The vilified reputation of Cesare Borgia

‘Here in a little earth

Lies one whom all did fear,

One whose hands dispensed both peace and war.

Oh, you that go in search of things deserving praise,

If you would praise the worthiest,

Then let your journey end here,

Nor tremble to go further.’

These were the words the bishop of Calahorra read on an old, bombastic tomb in the Church of Viane in Spain. Buried inside was a young man who had died a violent death fighting for the Kingdom of Navarre in 1507, more than 200 years before.  In itself, not noteworthy were it not that the man in the grave was Cesare Borgia, son of Spain’s most notorious family. Realizing the tomb was Cesare Borgia’s last resting place, the bishop had it obliterated and the skeleton of the young man thrown in a dirt pit in the street in front of the church where ‘he could be trampled on by man and beasts forever’.

What could instigate a Catholic bishop to act in such an unchristian, almost diabolical way and to desecrate the tomb of a young man, two hundred years after his death?  To answer this question, we need to return to the Italian Renaissance under the papacy of Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia’s father.

Cesare was born in 1475 as the son of Rodrigo Borgia, a highly intelligent, ambitious Spanish cardinal and his Italian mistress, Vanozza Catanei. His upbringing was that of a typical Italian prince as his father was one of the most powerful and richest cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church. When his father turned Pope in 1492, Cesare was known throughout Italy as the most handsome man on the peninsula with a particularly sharp intelligence; at times mysteriously dark, vindictive and closed, but often also charming, festive and fun loving. At the age of 16, Cesare was appointed Cardinal of Valencia, and his ecclesiastical career, which he disliked, would have most likely ended on the papal throne if his older brother Juan Borgia wasn’t mysteriously killed one evening in Rome.

One year after the death of his brother Juan in 1497, Cesare’s rise to power began. To the horror of the Curia and the Catholic Kings in Spain, he resigned his cardinalate and began to pursue a secular career to ensure the continuation of the Borgia dynasty. At the age of 24, he travelled to the court of France, where King Louis found him a bride, a Duchy and a royal income in return for a papal dispensation of Louis’ marriage to Jeanne de Valois who was not able to produce an heir to the throne. One year later, the French army crossed the Alps to claim their rights on Milan. Cesare triumphantly rode at King Louis’ side. His plans were far more ambitious than those of the French King, but for now King Louis was allowed to conquer Milan.

In the long run, however, the plan of father and son Borgia would be exactly to stop foreign invaders from plundering and occupying the immense beauty, art and wealth of Italy and stealing what was all the time simply lying for grabs. The first step in their ambitious plan was to rid the Catholic Church from all tyrants who ruled small ever-rivalling city states in the Romagna. These smaller states owed taxes to the Church which were seldomly paid by their often very cruel rulers. Alexander wanted to bring all of the Romagna under papal rule again and install Cesare as their Duke. With King Louis’ support, Cesare effortlessly conquered the Romagna, and began to recruit and train loyal Romagnol soldiers to create his own army which would become the most powerful and most admired in Italy in those days. Cesare’s army was uniformed, a feat not seen before for many hundreds of years, it was well-armed, well-paid and well-trained. This is one of the most important reasons why Machiavelli admired Cesare: he had made possible what almost all-powerful men in Italy thought impossible. Until then, most soldiers in Italy were hired mercenaries; Swiss, French, Spanish or even Burgundian foreigners eager only to pillage in a country which was not theirs. Cesare, however, had managed to organise a well-oiled war machine with modern weapons and loyal soldiers who would fight patriotically for their own land. Also, on the judicial front, he created major changes that showed respect for his subjects by installing a righteous and efficient court system in the Romagna. The people of the Romagna would honor him for his righteous way of governing many years after his death.

During his 4-year rise to power, Cesare became the most feared, but also the most respected condottiere of Italy. He decimated the Italian nobility from all its petty, perverted, little landowners and killed ruthlessly those who opposed him or conspired against him. He rubbed shoulders with legends such as Catarina Sforza, Michelangelo, Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci; the latter was hired as his most esteemed military engineer. For four years, he beat all his opponents, managed to keep the support of the King of France, and ruled with razor sharp political decisiveness. He nearly managed to unify Italy.

But then, on 12 August 1503, his father died and, in the room, above, he nearly died himself from a severe bout of malaria and/or food poisoning.  Despite his near fatal illness, his military power and grip on the peninsula remained strong to the extent that he had the outcome of two conclaves in the palm of his hands. But the Fortuna which had been on his side since his early youth, would now begin to abandon him, and his enemies, at least those who had been able to escape, finally saw their chance to attack him from all sides. The immense fear they felt for him made them forget, at least for a moment, their ancient vendettas for each other, and together with Pope Julius the Terrible they conspired against him and eventually crushed him. Even Ferdinand, the King of Spain, who admired Cesare for his military capacity and King Louis XII who had used Cesare’s army to conquer Naples now turned their back on him. They rather were in Pope Julius the Terrible’ s favour.

Apart from the people in the Romagna, who never forgot their Duke and who remained loyal to him until long after his bitter end, one man in particular seemed to remember the greatness, the strength and potential of Cesare Borgia. He was one of history’s most gifted and sharpest diplomats and his name was Niccolò Machiavelli. In a little booklet which would become bed time literature for all great leaders in modern history, he immortalized the heroic rise to power of this young, ruthless general and turned him into the ultimate ruler in The Prince. But once again, the Church would interfere in the commemoration of Cesare, and also Machiavelli would pay heavily for his admiration of Il Valentino. His name would become an equivalent (Machiavellian) for cunning, scheming and unscrupulous. Yet, The Prince is a tribute to the power, courage, ruthlessness and political charm Cesare possessed, and has served as an example for many rulers such as Napoleon, Churchill and even George Bush.

Many biographers of Machiavelli have tried to restore the reputation of the diplomat by claiming that his admiration for Cesare was ironical. The same happened with Leonardo da Vinci whose employment at Cesare Borgia’s court is often simply not mentioned or Cesare is turned into Leonardo’s hostage taker. It is mind blowing how the fear and disrespect, the revulsion, the antipathy and hostility towards Cesare Borgia is engrained in society and how the truth about this amazing man has been twisted. But there is of course an explanation.

When in 1504, Cesare became the prisoner of Il Papa Terrible (alias Pope Julius II), the latter would, because of lifelong vindictive feelings towards the Borgias, initiate the most successful hate campaign ever in history, and solidly plant the seeds of the black legend that have proliferated for over five centuries. These seeds of hate have been fertilised through books (Victor Hugo, Mario Puzzo, Oscar Wilde), theatre plays (…) and television series (The Borgias, Leonardo…). Each and one of these authors and producers cultivated the often-ridiculous stories that surrounded Cesare, Lucrezia and Rodrigo; slander of incest, fratricide and bloodthirst, and have consequently kept the Black legend of the Borgias alive.

Even without all the poisonous slander, the story of Cesare is far from an ordinary one; his rise to power was similar to a meteor’s flight, his downfall comparable to Lucifer‘s himself. His story is inevitably entangled with those of his equally interesting family members. He, like so many other courageous, intelligent and ambitious rulers, righteously deserves an honourable place in history, not the puddle of dirt in which he is constantly submerged.

 

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