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Useful Notes / Pope Alexander VI

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The Borgia Pope

"We are in the clutches of the wolf, and if we do not flee, we shall be devoured.".
Giovanni de'Medici upon Alexander VI's coronation. Supposedly.

Alexander VI (1 January 1431 – 18 August 1503), born Rodrigo Borgia, was The Pope from 1492 to 1503. His Papacy is quite infamous, and believed by some to be the height of the Catholic Church's debauchery during The Renaissance and the Italian Wars, an era of extravagances that helped to trigger the Reformation shortly thereafter.

Borgia was born to a noble family from Aragón (which would unite with Castile to form modern Spain when he was 48). According to Catholic doctrine, priests, and especially Popes, are supposed to be Celibate Heroes by default. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was not. But what he lacked in holiness and piety, he made up for in cunning and shrewdness: after graduating from the University of Bologna with highest honors, he was made a cardinal by his uncle Pope Calixtus III (born Alfonso Borgia), who went as far as making Rodrigo, still in his 20s, Vice-Chancellor of the church, essentially second-in-command to the Pope. Rodrigo held onto this office through the next few papacies, including Pius II and his ill-advised plan to have a crusade (it ended when his entire entourage got the plague and he died); Sixtus IV, who became a great enemy of both the Borgias and their allies the Medici, and who elevated his own nephew Giuliano della Rovere to the position of Cardinal; and Innocent VIII, who himself had plenty of illegitimate children. After Pope Innocent VIII died, the stage was set for a showdown of bribery between Cardinals Borgia and Della Rovere. Borgia won.

The length of the family's list of enemies probably influenced Alexander's decision to make a force of nature like Diego García de Paredes his bodyguard, at least until a dueling scandal forced the guard to fire him.

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. For centuries, it was assumed that they had been trying to poison their hosts and mixed up the goblets. However, nowadays it is more or less agreed that they died of malaria — back then, no one knew how bad an idea it was to hold a party by the river in the summer in Rome. It is said that 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), but that wasn't the only reason he was given no respect at his funeral. He was succeeded by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, who took the name Pope Pius III, and whose pontificate lasted a mere 26 days. He, in turn, was followed by Alexander's virulent arch-enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (Pope Julius II). Julius hated Rodrigo with a passion. He had Rodrigo's apartments in the Vatican closed up, and hired Rafael to fresco the rooms right above them so that he could have the pleasure of walking over his dead enemy.

Historically, Pope Alexander VI also played a role in the colonization of the New World, passing papal bulls that divided Portuguese and Spanish territorial discoveries and legitimized their conquest of indigenous land, influencing The Catholic Monarchs and the School of Salamanca into developing their laws of protection of the natives. In 1492, after the 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 in virtually all the countries and cultures, 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. And after complaints of Tomás de Torquemada's extremism have reached the pope's ears, he had assigned assistant inquisitors just to keep Torquemada in check, before forcing him to retire to a convent.

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:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Rodrigo was ugly on most contemporary (or later) paintings representing him, something the likes of Jeremy Irons or Manuel Tadros are not. On the other hand, contemporary accounts suggest that he was actually an attractive man in his prime. His children, especially Cesare and Lucrezia, had their beauty praised quite often as well.
  • The Chessmaster: Machiavelli's The Prince is heavily inspired by Cesare's conquests, and sings his praises throughout. The final chapter is practically begging the leaders of Florence to pick up where Cesare left off, and unify Italy. He also acknowledges Alexander 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: Alexander was apparently moved to tears at his final confession, and quite thorough in describing his misdeeds.
  • The Don: Unbuilt Trope material — Rodrigo was 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 Domain Character: A very popular one for the Renaissance, alongside people like Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Rodrigo 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.
  • Parental Favoritism: As in real life, Rodrigo is usually depicted favoring his children by Vanozza over his children from other liaisons, and displays favoritism even within the four, preferring his son Juan over Cesare. On the other hand, Rodrigo is consistently depicted as treating Joffre as The Unfavorite.
  • Really Gets Around: Rodrigo was a man of many appetites, and loved the pleasures of the flesh.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: The Sensitive Guy to his Cesare Borgia's manly man. Several adaptations play up Rodrigo's possible genuine faith and cerebral interests in contrast to Cesare's direct brutality. However, historically, Cesare was also quite brilliant, and his brutality was shown rarely, yet pointedly — it's what he's known for because he did it so well.
  • Villainous Incest: Propaganda spread by the family's enemies, most notably Giovanni Sforza (see above), accuses them of this. It's highly unlikely to be true, though it hasn't stopped the more sensationalist adaptations from making it canon — and making viewers ship Cesare/Lucrezia even if they never thought they would.

Appears in the following works:

  • The BBC's The Borgias, with Adolfo Celi playing him.
  • 2011 gave us both The Borgias (Rodrigo was played by Jeremy Irons) and Borgia (Rodrigo was played by John Doman), of course.
  • Rodrigo is the Grand Master of the Italian Templars and the Big Bad of Assassin's Creed II as well as a part of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. A rather one-note portrayal, unflinchingly in Historical Villain Upgrade territory, redeemed by spirited voice-work by Manuel Tadros, after which the character is modeled. Tadros also played him in live-action in Assassin's Creed: Lineage.
  • Several Horrible Histories sketches talked about them, with Jim Howick playing Rodrigo as a Vito Corleone Expy.
  • Alexander VI and the Borgias are the subjects of Mario Puzo's final novel The Family.
  • Alexander is played by Lluís Homar in the 2006 Spanish film, Los Borgia.
  • A comic book series simply called Borgia by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Milo Manara takes a rather sensationalist approach to the family's history, going even further than the usual Villainous Incest stories (Rodrigo sodomizes a rebellious preacher to death on a bed of spikes, for one).
  • The manga Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto follows Rodrigo's son Cesare and his companion Miguel as 16-year-old schoolboys, through the eyes of his classmate, a Florentine commoner named Angelo. Cesare is working as an ambassador for his father, and Rodrigo's activities leading up to the conclave are an important subplot. The 13 volumes are gentle, scholarly, and packed with Scenery Porn. The artist Fuyumi Soryo created the series with the assistance of a Dante scholar, for maximum accuracy and period detail.
    • The ending of the manga shows an entirely different, and plausible if unlikely, version of the new pope's relationship with Cardinal Giovanni de'Medici (the future Pope Leo X), who gave us the page quote. At the time of the conclave that elected Rodrigo, Giovanni was 16, had just become a cardinal, and had just lost his father, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Rodrigo has promised to be like a father to Giovanni in Rome, something Giovanni desperately needs. But Giovanni's older brother, head of the Medici family now that their father has died, has decided to break up old alliances and commands Giovanni to vote for Della Rovere. Each cardinal is allowed to bring two aides into the conclave, and Giovanni brings an older advisor who represents his brother, and Angelo da Canossa, a classmate of his and Cesare's from Pisa University and the point-of-view character of the series. Giovanni wants to stay loyal to Rodrigo and Cesare, and Angelo gives him the courage to do so. In real life, Giovanni is seen as having been one of the earliest opponents of the Borgias (see the page quote), but he was 16 at the time, and had a lot of time to revise his story after their fall, in order to stay on good terms with Julius II, perhaps, and clear his own way to being elected as Pope Leo X.
  • In 2023, Japan gave us a Borgia musical. Based on the above manga, Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto premiered to great praise after a 3-year COVID delay. The original cast starred Akinori Nakagawa (famous for playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys) as 16-year-old Cesare, Tetsuya Bessho (famous for playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables) as Rodrigo. They are the only two Borgias who appear. (Miguel da Corella was played by Kenchi Tachibana of the J-Pop group Exile). Cesare's first line is "My father is a monster", but we don't actually see Rodrigo do anything all that monstrous. He's Affably Evil, hammy, and rather fun.
  • Cantarella is another manga about Cesare, though a more fantastic take — in it, Rodrigo sold not his own soul, but Cesare's, to the devil in exchange for the papacy.
  • One Winged Michelangelo features Alexander only briefly in the art that involves Cesare.


Video Example(s):


Pope Alexander VI

The Renaissance era is a haven for all sorts of corrupt people and none more so than the very pope himself.

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