The Unholy Grail: Pope Alexander VI, 1431-1503

The Unholy Grail: Pope Alexander VI, 1431-1503 July 1, 2009

by Lorette C. Luzajic
Part 9 of the Pillars of Faith series.

Brave New World

As Columbus sailed toward the New World, a new pope was elected in the old world. The year was 1492, and Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. Among the most notorious of all papacies, Borgia’s family was the inspiration for Mario Puzo’s Godfather books. Puzo’s last book, simply titled The Family, delves into their juiciest lore.

The papacies will forever be infamous for excess, to which the Reformers were rightfully opposed. But seldom had excess rivaled that of Alex 6. Rodrigo took his name from the pagan conqueror, and he shunned modesty and discretion, reveling in gold, women, and murder. He did not even attempt to hide his appetites for riches and sugar and sex. Today, the Catholic Church claims much of Alex’s legend is grossly exaggerated, and that to be fair, he really loved his children.

And so he did: he loved his daughter enough to sleep with her.

A Family Affair

Pullquote: The wild orgies in the papal palace were populated with the empire’s finest whores, and these parties were indeed a family affair.

Born in Spain in 1431, Rodrigo’s maternal uncle was Pope Calixtus III. Nepotism meant Rodrigo was Bishop and Cardinal before Pope. He also had four children and scores of mistresses, including the 15 year old Giulia who later bore him more children. His daughter Lucrezia was reportedly also his lover, and rumoured to be sleeping with both of her own brothers, too. Her marriage to her first husband, who didn’t touch her, was annulled because he was “impotent.” But he claimed he could not touch her because he was sickened by her familial involvements.

Later, Lucrezia’s brother Juan was found stabbed to death, and Pope Alex went all out hunting for his killer. When people began saying that his brother Cesare was the murderer, the manhunt was mysteriously and abruptly abandoned. Another Juan, born in 1498, of unknown parental heritage, was cared for by and claimed by Lucrezia as her “half-brother.” The possibility that this child belonged to her father is real.

If Cesare really killed his brother in a jealous fit over his sister, we can’t know for sure. But the wild orgies in the papal palace were populated with the empire’s finest whores, and these parties were indeed a family affair. Yet the gluttony for sex paled in comparison to the Borgia’s notorious bloodlust. Rodrigo allegedly committed his first murder at age 12. As pope, he was vicious, but even he was terrified of the depraved violence of his son Cesare.

Grail of Gore

Together, they sentenced countless to death as casually as they called for tea. All three of them liked to get their own hands dirty, thrilling in swords and poisons. Further legend has it they had a special chalice with a secret compartment for poison.

This cup, symbolic or actual, became fodder for countless writers, including Agatha Christie. Many of the historic events have been embellished in the medieval legend, but plenty of records attest to the violence. These accounts of merciless murder propelled Puzo’s Godfather books — the writer said he’d never met a Mafioso: he just researched the Borgia family and their heirs in criminality.

Johann Burchard, the pope’s MC, eyewitness to Borgia extravaganzas, wrote of a day’s amusement: “(Cesare) had them bound, hand and foot…. Some he shot, and others he cut down with his sword, trampling them under his horse’s feet… he wheeled around alone in a puddle of blood, among the dead bodies of his victims, while his Holiness and Madam Lucrezia, from a balcony, enjoyed the sight…”

Just Desserts

Most modern Catholics acknowledge that Pope Alexander VI was among the darkest blots in church history. Yet amazingly, there are apologists who maintain infallibility. The Catholic Encyclopedia at newadvent.org referred to him as “one who for thirty-five years had conducted the affairs of the Roman chancery with rare ability and industry.” They also praised him, as “splendid and energetic” and cheerfully quote a diarist on the good pope’s amazing sense of justice. In between all those orgies, after all, Pope Alex wrote terrific canonical philosophy and defenses of the Christian faith.

Rodrigo died in 1503. Having dinner with a Cardinal, he took ill. His intestines bled and there was hideous purpling and peeling of the skin. The death may have been from malaria — but the legend may be true and fits perfectly — it was poetic justice when the Pope accidentally drank from the poisoned grail he’d intended for the Cardinal Adriano.

Lorette C. Luzajic writes about all kinds of interesting people at Fascinating People.

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