A Brief History
On August 17, 1498, Cesare Borgia, the son of reigning Pope Alexander VI, resigned his office as Cardinal of the Catholic Church, becoming the first cardinal to do so.
The incredible intrigues, corruption and machinations of the Holy Father and his family were portrayed in graphic detail in the Showtime premium cable television series The Borgias which ran from 2011 to 2013.
The patriarch of the family, the power-hungry Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, was anything but saintly and engaged in murder, war, political maneuvering and adultery. With a former wife whom he ditched in order to enter the lucrative priesthood and children who followed in his lustful and greedy footsteps, it is almost amazing that the Catholic Church survived such scandal.
Cesare was the Pope’s illegitimate son by his mistress and was the military brains of the family, and it was his pursuit of a military career that prompted him to leave the priesthood. Although he had many brothers, Giovanni, Gioffre, Don Pedro Luis and Girolama, he was his father’s favorite son. His sister Lucrezia had numerous arranged marriages and affairs and is often portrayed in cultural references as a scheming slut, or a “femme fatale” if you will.
Rumors concerning the Borgia family include tales of incest and orgies and, of course, murders. Lucrezia is rumored to have poisoned various people using a hollow ring she had made just for this purpose. Cesare is rumored to have murdered at least one of her lovers.
Though it is often impossible to write about history or news without a certain degree of unintentional bias, it is not unusual for writers to purposely inject their own falsified or exaggerated slant on things to portray them in a false light. This might be the case with some of the stories and rumors about the Borgias, but in any case, it seems the family was indeed conniving and greedy.
Innumerable cultural references are made to this powerful family, with many television shows, books, songs and movies mentioning them. Machiavelli’s The Prince may be based on Cesare and Lucrezia. Even video games such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood have included characters from this sordid part of history, and Buffalo Bill himself named one of his rifles after Lucrezia Borgia! The Three Stooges even managed to tap into the comedic value of the Borgias.
Though they are probably not the only morally deficient papal family, the Borgias are certainly the most famous example of Church corruption. Question for students (and subscribers): What other Popes and incidents can you name that rival the shenanigans of the Borgias? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read:
Dunant, Sarah. Blood and Beauty: A Novel About the Borgias. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.
Meyer, G. J. The Borgias: The Hidden History. Bantam, 2014.