When it comes to excess in 16th-century Rome, nothing compares to the Banquet of Chestnuts. During the early 1500s, the great Renaissance city of Rome was ruled by Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare, both members of the powerful Borgia family. The influential clan epitomized the misconduct and debauchery of the era with their entertainment. Every Borgia party and banquet was a lavish affair catered to a privileged social set.
One such occasion arose the night of October 30, 1501, when a huge banquet was organized in the Papal Palace. The guest list of this Borgia banquet included nobility and senior officials of the Catholic Church - but courtesans and prostitutes as well. What began as a carefully choreographed ballet of manners soon devolved into a wild party with naked entertainers and sexual games.
The infamous Banquet of the Chestnuts has gone down in history as one of the wildest nights in history. Although historians disagree on whether the event actually occurred, there is a firsthand written account of the night. That document shows how the scandalous feast shed light on the morality of the papal office, particularly the negativity surrounding the Borgia rule. Salacious though it was, the party illuminated the duplicitous and flawed nature of religious authority.
Women Of The Night Picked Up Chestnuts With Their Lady Parts
The Banquet of Chestnuts was hosted by Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia. Held in the Papal Palace, the official residence of the pope himself, the invitation was extended only to his inner circle. The banquet table overflowed with roasted meats, dried fruit, and all sorts of sweet delicacies, and the wine was plentiful. Besides the sparkling nobles in attendance, though, 50 of Rome's finest ladies of the night were included on the guest list.
After dinner, the servants removed the candelabras from the table and placed them on the floor. The women began to dance seductively and undress while chestnuts were strewn about. Then, the women began crawling around on all fours, picking up the chestnuts - according to some stories, with their nether regions.
The Polite Dinner Party Turned Into An All-Night Romp
It wasn't long before the dinner guests got involved with the entertainers' floor show, throwing down barrettes, brooches, and even gloves for the dancers to pick up. Those with less inhibition are said to have burned off dinner by having relations with their choice of courtesan.
Prizes were soon announced for any man who had the most sexual partners. Cloaks, boots, and other gifts were handed out to the winners by the pope himself.
It Set The Tone For One Hell Of A Season
Perhaps the attendants of the party felt they could indulge due to the time of year. The late October date was near All Saints Day, a sanctified church holiday with ties to the dead and the season of plenty. It was an otherworldly time when charnel houses were opened, corpses were dressed up and displayed, and farmers celebrated the end of a productive year.
As the seasons turned, Rome was filled with masquerades, performances, and processions. The success of this holiday time depended greatly on the actions of the aristocrats and papal authorities, who were expected to set the tone for upcoming festivities. Although a church festival would have worked just fine, with their banquet the Borgias offered up an evening that went above and beyond expectations.
Religious Historians Deny The Story
Some religious historians argue that the Banquet of Chestnuts was invented as a way to embarrass the Catholic Church. In 1925, Vatican researcher Peter de Roo wrote a piece entitled Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, his Relatives and his Time in which he painted the pope as a devoted Italian patriot and a "tireless upholder of the best traditions of the papacy."
Since the only firsthand accounts we have, from Johann Burchard, are not conclusive, it's totally possible that the Banquet of Chestnuts was a figment of someone's imagination or a deceitful plot to make the church look bad.