In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/2


Pope ALEXANDER VI was unfortunate in having for his biographer a man with a camera eye and unusual facilities for observation. This man was the papal master of ceremonies, a German priest named Burckard who had left his native land for Rome in search of preferment. By virtue of his office, Burckard was at the pope's side almost constantly. Alexander was far from familiar with the ritual of his own church, having other things to think about of a far more congenial character. When he found himself elected he gladly retained Burckard in office. He had no suspicion that this dry and quiet man had watched him with unremitting attention during all the years of his pontificate. Still less did Alexander surmise that his master of ceremonies set down all he saw and heard in a diary as reliable as a dictograph and as fatal as a most circumstantial confession. Every day the pope unwittingly sat for his portrait until Burckard had produced the most intimate and faithful likeness ever drawn by quill or pen. Burckard's "Book of Notes," as he called it, has been the great stumbling block to the papists who have tried to rehabilitate the Borgia reputation. The big volume bears the unmistakable stamp of truth. Burckard never wrote in anger or passion. If he had any feeling in the matter at all it was one of annoyance rather than holy wrath or even simple indignation. He was a somewhat narrow minded person but extremely conscientious in all he said or did. To look in the Rome of the Borgias for a practical and ardent follower of Jesus was like looking for pure water in a cesspool. Burckard had no high ideals of religion. To him the whole duty of a Christian consisted in the due observance of formalities. In his own way he was quite sincere and his private life was irreproachable. These facts alone place him far above his daily environment. He was shocked by the immoralities that obtruded themselves upon his sight almost every hour of the day and night, but he stuck to his post because it paid him well and kept him in the line of promotion. When the stench some times became unbearable he held his nose but that was the full extent of his spiritual protest against the sin and vice of the papal court.

There is one great blank in his "Diarium" or Diary. It is silent on the mysterious murder of the pope's favorite son, the young Duke of Gandia. There are other gaps, but they are of no moment. There is evidence that the book has been tampered with. Thus the description of the banquet where fifty naked courtesans performed the notorious "Dance of the Chestnuts" for the pope and his daughter Lucrezia has been crossed out in heavy strokes of ink. In spite of this, however, the passage has been deciphered with sufficient clearness. No modern reader will care to wade through the huge volumes of indifferent Latin, in which the observations of Burckard are so minutely recorded. As a monument of biographical literature the diary of the papal master of ceremonies will always occupy a place of high distinction. Its most precious quality is its authentic character which enables the reader to get as good a picture of Alexander VI as if "His Holiness" had been filmed with the utmost care by an expert with the moving picture camera