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A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia

The Borgias: 8 facts about the tyrant family of popes and aristocrats

Image: 'A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia' by John Collier (1893)

The famous Borgia family produced two popes, Callixtus III (1378-1458) and Alexander VI (1431-1503), Lucrezia (1480-1519), a duchess famed for her beauty and learning, and Cesare (1475-1507), a leading inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince. But this ambitious Spanish-Italian clan remains notorious, five centuries later, for their debauchery, ruthlessness, and scheming. Are all the stories true? Or were they victims of anti-Spanish propaganda?

Look at these eight fiendish facts about the devilish dynasty and decide for yourself.

1. Rodrigo Borgia had such a wild party that he got a reprimand from the pope

Born in Xàtiva, near Valencia, Rodrigo Borgia was a career churchman and power player. He was made a cardinal in 1456 and became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. But in June 1460, he found himself on the ropes after a strongly worded letter from Pope Pius II. Rodrigo attended a garden party in Siena that was so wild and sinful that the pope in his complaint exclaimed that ‘we are more angry than we can say’.

The pope describes it as an orgy and says that he was too embarrassed to mention the worst bits of what went on at the sexy soiree. He was shocked to learn that Rodrigo and his friends had barred all the husbands and male relatives of all the female guests from entering the garden for the bash.

Pius’s angry communique describes the jamboree as ‘beyond bounds’, but we’ll never know exactly what happened there. Rodrigo did apologise to the pope and admitted wrongdoing, but ultimately denied it was an orgy.

2. Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) operated a pilgrim scam

There have certainly been mixed views of Pope Alexander VI over the years. While he won praise from several of his papal successors, one 19th-century historian called him a ‘satanic priest’ who surrounded himself in the Vatican with ‘harlots, sorcerers, and bravos [hitmen]’. He was said to have bought the papacy through bribery, and amassed wealth with moneymaking schemes, such as selling slips of paper to sinners that formally forgave them.

In another racket, the pope secretly ordered that a small door be cut into a wall of St Peter’s in Rome. This door, he declared to his flock, was a secret holy door that could only be viewed once every 100 years. The Jubilee year 1500 was conveniently one such year, and he told the pilgrims that they could now view the door, for a steep fee, of course.

3. Alexander once insisted on sleeping with his son’s would-be bride

Pope Alexander was nearly 40 when he fell for the 28-year-old Vannozza dei Cattanei, mother of Lucrezia and Cesare and two of their siblings. Alexander was nearly 60 when he seduced 16-year-old Giulia Farnese, a young married noblewoman who, after he became pope in 1492, moved into a palace in the Vatican. Their frequent nights together earned Giulia the nickname ‘the pope’s whore’.

Gioffre Borgia, the pope’s youngest son with Vanozza, was due to marry Sancha of Aragon, the King of Naples’ daughter, in 1494. Before the marriage deal was finalised, Sancha paid a visit to the Vatican and was invited into the chambers of both Alexander and Cesare so they could give their ‘seal of approval’. Sancha is also said to have had an affair with Giovanni Borgia, who was allegedly murdered in 1497 by his brother, Cesare.

4. Cesare Borgia liked to use prisoners as target practice

Cesare was handsome and a highly capable military leader and administrator, but he was also a ruthless tyrant. At the height of Cesare’s power, one chronicler reported that the bodies of murdered men were fished out of the Tiber in Rome every single day. He was also reported to enjoy standing above prison courtyards in Rome and practising his crossbow skills, picking off the inmates below.

He was a fan of poetic justice, too. When a satirist mocked Cesare, he had the writer’s tongue cut out and nailed to his severed hand. At one grand Borgia party, a man pointed a finger at Cesare, saying nothing at all, but clearly giving a gesture of contempt. The man was hauled off to the dungeons and had his finger chopped off.

5. Cesare Borgia had two traitors twisted to death

In 1502, Cesare learned of a planned mutiny against him by several of his leading captains. He invited the conspirators to Senigallia, where, to lull them into a false sense of security, he was as nice as pie to them.

Once Cesare’s loyal guards had the would-be traitors disarmed and under his control, he decided to make an example of two of the chief designers of the coup. In a house in the town, Vitelozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto Euffreducci Fermo were brought up to a room in the early hours of the morning of 1st January.

These two men were positioned back-to-back and bound. A large iron bar was then secured inside their bindings, which were also around their necks, and slowly turned. With every twist of the bar, the ropes around their necks tightened until they were strangled to death.

Paolo and Francesco Orsini, two other key members of the conspiracy, were garrotted several weeks later. Machiavelli called Cesare’s handling of the plotters a ‘rare and wonderful exploit’.

6. Lucrezia Borgia wore a hollow ring that acted as a poison dispenser

The Borgias were said to have been so disposed towards poisoning that they took as much care in preparing poisons in their cellars as they did with their fine wines.

Lucrezia was said to have favoured a poison known as Cantarella, a variation of arsenic. According to the tales, Lucrezia wore a hollow ring on her finger. The ring contained the prepared poison, and at banquets, she would sneakily slip the toxin into drink or food.

One version of the legend claimed that Lucrezia’s ring contained a retractable point that could be used to secretly inject poison into someone. The Borgias poisoned nobles, bishops, and statesmen, deploying the poison in a range of vessels including books, gloves, drinks, and flowers.

Modern historians have attempted to acquit Lucrezia of her crimes, citing a lack of evidence, but the legend endures.

Ironically, Pope Alexander and Cesare were both said to have been victims of Cantarella, the pope dying but Cesare survived by climbing into a freshly-killed horse, before jumping, covered in blood, into an ice bath.

7. The Borgias hosted a sex competition

Though some historians dispute the event, an influential contemporary chronicler, Johann Burchard, left a detailed account of the so-called Banquet of Chestnuts.

According to Burchard, on 30th October 1501, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Pope Alexander hosted a sumptuous banquet in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. ‘Fifty honest prostitutes’ attended the party and danced naked with the guests after dinner. The ‘naked courtesans’ then crept around on the floor on their hands and knees, moving between burning chandeliers and picking up chestnuts from the floor. Prizes were given to the guest who could have sex with a courtesan the greatest number of times.

8. Lucrezia Borgia was said to have had incestuous relations with her brother and father

Lucrezia’s first husband was Italian bigwig Giovanni Sforza. They married in 1492, but in February 1497, Giovanni fled a plot by Cesare and Alexander to bump him off. Later that year, the Borgias successfully forced Giovanni to agree to an annulment of the marriage. The young lord got to keep the massive dowry from the Borgias but had to sign a statement saying he was impotent.

This then led an enraged Giovanni to claim that the problem with consummating the marriage was down to Lucrezia carrying on with not only her father but her brother Cesare too. Some claim that Giovanni Borgia, known as ‘the Roman child’, was the child of Lucrezia and either her brother or her father.