Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance Italy’

Machiavelli’s Role Model

Posted in General, On This Day on August 11th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 6 Comments

Donald Trump could have warned the College of Cardinals about cheap Hispanic labor. However, on this day in 1492, the College elected Roderigo Borja as Pope. Obviously, the Italian boys were not so eager to have the job. Their bribes were only half as much as Roderigo’s, and Roderigo was willing to assimilate. His mistresses were Italian, and he even adopted a more Italian pronunciation of his surname: Borgia. (But his green card would have identified him as Pope Alexander VI.)

But as Donald Trump could have warned them, you let one of them in….Yes, Roderigo had a big family; and with six children, a Pope can’t get by just from skimming the profits of bingo nights. His daughter Lucretia was attractive, so he had no trouble arranging three lucrative marriages for her–and he oversaw her becoming a widow in time for the next marriage. (Annulments took too long, even for a Pope’s daughter.) Then, there was the irrepressible Cesare. Dad made him a cardinal when Cesare was 17, but the boy showed secular interests: murder, pillage and conquering all of Italy. Well, Roderigo could hardly refuse his son (especially if the son might kill him), and the Pope actually liked the idea of Italy as a family heirloom.

Such a conquest was, however, a rather daunting goal. The Italian city states were always at war, but the wars barely amounted to misdemeanors. Ferrara would seize an acre from Rimini, and Rimini might retaliate by defacing a fresco. And the Papal States definitely were not supposed to attack anyone. But Roderigo was not much for etiquette. (For instance, he referred to his children as his children; every other pope pretended that his spawn were only nephews and nieces.) He invested Cesare with the full military resources of the Papal States (Stop laughing; you could buy a lot of mercenaries with purloined Church funds.) But, yes, that would not be enough to quickly conquer the peninsula.

Fortunately, the Pope was a man of faith: he fervently believed in his own craftiness and everyone else’s gullibility. So, Roderigo encouraged the King of France to invade Italy. Once the French invaded in 1494, the Pope then began encouraging Spain to defend its possessions in Southern Italy. Roderigo was even negotiating with the Ottoman Empire. Somehow, he expected to play everyone off against each other and end up with all of Italy. He might have even succeeded but for one miscalculation. Seventy-year-old men have a tendency to die, and in 1503 men usually died at 45. Roderigo had beaten the actuarial table but he couldn’t do it indefinitely. Without Dad, Cesare was without an empire and Lucretia was stuck in her third marriage.

Nonetheless, Roderigo definitely left an legacy. The name Borgia is still remembered. And Spain, allied with the Holy Roman Empire, would be fighting France over the control of Italy for another 30 years. In fact, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire were so preoccupied with Italian politics that when a German theology professor complained about the Church’s corruption, no one paid any attention to Martin Luther (except the population of Northern Europe).

On This Day in 1498….

Posted in General, On This Day on May 23rd, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Alexander VI was the type of Pope whom you would expect to die of syphilis. He was the personification of every vice and most crimes. One could concede that he was a doting father to his illegitimate offspring; unfortunately, those children happened to be Cesare and Lucretia Borgia.

By contrast, Friar Girolama Savonarola was a man of impeccable virtue who sought to restore morality to a corrupt Church and a decadent society. If given the choice between the cankerous Alexander VI and the austere Savonarola, any intelligent person would be writing fan letters to the Pope.

Savonarola was a Dominican, an order of monks that distinguished themselves for fanaticism and bigotry.  (Guess who ran the Spanish Inquisition?)  Hoping to do as much in Italy, he set up a repressive theocracy in Florence.  Much of his social agenda was to drag Florence back to the Middle Ages. His goons went from door to door, collecting or confiscating “vanities”–paintings and books deemed too secular, jewelry and even colorful clothing. These forbidden items were publicly burned in ceremonies called “bonfires of the vanities.” The kindling included works by Botticelli.

Savonarola was a spell-binding orator who exploited fatigue with Medici rule and popular disdain with the conspicuous corruption in the Church. It is remarkable that just two years after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Savonarola inspired and led a popular uprising that would drive the Medici out of Florence.

Although the Medici were pushovers, Alexander VI was not. He deeply resented Savonarola’s attacks. The Pope was a Borgia, so he wasn’t the passive type. Although he could easily have arranged for an accident–say food poisoning–for Savonarola, the Pope was going to make an example of his critic.

Apparently, criticizing a Pope can be heresy and so Savonarola was brought to trial.  The Dominican friar demonstrated his usual tact–none–before the tribunal of Alexander’s appointees.  So condemning him was effortless.  Indeed, one form of execution seemed insufficent.  Savonarola was simultaneously hanged and burned for heresy.   His theocracy ended with him–on this day in 1498.

If Savonarola made any mistake, it was his timing. He knew that the Medici were weak and fumbling, so perhaps he should have waited until one was Pope. Professor Luther did.