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Published:June 15th, 2008 19:30 EST
Mysteries of History: Cardinal, Warrior, and Lover - the Life of Cesare Borgia

Mysteries of History: Cardinal, Warrior, and Lover - the Life of Cesare Borgia

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio by Kristin Marzec

He was handsome, wealthy, and powerful. Hardly any woman could resist his flirtatious smile; hardly any monarch was immune to his silk, flattering voice. As the son of a pope and a relative to many crowned heads, Cesare Borgia was destined for great things. Yet he ended his life at the age of 31 as a captain in an obscure army.


The sunrise was still young when a lone rider appeared at the walls of Viana. His impeccable posture and beautifully crafted armor, made of the strongest yet most delicate iron, impressed the Spanish defenders so much that they halted their retreat to admire the stranger. Driven by some incomprehensible lust for blood, the knight threw himself at the numerous enemies, slashing one after another until he himself fell, mortally wounded. Minutes passed before anyone dared to approach the body. "My God!" exclaimed one brave. "We killed Cesare Borgia!"


What were his last thoughts? Did he think about his father, Pope Alexander VI, to whom he owed his name, position, and wealth; but also the painful childhood and neglect throughout most of his adult life? Perhaps before the eternal darkness descended upon him, Cesare saw Giovanni - his older brother that he had helped to kill four years earlier. Or maybe once again, for the last time, he imagined that his beloved Italy was finally united under his gracious rule? Apart from women, politics was, after all, his main passion.


When Cesare Borgia was born, Italy resembled ancient Greece with its multitude of city-states governed by wealthy families, such as the Sforzas, whose splendor and whimsicalities often exceeded those of Roman Caesars. Both France and Spain constantly competed politically and militarily for spheres of influence in this complicated political mosaic, leaving local satraps little room for maneuver. Finally, there were also the Papal States - independent territories of different size and strength united under one rule of the pope.


The Borgias had moved to Italy relatively late. The family exodus began in the first half of the fifteenth century when Don Alonso de Borgia, an acclaimed Spanish scholar of European universities, arrived in Naples to become a personal secretary to King Alfonso I of Aragon. In 1444, his vast connections secured him the position of Bishop of Valencia, which 11 years later, he would exchange for the papal throne as Calixtus III.


Nepotism ran deeply in the family, so the new pope made sure that all important offices were in the hands of his relatives. The one who turned out to be the most successful was his nephew Roderic, whom Calixtus III consecutively promoted from an obscure bishop to cardinal to vice-chancellor of the Church. Neither the death of his uncle nor numerous sexual affairs with noble ladies and prostitutes alike stalled Roderic`s ascent to absolute power which culminated on his becoming Pope Alexander VI on August 11, 1492.


Few people were happier with this news than Cesare Borgia. Already a bishop despite his young age - he was only 17 years old at that time - Cesare had always looked upon his father as the epitome of a Renaissance statesman. But this strong love had never been reciprocated by Roderic who, first as a cardinal and later a pope, saw in his ambitious son a dangerous obstacle to his great plans. Instead, he favored the oldest, Giovanni, for whom he had prepared the life of a warrior and ruler.


But Cesare was not carved out for a religious career. Women found his handsome face and smooth talk irresistible, while jealous noblemen speculated that even his beautiful sister, Lucretia, loved her brother with a sinful feeling. The accusation of incest, although never proved, circulated among the Italian aristocracy, and grew stronger when Lucretia`s husbands died, one after another, in mysterious circumstances. The fair sex, however, was only one of Cesare`s passions; politics was his true religion.


When he reached 18, his father anointed him a cardinal. It would be a great achievement for any of his contemporaries but Cesare accepted the nomination with the taint of disappointment. At around the same time, Giovanni became the commander of the papal forces, strong enough to keep much of Europe Catholic. The animosity between the two brothers was additionally inflamed by Sancha of Aragon - their youngest brother`s wife and mutual lover. Cesare`s insatiable ambition couldn`t bear it for too long; on June 14, 1497, Giovanni was ambushed and killed, his massacred body found in a river several days later.


With his brother dead, only one more thing prevented Cesare from realizing his dreams: as a cardinal he could not command an army. This problem was quickly solved with Pope Alexander VI annulling his son`s clerical vows in 1498. On the same day that he took off his purple cassock, Cesare left for Paris where he befriended King Louis XII and married one of the monarch`s nieces. The marriage gave him not only a beautiful and rich wife but also an aristocratic title that he, as a bastard child, had longed for for so long. Cardinal Cesare Borgia morphed into the Duke of Valentinois.


As a commander and diplomat Cesare had no peers. Although by no means the mightiest army on the continent, the papal forces defeated several long-time foes such as Caterina Sforza who had refused to marry her son to the pope`s daughter, Lucretia. When enemies were too strong, Cesare sought for reconciliation only to betray them when an occasion appeared. Both France and Spain - Europe`s two greatest powers - regarded him as their friend, hardly suspecting that Cesare had no friends, only interests. As the first person in history since the Roman Empire, Cesare Borgia was on the verge of uniting the whole of Italy.


But then, in 1503, his father died. Pope Julius II, who came after the short reign of Pius III, had harbored a grudge against the Borgias since Roderic had unfairly been elected pope over him, due to personal connections. Cesare was deprived of all the land he had conquered and, in 1504, was imprisoned in Spain. He managed to escape, though, and joined the forces of his brother-in-law, King John III of Navarre. It was at the helm of this small army that, in 1507, Cesare began the siege of Viana where he fought his final battle. Paradoxically, the siege turned out to be a great success, with the Spaniards fleeing the city, but Cesare never saw it.


His body was buried in unconsecrated ground to be "trampled on by men and beasts," as a local bishop declared. Only 500 years after his death, in 2007, Catholic authorities agreed to move Cesare`s remains to a nearby church. "We have nothing against the transfer of his remains. Whatever he may have done in his life, he deserves to be forgiven now," said the church`s rector.


Niccolo Machiavelli, who based his famous treatise The Prince on the life of Cesare Borgia, said of the man he knew and admired: "If all the actions of the duke are taken into consideration, it will be seen how great were the foundations he had laid to future power.  Upon these I do not think it superfluous to discourse, because I should not know what better precept to lay before a new prince than the example of his actions; and if success did not wait upon what dispositions he had made, that was through no fault of his own, but the result of an extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune."


That`s all for this week`s Mysteries of History. Next Sunday: the Armenian Genocide. Did it really happen or maybe the Turkish government is rightly calling it just a minor incident?

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