No Roman was ever able to say: ‘I dined last night with the Borgias.’
A disillusioned priest who, nonetheless, still says Mass daily and
fulfils all the duties demanded by a parish, merely shrugged his
shoulders when I mentioned the possibility of crimes being
perpetrated in the Vatican today.
‘Well’, he said, ‘such things have always happened there. Why
shouldn’t they still be going on?’
He was not in the least troubled by my suggestion. An enemy of Rome
could not have been more casual, more resigned to the use of poison
and the strangler’s cord, and the acceptance of adultery, in high
The two complaints of malaria and gout figure among the causes of
death of quite a few Popes. But sometimes they could be contracted
into a single word, poison, as in the case of Gregory V who reigned
from 996 to 999. The same could be said regarding the death of
Damasus II who, after being elected on July 17, 1048, lived for only
Celestine II, a one-time disciple of Abelard, was made Pope on
September 26, 1143, and died in the second week of the following
March. There were those about him who more than suspected poison. In
June 1517 the Medici Pope Leo X narrowly escaped a plot led by
Cardinal Petrucci, and four other Princes of the Church, to poison
(for more info click
Encyclopedia' vol.IX,1910, p.163
Leo XI died on April 27, 1605, after a reign of only
twenty-seven days. His death, according to official biographers, was
caused by a sudden chill aggravated by the cares of office. But
there were those on hand who had seen him droop over a poison cup.
Between those two short-lived pontificates, the Vice-Chancellor of
the Roman Church, Rodrigo de Borgia, who was to stamp the period and
his family with an infamy that was rare at any time, took his seat
on the Papal throne in 1492 as Alexander VI.
As well as several secondary ones, he had already taken as his
principal mistress a married Roman lady, Vanozza de Cataneis, who
presented him with three sons and a daughter, all of whom lived
under their father’s wing as favoured members of the Court; and from
the first, apart from the gestures and protestations that were
inescapable parts of his office, the mainspring of Alexander’s life
became the advancement and political security of his family.
The oldest son, Juan, Duke of Gandia, rivalled his father in the
number of illicit relationships in which he figured. His brother,
Caesar, not a whit behind him in this, was to add his own
distinctive brand of crime to the Borgia annals. When he was only
seventeen Alexander created him Cardinal, though Caesar was never
more than a sub-deacon, certainly not a priest. His papa was equally
obliging when Caesar, although a Prince of the Church (he soon
dropped the sham), wanted to marry. The necessary dispensation was
The youngest of Alexander’s sons, Jofre, married an illegitimate
daughter of Alonso II of Naples. Then came Lucrezia who, because of
her sex and the manifestly pious strain she exhibited in such
surroundings, has been badly treated by novelists and historians of
the Hollywood type. She was, according to the time, sufficiently
ungirlish to deal with her father’s official correspondence when he
was out of Rome, and we know nothing definite to her discredit.
Her first marriage, to a prince of the Sforza house, was annulled on
the grounds of non-consummation. Her second was to another of the
illegitimate brood produced by the Neapolitan king, while her third
was to Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara.
Lucrezia died young, but not before she had passed through the
strange experience of knowing that her second husband had been
strangled by her brother Caesar. But that was not the highlight of
Caesar’s career, for he also dealt, in similar fashion, with his own
brother Juan. He then turned his attention to Cardinals, those with
money, and used his ready hands, or the always convenient poison, to
account for several, including Cardinal Michele, who was a nephew of
Pope Paul II, and Cardinal Orsini.
But that by no means depleted the College of Cardinals, for apart
from Caesar four other members of the Borgia clan sported the red
hat. Alexander turned a blind eye on Caesar’s exploits, though he
was genuinely grieved by the loss of his first-born, Juan.
During this time the Devil made his presence felt, sometimes
visibly, in Rome, and the populace had no doubt but that the dregs
of wickedness were being stirred by doings at the Vatican. For
instance, a ballet was performed there on the Eve of All Saints,
1501, at which every one of the fifty dancers was a whore picked
from the streets of Rome.
One of those who came to decide that the Borgias had been in the
saddle all too long was Cardinal Castellisi of Corneto. So he
invited father and son to a banquet, and prepared a dose of his own
mixing that was guaranteed to rid Rome of them both.
They accepted the invitation, but it so happened that Alexander had
made up his mind that Castellisi was a nuisance, and he came
provided with some wine that had proved so efficacious in the past.
Those were not the days of mixed drinks, but the wines were somehow
mixed up as they sat at table, with the result that Alexander and
Caesar got a draught of their own preparation. Amid their groaning
and twisting the party hurriedly broke up. Caesar recovered, but
Alexander died, duly fortified by the Sacraments of the Church.
Cause of death – malaria.
His Eminence of Corneto probably enjoyed a quiet laugh.
Caesar made some amends for his evil life by dying in battle.
Lucrezia was caricatured in a novel by Victor Hugo, and her name was
given to the title role in an opera by Donizetti. An apologist for
Alexander could say no more than that during his reign Greenland
accepted the Gospel.
According to a recipe that was handed down and came into the hands
of Garelli, who was physician to the Habsburg
Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740), the Borgias obtained their poison by
first killing a pig, sprinkling its abdominal organs with arsenious
acid, and waiting until putrefaction set in. This contaminated
matter, when introduced into liquids, became an active, deadly, and,
in the majority of cases, almost instantaneous poison.
Great precautions were taken at the Court of Alexander VI to prevent
this being written down; and some of the other methods employed to
administer the poison were nothing short of ingenious. A person
cutting fruit could die through touching the edge of a knife that
had been brushed by the preparation; while the effect of turning a
key to open a door or a box might cause a minute graze of the skin
through which a fatal drop imperceptibly entered the bloodstream.
Other toxicologists affirm that there was another Borgia poison, a
complex mixture consisting of a gritty and whitish powder that
resembled sugar. It was known as canterella or cantoreli.
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