Alexander VI, reigned 1492-1503. Born Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI is so famous for his debased reign that his surname has become synonymous with the debased standards of the papacy in his era. He is the most controversial of the Renaissance popes, partly because he acknowledged fathering several children by his mistresses. His ascension into the higher ranks of the church was partly due to nepotism, but he was a very intelligent man known for his patronage of the arts and in his days as pope, a new architectural era was initiated in Rome with the coming of Bramante. Raphael, Michelangelo and Pinturicchio all worked for him. Borgia was also a gifted speaker and as a young man, quite handsome. He was always a ladies man and was quite successful with a host of beautiful women. Of Alexander’s many mistresses, Vannozza (Giovanna) dei Cattanei, bore him four children, whom he openly acknowledged as his own: Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia and Gioffre. A daughter named Laura, was born to his mistress, Giulia Farnese, but paternity was officially attributed to Orsino Orsini (Farnese’s husband), an ancestor of virtually all of the royal houses of Europe. Borgia is also believed to have fathered four other children – Girolama, Pedro-Luiz, Bernardo and Isabella (who was the great-great-grandmother of Pope Innocent X). That is a total of nine children, a papal record that is sure to stand the test of time.
Upon the death of Pope Innocent VIII on July 25, 1492, there were three likely candidates for the Papacy. Alexander’s elevation to pontiff did not at the time excite much alarm initially, although it was rumored that Borgia succeeded in buying the largest number of votes. He was a fervent believer in the Church and was both capable and cautious. At first his reign was marked by a strict administration of justice and an orderly method of government. However, before too long, his insistence of endowing his relatives with property, titles and privileges anger officials in the church as well as kingdoms aligned to the papacy. Even worse, to accomplish his nepotism, he was ready to commit almost any crime and was ready to plunge all of Italy into war!
Cesare Borgia, the Pope’s son, was only seventeen when he was made Archbishop of Valencia. Giovanni Borgia inherited the Spanish Dukedom of Gandia, the Borgias’ ancestral home in Spain. The Pope also proposed to carve fiefs out of the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. This policy brought Ferdinand I, King of Naples, into conflict with Alexander, who was prepared to go to war against Ferdinand.
During his pontificate virtually everything that Borgia did was to further the position of his children and family in the world. In order to dominate the Sacred College of Cardinals, Borgia, in scandalous move, created twelve new cardinals, among them his own son Cesare, who was then only eighteen years old. He also appointed the brother of his mistress Giulia Farnese. The cardinal, Alessandro Farnese later became Pope Paul III.
Alexander VI died on August 18, 1503 at the age of 72. It is highly likely that he was accidentally poisoned to death by his son, Cesare, using cantarella, an arsenic-based poison favored by the Borgias. It is suspected that the poison had been prepared to eliminate the Borgia’s guest, Cardinal Adriano. The descriptions of the Pope’s final week on Earth are well-documented and gruesome. So horrific was the sight of the dead pontiff that his body was covered by a tapestry. More than one observer of the dead pope referred to it as the most unimaginably disgusting image possible, blacked, bloated, exuding noxious fumes and fluids, it is no wonder the normal practice of kissing the Pope’s hands and feet was dispensed with. Given the enemies that he had made as Pope, his body did not last long in the crypts of St. Peter’s. It was soon installed in the far less well-known Spanish national church of Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli.