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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Calixtus III  Pius II  Paul II  Sixtus IV  Innocent VIII  Alexander VI




Henry VII

Frederick III

Charles VIII

Ferdinand and

TWENTY-THREE cardinals entered the conclave to elect a successor to Innocent VIII on August 6th, 1492. There were four recognised candidates of whom only two survived the first few scrutinies. These two were Rodrigo Borgia and Sforza. Almost forty years had elapsed since Borgia had been summoned from Spain by his uncle Calixtus III to become Cardinal-Nephew. His morals were in all respects those of his times, but he had been born and bred in Spain, where a decorous bearing was de rigueur and an outward show of devotion most advisable. So although he sent for his mistress and their children as soon as he was settled in the Vatican, he did not give himself away by installing them in Rome. Venice was the nearest he dared risk. He led a life dissolute enough, but still concealed under the cloak of piety. It is said that after nights of wildest orgy he would creep into a church at dawn, staggering out, drawn and haggard, as the first worshippers assembled, much impressed, poor simple souls, by this ascetic apparition! But as he got more familiar with the language and customs of Rome, Borgia discovered that Spanish methods were of no practical use in Italy. Determined as he was to occupy the Holy See some day, he now realised that it was not through a reputation for piety that his object was to be attained, but through the possession of sufficient riches. He therefore threw off the mask. He made no more mystery of his illegitimate offspring—quite the contrary! By Vanozza Catanei, a Roman, he had several children, the famous Cesare and Lucretia among them, and he provided for his family on a magnificent scale. Being naturally arrogant, superb and handsome, they soon occupied the position to which they considered themselves entitled and to which their father had destined them. During the pontificates of Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII Rodrigo Borgia had grown less lavish in his mode of life, hoarding the money he would soon be needing for the purchase of his ultimate goal. Even his extravagant sons had agreed to reduce their expenditure, [p. 32] knowing full well that it would be made up to them a hundredfold when their father became Pope.

Pope Alexander VI
From a fresco in the Vatican
Borgia had sold his influence and accumulated immense riches during his uncle's lifetime, and managed under the following pontificates to add considerably to his store. He used to boast that he could fill the Sixtine Chapel with sacks of gold. He was the first cardinal with sufficient foresight to build defensive towers at the entrance to his palace to safeguard it against the attacks of the mob. He was a man who left nothing to chance. He possessed an irresistible charm of manner with which he enslaved women and duped men. A formidable opponent was Rodrigo Borgia, an opponent who was not going to allow Sforza, clever as he might be, to stand between him and the prize he had systematically worked for all these years. He sent a message to his rival proposing a nocturnal interview in a cell occupied by Cardinal Savelli, one of his supporters, and which happened to be fairly secluded. Savelli meanwhile was to create a diversion in some other quarter and thus ensure their privacy. No sooner were the two prelates face to face than Borgia laid his cards on the table. They both wanted to be elected, he said, and they both had a chance of success. The question was who could buy the most votes. The cardinals would be very exacting; the way Innocent VIII had cheated them would make them wary of mere promises; it would be necessary to pay heavily and in hard cash. The whole question in a nutshell was: could Sforza outbid him? He then went on to enumerate his possessions. The vaults of his palace were full of money. He held three archbishoprics, the richest prebends in Italy, a dozen opulent abbeys; palaces, jewels and silver plate galore. His adversary could have his pick of the lot. Sforza was staggered by the munificence of the offer. He was beaten; but on such terms capitulation was scarcely a defeat. He promised to meet Borgia the next night, under similar circumstances, with a signed document accepting the transaction. Borgia did not allow the grass to grow under his feet; he immediately sent a note to his son Francis, and as day broke four mules in magnificent trappings could be seen leaving the Borgia stronghold, wending their way slowly through the streets of Rome, bearing their weighty burden of gold to Sforza's palace.

During the day Borgia settled accounts with the cardinals, nor did he neglect the conclavists, who also shared in the distribution of [p. 33] largesse. While the father was buying up the conclave at a price that would have made Croesus himself look thoughtful, the sons were busy canvassing the outer world. Valori, writing to the Council of Ten, says that he could not confide to paper what were the means they employed! On August 11th the cardinals, all up at cock-crow, flocked to the chapel to implore Pentecostal guidance. Cardinal Sforza, whose nerves, after two sleepless nights of intense excitement, were probably a bit out of control, forgot himself so far as to rail against the delay caused by such mummery, saying that at all the conclaves at which he had been present the Pope had been made without the Holy Ghost's assistance, and that the sooner they got to business the better. Rodrigo Borgia was unanimously elected and took the name of Alexander VI.

This Pontiff's mode of life is familiar to all. As to his death, if it is true as alleged that it was brought about by his drinking, in error, of the poisoned wine prepared for his guests, it is the most perfect dénouement ever devised by fate. At his obsequies the Papal Guards who were escorting the funeral litter picked a quarrel with the clergy, who started to belabour them with their lighted candles. The soldiers drew their swords and the fighting then became serious. The churchmen fled; the guards pursued them while the dead Pope's body was abandoned by the wayside. Some mendicant friars dragged the litter into St. Peter's, but the corpse soon became so black and swollen that it lost all semblance of humanity and was horrible to behold. It emitted such a stench that no one could bear to approach it. At nightfall six scavengers inured against all unpleasant sights and odours were induced to carry the body into a side chapel and deposit it in a coffin. By the light of guttering torches they stripped the late Pontiff of all ornaments and vestments, rolled the remains in a piece of tattered carpet, and as the coffin was too small, stamped and leapt upon the bundle to force it in.

With this macabre scene the curtain falls on one of the most outstanding figures of papal history. He merged the Pontiff entirely in the Sovereign. A man of indomitable energy, a born diplomat, a doting parent, he set himself with an iron determination to the task of making his house the greatest and most powerful in Italy. Unhampered by scruples of any kind, the means by which he accomplished his ends, whether poison or indulgences, mattered to him not [p. 34] at all. He never oppressed the people, preferring to tax the rich by selling, as his predecessors had done, all ecclesiastical benefices and dignities. When he needed money he either created a cardinal or murdered one, appropriating the dead man's possessions. He strove continuously to break and ruin the unruly nobles and made praiseworthy efforts to establish some form of justice for the poor.

Like all popes who ruled during the heyday of nepotism, it seems impossible to dissociate him from his family. The cardinal-nephew, or the son who passed as such, seems invariably to be a projection of the older man's personality. There could be no stronger argument in favour of the laws of heredity than its manifestations in papal history. Whether it is the ostentation and brutality of the upstart della Roveres, the indolence of the pleasure-loving Cibos, or the ruthlessness of the ambitious Borgias, the younger men seem to mirror the tastes and characteristics of their elders with the blatancy resulting from stronger vitality and lack of experience; as though Dr Faustus, instead of being rejuvenated in his own person, found, standing at his side, the reincarnation of his youth, buoyant with all his own aspirations. Bound together as closely by the ties of interest as by those of blood, these two beings complete and complement one another. And so the inseparable figures of Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia form an epitome on a grand scale of the vices and qualities of their epoch; a colossal effigy of Might such as it was understood at the close of the XVth century.

 Calixtus III  Pius II  Paul II  Sixtus IV  Innocent VIII  Alexander VI

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