In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/1


A wild-eyed shouting mob surged about old St. Peter's, gesticulating with heads, hands and arms. The eager thousands pressed on toward the Sistine Chapel. All eyes were turned in the direction of the dimly lighted windows. Nothing could be seen there but a shadowy figure now and then moving about in deepest silence. What a curious contrast with the animation of the scenes below. Every corner of the square was black with humanity. The "pilgrim" stairs in front of the old basilica were covered with men and women who sought a little rest on its well-worn steps. The crowd had been there all day and all night. The heat of the day-it was mid-August-had given way to the delicious coolness of the Roman summer night, but the multitude cared little for the gentle breezes from the river. Their impatience bordered on frenzy. Now and then the murmurs grew into angry roars. The men had come in running groups all during the night. New arrivals could be seen advancing every minute through the street of the Borgo (the papal district) anxious to take advantage of the early dawn when the sun was still friendly.

Before the clock struck six it seemed that all Rome was in attendance as if expecting some great event that promised them plenty of that "bread and sport" for which their ancestors had often shouted before the palaces of emperors. To feed well, to see a show and to get money without working have ever been the ideals of the Roman populace. Some ragged-looking beggars on the fringes of the mob set up the cry: "Give us a pope," and quickly it echoed all through the square until the word "papa" shouted by a thousand angry throats was carried up to the windows above. The word sounded soft and foolish in the mouths of the dirty, unkempt mob. The shouts continued to rise in irregular waves always breaking against the walls of the great historic chapel.

Up in that abode of so much rare beauty the cardinals were voting for a new pope. There had been eight ballots but not one of them decisive. A majority of two thirds was required, but the suffrages of the "princes of the church" were divided among many candidates. After every poll the ballots, pieces of paper that seemed more like parchment, were burnt in the open chimney. A thin wreath of smoke curled up to the opening on the roof and in an instant spent itself against the clear blue sky. It was the signal telling the waiting crowds that the papal chair was still vacant. There were demonstrations of anger and impatience, but in the end the disappointed throng made the best of it and again settled down to waiting. Presently as if by magic a great hush fell upon them all. The robed figure of a priest appeared at the window which all day and all night had been the cynosure of tens of thousands of eyes. The man stepped close to the ledge of the window, held up his hand to command silence, and then shouted something to the mob.

"Habemus papam," he cried with all the power of his lungs. "We have a pope."

The crowds had been waiting for these words for eight and forty hours and now abandoned themselves to a perfect frenzy of joy. Their self-control was gone in an instant. As crowds will on such occasions, they acted like very foolish human beings. They had come early and late and had excited themselves to the verge of hysteria, but now when the real news they had been so eagerly expecting was about to be proclaimed they were too delirious to wait for the final announcement of the successful candidate's name. It was all the stranger because they had come not to witness a manifestation of the Holy Ghost but because they were eager to plunder the residence of the new pope. To ransack and pillage the palace of the cardinal on whom should fall the choice of his colleagues was a very old if self-conferred privilege of the Roman mob, and the mob was now on hand ready to exercise it. The man at the window, though it was clear he had more to say, gave up all further attempts to calm the mob and make himself understood. For a minute he disappeared while the pandemonium in the square rose to its height. Presently he returned with his hands full of great white strips of paper which with a great effort he flung far away into the crowd. On each one of these slips was written the name of the successful candidate: RODERIGO BORGIA. The name was shouted by the first man lucky enough to catch the fluttering message. The cry was taken up by the mob with transports of delight. No name could have been more welcome to the motley bands, for Borgia was by far the richest man in the College of Cardinals. With a rush like that of the whirlwind the crowds sped toward the Borgian palace and seized every movable thing to be found within its chambers. The cardinal, sure of his victory at the conclave, had removed every thing of great value but there was enough left to satisfy the savage plunderers.

In all the history of popedom there had never been an election like this which placed Roderigo Borgia on the so-called throne of St. Peter. Simony and nepotism had run riot in Rome for centuries but never until now had the triple crown been sold quite so brazenly. Twice before had Roderigo Borgia tried to buy the tiara but each time he had been outbid and outmaneuvered. He was now past sixty. His career as a cardinal had been the scandal of Christendom for more than a generation. He had lived in open concubinage with many mistresses and was the father of at least a dozen children, many of whom he had acknowledged proudly and publicly, laughing at the flagrant violation of his vows.

It was known that he was tainted with a revolting touch of perversity beside which the mere indulgence of sensuality was a harmless diversion. For four and thirty years he had held the office of Vice Chancellor of the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, to which his uncle, Pope Calixtus III (Alfonso Borgia), had appointed him. He had built up his vast fortune by the sale of lying privileges and dispensations and absolutions for the most odious of crimes. Nor had he been content with mere fraud but had even hired criminal violence in his lust for gain. Insensible alike to honor and to shame he had disdained to play the hypocrite and had paraded his wickedness before the eyes of the world. None knew him better than his fellow cardinals and the people of Rome. Now as to the bribery which had secured his election, let me quote from a Romanist historian, himself a priest, whose recent "History of the Popes" had the special approval and benediction of the present Pope. The name of the author is Ludwig von Pastor. I am quoting from pages 255 to 258, Volume III.

"Cardinal Ascanio Sforza (one of the other candidates for the Papal Chair) seeing that he had no chance of election lent a willing ear to the tempting offers of Borgia. The latter offered him the office of Vice Chancellor of the Church and his own palace beside the castle of Nepi and the bishopric of Erlau, yielding an annual revenue of 10,000 ducats as well as other benefices; to Cardinal Orsini, Borgia promised the two important fortified towns of Monticelli and Soriano; to Cardinal Colonna he promised the abbey of Subiaco with all its surrounding fortifications; to Cardinal Savelli he promised the city of Civita Castellana; to Cardinal Pallavicini, the bishopric of Pamplona; to Cardinal Michiel, the bishopric of Porto; to Cardinals Sclafenati, Sanseverino, Riario, and della Rovere, great abbeys and rich benefices. Counting his own vote and that of two friends of Sforza, fourteen votes had been obtained by this simoniacal proceeding. There was still one vote lacking toward the required two-thirds majority. . . . There remained an aged cardinal, one Gherardo, who was ninety years old. He was almost an imbecile. His friends and relatives were approached and they won him over for Borgia. Thus the election of Borgia was insured by his vote. The result was obtained by an unheard of practice of simony. The supreme dignity was bestowed upon a man whom the ancient church by reason of his immoral life would not have admitted to the lowest ranks of her clergy. The days of infamy and scandal for the Roman Catholic Church had begun."

In the Sistine Chapel in the mean time the great ceremony of proclaiming the new "Vicar of Christ" was continued. Borgia was formally notified of the result of the election. His ambition of so many years at last realized, he yielded for a moment to the intoxication of triumphal victory. Gazing on the assembled cardinals, two-thirds of whom he had bought as one buys merchandise over a counter, he exclaimed: "Am I really Pope and Vicar of Christ"? As he uttered these drunken words was there none to speak for Christ and the Christian people and answer the query of the Borgia with a firm and honest "No." Among "these princes of the church" there were some who had abstained from voting or had even voted against him, though sure enough they were in a most pitiable minority. Was there not even a spark of Christian manhood among these cardinals? Did not one of them open his mouth and tell their criminal colleague that he was not the Vicar of Christ but the Anti-Christ? Was there not even enough courage in that "sacred college" to have at least one man seek to shelter his self-respect behind the protest of silence. The answer is an emphatic "No." The institution of the Papacy had eaten too deeply into the vitals of the Christian faith and practice. The voice of the Christian people had been hushed amid the thunders of papal excommunications. Alexander VI only echoed what Boniface VIII had so boastingly asserted: "I am Caesar and Pope." Paganism and the devil triumphed with. the triumph of Popery. If Borgia was a criminal every one of the purpled dignitaries that were present when he ascended the papal throne was his fellow criminals.

The cardinals showered their congratulations on him and Sforza, the man whose vote had fetched the highest price, solemnly declared amid the murmured approval of his colleagues in the purple that the election had manifestly been "the work of God, who had chosen the worthiest among the cardinals to represent Him and to guide His Church." For once in his life Borgia played the hypocrite. Almost tearfully he spoke of his hope that the Lord would strengthen and comfort him. With a depraved sense of humor of which till then even his enemies had never accused him, he promised "to send his sons out of Rome immediately, to reform the papal court, to restore the religious orders to their pristine purity and to infuse new life into the Catholic world."

"Quod vis vocari," he was asked according to the ritual prescribed for the occasion. "By what name do you wish to be known" ?

He flashed a look of pride into the eyes of his questioner and then answered:

"We desire to be known by the name of the invincible Alexander.'"

The mob having returned from its raid on the palace of the new pope now came back to get his apostolic benediction. Again the ancient square was filled with human beings. There were cries for the new sovereign pontiff as the mob massed itself against the balcony. In response to the demand expressed with growing insistence there appeared upon the balcony a man apparently somewhat under sixty years of age, stocky in build, with a face that had traces of strength but still stronger signs of sensuality. His head was round, marked by an exaggerated tonsure. He was a type of the cold-hearted, self-indulgent friar such as you may see on many a painter's canvas or meet in the street of any Romanist city in less than an hour's walk. The man was Pope Alexander VI. The populace dropped on their knees and with a strong resonant voice "invincible Alexander" pronounced the Latin words of the apostolic benediction. It was the consummation of a great blasphemy worthy of the new "Holy Father" and worthy of his abject followers. The date is worth remembering, August 12, 1492.

Even the cardinals that had voted for him were fearful about their future, not without reason, as the sequel showed. The others who had cast their votes against him dreaded his vengeance, for they knew he was unscrupulous and vindictive. Cardinal Medici, a rather stout youth, even then fond of the pleasures of the table, paled as Borgia glared at him in passing. Young Medici later became the Pope Leo X, who excommunicated Luther. He was now terrified at Borgia's triumph. Turning to his fellow Cardinal Cybo he whispered in his ear: "Let us get away, we are in the jaws of a wolf that will devour us all."