House of Borgia  

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"Burchard tells us how, for the amusement of Cesare, of the Pope, and of Lucrezia, these fifty courtesans were set to dance after supper with the servants and some others who were present, dressed at first and afterwards not so. He draws for us a picture of those fifty women on all fours, in all their plastic nudity, striving for the chestnuts flung to them in that chamber of the Apostolic Palace by Christ’s Vicar--an old man of seventy--by his son and his daughter." --The Life of Cesare Borgia (1912) by Rafael Sabatini, on the Banquet of Chestnuts

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The Borgias or Borjas were a Valencian-Italian noble family who became prominent during the Renaissance. They are remembered today for their corrupt rule when one of them was Pope. The Borgias have been accused of many different crimes, generally on considerable evidence, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). The most famous account of their debauchery is described in the "Banquet of Chestnuts".




There are many controversies connected with Rodrigo. He was not only accused of simony or nepotism, but also attending public orgies, along with his daughter Lucrezia. The "Banquet of Chestnuts" (also called the "Ballet of the Chestnuts") is considered to be one of the most disreputable balls of this kind. It was held on October 30, 1501. Not only Pope Alexander VI was present, but also two of his children: Lucrezia and Cesare. Rodrigo is also remembered for other crimes, many of them included torture and execution. This is how in 1498 the famous Florentine preacher Savonarola ended his life. He accused Alexander VI of corruption and called for his removal as Pope. Savonarola was tortured and then hanged and burned publicly. Alexander VI is also remembered for bringing his mistresses to the papal court. One of them, Vanozza Cattanei gave him four children, and another two were born by Giulia Farnese. Giulia was taken as his mistress when she was a fifteen-year-old girl and he was over 60.


After Cesare became a leading general of the French King Louis XII, he returned to Rome. Behind him, dragged in golden chains, was Caterina Sforza, the Lady of two of the cities Cesare had conquered. She was imprisoned, held as hostage in awful conditions. And she would have died if not the French interceded for her release.

Also, when Lucrezia’s second husband, Alfonso, the Duke of Bisceglie, was not important to the Borgias anymore, Cesare strangled him (or had him strangled) when he was still recovering from another attempt of assassination on his life. The first attack was also most likely to be organised by Cesare and his men.

Between 1501 and 1503 Cesare hired Leonardo da Vinci as military architect and engineer, which means that da Vinci helped him conquer and then fortify fortresses. It is said that Leonardo invented war machines for Cesare and da Vinci received protection in return. Cesare allowed da Vinci to have full control over all planned and undergoing construction in his domain. Thanks to Leonardo’s merits, he received a vineyard from the family, which he later had to abandon, because of the fall of the Borgia empire. When Leonardo completed his work for Cesare, he had a tough time with finding another patron in Italy. Finally, Francis I of France was able to convince him to enter his service, where Leonardo would work for the final three years of his life.

Some historians say that Cesare Borgia also murdered his brother Giovanni, however there is no clear evidence that he actually did. There is also the case of Perotto, Lucrezia's lover. When Cesare found out about Lucrezia’s pregnancy, he was so furious that he had the father of the child murdered. The body of Perotto (young chamberlain, the father of the child) was fished out of Tiber. Also the body of a chambermaid was found in the river – because she gave the lovers a chance to meet in secret. Both murders are believed to be commissioned by Cesare. Historian Johann Burchard, contemporary of Alexander VI, who lived in the Vatican, states about Cesare:

One day he went so far as to have the square of St Peter enclosed by a palisade, into which he ordered some prisoners - men, women and children - to be brought. He then had them bound, hand and foot, and being armed and mounted on a fiery charger, commenced a horrible attack upon them. Some he shot, and others he cut down with his sword, trampling them under his horse's feet. In less than half-an-hour, 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 of that horrid scene.


She was rumored to be a notorious poisoner and she became famous for her skill at political intrigue. However, recently historians start to look at her in a brighter light: she is more often seen as a victim of her family’s deceptions. Many people believed that she was a criminal but the crimes of her father, Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), and some of her other siblings including Cesare Borgia are what gave her a bad name.

In popular culture

The Borgias were infamous in their time, and their lurid career has inspired numerous novels, plays, operas, and films. References to the Borgias in popular culture are innumerable.


Graphic Novels


  • Lucrezia Borgia, by Victor Hugo
  • The Tyrant: An Episode in the Career of Cesare Borgia, a Play in Four Acts (1925), by Raphael Sabatini



Video Games


See also

true crime

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