In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/4


Roderigo Borgia, cardinal by appointment of his uncle, entered early upon that career of monstrous aberrations which brought upon him the fear and loathing of the men of his own time and consigned him to the everlasting detestation of posterity. Had there been nothing more than excessive sensuality it would have excited but little comment in the Rome of his days.

The vow of chastity was a dead letter. Even the older cardinals had their "liaisons." The humblest cleric was safe in forgetting his celibacy if he did not obtrude his failings upon the notice of the faithful. As to cardinals and other prelates it was notorious that many of them were regular visitors and favorites in the palaces of the prominent "cortigiane" of that age. These women were recognized socially by the customs of the time, their meretricious character was well known but their "affairs" and "romances" with eminent men in all walks of life were tolerated and often made the theme of poetry and song. What distinguished Cardinal Borgia from his contemporaries and colleagues in holy office were two things

First, the boldness with which he flouted the injunction of the church to be discreet and careful even if immoral and licentious and second, a curious and sinister delight in the degradation rather than in the mere possession of women. Even at this period of his life the sexual instincts of the cardinal were wholly abnormal and morbid.

The first typically Borgian adventure, a mild affair when compared to the dehumanizing debauches of later days, occurred when the cardinal was in a city of Northern Italy "attending to some sacred functions." Here the cardinal had been received by the best families of the town and soon was the centre of attention in the feminine world.

Borgia pleased the young women of Siena, a city always known for its frivolous manners. He suggested a nocturnal garden party, which under the starry sky and amid the fragrance of trees and flowers is even to this day a popular and delightful function. It was to be a happy and thoroughly unconventional party. Fathers, husbands, brothers, indeed male escorts of any sort were to be strictly excluded. The cardinal and his able and saintly staff would guide the affair in the proper way. We have a rather circumstantial account of this happy occasion.

The party began with a ceremonious and well-feigned display of decency. All the courtesies and proprieties were dutifully observed until the fiery red Tuscan wines began to flow more freely. Then the pace grew rapidly faster as the night advanced until in the early hours of the morning the unnatural and poisonous zest required by the sadistic nature of the future pope was added to the sum of gaieties and every restraint and semblance of restraint was thrown to the winds. The end resembled and in all likelihood surpassed in its disgusting details the excess of paganism that marked the worst years of the decadent empire when the victims of lust and wine at the end of a debauch were gathered up by trusted slaves and doctors to undergo the necessary cures and repairs.

The affair caused a scandal even in that city and in that age. The anger of the male relatives of the young women was great and sincere, but Roderigo and his men had left Siena on their way to new adventures. These "garden parties" were repeated in other towns until news of them finally reached the ears of the pope, who had been petitioned by indignant fathers and husbands and by all the decent elements left in the communities to stop them and to bring the cardinal to his senses. The pope was Pius II, the man in whose election Borgia had given such valuable assistance. Pius II, himself an adventurer and opportunist and lacking in any fine sense of honor or proper conception of religious discipline, declined to remove Borgia from his profitable office of Vice Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church. As some of the women and girls outraged at these garden parties were related to his own family, the pope had to take some action. He addressed a note of reproach and admonition to the cardinal, describing as particularly reprehensible the party at Siena, into the details of which he entered quite freely. The young cardinal's answer was little better than a polite sneer. It amounted to this: Even cardinals must sow their wild oats, when they are young, wealthy and full of virility. Borgia kept on with his dissolute life, provoking one public scandal after another and drew other rebukes from the pope, which he persistently ignored. As long as he could hold on to his office a papal rebuke more or less mattered very little.

When, after thirty years of licentious living, Roderigo bought his way into the papacy the constant gratification of his worst desires had made him a confirmed moral pervert. Though he had passed sixty, his craving for new orgies and new debauches seemed to have suffered no abatement. He converted the Vatican into a house of ill fame with a not infrequent overflow into the Church of St. Peter. It cannot be our purpose to burden these pages with too much detail on the subject, but a few hints may be permitted for a better understanding of the climax of Borgian, excesses, "The Dance of the Chestnuts."

For our data on the conditions in and around the Vatican we do not depend on Burckard alone. There is an abundance of reliable sources. It appears then that the aged pope had a regular band of female performers—"an unlawful herd," as one chronicler phrases it rather quaintly. The "herd" consisted of twenty-five young women and often more than that were in the Vatican every evening and were kept busy dancing and otherwise entertaining the Sovereign Pontiff "from the ring of the Ave Maria until 2 o'clock in the morning."

These shows may have been the forerunners of the modern "revues" on Broadway, for interspersed with the lewd and lascivious dancing were "comedies of a gay and immodest character." The audiences consisted as a rule of "not a few members" of the Sacred College, some of whom came dressed as cardinals while others came masked and had women with them.

On all these occasions the pope had a large reserved space close to the stage. At his feet lay a profusion of velvet cushions of various sizes. He followed the proceedings of his sacred cabaret with the most painstaking care and attention. If one of the dancing artists happened to make a favorable impression on him he would show his pleasure plainly and send for her. Thereupon the performer was summoned into the pontifical presence and there followed a petting party of two while discreet and intelligent servants placed high screens around the scene not to make the cardinals too jealous. Nor would the pope miss these entertainments when duty called him away from Rome. Thus it happened more than once that in various parts of his temporal domain His Holiness astonished the simple natives with unusual exhibitions of feminine charms.

The pope was a severe and expert censor in the matter of feminine clothes and gave a good deal of attention to the wardrobe of the young dancing girls who, according to one eye-witness, swarmed all about the "sacred palaces." Nothing annoyed His Holiness more than to see long skirts on his favorite dancers. It is on record that he expressed himself vigorously on the subject. On the anniversaries of his elevation to the papacy, Alexander made it a regular practice to shut himself up in his apartments and devote the day to joking and playing with the scantily clad females whom he summoned to keep him company. Burckard records the fact without comment as to the unbecoming character of the entertainment, but in a regretful sort of way mentions that the dispatch of official business greatly suffered through the frequency of these frivolities. He also remarks that "on the morning after" the pope frequently failed to appear for celebrating or even hearing the "Holy Mass." When he did appear he looked and acted as if he was half asleep, which he probably was. In any event, he would on such occasions carelessly drop the "sacred" wafers on the floor and even step on them. The program of the papal festivities in the Vatican embraced more than girl shows in the way of relief from ecclesiastical hard work; there was plenty of gambling and excesses of every kind prevailed.

Alexander had a hearty and open contempt for the ritual and the ceremonies of his church, even those that were held to be the most solemn and sacred. On one occasion when he was carrying the host under a gorgeous baldachin in a Corpus Christi procession, the weather turned bad suddenly, as it often will in Rome; and showers seemed to be in the air. The cardinals with him urged the head of the church to abandon the original route laid out and return to the Vatican basilica at once. The pope indignantly protested. The original route had been laid out in such a way as to enable him in all the splendor of his sacred garments to pass the window of Cardinal Zeno where his daughter Lucrezia and his mistress, the beautiful Julia Farnese, waited for him. Borgia was proud of the figure he cut in his pontifical finery and wanted to give the women a treat. The procession held to its original route and the women smiled down on the pope as he gazed up to the window of the cardinal's residence.

Alexander insisted on having Julia by his side on the most solemn occasion in St. Peter's. Lucrezia and her girl friends frequently sat in the chairs reserved for the reverend canons of the church near the high altar and "carried on in the most unseemly manner." Thus many great feasts in the calendar of the church were turned into ridicule greatly to the amusement of the "Holy Father," who on such occasion could not contain his violent merriment. So little did he think of the "Holy Mass" that he encouraged one of his jesters who would follow him as he left the church burlesquing the sing-song of priests and mimicking their motions. "This fellow Gabriellini," writes Burckard, "was so bold and clever at this mockery that not only the Holy Pontiff but all the members of the Sacred College laughed most uproariously."

The limit seemed to have been reached when his daughter Lucrezia went up into the pulpit of St. Peter's with the pope and they entertained each other with jokes at the expense of the situation. Borgia, to whom the performance of his pontifical duties was an insufferable bore, was nevertheless quite insistent on having the proper tribute paid to himself personally. On the occasion of one of the high feasts of the year (Pentecost 1501), after the usual procession in which the pope is carried on his royal chair, he was acclaimed with wild enthusiasm by both the priests and the people. When he descended and as he was about to enter the Vatican a crowd of fanatic friars thronged around him, kissing his feet and the ground that he had walked on, all the while showing their backs to the high altar. The demonstration was more than the master of ceremonies could endure. He rushed to the spot and tried to stop "an exhibition which was more befitting to Turks than to Christians." The pope rebuked him severely, telling him to mind his own business and let the faithful honor their supreme pastor.

It does not seem that the advancing years dulled the vicious and lustful instinct and desires of the pope. He had completed the three score and ten when he arranged and witnessed the orgy known as "The Dance of the Chestnuts," which has furnished so much material to the novelist, the historian and the painter. For our account of the affair we have the undisputed authority of the diary of Burckard, the meticulous master of ceremonies. The "entertainment" was conceived and arranged by the senile pontiff in person.

It is out of the question to report the full details of this "Dance" in these pages. Read even in the stiff and unemotional Latin of the "Liber Notarum," "The Book of Notes," it seems incredible that such things could happen in the "apostolic palace." The ill fame acquired by the "Dance of the Chestnuts," it must be pointed out, is in the main due not only to the extreme lascivious features of the show but also to the fact that such a large "cast" participated in the proceedings. Massiveness always impresses the Latin mind. In point of mere salaciousness probably the "Dance of the Chestnuts" was only a little worse than other indecent exhibitions in the Vatican of Borgian days. In the curious language of Burckard the "chorus" on the festive occasion consisted of "fifty honest prostitutes, or women that hire themselves, and of unemployed courtesans."

This crew, selected from the best material of the Roman underworld, was brought into the rooms of Cesare early in the evening. The apartment of Cesare was of course in the Vatican. There was a large hall which served for a banquet. There were tables for the pope, for his son and daughter and a very few invited guests. While the Borgia and their party sat at the banquet the "chorus of fifty" ate in the hall of the servants. When the banquet was at an end the tables in the dining room were removed. The pope, Cesare and Lucrezia sat in a group on a sumptuous couch and presently His Holiness gave the signal for the beginning of the "festivities." They began with dances for which the women chose partners from among the servants of the Vatican and "from among others who happened to be present." At first some semblance of decency was observed. Indeed, to begin an intended debauch with an early outward show of respectability seems to have been the fashion with the Borgias. This, of course, was by no means a tribute to virtue or morality, but merely a clever and deliberate refinement of sensuality. The excesses and the unnatural excitation were cunningly reserved for the finish. The aged pope craved stimulation; he wanted to taste to the fullest every stage of the "enjoyment." In this way he was carried along by the rising tide of sensual indulgence.

The first orderly dance was of brief duration. Gradually the dancers of both sexes divested themselves of their clothing until with the increasing excitement of the dance they found themselves in a state of absolute nudity. When this erotic craze was at its height, the master of ceremonies signaled to the dancers to suspend and retire for a short rest. Thereupon servants appeared carrying a large number of candlesticks. These latter were from two to three feet high and had evidently served for use at the altars of churches. The candlesticks were put in five straight rows, with just enough space between them to allow of the comfortable passing of a human body among them. A second group of servants following, placing lighted tapers of some size in the candlesticks. Another signal and the dancers, the chorus of fifty women with their partners, reappeared exactly in the same nude state in which they had left the hall. They ranged themselves behind the last row of the lighted candles and were immediately attended by servants who held bags filled with chestnuts.

The "fifty took the chestnuts and threw them in front of the candles as close to the lights as possible. When the bags had been emptied, without waiting for any further signal, the members of the chorus and their partners of the male sex, dropped upon their knees and walking on all fours, began to search for and collect the scattered chestnuts amid volleys of obscene shouts of encouragement. The naked and heated bodies were soon in a state of wild entanglement and then began the scenes which cannot be described. None was livelier in applauding and shouting than the pope and his daughter, then a girl of scarcely more than twenty. In the final stages of the orgy the most bestial of human instincts were running riot. Burckard speaks of a "final assault." While the men and women were half mad in their frenzied movements prizes were awarded by the pope to those performers who had distinguished themselves by the audacity of their excesses.

The disgusting "Dance of the Chestnuts" took place on the eve of one of the solemn feasts of the Roman Church, the Day of All Saints. It was well toward noon on November 1, 1501, when the debauch ended. The pope, who toward the end had given free rein to all his perverted instincts, was expected to celebrate mass in St. Peters, but sent word that he was ill. For four days he retired to his private chambers recovering from the effects of his effort.

The reversion to the diabolical practices of paganism at its worst, which is such an outstanding feature of all the Borgia regime, is nowhere more apparent than in these excesses comparable only to the bacchanalian dances and the feasts of the Eleusinian mysteries.