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Pope Alexander VI

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia


ALEXANDER VI. (Rodrigo Borgia) (1431-1503), pope from 1492 to his death, is the most memorable of the corrupt and secular popes of the Renaissance. He was born (January 1, 1431) at Xativa, near Valencia in Spain, and his father's surname was Lanzol or Llancol; that of his mother's family, Borgia or Borja, was assumed by him on the elevation of his maternal uncle to the papacy as Calixtus III. (April 8, 1455). He studied law at Bologna, and after his uncle's election he was created successively bishop, cardinal and vice-chancellor of the church, an act of nepotism characteristic of the age. He served in the Curia under five popes and acquired much administrative experience, influence and wealth, although no great power; he was economical in his habits; on occasion he displayed great splendour and lived in a fine palace. His manners were agreeable and his appearance fascinating, but, like many other prelates of the day, his morals were far from blameless, his two dominant passions being greed of gold and love of women, and he was devotedly fond of the children whom his mistresses bore him. Although ecclesiastical corruption was then at its height, his riotous mode of life called down upon him a very severe reprimand from Pope Pius II., who succeeded Calixtus III. in 1458. Of his many mistresses the one for whom his passion lasted longest was a certain Vannozza (Giovanna) dei Cattani, born in 1442, and wife of three successive husbands. The connexion began in 1470, and she bore him many children whom he openly acknowledged as his own: Giovanni, afterwards duke of Gandia (born 1474), Cesare (born 1476), Lucrezia (born 1480), and Goffredo or Giuffre (born 1481 or 1482). His other children--Girolamo, Isabella and Pier Luigi--were of uncertain parentage. Before his elevation to the papacy Cardinal Borgia's passion for Vannozza somewhat diminished, and she subsequently led a very retired life. Her place in his affections was filled by the beautiful Giulia Farnese (Giulia Bella), wife of an Orsini, but his love for his children by Vannozza remained as strong as ever and proved, indeed, the determining factor of his whole career. He lavished vast sums on them and loaded them with every honour. A characteristic instance of the corruption of the papal court is the fact that Borgia's daughter Lucrezia (see BORGIA, LUCREZIA) lived with his mistress Giulia, who bore him a daughter Laura in 1492.

On the death of Pope Innocent VIII. the three likely candidates for the Holy See were Cardinals Borgia, Ascanio Sforza and Giuliano della Rovere; at no previous or subsequent election were such immense sums of money spent on bribery, and Borgia by his great wealth succeeded in buying the largest number of votes, including that of Sforza, and to his intense joy he was elected on the 10th of August 1492, assuming the name of Alexander VI. Borgia's elevation did not at the time excite much alarm, except in some of the cardinals who knew him, and at first his reign was marked by a strict administration of justice and an orderly method of government in satisfactory contrast with the anarchy of the previous pontificate, as well as by great outward splendour. But it was not long before his unbridled passion for endowing his relatives at the expense of the church and of his neighbours became manifest. For this object he was ready to commit any crime and to plunge all Italy into war. Cesare, then a youth of sixteen and a student at Pisa, was made archbishop of Valencia, his nephew Giovanni received a cardinal's hat, and for the duke of Gandia and Giuffre the pope proposed to carve fiefs out of the papal states and the kingdom of Naples. Among the fiefs destined for the duke of Gandia were Cervetri and Anguillara, lately acquired by Virginio Orsini, head of that powerful and turbulent house, with the pecuniary help of Ferdinand of Aragon, king of Naples (Don Ferrante). This brought the latter into conflict with Alexander, who determined to revenge himself by making an alliance with the king's enemies, especially the Sforza family, lords of Milan. In this he was opposed by Cardinal della Rovere, whose candidature for the papacy had been backed by Ferdinand. Della Rovere, feeling that Rome was a dangerous place for him, fortified himself in his bishopric of Ostia at the Tiber's mouth, while Ferdinand allied himself with Florence, Milan, Venice, and the pope formed a league against Naples (April 25, 1493) and prepared for war. Ferdinand appealed to Spain for help; but Spain was anxious to be on good terms with the pope to obtain a title over the newly discovered continent of America and could not afford to quarrel with him.

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