Rodrigo Borgia, born at Xativa, near Valencia, in Spain, 1 January, 1431; died in Rome, 18 August, 1503. His parents were Jofre Lançol and Isabella Borja, sister of Cardinal Alfonso Borja, later Pope Callixtus III.
The young Rodrigo had not yet definitely chosen his profession when the elevation of his uncle to the papacy (1455) opened up new prospects to his ambition. He was adopted into the immediate family of Callixtus and was known henceforward to the Italians as Rodrigo Borgia. Like so many other princely cadets, he was obtruded upon the Church, the question of a clerical vocation being left completely out of consideration. After conferring several rich benefices on him, his uncle sent him for a short year to study law at the University of Bologna. In 1456, at the age of twenty-five, he was made Cardinal Deacon of Saint Nicolo in Carcere, and held that title until 1471, when he became Cardinal-Bishop of Albano; in 1476 he was made Cardinal-Bishop of Porto and Dean of the Sacred College (Eubel, Hierarchia Catholica, II, 12). His official position in the Curia after 1457 was that of Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Church, and though many envied him this lucrative office he seems in his long administration of the Papal Chancery to have given general satisfaction. Even Guicciardini admits that “in him were combined rare prudence and vigilance mature reflection, marvelous power of persuasion, skill and capacity for the conduct of the most difficult affairs”. On the other hand, the list of archbishoprics, bishoprics, abbacies, and other dignities held by him, as enumerated by the Bishop of Modena in a letter to the Duchess of Ferrara (Pastor, History of the Popes, V, 533, English tr.) reads like the famous catalogue of Leparello; and since, notwithstanding the magnificence of his household and his passion for card-playing, he was strictly abstemious in eating and drinking, and a careful administrator, he became one of the wealthiest men of his time. In his twenty-ninth year he drew a scathing letter of reproof from Pope Pius II for misconduct in Sienna which had been so notorious as to shock the whole town and court (Raynaldus Ann. eccl. ad. an. 1460, n. 31). Even after his ordination to the priesthood, in 1468, he continued his evil ways. His contemporaries praise his handsome and imposing figure, his cheerful countenance, persuasive manner, brilliant conversation, and intimate mastery of the ways of polite society. The best portrait of him is said to be that painted by Pinturicchio in the Appartimento Borgia at the Vatican; Yriarte (Autour des Borgia, 79) praises its general air of grandeur incontestable. Towards 1470 began his relations with the Roman lady, Vanozza Catanei, the mother of his four children: Juan, Caesar, Lucrezia and Jofre, born, respectively according to Gregorovius (Lucrezia Borgia 13) in 1474, 1476, 1480, and 1482.
Borgia, by a bare two-thirds majority secured by his own vote, was proclaimed Pope on the morning of 11 Aug., 1492, and took the name of Alexander VI. [For details of the conclave see Pastor, "Hist. of the Popes", (German ed., Freiburg, 1895), III, 275-278; also Am. Cath. Quart. Review, April, 1900.] That he obtained the papacy through simony was the general belief (Pastor, loc. cit.) and is not improbable (Raynaldus, Ann. eccl. ad an. 1492, n. 26), though it would be difficult to prove it juridically, at any rate, as the law then stood the election was valid. There is no irresistible evidence that Borgia paid anyone a ducat for his vote; Infessura’s tale of mule-loads of silver has long since been discredited. Pastor’s indictment, on closer inspection, needs some revision, for he states (III, 277) that eight of the twenty-three electors, viz. della Rovere, Piccolomini, Medici, Caraffa, Costa, Basso, Zeno, and Cibò, held out to the end against Borgia. If that were true, Borgia could not have secured a two-thirds majority. All we can affirm with certainty is that the determining factor of this election was the accession to Borgia of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s vote and influence, it is almost equally certain that Sforza’s course was dictated not by silver, but by the desire to be the future Pontiff’s chief adviser.
The elevation to the papacy of one who for thirty-five years had conducted the affairs of the Roman chancery with rare ability and industry met with general approbation; we find no evidence of the “alarm and horror” of which Guicciardini speaks. To the Romans especially, who had come to regard Borgia as one of themselves, and who predicted a pontificate at once splendid and energetic, the choice was most acceptable; and they manifested their joy in bonfires, torchlight processions, garlands of flowers, and the erection of triumphal arches with extravagant inscriptions. At his coronation in Saint Peter’s (26 Aug.), and during his progress to Saint John Lateran, he was greeted with an ovation, “greater”, says the diarist, “than any Pontiff had ever received”. He proceeded at once to justify this good opinion of the Romans by putting an end to the lawlessness which reigned in the city, the extent of which we can infer from the statement of Infessura that within a few months over two hundred and twenty assassinations had taken place. Alexander ordered investigations to be made, every culprit discovered to be hanged on the spot and his house to be razed to the ground. He divided the city into four districts, placing over each a magistrate with plenary powers for the maintenance of order; in addition, he reserved the Tuesday of each week as a day on which any man or woman could lay his or her grievances before himself personally; “and”, says the diarist, “he set about dispensing justice in an admirable manner.” This vigorous method of administering justice soon changed the face of the city, and was ascribed by the grateful populace to “the interposition of God.”
Alexander next turned his attention to the defence and embellishment of the Eternal City. He changed the Mausoleum of Adrian into a veritable fortress capable of sustaining a siege. By the fortification of Torre di Nona, he secured the city from naval attacks. He deserves to be called the founder of the Leonine City, which he transformed into the most fashionable quarter of Rome. His magnificent Via Alessandrina, now called Borgo Nuovo, remains to the present day the grand approach to Saint Peter’s. Under his direction, Pinturicchio adorned the Appartimento Borgia in the Vatican, pointing the way to his immortal disciple, Raphael. In addition to the structures erected by himself, his memory is associated with the many others built by monarchs and cardinals at his instigation. During his reign Bramante designed for Ferdinand and Isabella that exquisite architectural gem, the Tempietto, on the traditional site of Saint Peter’s martyrdom. If not Bramante, some other great architect, equally attracted to Rome by the report of the Pope’s liberality, built for Cardinal Riario the magnificent palace of the Cancellaria. In 1500, the ambassador of Emperor Maximilian laid the cornerstone of the handsome national church of the Germans, Santa Maria dell’ Anima. Not to be outdone, the French Cardinal Briconnet erected SS. Trinità dei Monti, and the Spaniards Santa Maria di Monserrato. To Alexander we owe the beautiful ceiling of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the decoration of which tradition says he employed the first gold brought from America by Columbus.
Although he laid no great claim to learning, he fostered literature and science. As cardinal he had written two treatises on canonical subjects and a defence of the Christian faith. He rebuilt the Roman University and made generous provision for the support of the professors. He surrounded himself with learned men and had a special predilection for jurists. His fondness for theatrical performances encouraged the development of the drama. He loved pontifical ceremonies, to which his majestic figure lent grace and dignity. He listened to good sermons with a critical ear, and admired fine music. In 1497, Alexander decreed that the “Praefectus Sacrarii Pontificii”, commonly called “Sacristan of the Pope”, but virtually parish-priest of the Vatican and keeper of the Pope’s conscience, should be permanently and exclusively a prelate chosen from the Augustinian Order, an arrangement that still endures.
Alexander earned the enmity of Spain, the obloquy of many narrow minded contemporaries, and the gratitude of posterity, by his tolerant policy towards the Jews, whom he could not be coerced into banishing or molesting. The concourse of pilgrims to Rome in the Jubilee year, 1500, was a magnificent demonstration of the depth and universality of the popular faith. The capacity of the city to house and feed so many thousands of visitors from all parts of Europe was taxed to the utmost, but Alexander spared no expense or pains to provide for the security and comfort of his guests. To maintain peace among Christians and to form a coalition of the European Powers against the Turks was the policy he had inherited from his uncle. One of the first of his public acts was to prevent a collision between Spain and Portugal over their newly-discovered territories, by drawing his line of demarcation, an act of truly peaceful import, and not of usurpation and ambition [Civiltà Cattolica (1865), I, 665-680]. He did his best to dissuade Charles VIII of France from his projected invasion of Italy; if he was unsuccessful, the blame is in no slight degree due to the unpatriotic course of that same Giuliano della Rovere who later, as Julius II, made futile efforts to expel the “barbarians” whom he himself had invited. Alexander issued a wise decree concerning the censorship of books, and sent the first missionaries to the New World.
Notwithstanding these and similar actions, which might seem to entitle him to no mean place in the annals of the papacy, Alexander continued as Pope the manner of life that had disgraced his cardinalate (Pastor, op. cit., III, 449 152). A stern Nemesis pursued him till death in the shape of a strong parental affection for his children. The report of the Ferrarese ambassador, that the new Pope had resolved to keep them at a distance from Rome, is quite credible, for all his earlier measures for their advancement pointed towards Spain. While still a cardinal, he had married one daughter, Girolama, to a Spanish nobleman. He had bought for a son, Pedro Luis, from the Spanish monarch the Duchy of Gandia, and when Pedro died soon after he procured it for Juan, his oldest surviving son by Vanozza. This ill-starred young man was married to a cousin of the King of Spain, and became grandfather to Saint Francis Borgia, whose virtues went a great way towards atoning for the vices of his kin. The fond father made a great mistake when he selected his boy Caesar as the ecclesiastical representative of the Borgias. In 1480, Pope Innocent VIII made the child eligible for Orders by absolving him from the ecclesiastical irregularity that followed his birth de episcopo cardinali et conjugatâ, and conferred several Spanish benefices on him, the last being the Bishopric of Pampeluna, in the neighbourhood of which, by a strange fatality, he eventually met his death. A week after Alexander’s coronation he appointed Caesar, now eighteen years old, to the Archbishopric of Valencia; but Caesar neither went to Spain nor ever took Orders. The youngest son, Jofre, was also to be inflicted upon the Church of Spain. A further evidence that the Pope had determined to keep his children at a distance from court is that his daughter Lucrezia was betrothed to a Spanish gentleman, the marriage, however, never took place. It had already become the settled policy of the popes to have a personal representative in the Sacred College, and so Alexander chose for this confidential position Cardinal Giovanni Borgia, his sister’s son. The subsequent abandonment of his good resolutions concerning his children may safely be ascribed to the evil counsels of Ascanio Sforza, whom Borgia had rewarded with the vice-chancellorship, and who was virtually his prime minister. The main purpose of Ascanio’s residence at the papal court was to advance the interests of his brother, Lodovico il Moro, who had been regent of Milan for so many years, during the minority of their nephew Gian Galeazzo, that he now refused to surrender the reins of government, though the rightful duke had attained his majority. Gian Galeazzo was powerless to assert his rights; but his more energetic wife was granddaughter to King Ferrante of Naples, and her incessant appeals to her family for aid left Lodovico in constant dread of Neapolitan invasion. Alexander had many real grievances against Ferrante, the latest of which was the financial aid the King had given to the Pope’s vassal, Virginio Orsini, in the purchase of Cervetri and Anguillara, without Alexander’s consent. In addition to the contempt of the papal authority involved in the transaction, this accession of strength to a baronial family already too powerful could not but be highly displeasing. Alexander was, therefore, easily induced to enter a defensive alliance with Milan and Venice; the league was solemnly proclaimed, 25 April, 1493. It was cemented by the first of Lucrezia’s marriages. Her first husband was a cousin of Ascanio, Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. The wedding was celebrated in the Vatican in the presence of the Pope, ten cardinals, and the chief nobles of Rome with their ladies, the revelries of the occasion, even when exaggerations and rumours are dismissed, remain a blot upon the character of Alexander. Ferrante talked of war, but, through the mediation of Spain, he came to terms with the Pope and, as a pledge of reconciliation, gave his granddaughter, Sancia, in marriage to Alexander’s youngest son Jofre, with the principality of Squillace as dower. Caesar Borgia was created Cardinal 20 September. Ferrante’s reconciliation with the Pope came none too soon.
A few days after peace had been concluded, an envoy of King Charles VIII arrived in Rome to demand the investiture of Naples for his master. Alexander returned a positive refusal, and when Ferrante died, January, 1494, neglecting French protests and threats, he confirmed the succession of Ferrante’s son, Alfonso II, and sent his nephew, Cardinal Giovanni Borgia, to Naples to crown him. The policy of Alexander was dictated not only by a laudable desire to maintain the peace of Italy, but also because he was aware that a strong faction of his cardinals, with the resolute della Rovere at their head, was promoting the invasion of Charles as a means towards deposing him on the twofold charge of simony and immorality. In September, 1494, the French crossed the Alps; on the last day of that year they made their entry into Rome, needing no other weapon in their march through the peninsula, as Alexander wittily remarked (Commines vii, 15), than the chalk with which they marked out the lodgings of the troops. The barons of the Pope deserted him one after the other. Colonna and Savelli were traitors from the beginning, but he felt most keenly the defection of Virginio Orsini, the commander of his army. Many a saintlier pope than Alexander VI would have made the fatal mistake of yielding to brute force and surrendering unconditionally to the conqueror of Italy; the most heroic of the popes could not have sustained the stability of the Holy See at this crucial moment with greater firmness. From the crumbling ramparts of Saint Angelo, the defences of which were still incomplete, he looked calmly into the mouth of the French cannon; with equal intrepidity he faced the cabal of della Rovere’s cardinals, clamorous for his deposition. At the end of a fortnight it was Charles who capitulated. He acknowledged Alexander as true Pope, greatly to the disgust of della Rovere, and “did his filial obedience”, says Commines, “with all imaginable humility”; but he could not extort from the Pontiff an acknowledgment of his claims to Naples. Charles entered Naples, 22 February, 1495, without striking a blow. At his approach the unpopular Alfonso abdicated in favour of his son Ferrantino, the latter, failing to receive support, retired to seek the protection of Spain. Whilst Charles wasted over two months in fruitless attempts to induce the Pope by promises and threats to sanction his usurpation, a powerful league, consisting of Venice, Milan, the Empire, Spain, and the Holy See, was formed against him. Finally, on 12 May, he crowned himself, but in the following July he was cutting his way home through the ranks of the allied Italians. By the end of the year the French had re-crossed into France. No one wished for their return, except the restless della Rovere, and the adherents of Savonarola. The story of the Florentine friar will be related elsewhere, here it suffices to note that Alexander’s treatment of him was marked by extreme patience and forbearance.
The French invasion was the turning point in the political career of Alexander VI. It had taught him that if he would be safe in Rome and be really master in the States of the Church, he must curb the insolent and disloyal barons who had betrayed him in his hour of danger. Unfortunately, this laudable purpose became more and more identified in his mind with schemes for the aggrandizement of his family. There was no place in his programme for a reform of abuses. Quite the contrary; in order to obtain money for his military operations he disposed of civil and spiritual privileges and offices in a scandalous manner. He resolved to begin with the Orsini, whose treason at the most critical moment had reduced him to desperate straits. The time seemed opportune; for Virginio, the head of the house, was a prisoner in the hands of Ferrantino. As commander of his troops he selected his youthful son Juan, Duke of Gandia. The struggle dragged on for months. The minor castles of the Orsini surrendered, but Bracciano, their main fortress, resisted all the efforts of the pontifical troops. They were finally obliged to raise the siege, and on 25 January, 1497, they were completely routed at Soriano. Both sides were now disposed to peace. On Payment of 50,000 golden florins the Orsini received back all their castles except Cervetri and Anguillara, which had been the original cause of their quarrel with the Pope. In order to reduce the strong fortress of Ostia, held by French troops for Cardinal della Rovere, Alexander wisely invoked the aid of Gonsalvo de Cordova and his Spanish veterans. It surrendered to the “Great Captain” within two weeks. Unsuccessful in obtaining for his family the possessions of the Orsini, the Pope now demanded the consent of his cardinals to the erection of Benevento, Terracina, and Pontecorvo into a duchy for the Duke of Gandia. Cardinal Piccolomini was the only member who dared protest against this improper alienation of the property of the Church. A more powerful protest than that of the Cardinal of Sienna reverberated through the world a week later when, on the sixteenth of June, the body of the young Duke was fished out of the Tiber, with the throat cut and many gaping wounds. Historians have laboured in vain to discover who perpetrated the foul deed, but that it was a warning from Heaven to repent, no one felt more keenly than the Pope himself. In the first wild paroxysm of grief he spoke of resigning the tiara. Then, after three days and nights passed without food or sleep, he appeared in consistory and proclaimed his determination to set about that reform of the Church “in head and members” for which the world had so long been clamouring. A commission of cardinals and canonists began industriously to frame ordinances which foreshadowed the disciplinary decrees of Trent. But they were never promulgated. Time gradually assuaged the sorrow and extinguished the contrition of Alexander. From now on Caesar’s iron will was supreme law. That he aimed high from the start is evident from his resolve, opposed at first by the Pope, to resign his cardinalate and other ecclesiastical dignities, and to become a secular prince. The condition of Naples was alluring. The gallant Ferrantino had died childless and was succeeded by his uncle Federigo, whose coronation was one of Caesar’s last, possibly also one of his first, ecclesiastical acts. By securing the hand of Federigo’s daughter, Carlotta, Princess of Tarento, he would become one of the most powerful barons of the kingdom, with ulterior prospects of wearing the crown. Carlotta’s repugnance, however, could not be overcome. But in the course of the suit, another marriage was concluded which gave much scandal. Lucrezia’s marriage with Sforza was declared null on the ground of the latter’s impotence, and she was given as wife to Alfonso of Biseglia, an illegitimate son of Alfonso II.
Meanwhile, affairs in France took an unexpected turn which deeply modified the course of Italian history and the career of the Borgias. Charles VIII died in April, 1498, preceded to the tomb by his only son, and left the throne to his cousin, the Duke of Orleans, King Louis XII, who stood now in need of two papal favours. In his youth he had been coerced into marrying Jane of Valois, the saintly but deformed daughter of Louis XI. Moreover, in order to retain Brittany, it was essential that he should marry his deceased cousin’s widow, Queen Anne. No blame attaches to Alexander for issuing the desired decree annulling the King’s marriage or for granting him a dispensation from the impediment of affinity. The commission of investigation appointed by him established the two fundamental facts that the marriage with Jane was invalid, from lack of consent, and that it never had been consummated. It was the political use made by the Borgias of their opportunity, and the prospective alliance of France and the Holy See, which now drove several of the Powers of Europe to the verge of schism. Threats of a council and of deposition had no terrors for Alexander, whose control of the Sacred College was absolute. Della Rovere was now his agent in France. Ascanio Sforza was soon to retire permanently from Rome. Louis had inherited from his grandmother, Valentina Visconti, strong claims to the Duchy of Milan, usurped by the Sforzas, and he made no secret of his intention to enforce them. Alexander cannot be held responsible for the second “barbarian” invasion of Italy, but he was quick to take advantage of it for the consolidation of his temporal power and the aggrandizement of his family. On 1 October, 1498, Caesar, no longer a cardinal, but designated Duke of Valentinois and Peer of France set outs from Rome to bring the papal dispensation to King Louis, a cardinal’s hat to his minister D’Amboise, and to find for himself a wife of high degree. He still longed for the hand of Carlotta, who resided in France, but since that princess persisted in her refusal, he received instead the hand of a niece of King Louis, the sister of the King of Navarre, Charlotte D’Albret. On 8 October, 1499, King Louis, accompanied by Duke Caesar and Cardinal della Rovere made his triumphal entry into Milan. It was the signal to begin operations against the petty tyrants who were devastating the States of the Church. Alexander would have merited great credit for this much needed work, had he not spoiled it by substituting his own family in their place. What his ultimate intentions were we cannot fathom. However, the tyrants who were expelled never returned, whilst the Borgian dynasty came to a speedy end in the pontificate of Julius II. In the meantime Caesar had carried on his campaign so successfully that by the year 1501 he was master of all the usurped papal territory and was made Duke of Romagna by the Pope, whose affection for the brilliant young general was manifested in still other ways. During the war, however, and in the midst of the Jubilee of 1500 there occurred another domestic murder. On 15 July of that year the Duke of Biseglia, Lucretia’s husband was attacked by five masked assassins, who grievousiy wounded him. Convinced that Caesar was the instigator of the deed, he made an unsuccessful attempt, on his recovery, to kill his supposed enemy, and was instantly dispatched by Caesar’s bodyguard. The latter, having completed, in April, 1501, the conquest of the Romagna, now aspired to the conquest of Tuscany; but he was soon recalled to Rome to take part in a different enterprise. On 27 June of that year the Pope deposed his chief vassal, Federigo of Naples, on the plea of an alleged alliance with the Turks to the detriment of Christendom, and approved the secret Treaty of Granada, by the terms of which the Kingdom of Naples was partitioned between Spain and France.
Alexander’s motive in thus reversing his former policy with respect to foreign interference was patent. The Colonna, the Savelli, the Gaetani and other barons of the Patrimony had always been supported in their opposition to the popes by the favour of the Aragonese dynasty, deprived of which they felt themselves powerless. Excommunicated by the Pontiff as rebels, they offered to surrender the keys of their castles to the Sacred College, but Alexander demanded them for himself. The Orsini, who might have known that their turn would come next, were so shortsighted as to assist the Pope in the ruin of their hereditary foes. One after another, the castles were surrendered. On 27 July, Alexander left Rome to survey his conquest; at the same time he left the widowed Lucrezia in the Vatican with authority to open his correspondence and conduct the routine business of the Holy See. He also erected the confiscated Possessions of the aforesaid families into two duchies, bestowing one on Rodrigo, the infant son of Lucrezia, the other on Juan Borgia, born to him a short while after the murder of Gandia, and to whom was given the latter’s baptismal name (Pastor, op. cit., III 449). Lucrezia, now in her twenty-third year, did not long remain a widow; her father destined her to be the bride of another Alfonso, son and heir of Duke Ercole of Ferrara. Although both father and son at first spurned the notion of a matrimonial alliance between the proud house of Este and the Pope’s illegitimate daughter, they were favourably influenced by the King of France. The third marriage of Lucrezia, celebrated by proxy in the Vatican (30 December, 1501), far exceeded the first in splendour and extravagance. If her father meant her as an instrument in her new position for the advancement of his political combinations, he was mistaken. She is known henceforth, and till her death in 1519, as a model wife and princess, lauded by all for her amiability, her virtue, and her charity. Nothing could well be more different from the fiendish Lucrezia Borgia of the drama and the opera than the historical Duchess of Ferrara. Caesar, however, continued his infamous career of simony, extortion, and treachery, and by the end of 1502 had rounded out his possessions by the capture of Camerino and Sinigaglia. In October of that year the Orsini conspired with his generals to destroy him. With coolness and skill Caesar decoyed the conspirators into his power and put them to death. The Pope followed up the blow by proceeding against the Orsini with greater success than formerly. Cardinal Orsini, the soul of the conspiracy, was committed to Castle Saint Angelo – twelve days later he was a corpse. Whether he died a natural death or was privately executed, is uncertain Losing no time, Caesar returned towards Rome, and so great was the terror he inspired that the frightened barons fled before him, says Villari (I, 356), “as from the face of a hydra”. By April nothing remained to the Orsini except the fortress of Bracciano and they begged for an armistice. The humiliation of the Roman aristocracy was complete; for the first time in the history of the papacy the Pope was, in the fullest sense, ruler of his States.
Alexander, still hale and vigorous in his seventy-third year, and looking forward to many more years of reign, proceeded to strengthen his position by repleting his treasury in ways that were more than dubious. The Sacred College now contained so many of his adherents and countrymen that he had nothing to fear from that quarter. He enjoyed and laughed at the scurrilous lampoons that were in circulation in which he was accused of incredible crimes, and took no steps to shield his reputation. War had broken out in Naples between France and Spain over the division of the spoils. Alexander was still in doubt which side he could most advantageously support, when his career came to an abrupt close. On 6 August, 1503, the Pope, with Caesar and others, dined with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto in a villa belonging to the Cardinal and very imprudently remained in the open air after nightfall. The entire company paid the penalty by contracting the pernicious Roman fever. On the twelfth the Pope took to his bed. On the eighteenth his life was despaired of; he made his confession, received the last sacraments, and expired towards evening. The rapid decomposition and swollen appearance of his corpse gave rise to the familiar suspicion of poison. Later the tale ran that he had drunk by mistake a poisoned cup of wine which he had prepared for his host. Nothing is more certain than that the poison which killed him was the deadly microbe of the Roman campagna [Pastor, op. cit., III, 469-472; Creighton, Hist. of the Papacy (London 1887), IV, 44]. His remains lie in the Spanish national church of Santa Maria di Monserrato.
An impartial appreciation of the career of this extraordinary person must at once distinguish between the man and the office. “An imperfect setting”, says Dr. Pastor (op. cit., III, 475), “does not affect the intrinsic worth of the jewel, nor does the golden coin lose its value when it passes through impure hands. In so far as the priest is a public officer of a holy Church, a blameless life is expected from him, both because he is by his office the model of virtue to whom the laity look up, and because his life, when virtuous, inspires in onlookers respect for the society of which he is an ornament. But the treasures of the Church, her Divine character, her holiness, Divine revelation, the grace of God, spiritual authority, it is well known, are not dependent on the moral character of the agents and officers of the Church. The foremost of her priests cannot diminish by an iota the intrinsic value of the spiritual treasures confided to him.” There have been at all times wicked men in the ecclesiastical ranks. Our Lord foretold, as one of its severest trials, the presence in His Church not only of false brethren, but of rulers who would offend, by various forms of selfishness, both the children of the household and “those who are without”. Similarly, Ho compared His beloved spouse, the Church, to a threshing floor, on which fall both chaff and grain until the time of separation. The most severe arraignments of Alexander, because in a sense official, are those of his Catholic contemporaries, Pope Julius II (Gregorovius, VII, 494) and the Augustinian cardinal and reformer, Aegidius of Viterbo, in his manuscript “Historia XX Saeculorum”, preserved at Rome in the Bibliotheca Angelica. The Oratorian Raynaldus (d. 1677), who continued the semi-official Annals of Baronius, gave to the world at Rome (ad an. 1460, no. 41) the above-mentioned paternal but severe reproof of the youthful Cardinal by Pius II, and stated elsewhere (ad an. 1495, no. 26) that it was in his time the opinion of historians that Alexander had obtained the papacy partly through money and partly through promises and the persuasion that ho would not interfere with the lives of his electors. Mansi, the scholarly Archbishop of Lucca editor and annotator of Raynaldus, says (XI, 4155) that it is easier to keep silence than to write write moderation about this Pope. The severe judgment of the late Cardinal Hergenroether, in his “Kirchengeschichte”, or Manual of Church History (4th. ed., Freiburg, 1904, II, 982-983) is too well known to need more than mention.
So little have Catholic historians defended him that in the middle of the nineteenth century Cesare Cantu could write that Alexander VI was the only Pope who had never found an apologist. However, since that time some Catholic writers, both in books and periodicals, have attempted to defend him from the most grievous accusations of his contemporaries. Two in particular may be mentioned: the Dominican Ollivier, “Le Pape Alexandre VI et les Borgia” (Paris, 1870), of whose work only one volume appeared, dealing with the Pope’s cardinalate; and Leonetti “Papa Alessandro VI secondo documenti e carteggi del tempo” (3 vols., Bologna, 1880). These and other works were occasioned, partly by a laudable desire to remove a stigma from the good repute of the Catholic Church, and partly by the gross exaggerations of Victor Hugo and others who permitted themselves all licence in dealing with a name so helpless and detested. It cannot be said, however, that these works have corresponded to their authors’ zeal. Dr. Pastor ranks them all as failures. Such is the opinion of Henri de l’Epinois in the “Revue des questions historiques” (1881), XXIX, 147, a study that even Thuasne, the hostile editor of the Diary of Burchard, calls “the indispensable guide of all students of Borgia history”. It is also the opinion of the Bollandist Matagne, in the same review for 1870 and 1872 (IX, 466-475; XI, 181-198), and of Von Reumont, the Catholic historian of medieval Rome, in Bonn. Theol. Lit. Blatt (1870), V. 686. Dr. Pastor considers that the publication of the documents in the supplement to the third volume of Thuasne’s edition of the Diary of Burchard (Paris, 1883) renders “forever impossible” any attempts to save the reputation of Alexander VI. There is all the less reason, therefore, says Cardinal Hergenroether (op. cit., II, 583), for the false charges that have been added to his account, e. g. his attempt to poison Cardinal Adriano da Corneto and his incestuous relations with Lucrezia (Pastor, op. cit., III, 375, 450-451, 475). Other accusations, says the same writer, have been dealt with, not unsuccessfully, by Roscoe in his “Life of Leo the Tenth”; by Capefigue in his “Eglise pendant les quatre derniers siècles” (I, 41-46), and by Chantrel, “Le Pape Alexandre VI” (Paris, 1864). On the other hand, while immoral writers have made only too much capital out of the salacious paragraphs scattered through Burchard and Infessura, there is no more reason now than in the days of Raynaldus and Mansi for concealing or perverting the facts of history. “I am a Catholic”, says M. de l’Epinois (loc. cit.), “and a disciple of the God who hath a horror of lies. I seek the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth Although our weak eyes do not see at once the uses of it, or rather see damage and peril, we must proclaim it fearlessly.” The same good principle is set forth by Leo XIII in his Letter of 8 September, 1889, to Cardinals De Luca, Pitra, and Hergenroether on the study of Church History: “The historian of the Church has the duty to dissimulate none of the trials that the Church has had to suffer from the faults of her children, and even at times from those of her own ministers.” Long ago Leo the Great (440-461) declared, in his third homily for Christmas Day, that “the dignity of Peter suffers no diminution even in an unworthy successor” (cujus dignitas etiam in indigno haerede non deficit). The very indignation that the evil life of a great ecclesiastic rouses at all times (nobly expressed by Pius II in the above-mentioned letter to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia) is itself a tribute to the high spiritual ideal which for so long and on so broad a scale the Church has presented to the world in so many holy examples, and has therefore accustomed the latter to demand from priests. “The latter are forgiven nothing”, says De Maistre in his great work, “Du Pape”, “because everything is expected from them, wherefore the vices lightly passed over in a Louis XIV become most offensive and scandalous in an Alexander VI” (II, c. xiv).