"THE DUKE'S CHOICE WAS A MISTAKEN ONE;
AND IT WAS THE CAUSE
OF HIS ULTIMATE DOWNFALL"
A MONTH SHORT of his sixtieth birthday when elected, Julius II was, unlike his predecessor, unusually vigorous and energetic; still in his prime and enjoying robust health, he was a strong-willed, purposeful, and resolute man, with a very determined view of the world and his position in it.
The grandson of a fisherman from Liguria in northern Italy, he was proud of his humble birth and much given to boasting of his poverty-stricken childhood and of having sailed down the coast with cargoes of onions. His plans to pursue a career in commerce had been dramatically cut short in 1471 when, at the age of twenty-seven, he was made a cardinal by his uncle Sixtus IV.
A tall, rough, impulsive, and handsome man, talkative, arrogant, and restless, he had a fiercely commanding expression and a very short temper. He habitually carried a stick with which he beat men who annoyed or provoked him, and he would hurl anything at hand, including his spectacles, at messengers who brought him unwelcome news. He had had many mistresses in the past, from one of whom he had contracted syphilis, and as a cardinal he had fathered three daughters. But he had thereafter shown no interest in women, concentrating his sensual appetites on food and drink, which he enjoyed to the full. He relished game and suckling pig and the strong wines of Greece and Corsica; and during Lent, like many others who could afford to do so, he made do with large dishes of lampreys, prawns, caviar, and tunny fish. He paid no attention to his doctors' words of caution, and when ill, treated his indisposition by chewing quantities of strawberries and plums, which he believed had curative properties.
He was no scholar, he used to say with defensive pride; he was more suited to the life of a soldier. Indeed, he sometimes said that he ought to have been a soldier; and certainly when he personally led his armies out of Rome to compel the obedience of rebel cities in the Papal States and to recover lost territories for the church, he displayed a taste for hard campaigning that dismayed the less robust cardinals whom he obliged to accompany him. It was Julius II who, unwilling to rely upon capricious and often irresolute mercenaries, decided to form a professional papal army; and this decision led in 1506 to the creation of the Swiss Guards, who remained a fighting force until 1825, when they became a smaller domestic bodyguard, though still retaining their old uniform of slashed doublets, striped hose, and rakish berets, as well as their pikes and halberds.
When a sculptor asked him what should be placed in the hand of a statue of him, he replied, "Put a sword in my hand, not a book." As a soldier he wore full armour, with a tiara taking the place of a helmet. One contemporary likened him to a ship guided neither by compass nor by charts. "No one has any influence over him, and he consults few or none," the Venetian ambassador wrote; "anything that he has been thinking about during the day has to be carried out immediately," the envoy added. "Everything about him is on a magnificent scale, both his undertakings and his passions."
One of his overpowering passions was a deep hatred of the Borgia family. As a cardinal, and fearing assassination, he had fled to France, where he had encouraged Charles VIII to invade Italy and had accompanied him on his campaign. He had failed in his attempt to have a council appointed to depose the pope for simony; but, deprived of the satisfaction of dethroning Alexander VI, "that Spaniard of accursed memory," he determined to pursue Alexander's son to the death, to reestablish the church's rule in the Papal States, and to restore the temporal power of the papacy, which he knew to be essential to his authority.
As Machiavelli wrote, Julius II's hatred of Cesare "was notorious; and it is not to be supposed that the Pope will so quickly have forgotten the ten years of exile which he had had to endure under Alexander VI." In a conversation with Giustinian, the new pope said, "We do not want [the duke] to be under the illusion that we will favour him, nor that he shall have even one rampart in the Romagna, and although we have promised him something, we intend that our promise shall only extend to the security of his life and of the money and goods that he has stolen." For the moment, however, he was prepared to give the impression that the past enmity, which had characterized the relationship between himself and "that detested family," was now to be modified.
The new pope, having at last achieved the position for which he had yearned for so long, seemed disposed to abide by the undertakings he had given Cesare before the conclave. The Florentines were told to grant the duke and his troops free passage through their territory to the Romagna; while so long as Cesare stayed in Rome, he was free to leave the dark rooms in Castel Sant'Angelo and to occupy apartments in the Vatican. Julius II also promised to confirm Cesare in his appointment as captain-general, and, initially at least, he continued to show respect for Cesare, going so far as to refer to him as "our beloved son" in a brief to Faenza written within days of his election.
Cesare's duchy had begun to disintegrate in the aftermath of Alexander VI's death: "Only the states of the Romagna stood firm," Francesco Guicciardini observed, and they did so because the government had been entrusted by Cesare "to the hands of men who ruled with so much justice and integrity that he was greatly loved by them." Other writers maintained that, in the words of the Perugian chronicler Matarazzo, "the people remained quiet from fear rather than contentment"; while the Venetians generally believed that his subjects were "full of discontent because of the tyranny and violence practised by the officials of the Duke Valentino."
Now Cesare could only count on the loyalty of his Spanish governors in Cesena, Imola, and the fortress of Forlì, but he could rely on the strength of these newly built fortifications. Julius II, however, despite the earlier promises reported by Machiavelli, had no intention of allowing Cesare to retain control of them. "We want the states to return to the Church," he declared. "It is our intention to recover them," and although "we made certain promises to the Duke," he explained, "we intended merely to guarantee his personal safety and his fortune, even though, after all, it was stolen from its rightful owners."
Julius II was an old hand at playing the long game. Fully aware that by depriving Cesare of his duchy in the Romagna, he would create a dangerous political vacuum into which Venice would be the first to step, he needed at all costs to avoid the expansion of an already-powerful Venetian republic in order to preserve his own authority in the Papal States. Equally, he needed to ensure that he did not give Cesare the opportunity to reestablish his own position in the Romagna. He needed, in other words, to tread with considerable care.
It was not long before it became clear that Cesare was, indeed, overconfident in his belief that Julius II would favour him, even to the limited extent that he had been led to believe was his due; and the more clearly he realised that the pope was deceiving him, the more angry he became. When Machiavelli was granted an interview with him early in November, he found him in an unusually emotional mood, angry and resentful, rambling on at length "with words full of poison and anger." Cesare was no longer the forceful and competent leader Machiavelli had met eighteen months earlier in Urbino.
Other observers gave similar descriptions of "an angry, broken man, out of his mind and not knowing what he wanted to do." Francesco Soderini described him as "inconstant, irresolute, and suspicious, not standing firm in any decision." Machiavelli reported that his plans were uncertain:
No one knows whether or not he intends to stay in Rome. Some people seem to think he will go to Genoa, where he is said to have deposited large sums with the merchants there, and from Genoa to go on to Lombardy to raise troops for an advance on the Romagna. He can do this apparently because he had 200,000 ducats deposited with the Genoese merchants. Others believe he will stay in Rome for the Pope's coronation when, as promised, he will be proclaimed Gonfalonier of the Church.
In fact, Cesare still hoped to march north from Rome to his strongholds in the Romagna, and accordingly waited anxiously for the letter he expected from Florence confirming his safe conduct through the republic's territories. But the Florentines, advised by Machiavelli that Julius II's support of Cesare was only a temporary measure, decided not to agree to Cesare's request.
And so, on November 18, his power and possessions crumbling around him, Cesare left Rome for Ostia, from where he intended to reach his strongholds in the Romagna, avoiding Florentine territory by travelling by sea to Livorno and from there marching east across the Apennines to Cesena. Before he could leave, however, two cardinals arrived in Ostia with orders from Julius II for Cesare to hand over the passwords he had agreed with his castellans for each of the fortresses. Cesare refused to do so.
Julius II, fearful of rumours that Venice planned to seize these strategically vital citadels for herself, was incensed with rage and ordered Cesare to return to Rome immediately; and if he declined to obey the order, he was to be brought back by force.
At the same time, the pope issued a warrant for the arrest of Cesare's lieutenant Miguel de Corella, who was to be questioned about the deaths of many persons: Juan, the Duke of Gandía, Cesare's brother, whose body had been fished out of the Tiber in June 1497; Alfonso of Aragon, Lucrezia's second husband, who had been strangled on his sickbed; Astorre Manfredi, Lord of Faenza, and his brother, whose bodies, weighted with stones, had been found in the Tiber in June 1502; Giulio Cesare da Varano, Lord of Camerino, who had been strangled at La Pergola shortly afterward, and his two sons, who had had their throats cut; and many more.
So, on November 29, three days after Julius II's magnificent and extravagant coronation procession, Cesare returned to Rome, a prisoner. There were unconfirmed reports that, now in custody, his spirit had finally broken. There were stories that he wept when he was dragged into his cell in the Torre Borgia, that he had fallen onto his knees before Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, begged for forgiveness for what he had done in Urbino, and undertook to return the works of art that had been stolen from the ducal palace. And on December 1 came the news that a body of Cesare's troops, under the leadership of Corella, had been captured near Arezzo, thanks, it was said, to a warning sent to the Florentine government by Machiavelli that these men were on their way north.
Worse was soon to follow, when a number of wagons belonging to Cesare, but travelling under the name of Lucrezia's brother-in-law Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, came to the attention of the customs men in Bologna, who were inspecting baggage for taxable goods. "When they opened the chests and bales," wrote the Ferrarese chronicler Bernardino Zambotti, "they found inside great riches taken from the Church, namely, the cross of St. Peter, covered with gems of an infinite value," several other pieces of gem-encrusted jewellery that were the property of the church, priceless clothes and altar hangings, "a little gilded cat with diamonds for its eyes," and even a little altarpiece of the Virgin, worth a total, so Zambotti estimated, of 300,000 ducats.
With his loyal lieutenant under arrest in Florence and much of his fortune confiscated in Bologna, there seemed little alternative to Cesare but to divulge the passwords he had been at such pains to conceal. Machiavelli commented that his life would not be worth much after the strongholds surrendered. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that this Duke of ours is slipping little by little down to his grave." The castellans, however, whether out of loyalty to their duke or following some prearranged plan, valiantly refused to surrender the fortresses until they had positive proof that Cesare was no longer a prisoner.
The stalemate continued, much to Julius II's fury, until the end of the year, when news arrived in Rome that much cheered Cesare: Gonsalvo di Córdoba had won a decisive victory over the French at the Battle of Garigliano on December 27. Hoping, indeed expecting, support from a Spanish Naples, Cesare signed a formal agreement on January 29, 1504, agreeing to surrender his Romagna fortresses in return for his freedom. Pending the surrender, Cesare was taken to Ostia while, one by one, his strongholds were taken by Julius II's troops.
In April 1504 he set forth, in optimistic spirits, in a galley bound for Naples and the court of Gonsalvo di Córdoba, Duke of Terranova, who had been appointed viceroy of the kingdom by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. He was not welcome, however. The Spanish monarchs, "their Catholic Majesties," had informed their ambassador in Naples that "we regard the arrival of the Duke with great displeasure and not for political reasons alone; for, as you know, the man is deeply abhorrent to us because of the gravity of his crimes and we certainly do not wish that such a man should be considered to be in our service." They had, they informed the ambassador, also written to Gonsalvo di Córdoba, asking him to arrest Cesare and "to send the Duke to us and to provide two galleys for the journey so that he cannot escape elsewhere."
Even before Gonsalvo di Córdoba had received these orders, Cesare, his confidence by now restored, had set about planning a march into the Romagna to regain what he had recently lost. When the royal instructions arrived from Spain, he believed that as a fellow Spaniard, Gonsalvo would be prepared to overlook them, and he started to raise troops for a campaign in Italy that he hoped would restore him to power. Gonsalvo, however, remained loyal to his masters.
The Florentine ambassador in Naples reported what happened next:
On 1 June [Cesare] asked for an interview with [Gonsalvo di Córdoba] to discuss his affairs. He had already prepared the artillery for his proposed campaign and had ordered wine, bread and other things necessary for his expedition. In the evening he had his interview with Gonsalvo ... [who] was accompanied by Niugno del Campo, castellan of the Castel Nuovo in Naples, and when [Cesare] turned to descend the stairs, Niugno stopped him saying, "Signore, your way lies here," and led him into a room in the Torre dell'Oro.... On Tuesday he was transferred to another room which was very beautiful but very strong with windows protected by iron bars. It is called "the oven" and several important people have been held prisoner there at one time or another. He is there now with two servants. The Grand Captain refuses to talk to him. There is not a single man who does not praise this deed. In truth, it is pleasing to all.
Soon after this dispatch was received in Florence, Cesare was put onto a galley bound for Spain, where, so his sister heard, he was "shut up with a page" in the castle of Chinchilla, high in the mountains behind Valencia.
Cesare's fall had been as dramatic as his meteoric rise. Machiavelli blamed it on Cesare's decision to support Julius II's election, though it is difficult to see how he could have organized an alternative candidate to counter the front-runner and ensure enough support in the conclave to achieve the required two-thirds majority among the cardinals.
As Machiavelli commented in The Prince:
[Cesare] should never have allowed the election of one of those cardinals he had injured, or one who would have cause to fear him. Men do you harm either because they fear you or because they hate you.... The Duke's aim, first and foremost, should have been to engineer the election of one of the Spanish cardinals and, failing that, to enable it to be Rouen [Georges d'Amboise] not San Pietro in Vincoli [Giuliano della Rovere]. Whoever believes that great men allow new services to erase old injuries is deceiving himself. So the Duke's choice was a mistaken one; and it was the cause of his ultimate downfall.