GLOBE AND MAIL
Monday, July 22, 2002
Alexander VI Pope, 1492-1503
The popes of the Renaissance did not pretend to be moral leaders. It simply wasn't part of the job in an age where the papacy was acquired by bribery and held onto through intimidation and dynastic intrigue. The Spanish-born Alexander VI fit the job description perfectly.
He was a member of the notorious Borgia family (much of whose notoriety, it has to be admitted, came from the wayward children he fathered by at least three mistresses). His uncle, Pope Callistus III, made him a cardinal, where his unprincipled ruthlessness served him well.
He bought off his electors, and settled into a debauched papal lifestyle that was quickly condemned by the moral commentators of the time. His fiercest and most influential critic was the powerful Florentine monk Savonarola who denounced Rome as Babylon, the Church as a prostitute and Alexander as the Antichrist, before the thick-skinned Pope finally had enough and excommunicated him.
Whatever his other vices (rumours were rife about papal orgies and strategic poisonings), Alexander was devoted to his many offspring, who included the equally notorious Lucrezia and the brutal Cesare, Machiavelli's model statesman in The Prince. Cesare was made an archbishop at 17 and later a prince, conducting bloody military campaigns on his father's behalf that consolidated papal and family holdings throughout Italy. He was widely believed to have murdered his brother over dinner in a bid to become his father's favourite.
Alexander's accession coincided with the first voyages of Columbus, and he quickly saw an opportunity to advance the waning cause of Catholicism and cement relations with two leading Catholic powers, dividing the undiscovered world into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence. He discouraged the Crusade, though not for the purest of motives he didn't want to jeopardize the annual fee paid by the Sultan of Istanbul to keep a rival in papal custody.
But in the world of power politics that the Renaissance popes operated in, none of this was terribly shocking compare the Kennedy era in the United States. Alexander remained a popular figure among the Romans and the Catholic pilgrims who flocked to the city for the Jubilee Year of 1500, when he blessed a crowd of 200,000 in St. Peter's Square. Vatican tourists who visit the sprawling apartment he had built can spot his portrait in a Pinturicchio painting of the Resurrection tough and amiable, he looks like a Renaissance Tony Soprano.
Created: July 25, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
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