Alexander VI (1431-1503) was pope from 1492 to 1503. Because of his worldly life, he is often considered the most notorious of the Renaissance popes.
On Jan. 1, 1431, Alexander VI was born Rodrigo Borja at Játiva, Spain. He studied law at the University of Bologna and first rose to prominence in 1455, when his uncle was elected pope as Calixtus III. Like his uncle, Rodrigo changed his name to Borgia, the Italian form of Borja. When Borgia was 25, his uncle made him a cardinal, and at 26 he became vice chancellor of the papal court, a position he filled competently for 35 years. Borgia lived a secular life in Rome and did not become a priest until 1468, when he was 37 years old. Priesthood, however, did not change the character of his life. He had children by several mistresses, but there is certainty only about the mother of four of his children—Cesare (1475), Giovanni (1476), Lucrezia (1480), and Goffredo (1481); she was Vanozza de' Catanei. Handsome and attractive to women, Borgia was also intelligent, a good public speaker, and popular with the citizens of Rome.
At the conclave of Aug. 6-10/11, 1492, the cardinals elected the 61-year-old Borgia as pope, and he took the name of Alexander VI in honor of the ancient empire builder Alexander the Great. His pontificate began well. The populace was pleased by his election, and he began extensive building projects and worked industriously at papal business. But trouble began in 1494, when King Ferrante of Naples died. The Kingdom of Naples had once been a possession of the French throne, and King Charles VIII of France decided to reclaim it. He invaded Italy and reached Rome in December 1494. Alexander feared deposition but managed to negotiate his freedom. He then joined forces with Venice, Germany, Spain, and Milan and expelled Charles from Italy.
Meanwhile, Alexander faced the monumental task of regaining control of the Papal States, which had fallen into the hands of local nobles during the pontificate of his predecessor, Innocent VIII. Alexander delegated this task to his son Cesare Borgia, who accomplished it with brutal determination. But Cesare's marriage to the French princess Charlotte d'Albret in 1499 forced his father into a very unwise course of action. The marriage committed Alexander to friendship with the new French king, Louis XII. In exchange for French help in reconquering the Papal States, Alexander did not hinder Louis's conquest of Milan. Thus Alexander betrayed his countrymen and reversed his anti-French policy. Alexander VI died on Aug. 18, 1503, perhaps of malaria.
Alexander VI has been widely condemned for his conduct. He disregarded priestly celibacy and preferred political machinations to spiritual leadership. He practiced simony (selling Church offices) and was notorious for his nepotism. He used his position to enrich his children, supported a mob of Spanish relatives in Rome, and created 19 Spanish cardinals. He shocked his contemporaries by openly acknowledging his children.
In Alexander's favor it must be said that his morals were no worse than those of his contemporaries and that he had the real virtue of sincere love for his family. He was devastated with grief when his son Giovanni was mysteriously murdered; and although he used his daughter Lucrezia as a political pawn in her three marriages, he could hardly bear to be separated from her. Alexander was frequently maligned and satirized in his own day, but the more vicious rumors (that he poisoned his enemies, for example) are unfounded. Alexander VI was a genial, intelligent, and able man who reflected the morality of his times; if he is to be condemned as a pope, he should nevertheless not be judged too harshly as a man.
Further Reading on Alexander VI
The classic account of Alexander VI's career is Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, vol. 6 (trans. 1923). Good discussions may be found in M. Creighton, A History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation (5 vols., 1882-1894; rev. ed., entitled A History of the Papacy from the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome, 6 vols., 1897), and in Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, vol.3 (1947). A shorter account, absorbing and vivid, is by Will Durant in The Story of Civilization vol. 5: The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 (1953).