In the Pillory: The Tale of the Borgia Pope/9


What has been the attitude of the Roman church toward the Borgias? Is she proud of them or ashamed? Some Romanist writers, almost all of them from the North of Europe, have admitted a series of unpleasant facts about the incestuous and unspeakable race. Some of Alexander VI's successors have denounced him. Indeed, the man who, after a few months, followed him on the papal seat, Julius II, would not even live in his apartments because he was sick of seeing the face of "that wretch, that circumcised Jew," on the walls. The criticism did not address itself to the moral aspect of the case, could not in fact, for on that score Julius II in one respect was a good deal worse than even Alexander. Another pope, Urban VIII, more than one hundred and twenty-five years after Borgia, was annoyed at seeing the Castel Sant' Angelo covered inside and outside with the Borgia coat-of-arms, which were obviously in the way of his own. As he gave almost all of his time to politics and wanted the Pontifical State to be strong in arms he made great improvements in the old fortifications of the castle, in the course of which he undertook to leave his own coat-of-arms spread all over the premises. When he found how the Borgia Pope had forestalled him he had many of the latter's escutcheons defaced and even destroyed, as can be seen to this day.

Urban VIII, while still Cardinal Barberini, had been one of the keenest bidders for the properties that Clement VIII had stolen from the Cenci family. Neither Julius II nor Urban VIII were in a strategic position to criticize their crooked fellow-pope. On the other hand, one of the more recent occupants of the papal chair, the ascetic and scholarly but fiercely intolerant Leo XIII, freely permitted the intertwining of his coat-of-arms with that of the Borgias, when in 1891 he restored the Borgia apartments in the Vatican. He must have known what scenes had taken place there, how the things he believed to be most sacred on earth had been defiled and desecrated. Here the most horrible of all the Borgia debaucheries, the infamous "Dance of the Chestnuts," had been performed; here not alone the dignity of the church but all the common decencies of life had been mocked night after night. What gain was there even from the artist's viewpoint in restoring the infamous mysteries of Isis and Osiris, suggestive of that worship, when the people of Egypt prostrated themselves in obscene adoration before the bull Apio. Leo XIII must have known that these frescoes were made for no purpose but to honor the animal so prominent in the coat-of-arms of the two Borgia Popes. In the restored apartments the Borgia emblem is scattered over the six halls with sickening profusion. Some Roman Catholic soldiers of Charles of Bourbon, himself a Romanist, after the sack of Rome were lodged in the ill-famed rooms and destroyed what even to them must have seemed offensive. The scene of the orgies of Alexander VI were well forgotten when Leo XIII revived their memories by restoring the apartments and writing the loathed name of Borgia alongside of his own.

We come back to the question: What is the attitude of the Church of Rome toward the Borgias? As an organization did the church ever take any action to show its detestation of the House of Borgia? No one can answer yes. Even in the so-called "Holy Year" (1925) when printing the pictures of popes who consecrated other "Holy Years," the name and face of Alexander VI appeared as prominently as those of any other pope.

In the so-called grottoes of the Vatican beneath the aisles of St. Peter there is an impressive sarcophagus at once a coffin and a stately monument on which appears the name of Alexander VI. No one knows what is within the narrow walls; from what we know it is doubtful whether the remains of the papal monster are really there. In any event the placing of his tomb with such a name inscribed thereon shows that the Roman Catholic church thinks its former head worthy of a noble resting place in company with some of the popes that have been canonized. In the Church of Santa Maria, in Monserrato, there is a monument in honor of both the Borgia popes, Callixtus III and Alexander VI. It was built and set up in the church less than fifty years ago. I have reproduced the monument in the text and offer it in evidence as an additional proof that popery and Romanism down to the present generation still honor the memory of the Borgias.

On the famous Leonine walls, to be exact above the walled in space where once appeared the Porta Cavalleggeri, there are two large emblems of the Borgias surmounted by the papal keys. Right back of these walls thus decorated with the marble souvenir of one of the worst popes and one of the worst men that ever lived is the oratory of San Pietro built by the American Knights of Columbus. Maybe these noble and simple children of the pope have a feeling of veneration for the second Borgia because it was he who divided America between Spain and Portugal. Being engaged in the troublous task of making America Catholic, Alexander VI is perhaps a well chosen patron for their work. In any event the presence of two large escutcheons of Alexander VI on the very walls of their oratory makes us put the question up to these same Knights of Columbus. Here is our simple inquiry, our modest request for information.

Why has the Roman church as a body and in an official way consistently refused to utter one word of condemnation or repudiation against Roderigo Borgia, known to history as Alexander VI? In her own teachings he was guilty of the most heinous of crimes imaginable. Why, through all the centuries since his death, do we listen in vain for the reproving voice of "Holy Mother Church" The pagan senate and people of Rome often endured the rule of depraved emperors, but after their death passed upon them the sentence of the "damnation of memory." The servants of the senate in such cases were ordered to destroy every vestige of the cruel or despotic prince. Why has the Roman church refused to do to Borgia what the Senate of Venice did to one of its faithless doges? A man who broke but one commandment seems a minor delinquent compared with Borgia. In the ducal palace of the old Republic among the pictures of its many rulers there appears a black space wherein are stated the shame and punishment of that unworthy servant of the people. Why does Rome not follow that impressive example?

The great gallery of popes, real and mythical, that adorns the walls of St. Paul in Rome still shows the placid features of the arch-criminal of the ages between Innocent VIII and Pius III. Perhaps it is better so; at any rate it is more logical. The church which stubbornly upholds the verdict of a cruel death and a sentence to the fires of hell pronounced by this same Alexander VI against the "heretic" Savonarola cannot afford to say one word of censure against the orthodox Roderigo Borgia.

On the other hand, the church to this day maintains various practices and institutions introduced by Borgia. The "Index Expurgatorius" was an invention of Alexander VI and that "List of Forbidden Books" is as dear to Pius XI as it was to his precious predecessor.

Many of the prayers and practices in connection with the worship of the Virgin Mary were instituted by Borgia and are followed by the Roman Catholic church of today. Are we not justified then in believing that as far as any official action of the "Holy Church" is concerned, Alexander VI is still a pope in good standing.

Many have been the cases where the church has opened the graves of men posthumously condemned as heretics and has turned the mouldering bones over to the executioner that he might burn them and scatter the ashes to the winds. In principle the church then admits her power, perhaps her duty, to sit in judgment even on the dead. If the papacy is a good institution and a benefit to the church; if the majority of the popes have been good men, then the Church of Rome owes it to itself to annul the election of Alexander VI as an offense to God and to strike the name of Borgia from the list of popes. Indeed, such a course has been proposed by several orthodox Romanist writers, but it has never elicited even a faint echo from those tightly closed windows up in the Vatican.

Such a movement once started might leave other blank spaces in the pontifical roster and presently the whole institution of the papacy might appear to be a rather speckled and spotted affair.