Chapter 9

Father and Children


"EVEN MORE THAN BY anger or by any other emotion, the Pope was motivated by his unbounded greed to exalt his children, whom he loved passionately," wrote Guicciardini; unlike his predecessors on the throne of St. Peter's "who often concealed their infamous behaviour by declaring their children to be nephews, he was the first pope to announce and display them to the whole world as his own offspring."

At the time of the French invasion, Cesare was the only one of Alexander VI's children with him in Rome. His brother Juan had sailed for Spain in August 1493, to marry Maria Enriquez, cousin of the Spanish king, while Lucrezia had left for Pesaro nine months later to join her husband, Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. Jofrè and his wife, Sancia, had been in Naples when Charles VIII invaded and they escaped to the island of Ischia. With the threat of war over for the present, they all came back home and by the autumn of 1496 Alexander VI was once again surrounded by his family.

Cesare, by now twenty-one years old, was widely recognized as the most powerful cardinal in the college and as the most unscrupulous. His interests and ambitions, however, were far from priestly, and his clothes were the doublets and hose of a secular prince, not a man in holy orders. He lived in splendour in an apartment on the second floor of the Vatican Palace, later the site of the Raphael Stanze, in rooms that were immediately above those of his father, the two suites connected by a private winding staircase. He was frequently seen in the company of the pope, who came more and more to rely upon him, and his influence in Rome grew daily, especially among those who considered their interests would be best served for the moment by being on good terms with the Borgias.

Lucrezia was deeply attached to her brother Cesare, who loved her perhaps more devotedly than he could bring himself to love anyone else. She was, however, like almost everyone else, wary of her brother and his sadistic streak; once, it was said, he invited her to stand beside him on a balcony at the Vatican while he shot at a group of criminals drawn up as target practice in the courtyard below.

Lucrezia had been in Pesaro when the French invaded but had returned to Rome at the end of June the previous year, days before the Battle of Fornovo. By now a happy, lively, attractive young woman aged sixteen, she was thankful to be back at her father's lively court after the provincial dullness of Pesaro. She was soon joined by her husband and the couple took up residence at the palace at Santa Maria in Portico, close by the entrance to the Vatican.

In May 1496 Jofrè also returned to Rome, bringing with him his wife, Sancia. The arrival of his son and daughter-in-1 aw gave Alexander VI an opportunity to indulge in one of those pageants he so much enjoyed. The couple entered the city through the gate of San Giovanni in Laterano, which the master of ceremonies described:

The captain of the militia went to meet them with some 200 of his men-at-arms and the households and servants of all the cardinals, except for those of the prelates of the Pope, were also there to receive them. All the cardinals had been invited that morning, by the couriers of the Pope acting in the name of the Cardinal of Valence, to send their chaplains and squires, but not their prelates, to receive his brother Jofrè on his entry into the city. All acceded to this request. Lucrezia Sforza, daughter of His Holiness and wife of the illustrious Giovanni Sforza, Lord ofPesaro, also went to the said gate to meet Don Jofrè, her brother. She was accompanied by some twenty ladies and preceded by two pages on horseback wearing capes. One of the horses was covered in a magnificent cloth-of-gold caparison; the other in a caparison of red velvet. Lucrezia received Don Jofrè and his wife with affection.

Almost thirty mules trailed behind them, loaded with their luggage, conspicuously displaying Jofrè's coat-of-arms. The huge procession wound its way past the Colosseum, through the Campo dei Fiori, across the bridge at Castel Sant'Angelo, and up Alexander VI's new road, the Via Alessandrina, to the Vatican, where the pope received them formally but no doubt with warmth from his throne in the Sala dei Pontefici.

Gian Carlo Scalona, the Mantuan ambassador, was not so impressed with Sancia, after all the reports from Naples extolling her charms and her beauty. "Indeed, the Lady of Pesaro," as Lucrezia was known, "surpassed her by far." He commented, however, that the twenty-two-year-old bride had "glancing eyes, an aquiline nose and is very well made up." He did not make direct mention of Sancia's reputation for extremely louche behaviour, though he did report to his master that the Romans had judged her ladies-in-waiting to be "a fine crop." In Naples reports of a succession of young men who had been seen entering her bedchamber had reached the stage where her staff had been obliged to insist that only one male servant, "a reliable and elderly man, over 60 years old," had access to the room.

Scalona's opinion of the much-younger Jofrè was far from being favourable; he was "lascivious-looking," but small, "and dark-skinned, 14 or 15 years old with long reddish hair." His immaturity may well explain why, as the Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo reported, Jofrè had still not consummated his marriage. It was not long after the couple arrived in Rome that rumours began to circulate to the effect that Sancia, frustrated by Jofrè's impotence, had succumbed to Cesare's charms and had become his mistress.

Whether Lucrezia knew about Sancia's relationship with Cesare or not, the two girls soon developed a close friendship. Indeed, they got on together extremely well and were often to be seen romping about just like high-spirited schoolgirls. Two days after Sancia's arrival, they attended Mass in St. Peter's to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, with a sermon given by a Spanish chaplain that even the dutiful Burchard described as "too long and boring, which displeased the Pope." The girls were seen, much to Burchard's disapproval, to leave their seats during the tedious service to go up together to the choir reserved for their ladies, and to chatter and laugh together, oblivious to the boring sermon.

In August 1496 Juan, Duke of Gandía, returned to Rome, on the summons of his father, leaving his son and his pregnant wife in Spain, to be welcomed to the city by an even-larger gaggle of cardinals, ambassadors, soldiers, and officials than had greeted Jofrè and Sancia. The twenty-year-old Juan cut a far finer figure than Jofrè. Magnificently clothed in a long mantle of gold brocade and a jewel-encrusted doublet of brown velvet, he wore a scarlet hat hung with pearls and rode a bay horse adorned with tinkling silver bells. He was accompanied not only by his squires but also by an unruly crowd of dwarfs and buffoons.

It was soon apparent to the Romans that Cesare and Juan detested each other. Juan was jealous of Cesare, who seemed now to be widely recognized as their father's right-hand man, while Cesare, the elder of the two, burned with resentment at the indulgence shown to his self-regarding and far less talented brother, who was clearly their father's favourite. Other than Alexander VI, very few cared for Juan, who was described by the Aragonese chronicler Geronimo Zurita as having been a "spoilt boy" and as being now "a very mean young man, full of ideas of grandeur ... haughty, cruel and unreasonable." He could be seen swaggering about Rome in his gorgeous attire, excessively proud of his figure. Like his father, he had considerable sex appeal—it was widely rumoured that Sancia gave her favours to both her husband's brothers, further aggravating Cesare's animosity.

Cesare's dislike of his brother was increased when Juan, although quite unsuited to such a position, was chosen by Alexander VI to be second-in-command to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and captain general of the papal armies, which the pope intended to throw against the Orsini, a troublesome family who had sided with the French in their recent campaign in Italy and now controlled much of the Roman Campagna north and south of the city.

On October 26, 1496, the two dukes, dressed in full armour, received their banners of office from the pope in St. Peter's, and the following day they marched north against the Orsini castles. No fewer than ten of these were captured within a matter of weeks. But at Bracciano, where the formidable Bartolomeo d'Alviano was in command, the campaign faltered. Guidobaldo da Montefeltro was wounded, not seriously but badly enough for the incompetent Juan to be obliged to take over command. The Orsini ridiculed him by sending a donkey into his camp with a placard tied around its neck declaring: "I am the ambassador of the Duke of Gandía," and another insulting message screwed up and inserted into the animal's anus.

Two assaults on the castle had failed when a report reached Juan that a relieving force commanded by Carlo Orsini was marching on Bracciano, and he unwisely decided to raise the siege and go out to confront Orsini in the open field. On January 24, 1497, the papal forces were routed at Soriano. The army was, in the words of Burchard, "heavily defeated in great dishonour." Moreover, "the Duke of Urbino was captured," he continued, and "some five hundred of our soldiers were killed and many more wounded, while the Orsini captured all our cannon and utterly scattered our forces."

Juan, who was slightly wounded in the face, rode back to Rome. A week or so later, Alexander VI, who had been so ill with worry that he had not been to Mass on Christmas Day, was forced to make peace with the Orsini on their terms. He had to give up all the captured castles on payment of an indemnity of 50,000 ducats, which the Orsini hoped to raise by demanding a ransom of that amount for the release of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro.

Despite his failure at Soriano, Juan was soon afterward sent in command of another papal army, this time to besiege the fortress of Ostia, southeast of Rome, where a French garrison still remained in control. This time Alexander VI turned for help to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who sent their highly experienced and successful commander Gonsalvo di Córdoba to his aid, as well as a corps of trustworthy Spanish troops from Naples. Ostia surrendered on March 9, and the papal troops marched in triumph back to Rome, where Juan enraged Gonsalvo di Córdoba by claiming equal credit for the success at Ostia. Gonsalvo was rewarded with a papal order of chivalry while, much to the Spaniard's annoyance, Juan was given the duchy of Benevento to add to his list of titles. Cesare was also angered by the favouritism being shown to his brother, but he was careful not to show his furious jealousy.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!