In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/6


According to Dante there is a "bad pocket" in the depths of hell which forbids close approach. The rims of the pocket are encrusted with foul matter, a noisome stench fills the air. To view the wretched tribe within and below, all covered with horrible filth, Dante stood on a bridge not too close. From this safe distance he gazed at the vile abode. There is a chapter in the life of the Borgia Pope which, too, may not be viewed too closely.

The facts in the case are notorious. Indeed the record is made up chiefly of two official rescripts issued by the pope. The documents may still be found in the archives of the Vatican. One begins with the words, "Illegitime genitos," the other with "Spes futurae." Both bear the date, September 1, 1501.

The two bulls deal with the same subject, i. e., the parentage of a male child three years old and known even then as John Borgia, and since then as the "infante romano," or the "Infant of Rome." In the first bull, which was published immediately and incorporated into the public records of the Vatican this little boy "about three years old" was described as the illegitimate son of Cesare Borgia and a "mulier soluta," or marriageable woman.

The second bull was to be deemed confidential (Spes futurae); the implication of course being that it was to be held in reserve until the rights of all the parties in interest would seem to require its official promulgation. Such proceedings were by no means new in papal practice and often, as in the present case, led to complications and mystifications.

In this second document, intended for the private records of the Vatican, the pope declares that he himself is the father of the "aforesaid three-year-old child," which fact the bull goes on to say, "for certain reasons we did not indicate in the preceding document." "If," the papal rescript No.2 continues, "in the future the said child is found to be designated as the child of Cesare in any papers or acts, the rights of the child shall not thereby be allowed to suffer, for in truth he was not born to Cesare but to me and the same "marriageable woman."

This mysterious little boy had all the time lived in the very bosom of the Borgia family and evidently was the object of great affection on the part of the pope, and as will appear presently, of Lucrezia Borgia. No records exists of his birth or his baptism. Judging by the references in the bulls mentioned, the child must have been born in the early part of 1498, about five years after Borgia had been crowned as Pope Alexander VI.

Leaving aside for the present the strange claim and counterclaim as to the boy's paternity, many theories have been advanced as to who the mother might have been. It has been contended that she was a woman of the people who had attracted the vagrant and uneasy appetite of the aged pontiff. This contention seems improbable because the number of children credited to Alexander was large and he was not in the habit of dealing with their future in papal bulls and public records. The pope, it is true, always found ways and means of providing for his numerous progeny, but never showed such deep solicitude as he exhibited in this case. It may well be assumed, therefore, that both the mother and the child must have had some very strong and special hold upon his feelings. One of his biographers has expressed the belief that the child thus strangely cared for by Alexander was the result of his love affair with Julia Farnese, but it is well known that Julia's child was a girl, though there have been reports that the "Venus of the Vatican" bore him more than one child. There is no reason why Alexander should have singled out a particular child of Julia, of whose charms by the way he had seemed to tire some time before the birth of the mysterious boy. Besides Julia was a married, not a marriageable woman.

Why then all this maneuvering as to the paternity, first declaring that Cesare was the father and then explaining that the declaration was only a feint to serve some unknown purpose and that he, the pope, was the real and only father? What if Cesare repudiated the assertions of the first bull in which the paternity of the mysterious little John is attributed to him? The conclusion is irresistible: The mother of the Infant of Rome must have been a woman who had extended her favors to both the Borgia, the pope and his son Cesare. This circumstance alone eliminates Julia Farnese as the possible mother of the boy. It has also been maintained that the pope in providing two putative fathers for the boy merely sought to shield his daughter Lucrezia, who gave birth to an illegitimate male child in the time between the annulment of one marriage and her entry into another. Would such a course have had the effect of shielding Lucrezia?

As a matter of fact the two papal bulls have fastened upon her the greatest crime of her career; a crime the memory of which pursued her to the end of her days; a crime which she sought to expiate by the devotions and "pious works" of her old age. As the boy grew up he was constantly by Lucrezia's side. When she finally entered upon her last marriage and left Rome never to return, she took the "Infant of Rome" with her to Ferrara, where she presented him to her husband as her youngest brother. Before she left she conferred with the pope as to the provisions that were to be made for her "family." The pope had passed the three score and ten; his daughter was going away to spend the rest of her life away from him; it was evidently the right moment for a final adjustment which was to take care of her and those belonging to her.

Eleven days before the issuance of the two bulls, repeatedly referred to, the pope divided the confiscated estates of the two great Roman houses, the Colonna and Savelli, between Roderigo Borgia, the child born of the marriage of Lucrezia with the ill-starred Alfonso, and the "Infant of Rome." The division was one of absolute equality. The "Infant of Rome" was created Duke of Nepi, and two cardinals were appointed as his guardians until he attained his majority. One would think that such generous provision ought to have satisfied both the pope and Lucrezia. However, the affection which they cherished for this child carried the pope further and induced him to issue the bulls by means of which the child was secured against any disturbance in his rights and properties.

Let us once more look at the phraseology of the second and confidential rescript: "If in future the child is found to be designated as the offspring of Cesare in any papers or acts the rights of the said child shall not suffer thereby." This provision anticipated a possible intrigue or trickery on the part" of Cesare," The latter surely would not have hesitated in claiming or rejecting the paternity as it would best further his own interests. The pope was under no delusions as to the character of his son. He knew that he had murdered his own brother because the latter had stood in the way of his advancement. The "Infant of Rome" had been named after the murdered brother—another fact which surely is not without significance. Alexander had loved his first son John with idolatrous devotion. The little John revived the memory and the affection of the first favorite son.

The "Infant of Rome," in all probability, was begotten and born in the Vatican. When the pope, his feeble sense of shame deadened by the pride in the offspring of his old age, published the two bulls, "Illegitime genitos" and "Spes futurae," the "mysterious child" was in the care of Lucrezia. The lives of the pope, Cesare and Lucrezia in the Vatican were such as probably have never before nor since existed among three persons related as they were. There are details that are simply unprintable but which clearly showed a most unnatural intimacy between brother and sister and father and daughter. In all the debauches which have made the Borgia apartments infamous for all time, the pope always insisted in having Cesare and Lucrezia with him. His revolting antics on the night of one of Lucrezia's marriages are a matter of history. Nor is there wanting the testimony of most credible contemporary witnesses. They all hint as strongly as they dared at incestuous relations in the Vatican. Leaving aside the avowed enemies of the Borgia and ignoring the rumors and satires of the street, we find the most fatal and damaging admissions in the pages of historians quite friendly to the house of Borgia.

What finally became of Lucrezia? She married the Duke of Ferrara and bore him several children. She never saw Rome or her father again. Speaking of her entry into a new home, the historian Gregorovius says: "The daughter of the Borgia brought with her the memory of a painful past. Reports had preceded her which even if they had been unfounded would have thrown any noble minded woman into agonies of distress. She may have been glad to exchange Rome for less corrupt Ferrara, and here she outlived the fall of the Borgia. Few women in history have exercised so great a fascination on her contemporaries and on later generations as Lucrezia Borgia, who only required wider opportunities to become a second Cleopatra. The figure of the pope's daughter between her terrible father and brother, in part their tragic victim, in part a seductive siren and lastly a penitent Magdalen, exercises a charm on the imagination by the mystery which surrounds her and in the obscurity of which guilt and innocence struggle for supremacy, while in the background stands the ever interesting spectacle of the Vatican. As Duchess of Ferrara, Lucrezia Borgia renounced the passions of her early life. Like her mother, Rosa Vannozza, she gave herself up to devotion and works of Christian piety. She died on June 24, 1519. During all the years she spent at the court of Ferrara no one ever looked into her soul, where it is hard to believe that the terrible spectre of her memory were ever laid to rest."