Your guide to the Borgias

In Renaissance Rome, one powerful family stood out as being steeped in sin and immorality: the Borgias. This dynasty produced two Popes, and became infamous for their nepotism, depravity and lust for power

Painting of Pope Callixtus II, the first Borgia pope, though it would be his nephew Rodrigo (later Pope Alexander VI) who would earn great infamy

Who were the Borgias?

The Borgias were a powerful family in Renaissance Italy. Despite the fact that they produced two Popes, their name has become associated with all kinds of dark deeds.

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How did the Borgias first come to prominence?

They were originally a noble Spanish dynasty, who switched to Italy when Alfonso di Borgia (1378-1458) was made a cardinal in 1444. Eleven years later, he was appointed as Pope – taking the name Callixtus III – and gave a leg-up to his nephew Rodrigo Borgia.

In 1492, Rodrigo kept the family tradition going and also succeeded to the papacy. As the hugely controversial Pope Alexander VI, he began to accumulate a vast amount of land and power for himself and his illegitimate children.

Could a Pope have children?

As a priest, Rodrigo was supposed to live in celibacy, but this did not prevent him having a number of mistresses and fathering several children – even while Pope.

He was not the only priest to have had children, but the way he openly acknowledged many of them and sought to advance their careers was unusual.

Which of his children were the most noteworthy?

Soon after becoming Pope, Rodrigo had his son Cesare made a cardinal. Cesare, however, was not suited to the religious life and instead became a military commander, where he conducted a number of campaigns in the sole hope of creating a Borgia principality in Italy that would survive the death of his father.

He was forced to abandon this dream when his father died in 1503 and was replaced as Pope by Julius II, who was instantly hostile to the Borgia family. Cesare ended up leaving Italy and dying in Spain during a skirmish.

Another notable child of Rodrigo’s was Lucrezia Borgia, used by her father as a diplomatic pawn. Three marriages, which were politically advantageous for the Borgias, were arranged for her. Her first was annulled due to supposed non-consummation, while her second husband was murdered by Cesare’s servants.

Her third and final marriage, to the Duke of Ferrara, was much happier and she managed to achieve a comfortable life at court, where she became a patron of the arts.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

Why do the Borgias have such a bad reputation and what was the Banquet of Chestnuts?

The Borgias were accused of a catalogue of sins, among them murder, incest, poisoning and bewitching. They are also infamously associated with all manner of sexual depravity.

The most notorious and sordid tale was the ‘Banquet of Chestnuts’ in 1501 – a mass orgy supposedly held by Cesare in Rome, and featuring 50 naked prostitutes who spent the evening entertaining the dignitaries, as well as the holy family.

Part of the reason for this black reputation is that Rodrigo and Cesare were ruthless and highly ambitious men, prepared to use violence and trickery to increase their power. It is not for nothing that Cesare was a great inspiration to the writer Niccolo Machiavelli.

Were the Borgias really that bad?

Many of the extreme allegations made against the Borgias don’t stand up to scrutiny and seem likely to have been fabricated by their enemies, of whom there were many.

Coming from Spain, the Borgias were always viewed as outsiders in Italy. What popularity they acquired, moreover, was diminished by their constant efforts to gain land and power at the expense of others.

Their dynasty was brief – after Rodrigo died, they faded as quickly as they had risen, leaving few friends remaining who would defend their memory from the rumours that immediately began swirling around them.

Has history been unfair to the Borgias?

It almost certainly has. The Borgias are remembered as sexual deviants and murderers, but when the more unlikely accusations are removed, their behaviour was not necessarily worse than that of many other powerful Italian families in the Renaissance era.

They were far from saints, but don’t deserve to be remembered as the epitome of villainy.

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This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed