This is no Chronicle of Saints. Nor yet is it a History of Devils. It is a record of certain very human, strenuous men in a very human, strenuous age; a lustful, flamboyant age; an age red with blood and pale with passion at white-heat; an age of steel and velvet, of vivid colour, dazzling light and impenetrable shadow; an age of swift movement, pitiless violence and high endeavour, of sharp antitheses and amazing contrasts.

To judge it from the standpoint of this calm, deliberate, and correct century—as we conceive our own to be—is for sedate middle-age to judge from its own standpoint the reckless, hot, passionate, lustful humours of youth, of youth that errs grievously and achieves greatly.

So to judge that epoch collectively is manifestly wrong, a hopeless procedure if it be our aim to understand it and to be in sympathy with it, as it becomes broad-minded age to be tolerantly in sympathy with the youth whose follies it perceives. Life is an ephemeral business, and we waste too much of it in judging where it would beseem us better to accept, that we ourselves may come to be accepted by such future ages as may pursue the study of us.

But if it be wrong to judge a past epoch collectively by the standards of our own time, how much more is it not wrong to single out individuals for judgement by those same standards, after detaching them for the purpose from the environment in which they had their being? How false must be the conception of them thus obtained! We view the individuals so selected through a microscope of modern focus. They appear monstrous and abnormal, and we straight-way assume them to be monsters and abnormalities, never considering that the fault is in the adjustment of the instrument through which we inspect them, and that until that is corrected others of that same past age, if similarly viewed, must appear similarly distorted.

Hence it follows that some study of an age must ever prelude and accompany the study of its individuals, if comprehension is to wait upon our labours. To proceed otherwise is to judge an individual Hottentot or South Sea Islander by the code of manners that obtains in Belgravia or Mayfair.

Mind being the seat of the soul, and literature being the expression of the mind, literature, it follows, is the soul of an age, the surviving and immortal part of it; and in the literature of the Cinquecento you shall behold for the looking the ardent, unmoral, naïve soul of this Renaissance that was sprawling in its lusty, naked infancy and bellowing hungrily for the pap of knowledge, and for other things. You shall infer something of the passionate mettle of this infant: his tempestuous mirth, his fierce rages, his simplicity, his naïveté, his inquisitiveness, his cunning, his deceit, his cruelty, his love of sunshine and bright gewgaws.

To realize him as he was, you need but to bethink you that this was the age in which the Decamerone of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Facetiae of Poggio, the Satires of Filelfo, and the Hermaphroditus of Panormitano afforded reading-matter to both sexes. This was the age in which the learned and erudite Lorenzo Valla—of whom more anon—wrote his famous indictment of virginity, condemning it as against nature with arguments of a most insidious logic. This was the age in which Casa, Archbishop of Benevento, wrote a most singular work of erotic philosophy, which, coming from a churchman’s pen, will leave you cold with horror should you chance to turn its pages. This was the age of the Discovery of Man; the pagan age which stripped Christ of His divinity to bestow it upon Plato, so that Marsilio Ficino actually burnt an altar-lamp before an image of the Greek by whose teachings—in common with so many scholars of his day—he sought to inform himself.

It was an age that had become unable to discriminate between the merits of the Saints of the Church and the Harlots of the Town. Therefore it honoured both alike, extolled the carnal merits of the one in much the same terms as were employed to extol the spiritual merits of the other. Thus when a famous Roman courtesan departed this life in the year 1511, at the early age of twenty-six, she was accorded a splendid funeral and an imposing tomb in the Chapel Santa Gregoria with a tablet bearing the following inscription:


It was, in short, an age so universally immoral as scarcely to be termed immoral, since immorality may be defined as a departure from the morals that obtain a given time and in a given place. So that whilst from our own standpoint the Cinquecento, taken collectively, is an age of grossest licence and immorality, from the standpoint of the Cinquecento itself few of its individuals might with justice be branded immoral.

For the rest, it was an epoch of reaction from the Age of Chivalry: an epoch of unbounded luxury, of the cult and worship of the beautiful externally; an epoch that set no store by any inward virtue, by truth or honour; an epoch that laid it down as a maxim that no inconvenient engagement should be kept if opportunity offered to evade it.

The history of the Cinquecento is a history developed in broken pledges, trusts dishonoured and basest treacheries, as you shall come to conclude before you have read far in the story that is here to be set down.

In a profligate age what can you look for but profligates? Is it just, is it reasonable, or is it even honest to take a man or a family from such an environment, for judgement by the canons of a later epoch? Yet is it not the method that has been most frequently adopted in dealing with the vast subject of the Borgias?

To avoid the dangers that must wait upon that error, the history of that House shall here be taken up with the elevation of Calixtus III to the Papal Throne; and the reign of the four Popes immediately preceding Roderigo Borgia—who reigned as Alexander VI—shall briefly be surveyed that a standard may be set by which to judge the man and the family that form the real subject of this work.

The history of this amazing Pope Alexander is yet to be written. No attempt has been made to exhaust it here. Yet of necessity he bulks large in these pages; for the history of his dazzling, meteoric son is so closely interwoven with his own that it is impossible to present the one without dealing at considerable length with the other.

The sources from which the history of the House of Borgia has been culled are not to be examined in a preface. They are too numerous, and they require too minute and individual a consideration that their precise value and degree of credibility may be ascertained. Abundantly shall such examination be made in the course of this history, and in a measure as the need arises to cite evidence for one side or for the other shall that evidence be sifted.

Never, perhaps, has anything more true been written of the Borgias and their history than the matter contained in the following lines of Rawdon Brown in his Ragguagli sulla Vita e sulle Opere di Marino Sanuto: “It seems to me that history has made use of the House of Borgia as of a canvas upon which to depict the turpitudes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”

Materials for the work were very ready to the hand; and although they do not signally differ from the materials out of which the histories of half a dozen Popes of the same epoch might be compiled, they are far more abundant in the case of the Borgia Pope, for the excellent reason that the Borgia Pope detaches from the background of the Renaissance far more than any of his compeers by virtue of his importance as a political force.

In this was reason to spare for his being libelled and lampooned even beyond the usual extravagant wont. Slanders concerning him and his son Cesare were readily circulated, and they will generally be found to spring from those States which had most cause for jealousy and resentment of the Borgia might—Venice, Florence, and Milan, amongst others.

No rancour is so bitter as political rancour—save, perhaps, religious rancour, which we shall also trace; no warfare more unscrupulous or more prone to use the insidious weapons of slander than political warfare. Of this such striking instances abound in our own time that there can scarce be the need to labour the point. And from the form taken by such slanders as are circulated in our own sedate and moderate epoch may be conceived what might be said by political opponents in a fierce age that knew no pudency and no restraint. All this in its proper place shall be more closely examined.

For many of the charges brought against the House of Borgia some testimony exists; for many others—and these are the more lurid, sensational, and appalling covering as they do rape and murder, adultery, incest, and the sin of the Cities of the Plain—no single grain of real evidence is forthcoming. Indeed, at this time of day evidence is no longer called for where the sins of the Borgias are concerned. Oft-reiterated assertion has usurped the place of evidence—for a lie sufficiently repeated comes to be credited by its very utterer. And meanwhile the calumny has sped from tongue to tongue, from pen to pen, gathering matter as it goes. The world absorbs the stories; it devours them greedily so they be sensational, and writers well aware of this have been pandering to that morbid appetite for some centuries now with this subject of the Borgias. A salted, piquant tale of vice, a ghastly story of moral turpitude and physical corruption, a hair-raising narrative of horrors and abominations—these are the stock-in-trade of the sensation-monger. With the authenticity of the matters he retails such a one has no concern. “Se non é vero é ben trovato,” is his motto, and in his heart the sensation-monger—of whatsoever age—rather hopes the thing be true. He will certainly make his public so believe it; for to discredit it would be to lose nine-tenths of its sensational value. So he trims and adjusts his wares, adds a touch or two of colour and what else he accounts necessary to heighten their air of authenticity, to dissemble any peeping spuriousness.

A form of hypnosis accompanies your study of the subject—a suggestion that what is so positively and repeatedly stated must of necessity be true, must of necessity have been proved by irrefutable evidence at some time or other. So much you take for granted—for matters which began their existence perhaps as tentative hypotheses have imperceptibly developed into established facts.

Occasionally it happens that we find some such sentence as the following summing up this deed or that one in the Borgia histories: “A deal of mystery remains to be cleared up, but the Verdict of History assigns the guilt to Cesare Borgia.”

Behold how easy it is to dispense with evidence. So that your tale be well-salted and well-spiced, a fico for evidence! If it hangs not overwell together in places, if there be contradictions, lacunae, or openings for doubt, fling the Verdict of History into the gap, and so strike any questioner into silence.

So far have matters gone in this connection that who undertakes to set down to-day the history of Cesare Borgia, with intent to do just and honest work, must find it impossible to tell a plain and straightforward tale—to present him not as a villain of melodrama, not a monster, ludicrous, grotesque, impossible, but as human being, a cold, relentless egotist, it is true, using men for his own ends, terrible and even treacherous in his reprisals, swift as a panther and as cruel where his anger was aroused, yet with certain elements of greatness: a splendid soldier, an unrivalled administrator, a man pre-eminently just, if merciless in that same justice.

To present Cesare Borgia thus in a plain straightforward tale at this time of day, would be to provoke the scorn and derision of those who have made his acquaintance in the pages of that eminent German scholar, Ferdinand Gregorovius, and of some other writers not quite so eminent yet eminent enough to serve serious consideration. Hence has it been necessary to examine at close quarters the findings of these great ones, and to present certain criticisms of those same findings. The author is overwhelmingly conscious of the invidious quality of that task; but he is no less conscious of its inevitability if this tale is to be told at all.

Whilst the actual sources of historical evidence shall be examined in the course of this narrative, it may be well to examine at this stage the sources of the popular conceptions of the Borgias, since there will be no occasion later to allude to them.

Without entering here into a dissertation upon the historical romance, it may be said that in proper hands it has been and should continue to be one of the most valued and valuable expressions of the literary art. To render and maintain it so, however, it is necessary that certain well-defined limits should be set upon the licence which its writers are to enjoy; it is necessary that the work should be honest work; that preparation for it should be made by a sound, painstaking study of the period to be represented, to the end that a true impression may first be formed and then conveyed. Thus, considering how much more far-reaching is the novel than any other form of literature, the good results that must wait upon such endeavours are beyond question. The neglect of them—the distortion of character to suit the romancer’s ends, the like distortion of historical facts, the gross anachronisms arising out of a lack of study, have done much to bring the historical romance into disrepute. Many writers frankly make no pretence—leastways none that can be discerned—of aiming at historical precision; others, however, invest their work with a spurious scholarliness, go the length of citing authorities to support the point of view which they have taken, and which they lay before you as the fruit of strenuous lucubrations.

These are the dangerous ones, and of this type is Victor Hugo’s famous tragedy Lucrezia Borgia, a work to which perhaps more than to any other (not excepting Les Borgias in Crimes Célèbres of Alexandre Dumas) is due the popular conception that prevails to-day of Cesare Borgia’s sister.

It is questionable whether anything has ever flowed from a distinguished pen in which so many licences have been taken with the history of individuals and of an epoch; in which there is so rich a crop of crude, transpontine absurdities and flagrant, impossible anachronisms. Victor Hugo was a writer of rare gifts, a fertile romancer and a great poet, and it may be unjust to censure him for having taken the fullest advantages of the licences conceded to both. But it would be difficult to censure him too harshly for having—in his Lucrezia Borgia—struck a pose of scholarliness, for having pretended and maintained that his work was honest work founded upon the study of historical evidences. With that piece of charlatanism he deceived the great mass of the unlettered of France and of all Europe into believing that in his tragedy he presented the true Lucrezia Borgia.

“If you do not believe me,” he declared, “read Tommaso Tommasi, read the Diary of Burchard.”

Read, then, that Diary, extending over a period of twenty-three years, from 1483 to 1506, of the Master of Ceremonies of the Vatican (which largely contributes the groundwork of the present history), and the one conclusion to which you will be forced is that Victor Hugo himself had never read it, else he would have hesitated to bid you refer to a work which does not support a single line that he has written.

As for Tommaso Tommasi—oh, the danger of a little learning! Into what quagmires does it not lead those who flaunt it to impress you!

Tommasi’s place among historians is on precisely the same plane as Alexandre Dumas’s. His Vita di Cesare Borgia is on the same historical level as Les Borgias, much of which it supplied. Like Crimes Célèbres, Tommasi’s book is invested with a certain air of being a narrative of sober fact; but like Crimes Célèbres, it is none the less a work of fiction.

This Tommaso Tommasi, whose real name was Gregorio Leti—and it is under this that such works of his as are reprinted are published nowadays—was a most prolific author of the seventeenth century, who, having turned Calvinist, vented in his writings a mordacious hatred of the Papacy and of the religion from which he had seceded. His Life of Cesare Borgia was published in 1670. It enjoyed a considerable vogue, was translated into French, and has been the chief source from which many writers of fiction and some writers of “fact” have drawn for subsequent work to carry forward the ceaseless defamation of the Borgias.

History should be as inexorable as Divine Justice. Before we admit facts, not only should we call for evidence and analyse it when it is forthcoming, but the very sources of such evidence should be examined, that, as far as possible, we may ascertain what degree of credit they deserve. In the study of the history of the Borgias, we repeat, there has been too much acceptance without question, too much taking for granted of matters whose incredibility frequently touches and occasionally oversteps the confines of the impossible.

One man knew Cesare Borgia better, perhaps, than did any other contemporary, of the many who have left more or less valuable records; for the mind of that man was the acutest of its age, one of the acutest Italy and the world have ever known. That man was Niccolô Macchiavelli, Secretary of State to the Signory of Florence. He owed no benefits to Cesare; he was the ambassador of a power that was ever inimical to the Borgias; so that it is not to be dreamt that his judgement suffered from any bias in Cesare’s favour. Yet he accounted Cesare Borgia—as we shall see—the incarnation of an ideal conqueror and ruler; he took Cesare Borgia as the model for his famous work The Prince, written as a grammar of statecraft for the instruction in the art of government of that weakling Giuliano de’Medici.

Macchiavelli pronounces upon Cesare Borgia the following verdict:

“If all the actions of the duke are taken into consideration, it will be seen how great were the foundations he had laid to future power. Upon these I do not think it superfluous to discourse, because I should not know what better precept to lay before a new prince than the example of his actions; and if success did not wait upon what dispositions he had made, that was through no fault of his own, but the result of an extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”

In its proper place shall be considered what else Macchiavelli had to say of Cesare Borgia and what to report of events that he witnessed connected with Cesare Borgia’s career.

Meanwhile, the above summary of Macchiavelli’s judgement is put forward as a justification for the writing of this book, which has for scope to present to you the Cesare Borgia who served as the model for The Prince.

Before doing so, however, there is the rise of the House of Borgia to be traced, and in the first two of the four books into which this history will be divided it is Alexander VI, rather than his son, who will hold the centre of the stage.

If the author has a mercy to crave of his critics, it is that they will not impute it to him that he has set out with the express aim of “whitewashing”—as the term goes—the family of Borgia. To whitewash is to overlay, to mask the original fabric under a superadded surface. Too much superadding has there been here already. By your leave, all shall be stripped away. The grime shall be removed and the foulness of inference, of surmise, of deliberate and cold-blooded malice, with which centuries of scribblers, idle, fantastic, sensational, or venal, have coated the substance of known facts.

But the grime shall be preserved and analysed side by side with the actual substance, that you may judge if out of zeal to remove the former any of the latter shall have been included in the scraping.

The author expresses his indebtedness to the following works which, amongst others, have been studied for the purposes of the present history:

  Alvisi, Odoardo, Cesare Borgia, Duca di Romagna.  Imola, 1878.
  Auton, Jean d’, Chroniques de Louis XII (Soc. de l’Hist. de France).
      Paris, 1889.
  Baldi, Bernardino, Della Vita e Fatti di Guidobaldo.  Milano, 1821.
  Barthélemy, Charles, Erreurs et Mensonges Historiques.  Paris, 1873.
  Bernardi, Andrea, Cronache Forlivese, 1476-1517.  Bologna, 1897.
  Bonnaffé, Edmond, Inventaire de la Duchesse de Valentinois, Paris,
  Bonoli, Paolo, Istorie della Città di Forli.  Forli, 1661.
  Bourdeilles, Pierre, Vie des Hommes Illustres.  Leyde, 1666.
  Brown, Rawdon, Ragguagli Sulla Vita e sulle Opere di Marino Sanuto.
      Venezia, 1837.
  Buonaccorsi, Biagio, Diario.  Firenze, 1568.
  Burchard, Joannes, Diarium, sive Rerum Urbanarum Commentarii.
     (Edited by L. Thuasne.) Paris, 1885.
  Burckhardt, Jacob, Der Cultur der Renaissance in Italien.  Basel, 1860.
  Castiglione, Baldassare, Il Cortigiano.  Firenze, 1885.
  Chapelles, Grillon des, Esquisses Biographiques.  Paris, 1862.
  Cerri, Domenico, Borgia.  Tonino, 1857.
  Clementini, Cesare, Raccolto Istorico delle Fondatione di Rimino.
      Rimini, 1617.
  Corio, Bernardino, Storia di Milano.  Milano, 1885.
  Corvo, Baron, Chronicles of the House of Borgia.  London, 1901.
  Espinois, Henri de l’, Le Pape Alexandre VI (in the Revue des Questions
      Historiques, Vol. XXIX).  Paris, 1881.
  Giovio, Paolo, La Vita di Dicenove Uomini Illustri.  Venetia, 1561.
  Giovio, Paolo, Delle Istorie del Suo Tempo.  Venetia, 1608.
  Giustiniani, Antonio, Dispacci, 1502-1505.  (Edited by Pasquale Villari.)
      Firenze, 1876.
  Granata, F., Storia Civile di Capua.  1752.
  Gregorovius, Ferdinand, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter.
      Stuttgart, 1889.
  Gregorovius, Ferdinand, Lacrezia Borgia (Italian translation).  Firenze,
  Guicciardini, Francesco, Istoria d’Italia.  Milan, 1803.
  Guingené, P. L., Histoire Littéraire d’Italie.  Milano, 1820.
  Infessura, Stefano, Diarum Rerum Romanum.  (Edited by 0. Tommassini.)
      Roma, 1887.
  Leonetti, A., Papa Alessandro VI.  Bologna, 1880.
  Leti, Gregorio (“Tommaso Tommasi”), Vita di Cesare Borgia, Milano, 1851.
  Lucaire, Achille, Alain le Grand, Sire d’Albret.  Paris, 1877.
  Macchiavelli, Niccolô, Il Principe.  Torino, 1853.
  Macchiavelli, Niccolô, Le Istorie Fiorentine.  Firenze, 1848.
  Macchiavelli, Niccolô, Opere Minori.  Firenze, 1852.
  Matarazzo, Francesco, Cronaca della Città di Perugia, 1492-1503.
      (Edited by F. Bonaini and F. Polidori.) In Archivio Storico
      Italiano, Firenze, 1851.
  Panvinio, Onofrio, Le Vite dei Pontefici.  Venezia, 1730.
  Pascale, Aq., Racconto del Sacco di Capova.  Napoli, 1632.
  Righi, B., Annali di Faenza.  Faenza, 1841.
  Sanazzaro, Opere.  Padua, 1723.
  Sanuto Marino, Diarii, Vols. I to V. (Edited by F. Stefani.) Venice,
  Tartt, W. M., Pandolfo Collenuccio, Memoirs connected with his life.
  “Tommaso Tommasi” (Gregorio Leti), Vita di Cesare Borgia.  1789.
  Varchi, Benedetto, Storia Fiorentina.  Florence, 1858.
  Visari, Gustavo, Vita degli Artefici.
  Villari, Pasquale, La Storia di Girolamo Savonarola, etc.  Florence,
  Villari, Pasquale, Niccolò Machiavelli e I suoi Tempi.  Milano, 1895.
  Yriarte, Charles, La Vie de César Borgia.  Paris, 1889.
  Yriarte, Charles, Autour des Borgia.  Paris, 1891.
  Zurita, Geronimo, Historia del Rey Don Hernando el Catolico (in Anales).
      Çaragoça, 1610.

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