The Worst Family in Italy

As I recently finished a book in which a reincarnated Rodrigo Borgia, AKA Pope Alexander VI, was a significant character, I thought a review of the activities of the notorious Borgia family wouldn’t be a bad idea. The story more or less begins with Rodrigo’s uncle Alfonso, who became pope in 1455. He was known to be quite efficient in his job, but also quite old and hence unlikely to last long on the papal throne. Sounds kind of like the current pope, really. Anyway, Alfonso became Pope Callixtus III, and made his nephew Rodrigo a cardinal.

This was despite the fact that he was a noted philanderer who had had several mistresses. And here I thought Catholic priests were supposed to be celibate! Apparently this kind of thing wasn’t uncommon at the time, however; money and power meant you could break all the rules, perhaps even more then than now. The Borgias were just a little more blatant about it than their contemporaries. Rodrigo became Pope Alexander in 1492, and did not end his sexual liaisons even then. It is said that he essentially bought the papal throne, paying off as many electors as he could. He continued his family’s practice of nepotism, awarding high honors to his illegitimate children with a woman named Vannozza de Catanei. The fact that they were illegitimate didn’t really make any difference, as he was able to grant them legitimacy through political maneuvering. Alexander made his son Cesare a cardinal, although he later resigned from this position and became a duke instead.

He also married Charlotte d’Albret, daughter of the Duke of Guyenne, and served as a general for King Louis XII of France. He was ruthless in his acquisition of money and power, and had many people killed, possibly even his own brother Giovanni. He was only able to achieve most of his power due to his father’s influence, however, and when Alexander died he lost the majority of his influence. The official cause of death for Alexander was malaria, but a popular rumor is that he accidentally drank poison intended for a political enemy.


Perhaps the most famous of all the Borgias, however, was Cesare’s sister Lucrezia, who has gone down in history as the epitome of the ruthless female and a notorious poisoner to boot. How much of this is true isn’t something I feel qualified to address, but she was certainly someone who was prone to excess. In order to form an alliance with another powerful family, the Sforzas, Rodrigo had his daughter married to Giovanni Sforza. Eventually, Pope Alexander felt he no longer needed the alliance, and hence had Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni annulled. She had to undergo a test to prove she was a virgin in order to get the annulment, and somehow managed to pass despite being pregnant from an affair with a man named Perotto. Upon finding out about the pregnancy, Cesare attacked Perotto with a sword, and is rumored to have later had him murdered and his body thrown into the Tiber River. Lucrezia’s second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, was also killed under Cesare’s direction, or at least that’s the popular explanation. There is also a persistent rumor that Lucrezia and Cesare had an incestuous relationship, and perhaps even that Cesare was actually the father of the baby usually thought to be Perotto’s. Lucrezia’s third and final husband was another Alfonso, son of the Duke of Ferrara, and she seems to have kept a pretty low profile during this marriage, aside from a possible affair with a poet. She died in childbirth in 1519, at the age of thirty-nine, but I haven’t heard any suggestion that she became a Bean-Nighe. The rumors that she was a poisoner were started by enemies of the Borgias, and while they may or may not be true, it appears that the popular opinion has shifted toward their being false.

Although the Borgias were in many ways typical of noble families of their time, they have become symbols of political and religious corruption. I’ve heard that, when inventing the Corleone family for his novels, Mario Puzo was primarily influenced by the Borgias. Their time in the spotlight is probably a period of history the Catholic Church would just as soon forget.

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2 Responses to The Worst Family in Italy

  1. krismerino says:

    The Borgia’s were something else! And like you said, not too different from their contemporaries. The Pazzis, Ferrarras, Medicis, Sforzas, d’Estes, were almost just as bad. Almost. ;)

    And right, Puzo wrote “The Family” about the Borgias. Not entirely historically accurate, but a good read.

  2. Pingback: The Pope, the Puns, and the Puppet | VoVatia

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