On the night of 30 October 1501, a huge banquet was organised in the Papal Palace in Rome, to which members of the nobility and senior officials in the Catholic Church were invited. The event became known as The Ballet of Chestnuts, and will go down in history as the pinnacle of debauched excess that epitomised the corruption and grotesque indulgence of Rome under the Borgias, and in particular Pope Alexander VI, and his second son Cesare Borgia.
As entertainment for the guests, fifty of Rome’s comeliest prostitutes were selected, and after the feasting was over an orgy of epic proportions ensued. Chestnuts were strewn all over the floor, and the guests were invited to observe as the naked courtesans gathered them up. According to contemporary reports, the onlookers did not remain onlookers for long, making full use of the courtesans provided. Pope Alexander and his family were among the spectators, and there were reports of prizes being awarded for displays of exceptional virility.
The event shows the extent to which the Pope and his entourage enjoyed a lavish and indulgent lifestyle, often at direct moral odds with the expectations of the papal office, and helps explain the negative image of Rome under the Borgias.
The House of Borgia was a noble family of Spanish origin, which rose to prominence in the Catholic church in the mid 15th century. Rodrigo Borgia became Pope in 1492, choosing the name Alexander VI. His rise was dubiously swift, his main rivals for the Papal chair apparently receiving vast sums to forgo their ambitions and support Rodrigo. His reign as Pope was epitomised by lavish living, ruthless suppression of critics and rivals, the amassing of a huge personal fortune, and an insatiable appetite for pleasures of the flesh. However, he is also noted for his significant influence on the Age of Enlightenment, his love of splendour and magnificence dictating that fortunes were spent on encouraging advances in the arts and architecture. He died in 1503.
Pope Alexander had at least five children. His son Cesare, born around 1475, had a reputation that exceeded that of his father in matters of depravity and debauchery. Gross nepotism had allowed Cesare’s rise to prominence—his father ordained him as a bishop aged fifteen and then cardinal when just eighteen. Cesare was the first cardinal to ever resign when he decided to pursue a military career, becoming his father’s military mastermind and chief protector. He instigated a number of military conflicts, in part to demonstrate papal strength, but also in order to gather the riches that facilitated the excesses of the regime. He was feared for his singular brutality and apparent lack of morals. Rumors were rife that he was responsible for the murder of his older brother Giovanni, and that he was involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrezia. He died in battle in 1507.
The Ballet of Chestnuts is undoubtedly the most notorious event in the history of the Borgia Papacy, but it was evidently characteristic of a regime that embraced greed and excess in many differing forms.
Credit: Alamy A0TMY0
Caption: In one of many examples of their immorality, the Borgias had chestnuts strewn across a floor during a banquet attended by nude courtesans who gathered them up.