Cesare Borgia was a Spanish-Italian noble, politician and Cardinal, who resigned his church office and became a powerful military commander in the 15th century, when the Papacy was both a spiritual and military power. He was a powerful lord and a leading political figure of his era. He is an important personality in the Renaissance history, and captured Romagna, which remained a Papal state till the 19th century. He was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, who wanted him to become a clergy. He was made a Bishop by the age of 15 and an Archbishop at the age of 17. However, he had different plans for himself and gave up his position in the church to become the Duke of Valentinois. From there on, he used the Papal patronage of his father and the support of France, by virtue of his marriage to the sister of King John III of Navarre, to expand his territory and gain power. He was ruthless in his ways and feared by all. However, he had made several enemies who struck back after his father’s death. In his last days, he was betrayed by his allies and imprisoned. He escaped from captivity, only to be killed in battle while regaining lost territory.
Childhood & Early Life
Cesare Borgia was born on September 13, 1475, in Rome. Like everything else about him, there is controversy about his date of birth and his father. He is believed to be the illegitimate son of Cardinal Roderic Llancol i de Borja and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei.
Cesare is also said to be the son of Domenico d’Arignano, who was the husband of Vannozza dei Cattanei. However, when Roderic Llancol i de Borja later became Pope and was named Alexander VI, he accepted Cesare as his son. His other siblings were Lucrezia, Jofre and Giovanni Borgia.
He was of Spanish-Italian decent and did his initial schooling and legal studies in Perugia and Pisa. Subsequently, he studied law at the Studium Urbis, which is now known as the Sapienza University of Rome.
Throughout his early years he was groomed to take up a career in the church, while his brother Giovanni was seen as a future military leader. However, Cesare was not inclined to the mundane duties of the clergy and envied his brother’s military career.
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He was just 15 years old when he was made the Bishop of Pamplona in Spain. At the age of 17, he was appointed as Archbishop of Valencia and also performed the duties of the Bishop of Castres and Elne.
In 1494, he received the title of Abbot of the Abbey of Saint Michle de Cuxa. When his father was appointed Pope, he was made a Cardinal at the age of 18 and was appointed as a close advisor to his father. His father put him in command of the Papal army in 1496, when he was just about 20 years old.
In August 1498, he resigned from the post of Cardinal and was named Duke of Valentinois by King Louis XII of France. This gave him the nickname Valentino. His military career was boosted by his father’s patronage and wife’s family background.
When Louis XII invaded Italy in 1499, the king was accompanied by Cesare when he entered Milan. As a reward, Cesare was given his own state which was carved out of the Northern part of Italy. In addition to the Papal army, he had a number of Italian mercenaries and elements of the Swiss cavalry and French infantry under him.
He conquered the towns of Imola and Foril in Romagna, which were ruled by Cateria Sforza, on the orders of the king of France and received the title of ‘Papal Gonfalonier’ (papal Protector) from his father.
Even after his French troops were withdrawn, he further expanded his territory with the help of Papal patronage and captured neighbouring towns including Urbino and Camerino in the state of Romagna. This helped him become the duke of Romagna. His troops went from one victory to another till they captured Capua, causing the fall of the Spanish power in Southern Italy.
However, he had enemies within his forces that feared him for his ruthlessness. He treacherously manoeuvred around and had them imprisoned one-by-one till they were finally executed.
Although he was a capable military leader, he was dependent on the support of the Papacy. When his father suddenly died in 1503 due to illness, his successor Pope Pius III supported Cesare for a while but died shortly leaving a vacuum behind him. The next incumbent, Pope Julius II, was against his policies and did not support him. Cesare was sick during this period and his position became weak as a leader without Papal patronage. His enemies took advantage of the situation and started working towards his downfall.
He was betrayed by his ally, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, while he was in Naples and imprisoned. He was later shifted to Spain from where he managed to escape and recapture Viana with the help of his brother in law, King John III of Navarre. When he was in the process of capturing the castle of Viana he was ambushed by his enemies and killed in March 1507.
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His badly disfigured body was found by his soldiers. King John organised his burial in a small church in Viana. The inscription on his tomb stone read, ‘Here in a scant piece of earth lies he whom all the world feared’.
Cesare was not a man for art and culture. His only mission in life was to expand his territory and gain more power. Though it may not have been his aim, he is credited with the first effort of unifying Italy.
Cesare Borgia amassed various titles including the Duke of Valentinois and Romagna, Prince of Andria and Venafro, Count of Dyois, Lord of Piombino, Camerino, Urbino, Gonfalonier and Military Captain – General of the Holy Church.
He married Chariotte of Albret, sister of King John III of Navarre, in May 1499, and had a daughter named Louise Borgia, Duchess of Valentinois. He is also believed to have at least 11 illegitimate children, including one rumoured to be out of a relationship with his sister. Due to his womanising character, he is said to be suffering from syphilis from the age of 20.
It is said that Sancha of Aragon, who was the wife of his younger brother, Gioffre, was also the mistress of Cesare and his other brother, Giovanni. When Giovanni, who was a Captain in the army of the Papacy, was assassinated and thrown into the Tiber River with his throat cut, Cesare was suspected of the murder as it not only opened the way for a career in the army as well as resolved the issue of a common mistress.
Borgia gained the reputation of an effective military leader who was outright ruthless when it came to maintaining his hold over his subjects. He was brave, daring and determined to achieve his aim in whichever manner possible. Murder, bribery and deceit were part of his life.
His great grand uncle, Alphonso Borgia, was the Bishop of Valencia, and later became Pope Callixtus III in 1455.
Cesare Borgia is the first person in the history of the church to resign from the cardinality. During his service with the clergy, he had gained the reputation of a womanizer who spent lavishly on clothing and hunting parties.
He briefly appointed Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect and engineer from 1502 to 1503.
His handsome appearance is said to have inspired many artists while portraying Jesus Christ in art work.