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Useful Notes / Pope Alexander VI

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

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 and the Reformation shortly thereafter.

According to Catholic Doctrine, priests, and especially Popes, are supposed to be Celibate Heroes by nature and default. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was neither. But what he lacked in holiness and piety, 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, (which was par for the course in that election). 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 Vatican's walls, murdered several Italian nobles, bribed others, used his children to gain political advantage, and overall did everything a Pope's not supposed 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 (some of which has been chalked up to the summer heat). He was succeeded by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (Pope Pius III, whose pontificate lasted a mere 26 days), followed by Alexander's 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.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • The Chessmaster: Machiavelli's The Prince acknowledges him as an expert manipulator of the political game.
    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.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Was apparently moved to tears at his final confession, and quite thorough in describing his misdeeds.
  • 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".
  • Historical Beauty Update: Most old portraits of him depict him with a double chin, chubby cheeks and a Sinister Schnoz. He's been portrayed by the likes of Manuel Tadros and Jeremy Irons, who are far from unattractive.
    • On the other hand, contemporary accounts suggest that he was actually an attractive man in his prime, so it might be a subversion.
  • Historical Domain Character: A very popular one for the Renaissance, alongside people like Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: He was a very shady man, but fiction usually takes this Up to Eleven.
    • Even as early as the 18th Century historians noted that compared to many of the other cunning and shrewd nobles of his generation, he wasn't all that bad. What made everyone see him as such a monster was the fact that he became Pope and as such was held to a higher standard.
  • 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.

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