucrezia’s illegitimate son, that too was covered up. Alexander acknowledged paternity of the child though Lucrezia’s maternity was not acknowledged.  It was also Caesare who organized the Banquet of the Chestnuts on October 30, 1501—a dinner in the Vatican palace where the diners were entertained by having the clothes of fifty prostitutes auctioned off their backs and then cheering on the same ladies—naked—as they scrambled along the floor of the banquet room in the Vatican for chestnuts thrown them by the guests.  The entire event turned—by design—into a huge orgy where prizes of expensive clothing and other gifts where handed out to those guests who showed the most sexual proficiency.   This was the jolly side of Caesare—far worse was the angry and vengeful side that caused a series of murders and disappearances among the Roman nobility and hierarchy with Caesare seizing their estates to finance his various plots and plans.   
At the same time Alexander was giving his children free reign for debauchery, fratricide, sacrilege, and murder, he was also busy trying to expand papal power in Italy by playing the French off against the Aragonese in Naples.  It was a disastrous policy.  The pope was not above handing out divorces and annulments to various royals and nobles in return for support in his military policies. All it ever led to was bloodshed, war, and violence.  When the Florentine Dominican, Girolamo Savonarola called for Reform of the Church, Alexander excommunicated the preacher and then turned on Florence and demanded the death of the critic.  Florence complied rather than risk war. 
In his papal years, Alexander dumped Vanozza dei Cattani for Giula (Giula Bella) Farnese—said to be the most beautiful woman in Rome, making her brother, Allesandro, a cardinal.  He would later reign as Paul III—one of the reforming popes, though he only became a reformer after a long life of decadence.  We will look at him some other time.
When Alexander died his body immediately began to rot in the most noxious fashion with gasses and foul smelling fluids emitting from every orifice.  The corpse swell so much that the papal master of ceremonies, John Burchard,  recorded in his diary that he had to jump on the body to squeeze it into its coffin.  The canons of St. Peter’s Basilica—the old basilica, still falling down—refused to allow the body to be brought into the church for burial.  The papal troops had to force their way into the church with the corpse.  His successor, Pius III, forbad masses to be said for the dead pope since he was “already damned.”  One good thing that can be said about the pope is that when the Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, Alexander welcomed them to Rome and gave them freedom to practice their religion without harassment.  Of course that was good business practice, but he was one of the few rulers in Europe to treat the Jews fairly.  And through all the naked courtesans, rolling chestnuts, poisoned rings, unsolved murders, simonical bishops—the old Basilica kept crumbling down.    
De Maistre, the Savoyard philosopher-historian wrote the opinion that we only judge Alexander so harshly because he was a pope and had he been a secular prince his vices would be overlooked.  The popes, he wrote, “are forgiven nothing, because everything is expected from them, wherefore the vices lightly passed over in a Louis XIV become most offensive and scandalous in an Alexander VI.”  Well De Maistre would make a gentle confessor indeed and perhaps we are wrong to overlook vices in kings and presidents (I am going to do a Henry VIII series soon), but at the end of the day while we should expect more of our civic rulers than we do—except for Bill Clinton, of course—I do think it is fair to expect the pope to have some higher standards than we found with ol’ Al Borja.   At least he could have patched up that tumbling town church next door.    

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