On the morning of August 11, 1492, Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope, taking the name Alexander VI and yelling “I am Pope! I am Pope!” The throngs of Romans in the Piazza di San Pietro shared in his excitement. But for some, the Papal Election of 1492 seemed to indicate the downfall of the papacy, if not the end of days. Giovanni de Medici is recorded as saying, “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious, perhaps that this world has ever seen; and if we do not flee, he will infallibly devour us.” Gian Andrea Boccaccio wrote in a letter to the Duke of Ferrara, “ten Papacies would not suffice to satisfy the greed of all his kindred.” Ferrante, King of Naples, purportedly told his wife, “This election will not only undermine the peace of Italy, but that of the whole of Christendom.” The priest and prognosticator Girolamo Savonarola would spend the last year of his life trying to render the 1492 Papal election void due to simony, a campaign that resulted in his excommunication, torture, and execution. What was it about the Papal Election of 1492 and its resultant Pontiff, Alexander VI, that elicited such a dramatic range of reactions? As it turns out, this question is difficult to answer but it involves assassination, simony, nepotism, accusations of poison, coercion, abuse, incest, wildly debauched orgies, and political corruption.

Transcript for: The Papal Election of 1492

Researched and Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Marissa: Picture it– It’s a muggy dawn on Saturday, August 11, 1492 and the Piazza di San Pietro is quickly filling up with anxious Italians, blurry-eyed from their stake-outs the night before. The crowding in the piazza had only dissipated hours before when it became apparent that there would be no news. The people of Rome had endured four days of boredom and anticipation as the Sacred College of Cardinals gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica to elect a new pope. But that morning, their wait was over. Shortly after day break, the window facing the Piazza di San Pietro was flung open and Cardinal Francesco di Nanni Todeschini de’ Piccolomini began the ancient but familiar exchange with the people of Rome. He yelled “Habermus Papam!” (We have a Pope!) and the people in the piazza replied in unison, “Deo Gratias!” (Thanks be to God!)

Averill: Slips of paper rained down from the window inscribed with the following: “We have for a Pope, Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia of Valencia.” Alexander VI then showed himself at the window, where he was expected to pronounce in Latin, “Volo!” (I’m willing [to serve as Pope]). Instead, the new Pontiff, unable to contain his excitement, yelled in Italian, “I am Pope! I am Pope!” The throngs of Romans shared in his excitement. Since the death of Pope Innocent VIII three weeks before, the Eternal City had been thrust into chaos. Rome’s oldest rival families took advantage of the papal vacancy, ordering assassinations of their enemies. In the short time between Innocent’s death and Alexander’s election, 200 assassinations were recorded within the city limits. What’s more, ordinary Romans felt the pressure bearing down on the Papal States by surrounding temporal rulers after eight years of ineffectual ruel by Innocent VIII.

Marissa: For the most part, the Sacred College of Cardinals and the citizens of Rome were on the same page. They did not need a pope who was a scholar or a saint. They needed a Pontiff who displayed all of the qualities of a strong temporal ruler: wisdom, tall and majestic in stature, a talent for diplomacy, impressive eloquence, administrative prowess, and enough wealth and resources amassed to bend others to his will. Rodrigo Borgia fit this bill. He was the most senior Cardinal in the Sacred College and had always carried out his duties conscientiously and competently.

But, for some, the Papal Election of 1492 seemed to indicate the downfall of the papacy, if not the end of days. Giovanni de Medici is recorded as saying, “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious, perhaps that this world has ever seen; and if we do not flee, he will infallibly devour us.” Gian Andrea Boccaccio wrote in a letter to the Duke of Ferrara, “ten Papacies would not suffice to satisfy the greed of all his kindred.” Ferrante, King of Naples, purportedly told his wife, “This election will not only undermine the peace of Italy, but that of the whole of Christendom.” The priest and prognosticator Girolamo Savonarola would spend the last year of his life trying to render the 1492 Papal election void due to simony, a campaign that resulted in his excommunication, torture, and execution. What was it about the Papal Election of 1492 and its resultant Pontiff, Alexander VI, that elicited such a dramatic range of reactions? As it turns out, this question is difficult to answer but it involves assassination, simony, nepotism, accusations of poison, coercion, abuse, incest, wildly debauched orgies, and political corruption.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Averill.

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Averill: Before we regale you with stories of Machiavellian machinations, we have some very special people to thank. Our Patreon supporters keep the lights on and the microphones recording, and we are grateful for each and every one of you. We want to give a special shoutout to our mega-donors, our Auger and Excavator level patrons: Maddie, Denise, Colin, Edward, Susan, Christopher, Peggy, Maggie, Danielle, and Iris! Your generosity knows no bounds, and we are honored that you choose us to support. Listener, if you are not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.

Marissa: Fair warning – papal politics during the Italian Renaissance were unbelievably complex and, since our show is for a general audience, I don’t want to make any assumptions about what our listeners know or don’t know going into it. This episode calls for a very robust background if we have any hope of untangling the Papal Election of 1492. I’ll start with background phase one which includes some general history of the papacy, papal elections, and the city of Rome. That will bring us up to the mid-1400s which is when Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, is created a Cardinal. The story of Alexander’s pre-papal career will serve as background phase 2. Then, we’ll discuss the Papal Election of 1492 and its significance more specifically.

Before the 5th century, the Pope was known more simply as the Bishop of Rome, possessing no temporal power or any particular power over the Catholic Church as a whole. The early medieval papacy was influenced by various regional powers as they vied for control of the Italian peninsula. Custom held that the Bishop of Rome was supposed to be elected by “the clergy and the people of Rome” but this vague directive left a lot of room for interpretation and manipulation. During centuries of control by the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Franks, the Pope became a temporal ruler, controlling the Papal States surrounding the city and suburbs of Rome.

Averill: After 900 CE, powerful Roman families began to exert their control over the Papacy in their bids to control the peninsula. Aided by the vague procedures set down for the election of the Bishop of Rome, now universally referred to as the Pope, the Italian nobility installed, deposed, and even executed the Popes in their thrall. This dark period of corruption ended in 962 when Pope John XII successfully appealed to the German King Otto I for protection from the cut-throat Roman nobility. In return for Otto’s military protection, John XII pledged fealty to this temporal ruler, making Otto I the Holy Roman Emperor. This alliance triggered even more interest in Papal elections from the temporal rulers of Europe.

A disastrous papal election in the 1040s led to the existence of three rival popes, a crisis that triggered the Gregorian Reform. One of the goals of the Gregorian Reform was to establish parameters for the free and proper election of bishops. From another contested papal election in 1059 CE, Nicholas II emerged as the rightful Pontiff and issued a decree regulating Papal elections, the seed from which our current procedures grew. The decree stated that the Pope was to be elected by Cardinal Bishops with the assistance of Cardinal priests but that their choice was then to be ratified by the rest of the clergy and the people of the city of Rome.

Marissa: The office of Cardinal originated in the seventh century in reference to the priests assigned to the 25 principle parishes of Rome. Over time, these positions evolved into important posts that required more than your regular old priest. Gradually, the posts at each of the 25 Roman parishes were filled by esteemed bishops who traveled from the small cities and suburbs outside of Rome in order to carry out occasional duties at their titular parish. Over time, the Papacy became increasingly reliant on these bishops who held Sees in lands outside of the city of Rome and therefore served as de facto ambassadors and diplomats. As the interest of temporal rulers in the Papal States increased, there was more and more need for such offices.

So, by this slow process, the offices of Cardinal Bishop and Cardinal Priest were born. They held important ecclesiastical offices abroad but always maintained a titular church within Rome that served as their home base, though they rarely officiated there in any real capacity. Their titular churches, however, allowed the Roman Catholic Church to maintain the legal fiction that the Pope continued to be elected by the “clergy of Rome” long after this modern version of the Cardinal was born. At the time of our feature event- the Papal Conclave of 1492- the Sacred College of Cardinals (all cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church) was limited to 24 members.

Averill: This legal fiction was stretched to its limits in the 14th century during the period known as the Avignon Papacy/Babylonian Captivity (1309-1376). Philip IV of France essentially hijacked the papacy for France for the period of 61 years– the reign of 7 popes. During this period, all elected popes were Frenchmen and each of the Pontiffs resided in Avignon, France (part of the Holy Roman Empire) rather than in the city of Rome. Most scholars agree that the Avignon Papacy was a time when cardinals’ influence and power grew strongest. The Pontificate however, suffered injury to its authority, rapid secularization, and a whole lot of bad PR. This power imbalance would be contested violently over the course of the 15th century as a new breed of pope sought to establish absolutist regimes leading up to our feature event.

The absence of the Papacy from Italy had disastrous consequences for the city of Rome. In the political vacuum left behind, various legates, condottieri, and baronial regimes failed to administer the city properly. The city’s infrastructure crumbled, helped along the way by the earthquake of 1349, the damage from which was never properly addressed by authorities. Rome’s old baronial families were excluded from government but they managed to wreak havoc in the city by inciting their thugs and partisans to clan-based violence. The city became increasingly violent as mercenaries, bandits, and other criminals flooded in, looking to escape the long arms of the centralizing states of Europe.

Marissa: Anonimo Romano wrote of Rome in the 1350s:

“The city of Rome was living through great troubles. It had no appointed rectors. Combat raged every day. People were robbed everywhere. Virgins were defiled. There was no protection. Little old maids were assaulted and led off to dishonor. Wives were seized from their husbands in their own beds. Farm workers going out to tlabor were robbed. Where? Within the gates of Rome. Pilgrims, who had come to the holy churches for the good of their souls, were not defended but were robbed, their throats slit. Priests began committing crimes. Every lust, every evil, no justice, no restraint. No longer was there a remedy. The individual was perishing. The man who could wield the sword best was the one who had most claim to the right. There was no safety unless each man defended himself with the help of his relatives and friends. Every day saw mustered of armed men.”

Averill: Unfortunately, the decree of 1059 was not all that successful in preventing future disputed elections. The most dramatic of these disputed elections came in 1376, which saw the election of two simultaneous Popes, and triggered the Great Western Schism. For decades, two rival papacies– one centered in Rome and the other in Avignon, France– operated in Europe, each refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the other. In 1409, a third Pope was elected by the Council of Pisa, resulting in a six-year period with three rival Popes. We’ll come back to the Great Western Schism in a few minutes- to talk about what it meant for the City of Rome.

An additional reform, made in 1179 by Pope Alexander III, complicated the Papal election process even further. Alexander III declared that in order for a Papal election to be valid, the Sacred College of Cardinals must achieve a two-thirds majority. This provision resulted in protracted deliberations lasting months, sometimes even years. These lengthy deliberations triggered, in 1268, the very first Papal Conclave, a Latin word meaning “under lock and key.” When Pope Clement IV died in Viterbo, Italy in 1268, the cardinals gathered there to elect his successor. However the deliberations dragged on for three years. Fed up with the prolonged lawlessness and chaos of this interregnum, civil authorities decided to lock the cardinals in the papal palace and withhold victuals in order to starve them out of their deliberations.

Marissa: This incident served as the first proper papal conclave where the cardinals were sequestered from the outside world as they made their deliberations. In 1274, Pope Gregory X (the Pontiff elected at the first conclave in Viterbo) published a bull that mandated the strict seclusion of cardinals during their deliberations and absolute secrecy of the proceedings. Over the next several decades, the procedure of the conclave became the norm, though Gregory X’s strictures were not always followed, as we shall see.

It also became the norm for papal conclaves to be held in Rome. During the middle ages, cardinals traveled to whatever city the Pope died in to conduct their election of the new Pontiff. But the chaos and trauma of the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism had a profound impact on the city of Rome. The 1400s saw the concerted efforts by the Papacy to establish and reinforce the Roman nature of the Pontificate. The 1415 election of Martin V, which is the election which ended the Great Western Schism, was the last papal election to take place outside of Rome.

Averill: The Papacy’s problems, however, did not end once it returned to Rome at the end of the Great Western Schism. The Rome-based reigns of Pope Martin V and Pope Eugenius IV did not immediately restore power to the Pontificate or to the Papal States surrounding the city. These two popes were foundational to the restoration of the papacy in Rome but neither was able to complete the process. This accomplishment is typically attributed to Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) who secured peace with the temporal powers of France and Germany, a move that protected the Papacy from the French and German interference that had wreaked havoc on the church in the previous centuries.

Marissa: In addition to assuring the sovereignty of the papacy, Nicholas V is credited with revitalizing Rome. He initiated a truce between the warring Italian city-states, called the Peace of Lodi and set about restoring Rome’s status as the capital of Christendom. He did this with massive public works efforts funded by revenues from the Papal States. Nicholas V paved and widened Rome’s crumbling streets and restored the Roman aqueducts which had been defunct since the fall of the Roman Empire, bringing Roman citizens a fresh water supply that had not been enjoyed since ancient times. Nicholas V also restored and rebuilt basilicas, churches, bridges, piazzas, and fountains. Notably he established the Vatican library and patronized humanist endeavors in literature, art, and architecture.

Averill: Pope Nicholas V’s achievements are impressive and they set the scene for the Papacy’s most powerful period in history, however, two years before his death, the security of Christendom was challenged once again by the Turks’ conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantines (Eastern Christendom), the Papal States (Western Christendom), and their allies had reluctantly banned together and fought valiantly against the advancing Ottoman Turks. Nicholas V had himself arranged for a fleet to relieve the besieged city but the fleet arrived too late. The fall of Constantinople destroyed the Eastern Roman Empire and put Muslims, rather than Christians, in control of Asia Minor. While this turn of events eliminated Western Christendom’s Byzantine rivals, it also put them in a precarious position, vulnerable to Muslim advances and it stimulated calls for another Crusade, for which Italian Rome was ill-equipped.

Marissa: Two years after the Turks took Constantinople, Pope Nicholas V died. The conclave that followed his death proceeded in what was now a typical fashion. The Sacred College of Cardinals filed into designated apartments and sequestered under lock and key. Local masons were employed to hurriedly brick up all entrances and exits. For four days, the cardinals argued, bargained, bribed, and threatened each other in an attempt to reach the necessary two-third majority. This was proving to be difficult for them. One long-term consequence of Nicholas V’s reinvigoration of Rome was that rival Roman baronial families had gained footholds at the papal court. Several Colonna and Orsini, and their allies were created Cardinals and gifted valuable benefices. This meant that the Conclave of 1455 was a polarized one.

Averill: In the end, the Colonna and Orsini factions decided to elevate a compromise candidate. This was not uncommon. Oftentimes, when a majority was elusive, the College chose to elect a sickly or elderly candidate who, they reasoned, could do little damage to the interests of the rival factions in the College AND would soon do them the favor of dying so as to provide them with another opportunity to elect a Pope that was mutually beneficial for a majority. During the Conclave of 1455, there were two such elderly candidates, though both of them were Spaniards, derisively called “Catalans” in Rome. Despite the misfortune that they were not Italians, the Colonna and Orsini factions were able to agree on one of them: Alfonso de Borgia, Bishop of Valencia. Alfonso was in his late seventies and suffered terribly from gout. He was awarded the bishopric of Valencia after he helped negotiate the abdication of the antipope Clement VIII, a crucial step to ending the Great Western Schism. He had earned his red hat under the reign of Eugenius IV as a reward for reconciling the Pope and the King of Naples.

Marissa: After the final round of ballots were cast, the College burned the ballots, sending a smoke signal to the outside world indicating that a new Pope had been elected. The Roman public cheered and assisted the masons in knocking down the hastily erected brick walls that had sealed the Cardinals off from the world. The dean of the College of Cardinals emerged and announced that Lord Alfonso de Borgia was the new Pontiff and that he chose to be known as Pope Calixtus III.

Pope Calixtus III
Pope Calixtus III | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

This is where our background phase 2 begins with the origin story of Rodrigo Borgia, and his ecclesiastical career leading up to the Election of 1492. Calixtus III was not the pope that the College of Cardinals had expected. He immediately set to work raising funds to finance another Crusade that would liberate Constantinople from Turkish rule. He imposed new taxes, liquidated some of the valuable cultural artifacts collected by Nicholas V, halted the public works in progress, and arranged for priests to fan out all over Europe to sell indulgences to wealthy Christians looking to buy absolution.

Averill: Calixtus’s penny-pinching triggered resentment in Rome, a situation that was aggravated by his persistent nepotism. It was not unusual for Popes to elevate their family members to the cardinalate, in fact during this century it was typical, and these papal creations were often called “cardinal nephews” or “cardi-nephews” for short. But in Calixtus’s case, his family’s Catalan nationality made his favoritism particularly irritating to Romans. Two of his nephews, Rodrigo Borgia and Luis Julian de Mila, were created cardinals while in their twenties. At the age of 27, Rodrigo was appointed to the office of vice-chancellor whose power was second only to the Pontiff. Only three years into his papacy, Calixtus succumbed to his ill health and the news of his passing triggered riots in the streets as ordinary Romans expressed their frustration with his elevation and enrichment of Catalans at Italians’ expense.

Marissa: Rodrigo Borgia was not, however, perceived as dead weight by the people of Rome or the Papal Curia. Make no mistake about it- he had enjoyed preferential treatment his entire life. He earned a degree in canon law from Bologna University in one year’s time (typically it took five years) which suggests his degree was, at least partially, bought. But he never rested on his laurels. He worked tirelessly and conscientiously – never once missing a consistory- and was a talented diplomat and administrator. Rodrigo was instrumental in the election of Calixtus’s successor, Eneo Silvio Piccolomini aka Pope Pius II. This endeared him somewhat to the Italians since his support allowed for the elevation of an Italian Cardinal to Pope after two successive non-Italian popes. On the night of Piccolomini’s election, one observer wrote:

“There was laughter and joy everywhere… As night fell, bonfires blazed at every crossroads… men sang in the streets; neighbour feasted neighbour; there was not a place where horns or trumpets did not sound, nor a quarter of the city that was not alive with public joy. The older men said they had never seen such popular rejoicings in Rome before.”

Averill: Rodrigo Borgia spent the incumbancies of the next two popes- Pius II and Paul II– amassing wealth, building influence, administering effectively, banking favors, and indulging in sexual excess. The new Pope Pius II was, of course, indebted to Rodrigo Borgia for influencing the Conclave that appointed him pope and Pius was aware of Rodrigo’s competence, calling him “an extraordinarily able man.” But, unlike Calixtus III, Pius II was a stern and moral man whose conscience was plagued by news of Rodrigo’s profligate lifestyle. To begin with, Rodrigo saw nothing wrong with accepting and offering bribes to achieve his ends. The fact of his corruption was less scandalous than the volume and boldness with which he executed his slimy deals. He was able to elevate bribery and simony to an art form, for the most part due to his impressive talent for generating extravagant income from his various offices, benefices, and appointments. And he did not shy away from displaying his wealth:

“His plate, his pearls, his clothes embroidered with silk and gold, and his books in every department of learning are very numerous, and all are magnificent. I need not mention the innumerable bed-hangings, the trappings of his horses… the gold embroideries, the richness of his beds, his tapestries in silver and silk, nor his magnificent clothes, nor the immense amount of gold he possesses.”

Marissa: But Rodrigo was far from the only Cardinal who renounced his vow of poverty in favor of a wealthy and glamorous lifestyle. Since the papacy of Martin V, the Cardinalate had been plagued by growing inequality. Some cardinals remained relatively poor and service-oriented while others used their position to generate fantastic hoards of wealth. This problem sometimes manifested itself during papal elections where wealthy cardinals could use their resources to bribe or coerce the poorer Cardinals into voting in their interest. Nonetheless, Pius II does not seem to have been particularly scandalized by Rodrigo’s wealthy, luxurious lifestyle. Many people admired Rodrigo Borgia for his wealth-generating skills. While Pius stopped short of endorsing Rodrigo’s obscene prosperity, he didn’t reprimand him for his greed. Pius II wrote almost admiringly about the Cardinal’s grand home:

“All the cardinals who lived along the route of the procession had decorated their houses splendidly…. But all were eclipsed in cost and ingenuity by that of Rodrigo, the Vice-Chancellor. His huge towering house, built on the site of the ancient mint, was bedecked with marvellous and costly tapestries…. He had decorated his neighbours’ houses as well as his own, so that the surrounding square was transformed into a sort of park, filled with music and song and his own palace seemed to be gleaming with gold, such as they say the Emperor Nero‘s palace once did.”

Averill: Rodrigo’s magnificent palace was surrounded by several outbuildings and stables. The complex was managed by two hundred servants and slaves who scurried about in the red and yellow Borgia livery acting as grooms, guards, and domestic servants. His palace also housed numerous courtiers, secretaries, and clerks that the Cardinal held on retainer. Rodrigo endeared himself to the locals by taking an active role in the city’s street life. Rodrigo commissioned pantomimes, allegories, firework shows, and bullfights in the court outside his palace for public pleasure. His servants catered to the spectators, giving them wine and snacks

Marissa: It was Rodrigo’s weakness for women that remained a thorn in Pius II’s side. One observer said of Rodrigo that “Beautiful women are attracted to him in a most remarkable way, more powerfully than iron is drawn to a magnet,” while another described him as a man of “endless virility.” After receiving some particularly troubling news about Rodrigo’s activities, Pius II sent him a long letter that survives today, outlining the behavior of which Rodrigo was accused and emphasizing the humiliation the Pope was suffering as a result.

“We have learned that three days ago a large number of women of Siena, adorned with all worldly vanity, assembled in the gardens of … Giovanni di Bichio, and that your Eminence, in contempt of the dignity of your position, remained with them from one o’clock until six and that you were accompanied by another cardinal…. We are told that the dances were immodest and the seduction of love beyond bounds and that you yourself behaved as though you were one of the most vulgar young men of the age…. I should blush to record all that I have been told. The mere mention of such things is a dishonour to the office you hold. In order to have more freedom for your amusements you forbade entry to the husbands, fathers, brothers and other male relations who came with these young women…. It seems at present nothing else is spoken of in Siena…. We are more angry than we can say…. Your behaviour gives a pretext to those who accuse us of using our wealth and our high office for orgies…. The Vicar of Christ himself is an object of scorn because it is believed he closes his eyes to these excesses…. You rule the pontifical chancellery; and what renders your behaviour more reprehensible is that you are close to us, the Sovereign Pontiff, as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy See. We leave it to your own judgement to say if it befits your high office to flaunt with women, to drink a mouthful of wine and then have the glass carried to the woman who pleases you most, to spend a whole day as a delighted spectator of all kinds of lewd games…. Your faults reflect upon us, and upon Calixtus, your uncle of happy memory, who is accused of a grave fault of judgement for having laden you with undeserved honours. Let your Eminence then decide to put an end to these frivolities.”

Averill: Rodrigo did not change his promiscuous ways after this confrontation with Pius II but he exercised more discretion so as to not upset the Pope in future. In 1464, Rodrigo used his own funds to outfit a Venetian fleet for Pius II’s ambitions to recapture Constantinople. Both men traveled together to Ancona to attend the fleet’s launch. Unfortunately, during this trip, Pius and Rodrigo appear to have contracted the plague. Pius died on August 15 while Rodrigo lingered on. His illness most closely resembled the plague but his physicians suspected a sexually transmitted infection. They told the governor of Ancona that they “had little hope of curing him, especially considering that a short while ago he did not sleep alone in bed.” Rodrigo was always true to his brand.

Against all odds, Rodrigo recovered and returned to Rome in time to participate in the Conclave that elected the next pope, Paul II. During Paul II’s incumbency, which lasted seven years, Rodrigo continued to do Rodrigo, this time catching less flack than he did with Pius. Pietro Barbo, the given name of Pope Paul II, was as pleasure-loving and extravagant as the Cardinal. We’ll fast-forward through the papacy of Paul II because it was, for the most part, more of the same. After the death of Paul II, however, the nature of the papacy would change forever because, in the Conclave of 1471, the College of Cardinals elected Francesco della Rovere who took the name Sixtus IV.

Marissa: Sixtus IV is widely regarded as the first Pope-King and Rodrigo Borgia played a crucial role in his elevation. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote the following of Sixtus IV: “This pope was the first to show just how much a pontiff could do and how many actions which would have been called errors in earlier times were now hidden under the cloak of papal authority.” It is unclear if Borgia knew that electing Sixtus IV would transform the Pontificate into the office he envisioned. Either way, it is clear that by 1492, when it came time for Borgia to wear the papal tiara, that the election of Sixtus IV had been crucial in transforming the papacy into the autocratic and temporal authority he’d craved.

Averill: For most of the 1400s up to this point, the administrative apparatus of the Roman Catholic Church- namely the Pontificate and Sacred College of Cardinals- had been changing. The highest offices in the church were becoming less spiritual and more secular. The return of the church to Rome meant that the church was forced to engage with Italy’s powerful rival families, a challenge that required a certain amount of nepotism to maintain the fragile balance of power in Italy. The Pope and Cardinals had to administer the Papal States just as any other Italian city-state so the Pope was increasingly taking on the responsibilities of a King while the cardinals were increasingly taking on roles as ambassadors and diplomats to repair and maintain relationships with Europe’s temporal powers. The threat of the Turks in Constantinople made the raising of funds a high priority- increasing the sale of indulgences and instances of simony (sale of offices). We can also see the church increasingly favoring men who were staunch pragmatists and particularly skilled at generating wealth from their office. The point is that this was not just the Roman Catholic Church’s fall from grace. Political realities required that the church transform its role in Europe if it hoped to remain relevant and survive the fall of Rome in the East.

Marissa: Sixtus IV was relentless in promoting the interests of his family, the della Roveres. He created two cardi-nephews: Pietro Riario and Giuliano della Rovere and gave cardinalates to four other relatives. Pietro was especially worldly, often compared to the Roman emperor Caligula. Pietro was charged with wining and dining the Neapolitan princess Eleonora of Aragon in 1473 as she made her way to Ferrara for her impending marriage. Historian and biographer Christopher Hibbert writes:

“The sumptuous banquet Pietro hosted for her lasted six hours, a relentless succession of opulent dishes, eaten to the accompaniment of music, poetry, and dancing: gilded and silvered breads, peacocks, pies filled with live quail that ran about the table when the crust was removed, a whole bear, plates of silvered eels and sturgeon, and ships made of sugar filled with silver acorns, the della Rovere emblem.”

Averill: Pietro derived a healthy income of 50,000 ducats per year from the benefices bestowed upon him by Sixtus IV which he spent on lavish affairs like this banquet and gifts for his mistress, Teresa. Teresa lived a life of luxury in Pietro’s palace and, famously, wore shoes sewn with pearls. Though Pietro was undoubtedly Sixtus’s favorite, his prominence in the church did not last long because he died suddenly in 1474. His death was suspected to be caused by poisoning at the time but most historians now agree that it was more than likely appendicitis.

This left the other favorite of Sixtus IV, Giuliano della Rovere, who became the Pope’s right hand man at the papal court, rivaled only by Rodrigo Borgia. It was sometime during the reign of Sixtus IV that Giuliano and Rodrigo began their heated rivalry.  It’s not entirely clear what triggered their evolution into arch nemeses but it’s important for the 1492 election so keep it in the back of your mind. Sixtus certainly did not neglect Rodrigo in favor of Giuliano. In fact, Rodrigo was rewarded for his support in the conclave that elected Sixtus with valuable benefices and a fancy assignment in Valencia, his place of birth. It was on this trip to Valencia that Rodrigo met the woman who would become his long-time mistress and mother of his four legitimate children, Vannozza dei Cattanei.

Marissa: Vannozza was married off to a sham husband shortly after she and Rodrigo began their affair and one year later, she gave birth to Rodrigo’s son Cesare, who was subsequently legitimized by Sixtus IV. Vannozza gave birth to three more of Rodrigo’s children: Juan (sometimes called Giovanni), Lucrezia, and Jofré. Her fifth child, Ottaviano, was never legitimized and it’s unclear if he belonged to Rodrigo or one of her sham husbands. Rodrigo had at least three other children by different women- two girls and one boy- who were never officially legitimized. Vannozza lived a life of leisure at Rodrigo’s expense but she did not remain his mistress forever. Some time in the late 1480s, their relationship evolved to one of mutual regard but they were no longer lovers.

Averill: In 1483, Rodrigo removed his children from Vannozza’s household and placed them with his cousin Adriana da Mila, who had married into the powerful Orisini family. By 1489, Rodrigo had taken a new lover who was, coincidentally, the wife of Adriana da Mila’s son Orsino Orsini. His new love was Giulia Farnese, nicknamed “la Bella.” Once Rodrigo expressed interest in Farnese, her husband retired to the countryside and essentially let Rodrigo have his way with her. Farnese still sometimes visited her husband at his country estate and this infuriated Rodrigo. We have a surviving letter that he once wrote her on the subject:

“We have heard that you have again refused to return to us [from Bassanello] without Orsini’s consent. We know the evil of your soul and of the man who guides you but we would never have thought it possible for you to break your solemn oath not to go near Orsino. But you have done so … to give yourself once more to that stallion. We order you, under pain of eternal damnation, never again to go to Bassanello.”

Marissa: Orsino Orsini, Farnese’s HUSBAND, sent her back to Rodrigo after she received this letter. That’s how powerful Rodrigo was.

Perhaps because his family was Italian, Sixtus IV’s nepotism did not seem to bother ordinary Romans much. In fact, Sixtus IV was regarded with affection by Romans who sometimes compared him to the Roman emperor Augustus. Sixtus IV taxed foreign churches heavily, charged high prices for sale of ecclesiastical offices, and sold off all of Paul II’s valuable antiquities. With the money raised from these moves, Sixtus IV executed an elaborate public works program in Rome, building a foundling hospital, refurbishing sections of the city that lay in ruins, moving and renovating the city’s main market to the historic Piazza Navona, where Rome’s imperial circus once operated, and more. The public work for which he is best remembered is the Sistine Chapel, which was built and decorated by Renaissance Rome’s most talented artists. It’s also worth mentioning that our feature event, the Papal Election of 1492, would be the first papal conclave to take place in the Sistine Chapel. All papal conclaves have taken place in the Sistine Chapel since the 19th century.

Averill: Sixtus IV died in 1484 and, once again, the Sacred College of Cardinals gathered in Rome to elect his successor. Simony played an even bigger role in this particular conclave. The man who benefited from this simoniacal election, Giovanni Battista Cibo, was not particularly able or prominent. He was also quite sickly, referred to most often as an invalid. In fact, he was nicknamed “the Rabbit” and his incompetence meant that Rome suffered from some of the lawlessness that was more common in between papal incumbencies. To many Romans, the slow descent into chaos reminded them of the traumatizing 14th century when the papacy was removed to Avignon and Rome fell into disarray.

Cibo was able to secure his election by promising favors to various cardinals during the conclave. Once he was elevated to pope, he took the name Innocent VIII. His reign was plagued by the promises he’d made during the conclave and also by the debts incurred by Sixtus IV. He ended up having to create needless bureaucratic offices within the church and sell them for high prices in an attempt to rescue the papal purse. During the reign of Innocent VIII, simony, indulgences, and judicial corruption became the norm rather than an exceptional circumstance. He was the first Pope to publicly recognize his children, destroying any semblance of papal celibacy that may have remained.

Marissa: Stefano Infessura, a humanist, lawyer, and diarist of Rome in the 15th century, tells of one man who murdered his two daughters but bought his freedom for 800 ducats. During the reign of Innocent VIII, criminals purchased pardons from all levels of the papal government. Some even purchased papal protection and armed guards to protect them from the relatives of their victims who sought revenge. One papal official said within earshot of Infessura: “Rather than the death of the sinner, God wills that he should live– and pay.”

Averill: This state of affairs meant that, when Romans learned that Innocent VIII had fallen ill in 1492, they were desperate for not only a new pope but a new kind of pope. One that was strong, competent, ruthless, protective of Rome, and interested in investing capital into Rome’s infrastructure and culture. Most of the cardinals in the Sacred College would have agreed. Though Innocent continued the practices of Sixtus IV that had made him a morally dubious pope, he had failed to execute any of the achievements that endeared Sixtus to Romans, made him a successful temporal ruler, and strengthened the papacy against its enemies.

Marissa: Innocent VIII died on July 25, 1492, with Rodrigo Borgia and Giuliano della Rovere in attendance. As he lay dying, the two bitter rivals argued about Innocent’s more controversial policies. We have some bizarre stories that have trickled down to us about his last days from Infessura. One of them is depicted in BBC’s television drama, The Borgia (not to be confused with the American series Borgias). During his last illness, Innocent VIII could eat nothing but breast milk. Wet nurses were brought to the papal palace to breastfeed him in hopes that the nutrients would strengthen him. Most people think this is downright bizarre but “sick-nursing” as it was called, was not uncommon in early modern Europe. Breast milk was thought to have (and actually does have) healing properties.

Averill: But one other story about Innocent’s last days is more curious. Infessura records that a Jewish physician drew all of the blood out of three young boys (which obviously led to their deaths) and that, with this blood, the physician prepared a draught which was fed to Innocent in a desperate last attempt to save his life. Yes, that’s right, Innocent VIII apparently resorted to medical vampirism, and not only that, but medical vampirism that required the death of three innocent children. We don’t know how true this story is but it’s not entirely outside of the realm of possibility. Which is, itself, chilling.

Marissa: According to Gregory X’s papal bull, papal conclaves are supposed to begin within 10 days of the death of the pope and one day following his funeral. But the conclave of 1492 was delayed. At the moment of Innocent’s death, there were 21 Cardinals in the Sacred College who were both eligible electors and present in Rome. But he had created two cardinals, Federico di Sanseverino and Maffeo Gherardo at a consistory in March 1489, whose eligibility was in doubt because their names had not been formally published, they had not undergone the “ceremony of the opening of the mouth,” and they had not been assigned their titular Roman church office (remember this is what allowed the College of Cardinals to claim that they were indeed, “the clergy of Rome.”) These were steps that were crucial to a cardinal’s full recognition as a cardinal and his eligibility as an elector. Sanseverino arrived in Rome the night before Innocent’s death but the dying pope refused to see him. Maffeo Gherardo, who resided in Venice, was still en route to Rome on the tenth day after Innocent’s passing.

Averill: Most scholars believe that the College of Cardinals postponed the start of the conclave in order to receive Gherardo. Beginning the conclave knowing he was on his way would have been an affront to Venice, a tricky situation they wanted to avoid. This delay gave the Cardinals extra time to organize their camps and it gave the press and foreign diplomats extra time to forecast their projections of the election.The College also had time to consider the two cardinals who had been fulfilling their cardinalitial duties for three years but had not yet achieved the status they would need to vote. Ascanio Sforza sponsored the cause of Sanseverino, motioning for him to be granted elector status despite not having been formally published. The College took a vote and agreed on July 26, 1492, giving him a vacant and unwanted titular position in an impoverished parish in Rome and formally publishing his name. Now there were 22 electors. The other cardinal in question- Maffeo Gherardo- arrived in Rome on August 3. Giovanni Battista Orsini took up Gherardo’s cause with the rest of the College which voted to affirm Gherardo’s status as an elector and formally publish his name. Now there were 23 cardinals who were to take part in the Papal Conclave of 1492.

Marissa: Though technically any of the 23 confirmed cardinals in the college were “papabile” (worthy or eligible of being pope), about half of them were considered to be remote possibilities if not entirely disqualified because of personal or political realities at that moment in 1492.


  • Giorgio da Costa (elevated by Sixtus IV): politically astute – super experienced, very talented legate to Portugal, plus he was super super old- 86 and pope had to be under 80. De Costa was a super young and energetic 86 – he lived until he was 102- but still he was ten years older than the oldest pope to ever be elected (Calixtus III)
  • Girolamo Basso della Rovere (elevated by Sixtus IV): not going to happen because of his role in a scandal between the Orsini and Colonna families in the 1480s where he ended up serving as jailer of two of the crucial cardinals (Colonna and Savelli) who were now participating in the conclave of 1492
  • Colonna, Savelli, Conti, and Orsini Cardinals (elevated by Sixtus IV): similarly had too much baggage- there was no way to elevate one without instigating a quarrel with another. Plus the strong feelings they all had against each other would have made consensus difficult if not impossible. It was super rare for anyone from those warring families to achieve the papacy- one exception was Martin V but this was because the stars aligned to make him the only pope who could end the Great Western Schism.
  • Giovanni Giacomo Sclafenati (elevated by Sixtus IV): only 41 years old- super secular to the point of neglecting church affairs, vulnerable to domination by others because he just didn’t give a shit.
  • Giovanni de’ Medici (elevated by Innocent VIII): only 16
  • Antoniotto Pallavicini (elevated by Innocent VIII): Genoese 51 yo, able diplomat and administrator, good at wealth-generation, his Genoese nationality was a mark against him because Innocent VIII had been Genoese and the College had customarily avoided electing a pope from the same city-state as the one who had just reigned.

There were probably eight cardinals who stood any real chance of being elected pope in 1492.


  • Rodrigo Borgia (elevated by Calixtus III): most senior cardinal- 62 years old- 37 years as a cardinal, super effective and tireless administrator, super effective legate to Spain, holds most important post below the Pope, fabulously wealthy because of his ability to generate income from church holdings and offices. 
  • Francesco di Nanni Todeschini de’ Piccholomini (elevated by Pius II): less visible than Borgia, spent much time in Germany, ill health (triggering after Innocent’s failures), not as good at extracting wealth from offices as Borgia, mild-mannered, conciliatory, too friendly to the Germans (trying to keep Holy Roman Empire out of the papacy’s hair), too Christian (to the point of a liability)
  • Oliviero Carafa (elevated by Paul II): a Neapolitan (advantageous because Papacy’s most pressing question was French King Charles VIII’s historic claim to Naples.), celebrated military chief, but he owed TOO MUCH to Ferrante of Naples/Ferdinand of Aragon because that kind had been crucial to his elevation to cardinal so the college worried that Ferdinand would use a Caraffa papacy as a way to control all of Italy
  • Giovanni Battista Zeno (elevated by Paul II): mild disposition, subject of Venetian Republic which often exhibited tendencies toward independence rather than support of papal interests
  • Giovanni Michiel (elevated by Paul II): also Venetian, very young and healthy – would have been seen by older cardinals as preventing them from ever being elected pope.
  • Giuliano della Rovere (elevated by Sixtus IV): not as senior as Borgia but super important to administrative affairs (eclipsed only by Borgia) and otherwise very comparable to him, unlike Borgia he was a military hero who led papal armies on successful missions to quell partisan uprisings on the peninsula, super successful legate to France, obtained aid from France in crusade against the Turks, excellent at crisis management, Innocent’s de facto cardi-nephew (basically he was the only reason Innocent was able to hold it together). French monarch at the time, Charles VIII, was weak and petty and there was some concern that della Rovere’s French interests would allow Charles to wreak havoc on the delicate balance of the Italian city-states, because he was desperate to conquer and rule Naples. Also had all of Sixtus IV’s worst qualities (willful, domineering, cut-throat). Would they be giving the della Rovere’s too much power in Italy by electing another one?
  • Ascanio Maria Sforza-Visconti (elevated by Sixtus IV): 37 years old & Milanese, Borgia ally in the past – from the Sforza family- his fortunes rose most recently and most meteorically out of all the rest of the cardinals, politically astute, intuitive, and decisive, expert diplomat and statesman, like Borgia- lived a life of luxury, talented at generating wealth from his benefices, his brother, Ludovico il Moro– ruler of Milan- was threatening to shatter the Peace of Lodi, Visconti family (Sforza forebears) had a crest depicting a serpent swallowing a child and the Sforza were regarded as ambitious, power-hungry snakes.
  • Ardicino della Porta (elevated by Innocent VIII): able, service-oriented, humble, advocated papal strictures in Florence despite the temporal powers in that city-state threatening to penalize anyone who followed them, diplomatic success in Germany and Hungary where he secured their support for the crusade against the Turks, served as Pope’s Secretary of State (this office was not officially created until 100 years later), an unwilling cardinal – asked Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 if he could resign the cardinalate and forfeit his benefices, etc. Innocent denied the request. If he had even the slightest desire to advance his candidacy, he would have been pope- he was by far the favorite.

Averill: The strengths and weaknesses of each candidate are, of course, gathered in hindsight. It’s interesting to see who outsiders perceived to be the front-runners at the time. Given the several days delay in the initiation of the conclave after Innocent’s death, foreigners in Rome had plenty of time to send word to their lieges regarding the talk of the town. We have several ambassadorial reports that attempted to gauge the temperature of the Sacred College in the days following Innocent’s death.

Giovanni Andrea Boccaccio wrote to Eleonora d’Aragona (the same woman who was wined and dined by the late Pietro Riaro during the reign of Sixtus IV) to tell her who was favored to be the new Pontiff. He named Ardicino della Porta as the front-runner because of his “great goodness.” Boccaccio wrote that the second favorite for the position was Oliviero Caraffa, the third was Ascanio Sforza, and the fourth most favored was Rodrigo Borgia. Boccaccio makes it clear that he only included Borgia on the list because of the incredible resources he had amassed in office and the fact that he was in the best position to bestow bribes, influential offices, and other riches on his colleagues if they elected him.

Also of interest in Boccaccio’s letter is what he relays about the more remote possibilities: Savelli, da Costa, Piccolomini, Michiel, Domenico della Rovere, Fregoso, and Zeno. Boccaccio reported that these seven cardinals had dismantled their furnishings and riches in their palaces and stored them in secure locations. This was a sign that these seven felt it was a possibility for them to be elected pope. It was customary for ordinary Romans to, after the election of a new pope, pillage their cardinalitial palaces, seeing as they’d no longer be needing them.

Marissa: Milanese historian Bernardo Corio was also reporting from Rome during the papal vacancy. He wrote that della Porta and Sforza were the most promising candidates. Corio discounted Giuliano della Rovere because of his French sympathies.

Milanese ambassador Stefano Taberna also dispatched a report to his ruler Ludovico il Moro about the impending election. Taberna surmised that della Porta was the most likely to be elected Pope but that Zeno was also a possibility. His reasoning was that the prejudices against Giuliano della Rovere and Giorgio da Costa were too great, that della Rovere would never allow Borgia or Piccolomini to be elected, and that Caraffa’s election would be made impossible by the fact that he was in Ferdinand of Aragon’s pocket. Taberna guessed that Giuliano della Rovere would ally with Ascanio Sforza and elect whatever candidate Sforza supported, della Porta or Zeno being the most likely.

Averill: It became clear, through these webs of gossip and rumor, that a faction was developing around Ascanio Sforza. Sforza probably hoped to himself be elected as pope but as the conclave neared, it might have become clear to him that there was one too many impediments for him, not least of which was his very young age at 37. Sforza might have been coming to the realization that at this particular point in history, it was not his time to shine. Nonetheless, he had built up a small but loyal coalition of cardinals who, if not voting for him, were likely to vote for his chosen candidate. This much was clear to the Milanese ambassador but what Taberna could not have known was that Giuliano della Rovere had already approached Sforza with an offer in the sacristy of St. Peter on the same day that Taberna had written his letter. We don’t know what the offer was, but we know that Sforza turned it down.

Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander IV
Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander IV | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: In reviewing the gossip surrounding the election leading up to the beginning of the conclave, it’s clear that Rodrigo Borgia was keeping a low profile. Though he was a strong candidate in almost every way, he was not in the forefront of anyone’s mind as the cardinal most likely to be elevated at this conclave. The expectations of the public, however, meant very little as he prepared to offer his first bribe. On the night of August 5, the night before the conclave began, Rodrigo sent four mules laden with silver to the residence of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. He did so under the cover of night and, when asked, he claimed that he sent it there for safekeeping from the locals’ pillaging should he be elected.

There is no question, however, that these four mule-loads of silver was the first of many bribes Rodrigo employed to secure the papacy. Think about it, Ascanio Sforza was himself among the most papabile cardinals and he had secured a party of electors who were following his lead so his residence was just as vulnerable to pillagers as Rodrigo’s. Why would Rodrigo send silver to Sforza’s residence unless he was confident that Sforza would not be himself elected and his riches pillaged? Historians agree that both Giuliano della Rovere and Rodrigo Borgia offered Sforza bribes and that Borgia must have made a better offer. Sforza was definitely the type of Cardinal to sell his influence for the highest price so long as Milan’s interests were not damaged by the offer.

Averill: This was the state of affairs when the cardinals entered the Vatican on August 6, 1492, ready to elect the new Pontiff. Despite his low visibility leading up to the start of the conclave, Rodrigo’s mark was left all over the conclave from the outset. In preparation for their seclusion, the college appointed prefects who were charged with maintaining order during the conclave. The prefect chosen to police the Vatican quarter, a crucial and notable office, was a Spaniard. This meant that the primary police power in the Vatican was in the hands of someone sympathetic to Rodrigo.

The opening of the conclave was marked by the Mass of the Holy Spirit followed by a customary oration on the electoral duties of the cardinals. This address was typically given by the Secretary of Latin Letters to the late pope but at this conclave, Bernardino López de Carvajal, ambassador from Ferdinand and Isabella, was chosen to deliver the speech. The oration included logistical duties as well as suggestions as to what qualities were crucial to this holy office. This meant that Carvajal was in a position to portray a vision of the next pope who had Rodrigo’s qualities. In this speech, Carvajal threw inconspicuous shade at Giuliano della Rovere, Rodrigo’s primary rival. The rest of August 6 was dedicated to drafting and ratifying an election capitulation, a document which set forth any restrictions the cardinals wished to place on the new pope. With this document, the cardinals agreed to place a limit on the number of cardinals the pope could create.

Marissa: August 7 was a day dedicated to formal negotiations among the cardinals. We don’t know exactly what was said during these negotiations but we do know that there was plenty of simony happening. Prior to the start of the conclave, Giuliano della Rovere had received 200,000 ducats from the French King Charles VIII and 100,000 ducats from the Genoese to help offset the cost of the bribes Giuliano would need to make in order to secure the papacy. These massive sums still may have fallen short of what was needed for Giuliano to outbid Rodrigo Borgia.

Since we don’t have record of the actual proceedings of the conclave, our knowledge of the bribes comes from the actions taken immediately after Rodrigo Borgia was elected. From what we can tell, Rodrigo’s bribes for Sforza went well beyond the four mule-loads of silver. He offered Sforza his powerful post of Vice-Chancellor (the pope’s second in command), as well as his own Roman palace, the castle of Nepi, and the administration of the diocese or Erlau which yielded a revenue of 10,000 ducats per year. With these bribes, Rodrigo secured the support of Sforza and two of the cardinals in his faction who were loyal to Sforza and had no interest in being elected themselves: Ardicino della Porta, and Giovanni Conti.

Averill: Next, he sought to secure the support of the cardinals who represented Rome’s warring baronial families. Rodrigo knew that these families would be more interested in land holdings that maintained or improved their family’s position and that they were only secondarily interested in increasing their revenues. Borgia, therefore, secured a vote from Giovanni Battista Orsini by offering him both benefices that increased his revenues and lands that fortified the Orsini’s ancient holdings close to Rome. Rodrigo secured the votes of Giovanni Colonna and Giovanni Battista Savelli in a similar way, being sure that his offer to them was equal to that which he offered their rival Orsini.

Rodrigo also, accurately, predicted that there were seven cardinals whose primary interest would be increasing their revenues in the years to come. To these seven cardinals, most of whom were not papabile themselves Rodrigo offered the church’s most valuable benefices and administrations so that they could be assured a healthy income in the years to come. In this way he secured votes from Pallavicini, Michiel, Sclafenati, Riario, Fregoso, and Domenic della Rovere. Rodrigo’s gifts to Domenico della Rovere were probably particularly valuable since, by voting for Borgia, della Rovere would have been going against the interests of his kinsman and Borgia’s rival, Giuliano della Rovere.

Marissa: On August 8, the first “scrutiny”– which means the casting and counting of ballots– took place. A second scrutiny took place on August 9 and a third on August 10. The records indicate that most of these votes went to Caraffa and da Costa. Caraffa was part of the Sforza camp, while da Costa was part of the Giuliano della Rovere camp. Historians think that this means both parties knew they didn’t yet have the votes they needed to reach a two-third majority so they voted for place-holders from their parties as they continued negotiations. Indeed, the negotiations that began on August 7 continued each day until it was clear a two-thirds majority was possible.

It took Rodrigo until the evening of August 10 to detach four cardinals (Domenica della Rovere, Fregoso, Michiel, and Colonna) from Giuliano della Rovere’s faction. While he had secured Sforza’s vote as well as the votes of della Porta and Conti from his camp, his bargaining had alienated three cardinals who had previously been loyal to Sforza but were now uncommitted in light of Sforza’s selling out. So, on the night of August 10, Rodrigo Borgia sat at 14 votes. He needed only one more to reach a two-thirds majority. However, almost all of the remaining cardinals were either impervious to bribes or doggedly loyal to Giuliano della Rovere. Except for one.

Averill: It became clear to Rodrigo on that night that Maffeo Gherardo, the Venetian cardinal whose status as an elector had been confirmed only two nights before the beginning of the conclave, would need to be his fifteenth vote. Sadly, Gherardo was suffering from advanced dementia. Many sources claim that he was 96 years old at the time of the 1492 conclave but recently, historians have suggested that he was probably in his late 80s. In order to secure Gherardo’s vote for Borgia, Sforza and his allies mobilized to hound Gherardo for hours, delivering elaborate oratories about why Borgia was the man for the job. They made use of sleep deprivation, not allowing Gherardo to rest until he promised his vote. By badgering him in this way, Sforza was able to convince Gherardo to agree to vote AGAINST the interests of his homeland Venice in the next morning’s scrutiny.

On the morning of August 11, 1492, the cardinals arose early, heard Mass, and executed the scrutiny which elevated Rodrigo Borgia to the office of Pope. After the ballots were tallied and two-thirds majority reached, the cardinals held an accessus, which basically means that the eight cardinals who had not voted for Borgia were given the opportunity to change their votes. All eight took that opportunity, allowing the Sacred College to claim that the vote was unanimous. This last bit of pageantry is so representative of this particular papal conclave as a whole.

Marissa: The meaning of this papal election has been articulated particularly well by historian Francis Albert Young in his dissertation from 1978:

“… that the primary view held by cardinals in conclave of their responsibilities was not providing the world with a spiritual leader, but rather filling a vacancy with the most suitable politician, that is, the one who would willingly provide them with the greatest wealth for themselves and the greatest security for their families.”

In other words, the secularization of the papacy was complete. If the papacy of Sixtus IV marks the beginning of the Pope-Kings, then the 1492 election of Rodrigo Borgia and his elevation to pope marks the climax of this phenomenon. The second Borgia pope’s legacy is, therefore, a complicated one. In many ways Alexander VI was a consummate Pope, at least for the time. Immediately after his election, he worked to restore law and order in Rome. He established a body of prison inspector, he established a board of complaints headed by four commissioners who were in charge or hearing grievances from Roman citizens, and he reframed the governorship of the city to make them more effective.

Averill: Alexander VI endeared himself further to Roman citizens when he arranged to hold an audience every Tuesday which “would be open to all citizens, men and women” over which he would preside. These town-hall-type affairs allowed Alexander VI to interact with Roman citizens, listen to their problems, and dispense justice directly. He also initiated extensive reforms of the Curia that limited simony, and put stricter moral codes in place for clergy. He patronized the arts and worked to reform and refurbish Europe’s universities. Alexander VI also advocated for the improved treatment of Jews in Italy and made provisions for the immigration of Jews expelled from Portugal during the Reconquista.

Part of the black legend that surrounds him and his family has to do with the fact that after Alexander’s death, his arch nemesis, Giuliano della Rovere, was finally elected, taking the name Pope Julius II. Julius II made it his duty to tarnish the Borgia legacy. For example, he spread the rumor that Alexander VI was a marrano (a Portuguese Jewish refugee in Italy), and he accused Alexander and his children of poisoning several important dignitaries. Recently historians have unequivocally debunked all of these claims.

Marissa: Strangely, Alexander VI’s faults (sexual promiscuity, nepotism, simony, greed, hunger for power, ruthlessness, etc.) which are shocking to us now, were typical of Renaissance politicians within and without the church. Indeed, some of these qualities were even admired and sought-after. Alexander’s son, Cesare Borgia, served as Niccolò Machiavelli’s model for The Prince. The criticisms of Girolama Savanarola, that Alexander debased the office of Pope with his un-Christian-like qualities, have filtered down to us over time. There were certainly people who felt this way at the time but they were probably closer to the lunatic fringe than they were the majority.

But we sit at a privileged vantage point. It’s also worth noting that Alexander’s administration of the Holy See may have perpetuated the Roman Catholic Church’s tendency to allow the enslavement of indigenous Americans in the early 1500s, though Alexander never explicitly condoned slavery. We can see that the secularization and corruption that came to define the Roman Catholic Church would have grave consequences during Alexander’s reign and shortly after his death- ie. the Protestant Reformation and bloody wars of religion. These eventualities have all conspired to ensure that Alexander VI’s election and reign went down in infamy. All of this is true. But if we want to balance the finding of meaning in history with the lived experience of people at the time, it’s probably more fair to say that Alexander VI was perhaps not the hero that the Roman Catholic Church deserved, but the hero that they needed right then.

Averill: Yeah, Batman.

Marissa: Flawed hero of Gotham. He’s the hero that Gotham deserves but not the one we need right now. And Alexander was kind of the opposite. He wasn’t what one would think is deserving of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church, but he was the pope that they needed at the time, if that makes sense. So that’s it.

Averill: 1492: Who knew there were other things happening in that year?

Marissa: I know isn’t that weird? That is the same year that, you know, Columbus sailed the ocean blue? Blah blah blah.

Averill: We gotta add a new clause to that rhyme.

Marissa: I know and you know the Reconquista was happening and it’s just a wild, wild time.

Averill: It’s like the 2020 of the 15th century.

Marissa: Exactly, 1492: the 2020 in the 15th century.

Averill: I think I even have a textbook that I’ve never used in the class, that’s called 1492 that I’ve always been like, “Oh I should use this some year.” But it’s very imperialistic and, you know, not very decolonized.

Marissa: Yeah, I understand.

Averill: Must be the same year that syphilis made its way to the new world?

Marissa: It’s true. It’s weird to me. It’s just one of those cases where the Borgia are synonymous with excess debauchery, corruption…

Averill: …politics in Italy? Although apparently they’re Spanish.

Marissa: Yes, Spanish. Yeah, it’s weird just because the voices of their critics have been kind of amplified since they died. But if you look at people at the time, they generally were approving. I mean, even though they were like, “Oh man, this guy’s so sexually [expletive] or whatever.” They generally were like, “Yeah, this guy is exactly what we need right now.” Which is interesting, because I just I didn’t know that till I did this. I thought this was going to be more of a story of the fall of the church from grace, which I guess it is?

Averill: But it wasn’t like Borgia was the cause of that.

Marissa: No, and it wasn’t like people weren’t totally on board for that fall from grace. It’s not like people were like, “No! We have to protect our church!” They were just like, “[Expletive] it. This is what we do now.”

Averill: Yeah, living easy.

Marissa: So this was a hard episode because it was long and complicated. Thanks to those of you who are still listening. There are some people who love Renaissance Italian politics. So those people are probably still listening. But others are probably like, “Oh my god, I can’t hear another Italian name I’m going to go crazy.”

Averill: Good, because I can’t say another Italian name.

Marissa: Right, haha. Thanks for listening and check us out at digpodcast.org where you can find our transcripts and show notes. Follow us @dig_history on Twitter and email us at hello@digpodcast.org. And check out our Patreon at patreon.com/digpodcast.

Averill: Thanks for listening!

Show Notes

Cobb, Cathy. 2017. “Chapter 5 – The Case Against the Borgias: Motive, Opportunity, and Means” from Wexler, Philip. Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Academic Press, 2017.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009.

Matthew, Arnold H. The Life and Times of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. London: Stanley Paul & Co, 1940.

McCahill, Elizabeth M. Reviving the Eternal City Rome and the Papal Court, 1420-1447. 2013.

O Malley, J. W. 2005. “Cardinals in Conclave: A Troubled History”. AMERICA -NEW YORK-. 192, no. 13: 23-27.

Pellegrini, Marco, Gianvittorio Signorotto, and Maria Antonietta Visceglia. 2002. “A turning-point in the history of the factional system in the Sacred College: the power of pope and cardinals in the age of Alexander VI”. 8-30 in Signorotto, Gianvittorio, and Maria Antonietta Visceglia. Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Girolamo Savonarola. London: Routledge and Paul, 1959.

Young, Francis Albert. Fundamental Changes in the Nature of the Cardinalate in the Fifteenth Century and Their Reflection in the Election of Pope Alexander VI. Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms International, 1985.


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