On this day in history in 1475 the legendary Italian nobleman, politician, and cardinal, Cesare Borgia, was born.
Born in Rome of Spanish descent, Cesare was the son of Cardinal Rodrigo de Lanzol y Borgia, soon to become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei.
Handsome and ambitious, Cesare acquired a reputation as an effective, if ruthless, military leader, and a lavish womanizer who fathered at least 11 illegitimate children. A brilliant military leader and skilled statesman, Cesare is thought to be the inspiration for Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Borgia and his clan came to represent the pinnacle of the Renaissance papacy’s corruption and in many ways proved to be the impetus for the Protestant Reformation.
Though his religious credentials were weak, Cesare was appointed Bishop of Pamplona at 15 and, at the tender age of 18, was made a Cardinal. Borgia had always wanted a military career, which was instead endowed upon his brother, Giovanni, who was made captain general of the military forces of the papacy.
In June of 1497, Giovanni’s body was found in the Tiber River, his throat cut. Historians believe the politically advantageous assassination was Cesare’s work. With a military career finally possible, Cesare promptly resigned from his role as Cardinal in August 1498 and assumed his brother’s titles, wealth, and position as military leader of the Borgias and the papacy, thus becoming the first person in history to resign the cardinalate.
Cesare went on to command the French force under Louis XII that captured Milan and two towns in the Italian state of Romagna, Imola and Forli. He went on to capture towns in Tuscany, Naples, southern Italy, and eastern Italy. Throughout his campaigns, Cesare had those who stood in the way of his political ambitions murdered, including the husband of his sister Lucrezia, the Neapolitan nobleman Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie, who was strangled in the papal apartments. Another potential foe, Astorre III Manfredi, was drowned in the Tiber River by Borgia’s orders.
During a campaign in the city of Romagna, Cesare’s forces revolted against him. He ruthlessly led a successful defensive campaign against them, called for a truce, then treacherously had the conspirators executed.
Soon after, in 1503, Cesare fell gravely ill with what was thought to be malaria, possibly the same disease that killed his father that same year. Without the support of his father’s papacy, Cesare’s power was compromised. With his influence, a strong supporter of the Borgias, Cardinal Piccolomini, was elected as Pope Pius III, but only to die a month later. His successor was Julius II, considered an enemy of the Borgia family.
In 1504, Cesare was imprisoned on the orders of Julius II and Ferdinand of Aragon, and exiled to a Spanish prison. He escaped in 1506 and fled to the court of his brother-in-law, the king of Navarre, under whom he took military service. In 1507 he conducted a siege of the Spanish town of Viana, and died. He was 31.
Cesare Borgia left a legend as large as his life, and is often portrayed as a cruel, ruthless villain in historical accounts, novels, and films. He and his father are considered to be the epitome of greed, corruption, and excess in the Renaissance papacy and the motivation for the Reformation.
Caption: Portrait of Gentleman, also known as Portrait of Cesare Borgia, by Altobello Melone.