Pope Alexander VI: Biography & Corruption

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet Pope Alexander VI. Though he was widely regarded as corrupt and immoral, he also enjoyed a remarkable rise to power and a number of political successes.

Early Life

Rodrigo Borgia, the baby boy who would become Pope Alexander VI, one of the most infamous Popes of all time, was born in Valencia, Spain on New Year's Day in 1431. His uncle, Alfonso Borgia, was a cardinal, and his parents decided early in his life that Rodrigo was destined to join his uncle in the Catholic Church. During this time period, a life as a Catholic priest was considered to be an excellent career move for young men regardless of their personal piety.

Through the support of Cardinal Alfonso Borgia, Rodrigo obtained a number of increasingly high ranking positions in the church. In 1455, his uncle was elected Pope and took the name Pope Callixtus III. Young Rodrigo Borgia moved to Rome and was adopted into the household of his uncle, the leader of the Catholic Church, which was at the time the dominant religious faith of Europe.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI by Cristofano Dell Altissimo
Painting of Pope Alexander VI

Rise to Power

One year after taking office, the new Pope made young Rodrigo a cardinal and granted him several church properties. In 1457, the Pope elevated his beloved nephew to the position of Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church. From this position, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was able to maintain a lavish lifestyle, entertaining the wealthy and powerful in his villa.

Cardinal Borgia was on all accounts an excellent administrator, but he was not necessarily well suited for the celibacy required of Catholic clergymen. Borgia had several long-term relationships with Roman noblewomen. His longest relationship was with a beautiful woman named Vannozza dei Cattani. Although Vannozza was married to several different men during their relationship, Rodrigo Borgia acknowledged four of her children as being his own. Borgia's obvious breaking of the vow of celibacy was controversial and earned him a rebuke from Pope Pius II.

Despite his problems with celibacy, Borgia continued to serve the Popes that followed his uncle to the papacy. In 1471, he was again promoted to the position of Bishop. By 1492, Borgia was sixty-one years old and had spent the majority of his life working for the Catholic Church. With the death of Pope Innocent VIII, Borgia saw a new opportunity for religious and political power. Traditionally, at the death or resignation of a pope, all of the cardinals of the Catholic Church gather together for a conclave, a meeting during which the elite members of the church choose a new pope. At the start of the conclave, there were three candidates for the papacy, including Rodrigo Borgia.

After a tumultuous conclave, Rodrigo Borgia emerged victorious and took the name Pope Alexander VI. It has been rumored for generations that Rodrigo only succeeded because he bribed the other cardinals to vote for him; however, historians have argued that bribery was quite common during conclaves of this period and the other candidates were just as active in attempting to swing votes with financial contributions. These early allegations of bribery would follow the new Pope for the rest of his life.

Photograph of coin minted during the papacy of Pope Alexander VI from the collection of the Classical Numismatic Group
Photograph of coin minted by Pope Alexander VI

The Problem with Power

Despite the rumors of bribery, the people of Rome loved their new pope. During the papal conclave, Rome was engulfed in a wave of violent crime and had no police force to enforce the law. Pope Alexander VI put an end to the violence by dividing the city into districts, each with its own law enforcement unit and magistrate to make sure that criminals were punished. The new Pope also fortified the city walls to ensure that the city could withstand foreign invaders as well.

Although he enjoyed many successes, Pope Alexander VI is most well-known for the rumors of corruption and licentiousness that plagued his papacy. He used his position as the supreme leader of the Catholic Church to ensure that his children with Vanozza dei Cattani would be well provided for. He arranged marriages into the royal houses of Spain and Naples for two of his sons, Juan and Gioffre. His oldest son, Caesar Borgia, was promoted to the position of cardinal while still a teenager along with Alessandro Farnese, Caesar's friend and the brother of Giulia Farnese, a beautiful, young woman who was rumored to be the Pope's mistress. His daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, married three times, each to men who could ensure the Borgia family's political power.

Portrait of Caesar Borgia by Altobello Melone
Painting of Caesar Borgia

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