In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/8


More than four centuries have passed since Alexander VI, the second of the Borgia Popes, unwittingly drank of the poison brewed by his bastard son and closed his career of unparalleled infamy. In any other country or city four centuries sweep away sacred landmarks and alter even the face of the earth. It is not so in Rome. There you may delve into any age from the days of Romulus to the reign of the last pope or king and with a little patience you can dig out your chapter of history and in fancy re-animate the scenes of long ago. The statue of Pompey, "which all the while ran blood," still stands. You can set out on any fine morning and follow the steps of Caesar on his flight into the mountains. Every emperor has left some vestige of his power, and so has every pope. The yesterdays of Rome may be taken almost literally.

Numerous are the souvenirs of the Borgias. Of some of them I have spoken in other chapters, but all of them are interesting and valuable to the historian. Next to the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, mentioned elsewhere at some length, the one building richest in Borgia memorials is the famous Castel Sant' Angelo. Alexander, though he had not even a conscience in embryo, never ceased to dread the Roman populace. He constantly feared an uprising and took but little comfort in the small Spanish garrison that was lodged near the Vatican. He was haunted, too, by the fear of a foreign invasion, which, as events proved, was by no means groundless. Hence, he lavished much money and care on improving the fortifications which had been built around the ancient tomb of Emperor Hadrian by other popes before him. Until recently the straight street he built from the Castle to the Vatican was known as Via Alexandrina. It was Alexander who built the secret passageway between the Vatican and the fortress, for which so many of his successors were duly grateful. Substantial remains of this passage way may still be seen in the Borgo Nuovo and within the walls of the castle itself. He took extreme care to prepare himself for a long siege, and to this day the guides point out the cisterns he built and the huge store rooms intended for the reception of grain and oil.

All the underground prisons with secret traps leading to the Tiber were constructed by Alexander. During his reign the frightful holes were always filled with his victims. It is worthy of note that none of his successors ever dispensed with these hideous torture chambers, but kept on using them even unto the day of Rome's final liberation from the papal yoke. Everywhere the Borgia coat-of-arms is in evidence. It was here in the grim pagan tomb, half fortress and half prison, that Alexander and his depraved offspring Cesare were wont to meet in safety and silence when they planned their murderous raids upon those nobles and churchmen whose wealth excited their envy. All the vast wealth he had accumulated by the sale of indulgences and offices and especially through dispensations and annulments of marriage bonds did not assuage Alexander's thirst for gold. Openly and without pretense he seized upon the estates of wealthy men who died during his reign. He simply disregarded the last will and testament and the claims of relatives. Even these brazen robberies failed to content his avarice. "All Romans of means," writes a contemporary, "live in great fear and trembling and always see the hangman around the corner." The fortress became a shambles.

The cup of poison, the silken cord of the hangman, the dagger and the eternal bath in the rushing river claimed their victims day after day. This is not the place to record all the men who died in Sant' Angelo for no other crime than being rich, but their names alone would fill many a printed page.

Another well preserved relic of the Borgia is the former palace of the pope and his mistress, Rosa Vannozza, near the church in which are preserved the alleged chains of St. Peter. This part of Rome had undergone some changes in the early 70's, when a new street which was called the Via Cavour was laid out leading from the Central Railroad Station directly up to the northern side of the Forum. If you will start from the railroad depot down the Via Cavour, a walk of less than an eighth of a mile, will bring you to a cross street, which still bears the name of Salita de' Borgia, or the Borgia ascent. Before the Via Cavour existed, this ascent, mostly steps of granite, was the main thoroughfare of the section, which had its other outlet toward the Colosseum.

Looking toward the Forum, turn to your left and you will see some distance above an arched passageway, the remains of the southern wing of the Palace of the Pope and later his mistress, Rosa Vannozza. You will see a window of obviously finer architecture giving upon the Via Cavour. Indeed the window and the balcony are as fine a bit of early Renaissance as may be found in Rome. In the palace the mistress of the pope, even after he had tired of her; kept a pretentious establishment and entertained the cream of Roman society. It was in her palace that the two Borgia brothers, Cesare and John, her own sons, sat at supper on the evening which later had such a tragic end for the younger of the brothers, as related in the foregoing chapter.

The steps which lead from the Via Cavour up to the remains of the old palace are known among the people to this day as the Via Scellerata, or the Way of the Villain, or the Rogue's Lane.

There is a strange legend connected with the balcony. Popular tradition says, and is well confirmed by history, that the pope was a frequent visitor there, not so much to see his mistress as to watch over his children. It is said that when Lucrezia was scarcely seventeen, Alexander attempted to violate her in the room, the window of which still exists as shown in the picture. The story goes that in the struggle which followed, the pope moved too near the railing of the balcony and that the infuriated girl flung herself at him with full force, making him lose his balance and fall into the street. Still unable to control her anger, the girl watched her unnatural father as he lay prostrate and groaning on the pavement. She would not allow any help to be given him, but commanded that her carriage be brought out and then rode over the body of the pope, cursing him fiercely. The story, with an additional wealth of detail, passes current among the common people to this day. It is by no means improbable. When we recollect by what fiendish methods the father broke down the natural modesty which is the birthright of every woman, the legend of his first attempt and its failure appears entirely credible.

The coat-of-arms of the Borgia is scattered all over Rome in great profusion. I have mentioned the conspicuous presence of two of the biggest on the walls of the Oratory of St. Peter, built by the Knights of Columbus. The name of the Borgia, too, is mentioned frequently in inscriptions in and out of churches.

In my walks about the city I found the most complete and interesting heraldic design of the Borgia under the Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio, or Ponte Molle). It is a finely carved bas-relief in rich red marble on the interior of the eastern wall. It represents three distinct parts: The coat-of-arms of Callixtus III, the first of the Borgia Popes and the uncle of the infamous Alexander; the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Roderigo Borgia, afterwards Pope Alexander VI, and the full coat-of-arms of the Borgia family as it still exists in Spain. The representation under the Milvian Bridge is the only one of its kind that exists in Rome. The reason for placing the bas-relief on the bridge is not known. Across the way from the coat-of-arms is a space now vacant, but at one time evidently filled in by some inscription or commemorative tablet. All trace of this has disappeared.

In such inscriptions as may still be seen referring to either the older or the younger Borgia Pope, they are always spoken of as "Pontifex Maximus beatae memoriae" “Sovereign Pontiff of Blessed Memory." One rather tragic and sinister memorial is that of the tomb of Cardinal Michiel, who, after having been bribed by Alexander to vote for him, later fell a victim to the fatal poison of the Borgia. There still exists but little altered the palace which Borgia built for himself while a cardinal and where he kept his harem with little attempt at concealment. It is today known as the Palazzo Sforza-Cesarini.