Roderigo Lenzuolo was born at Valencia, in Spain, in 1430 or 1431, and on his mother's side was descended, as some writers declare, of a family of royal blood, which had cast its eyes on the tiara only after cherishing hopes of the crowns of Aragon and Valencia. Roderigo from his infancy had shown signs of a marvellous quickness of mind, and as he grew older he exhibited an intelligence extremely apt far the study of sciences, especially law and jurisprudence: the result was that his first distinctions were gained in the law, a profession wherein he soon made a great reputation by his ability in the discussion of the most thorny cases. All the same, he was not slow to leave this career, and abandoned it quite suddenly far the military profession, which his father had followed; but after various actions which served to display his presence of mind and courage, he was as much disgusted with this profession as with the other; and since it happened that at the very time he began to feel this disgust his father died, leaving a considerable fortune, he resolved to do no more work, but to live according to his own fancies and caprices. About this time he became the lover of a widow who had two daughters. The widow dying, Roderigo took the girls under his protection, put one into a convent, and as the other was one of the loveliest women imaginable, made her his mistress. This was the notorious Rosa Vanozza, by whom he had five children--Francesco, Caesar, Lucrezia, and Goffredo; the name of the fifth is unknown.
Roderigo, retired from public affairs, was given up entirely to the affections of a lover and a father, when he heard that his uncle, who loved him like a son, had been elected pope under the name of Calixtus III. But the young man was at this time so much a lover that love imposed silence on ambition; and indeed he was almost terrified at the exaltation of his uncle, which was no doubt destined to force him once more into public life. Consequently, instead of hurrying to Rome, as anyone else in his place would have done, he was content to indite to His Holiness a letter in which he begged for the continuation of his favours, and wished him a long and happy reign.
This reserve on the part of one of his relatives, contrasted with the ambitious schemes which beset the new pope at every step, struck Calixtus III in a singular way: he knew the stuff that was in young Roderigo, and at a time when he was besieged on all sides by mediocrities, this powerful nature holding modestly aside gained new grandeur in his eyes so he replied instantly to Roderigo that on the receipt of his letter he must quit Spain for Italy, Valencia for Rome.
This letter uprooted Roderigo from the centre of happiness he had created for himself, and where he might perhaps have slumbered on like an ordinary man, if fortune had not thus interposed to drag him forcibly away. Roderigo was happy, Roderigo was rich; the evil passions which were natural to him had been, if not extinguished,--at least lulled; he was frightened himself at the idea of changing the quiet life he was leading for the ambitious, agitated career that was promised him; and instead of obeying his uncle, he delayed the preparations for departure, hoping that Calixtus would forget him. It was not so: two months after he received the letter from the pope, there arrived at Valencia a prelate from Rome, the bearer of Roderigo's nomination to a benefice worth 20,000 ducats a year, and also a positive order to the holder of the post to come and take possession of his charge as soon as possible.
Holding back was no longer feasible: so Roderigo obeyed; but as he did not wish to be separated from the source whence had sprung eight years of happiness, Rosa Vanozza also left Spain, and while he was going to Rome, she betook herself to Venice, accompanied by two confidential servants, and under the protection of a Spanish gentleman named Manuel Melchior.
Fortune kept the promises she had made to Roderigo: the pope received him as a son, and made him successively Archbishop of Valencia, Cardinal-Deacon, and Vice-Chancellor. To all these favours Calixtus added a revenue of 20,000 ducats, so that at the age of scarcely thirty-five Roderigo found himself the equal of a prince in riches and power.
Roderigo had had some reluctance about accepting the cardinalship, which kept him fast at Rome, and would have preferred to be General of the Church, a position which would have allowed him more liberty for seeing his mistress and his family; but his uncle Calixtus made him reckon with the possibility of being his successor some day, and from that moment the idea of being the supreme head of kings and nations took such hold of Roderigo, that he no longer had any end in view but that which his uncle had made him entertain.
From that day forward, there began to grow up in the young cardinal that talent for hypocrisy which made of him the most perfect incarnation of the devil that has perhaps ever existed; and Roderigo was no longer the same man: with words of repentance and humility on his lips, his head bowed as though he were bearing the weight of his past sins, disparaging the riches which he had acquired and which, according to him, were the wealth of the poor and ought to return to the poor, he passed his life in churches, monasteries, and hospitals, acquiring, his historian tells us, even in the eyes of his enemies, the reputation of a Solomon for wisdom, of a Job for patience, and of a very Moses for his promulgation of the word of God: Rosa Vanozza was the only person in the world who could appreciate the value of this pious cardinal's conversion.
It proved a lucky thing for Roderiga that he had assumed this pious attitude, for his protector died after a reign of three years three months and nineteen days, and he was now sustained by his own merit alone against the numerous enemies he had made by his rapid rise to fortune: so during the whole of the reign of Pius II he lived always apart from public affairs, and only reappeared in the days of Sixtus IV, who made him the gift of the abbacy of Subiaco, and sent him in the capacity of ambassador to the kings of Aragon and Portugal. On his return, which took place during the pontificate of Innocent VIII, he decided to fetch his family at last to Rome: thither they came, escorted by Don Manuel Melchior, who from that moment passed as the husband of Rosa Vanozza, and took the name of Count Ferdinand of Castile. The Cardinal Roderigo received the noble Spaniard as a countryman and a friend; and he, who expected to lead a most retired life, engaged a house in the street of the Lungara, near the church of Regina Coeli, on the banks of the Tiber. There it was that, after passing the day in prayers and pious works, Cardinal Roderigo used to repair each evening and lay aside his mask. And it was said, though nobody could prove it, that in this house infamous scenes passed: Report said the dissipations were of so dissolute a character that their equals had never been seen in Rome. With a view to checking the rumours that began to spread abroad, Roderigo sent Caesar to study at Pisa, and married Lucrezia to a young gentleman of Aragon; thus there only remained at home Rosa Vanozza and her two sons: such was the state of things when Innocent VIII died and Roderigo Borgia was proclaimed pope.
We have seen by what means the nomination was effected; and so the five cardinals who had taken no part in this simony--namely, the Cardinals of Naples, Sierra, Portugal, Santa Maria-in-Porticu, and St. Peter-in-Vinculis--protested loudly against this election, which they treated as a piece of jobbery; but Roderigo had none the less, however it was done, secured his majority; Roderigo was none the less the two hundred and sixtieth successor of St. Peter.
Alexander VI, however, though he had arrived at his object, did not dare throw off at first the mask which the Cardinal Bargia had worn so long, although when he was apprised of his election he could not dissimulate his joy; indeed, on hearing the favourable result of the scrutiny, he lifted his hands to heaven and cried, in the accents of satisfied ambition, "Am I then pope? Am I then Christ's vicar? Am I then the keystone of the Christian world?"
"Yes, holy father," replied Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the same who had sold to Roderigo the nine votes that were at his disposal at the Conclave for four mules laden with silver; "and we hope by your election to give glory to God, repose to the Church, and joy to Christendom, seeing that you have been chosen by the Almighty Himself as the most worthy among all your brethren."
But in the short interval occupied by this reply, the new pope had already assumed the papal authority, and in a humble voice and with hands crossed upon his breast, he spoke:
"We hope that God will grant us His powerful aid, in spite of our weakness, and that He will do for us that which He did for the apostle when aforetime He put into his hands the keys of heaven and entrusted to him the government of the Church, a government which without the aid of God would prove too heavy a burden for mortal man; but God promised that His Spirit should direct him; God will do the same, I trust, for us; and for your part we fear not lest any of you fail in that holy obedience which is due unto the head of the Church, even as the flock of Christ was bidden to follow the prince of the apostles."
Having spoken these words, Alexander donned the pontifical robes, and through the windows of the Vatican had strips of paper thrown out on which his name was written in Latin. These, blown by the wind, seemed to convey to the whole world the news of the great event which was about to change the face of Italy. The same day couriers started far all the courts of Europe.
Caesar Borgia learned the news of his father's election at the University of Pisa, where he was a student. His ambition had sometimes dreamed of such good fortune, yet his joy was little short of madness. He was then a young man, about twenty-two or twenty-four years of age, skilful in all bodily exercises, and especially in fencing; he could ride barebacked the most fiery steeds, could cut off the head of a bull at a single sword-stroke; moreover, he was arrogant, jealous, and insincere. According to Tammasi, he was great among the godless, as his brother Francesco was good among the great. As to his face, even contemporary authors have left utterly different descriptions; for same have painted him as a monster of ugliness, while others, on the contrary, extol his beauty. This contradiction is due to the fact that at certain times of the year, and especially in the spring, his face was covered with an eruption which, so long as it lasted, made him an object of horror and disgust, while all the rest of the year he was the sombre, black-haired cavalier with pale skin and tawny beard whom Raphael shows us in the fine portrait he made of him. And historians, both chroniclers and painters, agree as to his fixed and powerful gaze, behind which burned a ceaseless flame, giving to his face something infernal and superhuman. Such was the man whose fortune was to fulfil all his desires. He had taken for his motto, 'Aut Caesar, aut nihil': Caesar or nothing.
Caesar posted to Rome with certain of his friends, and scarcely was he recognised at the gates of the city when the deference shown to him gave instant proof of the change in his fortunes: at the Vatican the respect was twice as great; mighty men bowed down before him as before one mightier than themselves. And so, in his impatience, he stayed not to visit his mother or any other member of his family, but went straight to the pope to kiss his feet; and as the pope had been forewarned of his coming, he awaited him in the midst of a brilliant and numerous assemblage of cardinals, with the three other brothers standing behind him. His Holiness received Caesar with a gracious countenance; still, he did not allow himself any demonstration of his paternal love, but, bending towards him, kissed him an the forehead, and inquired how he was and how he had fared on his journey. Caesar replied that he was wonderfully well, and altogether at the service of His Holiness: that, as to the journey, the trifling inconveniences and short fatigue had been compensated, and far mare than compensated, by the joy which he felt in being able to adore upon the papal throne a pope who was so worthy. At these words, leaving Caesar still on his knees, and reseating himself--for he had risen from his seat to embrace him--the pope assumed a grave and composed expression of face, and spoke as follows, loud enough to be heard by all, and slowly enough far everyone present to be able to ponder and retain in his memory even the least of his words:
"We are convinced, Caesar, that you are peculiarly rejoiced in beholding us on this sublime height, so far above our deserts, whereto it has pleased the Divine goodness to exalt us. This joy of yours is first of all our due because of the love we have always borne you and which we bear you still, and in the second place is prompted by your own personal interest, since henceforth you may feel sure of receiving from our pontifical hand those benefits which your own good works shall deserve. But if your joy--and this we say to you as we have even now said to your brothers--if your joy is founded on ought else than this, you are very greatly mistaken, Caesar, and you will find yourself sadly deceived. Perhaps we have been ambitious--we confess this humbly before the face of all men--passionately and immoderately ambitious to attain to the dignity of sovereign pontiff, and to reach this end we have followed every path that is open to human industry; but we have acted thus, vowing an inward vow that when once we had reached our goal, we would follow no other path but that which conduces best to the service of God and to the advancement of the Holy See, so that the glorious memory of the deeds that we shall do may efface the shameful recollection of the deeds we have already done. Thus shall we, let us hope, leave to those who follow us a track where upon if they find not the footsteps of a saint, they may at least tread in the path of a true pontiff. God, who has furthered the means, claims at our hands the fruits, and we desire to discharge to the full this mighty debt that we have incurred to Him; and accordingly we refuse to arouse by any deceit the stern rigour of His judgments. One sole hindrance could have power to shake our good intentions, and that might happen should we feel too keen an interest in your fortunes. Therefore are we armed beforehand against our love, and therefore have we prayed to God beforehand that we stumble not because of you; for in the path of favouritism a pope cannot slip without a fall, and cannot fall without injury and dishonour to the Holy See. Even to the end of our life we shall deplore the faults which have brought this experience home to us; and may it please Gad that our uncle Calixtus of blessed memory bear not this day in purgatory the burden of our sins, more heavy, alas, than his own! Ah, he was rich in every virtue, he was full of good intentions; but he loved too much his own people, and among them he loved me chief. And so he suffered this love to lead him blindly astray, all this love that he bore to his kindred, who to him were too truly flesh of his flesh, so that he heaped upon the heads of a few persons only, and those perhaps the least worthy, benefits which would more fittingly have rewarded the deserts of many. In truth, he bestowed upon our house treasures that should never have been amassed at the expense of the poor, or else should have been turned to a better purpose. He severed from the ecclesiastical State, already weak and poor, the duchy of Spoleto and other wealthy properties, that he might make them fiefs to us; he confided to our weak hands the vice-chancellorship, the vice-prefecture of Rome, the generalship of the Church, and all the other most important offices, which, instead of being monopolised by us, should have been conferred on those who were most meritorious. Moreover, there were persons who were raised on our recommendation to posts of great dignity, although they had no claims but such as our undue partiality accorded them; others were left out with no reason for their failure except the jealousy excited in us by their virtues. To rob Ferdinand of Aragon of the kingdom of Naples, Calixtus kindled a terrible war, which by a happy issue only served to increase our fortune, and by an unfortunate issue must have brought shame and disaster upon the Holy See. Lastly, by allowing himself to be governed by men who sacrificed public good to their private interests, he inflicted an injury, not only upon the pontifical throne and his own reputation, but what is far worse, far more deadly, upon his own conscience. And yet, O wise judgments of God! hard and incessantly though he toiled to establish our fortunes, scarcely had he left empty that supreme seat which we occupy to-day, when we were cast down from the pinnacle whereon we had climbed, abandoned to the fury of the rabble and the vindictive hatred of the Roman barons, who chose to feel offended by our goodness to their enemies. Thus, not only, we tell you, Caesar, not only did we plunge headlong from the summit of our grandeur, losing the worldly goods and dignities which our uncle had heaped at our feet, but for very peril of our life we were condemned to a voluntary exile, we and our friends, and in this way only did we contrive to escape the storm which our too good fortune had stirred up against us. Now this is a plain proof that God mocks at men's designs when they are bad ones. How great an error is it for any pope to devote more care to the welfare of a house, which cannot last more than a few years, than to the glory of the Church, which will last for ever! What utter folly for any public man whose position is not inherited and cannot be bequeathed to his posterity, to support the edifice of his grandeur on any other basis than the noblest virtue practised for the general good, and to suppose that he can ensure the continuance of his own fortune otherwise than by taking all precautions against sudden whirlwinds which are want to arise in the midst of a calm, and to blow up the storm-clouds I mean the host of enemies. Now any one of these enemies who does his worst can cause injuries far more powerful than any help that is at all likely to come from a hundred friends and their lying promises. If you and your brothers walk in the path of virtue which we shall now open for you, every wish of your heart shall be instantly accomplished; but if you take the other path, if you have ever hoped that our affection will wink at disorderly life, then you will very soon find out that we are truly pope, Father of the Church, not father of the family; that, vicar of Christ as we are, we shall act as we deem best for Christendom, and not as you deem best for your own private good. And now that we have come to a thorough understanding, Caesar, receive our pontifical blessing." And with these words, Alexander VI rose up, laid his hands upon his son's head, for Caesar was still kneeling, and then retired into his apartments, without inviting him to follow.
The young man remained awhile stupefied at this discourse, so utterly unexpected, so utterly destructive at one fell blow to his most cherished hopes. He rose giddy and staggering like a drunken man, and at once leaving the Vatican, hurried to his mother, whom he had forgotten before, but sought now in his despair. Rosa Vanozza possessed all the vices and all the virtues of a Spanish courtesan; her devotion to the Virgin amounted to superstition, her fondness for her children to weakness, and her love for Roderigo to sensuality. In the depth of her heart she relied on the influence she had been able to exercise over him for nearly thirty years; and like a snake, she knew haw to envelop him in her coils when the fascination of her glance had lost its power. Rosa knew of old the profound hypocrisy of her lover, and thus she was in no difficulty about reassuring Caesar.
Lucrezia was with her mother when Caesar arrived; the two young people exchanged a lover-like kiss beneath her very eyes: and before he left Caesar had made an appointment for the same evening with Lucrezia, who was now living apart from her husband, to whom Roderigo paid a pension in her palace of the Via del Pelegrino, opposite the Campo dei Fiori, and there enjoying perfect liberty.
In the evening, at the hour fixed, Caesar appeared at Lucrezia's; but he found there his brother Francesco. The two young men had never been friends. Still, as their tastes were very different, hatred with Francesco was only the fear of the deer for the hunter; but with Caesar it was the desire for vengeance and that lust for blood which lurks perpetually in the heart of a tiger. The two brothers none the less embraced, one from general kindly feeling, the other from hypocrisy; but at first sight of one another the sentiment of a double rivalry, first in their father's and then in their sister's good graces, had sent the blood mantling to the cheek of Francesco, and called a deadly pallor into Caesar's. So the two young men sat on, each resolved not to be the first to leave, when all at once there was a knock at the door, and a rival was announced before whom both of them were bound to give way: it was their father.
Rosa Vanazza was quite right in comforting Caesar. Indeed, although Alexander VI had repudiated the abuses of nepotism, he understood very well the part that was to be played for his benefit by his sons and his daughter; for he knew he could always count on Lucrezia and Caesar, if not on Francesco and Goffredo. In these matters the sister was quite worthy of her brother. Lucrezia was wanton in imagination, godless by nature, ambitious and designing: she had a craving for pleasure, admiration, honours, money, jewels, gorgeous stuffs, and magnificent mansions. A true Spaniard beneath her golden tresses, a courtesan beneath her frank looks, she carried the head of a Raphael Madonna, and concealed the heart of a Messalina. She was dear to Roderigo both as daughter and as mistress, and he saw himself reflected in her as in a magic mirror, every passion and every vice. Lucrezia and Caesar were accordingly the best beloved of his heart, and the three composed that diabolical trio which for eleven years occupied the pontifical throne, like a mocking parody of the heavenly Trinity.
Nothing occurred at first to give the lie to Alexander's professions of principle in the discourse he addressed to Caesar, and the first year of his pontificate exceeded all the hopes of Rome at the time of his election. He arranged for the provision of stores in the public granaries with such liberality, that within the memory of man there had never been such astonishing abundance; and with a view to extending the general prosperity to the lowest class, he organised numerous doles to be paid out of his private fortune, which made it possible for the very poor to participate in the general banquet from which they had been excluded for long enough. The safety of the city was secured, from the very first days of his accession, by the establishment of a strong and vigilant police force, and a tribunal consisting of four magistrates of irreproachable character, empowered to prosecute all nocturnal crimes, which during the last pontificate had been so common that their very numbers made impunity certain: these judges from the first showed a severity which neither the rank nor the purse of the culprit could modify. This presented such a great contrast to the corruption of the last reign,--in the course of which the vice-chamberlain one day remarked in public, when certain people were complaining of the venality of justice, "God wills not that a sinner die, but that he live and pay,"--that the capital of the Christian world felt for one brief moment restored to the happy days of the papacy. So, at the end of a year, Alexander VI had reconquered that spiritual credit, so to speak, which his predecessors lost. His political credit was still to be established, if he was to carry out the first part of his gigantic scheme. To arrive at this, he must employ two agencies--alliances and conquests. His plan was to begin with alliances. The gentleman of Aragon who had married Lucrezia when she was only the daughter of Cardinal Roderigo Borgia was not a man powerful enough, either by birth and fortune or by intellect, to enter with any sort of effect into the plots and plans of Alexander VI; the separation was therefore changed into a divorce, and Lucrezia Borgia was now free to remarry. Alexander opened up two negotiations at the same time: he needed an ally to keep a watch on the policy of the neighbouring States. John Sforza, grandson of Alexander Sforza, brother of the great Francis I, Duke of Milan, was lord of Pesaro; the geographical situation of this place, an the coast, on the way between Florence and Venice, was wonderfully convenient for his purpose; so Alexander first cast an eye upon him, and as the interest of both parties was evidently the same, it came about that John Sforza was very soon Lucrezia's second husband.
At the same time overtures had been made to Alfonso of Aragon, heir presumptive to the crown of Naples, to arrange a marriage between Dana Sancia, his illegitimate daughter, and Goffreda, the pope's third son; but as the old Ferdinand wanted to make the best bargain he could out of it; he dragged on the negotiations as long as possible, urging that the two children were not of marriageable age, and so, highly honoured as he felt in such a prospective alliance, there was no hurry about the engagement. Matters stopped at this point, to the great annoyance of Alexander VI, who saw through this excuse, and understood that the postponement was nothing more or less than a refusal. Accordingly Alexander and Ferdinand remained in statu quo, equals in the political game, both on the watch till events should declare for one or other. The turn of fortune was for Alexander.
Italy, though tranquil, was instinctively conscious that her calm was nothing but the lull which goes before a storm. She was too rich and too happy to escape the envy of other nations. As yet the plains of Pisa had not been reduced to marsh-lands by the combined negligence and jealousy of the Florentine Republic, neither had the rich country that lay around Rome been converted into a barren desert by the wars of the Colonna and Orsini families; not yet had the Marquis of Marignan razed to the ground a hundred and twenty villages in the republic of Siena alone; and though the Maremma was unhealthy, it was not yet a poisonous marsh: it is a fact that Flavio Blando, writing in 1450, describes Ostia as being merely less flourishing than in the days of the Romans, when she had numbered 50,000 inhabitants, whereas now in our own day there are barely 30 in all.
The Italian peasants were perhaps the most blest on the face of the earth: instead of living scattered about the country in solitary fashion, they lived in villages that were enclosed by walls as a protection for their harvests, animals, and farm implements; their houses--at any rate those that yet stand--prove that they lived in much more comfortable and beautiful surroundings than the ordinary townsman of our day. Further, there was a community of interests, and many people collected together in the fortified villages, with the result that little by little they attained to an importance never acquired by the boorish French peasants or the German serfs; they bore arms, they had a common treasury, they elected their own magistrates, and whenever they went out to fight, it was to save their common country.
Also commerce was no less flourishing than agriculture; Italy at this period was rich in industries--silk, wool, hemp, fur, alum, sulphur, bitumen; those products which the Italian soil could not bring forth were imported, from the Black Sea, from Egypt, from Spain, from France, and often returned whence they came, their worth doubled by labour and fine workmanship. The rich man brought his merchandise, the poor his industry: the one was sure of finding workmen, the other was sure of finding work.
Art also was by no means behindhand: Dante, Giotto, Brunelleschi, and Donatello were dead, but Ariosto, Raphael, Bramante, and Michael Angelo were now living. Rome, Florence, and Naples had inherited the masterpieces of antiquity; and the manuscripts of AEschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had come (thanks to the conquest of Mahomet II) to rejoin the statue of Xanthippus and the works of Phidias and Praxiteles. The principal sovereigns of Italy had come to understand, when they let their eyes dwell upon the fat harvests, the wealthy villages, the flourishing manufactories, and the marvellous churches, and then compared with them the poor and rude nations of fighting men who surrounded them on all sides, that some day or other they were destined to become for other countries what America was for Spain, a vast gold-mine for them to work. In consequence of this, a league offensive and defensive had been signed, about 1480, by Naples, Milan, Florence, and Ferrara, prepared to take a stand against enemies within or without, in Italy or outside. Ludovico Sforza, who was more than anyone else interested in maintaining this league, because he was nearest to France, whence the storm seemed to threaten, saw in the new pope's election means not only of strengthening the league, but of making its power and unity conspicuous in the sight of Europe.
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