Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) – an ambitious strategist with a great heart for women

Coat of arms of Alexander VI Borgia courtyard of the Castle of the Holy Angel

Coat of arms of Alexander VI Borgia courtyard of the Castle of the Holy Angel

The French writer Stendhal, called this pope “the greatest embodiment of Satan on Earth”. Both his contemporaries as well as future generations ripped God’s chosen one to shreds, and until this very day he is looked upon as the personification of all that is evil, although, it seems, he did not differ greatly either from his predecessors or his successors.

Coat of arms of Alexander VI Borgia courtyard of the Castle of the Holy Angel
Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, Pedro Berruguete, Pinacoteca Vaticana
Alexander VI, fragment of a fresco by Pinturicchio, Borgia Apartaments, Apostolic Palace
Tombstone of Pope Alexander VI, fragment, Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato
Tombstone of Pope Alexander VI and Pope Callixtus III in the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato
Castle of the Holy Angel, hacked off Borgia coat of arms at the enterance
Alleged portrait of  Vanozza Cattanei, Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola, Galleria Borghese, pic. WIKIPEDIA
Madonna (Madonna delle mani), portrait of Giulia Farnese, Pinturicchio, private collection
Borgia Apartments – Apostolic Palace, Pinturicchio, on the left – kneeling Alexander VI
Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, frescos by Pinturicchio
Borgia Apartments Apostolic Palace, frescos by Pinturicchio image (alleged) of the children of Pope Alexander VI – Lucretia (in the middle) and Ceasre (on the left)
Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, Madonna and Child with Angels, Pinturicchio
Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, frescos by Pinturicchio
Borgia Apartments, Apostolic Palace, frescos by Pinturicchio
Borgia Apartments Apostolic Palace, vault frescos, Pinturicchio
Borgia Apartments Apostolic Palace, frescos by Pinturicchio, papal coat of arms in the middle of the vault
Courtyard of Alexander VI in the Castle of the Holy Angel
Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, sacristy, altar, foundation of cardinal Borgia
Porta Settimiana in the Trastevere district
Church of San Rocco
Michelangelo, Pietà, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
Tempietto at the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, design by Donato Bramante
Church of Santa Maria della Pace, cloisters, design by Donato Bramante
Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Carafa Chapel, frescos by Filippo Lippi

The French writer Stendhal, called this pope “the greatest embodiment of Satan on Earth”. Both his contemporaries as well as future generations ripped God’s chosen one to shreds, and until this very day he is looked upon as the personification of all that is evil, although, it seems, he did not differ greatly either from his predecessors or his successors.


In 1458, on the day of the death of Pope Callixtus III from the Borgia family, it seemed that now is the hour of his nephew Rodrigo. However, he had to endure the pontificates of four successive popes, before he finally assumed Peter’s chair.  He was born in a Spanish town of Xativa, near Valencia. As an eighteen-year old he went to Rome, while at the age of twenty-five he assumed the mantle of cardinal, which also meant being the pope’s trusted nepot. The nephew did not disappoint the hopes vested in him, he was a good organizer, an able strategist and politician. His abilities were noticed by the other popes as well, who did not only, as was customary, not get rid of the former nepot, but elevated him to more prestigious positions, all the way to the functions of Vice Chancellor and Camerlengo (treasurer). These allowed for a luxurious life, full of splendor customary to the cardinals of the day, but also full of indecencies. Raucous parties and orgies, keeping of concubines, or spending nights with several women at once were more a norm than an exception. Cardinal Borgia was also charming and intelligent. As was vividly said by the Italian writer Robert Gervaso “he appealed to men because of his mind, and to women because of his handsomeness. (…) He was of stocky stature, had sharp facial lines, bull’s neck, olive complexion, protuberant forehead, black eyes, full bushy eyebrows, receding chin, large aquiline nose, thick lips, protruding cheekbones. He exuded joy of life and a readiness to live it to its fullest (…), his gentleness of treatment, social sophistication, skeptical irony and restrained pride, sensibility, insight, elegance and decisiveness, self-control and sex-appeal were memorable as well”. There was gossip of hundreds of women which Borgia seduced and of children born out of wedlock, but at first the cardinal hid information about the fruits of his relationships. Only after he was elected pope, following the example of Innocent VIII, he officially recognized some of his children, mainly those born out of his long relationship with Vanozza Cattanei, a rather poor, good-looking blonde, from the Trastevere district (Trastevere). He cared for them, ensuring them with proper education and accepted them into his court, when he finally was able to assume the long-awaited post. This occurred in 1492, when the corrupted, greedy for posts and appanages cardinals elected him pope. The elder son of the pope, Juan, became the head of the papal armies, the younger Cesare Borgia, a cardinal and the archbishop of Valencia. The College of Cardinals was filled with approximately ten of the popes relatives, as well as Alexander Farnese (the future Pope Paul III), the brother of the new concubine of His Holiness, Giulia Farnese. Known for her beauty, called “la bella”, she was the wife of Orso Orsini, but right after her wedding (or perhaps even before it), cardinal Borgia took interest in the fifteen-year old girl. When he assumed Peter’s throne, Giulia moved into the papal apartaments and bore another of the pope’s offspring – this time a girl.

Although as pope, Alexander VI raised objections due to his moral attitude, as the head of the State of the Church, he turned out to be a cunning and skilled strategist. In order to achieve his aims, he did not stray from, blackmail, corruption, murder or even marriage – in this case he was a child of his epoch, because as his contemporary, a keen observer of reality Niccolò Machiavelli stated: „Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft”. Keeping true to this motto, Alexander VI, pursued a policy of alternative alliances with France and Spain, and when the need came to guarantee independence for the Papal States, even with the Ottoman Empire.  He was able to outwit the French king Charles VIII, when he invaded Italy, with the intention of dethroning him, although for a time being he had to take refuge in the Castle of the Holy Angel (castel Sant’Angelo). He formed an alliance with Charles’s successor which as a consequence allowed Cesare Borgia to obtain parts of central Italy and create the Duchy of Romagna. Not taking into account the private interests of the Borgia family, one could assume that the creation of the duchy was in the interest of the State of the Church itself, which was plagued by constant invasions of foreign armies and was therefore in need of a sort of a buffer zone. In this way, a balance between France and Spain was achieved – states which fought for land and influence on the Apennine Peninsula. Alexander also forged an alliance with Florence, which led to the burning of the monk Girolamo Savonarola, who was a burden to the House of Medici, but mostly to the pope himself, as for years he spoke out about the moral collapse of the papacy and the Church.  The words of the Dominican, preached to the Florence crowds, were a heavy criticism of the behavior of Alexander VI: “(…)Thou hast dedicated the sacred vessels to vainglory, the sacraments to simony. Thou hast become a shameless harlot in thy lusts; thou art lower than a beast; thou art a monster of abomination”. Condemning Savonarola to death, the pope acted as a monarch bereft of moral dilemmas, choosing the lesser evil for the good of his state. Moreover, all his thinking was concentrated on the here and now – especially on the good of his own family. All the dynastical plans and great ambitions, also those connected with the pope’s daughter Lucrezia,  whose further marriages were to strengthen the family, were put to an end, by the abrupt death of Alexander VI. It is not fully known what was its cause – the “Roman fever” present in the city at the time, malaria or an infection caused by food poisoning. Poisoning was also not excluded as a probable cause.


Even during his life, Alexander was a man who was heavily criticized in Rome (and outside as well): firstly he was a stranger – a Catalonian, which to a large extent caused disfavor. Being a member of the lesser nobility, he became a representative of one of the most noteworthy families in Italy, and that in itself was reason enough for the rich Roman families, which he often humiliated and antagonized, to despise him. When humiliations did not prove enough, to remove unwanted rivals, he often resorted to poison. His dynastical and territorial ambitions raised universal disapproval of the threatened rulers of other Italian duchies and states. In order to multiply his benefits, the common practice of selling the posts of cardinal, was modified by him, by auctioning them off to the highest bidder. Blatant surrounding himself with his children and lovers as well as a far too secular lifestyle of the pope, even during those times – of very loose morals– were considered over the top.  This was all topped off by gossip of his dealings with the devil and incest relations with his daughter Lucrezia. Many of the unflattering opinions were from the mouth, or rather the written records of the papal Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies – the Alsatian, Johannes Burchard, who painted the excesses of His Holiness in the blackest of colors. Burchard also left a very telling description of the posthumous ceremony in which he participated, describing the slowly blackening and bloating corpse of the pope, being forcefully shoved into a too small coffin by the undertakers.

At first the sarcophagus of Alexander was placed in a side chapel of the Vatican basilica, next to his uncle the Pope Callixtus III. The sheer amount of dislike for the Borgia family can be seen by the fact, that in the middle of the XVI century both tombs were liquidated, and the earthly remains of the Borgias were transferred to the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato (the national church of Catalonians and Aragonese) at via di Monserrato. They remained there in the sacristy in a lead chest for nearly three hundered years.

It was not until the end of the XIX century when thanks to the actions of the Spanish king, the Borgias were given a modest monument with medallions showing the images of both the popes from south of the Pyrenees, which were accompanied by two coats of arms (a bull is their main element). Other visible traces of the popes and his family in the city were continually removed, painted over and hacked off.

The bad reputation of the family was slightly improved by the saint Jesuit buried in Rome, the great-grandson of Alexander VI – Francis Borgia (Francesco Borgia).  However, dislike for foreigners on the papal throne had from that point become almost obsessive in the Eternal City.

Alexander VI valued art.  He left behind one of the most beautiful chambers of the Apostolic Palace, as well as embellishments of the Castle of the Holy Angel.  His main competitor in this field was the ambitious Cardinal Oliviero Carafa.

Buildings and structures erected during the pontificate of Alexander VI:

  •     Expansion of the Castle of the Holy Angel
  •     Decorations of the papal apartments, including portraits of the kneeling pope, Lucrezia and Cesare – frescos of Pinturicchio
  •     The construction of the street via Alessandrina connecting St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano) with Castle of the Holy Angel
  •     The construction of the Church of San Rocco
  •     The construction of a city gate in the Trastevere district – Porta Settimiana
  •     The funding of an altar in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
  •     Pieta (1499) completed by Michelangelo for St. Peter’s Basilica – funded by Georges d’Amboise, French ambassador in Rome
  •     The Chapel of St. Peter’s Martyrdom (Tempietto) (1502) – author Donato Bramante – funded by the Spanish royal couple Isabela I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon
  •     Cloisters in the Church of the Santa Maria della Pace (1500) – designed by Donato Bramante, funded by the cardinal Oliviero Carafa
  •     Carafa Chapel (Cappella Carafa) (1488) – family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva – frescos by the Florentine master Filippino Lippi