Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Borgias in Rome

Paige Elegy
Honors in Rome - WInter 2007

The 1400’s were a time of corruption in the Catholic Church. Simony and promiscuity were rampant and nepotism was an accepted way for families to gain ecclesiastical power. Even the papacy was corrupted, with popes using their ecclesiastical power to gain personal wealth, secular power and to secure church positions for their families. These practices reached their peak within one family: the Borgias.

The Borgia family moved from Spain to Rome in the 1400’s to pursue their ecclesiastical careers. Their power really began with the career of Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503), a sensual, powerful man who used his wealth and power to further his family’s interests. During his years as a Cardinal, Rodrigo was often the pope maker, casting the deciding vote in the election of the new pope. Because of this he made many powerful friends and received rich rewards. He became so wealthy that his pre-papal palace was likened to the Golden Palace of Nero.[1]

In 1492 Rodrigo made his bid for the papacy. It was a very turbulent election, with over 220 murders committed in 12 days in the city of Rome.[2] With two factions vying for power, neither side could get the necessary votes to secure the papacy. Finally, Rodrigo was able to buy his way into the papacy by promising gifts and favors to any Cardinals who would switch their allegiance and vote for him, and in August he became Pope Alexander VI. He chose this name to associate himself with both Alexander III, the pope who confronted Frederick Barbarossa, and Alexander the Great. This association sparked rumors that he wanted to create a universal reign in which he controlled both the ecclesiastical and secular powers.[3] As pope, Alexander was lenient to his friends, allowing them to confess and be absolved of horrible crimes, but harsh to common criminals. He was also very concerned with worldly politics, for example, in 1493 he wrote a Bull giving control of the Americas to the Spanish and Africa to the Portuguese.[4]

Much of the Church was ignoring the celibacy rule during this time, and Alexander was no exception. He had many affairs during his ecclesiastical career, both before and during his papacy. His two most famous mistresses were Vanozza and Giulia Farnese. Vanozza (1442-1518) has been called the best loved of his mistresses. She was married three times,[5] but never to Alexander, had many legitimate children with her husbands, and had at least four children with Alexander. She saved her money for the time when their affair would cool, and eventually bought hotels in central Rome, including one on the Campo! When she died, Vanozza left her wealth to pious groups and orphans and was buried with honors usually given to cardinals.[6] Alexander’s other notable mistress, Giulia, was forty-five years his junior and was famous for her beauty. Pinturicchio is even rumored to have used her as the model for the Madonna in one of his frescoes, with Alexander adoring her from below.[7]

Alexander had four children with Vanozza, but unlike other members of the clergy, who often passed their offspring off as their nephews, Alexander acknowledged all of his children. They were: Cesare (1475-1507), who was originally fated for ecclesiastical powers, Juan (1476-1497), who was given secular powers, Lucrezia (1480-1519), who was used as a beautiful political pawn, and Jofre (b. 1482), who married Spanish royalty to cement the Borgia alliance with Spain. When Alexander gained the papacy, he used his new power to gain positions for his children and to increase the family’s power and political influence. To this end he commissioned a set of apartments in 1492, to be painted by Pinturicchio, to show the influence of his family by associating them with famous religious figures.

The entrance to the Borgia Apartments is on the second story of Nicholas V’s palace, facing the Sistine Chapel. The apartments lead to the two rooms in the Borgia Tower. Started in 1492, it only took two years for Pinturicchio to complete it. The fresco’s designs allegorically illustrate the Borgia family’s beliefs and goals, showing their heritage and associates in a serene, peaceful setting. Not everyone admired these apartments, however. Alexander’s successor, Julius II, closed the Borgia apartments in 1507 because he disliked having Alexander and his family looking down on him. The apartments were not opened again until 1897 by Leo XIII.

The rooms:
Sala dei Ponifici – This is the antechamber overlooking Cortile del Belvedere, and its theme is primacy of the Roman See. It is decorated with portraits of 10 famous popes, including Leo III crowning Charlemagne, Urban II, the first preacher of the Crusade, Gregory XI, the restorer of the Roman papacy and Nicholas III, the founder of the Vatican palace. A marble doorway with the crest of the keys of St. Peter and the Arms of Nicholas V leads into the next room.

The Resurrection. Alexander is in the bottom left, receiving Christ’s blessing.

Sala dei Misteri della Fede – This was Alexander’s private dining room. It is decorated with six scenes from the New Testament: the Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Resurrection, Assumption, and Pentecost. In the Resurrection fresco, Alexander is shown kneeling in front of Christ’s tomb, receiving the blessing of Christ.[9] On the ceiling, bulls, the Borgia emblem, alternate with crowns.

St. Catherine’s Disputation. Lucrezia is shown as St. Catherine, the blond woman supplicating to the seated Emperor.

Sala dei Santi – This is perhaps the most influential room, for it is covered in depictions of scenes of the lives of the saints. In this room they were also trying to portray a calm, serene, peaceful setting against a triumphal arch, erected to honor the pope. On the rear wall St. Catherine of Alexandria (aka Lucrezia) faces Maximian while refusing to refute her pagan beliefs. Enthroned nearby on a seat with a gold canopy is Cesare, and the Turkish man to the left is Prince Djem. To their right, Juan of Gandia is shown arriving with his dogs. Pinturicchio even includes himself, behind the despot of Morea, alongside the architect. This room also contains the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian; the soldiers and horsemen moving against Palatine Hill and the Colosseum served as a reminder of the Borgia’s work in fortifying the holy city, especially the Castel Sant’Angelo.[10] On the ceiling the legend of Osiris and Isis is depicted. Osiris, brother and husband of Isis, was turned into a bull after his death. This lent authority to the Borgia family symbol of the bull, [11] but since people were still wary of using pagan mythology in a religious context, Alexander has a humanist, Pomponius Laetus, write a commentary to show that these frescoes represented the Christian mysteries of death and resurrection.

Sala delle Arti Liberali – This is a large study with frescoes representing the liberal arts and sciences. Female figures represent the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and the quadrivium (music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic). Some members of Alex’s court are also represented here. [12]

The Borgia Tower was meant to show the “unbroken continuity of God’s revelations, from pagan antiquity to the Christian era.”[13] It includes two rooms, the Sala del Credo, which shows prophets and the apostles holding articles of Creed on scrolls, and the Sala della Sibille, which shows twelve sibyls accompanied by prophets. The Osiris motif is repeated on the ceiling.

Since these were the Pope’s private apartments, people would have seen them by invitation only. The lavish color and decoration of the apartments, combined with the trepidation visitors must have felt (he wasn’t always nice, after all) would combine to make these apartments both grand and scary at the same time. In commissioning these apartments, Alexander was trying to show the continuity of the Church, from the pagan to Christian times. By including pagan motifs next to well known religious symbols, Alexander was attempting to impress upon his visitors the longevity of his family name and fortunes. Showing himself receiving the blessing of Christ also sent the message that Alexander was the only one who could faithfully pass on the holy message. By placing his children in the role of religious figures, Alexander could show the piety and worthiness of his entire family. This would serve as a counter to the rumors of incest and murder that would soon surround the family.

Concerns and Goals
These apartments served as a calm retreat for the Borgia family during their years in power. A quiet counterpoint to their secular conquests, these apartments emphasized the peace and prosperity the Borgia family hoped to bring to Italy. They were seeking to unify the Papal States and Central Italy into one power under the papacy. Initially, Alexander had his son Juan controlling the secular power, and Cesare solidifying their power within the Church. However, Cesare was an ambitious man and he soon became jealous of the accolades his brother was receiving. Wanting secular rather than ecclesiastical power, Cesare murdered his brother, Juan. His plan was successful. After Juan’s death, Cesare renounced his church orders and took up secular offices. At this point, Alexander was no longer the only source directing the ambition within the family. Cesare was appointed Capitan General of the Church, giving him control of the Church’s military arm. From there, he was given nearly free reign to conquer the surrounding states. All the while Alexander’s daughter, Lucrezia, was being used as a political pawn. By marrying her off to important men, Alexander gained many alliances. When those alliances were no longer needed, he broke off her marriage. Once he did this through divorce; in another by murder. Her final marriage to Alfonso d’Este lasted until her death, partly because it was such an important alliance, and partly because of her father’s death.

All was going well for the Borgias until 1503. The surrounding states were falling and the Borgia family was well on its way to achieving their goal of unifying the Papal States. However, in 1503 both Alexander and Cesare fell ill. Alexander failed rapidly and died soon after. Cesare recovered, but because of his illness he could not utilize his political influences. The next pope was a family enemy, Julius II, and he immediately sent out warrants for Cesare’s arrest. Cesare escaped to France, but this put an effective end to the Borgia family quest for unified power. Cesare had brief hopes that it could be revived as he sought refuge with the French king. However, he was killed while out scouting, alone and defenseless. Something of the family’s intent must have come through, though, for later in the 16th century their relative, Francis Borgia, was such a good, holy man, that he was sainted, but no one remembers him because of the family’s earlier notoriety.[14]

Since the Borgia apartments were closed for almost 500 years they did not have much chance to be influential to future generations. The Borgia family itself, however, was quite influential to later generations. Their nepotism and secular ambitions set the standard for the Church for many years to come. The Medici popes followed the precedent of nepotism, while Julius II sought to hold together the states the Borgias had conquered. The Borgia family name lasts even today as a symbol of corruption, intrigue and conquest, long after their fall from power.

The apartments themselves are very well preserved. They still look much as they must have looked when they were painted (aside from the modern art). This is part of their appeal. It’s easy to imagine Alexander and Lucrezia waiting around the corner, discussing the intrigues of their court. The fact that they had themselves painted into the frescoes can tell us much about the political mores and values of the time, especially when seen in light of a family as ambitious as the Borgias. All in all, these apartments, combined with the adventures of the Borgia family, give us an important understanding of the Church and politics in the Renaissance.

[1] Johnson, pg. 66

[2] Cloulas, pg. 67

[3] Cloulas, pg. 68

[4] Cloulas, pg. 78-79

[5] Cloulas, pg. 51-52

[6] Cloulas, pg. 299

[7] Cloulas, pg. 92

[8] Most of this is taken from Norman, Wohl and Woodward.

[9] Cloulas, pg. 90

[10] Johnson, pg. 211

[11] Cloulas, pg. 92

[12] Cloulas, pg. 93

[13] Cloulas, pg. 94

[14] Johnson, pg. 220-221Bibliography

Cloulas, Ivan. The Borgias. Translated by Gilda Roberts. Franklin Watts, New York, 1989.

Frommel, Christoph L. “Papal Policy: The Planning of Rome during the Renaissance,”
Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 17, No. 1, The Evidence of Art: Images and Meaning in History (Summer, 1986), pp. 39-65

Hillgarth, J.N. “The Image of Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 59 (1996), pp. 119-129

Johnson, Marion. The Borgias. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1981.

Norman, Wohl and Woodward. “Borgia” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, [11/06/06],

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985.