5 Things You Never Knew About Cesare Borgia

Samantha Morris

Early Modern Renaissance
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Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia are two of the most infamous people in the Italian Renaissance. Two illegitimate children of Pope Alexander VI, the first things many think when they hear the names of these siblings are that they were incestuous, murderous and evil incarnate. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Below are 5 things that you (probably) never knew about Cesare Borgia.

1. Cesare is the only man to ever quit the college of cardinals

Following the murder of his brother in 1497, Cesare became the sole Borgia heir. The problem was, he was a Cardinal, and Cardinals couldn’t have legitimate heirs. This was a problem for Pope Alexander VI, who wanted his family to start a dynasty and go down in history.

Realising this, Cesare and Alexander came to the agreement that the former would be better off out of the Church and in a secular role – something that Cesare would have been very pleased with. He’d never liked being in the Church and wasn’t really a big believer in God anyway.

Cesare made his case to the College of Cardinals who, surprisingly, were against his leaving. It was only when Pope Alexander threatened them that a small majority voted in favour of Cesare’s resignation. He cast off his crimson vestments, only to become one of the most feared warlords of his day.

Cesare Borgia leaving the Vatican (1877) by Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri (Credit: Public Domain).

2. Cesare (probably) didn’t kill his brother

On 14 June 1497, Juan Borgia went missing after attending a dinner party at his mother’s house. As he left the party with his brother and uncle, he met with a strange, masked man. It was the last time anyone would see him alive.

The next morning, when it was discovered that Juan hadn’t come home, people didn’t immediately start to worry. It was assumed that he’d spent the night with one of his amours. But as the day wore on, Pope Alexander started to panic.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI by Cristofano dell’Altissimo (Credit: Public Domain).

The panic got worse when, on 16 June, a boatman named Giorgio Schiavi stepped forward and claimed that he’d seen a body thrown into the river close to his boat. A search of the Tiber was ordered and around midday a body was found covered in stab wounds. It was Juan Borgia. But who had killed him?

It hadn’t been a robbery. He still had a full purse hung at his belt. Rumour swirled about the Vatican as to who could have done the deed – Giovanni Sforza, his little brother Jofre or his wife Sancia. Whoever it was, the search for his killer was shelved just a week later.

Cesare’s name wasn’t mentioned until almost a year later, in Venice. Interestingly, these rumours were started by friends of the Orsini family, whom Juan had managed to make enemies of when laying siege to many of their castles. Not only that, but the head of the family had been locked away in the Castel Sant Angelo. It seems likely that the Orsini would have wanted revenge, and what better way than killing the Pope’s favourite son?

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3. Incest – what incest?

There is actually no solid proof that Cesare and Lucrezia were ever in an incestuous relationship. The whole thing is based on nothing but a rumour started by Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza. Why would Sforza say such a thing? The answer is very simple – he was angry.

Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia had orchestrated a divorce between Lucrezia and Sforza when he had ceased to be useful to them. The excuse given for the divorce was that Sforza was impotent – despite his previous wife having died in childbirth! Humiliated, Sforza said that the only reason the Pope wanted a divorce was so he could keep his daughter for himself. It was assumed that he meant sexually, and enemies of the family ran with it.

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4. Cesare was a master of disguise

On 30 January 1495, Cesare Borgia proved to everyone just how wily he could be. At the demand of King Charles VIII of France, Cesare had accompanied him on his journey towards Naples, basically as a hostage. They arrived at Velletri on 30 November and prepared to camp there for the night. The next morning, Cesare was gone.

When Charles received the news that Cesare had escaped dressed as a groom, he was incandescent with rage screaming, “all Italians are dirty dogs, and the Holy Father is as bad as the worst of them!” It is said that Cesare rode so fast after his escape that he was able to spend the night in Rome.

5. The men who killed Cesare had no idea who he was

Cesare Borgia lost his life on 12 March 1507, in the woods around Viana in Navarre. Whilst attempting to suppress a rebellion against his brother-in-law, King John of Navarre, Cesare had ridden out of the town during a rainstorm, expecting to be followed by his men. They’d taken one look at the weather and turned back.

Profile portrait of Cesare Borgia in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, c. 1500–10 (Credit: Public Domain).

He was surrounded by the enemy and stabbed to death with lances, the killing blow being beneath his armpit. The problem was that they had been ordered to capture the infamous Cesare Borgia alive – but hadn’t recognised the man who had ridden out in the storm. They left him to bleed out on the ground and stripped him of his armour, covering his modesty with a tile.

It was only when Cesare’s squire was shown the armour, and the lad burst into tears, that they realised who they had killed.

Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester and it was there, whilst working on a dissertation about the battlefield archaeology of the English Civil War, that her interest in the Italian Renaissance began. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia is her first book for Pen & Sword.

Samantha Morris