Birth Name: Roderic Llançol i de Borja (also Rodrigo Lanzol y de Borja, Rodrigo de Borgia)
Regnal Name: Alexander VI. By one of the quirks of papal naming, this makes him the fifth Roman pope named Alexander. At the time, there was a great deal of confusion about the status of the antipope Alexander V. Alexander V had been elected by the Council of Pisa, making him the third rival pope in the Western Schism. However, many of the powers in Europe had backed him, and the exact status of the Council of Pisa was still not yet completely worked out, certainly not to everyone's satisfaction. In addition, at the time the almost universal way of handling the confusion over the Western Schism was to bypass altogether the question of which of the rival popes of the Western Schism were legitimate at any given time, rather than to risk causing new schism by arguing over it. The Schism had been ended, after all, by a compromise in which none of the claimants had to concede that their status as pope was illegitimate, and in which many of the major actions of all of the rival popes were legitimized post hoc by Martin V and his successors, just to end any possible worries about it. There had been a legitimate pope, somewhere, among the rival claimants, there was one clearly legitimate pope now; that was all that one needed to know to start moving on, and they were very interested in moving on.
Regnal Life: 1492-1503
Born in Xativa in the Kingdom of Valencia, Rodrigo began serving in the Church due to the influence of his maternal uncle, Alonso Cardinal de Borgia. Cardinal de Borgia then later convinced Pope Nicholas V to give him a special exemption so that he continue in his Church position in Valencia in absentia, in order to study at Rome, and then later at Bologna. Rodrigo turned out to be an extraordinarily talented student, receiving his Doctor of Law with honors. He started emphasizing the 'Borgia' part of his name when Alonso de Borgia became Pope Callixtus III. Pope Callixtus, requiring people to whom he could trust responsibilities, eventually made his nephews, both Rodrigo and Rodrigo's cousin Luis de Mila y de Borgia, cardinals, although unlike later appointments, he only did so after receiving the consent of the College of Cardinals. The new cardinal did quite well handling his early diplomatic and governance assignments, and Callixtus soon made him Vice-Chancellor. This position was in the Apostolic Chancery (Cancellaria Apostolica); at the time it was one of the major revenue agencies of the Holy See, its primary (but not at all the only) concern being with raising money for the papal army. Since Martin V, and due to the fact that papal revenues had been shrunk by conciliar reforms, it had been an increasingly important dicastery. (And would only continue to become more important as time went on; it is the forerunner of the modern Secretariat of State for the Holy See.) The Vice-Chancellor was in charge of a very large portion of the Apostolic Chancery's day-to-day work, which made the young Cardinal Borgia the primary controller of one of the most important revenue streams of the Holy See. He was extremely good at it, and therefore he held the office for thirty-five years. Of course, competence and curial office are not closely tied together; being competent never on its own kept anyone in an office in the Roman Curia. But it didn't hurt, and Rodrigo de Borgia was very good at negotiating, including negotiations by exchange of favors with potential future popes.
He started early. His uncle died in 1458; Borgia wheeled and dealed in the papal conclave to get Piccolomini elected Pius II, and was richly rewarded for it, keeping his cancellarial office and also receiving very nice benefices. His relationship with Pius was not as smooth as it was with Callixtus; Pius started restricting the powers of the Apostolic Chancery. Pius was also not too sure about the morals of this cardinal, in part because he heard rumors of Borgia attending orgies. Borgia replied that he had indeed attended a party, but it was not an orgy, and apologized; that is all we know about that. But in 1462 Borgia had his first illegitimate child, Pedro Luis, with a woman whose name we do not know.
In the papal conclave of 1464, Borgia wheeled and dealed in the papal conclave to get Pietro Barbo, a good friend, elected Paul II. He was richly rewarded. Not only did Paul let him keep his position as Vice-Chancellor, he also reversed Pius's reforms that restricted the Apostolic Chancery's powers. Borgia had two more illegitimate children, Isabella in 1467 and Girolamo in 1469, again with a woman whose name we do not know.
In the papal conclave of 1471, he continued his streak of picking papal winners by backing Sixtus IV. He was richly rewared, keeping his office and receiving additional benefices. It was under Sixtus that Borgia's career truly began to flower, since Sixtus began relying on him for diplomatic work with some of the major powers of Europe. In 1472, Borgia was in Spain negotiating the marriage between Ferdinand and Isabella (he would eventually become godfather of their son); he also negotiated peace between Aragon and Castile, and worked out essential components of what would eventually become the unification of Spain. It is interesting to think about how things might have gone differently; without Rodrigo de Borgia, Isabella would likely not have been in a position to fund the voyages of Columbus.
After he returned to Rome, he started an affair with one of his two most famous mistresses, Vannozza dei Cattanei. This would lead to the rise of the Borgias as a formidable family. In 1475, Cesare was born; Giovanni was born in 1476; Lucrezia was born in 1480; and Gioffre was born in 1482. Meanwhile, Borgia continued to make himself very useful to Sixtus, with the result that in 1480 the pope issued a bull legitimizing Cesare, and continued to reward Borgia with benefices. Borgia was soon by far the wealthiest cardinal.
When Sixtus died in 1484, Borgia had decided, after his long career making popes, to make himself pope. He had power, money, and connections. He faced a fundamental handicap: he was not Italian, and the Italian cardinals never liked having a non-Italian pope. Thus in the papal conclave of 1484, there will be the first show-down between the two figures who will make their mark on the Renaissance Papacy like no others: Rodrigo de Borgia faced off with Giuliano della Rovere, who was Sixtus's nephew. They would become enemies for life. After complicated negotiations, Rovere eventually put his weight, and the weight of the Italian faction (which was large because of Sixtus's profligate cardinal-making) behind Cardinal Cybo, and Cardinal Cybo, savvy enough to recognize that he would need cooperation from the Borgia faction, offered to strike a deal. Borgia, recognizing that it wasn't quite time yet, threw his weight behind Cybo. When Cybo became Innocent VIII, Borgia as a reward was allowed to remain Vice-Chancellor.
Borgia's relationship with Innocent VIII, who was heavily under the influence of Cardinal della Rovere, was much rockier than with previous popes, not so much because they did not get along personally, but because Innocent VIII's policies often cut across his own view of how things should be done. Part of this is that the policies kept causing problems for Borgia and his relationship with King Ferdinand of Spain; Borgia several times had to make sacrifices to keep on good terms with Ferdinand given some of the pope's policies. But he was absolutely necessary for Innocent VIII, who with his diplomatic troubles very much needed someone as competent as Borgia maintaining papal revenues, and he continued to receive new benefices. In 1489, while all of this was going on, Borgia would meet the bride of his cousin, Orsino Orsini. Her name was Giulia Farnese, and she would become Borgia's other most famous mistress. We don't know exactly when this happened; she married Orsini when she was fifteen, and she was definitely living with Borgia when she was nineteen, so the affair would have started at some point in that period. We don't know how long the affair actually lasted, either. They would definitely have one daughter, Laura, born in 1492, and perhaps others while he was pope, although we don't know for sure if she was the mother or if someone else was: Girolama, born 1495; Isabella, born 1496; Rodrigo of Nepi, born in 1498.
In any case, in 1492, Innocent VIII died, and a new papal conclave was held. It became clear that there were three anchors, and which ever candidate was elected would be one put forward by one of the three: Giuliano della Rovere, who was being backed by France and Genoa; Ascanio Sforza, who was being backed by Milan; and Borgia, who was backing himself. The backers were central to this election, in which money flowed freely and in large quantities. All three candidates negotiated and bargained and campaigned; all three candidates seem to have engaged in some kinds of direct bribery. Sforza recognized that he was going to be outcompeted, and so he struck a deal with Borgia -- Sforza would back Borgia if Borgia would make Sforza Vice-Chancellor. Borgia was elected and became Alexander VI. Cardinal della Rovere was furious, and this would end up quite significant for the future.
The new pope began with energy. Almost immediately he set up commissions to handle various problems with the Roman populace, he began regularly holding open audiences for anyone who wished to come to him with a grievance, and he began organizing advisors for a reform of the Church. He restructured large portions of the bloated budget, cutting down both housekeeping and food expenses to the bare minimum, to such an extent that cardinals started making excuses to decline his invitations to dinner. Earlier that year, the Alhambra Decree had forced the expulsion of Jews from Spain; something like 9000 Jews eventually arrived in Rome and were fully welcomed by the pope, who gave them protection and permission to pursue their way of life without interference, and he would extend the same protection and permission to future waves of Jewish refugees. (Indeed, throughout his papal reign, Alexander's relations with the Jews of Rome were so good that Cardinal della Rovere started slanderous rumors of his being secretly Jewish.) However, he soon had his hands full struggling with major Italian families, like the Rovere and the Orsini, and with the Kingdoms of France and of Naples. He began a complicated diplomatic game to build up alliances while trying not to run too far afoul of opponents of his potential allies. Most of the time and resources of the early years were inevitably diverted to these diplomatic problems.
Not long after his election as pope, he seems to have come to the conclusion that he would not survive with the College of Cardinals tipped against him, being filled with Italian allies of Rovere. Therefore he expanded the College of Cardinals with his allies, including his son, Cesare Borgia. and the brother of his mistress, Alessandro Farnese. Some of the cardinals seem to have been chosen because of their ability; others, like fourteen-year-old Ippolito d'Este, were chosen to strengthen ties with allied powers.
In 1495, the Kingdom of France conquered the Kingdom of Naples; the lead-up to this had been extremely delicate for the pope diplomatically, as he had had reason to support both, and Naples more than France. However, the conquest was a wake-up call for the Italian powers, and Alexander and Ludovico Sforza of Milan were able to pull together the Holy League of 1495, also known as the League of Venice. Nicholas V had managed to form the first Holy League, in 1454, but that had been mostly just a truce with some defensive pledges. This new Holy League is often considered the first European example of multiple states of diverse interests uniting for the explicit purpose of active defense against enemies. The King of France had been heading home slowly through Italy; the formation of the League led him to leave much more swiftly. Naples recovered, and some thought was taken to a crusade against the Turks, although this was never acted upon. The crisis averted, Alexander was finally able to subdue the Orsini and other domestic foes -- not complete victories, but enough to give him room to maneuver.
In 1497, there seemed at first to be a major shift in papal priorities. Giovanni Borgia (often Juan de Borgia) after having gone missing, was found in the Tiber, clearly having been murdered. An immense effort was devoted to discovering the murderer, but it is a mystery to this day. Alexander, who is marked by very strong affections for his children, was devastated. He resolved that the reform of the Church, which had been so much delayed by the diplomatic troubles, would be delayed no longer, and formed a commission of cardinals to draw up a plan for it. The plan was quite extensive, including corrections of laxities in the Pontifical liturgy, stronger penalties for simony, the restriction of certain perceived abuses in the papal rule of the Ecclesiastical States, a crack-down on the holding of multiple episcopal sees for the income, prohibitions on certain inappropriate behaviors among the cardinals, prohibitions on sale of offices, safeguards against abuses in the Apostolic Chancery, and more. It was an extensive and (unlike many plans for reform) very practical proposal, probably drawing in part on Alexander's own intimate familiarity with shady dealings in the papal administration -- having been Vice-Chancellor for so long, he had no doubt seen it all, and had been guilty of them himself. Such was the plan in any case. Other things came up, and it got set aside. Some of the things that had been proposed would slowly be implemented by other means, but the momentum was lost. And it seems to have been lost through much the same mechanism that had begun it: his affection for his children, this time for Cesare and Lucrezia, as he seems to have lost himself again in furthering Cesare's land holdings and in getting a good marriage and good lands for Lucrezia. If anything, the death of one son had intensified his nepotistic tendencies.
In 1499, relations between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire began deteriorating very quickly, and Alexander turned himself again to the question of a crusade. He found the same problem his predecessors had found; nobody wanted to go. Eventually, by a great deal of maneuvering and fundraising, Alexander was able to pull together a somewhat lackluster, although well-funded alliance with Hungary and Venice; all the other powers of Europe passed, although some gave a token monetary contribution. Nonetheless, Alexander's practical capabilities managed to push through to some results. The actual military success of this very inadequate league was uneven, but it was enough (in combination with other problems the sultan faced) to push the Empire to reconsider and finally sign a peace treaty with Venice.
Alexander's patronage of the arts was massive; being fairly good with money made it possible for him to support the arts on a large scale without devastating the treasury like Sixtus IV continually had. He brought hosts of artists to Rome whose names are still remembered: Pinturicchio, Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo. He was an enthusiast for drama and plays (to great scandal, since indulgence in plays was not considered appropriate for prelates). He actively supported universities and libraries, and did more than his share in restoring and maintaining the buildings of Rome, and many new churches were built with his support.
It would be a mistake to think that Alexander's concerns were wholly secular. He himself did not regard them as such, although perhaps some of this is due to having very different notions of where the line was to be drawn. I have already noted that many in the Renaissance were persuaded by the idea of Nicholas V that 'books and buildings' were a direct contribution to the work of the Church. All of his contemporaries would likewise have thought his work opposing the Ottoman Empire was a major component of ecclesiastical reform; opposing the encroachment of the Turks on Christian lands shows up repeatedly in demands for reform throughout the period. And he would not, I think, have seen his diplomatic protection of the Papal States and, even more importantly, Rome as a secondary issue in the work of the Church. We might tend to say he acted too much like a temporal prince; he would be unlikely to have understood what that even means. From his perspective, I think we can say, he acted like the pope -- it just so happened that many of the crises he faced were temporal struggles with princely powers. While many of his diplomatic gains were squandered in nepotism, he nonetheless managed to use many of them to leverage protection against the major powers of Europe for the liberties of the Church in those countries, something that his predecessor had been unable to do. Likewise, his skillful resolution of disputes between Spain and Portugal, while not foolproof, did more than anything else, perhaps, to make possible the evangelization of the New World and parts of the Far East.
And he did accomplish much that was more in line with what even people today would consider appropriate for a pope interested in ecclesiastical reform. He was, his entire reign, an extremely active patron of religious orders, and by the end of his papal tenure, many of them were greatly strengthened and improved relative to what they had been. He is the origin or the reinstator of a number of notable customs that have lasted among popes to this day, such as the custom of the holy doors, or the regular praying of the Angelus, or some of the customs associated with papal jubilees. He also implemented measures to address doctrinal deviations, for which he had very little patience; however lax his own morals, and however excessively tolerant of the moral failings of others, he was always insistent that people should at least get the doctrine right.
A worldly man more deviously cunning than wise, something of libertine whose easy way with women brought temptations he rarely if ever resisted, a nepotist whose nepotism was only not much more damaging than it was due to the fact that the Borgias were by and large a talented family in their way rather than the complete losers that had tended to be put into power by papal nepotism before. All of these things are certainly true of Alexander VI. He had many enemies, and he had the misfortune not to outlast his most serious enemy, Giuliano della Rovere, who would set out deliberately and systematically to ruin any good reputation Alexander might have that had survived his own faults. But when Alexander received the papacy, the major European powers were interfering on a more and more massive scale with the churches on their lands, the States of the Church were largely a political cipher, and reform seemed to have reached a dead end. Everything seemed to be sliding downward. By the end of his reign, all this had turned around. While the major European powers were still inclined to interfere in the churches, they had more incentive not to do so; while the Papal States were not a military match for most of their neighbors, they had been shown to be a major diplomatic power that was not lightly to be crossed, and indeed with Alexander VI the Papal States enter a period that might well be described as their height; while ecclesiastical reform was only stuttering along, it was moving again, and with Alexander VI, despite his failures of implementation, a much more practical strain of ideas about how reform could work begins to enter the discourse.
In 1503, he dined with Cesare and both were taken severely ill. Cesare almost died, but Alexander, much older, did not, although before he died, he had a full confession, took communion, and received extreme unction. Swift to smile, swift to laugh, easily tolerant of others and for the same reason too tolerant of himself, genuinely devoted to the Church but unfortunately devoted far more to family, full of faults yet hiding none of them, practical and competent and therefore rather cunning and ruthless, the most controversial pope of the Renaissance papacy was gone. He was a truly great man, easily the equal and often the superior of all the great men of his day. Had he been a prince elsewhere in Europe, he would have been lauded, I think, and would still be so. It is this, I think, that is the real truth of the criticism that he was too much of a temporal prince. His entire career puts temporal princes to shame. But he was pope, and in the papal office, just to be a great man is not enough. Very few popes are great men; their lack of greatness can usually be forgiven if they are saints, or even just devout ascetics or moderate administrators. Alexander VI was a great man, but not a saint, nor an ascetic, nor even moderate. It is hard for people to forgive a pope for being only a great man.