Pope Alexander VI: The Most Corrupt Pope

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Catholic Church has an excellent pope, a man of God, in Pope Francis.  It has not always been so, particularly in the era of the Papal States.  Pope Alexander VI was born Roderic Borgia, on the 1st January.  He was Pope from the 11th August 1492 until his death.  He is one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes, partly because he acknowledged fathering several children by his many mistresses, themselves the wives of other men.  Therefore, his Italianised Valencian surname, Borgia, became a byword for libertinism and nepotism, characterising his pontificate.  This was in the periods when the Catholic Church was corrupted as an institution.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Rodrigo was a handsome, intelligent man with an appreciation for the arts and sciences.  He was a “political priest”.  He was a gifted speaker, extremely eloquent, and “so familiar with Holy Writ, that his speeches were fairly sparkling with well-chosen texts of the Sacred Books”.

There was change in the constitution of the College of Cardinals during the course of the fifteenth century.  Of the twenty-seven cardinals alive in the closing months of the reign of Innocent VIII, no fewer than ten were Cardinal-nephews, eight were crown nominees, four were Roman nobles and one other had been given the cardinalate in recompense for his family’s service to the Holy See; only four were able career churchmen.  The Holy See was holy in name alone.

Upon the death of Pope Innocent VIII, on the 25th July 1492, the three likely candidates for the Papacy were the sixty-one-year-old Borgia, seen as an independent candidate, Ascanio Sforza for the Milanese, and Giuliano Della Rovere seen as a pro-French candidate.  Borgia succeeded in buying the largest number of votes and Sforza, in particular, was bribed with four mule-loads of silver.  Johann Burchard, the conclave’s master of ceremonies and a leading figure of the papal household under several popes, recorded in his diary that the 1492 conclave was a particularly expensive campaign.  Della Rovere was bankrolled to the cost of 200,000 gold ducats by King Charles VIII of France, with another 100,000 supplied by the Republic of Genoa.  Borgia was elected on the 11th August 1492, assuming the name of Alexander VI.

Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, who later became Pope Leo X, warned, after the election, “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen.  And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.”

Before long, though, Pope Alexander VI began endowing his relatives at the church’s and at his neighbours’ expense.  Cesare Borgia, his son, while a youth of seventeen and a student at Pisa, was made Archbishop of Valencia, and Giovanni Borgia inherited the Spanish Dukedom of Gandia, the Borgias’ ancestral home in Spain.  For the Duke of Gandia and for Gioffre, also known as Goffredo, the Pope proposed to carve fiefs out of the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples.  Among the fiefs destined for the duke of Gandia, were Cerveteri and Anguillara, lately acquired by Virginio Orsini, head of that powerful house.  This policy brought Ferdinand I, King of Naples, into conflict with Alexander, who was also opposed by Cardinal Della Rovere, whose candidature for the papacy had been backed by Ferdinand.  Della Rovere fortified himself in his bishopric of Ostia at the Tiber’s mouth as Alexander formed a league against Naples on the 25th April 1493, and prepared for war.  It is in this background that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his “Prince”.  Cesare Borgia grew into the rapacious, cruel warlord we know of under the patronage of his father, now the Pope.

In August 1503, when, after Cesare and his father had dined with Cardinal Adriano Castellesi on the 6th August, they were taken ill with fever a few days later.  Cesare eventually recovered; but the aged Pontiff passed away.  The Pope was 72 years old.

The interregnum witnessed again the “tradition” of violence and rioting.  The next day, the body of Alexander VI was exhibited to the people and clergy of Rome, but was covered by a thick cloth, having become greatly disfigured by rapid decomposition.  According to Raphael Volterrano, “It was a revolting scene to look at that deformed, blackened corpse, prodigiously swelled, and exhaling an infectious smell; his lips and nose were covered with brown drivel, his mouth was opened very widely, and his tongue, inflated by poison, fell out upon his chin; therefore, no fanatic or devotee dared to kiss his feet or hands, as custom would have required.”

The Venetian ambassador stated that the body was “the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity.”

And this was the state of his body within a day.  What was the state of his soul?


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