Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Borgias

First Crime Family

The papal guards forced the ragged prisoners into St. Peter's Square. They were shackled at the wrists and gathered in a close knot near its geographical center. The guards formed a phalanx at the broad entry into the square, preventing escape. The prisoners looked up at the Vatican windows, where, on a small balcony at one of the larger windows, the 70-year-old Pope Alexander VI, formerly Rodrigo Borgia, stood with his 20-year-old daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. Both were smiling. A few windows away, dressed completely in black velvet, was Alexander's son, Cesare Borgia. Beside him was a servant, also dressed all in black.

Were they about to hear words of mercy? Some generous dispensation for their crimes, which ranged from the serious to the trivial? Perhaps they were hopeful.

Suddenly, one of the prisoners fell, shot by Cesare. The prisoners scurried throughout the square, aware that someone in one of those windows was firing upon them. With each shot, the servant handed Cesare a new rifle, fully primed, and he fired again. Each shot was followed by a fresh rifle, and another shot. Within a matter of minutes, all of the prisoners were dead.

Alexander waved to his son. "Fine aim, my son," said the Pope. Cesare smiled and waved back, and he and his servant left the window and entered the Vatican apartment. Four men, pulling a cart, began to remove the bodies, tossing them in like limp sacks of grain. Cesare's harvest was taken away, to be thrown into the Tiber.

* * *

The details of this scene have been imagined, but the basic facts of the event are true. Johannes Burchard, the papal master of ceremonies, loyal servant to his master, Alexander VI, recorded the scene in his diary.

* * *

A strange and bewildering family, the Borgias. Eleven cardinals of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Three popes. A queen of England. A saint. A family with long tentacles, beginning in the 14th century in Spain, and reaching through the history of 15th and 16th century Italy, Spain, and France. Greed, murder, incest. And — strangely — piety.

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI (Courtesy of Art Resource)
Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican
in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI
(Courtesy of Art Resource)

Such is the legacy of the Borgia family that established itself in one of Italy's most glorious periods, and that, in many ways, dominated the Renaissance with power and intrigue for 50 years. In a number of ways, it was a heritage whose influence on Church and State was felt for 200 years.

Of this notorious family, four members in particular are remembered, if only vaguely, as remarkable examples of greed and evil. Two were popes: Calixtus III (Alonso Borgia) and Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). Another, Cesare Borgia, was, for a time, a cardinal, elevated to that position by his acknowledged father, Alexander VI, and later, after leaving holy orders, a murderous and ruthless duke. The fourth member has become a metaphor for feminine evil: Lucrezia Borgia, sister of Cesare.

While other family members make important appearances in this drama of familial power, these four form the nucleus for which the family is remembered. They are handsome, charming, and amoral. Like Mafia dons, they inspired admiration and loyalty. But, most of all, they inspired fear:

"I met Cesare yesterday in the house in Trastevere: He was just on his way to the chase dressed in a costume altogether worldly: that is, in silk — and armed. He had only a little tonsure like a simple priest. I conversed with him for a while as we rode along — I am on intimate terms with him. He possesses marked genius and a charming personality, bearing himself like a great prince. He is especially lively  and merry and fond of society. [This] archbishop never had any inclination for the priesthood but his benefices bring him in more than 16,000 ducats annually."

— Andrea Boccaccio, describing Cesare Borgia when he was a priest, just before being elevated to cardinal

Unlike the mad Caligula, who killed in insane pleasure, or Nero and his predecessors, who killed for political gain, the Borgias killed not only for pleasure and political gain, but for personal wealth. They were, indeed, the first crime family, a family unique to the annals of crime. They were not bound together by blood ritual, but by genes.

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