Rodrigo Borgia Becomes Pope

Rodrigo Borgia Becomes Pope

Roderic Llancol i de Borja of Aragon—better known by his Italianised name Rodrigo Borgia—was elected Pope on this day in 1492, and remained until his death on 18 August 1503. He assumed the name Pope Alexander VI upon his appointment.

He was one of the most controversial popes in history, known for his power plays, nepotism, having many mistresses and a highly complicated family life; there are even rumours of murders and poisoning plots, and incestuous relationships involving his children. However, some believe he was an outstanding renaissance leader with excellent political and diplomatic skills that allowed him to resolve conflicts without resorting to warfare, unless absolutely necessary.

Borgia was born on New Year’s Day of 1431 in the town of Xativa, to Jofre Llancol i Escriva and Isabel de Borja y Cavanilles, and he adopted his mother’s surname after her brother Alonso de Borja became Pope Callixtus. In 1456, at only 25, Rodrigo was appointed Cardinal Deacon of San Nicola in Carcere by his uncle Alonso. In 1457 he was promoted to Vice Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, in 1468 he was ordained into the Priesthood, and in 1471 he was consecrated Cardinal Bishop of Albano. His career in the church was ensuring him into an extremely wealthy and influential future.

After the death of Pope Innocent VIII on 25 July 1492, Rodrigo was elected to the Papacy ahead of his fierce rivals Ascanio Sforza (the Milanese candidate) and Giuliano della Rovere (the pro-French candidate). There were rumours that he paid papal electors to vote for him. Once he became the Pope, he soon started promoting his family and allies to important positions; for instance, he took the controversial step of creating a dozen new Cardinals, including his 18-year-old son Cesare and Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III), the brother of one of his favourite mistresses, Giulia.

Alexander VI was a very sexually active Pope who seemed to suffer from little in the way of Catholic guilt. His longest love affair was with his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei, with whom he openly fathered four children: Cesare, Giovanni, Goffredo, and Lucrezia. He also had (at least) three other children whose parentage was a secret: Girolama, Isabella, and Pedro-Luiz. He had other mistresses such as Giulia Farnese who, in an oddly perverse papal family setup, actually lived with his daughter Lucrezia.

All manner of unsavoury accusations have been levelled at Pope Alexander VI and the Borgias: that he and Cesare indulged in incestuous sexual practices with Lucrezia; that Cesare killed his brother Giovanni and ordered the assassination of Lucrezia’s husband the Duke of Bisceglie; that he was involved in corrupt extortion, judicial murders, and poisoning plots.

It has even been suggested that Rodrigo Borgia’s death on 12 August 1503 was the result of an accidental poisoning by Cesare at dinner; the latter was also so affected that all his skin fell off. Whatever the truth, his character is forever immortalised in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince: “Alexander VI did nothing but deceive men…”

Credit: © The Art Gallery Collection / Alamy
Caption: Portrait of Rodrigo Borgia from the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France.