The Borgias were a noble family from the years of the renaissance. Although hailing originally from Spain, they rose to great power in Italy and more than one Borgia became a Catholic Pope. However, despite entrenching themselves in religion, they were known for caring little about morality. They made enemies with many powerful noble families, and have been accused of nearly every depravity you can imagine.
10. They Held Prostitute Parties in the Apostolic Palace
While some of the claims about the Borgias are hard to verify, they made no effort to hide their love of wild parties. Many sources are uncertain about the details of any particular party, but some accounts claim that some very audacious ones took place right within the walls of the apostolic palace. Reports claim the Borgias had invited fifty prostitutes to their party, and had a game after dinner where the prostitutes stripped naked and collected chestnuts from the floor while weaving between candles.
After this, with Cesare, Lucrezia, and Pope Alexander VI allegedly looking on, they challenged the party goers to a game where those who could have the most sex with the prostitutes present would win prizes of silk clothing and other finery. It is possible some of these stories were greatly exaggerated by their enemies, but they were hardly known for being prudish about sex either.
9. Cesare May Have Had His Own Brother Murdered
Cesare Borgia had been traveling back to Rome with his brother Giovanni, then the Duke of Gandia, when things took an odd turn. Recently the Duke had been visited by a strange man who wore a mask — a man Giovanni seemed to be totally comfortable with. Upon reaching Rome, the Duke told Cesare he was going to go off and do some business alone, taking only the masked man with him — it would be the last time anyone saw Giovanni Borgia alive.
While there were other possible enemies who could have been involved, many people suspected the intervention of Cesare Borgia himself. He had substantial political gain and accrued more power upon the death of his brother, and apart from the masked man, he was the last person to see him alive. However, even if he was involved, it seems likely he simply ordered others to carry out the assassination. There was certainly not enough evidence to convict anyone, and no historian will ever be sure.
8. Cesare Borgia Wore a Mask to Hide the Ravages of Syphilis
Many of the extant paintings of Cesare Borgia show an incredibly handsome looking face. There are even some rumors that the popular depiction of Jesus is actually modeled after the face of the famous subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince. However, the truth is that while Cesare was a very handsome young man, he soon lost his dashing good looks to syphilis.
Then known as “the French disease,” syphilis was starting to cause a lot of trouble in Europe. Cesare was a huge fan of brothels and contracted the disease at the young age of 22. As time passed the disease became worse and it affected his looks, causing awful sores to appear on his face. For this reason, he often wore a mask in public to hide the ravages of the disease, and the shameful spiting of what was once a good looking face.
7. The Controversy Over Whether The Prince was Complimentary or Satirical
Machiavelli’s The Prince is a book utterly embedded in the consciousness of our society. The book is essentially a treatise on how to get and maintain political power, especially if you want to do so in immoral and sneaky ways and is based on the life of Cesare Borgia. This has led to the expression “Machiavellian” to describe particularly crafty and evil people, but people may be getting the message of the book entirely wrong.
The truth is that we may have a case of much of the original intent being lost in translation. Some historians have put forward a strong case that Machiavelli had no love at all for the Borgias, and that what many people thought was praise was actually a satirical commentary on the corrupt way the entire family came to power, especially Cesare. While some are still convinced that The Prince was entirely serious, many historians remain doubtful. If it were satirical, it would be ironic how many would-be dictators have read the book for ideas over the years, not realizing it was a manual on what not to do.
6. Accusations of Incest Among the Borgia Brothers and Sisters
The Borgias may have been a powerful noble family who were able to hold onto control far longer than their enemies ever expected, but they were hardly the most socially respected people. There were many ugly rumors going around about them at any given time, and one of the most common was that Lucrezia had slept with more than one of her brothers, especially Cesare himself.
It is hard to say if any of this happened for sure, but it is true that he was extremely close to Lucrezia, and it would not have been the first time she had been accused of being involved in incest. She was known around Rome for being extremely open to having sex with anyone who was interested, which may be how the rumor of incest initially spread. While there is no hard evidence to prove one way or the other, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for noble families to inter-marry back in the day, in order to keep power within the family bloodlines.
5. Lucrezia Borgia Was Accused of Poisoning Multiple People
Lucrezia was the sister of Cesare Borgia, and the daughter of Pope Alexander VI — her name is also one of the first that comes up when people think of famous poisoners in history. Lucrezia was known for being with a lot of men, but divorced her first husband, later claiming that he had been impotent. After this, she had two other marriages, both of which increased the wealth and power of the Borgia family.
Some historians now believe that the accusations that she personally poisoned people may only have cropped up due to her connection to the rest of her family, but it is hard to believe she wasn’t at least aware of what was going on. Many of the bodies that piled up around the family may not have been poisoned by her, but there is evidence that Cesare and Pope Alexander VI made a habit of using poison to destroy their enemies and increase their own wealth.
4. Alexander VI: The Pope With Many Children, Some Illegitimate
Most people tend to think of popes as being paragons of the most pure in terms of sexuality. People who remain chaste, do not have sex with anyone and refrain from existing within that sphere of life. However, back in the day, these rules were sometimes not paid as much attention to as people might think. And when it came to the Borgias, it was another situation where they cared little what society wanted — they would do what they wanted to do.
Pope Alexander VI had a total of at least ten children. Considering how sexually active he was, and the many rumors about alleged incest, there could be even more children in the mix than those that are actually verified. While many of these children were illegitimate, Alexander VI was still known for caring deeply for them and often going to great lengths to secure their political power and future.
3. Alexander VI was a Cunning Pope but Cared Little for the Dignity of His Office
For Catholics, the reign of Pope Alexander VI was a huge blot on the reputation of their church. He was known for humiliating the office of the papacy by consorting with prostitutes, aggrandizing his family, engaging in bribery and alleged blackmail, murder, and incest. It would practically be easier to make a list of crimes that he was not accused of.
However, the accusation that makes him look worst as a pope is that Alexander VI treated the position more like a ruler than a religious leader. He controlled it tightly and when confronted by enemies, he was a very tough negotiator, concerned chiefly with the sovereignty of the land he was currently ruling. Some sources say that he cared little at all for the dignity of the office of the papacy, and many believe he never cared about the church beyond the fact that it was a path to great power within the borders of Italy. However, considering how much of the world was in conflict during those days, perhaps he was the Pope that was needed at the time.
2. Alexander VI Gave Tacit Permission to Enslave the Natives of the New World
During Alexander VI’s reign, he signed a papal bull known as Inter Caetera, which divided up certain parts of the New World and other territories between Spain and Portugal. These areas obviously already had native people living in them, but were not yet explored by Europeans. The papal document gave future dominion of any of these unexplored areas to whichever country fell on the side of the dividing line. This papal order was supposed to ensure the two countries wouldn’t fight over the New World, but it wasn’t much help for the natives.
While some people argue about the Pope’s intentions, the document was later used as justification to enslave the natives if they didn’t convert to Christianity. Some Vatican scholars argue that the Pope never meant any such thing, but others argue that the words of the document itself are quite damning. It states that not only land, but any villages, or localities found would be under the control of the explorers, as long as the rulers of those localities were not already Christian. However, whether he meant they should able to enslave them, or just rule over them, is another matter entirely.
1. One Member of the Borgia Family was Canonized as a Catholic Saint
While most of the Borgias are known for murderous intrigue of some kind, one member of the family may be the “regrettable” white sheep. Francis Borgia was always a bit different from the others. While he saw the church as a career path as well, he wasn’t interested in the pomp and ceremony of the more gilded positions — he wished to go study to become a monk. At the time his parents did not allow it, and eventually he married and lived a fairly uneventful life until the death of his wife.
It was at this point that he decided he would take on his life’s true dream. He made sure his children would be well accounted for, passed his political position on to his eldest son and went and became a Jesuit. He was known for being incredibly humble and refusing to receive any special treatment due to his noble lineage — some stories claim that the only thing that truly bothered him was being referred to as a noble after giving up the life. While he did his best to stay low in terms of social status, he still ended up being chosen as Superior General of the Jesuits, and increased the presence of the organization around the world.