The years of the greatest influence of the Borgias (1435-1520) correspond to one of the most important periods in European history. It is the age of the Renaissance, the beginning of the Age of Exploration, and the age of some of the great rulers, artists, and writers who have influenced our Modern Age.
The Borgia Era begins about the time of Joan of Arc (1430) and the subsequent expulsion of the British from France, goes through the later Crusades (1460), and ends (about the time of the death of Lucrezia) with Cortes conquest of Mexico. It covers the period of the War of the Roses in England and the struggles between the rulers of France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany.
It is fraught with historical events. It is the era of the great Medici family of Florence, the illustrious patrons of the arts that so typifies the Renaissance. It runs from the end of Medievalism to the beginning of the Reformation. It is almost more than one can intellectually digest.
A few of many events can be chronicled:
1429 - Joan of Arc delivers Orleans
1430 - Alonso Borya (Borgia), later Callixtus III, born
1443 - end of the Great Catholic Schism
1455 - Alonso Borya becomes Pope Callixtus III
1456 - Rodrigo Borgia becomes cardinal
1456 - rehabilitation of Joan of Arc
1458 - death of Callixtus III
1469 - marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand
1475 - birth of Cesare Borgia
1480 - birth of Lucrezia Borgia
1492 - Columbus discovers the New World
1492 - Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI
1497 - Leonardo da Vinci paints The Last Supper
1497 - Vasco da Gama begins voyage around the world
1503 - death of Alexander VI
1507 - death of Cesare Borgia
1508 - Michelangelo begins painting the Sistine Chapel
1517 - Martin Luther nails his theses against indulgences
1519 - death of Lucrezia Borgia
1520 - Luther excommunicated
1521 - Ferdinand Cortes conquers Mexico
There are other events that could fill in this chronology, year by year. Passing through this drama are Machiavelli, Bocaccio, Copernicus, Pinturicchio, Michelangelo's Pieta, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, the building of the present St. Peter's — all within a space of about 20 years. It is a remarkable period.
The most difficult aspect of the Borgia Era is the complexity of the political events. Italy was made up of a large number of city states, some of which were papal fiefdoms. It was not until the last part of the 19th century that Italy as a unified country came into being. As such, the various "kingdoms" of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries were theaters of intrigue, battles, and foreign involvement. At various times, Spain and France ruled portions of Italy, and political alliances were formed and broken constantly. Spheres of influence were forged by marriages, often engineered by the rulers of Spain and France, as well as the Vatican. What is difficult to recognize is that the popes were not only spiritual rulers, but temporal rulers as well, often more interested in acquiring political power than in leading the faithful. The Late Crusades were more exercises in extending power than in reclaiming the Holy Land. Saintliness was secondary to the acquisition of wealth, which then begat political power.
The Borgias, then, were not exceptional in their lust for riches and land. They were simply more ruthless in how they went about it.
There were exceptions. Francisco Borgia, after producing a number of children, became the principal proponent of the new order of monks, the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius Loyola, and eventually elevated to sainthood for his efforts. There are a goodly number of nuns and abbesses in the family, female offspring who were given to the Church when their negotiability as possible wives for political marriages was weak. One of St. Francisco's descendants, Catherine of Braganza, married Charles II of England, and helped her king preside over one of the more immoral courts in the history of the British monarchy.
The last of the Borgia popes was a descendant of Alexander's oldest daughter, Isabella. Giovanni Battista Pamfili, Pope Innocent X (1574-1655, Pope from 1644-1655) was a hundred years removed from the luminaries of the Borgia family, so he was not greatly influenced by his heritage. Other than condemning Jansenism — a movement in France within the Catholic Church that seemed more Protestant than Catholic — he continued his predecessors' efforts in the support of world-wide missions, and supported a number of important artistic efforts in Rome, his papacy was not of much consequence. Although inclined to perpetuate the Borgia practice of nepotism, he was relatively mild in this respect. Evidently, the gene pool of the Borgias was beginning to weaken.
But what is the truth about the Borgias? Where did their reputations come from, particularly that of Lucrezia as the arch poisoner, the symbol of feminine evil? Most of the information that has been handed down through history — and, like common rumor, modified by the telling — comes from two works of the period, and two 19th century works of fiction.
The first is the great work of Machiavelli, The Prince (1513), a guide for political leaders that used Alexander and, in particular, Cesare as models. Cesare is singled out as the prime example of the ruthlessness required of rulers. The second contemporaneous book is the Journal of Johannes Burchard, which is not only an account of the rituals, practices, and details of the Holy Office, but a compilation of events, scandals, and rumors of the time. Until the era of modern historical scholarship in the late 19th century, these two books were the source of all other works on the Borgias, and they provided the bases for elaboration, fantasy, and rumor.
In 1833, Victor Hugo chose Lucrezia Borgia as the heroine of a play that was widely seen and praised. What Hugo did for Lucrezia's reputation can be seen from the preface to his play. It is difficult to determine whether he is talking about Lucrezia, or the Hunchback of Notre Dame:
"Who, actually, is Lucrezia Borgia? Take the most hideous, the most repulsive, the most complete moral deformity; place it where it fits best — in the heart of a woman whose physical beauty and royal grandeur will make the crime stand out all the more strikingly; then add to all that moral deformity the purest feeling a woman can have, that of a mother... Inside our monster put a mother and the monster will interest us and make us weep. And this creature that filled us with fear will inspire pity; that deformed soul will be almost beautiful in our eyes..."
— Victor Hugo (from his preface to his play Lucrezia Borgia)
The other semi-fictional account of Lucrezia that had great influence on her reputation was by Alexandre Dumas (1839) in his account of the Borgias in his Les crimes celebres. In this work, the Borgias become known for their use of poison to dispatch adversaries.
There is little doubt of the criminality of the father, Alexander, and the son, Cesare. And, if we include avarice, extortion, and nepotism, we can add the grandfather, Callixtus, to achieve at least three generations in this crime family. (Girolamo, illegitimate son of Cesare, was undoubtedly a murderer.)
That would give us four generations of evil. It is very likely that Alexander ordered countless opponents to be murdered, and it can be safely assumed that he was not particular over the means. Cesare certainly killed on his own, and, while he may have used poison, he was more often likely to use knife, sword, and gun.
But Lucrezia is another matter. She certainly was a willing observer and supporter of the crimes of her father and brother. She is accurately reported to be a participant in their licentious goings-on. There is no evidence to suggest that she objected her family's use of murder as a solution to their political problems. Until becoming the Duchess of Ferrara, she certainly was a sexually busy young woman, and may have indeed committed incest with members of her family. Perhaps she changed as she got older, or perhaps more discrete. But there seems to be little basis for her reputation as the historical archetype of murderer by poison, the sort of Renaissance black-widow that we have come to believe she was.