Long before Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI on 11 August, 1492, he already had a reputation for corruption both financial and otherwise. It was said that he had bribed his way to the Papacy and had sired as many as ten children by the many mistresses he had at his beck and call, though he recognised only four. Indeed, there were few vices his many enemies were not willing to attribute to him among them fraud, murder, and incest. Political chicanery and the ruthless grab for power were the hallmark of his time in office and to be an enemy of the Borgia’s was to establish a case for retribution both against oneself and one’s family. It was rarely ignored.
No less notorious was the lavish lifestyle and the many parties (which some described as little better than orgies) that now became part and parcel of everyday life in the Vatican. It seemed to many that his sacred duty as a successor to St Peter and God’s Representative on Earth were but secondary to his pursuit of pleasure and relentless self-aggrandisement. Yet for all the hedonism he was one of the most effective men ever to sit upon the Petrine Throne. He successfully guided the Papacy through troubled times while both securing its position and enhancing its power. Mother Church would in the end owe him a great deal but this did not mean that his passing would be greatly mourned, and it wasn’t.
Johann Burchard worked within the Vatican overseeing official ceremonies and functions. Frequently in the presence of the Pope he witnessed his final illness and the moment of his death. This is his account of the Borgia Pope’s demise and its immediate aftermath:
“On Saturday morning, August 12th, the pope felt unwell, and at about three o’clock in the afternoon he became feverish. Fourteen ounces of blood were taken from him three days later and tertiary fever set in. Early on August 17th, he was given some medicine, but he worsened and at about six o’clock on the following morning, he made his confession to Don Pietro Gamboa, the Bishop of Carinola, who then celebrated Mass in His Holiness’s presence. After he had made his own communion, he gave the pope the Host as he sat in his bed and then completed the Mass. The service was also attended by five cardinals – Serra, Francesco Borgia, Giovanni Castelar, Casanova and de Loris of Constantinople – to whom His Holiness stated that he felt ill. At the hour of Vespers he was given Extreme Unction by the Bishop of Carinola, and he expired in the presence of the datary, the bishop and the attendants standing by.
Don Cesare, (the Pope’s illegitimate son), who was also unwell at the time, sent Michelotto with a large number of retainers to close all the doors that gave access to the pope’s room. One of the men took out a dagger and threatened to cut Cardinal Casanova’s throat and to throw him out of the window unless he handed over the keys to all the pope’s treasure. Terrified, the cardinal surrendered the keys, whereupon the others entered the room next to the papal apartment and seized all the silver that they found, together with two coffers containing about a hundred thousand ducats.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, they opened the doors and proclaimed that the pope was dead. In the meantime, valets took what had been left behind in the wardrobe and the apartments, and nothing of value remained except the papal chairs, some cushions and the tapestries on the walls. Throughout the whole of the pope’s illness, Don Cesare never visited his father, nor again after his death, whilst His Holiness for his part never once made the slightest reference to Cesare or Lucrezia.”
Burchard helped dress the Pope’s leaving it in a courtyard before leaving to attend to other business:
“I returned to the city after eight o’clock in the evening, accompanied by eight of the palace guards, and in the vice-chancellor’s name I ordered Giovanni Caroli the messenger, on pain of losing his office, to go with his fellow messengers to inform all the clergy in Rome, secular priests and monks alike, that they must assemble early next morning at five o’clock in the papal palace for the funeral procession from the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica of St Peter’s. Two hundred tapers were prepared for those who would assemble for the pope’s funeral.
Next morning, I had the bier brought into the Sala del Pappagallo and there set down. Four confessors recited the Office of the Dead as they sat on the window-frame with their hands resting on the pope’s litter, which was supported by paupers who stood at hand gazing at the body. I placed a folded mattress on the bier and covered it with a fine new pall of bright purple brocade i With the help of three others, I took hold of the bier and moved it into a position between the high altar and the papal seat so that the pope’s head was close to the altar. There we shut the bier in behind the choir. The Bishop of Sessa, however, wondered if the ordinary people might not climb up to the body there, which would cause a great scandal and perhaps allow somebody who had been wronged by the pope to get his revenge. He therefore had the bier moved into the chapel entrance between the steps, with the pope’s feet so close to the iron door that they could be touched through the grill. There the body remained through the day, with the iron door firmly closed.
After dining, the cardinals appointed for the task and with the aid of the Chamber clergy made an inventory of the valuables and the more precious moveable goods that had belonged to Alexander. They found the crown and two precious tiaras, all the rings which the pope wore for Mass, the credence-vessels for his use in celebrating and enough indeed to fill eight coffers. Amongst all these things were the golden vessels from the recess of the apartment adjoining the pope’s bedroom about which Don Michelotto had known nothing, as well as a small cypress box, covered in strong cloth and containing precious stones and rings to the value of about twenty-five thousand ducats. There were also found many documents, the oaths of the cardinals, the bull for the investiture of the King of Naples, and a great number of other bulls.
In the meantime, the body of the pope had remained for a long time, as I have described, between the railings of the high altar. During that period, the four wax candles next to it burned right down, and the complexion of the dead man became increasingly foul and black.
Already by four o’clock on that afternoon when I saw the corpse, again, its face had changed to the color of mulberry or the blackest cloth and it was covered in blue-black spots. The nose was swollen, the mouth distended where the tongue was doubled over, and the lips seemed to fill everything. The appearance of the face then was far more horrifying than anything that had ever been seen or reported before.
Later after five o’clock, the body was carried to the Chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre and placed in its coffin next to the wall in a corner by the altar. Six labourers or porters, making blasphemous jokes about the pope or in contempt of his corpse, together with two master carpenters, performed this task.
The carpenters had made the coffin too narrow and short, and so they placed the pope’s mitre at his side, rolled his body up in an old carpet, and pummelled and pushed it into the coffin with their fists. No wax tapers or lights were used, and no priests or any other persons attended to his body.