Chapter 16



"ON THE MORNING of the fourth Sunday of Lent, 29 March," Burchard recorded just a month after Cesare's triumphant return to Rome as Lord of Imola and Forlì, "the cardinals assembled at the accustomed hour in the Sala del Pappagallo and were thence summoned more privately to meet His Holiness in his small audience chamber, where, having taken their advice," as the master of ceremonies euphemistically described the process whereby the pope informed the college of his intentions, "he decided to bestow the Golden Rose on the illustrious Cesare Borgia, his much-loved son, and to create him Captain-General and Gonfalonier [standard-bearer] of the Holy Roman Church."

The ceremony had, of course, been planned well in advance. Directly after the meeting, the pope was carried on his throne into St. Peter's, with the Golden Rose in his left hand, followed by Cesare, ee dressed in a coat of brocade, the cardinals, and other members of the papal court, to join the ambassadors, prelates, and officials assembled in the basilica. Inside Cesare was formally enrobed with the insignia of his new office: the great mantle and the gilded helmet with its ermine plumes crowned by the figure of a dove that glistened with pearls. Kneeling before his father, he made his solemn vows:

I, Cesare Borgia of France, Duke of Valence, Gonfalonier and standard-bearer, Captain-General of the Holy Roman Church, do solemnly swear from this day forwards that I will faithfully submit to St. Peter, to the Holy Roman Church and to you, my most holy lord, Pope Alexander VI, and to your canonical successors. Never will I intend, plan or undertake to deprive you of life or limb, to take possession of your person in a wicked fashion, to lay my hands violently on you or your successors, whatever is done against me, whatever wrongs are propagated against me and under whatever pretext, and I will reveal to no one the plans that you or your successors confide in me.

"Receive these standards," Alexander VI responded, giving his son the banners of the church, "which have been sanctified by the blessing of Heaven, and will be terrible to the enemies of Christendom." He then handed to his son the baton of command and finally the Golden Rose. At the end of the ceremony, the banners were hoisted by two men-at-arms, and the congregation followed them out of the basilica and into the piazza: the ambassadors, eight flautists, four drummers, three heralds, soldiers, cardinals, and finally the duke himself, followed by the footmen and prelates and by Cesare's men, "who marched," to Burchard's obvious distress, "in inevitable disorder."

The proud Cesare could now add the pontifical keys of St. Peter to the Borgia bull and the lilies of France on his coat-of-arms, but his ambitions to enlarge his modest state in the Romagna, which depended heavily on the support of Louis XII, had, for the moment, stalled. After the euphoria, which was noticed in his behaviour at this time, he fell into one of those moods of deep gloom, symptoms of the manic-depressive. "I know that in my twenty-sixth year," he was quoted as having said, "I stand in danger of ending my life in arms and by arms." He also asked the German humanist Lorenz Behaim to cast his horoscope; and it seems that the result was not encouraging.

Ludovico Sforza's campaign to seize his duchy back from the French had met with surprising success. He had succeeded in re-conquering Milan, although the great Sforza castle remained in French hands, and on February 6 he had made his triumphant return, welcomed by his subjects with much joy. The French army had withdrawn to Novara, awaiting their chance to retake the city, Yves d'Alègre and his gunners, which Cesare needed for his Romagna campaign, among them. There was, however, much that the pope and his son could do to plan the next stage of their campaign, and much money to be raised to finance it.

The year 1500 was a Jubilee year in Rome, when thousands of pilgrims were expected to flock to the city, where, by visiting certain churches, fasting, praying, attending confession and Communion, and giving alms, they would receive pardon for all their sins. The tradition of the Christian Jubilee year was not an ancient one; founded by Pope Boniface XIII in 1300, as a means of raising funds to fill the papal coffers, it had initially been intended as a celebration for the beginning of each century, though Paul II had decreed in 1470 that it should be held every twenty-five years.

Burchard gives a lengthy account of the preparations made in the city for the Jubilee; provision for housing the pilgrims, sweepers to clear the litter from church floors, special patrols to prevent tramps loitering around the porches, and "large strong casks," added Burchard, "were to be provided for freewill offerings next to the Chapel of St. Andrew in St. Peter's, and they were to be protected with three different locks and keys, one key to be kept by the Datary, a second by one of the confessors and the third in another official's hand."

In an attempt to attract more pilgrims than usual, Alexander VI announced that for the 1500 Jubilee, the Holy Door of St. Peter's would be reopened. This door, which had long been walled up, was by tradition the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, through which Christ himself had entered the city on Palm Sunday. It had reputedly been brought to Rome by Emperor Vespasian after the Roman conquest of the Jewish capital in 70 A.D., and it was widely believed that any sinner who walked through it, even a murderer, would have his sins forgiven.

Accordingly, on December 24, 1499, huge crowds assembled in the piazza in front of St. Peter's to watch the ceremonial opening of the Holy Door. The pope arrived amid much fanfare and celebration, and, according to Burchard, he was "handed an ordinary workman's hammer" by one of the builders, who had spent several days chiselling away at the Holy Door from inside the basilica to weaken it. The pope "gave three or more blows" to the wall, thus creating a small opening, before retiring to his papal chair a few yards away to watch the workmen demolishing the rest. "On this task they spent half an hour, during which time our choir sang continually," the master of ceremonies reported.

Alexander VI, dressed in full pontifical robes and wearing the triple tiara, led the ceremonial procession through the Holy Door into St. Peter's, holding a candle in his left hand and Burchard's colleague supporting his right elbow, followed by the cardinals and the papal court (the builders themselves had been forbidden, "under penalty of losing their heads," to go through the doorway while they were demolishing it).

The expected influx of pilgrims did indeed materialize, and so did their offerings. The Florentine diarist Luca Landucci reported large numbers of northerners, many from across the Alps, passing through the city on their way south to the Jubilee. From their lodgings in one of Rome's many inns and taverns or, more cheaply, in the hospices that all Christian nations maintained in the city, the pilgrims thronged the streets of the capital of their faith as they walked from church to church, seeing and believing in the sights and sites of Christian legend.

At Santa Maria Maggiore they worshipped at the manger that had once been Christ's own crib in the stable at Bethlehem; at San Giovanni in Laterano they marvelled at the swaddling clothes that had wrapped the baby Jesus and the table where he and his apostles had eaten their Last Supper; here, too, they could climb the stairs of Pontius Pilate's house in Jerusalem, following, on their knees, in the footsteps of Christ himself. At St. Peter's they could see the lance that had pierced Christ's body during the Crucifixion, a much-treasured relic that the basilica had acquired as recently as 1492, though Burchard recorded that several cardinals had noted that the same lance could also be seen in both Paris and Nuremberg.

Rome was, indubitably, the city where St. Peter and St. Paul had preached and died for their faith; the great basilicas of St. Peter's and San Paolo fuori le Mura marked their graves. And the heads of these great leaders of the early Church could be seen by the pilgrims, at certain hours, in a chapel in San Giovanni in Laterano; as one pilgrim noted with awe, they "still have their flesh, colour and beards as if they were still alive."

The faithful, however, also provided easy pickings for the pickpockets and cutpurses who roamed the city streets. Burchard reported that on April 10, 1500, six men were hung on the gallows for the crime of robbing pilgrims. On May 27, the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, eighteen more were hung on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, where they would have been hideously visible to all those crossing the Tiber on their way to St. Peter's to walk through the Holy Door before saying their prayers in the venerated basilica and leaving their offerings in the casks provided. The first to be hung was a doctor from the hospital at San Giovanni in Laterano, who had been in the habit of leaving his wards each morning, armed with a crossbow, to kill and rob anyone he found; among the others were a band of highwaymen who had attacked a group of travellers in the hills outside Viterbo.

During the spring, news arrived in Rome that must have done much to lift the spirits of the pope and his son. On April 10 Louis XII had celebrated a great victory over Ludovico Sforza at Novara, after the Swiss mercenaries fighting for Ludovico refused to use their arms against the French. Landucci reported that twelve thousand were dead. Ludovico himself had been captured and taken to France; the fate of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza remained obscure, but early on the morning of Maundy Thursday, April 16, a courier arrived in Rome with the news that he had been found in a castle near Piacenza, where he had fled with six hundred horsemen and valuables worth 200,000 ducats. He, too, was now a prisoner, and the pope, according to Burchard, was so pleased with the news that he tipped the courier 100 ducats.

Far from offering help, or even support, to his erstwhile friend in this hour of need, Alexander VI took the opportunity to seize Ascanio's valuable collection of artworks and jewels, including a set of twelve silver-gilt statues of the apostles; it took four hours for the carts, operating in secret under the cover of darkness, to transport the goods from the cardinal's palace to the Vatican.

Meanwhile, Cesare was beginning to enjoy his enforced rest from the battlefield; and while his wife Charlotte d'Albret, who had given birth to his daughter, remained in France, Cesare spent much of his time with his mistress, an extremely pretty and entertaining young woman, Fiammetta de' Michelis, whose accomplishments and complaisance as a cortigiana had enabled her to buy three houses in Rome as well as a country house outside the city walls. Cultivated as well as desirable, she spoke Latin, knew pages of Ovid and Petrarch by heart, sang well, and played the lyre; her handsome lover was often to be seen on his way to and from her house near the Piazza Navona.

Lucrezia, however, was less happy, her enjoyment of the warmth of early summer marred by increasing friction between her husband, Alfonso of Aragon, and her father and brother, whose alliance with France was proving a problem for both Alfonso and his sister Sancia. When the news spread around Rome that a Burgundian had challenged a Frenchman to a duel, to settle an argument over a banner, Cesare tried, unsuccessfully, to bribe the Burgundian to withdraw: "He would prefer," so the rumour went, "to have lost 20,000 ducats rather than see a Frenchman beaten." Sancia, on the other hand, made a point of dressing her own squires in the Burgundian colours, to show where her loyalties lay.

Cesare was careful not to publicly display any sign of the growing friction between himself and his brother-in-law. When the two men were seen together, they appeared to be on perfectly amicable terms, riding about the city in evident amity. Yet there was noticed in Cesare's manner a more than usual impatience, "as though he were anxious for important actions to unfold."

Cesare also appeared in public during this summer of 1500 honing his skills as a bullfighter. On June 24, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, he demonstrated his prowess with the sword in the piazza of St. Peter's, which had been cordoned off to prevent the bulls from escaping. On another occasion, so the Venetian envoy Paolo Capello reported, he killed "seven bulls, fighting on horseback in the Spanish style and cutting off the head of one of them with his first stroke, a feat which seemed great to all Rome."

On June 29, shortly before sunset, the pope himself was lucky to escape with his life thanks to an act not of man, but of God. During an exceptionally violent storm, with "hailstones the size of broad beans and an extremely violent wind," reported Burchard, a chimney in the Vatican collapsed, breaking two beams in an upper chamber that brought down the ceiling of the room below, where Alexander VI was in discussion with a cardinal and one of his private secretaries. The two men were just closing the windows, as the pope had asked them to do, when they heard the thunderous crash and turned immediately to find the papal throne hidden under a pile of rubble: "They cried to the guards, 'The Pope is dead! The Pope is dead!' and the news quickly spread throughout the city." Alexander VI, however, was only unconscious; when they removed the plaster and bricks, they found him seated on his throne, with two small cuts to the head, two larger ones on his right hand, and another on his right arm, miraculously still alive. As one chronicler observed, this lucky escape "was seen as a great sign and omen for the Pope."

Some two weeks later, on the evening of July 15, 1500, Alfonso of Aragon went to the Vatican to dine with the pope; after what seems to have been a pleasant evening, he took his leave of his fellow guests to walk the short distance home to the palace of Santa Maria in Portico just across the piazza of St. Peter's, accompanied by a gentleman of his household, Tomaso Albanese, and a groom. As they passed by the basilica, a number of men, apparently sleeping on the flight of great ceremonial steps, roused from their "slumbers," rose to their feet, and suddenly fell upon Alfonso, stabbing him with their daggers. They would have carried him off to their tethered horses had not his companions rushed to his aid and dragged him away to the safety of the Vatican.

Inside the palace, Lucrezia fainted at the sight of her wounded husband. By the light of the tapers and candles, it was soon clear to all that Alfonso's injuries were serious; he had deep gashes to his head and his shoulder, "either one of which could prove mortal," as the Florentine ambassador reported. The Pope had him taken to one of his own rooms in the Borgia apartments, where his wounds were dressed. He recovered slowly, under the watchful eye of a doctor sent to him by the king of Naples and the careful nursing of Lucrezia and Sancia, his room guarded by soldiers and his food prepared by his loving wife, fearful of another attempt on his life.

It was generally supposed that the instigator of the attack was Cesare Borgia. The pope was inclined to agree: at least, he told the Venetian ambassador that if Cesare had, indeed, been responsible for the attack, Alfonso thoroughly deserved it. Alfonso himself clearly had no doubts as to who was responsible, and he was only too ready to avenge this vicious attack on his person. When he caught sight of Cesare one day in the gardens below his bedroom window, he picked up a crossbow and shot a bolt that only narrowly missed its target.

On August 18 Alfonso, still in bed but much recovered, together with his wife and his sister, was enjoying the company of his uncle and the Neapolitan ambassador, when a party of armed men, led by Miguel de Corella, Cesare's trusted Spanish lieutenant and known by some as his "executioner," rushed into the room, claiming that they had orders to arrest the visitors. There had been a plot, Corella announced: Cesare Borgia's life had been threatened. Lucrezia and Sancia protested—they themselves had not been warned of any such plot; the officer must have written authority before they could allow any member of their patient's household to be taken away.

Possibly he had mistaken his orders, Corella replied; and he suggested that the two ladies should go to the pope and ask him to confirm that the envoy was to be arrested. So the two young women left for the pope's apartments; and when they returned, they found the door of Alfonso's room locked against them. There had been an accident, they were told; the duke had tripped and fallen; his wounds had reopened; regrettably he was dead. Burchard reported, succinctly, that he had been "strangled in his bed."

Alfonso was buried that night in the Church of Santa Maria della Febbre; and it was given out that he had been the victim of a dreadful plot, details of which would be published later. Naturally, they never were. Though, within a short time, according to Ferdinand Gregorovius, the murder was no longer a mystery since Cesare, Duke of Valence, had openly declared that he had killed his brother-in-law because his own life had been threatened by Alfonso.

Lucrezia left Rome a few days later, accompanied by just six riders, bound for her castle at Nepi. This castle had been a favourite residence of Alexander VI while he was a cardinal, and it was he who had given the town its forbidding aspect when he built a new circuit of walls to fortify this strategic stronghold on the Via Cassia, some twenty-five miles north of Rome, that guarded one of the main approaches to the city. Once pope, he had given the town to Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in gratitude for Sforza's support in the conclave, but after the cardinal's flight from Rome the previous summer, he had rescinded the gift, bestowing it instead on his daughter. In February 1500 the fond and indulgent father had also spent 24,000 ducats on the town of Sermoneta, with its castles and land to the south of Rome, for his beloved Lucrezia to add to her ownership of Spoleto and Nepi.

Lucrezia spent four quiet months secluded at Nepi with her baby boy, Rodrigo. "The reason for this journey," explained Burchard, "was to find some consolation or distraction from the anguish and shock she has felt since the death of her husband, Alfonso." Her misery was evident at the bottom of the letters she wrote to her household in Rome, where she signed herself "La Infelicissima" (most unhappy woman) and she spent large sums of money arranging for prayers to be said for the soul of her murdered husband and to assuage her own grief.

She had had cause to feel isolated in Rome. Her former friends were wary and, in the words of the Mantuan envoy, "neither her brother nor her father could forgive her for the love she had borne her husband." According to the fanciful account of the Venetian ambassador in Rome, Lucrezia had "drunk so deeply at the spring of sorrow" upon the murder of her husband, that "in a single night she had become more like a woman three times her age, and it was clear that she would never recover her youthful beauty."

One day in late August, shortly after Alfonso's assassination, Baron de Trans arrived in Rome, once again acting as envoy for Louis XII with a message for Cesare. He stopped at an inn just outside the city walls and soon afterward, according to Burchard, "there came a certain horseman, masked and riding fast, who dismounted at the inn and, keeping on his mask, which he did not lower, embraced Monsieur de Trans and spoke with him. After a short while the masked man returned to the city. They say it was Duke Valentino."

Now that Louis XII was secure in his possession of Milan, his attention had turned to his next objective—the capture of Naples—for which he needed the help of both Alexander VI and his son. De Trans had brought with him to Rome a letter from the French king asking the pope for political support for the planned conquest of Naples, unhindered passage for his armies through the Papal States, and recognition as the rightful king; from Cesare he required the duke's undoubted military skills in the campaign. In return, Cesare was to be offered a large force of infantry and lancers, under the command once again of Yves d'Alègre, for the next stage of his conquest of the Romagna.

As the Mantuan envoy reported ominously, "The Pope intends to make the Duke Valentino a great man and King of Italy if he can." "I am not dreaming," he added, "my brains are not disordered, I will say no more." Cesare had already enlisted the help of various condottieri and was running out of money to pay them. His father had done what he could to help him, going so far as to divert not only some of the funds he had accumulated to finance a crusade against the Turks, but also much of the money received from pilgrims in Rome for the Jubilee. It was to augment these funds that Alexander VI decided to create a large number of cardinals, imposing a fee for each nomination.

Accordingly, on September 18, after the cardinals had returned from their summer retreat in their villas in the hills outside Rome, Alexander VI summoned them to a secret consistory to discuss the distribution of the new red hats. But not enough members of the sacred college turned up at the Vatican that morning; the cardinal of Lisbon wrote to apologize but he was ill; the cardinal of Siena also apologized but he was bedridden with gout. A week later the pope tried again; this time the consistory took place, but such was the opposition to his plan that no decision could be taken.

Meanwhile, the Turkish threat to Venice had provided Alexander VI with the lever he needed to enlist the aid of that city's government to Cesare's campaign in the Romagna. With Venetian colonies on the Dalmatian coast falling like ninepins to the mighty Turkish navy, two envoys had been dispatched to Rome in September to seek the pope's help.

Alexander VI received them graciously and proceeded to admonish them for their past behaviour. "The government of Venice has until now acted ungratefully towards His Holiness," he said, according to the Florentine ambassador's report of the conversation, and "if they wish to please His Holiness they must act differently in [the] future. They answered that they wished to do anything for His Holiness, and to embrace the Duke Valentino and consider him their good son, and to give him a condotta on the most generous terms and, as for Rimini and Faenza, they would be perfectly willing for him to carry out his intentions in those places. The Pope answered that he wanted no more of their fine words—he had had quite enough of these already—now he wanted deeds."

Alexander VI was given his wish; the government of Venice created Cesare an hereditarygentiluomo of the city and presented him with a palace there in order to maintain this signal honour. On September 26, 1500, the day after the second consistory had failed to agree on the promotion of the new cardinals, the Venetian ambassador felt able to report that "the order has now been given that Duke Valentino will leave two or three days after the cardinals have received their hats," more specifically "according to what the astrologer concludes will be a favourable moment."

Two days later Alexander VI tried a third time to persuade the college to agree to the creation of the new red hats; on this occasion fifteen cardinals arrived at the Vatican and did, finally, agree formally to the promotion of thirteen new colleagues. Guicciardini was to remark, some years later, that these cardinals were "selected not amongst the most worthy but amongst those who offered him [the pope] the highest price." Burchard listed their names and the fees that had been levied upon the value of their benefices, which amounted to the enormous sum of 160,000 ducats.

When the names were made public, it was clear to all that most had close links to Cesare and his father: Amanieu d'Albret was Cesare's brother-in-law and his hat had been promised as part of the contract for his marriage to Charlotte; Pedro Luis Borgia was his cousin; Francisco Borgia and Jaime Serra, who had been tutor to his brother, the murdered Juan, were more distant relations; Juan Vera was Cesare's own tutor; Pedro Isvalies was the governor of Rome; Ludovico Podocatharo was Alexander VI's personal physician; Gianbattista Ferrari was datary to the pope; and so on.

Just six of the new cardinals were in Rome when the consistory agreed to their promotion, and they were summoned immediately to the Vatican to await the end of the meeting. "There, once the doors were open, they kissed the Pope's foot, then his hand and his mouth," announced Burchard, and the cardinals "escorted them to the Duke of Valence's rooms, which are above the Sala del Pappagallo." As the Venetian ambassador reported, "They went to the Duke, offering themselves to him, they dined with him, settled their accounts and swore their loyalty to him."

It was with unusual haste, just four days later on October 2, that these six men attended a ceremony in St. Peter's during which the pope solemnly gave each one his cardinal's hat, with its distinctive hanging tassels. Later that day Cesare left Rome to join his army marching north up the Via Flaminia toward the Romagna.

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