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A Good Fabrication

On this day in 1475, the infamous Cesare Borgia was born.

Throughout his lifetime, and long after his death, stories have cemented his reputation as a megalomaniacal monster of lust and cruelty. But how many of these stories are based in fact, and how many are made up to intensify the ‘Black Borgia’ myth? 

Lucrezia Borgia as St. Catherine of Alexandria
Pinturicchio, Borgia Apartments

Story 1: There was an incestuous relationship between Cesare Borgia and his sister, Lucrezia.

In 1497, the marriage between Lucrezia Borgia and her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, was annulled on grounds of non-consummation. An alliance with Sforza had outlived its usefulness, and while he was allowed to keep the dowry given to him, Giovanni was made to sign a confession of impotence. Cesare insisted witnesses be present, then spread copies of the confession throughout the country. 

Shortly after, rumours of Cesare and Lucrezia’s illicit affair began, with Giovanni telling anyone who would listen that neither Cesare nor his father, Pope Alexander VI, wanted Lucrezia to remain his wife for they both wanted her in their own bed. He went as far to allege that the Infante Romano, whose parentage to this day is unknown, was the product of incest. 

There is no evidence to support Giovanni’s accusation.

Oldest known icon of Christ Pantrocrator
Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Story 2: Modern depictions of Jesus Christ were based on Cesare Borgia.

This claim was made in 1843 by the writer, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas had written a book about the Borgia family four years earlier, but the idea came about in a collection of eighteen essays he compiled called Celebrated Crimes. There is, however, no truth in it. 

A quick glance at historical images of Christ will prove this. Look at the Byzantine mosaics adorning the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna dated to 549, or the oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator – a painting on panel held in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai. Long before Cesare was even born, Christ was depicted as bearded with long hair. 

What’s more, Cesare’s style was not unique. It was very much the fashion of the era for men to have long hair and a beard. 

Portrait of a Man (possibly Juan Borgia)
Girolamo Marchesi

Story 3: In a jealous fit of rage, Cesare Borgia killed his brother, Juan.

While the culprit was never discovered – or at least, not to our knowledge – not a single shred of evidence pointed towards Cesare despite attempts to pin it on him. 

Let’s look at the facts: 

In June 1497, after a feast at their mother’s house, Cesare and Juan rode together to the Papal Palace. They reached as far as Cardinal Ascanio Sforza’s palazzo before Juan announced he was going to visit his mistress. He dismissed his guard, taking with him a groom and a masked man, whose identity remains unknown. Cesare continued to the Vatican. 

Reports have Juan spotted in the Piazza della Giudecca. Then there is nothing until the following morning where his horse returned with a stirrup cut and the dying groom. Juan’s body was dredged from the river, still fully clothed with 30 ducats in his purse. 

The only witness was a Slavonian timber dealer named Georgio. In his statement, he says he watched five men throw a corpse into the river beside the fountain of the Hospital of Jerome where refuse was regularly dumped. It was there they found Juan’s body. A week later, the investigation ended abruptly. 

Those who accused Cesare cited his reasons as jealousy, an argument over a lover they both shared, the desperation to remove his cardinal hat. But the Borgias were a tight knit family and the brothers were extremely close. Cesare’s marriage also seems to have been in the works before he returned his cardinalate, suggesting his move from cardinal to condottieri was already being planned. So why would Cesare kill Juan?

More likely suspects include the Orsini, who wanted vengeance for the murder of one of their own, and Antonio Maria della Mirandola, whose house was located close by where Juan’s body was found, and whose daughter Juan had dishonoured. 

Cesare Borgia
by Altobello Melone

Story 4: Cesare Borgia suffered from syphilis. 

This one is true!

When he was sent as papal legate to Naples to crown the new king, Cesare spent his nights with a prostitute from whom he contracted what was then known as the French Pox. While his initial symptoms disappeared for a time, their inevitable return saw his face disfigured, which he covered with a black mask. 

Syphilis causes a change in personality which may also account for some of Cesare’s actions post 1497. 

Portrait of Caterina Sforza
by Lorenzo di Credi, Pinacoteca Civica di Forlì

Story 5: While on the road between Forlí and Rome, Cesare Borgia repeatedly raped Caterina Sforza.

While it’s commonly believed that Cesare and Caterina were sleeping together, it’s unclear whether their relations were consensual or not. Only they will ever know the truth. 

What I can tell you is that when they entered Rome, Caterina rode at Cesare’s side as his equal. She was also wearing his colours. While held captive in the Belvedere Palace, Cesare was also seen visiting her in the vineyards. 

Caterina was considered a man in the body of a woman. She was fierce. Unapologetic. Sexual. And Cesare was famously handsome. I’m more inclined to believe that a relationship between these two headstrong individuals was a power play on both parts.

Prince Djem’s Portrait

Story 6: It was Cesare Borgia who poisoned Djem Sultan.

After the death of Mehmed the Conqueror in 1481, two claimants rose to claim his empire – Djem and his half-brother, Bayezid. The latter became Sultan, and the former was chased from the land of his birth. At first, Djem sought protection from the French, but he was soon taken into custody by Pope Innocent VIII and moved to Rome. For this imprisonment, Bayezid offered the Pope 120,000 crowns, the relic of the Holy Lance, 100 Moorish slaves, and the promise of 45,000 ducats per annum. 

This custody agreement was inherited by Pope Alexander VI. Djem remained with the Borgias until he became part of an agreement to stop the invasion of Charles VIII in 1491. It was in the King’s custody that Djem died.

Rumours at the time, however, suggested that Djem’s death was the result of poisoning. The Pope was losing 45,000 ducats a year, the amount of which would shift to bank accounts of the French. But Djem died 28 days after leaving Rome, and it is unlikely that any poison can last in a person’s system that long without any ill effect. Here we see the birth of the Cantarella myth – a white powder, likely arsenic based, with a pleasant taste that was sprinkled on food or in wine and left no trace. It never existed. 

And Djem? 

He died of pneumonia. 

A Glass of Wine with Cesare Borgia
By John Collier

Story 7: Cesare Borgia was a tyrant who killed everyone who crossed his path.

Cesare saw no danger in the living. Take Giovanni Sforza, for example. He was embarrassed, excommunicated, and his lands were claimed by Cesare, but he outlived Cesare. He even remarried. And his cousin, Caterina, who allegedly attempted to assassinate Pope Alexander VI? She was imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo after trying to escape the Belvedere Palace, and eventually released. Cesare Borgia did not take the lives of his enemies.

Yes, he was ruthless, but he was also benevolent. He would demonstrate his power – removing the rulers of the Papal States to bring them under his flag – and then he would demonstrate magnanimity. He gave peasantry 2,000 ducats’ compensation for the damages his armies had caused, joined the locals in feats of strength and running races, and played with children in the square. He brought law and order to lands filled with strife, crime, and fear. He inspired loyalty. In fact, when he was arrested by his father’s successor, Pope Julius II, both Imola and Forlí, who had so quickly ousted Caterina Sforza whom they had once loved, refused to betray Cesare. 

Photograph of Cesare Borgia’s Sepulchre

Story 8: No one knows where Cesare Borgia is buried.

This one isn’t true, but I can understand why some people believe it to be.

In 1506, King John III of Navarre hired Cesare Borgia as his military commander. In March of the following year, Cesare led his armies to capture Viana in the king’s name. He gave chase to a group of soldiers, breaking from the rest of his men. He was killed and left, naked and alone; his face, which had been disfigured by syphilis, on full display. He was discovered three days later.

Cesare was originally buried in a marble mausoleum at the altar of the Santa María in Viana. At some point in the decades that followed, the king died, and Cesare’s tomb was destroyed, and his remains tossed into the street where all could trample upon him. At some point he was reburied but, in 1945, Cesare was once again exhumed, this time for forensic examination to confirm that they were, in fact, his. They were then sent to Viana’s town hall where they remained for 8 years before being reburied outside the Church of Santa María (outside, because the church believed it was inappropriate for a man who had renounced his cardinalate to be buried on hallowed ground). 

After fifty years of petitions, there was hope that Cesare could finally be moved back inside the church on the 500th anniversary of his death. Sadly, the archbishopric spokesman declined, saying that while Cesare’s sins deserved to be forgiven now, the church did not authorise such practice. 

You’ll find him outside the church beneath a memorial stone that declares him the Generalissimo of the Papal and Navarrese forces.

Still from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

BONUS: Cesare Borgia was Knights Templar.

No. Assassin’s Creed cannot be trusted to teach you historical fact. Neither, for that matter, can the numerous Borgia TV shows, movies, and books. Sorry.

Portrait of Cesare Borgia
Palazzo Venezia, Rome

Despite the lack of evidence, these stories are intrinsically linked with the name Cesare Borgia. They paint him as a brutal, scandalous beast with an appetite for sin. In reality, he was no worse than anyone else of his position in the era. Nor were his family.  The Borgias’ crime was that they were Catalan outsiders set on beating the Italians at their own game. 

So why are the stories, often so clearly falsified, still given consideration? 

Because, as Giordano Bruno so aptly said, “se non è vero, è molto ben trovato”. Even if it is not true, it is a very good fabrication. 

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