The choice of the conclave was also the choice of the people. Never had any papal election brought so much rejoicing,14 never had a coronation been so magnificent. The populace delighted in the panoramic cavalcade of white horses, allegorical figures, tapestries and paintings, knights and grandees, troops of archers and Turkish horsemen, seven hundred priests, cardinals colorfully clad, and finally Alexander himself, sixty-one years old but majestically straight and tall, overflowing with health and energy and pride, “serene of countenance and of surpassing dignity,” said an eyewitness,15 and looking like an emperor even while blessing the multitude. Only a few sober minds, like Giuliano della Rovere and Giovanni de’ Medici, expressed some apprehension lest the new Pope, known to be a fond father, would use his power to aggrandize his family rather than to cleanse and strengthen the Church.

He began well. In the thirty-six days between the death of Innocent and the coronation of Alexander there had been two hundred and twenty known murders in Rome. The new Pope made an example of the first captured assassin; the culprit was hanged, his brother was hanged with him, and his house was pulled down. The city approved this severity; crime hid its head; order was restored in Rome, and all Italy was glad that a strong hand was at the helm of the Church16

Art and literature marked time. Alexander did considerable building in and out of Rome; financed a new ceiling for Santa Maria Maggiore with a gift of American gold from Ferdinand and Isabella; remodeled the Mausoleum of Hadrian into the fortified Castle of Sant’ Angelo, and redecorated its interior to provide cells for papal prisoners and more comfortable quarters for harassed popes. He built between the Castle and the Vatican a long covered corridor, which gave him refuge from Charles VIII in 1494, and saved Clement VII from a Lutheran noose in the sack of Rome. Pinturicchio was engaged to adorn the Appartamento Borgia in the Vatican. Four of these six rooms were restored and opened to the public by Leo XIII. A lunette in one of them contains a vivid portrait of Alexander—a happy face, a prosperous body, gorgeous robes. In another room a Virgin teaching the Child to read was described by Vasari17 as a portrait of Giulia Farnese, an alleged mistress of the Pope. Vasari adds that the picture also contained “the head of Pope Alexander adoring her,” but no picture of him is there visible.

He rebuilt the University of Rome, called to it several distinguished teachers, and paid them with unheard-of regularity. He liked drama, and was pleased to have the students of the Roman Academy stage comedies and ballets for his family festivals. He preferred light music to heavy philosophy. In 1501 he re-established censorship of publications by an edict requiring that no book might be printed without the approval of the local archbishop. But he allowed a wide freedom of satire and debate. He laughed off the bites of the town wits, and rejected Caesar Borgia’s proposal that such snipers should be disciplined. “Rome is a free city,” he told the Ferrarese ambassador, “where everyone can say or write whatever he pleases. They say much evil of me, but I don’t mind.”18

His administration of Church affairs was, in the early years of his pontificate, unusually efficient. Innocent VIII had left a debt in the treasury; “it needed all the financial ability of Alexander to restore the papal finances; it took him two years to balance the budget.”18a The Vatican staff was reduced, and expenses were curtailed, but records were strictly kept, and salaries were promptly paid.19 Alexander performed the laborious religious ritual of his office with fidelity, but with the impatience of a busy man.20Hismagister ceremoniarum was a German, Johann Burchard, who helped to perpetuate the fame and infamy of his employer by recording in a Diavium nearly all that he saw, including much that Alexander would have wished unseen. To the cardinals the Pope gave as he had promised in the conclave, and he was even more generous to those who, like Cardinal de’ Medici, had longest opposed him. A year after his accession he created twelve new cardinals. Several were men of real ability; some were appointed at the request of political powers that it was wise to conciliate; two were scandalously young—Ippolito d’Este, fifteen, and Caesar Borgia, eighteen; one of them, Alessandro Farnese, owed his elevation to his sister Giulia Farnese, who was believed by many to be a mistress of the Pope. The sharp-tongued Romans, not foreseeing that they would one day acclaim Alessandro as Paul III, called him il cardinale della gonnella—the cardinal of the petticoat. The strongest of the older cardinals, Giuliano della Rovere, was displeased to find that he, who had often ruled Innocent VIII, had little influence with Alexander, who made Cardinal Sforza his favorite counselor. In a huff Giuliano retired to his episcopal see at Ostia, and formed a guard of armed men. A year later he fled to France, and besought Charles VIII to invade Italy, summon a general council, and depose Alexander as a shamelessly simoniacal pope.

Meanwhile Alexander was facing the political problems of a papacy caught between the millstones of scheming Italian powers. The Papal States had again fallen into the hands of local dictators who, while calling themselves vicars of the Church, had snatched the opportunity provided by the weakness of Innocent VIII to re-establish the practical independence that they or their predecessors had lost under Albornoz or Sixtus IV. Some papal cities had been seized by neighboring powers; so Naples had taken Sora and Aquila in 1467, and Milan had appropriated Forlì in 1488. Alexander’s first task, then, was to bring these states under a centralized papal rule and taxation, as the kings of Spain, France, and England had subdued the feudal lords. This was the mission that he assigned to Caesar Borgia, who accomplished it with such speed and ruthlessness as made Machiavelli gape with admiration.

Closer to Rome, and more immediately harassing, was the turbulent autonomy of the nobles, theoretically subject, actually hostile and dangerous, to the popes. The temporal weakness of the papacy since Boniface VIII (d. 1303) had allowed these barons to maintain a medieval feudal sovereignty on their estates, making their own laws, organizing their own armies, fighting at will their private and reckless wars, to the ruin of order and commerce in Latium. Soon after Alexander’s accession Franceschetto Cibò sold to Virginio Orsini, for 40,000 ducats ($500,000), estates left him by his father Innocent VIII But this Orsini was a high officer in the Neapolitan army; he had received from Ferrante most of the money for the purchase;21 in effect Naples had secured two strategic strongholds in papal territory.22 Alexander reacted by forming an alliance with Venice, Milan, Ferrara, and Siena, raising an army, and fortifying the wall between Sant’ Angelo and the Vatican. Ferdinand II of Spain, fearing that a combined attack upon Naples would end the Aragon power in Italy, persuaded Alexander and Ferrante to negotiate. Orsini paid the Pope 40,000 ducats for the right to retain his purchases; and Alexander betrothed his son Giofre, then thirteen, to Sancia, the pretty granddaughter of the Neapolitan King (1494).

In return for Ferdinand’s happy mediation, Alexander awarded him the two Americas. Columbus had discovered the “Indies” some two months after Alexander’s succession, and had presented them to Ferdinand and Isabella. Portugal claimed the New World by virtue of an edict of Calixtus III (1479), which had confirmed her claim to all lands on the Atlantic coast. Spain retorted that the edict had in mind only the eastern Atlantic. The states were near war when Alexander issued two bulls (May 3 and 4, 1493) allotting to Spain all discoveries west, and to Portugal all those east, of an imaginary line drawn from pole to pole a hundred Spanish leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, in each case on condition that the lands discovered were not already inhabited by Christians, and that the conquerors would make every effort to convert their new subjects to the Christian faith. The “grant” of the Pope, of course, merely confirmed a conquest of the sword, but it preserved the peace of the peninsular powers. No one seems to have thought that non-Christians had any rights to the lands in which they dwelt.

If Alexander might distribute continents he found it difficult to hold the Vatican. When Ferrante of Naples died (1494), Charles VIII decided to invade Italy and restore Naples to French rule. Fearing deposition, Alexander went to the extraordinary step of soliciting help from the Sultan of the Turks. In July, 1494, he sent a papal secretary, Giorgio Bocciardo to warn Bajazet II that Charles VIII was planning to enter Italy, take Naples depose or control the Pope, and use Djem as a pretender to the Ottoman throne in a crusade against Constantinople. Alexander proposed that Bajazet should make common cause with the papacy, Naples, and perhaps Venice, against the French. Bajazet received Bocciardo with Oriental courtesy, and sent him back with the 40,000 ducats due for the maintenance of Djem, and with an envoy of his own to Alexander. At Senigallia Bocciardo was captured by Giovanni della Rovere, brother to the disaffected cardinal; the 40,000 ducats were seized, together with five letters allegedly from the Sultan to the Pope. One letter proposed that Alexander should put Djem to death and send the dead body to Constantinople; upon its receipt the Sultan would pay the Pope 300,000 ducats ($3,750,000), “with which Your Highness may buy some dominions for your children.”23Cardinal della Rovere gave copies of the letters to the French King. Alexander claimed that the Cardinal had forged the letters and had invented the whole story. The evidence supports the authenticity of Alexander’s message to Bajazet, but discounts the Sultan’s reply as probably forged.24 Venice and Naples had already entered into similar negotiations with the Turks; Francis I would later do likewise. To rulers religion, like almost everything else, is a tool of power.

Charles came, advanced through friendly Milan and frightened Florence, and approached Rome (December, 1494). The Colonna supported him by preparing to invade the capital. A French fleet seized Ostia—Rome’s port at the mouth of the Tiber—and threatened to stop the supply of grain from Sicily. Many cardinals, including Ascanio Sforza, declared for Charles; Virginio Orsini opened his castles to the King; half the cardinals in Rome besought him to depose the Pope.24a Alexander withdrew to Castel Sant’ Angelo, and sent envoys to treat with the conqueror. Charles did not wish, by attempting to remove the Pope, to rouse Spain against him; his goal was Naples, whose wealth was ever in the thoughts of his officers. He made peace with Alexander on condition of an unimpeded passage for his army through Latium, papal forgiveness of the pro-French cardinals, and the surrender of Djem. Alexander yielded, returned to the Vatican, enjoyed Charles’s three genuflections before him, graciously prevented him from kissing the papal feet, and received from the King the formal “obedience” of France—i.e., all plans for deposing Alexander were withdrawn. On January 25, 1495, Charles moved on to Naples, taking Djem with him. On February 25 Djem died of bronchitis. Gossip said that the subtle Alexander had given him a slow poison, but no one any longer credits that tale.25

Once the French were gone, Alexander recovered his courage. Now, probably, he made up his mind that strong Papal States, a good army, and a good general were necessary to the safety of the popes from secular domination.26 With Venice, Germany, Spain, and Milan he formed a Holy League (March 31, 1495), ostensibly for mutual defense and for war against the Turks, secretly for the expulsion of the French from Italy. Charles took the hint, and retreated through Rome to Pisa; Alexander, to avoid him, sojourned in Orvieto and Perugia. When Charles fled back to France Alexander returned in triumph to Rome. He demanded of Florence that it should join the League, and expel or silence Savonarola, friend of France and foe of the Pope. He reorganized the papal army, put his oldest surviving son Giovanni at its head, and bade him conquer for the papacy the revolted Orsini fortresses (1496). But Giovanni was no general; he was defeated at Soriano, returned to Rome in disgrace, and pursued the careless gallantries that probably caused his early death. Nevertheless Alexander recovered the strongholds sold to Virginio Orsini, and recaptured Ostia from the French. Apparently victorious over all obstacles, he bade Pinturicchio paint on the walls of the papal apartment in Sant’ Angelo frescoes picturing the triumph of the Pope over the King. Alexander was at the top of his curve.

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