In the late 1400s and early 1500s Italy was full of powerful families, but none were as feared and reviled as the Borgias. The Borgias’ history is a checklist of every terrible thing you can think of, and then some more. Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI) and especially his children, Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia, wreaked havoc around Rome. They spent their time sleeping, murdering, and buying their way to infamy, and helped ruin the Catholic church while they were at it.
Their antics were so over-the-top that more than one TV show has been based on the family without much exaggeration. Its popularity just shows how much the Borgias and their crazy antics still fascinate us today.
Many historians don’t think the Borgias deserve to be remembered as terribly as they are. But if even half of the things said about them are true, they should go down in history as one of the most messed-up families ever.
Amazingly, the Borgia who started the family’s amazing rise to power was actually a pretty decent guy. He certainly didn’t indulge in the sex and murder that would come to define his family. But when he was appointed pope as a compromise between two ruling families at the time, he made sure to set his own family up for the next generation. He was especially kind to his nephew Rodrigo Borgia who he put in charge of the papal army and made a cardinal. Despite doing some good things, people immediately resented his obvious nepotism. Even his friends called him “the scandal of [his] age.” The infamous Borgias were on their way.
Perhaps no one has ever been less deserving of becoming a cardinal in the Catholic church than Rodrigo. Despite vows of celibacy he had at least five children that we know about. When he wanted to become pope he greased all the necessary palms to make sure it happened, buying himself the position. As Pope Alexander VI he didn’t miss a beat. He ruthlessly suppressed anyone who disagreed with him - and there was a lot to disagree with. He lived an extravagant lifestyle, indulged in plenty of sex, and made sure to make huge amounts of money for him and his family. One of his servants said, “There is no longer any crime or shameful act that does not take place… in the home of the Pontiff.” And he raised his children to be just like him.
When he actually got around to doing pope stuff, Alexander managed to mess that up too. In order to make money on the side he sold the position of cardinals to the highest bidder. But he also came up with a brand-new idea: the sale of indulgences.
Indulgences worked like this: you committed some sins and didn’t have time to do the requisite Hail Mary’s or crusading that would normally be necessary to have your sin forgiven. So instead you just bought an indulgence and the slate was wiped clean. You could even purchase them for sins you would commit in the future.
Indulgences were so messed up that they (along with many of Alexander’s other actions) prompted Martin Luther to nail his 95 Theses to a church door, therefore starting a whole new branch of Christianity. All because Pope Alexander wanted to get rich.
Women in powerful families didn’t have a lot of choice about who they married back then. The goal was always to become more powerful and richer through these alliances. That’s why Lucrezia was ripped from the convent she grew up in and married off at just 13-years-old. It would be the first of three marriages in her short 39 years on earth.
Everyone wanted to marry this young girl and unite themselves with the pope. Everyone knew she was really his daughter. The first winner was a member of the equally powerful family of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. Problems arose when they quickly found themselves on different sides in a war and the marriage was annulled four years later on trumped up charges of impotence.
Marriage number two came just a year later, to the bastard son of the king of Naples. Her second husband died suddenly after just two years of marriage (more on that later).
You’d think being just 20-years-old and with two marriages ending badly she would get some time off, but no; her family seemed determined to make her the female Henry VIII and married her off again. Her brother and father found the 24-year-old heir to the Duke of Ferrara to be a very politically advantageous alliance for them. This marriage managed to stick and Lucrezia got to live happily for the rest of her life.