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The Borgia family: 1492-1503

The reputation of Rodrigo Borgia, as the worst of all popes, is well earned. When he is elected in 1492, taking the name Alexander VI, he already has four illegitimate children. He is thought to have fathered as many as three others while serving as pope.

This is not particularly shocking in Renaissance Rome, as is revealed in the assistance given to the Borgia family by pope Sixtus IV. One of the Borgia sons, Cesare, experiences difficulties in being ordained a priest because he is illegitimate. When the case is referred to Sixtus, he decides that an exception can be made - because at least the young man's mother was a married woman and his father was a cardinal.


The married woman, Vanozza dei Catanei, lives in Rome and is mother to the cardinal's four children. Two of them, Cesare and Lucrezia, are the means by which Alexander VI, as pope, attempts to advance the family fortunes. Cesare's contribution is by warfare, intrigue and murder - Lucrezia's by marriage.

One of the Borgia pope's first acts, in 1492, is to appoint Cesare archbishop of Valencia, following this with a cardinal's hat in 1493. But by 1498 it seems that a secular role for the young man may be more effective. He resigns as cardinal and is appointed commander of the papal army.


From 1499 to 1502 Cesare uses an army of 15,000 men to carve out a territory for himself in Romagna, inland from Rimini. He occupies town after town, using murder when necessary to stifle opposition, and he begins calling himself duke of Romagna. It is plainly his father's intention that this territory will become a family inheritance.

The death of Alexander VI in 1503 brings Cesare's brutal string of successes to a sudden end. The occupied towns rise against him. He spends much of his remaining four years in prison, in Rome and then in Spain, before being killed at a siege in northern Spain in 1507.


Cesare owes his lasting notoriety partly to Machiavelli, who soon after Cesare's death points to his ruthless career as an example of wise conduct in a ruler (in The Prince, written in 1513).

The name of Cesare's sister, Lucrezia Borgia, has achieved even greater resonance as an example of scheming womanhood. Her reputation is less deserved. She is only 23 when her father dies, and her two betrothals and three marriages (one ended by annulment, one by murder probably at Cesare's behest) have all been imposed upon her. After her father's death she lives peacefully with her husband, the duke of Ferrara - as mother to his seven children and the central figure in a highly civilized court.


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