The Borgia story isn’t all debauchery

Pope Alexander VI and his progeny

The Borgias: Power and Fortune
By Paul Strathern
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £25/$28.95

The dubious distinction of serving as the stereotypical exemplars of Renaissance ecclesial corruption is held by the Borgias, a family as infamous as any in Renaissance Italy for its embrace of that era’s mixture of neo-classical learning and aesthetics with the depths of debauchery. In fact, that is only one side of the Borgias’ story, one which has obscured the authentic service to the Church performed by other members of the family, and whose depravity has been exaggerated by legend.

Despite their association with Italian history and culture, the Borgias were of Spanish origin and claimed descent from an 11th-century king of Aragon. As is often the case, there is no proof to authenticate the claim: its plausibility rests on the family’s membership of a class within which descent from royalty (particularly through illegitimate lines) was not uncommon.

The man who brought the family to international prominence, Alonso de Borja, chose to forgo his bright secular future as his father’s only son and heir, choosing instead to enter the priesthood. Younger sons of the aristocracy frequently settled upon such a path in life merely to assure their status by rising through the ecclesial hierarchy. But for an only son to do so was the result of sincere religious devotion.

Throughout his life, Alonso de Borja lived up to his clerical obligations and was devoted to prayer and penance. His greatest accomplishment was contributing to the end of the Great Western Schism by taking part in discussions with the anti-pope “Clement VIII”, which persuaded the latter to submit to the authority of Pope Martin V.

High in papal favour, de Borja was appointed Bishop of Valencia, then elevated to cardinal by Martin’s successor, Eugenius IV, after successfully serving as an intermediary in a dispute between the Holy See and the king of Aragon. In 1455, de Borja was elected Pope Callixtus III.

Rome and the Papal States were, at the time, dominated by noble families who behaved more like highly cultured warlords than Christians, and whose rivalries could make that between the Montagues and Capulets look like a playground tiff.

For these families ecclesial nepotism was an important factor in tipping the scales of pre-eminence in favour of those who would likely be at the heights of power and influence anyway. Popes who had been born into noble Italian families or who, through years of ecclesial service, forged close links with them had a secure base of power from which they could effectively put their authority into practice.

Such was not the case with Callixtus. He lacked the necessary support and his election united what were normally rival Roman families against a pope of Spanish origin. And his plans for his papacy were as ambitious as his position was weak.

Governing the Church in accordance with its supernatural purpose and fighting clerical corruption were only part of the new papal programme. Two years before Callixtus’s election, Constantinople had been conquered by the Turks. As pope he attempted to organise a crusade for the liberation of the city, which had for centuries been the centre of Byzantine Christianity.

The city of Rome was also physically crumbling and permeated by chaos and violence. Callixtus not only intended to bring peace and order to the streets but was  among the first to envisage the massive rebuilding project which would later shape the city we know today. But the only way the pope had a chance of putting his agenda into practice was by concentrating power in the hands of loyal lieutenants – who could, of course, most easily be found within the ranks of his own family. It was a strategy that backfired spectacularly.

Chief among those upon whom Callixtus relied was his nephew Rodrigo, then a brilliant young canon lawyer and later notorious as Alexander VI. His extensive and grave misdeeds are too well known to need repetition. Separating myth from reality is more interesting.

For all that Alexander abused his ecclesial position for his own enrichment and aggrandisement, he at least never mounted a challenge to Catholic orthodoxy and was content to leave the devout in peace. His sexual immorality was appalling: strings of mistresses, even threatening one with damnation if she did not return to her sinning ways. But the legend of an incestuous pope who engaged in orgies on the scale of Nero’s Rome originated in rumour rather than evidence. And, on the positive side, he was devoted to continuing his uncle’s efforts to bring peace, order and stability to the Eternal City.

Unlike many books on the Borgias, which tend to fall into either prurient or indignant exaggeration, Strathern’s work is commendable for its commitment to strict historical accuracy.