Friday, 2 November 2012

Pope Alexander VI and those wild Vatican nights

A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier (1893)
Lucrezia Borgia with father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI)
and brother Cesare.

On the night of 31 October 1501, Pope Alexander VI organised a wild party to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of his daughter Lucrezia Borgia to Alfonso d'Este, the future Duke of Ferrara. Among the guests is Vatican chaplain Johann Burchard, who records the night's events in his diary.

It begins with a banquet of food and drink, then Alexander gives the signal for 50 dancers to enter and perform lascivious, pagan dances for the titillation of the guests. The men hurl obscenities and the dancers start to remove their clothes. Servants throw chestnuts into the air, and the dancers get down on all-fours to gather them up.

The Supreme Pontiff then calls for a virility contest with prizes for those guests that display the most ardour among the naked courtesans. The laymen guests remove their trousers, the priests remove their cassocks, and the courtesan-dancers open their legs. Later, exhausted and ecstatic, the winners collect their prizes.

Some may have found the proceedings to be undignified and in bad taste, but not Alexander. From his early years in Spain as Rodrigo Borgia he was always a ladies' man, and he saw no reason to change when, in 1456, at the age of 25, he was called to Rome by his uncle Pope Callixtus III. Though not yet ordained a priest, he was made Vice Chancellor of the Church, essentially number two at the Vatican. And even when made a priest in 1458, he didn't forego the ladies. Because as well as providing pleasure they also provided children, and for an ambitious cardinal children were good for business, as they enabled him to form lucrative liaisons with noble Italian families, a necessary step on the promotion ladder to the papacy.

Rodrigo became pope in 1501 and took the name Alexander VI. One of his first acts as pope was to issue a bull of excommunication against printers who should publish 'pernicious doctrines' about the Church, or put another way, who should dare to engage in intellectual discussion on ecclesiastic matters. But he also decided that it would no longer be prudent for him to sire children. And if one of his mistresses should happen to give birth, then he wouldn't recognise the child as his own. A pontifical nicety that his predecessor Innocent VIII didn't concern himself with, openly recognising two children among the dozen that he probably had. Alexander chose instead to consolidate his power by marrying his daughter Lucrezia to a man - several men, in fact! - of noble birth. 

The first was Giovanni Sforza, but Alexander had the marriage annulled on the grounds of Giovanni's 'impotence'. Giovanni responded by accusing Lucrezia of parental and fraternal incest, a rumour which has stuck to the Borgias to this day.

After the Banquet of Chestnuts, as the party of 31 October 1501 came to be known, Lucrezia married Alfonso d'Este, and they had many children, though it did not constrain Lucrezia from entertaining several lovers. As for her father the pope, he died in 1503, possibly of malaria or the plague, and there is also the suggestion that he was accidentally poisoned by his son Cesare. 

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