Pope Alexander VI
Pope Alexander VI

Era: 1492-1503

Roderigo do Borja y Borja (Borgia) was born in 1431 near Valencia, Spain. As the nephew of the bishop of Valencia, who became Pope Callistus III in 1455, Roderigo enjoyed the benefits provided by him. He was educated in Bologna, Italy, earning a doctorate in law in 1456. He was twenty-five years old.

What followed was a career that spanned thirty-five years and four popes. He was named cardinal deacon in 1456 and became vice-chancellor of the Holy See the same year. This appointment allowed him to amass a fortune and to align himself with anyone who would further his political ambitions.

So licentious and scandalous was the life he was openly leading that Pope Pius II sharply rebuked him but to no avail. Cardinal Borgia fathered seven children before ascending the papal throne and two more while pope. Some of their mothers are unknown but two, the mothers of his favorite children, are recorded.

Upon the death of Innocent VIII (1484 – 1492) Roderigo, a Spaniard was not considered a strong candidate. However, given his financial holdings and influential dealings, Roderigo was able to affect the outcome of the election and emerged from the conclave victorious.

Taking the name of Alexander VI in 1492, his papacy coincided with the beginning of the age of exploration of the Americas. What could have been the start of a spiritual reformation within the church instead turned out to be the high water mark of wanton, immoral behavior by the pope himself and by his son, Caesare. It was soon obvious that wealth and power and women were not all that consumed Alexander. He also intended to take over the Papal States where Caesare would reign.

Alexander was, without a doubt, immensely gifted. At sixty-one years of age, he was intellectually brilliant, possessed experience, administrative and diplomatic skills and enjoyed the favor of the people both in Rome and abroad.

He was a lover of the arts and responsible for the restoration of Castel Sant’ Angelo, for embellishing the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, and for using his influence to persuade Michaelangelo to plan the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. With the first gold from the New World conquests he decorated the ceiling of St. Mary Major.

In preparation for the Jubilee Year of 1500 came the creation of a special Holy Door in St. Peter’s, a tradition that continues to the present time. He was a lover of pomp and circumstance and it is interesting that this pope who in his personal life was thought so devoid of moral character, was a stickler for orthodoxy in ceremony, insisting on absolute decorum and correctness in all the liturgical festivities of the Holy Year. Meanwhile, the influx of pilgrims to Rome for the Holy Year and the selling of indulgences created much needed money to finance Caesar’s expeditions to create a Borgia dynasty in the Papal States.

Surrounding his papacy were all the political intrigues of the Holy Roman Empire. The Papal States were in constant turmoil. The Spanish king of Naples, Ferdinand, was at odds with the pope who was in cahoots with Charles VIII of France, over the kingdom of Naples. There was the ongoing threat of the expanding Turkish Empire and Alexander played diplomatic cards in that arena. In Rome, various cardinals were locked in battles. One cardinal, Della Rovere (the future Julius II) led a campaign to have the pope deposed but Alexander skillfully defeated these efforts by concluding a treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, Venice and Spain. Charles VIII of France, who had been aided by Della Rovere, abandoned his invasion and withdrew his troops.

Closer to the religious mission of the church, a Dominican in Florence began to preach loudly and vehemently against the corruption of the papacy. Giralamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) thought of himself as an instrument of reform but the power lay with the pope. Alexander banned him from preaching. Girolamo obeyed for a while then began anew. He was then excommunicated. The Florentines, whose motives were clouded with commercial concerns that Savonarola preached against (he was against trading and moneymaking) also began to fear the wrath of the papacy and eventually turned against the strident views of Savonarola. He was charged with heresy and inciting schism, tortured and then hung in chains and burned in 1498.

Circumstances that may have changed Alexander, like the death of a favored son, Juan, while crushing his ambitions momentarily, only caused him to redouble his efforts to conquer the northern section of the Papal States (Romagna) for Caesare.

Alexander VI died in August of 1503 after dining at the home of a cardinal in what appears to have been poisoning. Caesare survived the ordeal but the Pope succumbed and was buried during the heat of that August in unceremonious conditions. Thus ended the reign of probably the most notorious pope in church history.