The Italian leader Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) played an important part in Renaissance history. By intrigue and bravery he captured the Romagna, an area of Italy which remained a papal state until the 19th century.
Cesare Borgia was the first child of Vanozza de' Catanei and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, then archbishop of Valencia. They later had three other children: Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Goffredo.
The Borgia titles and estates in Spain were to be inherited by Pier Luigi Borgia, Cesare's older half brother, and an ecclesiastical career was chosen for Cesare. Thus upon the untimely death of Pier Luigi, Cesare did not succeed as heir to the Borgia secular fortune and titles, which passed instead to his younger brother Giovanni. In 1492, while still a layman, Cesare received the archbishopric of Valencia from his father, who became Pope Alexander VI that same year. In 1493 Alexander named Cesare cardinal deacon, and in 1494 Cesare was ordained a deacon.
These were exciting times in Italy. In 1494 King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. His objective was Naples, over which he had a distant hereditary claim. On his march south he encountered little Italian resistance. Only after the Italians organized the military League of Venice, which threatened to cut his overextended supply lines, did Charles withdraw, and by 1497 French troops had evacuated Italy.
Immediately after Charles's withdrawal, papal forces turned upon the great Roman baronial families, especially the Orsini, who had helped Charles because of their opposition to the election of Alexander VI. Cesare's brother Giovanni commanded the papal militia during this period. Saddled with the mundane duties of a cleric, Cesare envied Giovanni's more active military career.
Rise to Power
In June 1497 the body of Giovanni Borgia, its throat cut, was found in the Tiber River. Several parties might have been involved in the mysterious murder, but many historians hold Cesare responsible since the death was of political advantage to him. Cesare now saw the possibility of being dispensed from his clerical duties and of assuming his brother's secular titles, wealth, and position as military leader of the Borgias and the papacy.
Unfortunately, the Spanish king, Ferdinand V (Ferdinand of Aragon), opposed the practice of releasing a cardinal from his office for political purposes. Thus Alexander could not release his son without angering the Spanish, his protectors against the French. However, in November 1497 France and Spain reached a truce in which they agreed to divide Naples. Since France was no longer Spain's enemy, Alexander could now approach the French king for help in seeking Cesare's release from the cardinalate. Louis XII, who had become king in April 1498 on the death of Charles, agreed to support Cesare's release in return for papal approval of the dissolution of his marriage. Alexander granted this request and thus became allied with France. In August 1498 he released Cesare from his clerical offices.
In February 1499 Louis gave Cesare command of a company of French cavalry. In March Cesare married Charlotte d'Albret, and in May he received from Louis the French duchy of Valentinois and the county of Diois. Having agreed to the Franco-Spanish partition of Naples, Louis planned an invasion of southern Italy. Milan lay on the supply route between France and Naples and was of strategic importance. In September 1499 Cesare commanded the French force that captured Milan and defeated its ruler, Lodovico Sforza.
In return for his services, Louis XII placed this French force at his disposal, and Cesare used it in his first attempt to capture the Romagna for Alexander. Like all popes, Alexander claimed dominion over the Romagna on the basis of the Donation of Pepin (756), which included the Romagna. Cesare's campaign went well. Before it was completed, however, Louis ordered the French force back to defend Milan from a counterattack by Lodovico Sforza, and Cesare's invasion of the Romagna ended in January 1500.
Success of Romagna Campaign
By 1500 Cesare had received all he desired: a reputation as a military leader, secular estates, and a wife. But the Borgias had paid a high price for Cesare's ambitions; by allying themselves with France they had lost the friendship and protection of the Spanish king. Since Cesare had acquired estates and a wife in France, he was determined to maintain the papal alliance with the French. To that end he ordered the murder of the husband of his sister Lucrezia, the Neapolitan nobleman Alfonso, Duke of Bisceglie. In August 1500, while recuperating from an earlier assassination attempt, Alfonso was strangled in the papal apartments. Alfonso's murder in Borgia-controlled Rome angered the Neapolitans and the Spanish and thus ended the possibility of Alexander's return to the old alliance.
Between October 1500 and August 1501 Cesare seized other territories in the Romagna. Again Louis XII provided him with a French army. During this second campaign Louis and Ferdinand of Aragon signed the Treaty of Granada (November 1500), which formalized their agreement to partition Naples. When the Franco-Spanish operation against Naples was launched, Cesare assisted his French ally, and on Aug. 1, 1501, Naples capitulated.
In June 1502 Cesare began his third and final campaign in the Romagna, and by December 1502 he had captured the entire area for the Pope. Most of the Romagna welcomed the Borgia rule, for Cesare introduced an efficient, enlightened, and centralized administration to the area. But Cesare's fortunes were soon to change.
In 1503 two events occurred which caused Cesare's downfall. First, Spanish forces turned upon the French in May and drove them out of southern Italy. In control of the Romagna and of papal financial support, Cesare accepted the French defeat calmly. However, the second event, the death of Alexander VI on August 18, ultimately proved disastrous to Cesare.
Because of Cesare's influence, Cardinal Piccolomini, a strong supporter of the Borgias, was elected Pope Pius III in September. He died, however, in October. When the cardinals met again in October to choose a successor, Cesare was tricked by Cardinal Della Rovere's promise of money and of continued papal backing for Borgia policies in the Romagna. He supported Della Rovere, who thus became Pope Julius II. Julius then disregarded his promises and decided to assume control of the Romagna himself. In December he ordered the arrest of Cesare, who won his freedom only by relinquishing key cities in the Romagna to Julius.
In April 1504 Cesare journeyed to Naples seeking financial assistance from friends and relatives. But both Julius and Ferdinand of Aragon feared the presence of a Borgia army, and in May their agents arrested Cesare. In August he was transported to Spain, where he was imprisoned until his escape in 1506. He made his way to Navarre, the kingdom of his brother-in-law Jean d'Albret. After Louis XII had refused to restore Cesare's French estates, Cesare joined d'Albret in fighting Louis's attempt to gain control of Navarre through support of insurrectionist feudal families.
On March 12, 1507, Cesare Borgia died in battle in Navarre. He had lived the life of a Renaissance knight and had captured the Romagna, richest of the papal states. His career was marked by political intrigue, but also by courage.
Further Reading on Cesare Borgia
Most recent works on Cesare Borgia are not in English. Nevertheless, older works in English are still useful. The most thorough, though stylistically difficult, are R. Sabatini, The Life of Cesare Borgia of France (trans. 1912), and William Harrison Woodward, Cesare Borgia: A Biography (1913). More readable is Carlo Beuf, Cesare Borgia: The Machiavellian Prince (1942). For background information see John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, vol. 1: The Age of Despots (1875; 2d ed. 1880).
Additional Biography Sources
Bradford, Sarah, Cesare Borgia, his life and times, New York: Macmillan; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.