Even in death people were scared
Viana, Spain – March 11, 2007
A collection of bones had been the center of debate in this small Spanish village since 1507. The debate was whether or not the person to whom the bones belonged should have a proper burial.
But this wasn’t just any man. He is the centerpiece of the greatest political science book written and had these words inscribed on his epitaph:
‘Here in a scant piece of earth lies he whom all the world feared.’
The man they debated about was Cesare Borgia.
If you were to approach a Hollywood studio about a new historically based show (which never do well) it’s almost a sure bet you could get someone’s attention with the story of Cesare Borgia. Here’s just a sampling of the life which Cesare lived:
- Became a cardinal and served in The Vatican
- Then became the first person to renounce his cardinal’s hat
- Allegedly murdered his brother
- Committed incest with his sister… then murdered her husband
- Married into the French nobility
- Took army and began conquering major parts of Italy
- Hired Leonardo da Vinci as his military engineer
- Was the focal point for the most famous political science book of all time
- Escaped from the King of Spain
- Died in an ambush and was believed to still dominate his enemies in death
Lucrezia Borgia: Romantically involved?
By the way, if you were really looking to make a movie or mini-series about Cesare Borgia… it’s been done already!
And still over 500 years later… Cesare Borgia is still remembered for being many of those things listed above. But what you have to ask is who is this person and what was his true legacy? To answer these questions let’s look at some expert research done by two authors and of course, start from the beginning and examine the time and place Cesare lived in.
Renaissance Italy: Europe’s Wild, Wild West
To figure out Italy in the late middle ages and Renaissance was, well nearly impossible. Rulers from Western Europe tried and tried but the shifting alliances, the back stabbing and back room dealing was dizzying. Your ally one minute literally could be your enemy with a drop of a gold sack and a wink.
Armies from Spain and France tried to impose their will on places like Milan and Naples only to constantly conquer an area and give it right back. They never knew who they could trust. Italians didn’t think of themselves as Italians but as Milanese or Neapolitans and trusted each other even less than the invaders. Italy’s political landscape is comparable to quick sand. Once you’re in it’s nearly impossible to get out and the harder you try the more trouble you encounter.
But what you’ll see is Cesare didn’t use advanced military tactics to divide and conquer… he used psychology.
Making of a Monster
Cesare was born in Valencia, Spain (then Aragon) in 1475 or 1476 and depending on who you believe he was the son of Vanozza dei Cattanei who supposedly was Rodrigo Borgia’s wife. Rodrigo was a cardinal and then eventually in 1492 pope. And here’s where the story of Cesare and the Borgias becomes mysterious.
Their history is practically written by their enemies. Chief among them was Giuliano della Rovere who later became Pope Julius II. Why this matters is because for 500 years the Borgia name has been linked with murder, corruption, incest and greed. But the same people who wrote their history used the same techniques to achieve power.
Like Alice in Wonderland it gets curiouser and curiouser. So let’s start with what we know.
Cesare is believed to have been born in either 1475 or 76 to Rodrigo Borgia who yes, became Pope Alexander VI and get this a courtesan (usually a nice name for whore) Vanozza dei Cattanei. Now prominent Renaissance historian G.J. Meyer would disagree. In fact he points out how Cattanei was in Spain when Cesare was born and Rodrigo was serving as a cardinal in Rome. Which story seems to make more sense? It’s hard to say.
Even from birth there was mystique surrounding the young Borgia’s birth.
As a teenager, Cesare was amazingly good looking, athletic, cunning but charming all at once. As a second son he was destined to join the clerical ranks, but this would be a source of agony for his Pope Alexander and soon to be pope Rodrigo. Cesare had two traits that would ultimately cause his downfall: women and cruelty.
At a young age Cesare was described as having the French Disease which we know as syphilis. When Cesare was 22 he was sent to Naples to participate crowning the new King and arrange a marriage for his sister Lucrezia. As Machiavelli describes young Cesare frequented brothels often and began to develop the marks of someone who had syphilis. Perhaps the irony here is when Europeans came to the New World they brought death to the inhabitants but didn’t leave unscathed. They were the ones who brought the disease back with them.
From then one Cesare suffered in pain and covered his face quite often to hide his face from the marks of the disease. Later in life it would weaken him and cause him to make fateful decisions.
Cruelty was another theme of Cesare’s career. If you crossed him he would waste no time in getting rid of you. Depending on who you believe, he wasn’t even beyond murdering his younger brother Juan. In 1497 Juan who was hated by many of Rome’s other gang families wound up being pulled from the Tiber River. He was stabbed several times. Many blamed Cesare since it was Juan who was standing in his way of leading the Papal Armies.
Probably the greatest show of Cesare’s fearsome temper was the murder of his sister’s husband Alfonso of Aragon. The rumors of incest stemmed from the exceptionally close relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia. So when Lucrezia married, the husband was in grave danger of getting whacked by the brother. In this case, Cesare claimed that Alfonso attacked him with a crossbow in a garden. Then out of nowhere assassins attempted to cut down Alfonso but only succeeded in wounding him.
So what does Cesare do? He calls in his old friend Micheletto and has Alfonso strangled. Problem solved.
It was around this time when Cesare began assembling his armies to conquer the surrounding areas of the Romagna. He had the Papal Armies and the French armies. One by one he conquered territory after territory.
However, Meyer believes that Cesare was not to blame since there was no contemporary accounts of the time accusing him. This happened after his death, but it’s more likely that one of the Colonnas or Orsini Brothers had Juan killed.
Yet as cruel an act as beheading his captain was, Cesare knew there was psychological benefits to be gained from doing it. If you lived in a territory that Cesare ruled there’s a good chance you were safe from crime, could operate a business and probably loved the guy. Many peasants in Renaissance Italy lived in fear of their lord and of roving gangs that would rob, steal and murder for plunder.
Niccolo Machiavelli traveled with Cesare for two years
Valentino is the name given to Cesare after he became Duke of Valentinois upon marrying Charlotte d’Albret who was related to King Louis XII of France. Frankly it doesn’t look like Cesare cared too much about his wife, they did have a daughter who took over his estates when he passed. But what he did care about is the armies that came with becoming part of the French nobility.
Like the king before him, Louis wanted Milan. The Milanese weren’t in love with Ludovico Sforza who was Duke of Milan at the time. So what happened next was pure genius on the part of Alexander and Cesare. Get Cesare married into the nobility, get an army and give the King of France Milan.
Now one of the more compelling campaigns conducted by Cesare was against the city of Forli. The city of Forli was not run by a man, but by Caterina Sforza and this woman was one of the fiercest rulers in Italy. She was called the “Tigress of Forli” and legend has it that when a besieging army captured one of her sons, she simply lifted her skirt and said “I have the machinery to make more.”
This was not your sit there and take it smiling lady, she could kick your ass rather easily. Yet, again fortune smiled on Cesare. Despite being deprived his French troops he took Forli, locked Caterina in what was a stripper looking cage and paraded her through the streets of Rome.
But the end was coming near for Cesare and the Borgias.
End of the Borgia Papacy
When Alexander died in 1503 of malarial disease a strange thing happened to Cesare’s mental state. Normally calculating, but worn down by syphilis he trusted the one person that he had no business trusting: Guiliano della Rovere. When Alexander became pope, della Rovere coveted the throne of St. Peter for himself. Problem was Rodrigo Borgia was a safer pick considering the Spanish wanted pieces of Italy and the College of Cardinals felt he could deal with Isabella and Ferdinand much more effectively than an Italian or French pope.
When Alexander did become pope della Rovere accused him of simony (bribing cardinals for offices) to get the papal throne. According to Meyer, Rodrigo Borgia didn’t have the funds to pay anyone off. He simply was the most convenient pick among the available cardinals. Fearful of Alexander and Cesare’s wrath he fled to Ostia and then to France. While in France he incited King Charles VIII to invade Rome, depose Alexander and become King of Naples.
That failed, but della Rovere would have his chance once Alexander died. Once he did something remarkable happened. The man that Cesare should have trusted the least won him over with promises of titles and money. Here’s where the downfall of Cesare began. Machiavelli makes it clear in the prince that Cesare’s critical mistake was not securing loyalty among the cardinals before Alexander died.
Once della Rovere became pope, he ensured with his influence that any thing Cesare did ended in failure. Cesare was then sent to Naples to meet up with Gonzalo de Cordoba but once he arrived he was met with betrayal. Cordoba had Cesare arrested and sent to the Medina del Campo in Spain.
His stay was short, but his time on this earth was coming to an end. Cesare managed to bribe his way out of prison and met up with his friend King John III of Navarre. King John was resisting attempts by King Ferdinand to annex Navarre and on March 12, 1507 while fighting a minor skirmish in Viana, Spain Cesare was killed.
The most dangerous man in Europe at that time lay dead in a field, but his memory sparked a 500 year debate over whether he was worth for a proper burial.
The Borgias by G.J. Meyer
The Artist, The Philosopher & The Warrior by Paul Strathern
Syphilis, sex and fear – The Guardian
Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, Encyclopedia Britannica
The Rehabilitation of Cesare Borgia – The Telegraph
Micheletto de Corella
The Borgias – Cesare, Tru.TV