The Pope Who Threw Orgies And Tortured His Enemies

Alexander VI – AKA Rodrigo Borja (Borgia) – was Pope from 1492 until his death in 1503. Alexander VI was an extremely intelligent man that enjoyed luxury and excess in all aspects of his life. As cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia set the tone for his future papacy, participating in elaborate orgies that resembled his later pièce de résistance of sex parties, the Banquet of the Chestnuts.  

Alexander VI was a patron of the arts, a political manipulator, and a very sexually active Spaniard who, arguably, was a man of the times. While his activities were nothing out of the norm for 15th- and 16th-century churchmen – plenty of popes have been sexually active – the Borgia Pope's propensity for nepotism and hedonism is the stuff of legend. He used his positions to benefit himself and his family, and he helped create the mythical grandeur of the Borgia family.

Photo: Bernadino Pinturicchio / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Before And During His Papacy, He Fathered As Many As 10 Children

    Before And During His Papacy, He Fathered As Many As 10 Children
    Photo: Domenichino / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Once he was Pope, Alexander VI pretended that his four children by his long-time mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei (Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffre) were his nieces and nephews, but he eventually legitimated them. Over the course of his life, he had as many as 10 children. Some estimates for the number of his children, however, are as low as seven. Because he had numerous mistresses, lineage of many of the children is unknown.

    Alexander VI had a daughter, Laura, with his mistress Giulia Farnese (depicted above), but paternity was attributed to Farnese's husband, Orsino Orsini. Three other children's names are known: Girolamo, Pier Luigi, and Isabella.

  • Pope Alexander VI Used His Children Well, If Not Appropriately

    Pope Alexander VI Used His Children Well, If Not Appropriately
    Photo: Bartolomeo Veneto / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Even before becoming Pope, Rodrigo had arranged a strategic marriage between his daughter Lucrezia and Giovanni Sforza, the son of a prominent Milanese family. The marriage took place in 1493. However, the marriage was annulled four years later on the grounds that it was never consummated, despite Lucrezia's pregnancy at the time. Why was it ended so abruptly? Because it hadn't proved to be the politically advantageous match Rodrigo was hoping for. It was also rumored that the child may have been the product of some sort of incestuous relationship with her brother or her father, but paternity was never clearly established. Lucrezia's reputation helped fuel the rumors. Rodrigo also masterminded a number of marriages and positions for his children that would serve his own advantage. For example:

    Lucrezia married Alfonso of Aragon in 1498, and, after he died in 1500 (perhaps at the hands of her brother, Cesare), she married the Alfons d'Este, Duke of Ferrara in 1502.

    Gioffre was married off to the illegitimate daughter of the King of Naples, although she later cheated on him with both Cesare and Alexander's eldest son, Giovanni.

    He promoted his son, Cesare, up through the church, making him a cardinal in 1493 and using him as an advisor as well the physical force behind his policies and political manipulations.

  • Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia Participated In (And Hosted) Some Crazy Orgies

    Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia Participated In (And Hosted) Some Crazy Orgies
    Photo: Lawrence OP / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In an age when priests and other churchmen behaving badly was pretty common, Rodrigo was no exception. Rather, he was exceptional in his lascivious antics. In 1460, he participated in an orgy in Siena that was so raunchy that it led to the Pope at the time, Pius II, sending Rodrigo a letter to express his "displeasure." The Pope questioned Rodrigo's seemingly constant desire for "sensual pleasure" and requested that, at the very least, he not wear his official religious garb when participating in sex parties. 

    Moreover, the famed Banquet of the Chestnuts of 1501 was a family affair. The lavish party featured 50 prostitutes picking up chestnuts – not with their hands – in front of high nobles, church officials, and other chosen guests. What started as a dinner party quickly turned into an all-night orgy, with prizes awarded for the best demonstrations of sexual prowess.

  • Alexander VI Tortured And Killed His Biggest Critic

    Alexander VI Tortured And Killed His Biggest Critic
    Photo: Biblioteca Rector Machado y Nuñez / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola criticized the excess and corruption of the papacy during the early 1490s. He was a zealous preacher that spoke out against nude works of art, festivals, celebrations, and the lax morality of the clergy. In 1497, he staged a bonfire where he burned cards, books, games, and other items he deemed sinful. This became known as the "bonfire of the vanities." 

    By 1498, Alexander VI was done tolerating Savonarola and had him arrested. Savonarola and two of his fellow friars were thrown into a dungeon in Florence. They were then tortured and convicted of heresy. They were executed by hanging, although the executioner lit a fire under the men and tried to keep Savonarola alive long enough for the flames to reach him before he died. All three men's bodies were engulfed by the flames, and, after the fired burned out, the remnants were thrown into the River Arno.

  • Alexander VI May Have Died At The Hands Of His Own Son

    Alexander VI May Have Died At The Hands Of His Own Son
    Photo: Altobello Melone / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the course of his lifetime, Cesare Borgia earned a reputation for brutality and violence that would eclipse that of his father. When his brother Giovanni died in 1497, it was rumored that Cesare had killed him out of jealousy. The death of Lucrezia's second husband was also supposedly carried out at the orders, or at the very hands, of Cesare. This, again, may have been a jealous act if the rumors about the incestuous relationship with his sister are true. 

    Cesare was feared and hated throughout Italy for his arrogance and affinity for vengeance. Alexander himself may have feared his son by the end of his life. In one of his last evenings with his son, Alexander took ill and soon died. Cesare also got sick, but he survived. Rumors began to spread that Cesare poisoned his father, or that they were both seeking to kill a rival cardinal and drank poisoned wine by mistake.

    Other historians assert that Alexander died of malaria or some other stomach ailment, but, because Alexander's body was in such horrific condition by the time of his public exhibition, poison rumors continued to swirl. 

  • Alexander VI May Have Endorsed Early New World Slavery

    Alexander VI May Have Endorsed Early New World Slavery
    Photo: The British Library / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    In 1493, Alexander VI issued a papal bull supporting Spanish exploration of the Americas. In "Inter Caetera," Alexander VI stated that any land that was not Christian was up for grabs to whomever discovered it; the natives were to be saved, and the faith should be spread. This went a long way to justify the Spanish presence and policies in the New World.

    Other historians argue that Alexander VI's letter to King Manuel I of Portugal in 1497 clarified that explorers should be using the policy of "voluntary subjection" rather than enslavement with natives.