Legends Of The Renaissance: Facts About The Borgia Family

Otherwise known as the House of Borgia, the Borgias were a powerful Spanish-Aragonese noble family during the Italian Renaissance. Coming into prominence during the 15th and 16th centuries, the family managed to produce two popes: Alfons de Borja, who ruled as Pope Callixtus III, and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, who ruled as Pope Alexander VI. Under the reign of Pope Alexander IV, the family was suspected of countless crimes including adultery, bribery, and worse. Many of the crimes were committed in order for the family to remain in power. Take a look at what made the Borgias stand out in history.

The Pious Borgia

Image of Francis
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Although the Borgia family had a reputation for being scandalous, especially when it came to their power in the Catholic Church, one member took his position seriously. Incredibly, although Francis Borgia was the 4th Duke of Gandía, he renounced his names and title and devoted himself to the faith, becoming a Jesuit.

He performed missionary work, founded schools in Spain, and even established a university in Rome. In 1670, he was canonized by Pope Clement X. To this day, many people believe that Francis redeemed the Borgia family reputation

The Family Was Originally Spanish

Building in Spain
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Although the family is closely associated with Italy, the name “Borgia” is the Italian version of “de Borja.” These words translate to mean “from the town of Borja,” which was a location in Spain. At one point in time, the Kings of Aragon ruled Borja, and the Borgias were nobles who served the crown.

It’s estimated that the name dates back to the 5th century BC under Roman and Muslim rule. Still, it would take time until the future rulers of Italy rose to enough power to establish themselves as a somewhat elevated household. Little is known about the beginnings of the family, as they were still slightly irrelevant during that time.

Machiavelli’s Writings May Have Been Inspired By The Family

Portrait of Machiavelli
DEA Picture Library/Getty Images
DEA Picture Library/Getty Images

Considered to be one of the original Renaissance men and political philosophers, Niccolò Machiavelli supposedly wrote his work The Prince about Cesare Borgia. Many historians accept this as truth since Machiavelli lived with the Borgias for a time.

While some see his writings as a guide about how to influence those around you and defeat your enemies via political strategy, others have interpreted it as a criticism of Cesare’s wrath and corruption.

Cesare’s Instinctive Emotions Led To His Death

Portrait of Cesare
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

In the year 1507, Cesare Borgia was in the midst of a military campaign and leading an army of disgruntled soldiers as his power was slowly decreasing. At one point in the campaign, a group of knights attempted to desert the castle they were holding, assuming a storm would hide their escape.

Cesare chased them down in a rage of fury on his own, without his soldiers. Realizing that Cesare was alone, the knights killed him and took everything of worth that he had, and the once-feared ruler was gone.

Lucrezia Borgia Broke The Glass Ceiling

Coin of Lucrezia
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lucrezia Borgia was the middle child of the four Borgia siblings, yet, even as a woman at the time, she made quite a name for herself. Described as a natural beauty, her father and brothers sought after the best marriages that would solidify their power. During her life, Lucrezia would be married three different times.

Nevertheless, she was an independent woman with her own ambitions, and her education and family name made her essentially unstoppable. This eventually resulted in her reigning as Governor of Spoleto. Previously, this position was only held by male cardinals of the church.

From Corruption To The Papacy

Art of Pope Alexander
De Agostini via Getty Images
De Agostini via Getty Images

Despite the fact that Rodrigo Borgia welcomed corruption in all forms during his time as a cardinal, it didn’t take long for him to be in the running for pope. Although he failed to succeed Sixtus IV in 1492 when Innocent VIII died, the 61-year-old Rodrigo seized the opportunity. He was considered to be an outsider considering that he was a Spaniard and well known for his corruption.

According to a vast amount of historians, it wasn’t surprising that he was notorious for paying all kinds of bribes. At one point, he even paid his main opposition to drop out. It was at that moment that Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI.

Alexander VI Shook The Faith By Acknowledging His Illegitimate Children

Pope Alexander painting
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

While Pope Alexander VI’s prior scandalous intimate relationships weren’t necessarily unknown by those around him, when he became pope, it was assumed that he would change his actions.

Yet, that wasn’t the case at all. Instead of burying his past, Alexander VI went so far as to admit to having several illegitimate children. This confession was unbelievable to not only his advisors, but the followers of the Catholic Church, and his enemies as well. For a pope to admit such a thing was unheard of, yet people were willing to ignore it since Alexander VI managed to correct many of Innocent VIII’s wrongdoings.

Cesare Hired Leonardo Da Vinci For Several Projects

Portrait of da Vinci
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

While Cesare Borgia was a patron to several artists of the Renaissance, he took a particular liking to the legendary Leonardo da Vinci. In 1502, he even hired the genius to be his military architect and engineer.

On top of that, under Cesare’s patronage, da Vinci was given almost absolute freedom to inspect and give direction to the many territories that he owned. He even entrusted da Vinci with the task of constructing the canal from Cesena to the Porto Cesenatico.

They Suffered Without The Influence Of The Papacy

Picture of Pope Alexander
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Cesare suffered some difficult years almost immediately after Pope Alexander VI died, and he wasn’t the only member of the family to do so. At the time, Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este protected her from the Borgia’s enemies, yet the later generations didn’t have as much security.

The later generations of the family lived extravagantly, but not to the same level that earlier generations had. Without the papacy on their side, the family never attained the power they once had. Because of this, by the 18th century, the Borgia family was essentially nonexistent.

A Mysterious Death In The Family

Painting f Giovanni
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On June 14, 1497, tragedy struck the Borgia family, and Giovanni Borgia was murdered by unknown assailants. He was last seen with Cesare and the rest of his siblings in their mother’s home, yet when he left, he was never seen alive again.

Supposedly, in the early hours of the next morning, Giovanni’s horse returned to the house without a rider. His body was later found dead and mutilated in the Tiber with no real answer as to what happened.

Giovanni’s Father Called Off An Investigation Of His Son’s Death

Picture of Giovanni
Vika Bershadskaya/Pinterest
Vika Bershadskaya/Pinterest

After he learned of his son’s mysterious death, Rodrigo Borgia was devastated and insisted that an investigation be done. However, just one week later, he called it off. Although his reasoning remains a mystery, theories as to why Rodrigo stopped the investigation have emerged.

One of the most popular is that both Giovanni’s brothers are suspected of murdering him. At the time, Giovanni was being given more responsibility and power within the family, which would have enraged Cesare. In the case of Gioffre, Giovanni was having an affair with his wife.

Bred For Leadership

Painting of Cesare
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Beginning at a young age, Cesare Borgia was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a religious leader. By the age of 15, Cesare was already the Bishop of Pamplona, and two years later was the archbishop of Valencia.

While Cesare then rose to the rank of cardinal in the Vatican, he decided that the religious life wasn’t for him. Instead, he found his calling in the military. In 1498, Cesare became the first man in history to resign his position as a cardinal and devote his life to the military.

Cesare Attempted To Slay His Brother-In-Law

Painting of Lucrezia
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1493, the Borgias finally found a match for Lucrezia, who was only 13 at the time. This was Giovanni Sforza, a count and illegitimate son of their rivals in the Sforza family. However, their marriage did not have a happy ending. In fact, Cesare reportedly attempted to assassinate his own brother-in-law, Giovanni Sforza. He failed in the attempt.

The reason Cesare wanted Giovanni dead was that the marriage was no longer politically useful anymore, so the best decision was to dispose of him. Giovanni managed to escape Rome during the attack, and the Borgias pressured him into an annulment instead.

A Secret Baby

Illustration of Lucrezia
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

It’s rumored that Lucrezia also had a secret child. During the process of annulling her marriage to Giovanni, it’s believed that she began having an affair with a man named Pedro Calderon, and had a child as a result of it.

While there is little proof, she did enter a convent, something that wasn’t uncommon for pregnant women to do to hide their situation. Around this time, Pedro Calderon’s body was found in the Tiber River, as if someone was attempting to cover something up.

The Man Behind The Mask

Painting of Cesare
Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Although Cesare Borgia was known to be a strikingly handsome man in his youth, in the later years of his life, he wore a leather mask that covered half of his face.

Although it’s not certain why he did this, it is assumed that he did so in order to cover the syphilis scars that covered his once beautiful face. Apparently, the years of revelry and promiscuity had finally caught up with him.

One Of Lucrezia’s Husbands Survived An Assassination Attempt, But Not The Second

Portrait of Alfonso
Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images
Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

Not long after Lucrezia married her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, in 1500, a shocking crime took place. On the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, hired assassins attacked Alfonso, stabbing him multiple times. Incredibly, Alfonso survived, but that was only the beginning.

Just days later, as he was recovering, another group of men broke into Alfonso’s room and strangled him. After his death, rumors began to circulate that Cesare was behind the murder, considering that Lucrezia was now available to have another husband who could be beneficial to the family.

The Prettiest Love Letters In The World

Painting of Bembo
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Lucrezia Borgia was known to have several steamy affairs throughout her life. However, one of the most notable was with the acclaimed poet Pietro Bembo. Unlike some of the other letters she was known to write to her lovers, the letters that these two exchanged were apparently deeply emotional.

In one, the poet wrote, “Often I find myself recalling, and with what ease, certain words spoken to me, some on the balcony with the moon as a witness.” The poet Lord Byron later called them “the prettiest love letters in the world.”

Lucrezia Had Difficulty With Pregnancy

Painting of Lucrezia
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although Lucrezia had a lot of children with the Duke of Ferrara, she had several miscarriages throughout her life, even once giving birth to a stillborn. Furthermore, in 1519, Lucrezia gave birth to a girl named Isabella.

Unfortunately, the child was sickly, and Alfonso barely managed to get the child baptized before she passed away later that day. However, that wasn’t the worst of it. At the age of 39, Lucrezia was pregnant once again and became extremely unhealthy after she gave birth. She passed away just ten days later.

The Family Had Plenty Of Enemies

Painting of the Borgia Family
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Due to the amount of power that the family had and the questionable things that they did, it’s no surprise that the Borgias made plenty of enemies with other equally ambitious families.

Some of these included the notorious Medici family, as well as the della Rovere and Sforza families. Many of these families in Renaissance Italy were constantly competing for power and were not afraid to kill one another for it.

Gioffre Borgia Had A Troubled Marriage

Portrait of Sancha
Lisa Jensen/Pinterest
Lisa Jensen/Pinterest

The baby of the family was Gioffre Borgia, and the family made sure to look after him. In 1494, Rodrigo Borgia arranged to marry Gioffre to Princess Sancha of Aragon, who was the daughter of the King of Naples.

While this may have seemed to be the perfect match, it turned out to be a disaster. While they were married, the princess ended up supposedly having affairs with both of Gioffre’s brothers, Cesare and Giovanni.