Useful Notes: Pope Alexander VI

The Borgia Pope
"Flee, we are in the clutches of the world".
Lorenzo De Medici upon Alexander VI's coronation.

Quite possibly the most infamous Pope of Pop Culture, Pope Alexander VI (1 January 1431 – 18 August 1503), born Rodrigo Borgia, was Pope from 1492 to 1503. His Papacy is considered the height of the Catholic Church's debauchery in the Renaissance, and his extravagances helped to trigger it.

According to Catholic Doctrine, priests, and specially Popes, are supposed to be Celibate Heroes by nature and default. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was neither. But what he lacked in holiness and piousness he made up for in cunning and shrewdness: graduating with the highest honors from a law school and made a priest (and subsequently a cardinal) by Calixtus III (his uncle). After Pope Innocent VIII died, he went on a meteoric rise in politics through all manner of bribery and corruption to buy off the entire Council of Cardinals to vote for him. He succeeded.

What followed was a spectacle of unholiness: Pope Alexander VI acknowledged all of his children, made them the most powerful family of Italy, had several mistresses within the walls of the Vatican, murdered several Italian nobles, bribed others, used his children to gain political advantage and overall did everything a Pope's supposed not to do.

It is said both he and his son Cesare fell ill after a dinner, agonized in pain for some time, and while Cesare recovered, Rodrigo lacked the same luck, and after confessing to a priest, died. Historians differ on whether Pope Alexander VI simply fell ill, was poisoned (and if so, by whom) or if he was a victim of accidental food poisoning. It is said his corpse was a horrifying sight, bloated and deformed, barely fitting into the coffin and rotting at a very fast pace. He was succeeded by his virulent arch-enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II).

Historically, Pope Alexander VI also played a role in the colonization of the New World, by passing papal bulls that divided Portuguese and Spanish territorial discoveries and legitimized their conquest of indigenous land and settlements. In 1492, after Jews were expelled from Spain, 9,000 refugees were given permission by Pope Alexander VI to settle in Rome's Jewish quarter. In a period of nasty antisemitism, Pope Alexander VI declared that they were "permitted to lead their life, free from interference from Christians, to continue in their own rites, to gain wealth, and to enjoy many other privileges." He also allowed the immigration of Jews expelled from Portugal in 1497 and from Provence in 1498.

Still, despite his many flaws, some modern historians have taken a kinder view upon his Papacy, and have noted that while he may not have been the most virtuous man, he was a great statesman who did a lot to strengthen the Church's position.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation: In recent years historians have begun to ponder more on his positive qualities. Notably there's the fact of his religious tolerance in allowing Jews to settle in Rome's Jewish Quarter at a time of great persecution and without religious pressure to convert them.
    • Part of the reason why the Borgias were so hated (by Italians and Spaniards alike) was because of the rumors that they had Jewish or Moorish origins.
  • The Atoner: Some reports of his death report he was in complete contrition on his deathbed and made extensive efforts to set all he could right before exiting the world.
  • The Casanova: He had a sizable number of mistresses way into his old age.
    • Kavorka Man: As the painting makes clear, Rodrigo was not very good-looking in his old age.
  • The Chessmaster: Machiavelli's The Prince acknowledges him as an expert manipulator of the political game, and indeed he was almost unbeatable in this regard.
    "Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise, and he always found victims; for there never was a man who had greater power in asserting, or who with greater oaths would affirm a thing, yet would observe it less; nevertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind."
  • Fat Bastard: His contemporaries' opinions of him.
  • Historical-Domain Character: A very popular one for the Renaissance, alongside people like Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: He was a very shady man, but fiction usually takes this Up to Eleven.
  • Incest Is Relative: While the exact details are not known, there is strong evidence his family was incestuous as all get out and that he likely had a role. Which of course gets played up in adaptations.
  • Nepotism: Could be the Patron Saint of this trope. Most of his papacy was dedicated to making his children and direct family the most powerful family in Italy.
  • Not So Different: He and Giuliano della Rovere-both were appointed as cardinals by their uncles, both were from families of middling influence, both had illegitimate children, both weren't shy at using shady means to get what they wanted.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: His death directly led to the downfall of his son Cesare and put Italy in a uncomfortable position between foreign powers, which eventually led to the War Of The Holy League.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: The Sensitive Guy to his son Cesare Borgia's manly man. Most adaptations play up Rodrigo's possible genuine faith and cerebral interests in contrast to Cesare's direct brutality.
  • Sinister Minister: Ordered the incarceration, murder and blackmail of quite a few people.
  • The Don: Unbuilt Trope material and probably the ancestor of most examples. Mario Puzo took several metric tons of inspiration from him in writing The Godfather and even wrote his own historical fiction rendition of the Borgia family story. In turn, fictional adaptations tend to play up his shades of "Mafia Don/Patriarch."
  • Un-Person: Pope Julius II, his successor, did everything within his power so Rodrigo's memory would be wiped off the face of the planet. Needless to say, he failed since Pope Alexander VI endures in cultural memory well into the 21st Century.

In Fiction

  • A main character in both The Borgias (played by Jeremy Irons) and Borgia, obviously.
  • The Big Bad in Assassins Creed II and part of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, a rather one-note portrayal redeemed by spirited voice-work.
  • Several Horrible Histories sketches talked about him.
  • Alexander VI and his family are the subjects of Mario Puzo's final novel The Family.
  • Alexander is played by Lluís Homar in the 2006 Spanish film, Los Borgia.