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The murderous Borgias – one of the most infamous families of all time

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Religion on Friday, 20 December 2013

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This edited article about Italy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Cesare Borgia, picture, image, illustration

Giorgio the boatman watches Cesare Borgia overseeing the dumping of his brother's body in the Tiber by C L Doughty

In the early hours of the morning, one July day in 1497, Giorgio the waterman sat alongside his boat on the banks of the River Tiber. The moon was up, yet the streets of Rome were parched from the heat of an unusually hot summer’s day. Giorgio could not sleep and lay on the ground, full-length, gazing idly across the dark waters.

Out of the shadows two men appeared, walking cautiously along the path beside the river. They stopped some distance from Giorgio, peering right and left before beckoning quickly into the darkness behind them. Giorgio judged it wise to remain quiet and unobserved. He knew it did not pay to be curious: too many cut-throats and assassins roamed the streets at night. Even as the thought crossed his mind, four more men appeared, one richly clad and riding a white horse.

The party stopped at the river’s edge and Giorgio was close enough to see the limp corpse of a man draped across the horse’s back. Close enough, too, to hear the man on the horse addressed by another as “Your Eminence.” The body was tumbled to the ground, its legs and arms grabbed by two men, who swung it back and forth a couple of times and then tossed it far out into the river. After a moment a dark object appeared, floating on the surface. Again a voice spoke, muted but clear enough to be overheard. “‘Tis the Duke’s cloak, Your Eminence.” Then the men took stones and threw them at the cloak until it sank out of sight. In a moment all the figures had disappeared back into the shadows and the waters were still. “Your Eminence” – twice had Giorgio heard the words – and this was the title of a cardinal of Rome!

When Giorgio finally plucked up courage to report what he had seen to the police there was already a hue and cry in Rome over the disappearance of Giovanni, Duke of Gandia. Giorgio’s story spread quickly to the Vatican and to the ears of Giovanni’s father, Pope Alexander VI. He ordered the Tiber to be dragged. Two hundred fishermen scoured the river’s depths with nets and poles for several hours, until a body was found, jammed against the sewage pipes, pierced with 14 dagger-thrusts and its throat slit.

It was the missing Duke, whose family name was Borgia – a notorious name, borne too by his brother, the dreaded Cesare; who had been created an archbishop at the age of 16 by his father, and a cardinal a year later, and was thus entitled to be called “Your Eminence.”

Popular history has made the House of Borgia a symbol for all things evil. Their women have been described as heartless poisoners and their men as monsters of wickedness. And no member of the family had so bad a name as Cesare Borgia. The murder of his brother Giovanni is only one of the long list of crimes attributed to him.

As a family the Borgias enjoyed enormous power in the 15th-century Rome. They were Spanish noblemen who came to Italy in 1443, and the first of them to gain prominence was Alphonso de Borgia, who became Pope Calixtus III. He created his nephew, Rodrigo, a cardinal, and he, in his turn, became pope as Alexander VI. Alexander was a man of outstanding ability – corrupt, pleasure-loving and consumed with ambition for wealth and even greater power than his supreme office afforded him. He was passionately devoted to his many children, particularly his son, Cesare, and his daughter, Lucrezia.

Cesare, who became the image for Machiavelli’s typical prince of the Renaissance in his famous book Il Principe, was at once handsome, skilful, brave, violent, ambitious and even more corrupt and devious than his father. In command of the churches’ armies, he conquered and pillaged throughout Italy, murdering any individual who stood in his way. The verdict of history on this ruthless prince seems to be justified, although the dark deeds of intrigue and murder with which he is associated are shrouded in mystery.

Lucrezia, on the other hand, scarcely deserves her evil reputation, and the melodramatic picture of her as a subtle poisoner is almost certainly nonsense. She was completely dominated by her father and Cesare, and while they lived seemed content to be a willing pawn in their political manoeuvres. She was betrothed to a Spanish nobleman at the age of 11, and by the time she was 22 had survived three marriages and was embarking on her fourth! Her husbands were chosen and disposed of (one of them was murdered by Cesare) according to the demands of the particular alliances Alexander wished to make with influential families. It is significant that when her father died, and she was no longer subject to his endless plans for her future, Lucrezia settled down happily with her fourth husband to a peaceful, uneventful life without a further breath of scandal.

Alexander is reputed to have died, and Cesare to have been brought to the verge of death, by mistakenly drinking poison which had been prepared for a victim. The legend of the Borgia poison, with its stories of poisoned wine and venomous rings which, at the pressure of a hand, discharged death, has little foundation in fact. But there does exist a fantastic story of how the Borgia venom was prepared. The recipe was to catch a bear and make it swallow a strong dose of arsenic. When this began to take effect, the bear was suspended by its hindlegs head downwards. This caused convulsions and from the bear’s mouth a deadly stream of liquid would flow which was collected on a silver plate and bottled in vials. It would seem that it might have been more effective to use the original dose of arsenic without the intervention of the unfortunate bear!

After his father’s death Cesare’s world crumbled. One of his enemies became pope and he was compelled to give up most of his possessions. He was killed fighting in an insignificant war, still only 32 years of age. But, above all else, the Renaissance period was an age of youth. Life moved quickly and at 16 one had already tasted many of its pleasures and glories. It was a time when great artists produced their masterpieces at the age of 20 and cardinals were created at 17.

Amid the turbulent and terrible record of the lives of the Borgias it is as well to remember that one member of the family achieved spiritual eminence, and that was Francis Borgia (1510-72), a Roman Catholic saint and general of the order of the Jesuits, who lived a life of simple monasticism.

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