September 2015 Essays Contest: Ilinca Luiza Cristian – "Cesare Borgia – The Road From Cleric to Renaissance King"

In the pavement outside Santa Maria church, in the small town of Viana – Spain, on a certain stone, the following words are engraved: “Here, in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared.”. And so it was! About five centuries ago, in the city of Rome, lived one of the most intriguing, determined and ruthless figure of the Italian Renaissance – Cesare Borgia. At that time everybody seemed to fear, admire and hate him in equal measure, but despite all the hatred his name lasted against the unforgiving  passing of time.

On 11 August 1492 Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. Having Spanish roots, the House of Borgia was not quite welcomed in the Italian society. However, the new Pope ignored the reluctance of the masses and followed his own ways. One of the characteristic features of the Borgia pontificate was the exacerbated nepotism and the person who benefited the most was none other than his son, Cesare. Initially groomed for an ecclesiastical career, Cesare was made bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15, and cardinal at 18, but being saddled with the mundane duries of a cleric was not Cesare’s calling and he somehow envied the military career of his brother Giovanni.

In June 1497 a mysterious murder had occurred – the body of Giovanni Borgia was found in the Tiber River. This death was an obvious political advantage for Cesare and for this reason many historians tend to blame him. But, responsible or not, this was the moment for the young cardinal to rise to power. Despite the opposition of the Spanish king, Ferdinand V of Aragon, the Borgia Pope, with the support of Louis XII, the king of France, released Cesare from his clerical duties, in August 1498. After this Cesare received the command of a company of French cavalry, got married with Charlotte d’Albret and became duke of Valentinois. As expected, his new military career was a real success. Cesare captured Romagna, the richest of the papal states, and other territories, trying somehow to make his own state in the north of Italy. Even though his motives were entirely self-interested, Cesare could easily be considered a forerunner of the Italian unity. However, the Spanish intervention in Italy and the unexpected death of his father, in 1503, led to Cesare’s downfall. The agents of the new pope, Julius II, an old enemy of the Borgia House, and of Ferdinand of Aragon arrested Cesare in May 1503 and a few months later the prisoner was transported to Spain, until his escape in 1506. Cesare made his way to Navarre, the kingdom of his brother-in-law Jean d’Albret and soon after he died in a battle against the rebels.


There is no wonder that Cesare Borgia was a great political personality of his time. In fact, one of his well-known contemporaries – Niccolò Machiavelli, considered Cesare the incarnation of an ideal conqueror and ruler and he took the former cardinal as the model for his famous work – “The Prince”. On the other hand, the history  preserved the image of a sinful man, who murdered hundreds of people, commited fratricide and incest with his sister Lucrezia. These rumours began to circulate since the first years of Alexander’s pontificate, in time becoming accepted truths. For many of the charges brought against Cesare, some testimony exists, but for many others, such as the incest or the fratricide, the truth might never be revealed. This thin line between lie and truth is what has aroused so many contradictory theories about Cesare and his family, theories that mostly denigrate them. There were some attempts to rehabilitate the name of Borgia, but in the end the myth of the “unholy family” of the Renaissance seems to remain more appealing to the large public.


Looking back, we tend to see the old world through a microscope of modern focus. We analyse and judge some individuals and their behaviours, until they seem to be monstrous, abnormal, and in search of “sensational stories”, we distort some of the truths; we see only the scandalous details, instead of a bigger and complete picture.  This also happened with the figure of Cesare Borgia. But, after a fair judgement that also takes into consideration the realities of the Renaissance, one might come to the conclusion that Cesare Borgia, despite the horrid sins that he is accused of, was actually a courageous and ambitious man who saw the opportunities and took full advantage of them; a man who achieved in just a few years more than many in a life time; a man who was meant to follow his father’s steps on the clerical staircase, but who showed an innate inclination for the military life which brought him the greatest satisfactions and of course – undying renown. After all, he remained “faithful” to his own motto: “Aut Caesar, aut nihil!” (“Either Caesar or nothing!”).


[Written by:  Ilinca Luiza Cristian]



Raphael Sabatini – “The life of Cesare Borgia”

Ivan Cloulas – “The borgias”

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