By Katharine Fellows
This article constitutes an overview of my DPhil thesis on Rodrigo Borgia (b.1431 Xàtiva, Spain) as Papal Vice-Chancellor, a position held across 5 successive pontificates (1457-1492) until his own election as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Despite such a long tenure, scholars have all but ignored this formative stage of his ecclesiastical career in favour of events within his pontificate, particularly the clashes with the Dominican Fra Savonarola, or his role as the patriarch who used his children, particularly Lucrezia, as disposable marriage pieces to extend the family spheres of power and influence to form an assessment of Rodrigo. Ultimately this has produced a singular and restrictive view of Rodrigo, negating his consistent financial and diplomatic service to the papacy, notably his role in establishing peace between the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon during his Spanish legation between 1472-3. More importantly, it fails to acknowledge or appreciate the role Rodrigo played both individually and as a senior member of the College of Cardinals in the Papacy’s attempts at reform throughout the period.
Scholarship, both contemporary and modern, has demonized the Borgias, portraying them as representative of the darkest depths of the Renaissance, motivated by unbridled lust and avarice. Nonetheless, their story remains strangely fascinating, their unscrupulousness and audacity was praised by contemporaries, including Niccolò Machiavelli in his De Principatibus (c.1513/1532), whereas Francesco Guiccardini in his Storia d’Italia (c.1537-140) denounced Rodrigo’s morality, noting ‘he (Rodrigo) knew neither shame nor sincerity, neither faith nor religion’. Similarly, contemporary dramatists, including Barnaby Barnes in his 1607 play, The Devil’s Charter, credited Rodrigo’s rise to power as a result with a pact with the devil, warning in the prologue ‘our subject is of blood and tragedy, murder, foul incest and hypocrisy’. Such a continuous Black Legend has meant modern scholarship has not challenged this view, for Jacob Burckhardt, Rodrigo was simply full of devilish wickedness’.
The impact of this has been detrimental to our understanding not only of Rodrigo but more importantly our awareness of the functioning and practice of papal government. Whilst there has been some attempt to rehabilitate Rodrigo in modern scholarship notably by Michael Mallett, whose biography of the family (The Borgias, 1969) still remains a valuable corrective today. Similarly, although Msgr.P De Roo’s 5 volumes Materials for a History of Alexander VI (1924) provides us with a collection of documents from the period it is unbalanced in its view of Rodrigo. Aside from Mallett’s study however, there have been little if any serious research by English-language scholars since A.H. Matthews’s biography published in 1912 The Life and Times of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. By contrast European scholars have produced a number of studies including Giovanni Soranzo’s 1950 ‘Studi Intorno a Papa Alessandro VI’ which provides a genuine insight into Rodrigo’s career as a cardinal.
Rodrigo was promoted to the office of Papal Vice Chancellor in 1457 by his uncle Pope Calixtus III following the successful pacification of Ascoli in the Marche of Ancona. The future Pius II (Aeneas Piccolomini) wrote to Rodrigo claiming that his actions had ultimately saved the Patrimony of St Peter and were thus of great significance to the Curia. Rodrigo’s promotion to Vice Chancellor had preceded his advancement to the cardinalate in March the year before, along with Luis Milà y de Borgia, his cousin and Don Jaime of Portugal. Although just 25, the contemporary historian Hartman Schedel noted that despite his young age, Rodrigo was ‘more advanced (‘maturior’) in virtue than in age or dignities’. Whilst we cannot deny the role nepotism played in his promotion to cardinal and Vice-Chancellor, Rodrigo was able over the course of the period to overcome charges of nepotism by displaying considerable diplomatic awareness and skill which earned him widespread respect from individuals including Hieronymus Porcius who argued that ‘he was a good theologian and so familiar with Holy Writ that his speeches were fairly sparkling with well chosen texts of Sacred Books’. One could draw a comparison with Cardinal Carlo Carafa who, like Rodrigo was raised to the position of cardinal nephew by his uncle Paul IV. Unlike Rodrigo, Carlo failed to build a successful career in Rome, and was eventually executed in 1561 by Pius IV on charges of abuse of power. From an early age, the Vice-Chancellor had shown aptitude for learning, his tutor Gaspare da Verona noted in 1449 that he (Rodrigo) was ‘gifted with a honeyed and choice eloquence’.
As Vice-Chancellor Rodrigo was essentially the invisible right hand of the pope inasmuch as he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of papal government whether through the College of Abbreviators, which controlled the drafting and writing of papal letters and bulls, or as President of the Sacred Rota, the ecclesiastical court of appeal. These were posts that allowed him to build up a unique experience of the workings of the papal administration, knowledge that undoubtedly assisted him later during the repeated illnesses of Innocent VIII and Rodrigo’s own pontificate. It was reckoned that ‘he never missed a meeting of the consistory, except when ill or when away from Rome’. Mallett supports this ‘ those who deplored his ostentatious hedonism could not help but admire his intellectual gifts and administrative capacity’. This administrative capacity would see his inclusion in the retinue of Pius II which headed to the Congress of Mantua in 1459 with the aim of rallying support for a crusade against the Turks, and his appointment in December 1471 by Sixtus IV as legate to Spain based on the same principal as in 1459.
Rodrigo’s career witnessed him turning from papal apprentice to papal master in 1492. By using him as lens I hope to add to our limited understanding of the role of Vice Chancellor in this period, the responsibilities that came with the position, its proximity to papal events, and also its value in this period to the Papacy.
Katharine Fellows is a third-year DPhil candidate at St Peter’s College Oxford researching the office of the Papal Vice Chancellor in the Renaissance by using Rodrigo Borgia as an example. Katharine can be contacted by email; email@example.com or by Twitter @KatieFellows1