Ever since the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire first coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, the maxim has been used as a yardstick by which to judge many of those who have assumed a position of influence and authority, and their subsequent deeds. Did those in power use their position to benefit others, or did they capitalise on and manipulate their success for personal gain? Unfortunately, history is littered with many more examples of the latter than the former.
The Dark Side of Power
If we were to assess the Borgia family in these terms, how would they fare? Not well, I fear. This infamous Aragonese dynasty, which spawned no less than three popes and which dominated 15th century European politics, has long been associated with the dark side of power. Indeed, the Borgia name itself has become a byword for corruption, avarice, ruthlessness, and debauchery. Add to this a blatant disregard for celibacy and a fondness for nepotism among those members of the family who had taken up Catholic holy orders, and we are left with a rather unflattering impression of the Borgia clan in general.
Mary Hollingsworth does not shy away from these uncomfortable truths in her book, The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty. In her account of the family’s rise to prominence, she presents the history of Borgia family year by year, providing insightful and illuminating commentary along the way. Starting with Alonso de Borja, who hailed from Valencia in modern-day Spain, we follow his inexorable rise from lawyer to diplomat of the Court of Aragon to cardinal in Rome, culminating in his ascension to the Papal throne as Calixtus III in 1455.
It was Calixtus who first indulged in nepotism, a practice which was to become a defining Borgia family tradition. He had no qualms about promoting two of his nephews, Rodrigo Borgia (the family had, by this stage, taken on the Italian form of their name) and Luis Julian de Milà, to various positions of prominence within the church until before long, both men had the red hat of the cardinal planted firmly on their heads. It was Rodrigo, however, who was destined to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, and it is he who garners most of the author’s attention in this book.
From the outset, Cardinal Rodrigo seems to have been more concerned with temporal, rather than spiritual, concerns. Proving himself to be savvy businessman, he amassed an impressive fortune as he gained a large portfolio of bishoprics, benefices, and castles through his work for the Church. As his wealth increased, so did his influence. A consummate politician, Rodrigo’s behind-the-scenes machinations meant he had a hand in the elections of Pope Pius II, Pope Paul II, Pope Sixtus IV and Pope Innocent VIII. Finally, on the death of Innocent VIII, this seasoned pope-maker himself won the papal tiara, emerging from the Papal Conclave of 1492 as Pope Alexander VI (pictured).
During his time as cardinal, Rodrigo had lived his life more in the vein of a secular prince than a religious one. He sired many children by a number of mistresses, and once he became Pope, he openly used his elevated ecclesiastical position to further the careers and fortunes of his offspring and other relatives. Equally, he was not averse to using his children as pawns in his never-ending political games, as he played the royal families of Naples, Milan, France and Aragon off against each other to promote his own ends. His daughter Lucrezia was particularly ill-used; by the age of just twenty, she had found herself farmed out to the marriage market no less than five times as her all-powerful father arranged and dissolved her various unions at will.
A Medieval Family
This, of course, was not without consequences. Pope Alexander VI’s actions won him many enemies, while also breeding an insidious and destructive atmosphere of jealousy, ambition, greed, lasciviousness and cruelty within his own family. When the pope’s favourite son, Giovanni, was brutally slain in 1497, his lifeless body having been thrown unceremoniously into the Tiber in the dead of night, rumours of fratricide against his ruthless brother, Cesare, abounded. This shadow of suspicion hangs over Cesare’s reputation to this day, and he also remains the prime suspect in the murder of his brother-in-law, Alfonso of Aragon, Lucrezia’s second husband.
Mary Hollingsworth makes great use of source material in this meticulous recounting of the Borgia saga. Quoting extensively from contemporary accounts, she effectively captures the allure of this fascinating medieval family. Rather than weaving together the Borgia’s story, she unravels it and places it before the reader as a timeline of events, while simultaneously placing these events in the context of the wider European politics of the day. The result is an accessible, informative and altogether gripping read.
The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty by Mary Hollingsworth is published by Quercus on 3 April 2014.