THE NAME Borgia is synonymous with Renaissance decadence, treachery and ruthless realpolitik. The tales of the handsome and bloodthirsty condottiere Cesare Borgia; his father, Pope Alexander VI, and his sister, the beautiful Lucrezia, who may (or may not) have also been his lover, have spawned an endless number of tales, poems, novels, operas and movies.
Leaving aside the stuff of legend -- that Borgia held a ritual orgy, known as the Banquet of the Chestnuts, in the Vatican palaces, cloaked himself in black to hide the ravages of syphilis on his face and murdered his sister’s husband out of jealousy -- there is enough in the historical record to make a great novel.
He was one of four illegitimate children born to Roderic Borja, then a Spanish cardinal (the name became Borgia in Italy), and his Italian mistress, Vanozza dei Cattanei. Pope Alexander made Borgia a cardinal at the age of 18 -- scandalous even by the nepotistic standards of the time -- while placing his older son, Giovanni, at the head of the Vatican army.
When Giovanni was assassinated, his brother took over his position, giving rise to the rumor that young Cesare Borgia had done Giovanni in.
A daring military adventurer, Borgia worked to strengthen the papacy’s hold on central and northern Italy and to carve out what he hoped would be a kingdom for himself that might rival Venice and Naples.
Perhaps his most enduring claim on our attention is that his deeds and misdeeds attracted the notice of a young Florentine government servant named Niccolo Machiavelli, who had spent time as an emissary in Borgia’s court and wrote back long reports about the young man commonly known as the Duke Valentino, one of many titles he held.
One of the most famous of the surviving reports is known as the “Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino when Murdering Vitellozzo Vitelli ... " in which Machiavelli, with some admiration, writes of the shrewdness with which Borgia lured his principal rivals to the town of Sinigalia and had them strangled.
Borgia is one of the main -- and most vivid -- characters in Machiavelli’s masterpiece, “The Prince,” which explains the art of statecraft. Much of Chapter 7 of “The Prince,” for instance, is taken up with the career of Borgia as part of a rumination on how to hold power not with one’s own troops but with those belonging to someone else. Borgia had taken the region of Romagna with French troops but, on assuming power, bought the services of mercenaries in order to establish greater autonomy. So as not to depend on these dangerous, unreliable men, he then began to develop his own troops.
“I will never fear to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions,” Machiavelli wrote, even though by this time Borgia had died in exile (500 years ago tomorrow), having lost power after his father’s death.
Machiavelli again cites the example of Borgia in taking up the question of “whether it is better to be loved than feared.” Not unsurprisingly, Machiavelli writes that, if one had to choose, it is better to be feared than loved: “Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; nonetheless, that cruelty united Romagna and brought it peace and stability. On careful reflection, he was more merciful than the Florentines, who, in order to avoid being seen as cruel, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.”
Machiavelli (like Borgia himself) has been accused, unfairly, of glorifying cruelty and treachery. This is not the case. Machiavelli wrote that it is proper for a prince to want the affection of his people -- but not at the expense of disorder. “Too much mercy,” he writes, “allows disorders to go on, from which spring killings or depredations.”
The great virtue of Machiavelli was in transforming the discussion of politics from the sphere of how we wish it were practiced to the realm of how it actually is practiced. Wishful thinking and good intentions, he understood, often lead to failure and tragedy. It is not possible to achieve any larger social good, Machiavelli wrote, without a clear-eyed consideration of political power.
When Machiavelli began his career, the smell of burnt flesh still lingered in the air outside his office in the Piazza della Signoria, where the monk Girolamo Savonarola had been burned at the stake days earlier.
Savonarola had tried to create a moral revolution in Florence and ousted the powerful Medici, but he had no means with which to defend the city. “Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed,” Machiavelli wrote.
Machiavelli’s thinking was shaped by the central political tragedy of his time. In 1494, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, an example later followed by Spain and Austria -- resulting in nearly 400 years of rule by outsiders. The rise of the nation-state, and of large standing armies, would prove too much for the rich, brilliant but politically divided Italian city-states.
It was Machiavelli’s dream that Italy -- under a strong leader like Borgia or one of the Medici -- might unite to be able to meet its principal threats on equal terms. The result of its failure to do so was nearly four centuries of foreign domination and an increasingly marginal place in the world.