In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/7


Often have I thought as I strolled about the Castel Sant' Angelo and the bridge with the twisted Bernini figures, and the ancient place of executions on the right side of the Tiber, that the very air whispers of the past—of the magnificent emperor who built his own tomb by the Tiber's muddy flood; of sieges and battles that were fought beside it when the bishops of Rome had converted the venerable ruin into a great fortress; of popes who found refuge there from the savage hatred of foreign mercenaries or from the just wrath of their own townsmen; of the many tragedies the popes and cardinals had looked upon as they gazed on the scaffold across the water where their victims awaited the fatal blow of the axe or the noose of the hangman. Rome is full of dark and distressing memories but nowhere more so than where the Tiber makes its historic elbow toward the Gianicolo.

Almost within the shadow of the grim castle was committed the blackest of all the crimes of the house of Borgia—the one crime that shook even the remorseless soul of Alexander VI to its depths and drove him in fear and trembling from his chambers in the Vatican into the gray and dismal silence of this refuge in his favorite fortress. The crime itself is one of the unsolved mysteries of the ages. Only the facts themselves are eloquent and from them we must piece out our theories as to the guilty and their motives and as to the last moments of the victim. Let then the facts speak for themselves.

It was a summer's evening—one of those pleasant hours when the shadows of the June sun begin to lengthen and sweet scented breezes temper the heat of the day—greetings from the Alps or the sea. Three Borgias sat at supper that evening: Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia, and Cesare Borgia were the guests of their mother Rosa Vannozza, the avowed mistress of Alexander. The third in the company was, like Cesare a prince of the Church and a cousin of the other two—Cardinal Morneale. Young Gandia, raised to his ducal dignity by the Spanish monarch at the earnest prayer of Alexander, had just completed his twenty-fourth year. No human being of his time seemed to have a brighter future. He was closest to the heart of his father who had showered him with wealth, dignity and honors. The palace where the three were entertained still stands. You reach it by climbing the Salita de' Borgia and then from the Via Cavour walking up the stairs to the free open space where you will find the church of St. Peter in Chains and the Vannozza Palace standing directly across the square. The topography of the whole section shows clearly that it used to be the site of hilly vineyards by which the palace was then surrounded on all sides.

It was between eight and nine when the young Duke, beaming with happiness on the envious face of Cesare, left his mother's house saying he had important business with the Spanish ambassador. The latter was then lodged in the Cancelleria, famous to this day for its wonderful cortile or courtyard. He was soon followed by Cesare. Gandia had come on muleback accompanied only by a groom and a person who is described as "the man with the mask." This man had been steadily in his company for about a month or so. The full identity of this person has never been disclosed. Gandia, the groom and the mysterious servitor had arrived at the Piazza dei Giudei—an unwholesome and dangerous neighborhood, less than a stone's throw from the river. Gandia dismissed the groom and the "mask," telling them to wait for an hour and if he did not return to go back to the Vatican and report to his father. Gandia never returned.

The pope felt some alarm at the report of the servants, but he knew Gandia was fond of gallant adventures. Morning came and no news from Gandia. Rumors began to fly through the city. The thugs and spies in the employ of the bargello (director of public safety, let us call him) were sent out to find some trace of the beloved son. They discovered a coal heaver near the Ripetta, the great landing for the vessels on the Tiber, which was then quite navigable. Right back of the church that stands on the Via Ripetta and the river you find to this day a lane called Vicolo dei Schiavoni—"the street of the Slavs."

The Slavs seemed to control the coal trade and the man found by the "sbirri," or papal policemen, was of that nationality. He said that about 1 o'clock on the morning of the 15th of June—the supper of the Borgias had been eaten on the 14th—he saw two men come out of the alley on the left side of the "Ospidale dei Schiavoni," or Hospital of the Slavs, and with cautious steps approach the Tiber to a spot where people came to deposit garbage or throw it in the river. The men looked about them furtively as if afraid to be seen and then disappeared. In a few minutes two other men came in view, walked toward the same spot and, after cautiously peering about, gave a signal. Thereupon a rider on a white horse approached. "He carried a dead body, which was thrown across the horse, feet and legs on one side, head on the other. The rider went close up to the river's edge, and then the companions took the body from the horse and threw it into the river with all their might. The rider retired a bit and then asked the men whether they had done their work well, and when they said, 'yes,' he turned toward the river and saw the cloak floating on the water, and they all threw stones after it to make it sink." The man was asked why he had made no report to the authorities. His reply speaks volumes for conditions as they then existed in Rome. "In the eleven years I have been here," he said, "I have seen more than one hundred corpses thrown into the Tiber just like that and no one ever seemed to care."

In the meantime the groom had been found not far from the Piazza of the Jews. He had been attacked and mortally wounded. He could give no clue whatever to the fate of his master, though he was fully conscious and lived for several hours. The anxiety of Alexander now grew to frantic fear and apprehension. Scores of fishermen were drafted to drag the river, and after some hours the dead body of the young duke was found floating near the shore less than a mile from that fatal pile of garbage. The body was fully clothed, spurs and riding boots and all. A purse containing thirty ducats in gold was found in his pockets untouched. An examination disclosed the terrible fact that the youth had been stabbed to death. No less than nine wounds were counted. There were stabs in the head, the throat, the thighs and the neck. The assassin or assassins had tied his hands behind his back and pitched him into the river.

When the gruesome discovery became known in the city the excitement of the populace passed all bounds. Everywhere the masses were surging through the streets, business was suspended, every store closed its doors. The crowds scarcely attempted to conceal their joy at this misfortune to the hated house. Spanish soldiers and gentlemen were seen passing up and down in the streets with drawn swords, crying and cursing. The body of the murdered youth was brought to the Castle in a barge and was then laid out in his uniform of a "captain of the church" and allowed to lie in state for several hours, if such a phrase can be used on such an occasion. The funeral took place at night—the uncoffined corpse, ghastly pale in the glare of the torches that led the way, was carried to Santa Maria del Popolo, the favorite church of the Borgia Pope, who had built an altar in the sacristy when the church was in his charge as cardinal. There in the grave of his mother's family the poor youth was laid to rest, and up into the middle of the Eighteenth Century masses continued to be said there for the repose of his soul and that of his mother, who was buried in the same tomb many years later.

For five days Alexander locked himself in a room, tasting neither food nor drink and refusing to speak to any one. It is reported that at the sight of the mangled corpse of his favorite child he cried out that he knew the murderer. While a perfunctory search was made to discover the assassin, everybody in Rome suspected the truth. It was the jealous and iron-hearted Cesare who had caused the bloody deed to be done. There were rumors too abhorrent almost to be repeated that the older son of the pope was also jealous of the preference given Gandia by his sister Lucrezia. Whatever the facts may have been, all investigations were suspended two short weeks after the dreadful crime, when Cesare departed in haste for Naples.

For some time thereafter Alexander would not speak to Cesare either in public or in private. The pope proclaimed his intention to reform the church in earnest and a decree was actually issued limiting the retinue of cardinals to eighty persons, but that was the extent of the reform.

When the first report with practical suggestions for the proposed measure was put in the hands of the pope he received it most indifferently, and soon the promise he made while under the influence of his first sorrow was completely forgotten. The cardinals were even less anxious about starting the reform than the pope himself.

Not long afterwards there was a complete reconciliation between the pope and the bloody fratricide. The two spent some days together hunting and traveling in the country near Rome. No doubt they came to an understanding, whether Cesare confessed or denied the commission of the crime. It has been observed by many historians that the influence of Cesare over his father began to grow after the death of young Gandia. In the last year of his life the will of Cesare prevailed in all matters.of concern to the papacy, to the church and to the house of Borgia.