Cesare Borgia (1476–1507) – papal offspring whom the whole world feared

Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, alleged portrait of Cesare and Lucretia Borgia

Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, alleged portrait of Cesare and Lucretia Borgia

Contemporary historians perceive the figure of Cesare in an ambiguous way.  A black legend, primitively weaved by his political enemies, accompanied him throughout his whole life.  It is filled with nepotism, bloodlust, sexual excesses with his sister Lucretia, and demonic evil. However, at the same time researchers unanimously appreciate Cesare’s strategic abilities and his positive influence on the region of Romagna, where he brought about legal order and discipline of management.  It was not without reason that his name remained in the memory of the inhabitants of this province as an example of a good manager.

Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, alleged portrait of Cesare and Lucretia Borgia
Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, Pedro Berruguete, Pinacoteca Vaticana – Musei Vaticani
Portrait of Cesare Borgia – Duke of Valentinois, Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, pic. Wikipedia, author: Feuerrable
Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, alleged portrait of Cesare Borgia, fragment
Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, alleged portrait of Lucretia Borgia
Portrait of Pope Julius II, papal apartments (Stanzas by Raphael) in the Apostolic Palace

Contemporary historians perceive the figure of Cesare in an ambiguous way.  A black legend, primitively weaved by his political enemies, accompanied him throughout his whole life.  It is filled with nepotism, bloodlust, sexual excesses with his sister Lucretia, and demonic evil. However, at the same time researchers unanimously appreciate Cesare’s strategic abilities and his positive influence on the region of Romagna, where he brought about legal order and discipline of management.  It was not without reason that his name remained in the memory of the inhabitants of this province as an example of a good manager.


Roberto Gervaso described Cesare (Cesar) Borgia in his book in the following way: “It seems that he was a man of unprecedented charm. Tall, agile, with chestnut hair, dark complexion, wide forehead, dark, deep eyes, there was something mysterious about him. His sophisticated, yet filled with a certain aloofness manners, great, but somewhat reserved sincerity, a way of being, at times absentminded, at other times   focused, hid distrust and secretiveness.”  There is a certain dose of sympathy in that description, rarely visible when it comes to this particular figure. Generally for centuries was believed Cesare, along with his father, Pope Alexander VI, to be a demon of evil. Certainly this was contributed to by Niccolò Machiavelli, writing his Prince, where the main character is inspired by the figure of the papal son.  In this book the author expresses his admiration for this man of stalwart character, an ingenious strategist and a warrior who knows no fear. When asking the question about the moral aspect of his behavior, we can point to the answer given by Machiavelli, adequate to the times in which he lived: “whether it be better to be  loved than feared or feared than loved? One should wish to be  both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”  This is the shortest characterization of Cesare Borgia, and the titular Prince as if through a lens brings together all the good and bad characteristics of a high-born Roman of the Renaissance period. While in literature and art of the epoch beauty was sought and honor and love of one’s neighbor were valued, man of those times behaved in a different way. And this behavior, it seems, aroused neither shock nor outrage of his contemporaries – or it if did, it was among those whose interests were at a given moment threatened by said man.

Cesare Borgia was the son of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, born from his relationship with Vanozza Cattanei. When he was eight years old, his father mapped out a path to a church career for him. At fifteen he became a bishop of Pamplona and at eighteen a cardinal and archbishop of Valencia. This occurred after the election of cardinal Borgia as pope, who took on the name Alexander VI and then he officially admitted that he was the father of his children (Cesare, Juan, Lucretia and Jofré). Cesare was an intelligent child, open to knowledge. Later he also turned out to be an excellent rider and swordsman, but also a person who loved luxuries, women, beautiful garments and parade horses. He was unfit for the clerical state and he openly admitted it – the church titles bestowed upon him, were at those times more sinecures, providing income and prestige (the right to participate in the conclave), than a state of clerical calling, while in his case a road, which ended with the goal of obtaining the papal tiara - such a future was envisioned for his son by the pope. At that time Cesare was not ordained, he did not celebrate Mass and did not hear confessions – he was a papal nepot, aiding his father in running the State of the Church.


Despite being raised in Rome, his family and teachers kept the memory of his father’s Spanish roots. Cesare, just as the other children of the pope, spoke fluent Spanish, carried himself according to Spanish fashion and surrounded himself with Spanish servants.  To the surprise of all Romans, with true passion he took part in bull fights. A Venetian representative in Rome, reported in the year 1500, that on St. Peter’s Square (Piazza di San Pietro), Cesare defeated seven bulls in a thrilling contesnt. Aloofness, self-confidence and a lack of complexes characterizing the papal bastard aroused antagonisms, while blatant display of his otherness, was treated by notable families of the city (Colonna, Orsini, Caetani) as an unpleasant challenge. Due to his father’s position – all of his family inspired fear but also unconcealed aversion. Alexander VI’s rival during the conclave, Cardinal Giuliano delle Rovere (the latter Pope Julius II), hated him with such a passion that he was willing to bring French forces to Italy in order to remove him from the papal throne. The Florentine monk Girolamo Savonarola also displayed open disdain towards the Borgia family. In his fiery sermons he openly criticized everything the pope allowed and tolerated. He was the moral voice of the epoch when he yelled from the lectern:  “Look, if a priest or canon lives well, men will make game of him and accuse him of hypocrisy. Now, the word is no more my nephew, but my son, my daughter. Harlots go publicly to St. Peter, each priest has his concubine; they practice infamy without concealment.”  It is no wonder that the pope wanted to silence this voice. When neither words of reprimand nor attempts to offer church dignities proved sufficient, Savonarola was sentenced to be burned.

The indecent way of being of Cardinal Cesare Borgia, was not the only accusation against him at that time. He is also suspected of murdering his brother-in-law Alfonso of the Aragon, who at some point seemed to be a problem for the family, the lover of his sister (Pedro Caldes), as well as his own brother Juan Borgia, whom he was jealous of because of his military career. After Juan’s death the only thing standing in the way of Cesare’s military fame was the cardinal vestments which he wore. While obtaining them was not a problem, getting rid of them was not so simple. The members of the Sacred College of Cardinals were initially appalled, but in the end agreed with the pope’s decision and gave him dispensation – so Cesare became the general of the papal armies.


From the moment he relinquished his title of cardinal, he was consumed by the irresistible desire of creating his own duchy. The first step in accomplishing this goal was marrying into a notable ducal family. This would not have been possible if not for the matrimonial problems of the young French king Louis XII. In exchange for a divorce and freeing himself from his first wife, the French monarch promised the pope to aid his son, and even Cesare’s syphilis was no obstacle. At first the bride’s family was not at all pleased about the marriage with the pope’s “bastard” who was scared by illness, but Alexander’s guarantee of securing the position of cardinal for a member of the family as well as 200 thousand ducats for the girl’s father, breached the wall of aversion. The result of this pact was the marriage of Cesare with Charlotte d’Albert, the sister of the King of Navarre, the title of the Duke of Valentinois and the most important proof of royal gratitude – military assistance and support for the territorial ambitions of the freshly minted duke, who desired to take for himself a significant portion of Italy. The wedding took place in Blois in 1499, and afterwards the wedding night observed by envoys of different European courts and papal Rome took place – the most important part of the celebration – providing assurance, that the marriage was consummated. This fact was also officially confirmed by King Louis XII in a letter to the pope, praising the great sexual and reproductive abilities of his son. Consummation of the marriage was so important that in a sense even more important than the wedding itself, since its lack was a significant and sometimes the only argument for annulling a marriage. After a few weeks spent at the French court by his wife’s side, of which the fruit was a daughter born several months later – the only legitimate child of Cesare, the duke not wasting any time set off south with the French king. The aim was the conquest of Milan. After it was captured Louis XII returned home, giving Borgia back his armed forces (400 lances) needed to extend the estates of the State of the Church and to create a duchy ruled by the Borgias. The central part of the peninsula (Romagna) quickly came under Cesare’s rule, while cities ruled by puny satraps fell like flies in front of the disciplined and well-armed 10-thousand men army. When force was not enough, Cesare resorted to assassination, breaking of treaties, barbaric invasions and bribes. Only the intervention of the French king stopped him from taking over Florence, but in exchange in 1502 he annexed the duchies of Urbino and Camerino. Along with the soldiers he also brought along an army of engineers, cartographers, specialists for drying swamps, including Leonardo da Vinci, who worked for him for 10 months as an expert in the field of siege machines and maps.

As early as March 1500, the pope appointed his son the Duke of Romagna.  Alexander VI could feel content for two reasons – the son’s successes greatly strengthened the Borgia’s position in Italy, while Rome defended by Cesare, could finally stop fearing constant invasions and humiliations, which subsequent popes were subject to. Looking at it from the pragmatic point of view, it was a rational project which served the good of the State of the Church, but most of all Borgia himself. 


The private life of the pope’s son did not differ from the standards of those prevalent among high-born young men of those times. From a strategic point of view the marriage with Charlotte was very important. Military conquests strengthened Cesare’s self-confidence which suffered due to the syphilitic ulceration of his body covered up with rich garments and a metal black mask.  Despite all that Borgia had numerous concubines and over ten illegitimate children. Similar to his father he liked banquets and lavish parties, while the so-called “Ball of Chestnuts” will go down in history, as it was eagerly described by the Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johannes Burchard:

On the evening of the last day of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with "fifty honest prostitutes", called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrets, and other things.”

Perhaps Cesare would bring the work of uniting all the central regions of Italy and even secularizing of the State of the Church to fruition, had it not been for the death of his father in 1503 and his own illness which confined him to bed at the same time.  We do not know what was its cause. Some researchers claim, that it was poison, others stomach infection, still others blame malaria. When he received the news of the pope’s death Cesare was only able to send his devoted servants, who before to the official announcement of Alexander VI’s death cleared his chamber of valuables and money.


Prior to the following conclave, Cesare was still a significant political player, he held military sway over the city and had favorable, chosen by his father, Spanish cardinals.  He supported the candidate whom he believed was least likely to threaten his vison of creating his own duchy. Unfortunately Cardinal Piccolomini (Pius III) died less than a month after his enthronement. The following candidate for the pope’s office also counted on Borgia’s support in exchange promising him to keep titles and estates. This time however, Cesare did not exhibit cleverness and farsightedness.  Machiavelli, who considered him and outstanding strategist, explicitly claimed in Prince, that at that time his protagonist committed a cardinal mistake, which as a result led to his downfall  - he trusted a staunch enemy of the Borgias, Giuliano della Rovere, and supported his candidacy. Perhaps he was counting upon the cardinal’s short memory, who after his enthronement took on the name Julius II. But the new pope did not forget the humiliations he suffered at the hands of Cesare’s father and the eternal quarrels. A few days after assuming office the new pope ordered Borgia to be imprisoned, while the lands he conquered were to be added to the State of the Church. In order to get rid of the inconvenient rival he had him returned to Spain, where he counted upon the support of the Catholic kings Isabella and Ferdinand. They in turn could not forgive Cesare his alliance with France. He was kept under guard for nearly a year, up until his escape.  He found shelter with his brother-in-law – the king of Navarre, who needed valiant condottieri. In the end Cesare died on the battlefield. His body disfigured beyond recognition with 23 stab wounds, stripped of armor, was buried in a representative tomb in front of the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria in the Navarrese city of Viana, with the inscription „ Here, in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared, whom held peace and war in his hand.” On a wave of dislike towards the Borgias (the popes Callixtus III, Alexander VI and the whole family), which spawned after the rulership of Rome was assumed by Julius II and was continued by his successors, in 1527 Bishop Alonso de Castilla Zúñiga, ordered the tombstone to be demolished, the body to be removed and buried in unholy ground outside church boundaries. However, this is not the end of the story – in 1945 the earthly remains of Cesare were exhumed, put in a silver coffin and transferred to the local town hall. And they would still be there today if it were not for the decision of the archbishop of Pamplona, who in 2007, after 500 years, allowed for a repeated burial in church.