Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503)

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Who was Pope Alexander VI ?

Rodrigo Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI, was 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 St. 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, marvellous 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 Leporello; 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 St. Peter's (26 Aug.), and during his progress to St. 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."


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia