Pope Alexander VI, c.1431-1503 (pope 1492-1503)

Alexander VI (c.1431-1503, Pope 1492-1503) was one of the worst examples of a Renaissance Pope, seen as more interested in the power of his family, Italian politics and patronising the arts than in religion.

Alexander was born Roderigo Borgia, a member of a powerful Catalan family. His uncle was Alonso Borgia, bishop of Valencia, and from 1455-58 Pope Calixtus III.

Roderigo's early career was a classic example of the nepotism of the Renaissance church. Although he did receive an education in canon law at Bologna, that didn't excuse his appointment as a cardinal in 1456 when in his mid 20s, as vice-chancellor of the Church in 1457 or as archbishop of Valencia in 1458 when still under thirty. The post of vice-chancellor, the head of the papal administration, was the most important, as it placed him close to the centre of church government and allowed him to amass a massive fortune.

Alexander was a classic renaissance prince, a patron of the arts and the father of a number of children, attempting to found a dynasty in Italy. He pardoned the philosopher Giovanni Pico. He commissioned Pinturicchio to paint the murals in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican Palace. He built a centre for the University of Rome, built the Apostolic Chancery, carried out a great deal of work on the Vatican palace and had Michelangelo draw up plans for a new St. Peter's.

In 1492 he competed with Giuliano della Rovere for election as Pope, and defeated his rival with the help of massive bribes (della Rovere would later become Pope Julius II). After coming to the Papal throne Alexander plotted the assassination of della Rovere, who fled into exile in France.

As Pope Alexander VI he had to deal with an increasing threat from the Ottoman Empire, chaos in the Papal States, the early exploitation of the New World, and the early years of the long Italian Wars, the series of conflicts that ended with much of Italy under foreign rule. His most significant contribution to history was probably the negotiation of the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Originally the Pope had placed the dividing line 345 miles to the west of the Cape Verde Islands, but the treaty moved it another 930 miles further west. The Portuguese had requested this change to protect their newly discovered route around western Africa, but it also brought Brazil into the Portuguese sphere.  

Within Rome Alexander greatly reduced the power of the Orsini and Colonna familes, two of the dominant dynasties of Roman politics.

Alexander and Religion

Although Alexander's reign isn't famous for his contribution to religion, he wasn't entirely inactive in that field. In 1493 he approved the rule of the new Order of Minim Brothers, an order that had been founded in Calabria in 1435 by St. Francis of Paola, and that was based around the original rules of St. Francis of Assisi.

He was also partly responsible for the rise of Alessandro Farnese, who he appointed as Papal treasurer and made a cardinal. Farnese eventually became Pope Paul III in 1534 and turned out to be a great reforming pope, responsible for the Council of Trent and the start of the counter-reformation.

In June 1497 Alexander's favourite son Juan was murdered. In the aftermath of this Alexander briefly became a reforming Pope - he announced a reform programme intended to reduce the luxury of his own court and deal with some of the worst abuses of the Catholic Church. This phase didn’t last very long, and he soon returned to his earlier ways.

Alexander declared 1500 to be a Holy Year of Jubilee, and organised celebrations of the event.

Alexander and the Italian Wars

Soon after Alexander became Pope he was faced with a major French invasion of Italy. Charles VIII claimed the throne of Naples as the descendent of the last Angevin monarch. He was encouraged in his ambitions by Ludovico Sforza, regent of Milan, who hoped to use the confusion to establish himself as Duke and in 1494 decided to take advantage of the death of Ferdinand I of Naples and the succession of the unpopular Alfonso II to press his claim (Italian War of Charles VIII).

At first the French invasion of Italy appeared to have gone well. Charles occupied Florence (accompanied by Giuliano della Rovere), where he expelled the Medici and restored the Republic, then advanced into the Papal States, where Alexander VI was forced to grant him free passage. Alfonso II abdicated as the French approached and his popular son Ferdinand II was unable to stop the invasion. Naples fell early in 1495 and Ferdinand was forced into exile on Sicily.

Once Charles was in the south Alexander began to form an alliance against him. The resulting League of Venice included Venice, the Emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and even Milan, where Ludovico had come to realise that Charles threatened his own throne. The League achieved its aims - Charles was forced to leave Naples in May 1495, and although he managed to slip past a League army at Fornovo (6 July 1495), the French position in Naples crumbled by the end of 1496 and Ferdinand was restored to his throne (although he died later in the year).

In 1499 Alexander changed sides, and supported Louis XII's invasion of Milan (Second Italian War). At the same time his son Cesare Borgia led a military campaign in the Romagna (1499-1503), in an attempt to restore Papal control of part of the Papal States. By the time Alexander died Cesare had conquered Romagna, Umbria and Emilia.

Alexander died in 1503. Cesare was also ill at the same time, defeating any hopes Alexander might have had of creating a hereditary Borgia princely dynasty in central Italy. Instead the Borgia conquests eventually benefited the Papacy, although a large part of the Papal States was seized by Venice after Alexander's death. He was succeeded by Pope Paul, a short-lived pontiff, and then later in 1503 by della Rovere, who became Pope Julius II.   

Alexander was an unpopular pope in his own time, and had since become a symbol of the failings of the corrupt Renaissance papacy. His most famous child is probably Lucrezia Borgia, who became infamous for her part in his marriage alliances, although was probably not as willing to resort to poison as legend might suggest.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 October 2014), Pope Alexander VI, c.1431-1503 (pope 1492-1503) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_pope_alexander_VI.html

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