The name Borgia is synonymous in history with treachery, hedonism, and scandal. But were the Borgias really one of Italy’s most murderous families, or the victims of cruel rumours by jealous rivals? Let’s find out with these 24 scandalous facts about the Borgias.
Though remembered as one of Italy’s noble families during the Renaissance, the Borgias actually came from Valencia in the kingdom of Aragon, Spain. The family moved to Italy upon Alfons Borja’s election to pope, and changed their name from Borja to the more Italian-friendly Borgia.
23. Callixtus III
Alfons Borja was elected pope in 1455, and took the name Callixtus III. Despite the reputation of his family, he was considered a pious and dedicated pontiff. Among his deeds was ordering a posthumous re-trial for Joan of Arc, which found her innocent of heresy.
22. Alexander VI
Callixtus III did have one vice: nepotism. He named his nephew Rodrigo cardinal in 1456. Rodrigo was a skillful politician, and it didn’t take him long to accumulate enough wealth to rig a papal election. He was named pope in 1492, taking the name Alexander VI.
That two of the Borgias would become Pope, and several others cardinals, was a little ironic to some: according to several rumors, the Borgias were in fact Jewish. Still, that was probably the haterade talking.
20. The Family Tree
The Borgias didn’t exactly help these rumors, however. Their actual genealogy was clouded by several dubious claims of links to a former claimant to the crown of Aragon who, in fact, had no children.
19. The Pope’s Children
Alexander VI made no secret of his affairs both before and during his reign as pope. Nor did he deny that he was the father of his children. His chief mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei, bore him four: Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffre.
18. Glass Houses
Few people could fairly criticize Alexander VI for his dalliances. It was widely accepted that Vanozza had also had a fling with Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who would himself become Pope Julius II.
Politically ambitious and not above lies and treachery, it wasn’t long before the Borgias ran afoul of Italy’s other noble families. These included the Medici, as well as the della Rovere and Sforza families.
16. The Prince
Alexander VI’s son Cesare became both a military leader and a cardinal–two incompatible but very influential positions. His rise to power might be described as Machiavellian. Indeed, Niccoló Machiavelli is said to have based his masterpiece, The Prince, on the young Borgia.
15. Axe to Grind
Cesare was said to be the most barbaric of the Borgia clan. An example of his hobbies? In the year 1499 alone, Cesare ordered the executions of a Spanish constable, a soldier-captain, and a bishop, among others.
14. Very Close Family
Rumors abound that Cesare murdered his sister Lucrezia’s husband, Alfonso of Aragon, after the man’s political influence was on the wane.
Alfonso of Aragon
Lucrezia was considered just as lustful and murderous as the rest of the Borgias. Not only was she involved in several affairs, some said the conspicuous ring she wore was hollow, and that she used it to slip poison into the drinks of unsuspecting guests.
Cesare wasn’t the only murderer of family in the family. On June 14, 1497, Giovanni Borgia, brother to Cesare and Lucrezia, was found with his throat slit and about nine stab wounds in his torso. His father Pope Alexander VI launched a full-on investigation before abruptly stopping it a week later, and some suspected Giovanni was murdered by the youngest Borgia, Gioffre, for sleeping with Gioffre’s wife.
11. Big in Ecuador
Though their position as Italy’s foremost aristocratic family waned, the Borgias maintained prominence well into the 20th century, especially in Ecuador. There, several descendants of the Borgias became notable poets, artists, and activists. One even became president!
10. Media Stars
The Borgias remain fixed in our cultural memory. They have appeared as characters in dozens–if not hundreds–of novels, films, television programs, and comic books. They even have a prominent place in the Assassin’s Creed video games–bet Callixtus never saw that coming.
Showtime series The Borgias
9. You Look Familiar
Before the syphilis, Cesare was, by all accounts, a very handsome man. There are even claims that the European depictions of Jesus Christ are based off of his face.
8. Patron of the Arts
Cesare was well-connected among the artists of the Renaissance. He hired Leonardo da Vinci to be his military architect and engineer in 1502. While under Cesare’s employ, da Vinci had total freedom to inspect and direct any construction project in any lands under Cesare’s control.
7. Spreading the Gospel
In 1493, Alexander VI issued the Inter caetera, which granted Spain many lands in the New World. It also demanded Catholicism “be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” Spanish explorers interpreted this as permission to murder and enslave indigenous peoples, forming a basis for the colonialism and racism that continues to affect North America to this day.
6. Image Problems
The Borgias’ reputation for evil and deception survived long after their influence declined. In 1893, the artist John Collier painted Cesare, Lucrezia, and their father seated around a banquet table. Cesare offers a cup of wine to an unknown young man who refuses–wisely perhaps, given the Borgias’ supposed penchant for poison.
5. Unfair Image
While there are certainly enough stories to paint the Borgias as great villains of history, there are some who argue their reputation isn’t entirely fair. Modern historians now point out that many of the stories surrounding the Borgias come from a small handful of contemporary chroniclers and the Borgias’ political rivals.
4. The Saint
The Borgias weren’t all conniving, incestuous hedonists. The great grandson of Alexander VI was literally a saint. Francis Borgia abandoned his title as Duke of Grandia to become a Jesuit monk, eventually helping to founding a university. For his lifetime of humility, he was canonized in 1670.
3. Whistlin’ Dixie
Among the descendants of the Borgias: Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard and actress Brooke Shields. Wait, what?
2. The Mask
After Cesare Borgia’s debaucherous lifestyle caught up to him, he was so ravaged by syphilis that he was forced to wear a mask over his pockmarked and scarred face.
1. Feast of the Chestnuts
Before Cesare Borgia’s wild lifestyle caught up with him, leaving him ravaged by syphilis, he was known to have sensual parties at the Vatican, where guests would be encouraged to make use of the “fifty honest prostitutes” who had been invited. The Banquet of Chestnuts, as it was known, was a massive feast and sexual marathon that took place in October 1501. The pope himself was said to be in attendance, and prizes were given to those who could “perform the act most often with the courtesans.”
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