|Leonardo's map of Imola created for Cesare|
Rodrigo and Cesare now intended a new offensive against the warlords of the papal states. For centuries these lands had evaded control from Rome and their rulers went their own way. Successive popes had failed to bring them back to the fold. Cesare was intending to carve out a principality for himself within the papal states; thus making himself secure once his father died.
On 18th November 1499 Cesare returned to Rome in secret; he stayed with Rodrigo for a week and then rode to Imola with. Louis had provided Cesare with 1,800 cavalry and 4,000 infantry, under the command of Yves d’Alègre, to assist in subduing the Romagna and he used these French soldiers and a force of papal troops to take Imola. Cesare also had a loan of 45,000 ducats[i] from the Milan treasury.
On 17th Imola surrendered;
‘This town he [Cesare] assaulted and captured, together with its fortress, seizing and despoiling the sons of the late Duke Girolamo Riario[ii], who were rulers of the city and nephews to Cardinal Raffaele Riario[iii]. On that same day Cardinal Riario……..fled to Monterotondo with only a few attendants.’[iv]
Cardinal Riario used the pretext of going hunting to flee the Holy City. A few days later Riario travelled on to Sarzana, where he took refuge. Forli surrendered on 19th December, but Caterina Sforza, who had ruled the city since the death of her husband Giralamo, remained in possession of the citadel.
On the day that Cardinal Riario fled, one of the pope’s musicians attempted to poison Rodrigo in the hope that Rodrigo’s death would free Forli and Imola from Cesare’s rule.
‘On that evening, a certain Tomasino of Forli, one of the pope’s musicians, was seized with a companion and taken to the castel Sant Angelo where they were both imprisoned. Tomasino had come to Rome with some poisoned letters that he had rolled up in a reed to present to the pope.’[v]
On 8th December Rodrigo attended mass in the Sistine Chapel; he was accompanied by his nephew, Cardinal Juan de Borgia the elder who had not been seen in public for some time. He was suffering from syphilis and had been for the past two years; syphilis was now reaching epidemic proportions[vi].
The closing weeks of 1499 saw Cesare, with French support, undertake a campaign in northern Italy. The intention was to bring the petty lordships of the Romagna under papal control.
Alexander issued a bull declaring that all the lords of the Romagna had forfeited their cities and many important families were excommunicated; the Riarii, the Malatesta, the Manfredi, the Varani and the Montefeltri, along with Giovanni Sforza. All these lords were declared dispossessed and their lands were to be ruled by a new papal vicar; Cesare Borgia.
|Alexander VI at prayer|
Alexander had nominated 1500 as a jubilee year; pilgrims were expected to come to Rome in their thousands. There were to be penitentiaries on duty throughout the year in St Peter’s, to listen to the pilgrims’ confessions. The doors of the church would be open day and night and a huge chest with three different locks had been installed in the basilica to hold the pilgrims’ offerings.
On the night of 14th January rumour ran riot in Rome; the news that Caterina Sforza had been taken prisoner was greatly pleasing to Rodrigo. Cesare had offered a reward of 10,000 ducats[vii] for Caterina’s capture.
‘The rumour spread through Rome that the fortress of Forli, together with the Countess Caterina Sforza…..had been treacherously and violently captured by Don Cesare Borgia and that everyone else there had been put to the sword.’[viii]
The French demanded a ransom for Caterina which Cesare paid. She was initially imprisoned in the Vatican, but after an escape attempt was moved to the Castel Sant’Angelo[ix]. Having subdued Forli, with French help, Cesare now moved on to Pesaro.
On the 16th January Cardinal Juan de Borgia the younger died; he’d recklessly ridden to Forli to congratulate Cesare, whilst sick, and the fever had worsened. He was buried on 27th without any pomp or ceremony.
On 12th February Lucrezia purchased the papal fief of Sermoneta for 24,000 ducats[x]; she paid the Apostolic Chamber in cash. The money had undoubtedly come from Rodrigo, so in essence the church was paying to give the fief to Lucrezia.
Return of the Sforza
The French troops were recalled to fight Ludovico Sforza who was nearing Milan with troops loaned by his brother-in-law Maximilian. In early February the Milanese revolted against their French overlords and Ludovico Sforza re-entered his capital in triumph.
Ludovico’s triumph was short lived as his hired Swiss troops refused to fight against Louis’ Swiss troops and returned home. Ludovico and his brother Cardinal Ascanio were taken prisoner and were removed to France following Louis’ victory at Novara on 8th April. The Sforza
heir, the nine year old Francesco Sforza[xi], was taken into Louis’ custody and
was forced into the priesthood.
The attack on Pesaro had to be postponed and Cesare returned to Rome to an ecstatic welcome from his father who ordered that the city turn out to greet the conquering hero, who succumbed to a bad attack of hubris and started considering himself the equal of his namesake Julius Caesar.
‘His Holiness wished to create Don Cesare the Captain-General and Gonfalier of the Holy Roman Church and therefore, on March 29th, he ordered that he should be invested with the Golden Rose.’[xii]
Rodrigo bestowed on his son the Golden Rose, an honour normally reserved for royalty. At one point Cesare’s campaign, to subdue the Romagna, was costing the Holy See half its income; 132,000 ducats[xiii] over a two month period. Fortunately for Cesare’s ambitions, Rodrigo’s reforms had resulted in increased revenues and Rodrigo was able to send money to Hungary to aid their fight against the infidel.
The Prince of Rome
Cesare was lord and master of Rome as well as the battlefield. Like his father Cesare loved art and patronised poets and painters. Served by spies and informers, Cesare ably administered Rome, but the death toll was sowing the seeds of his future downfall;
‘Every night four or five murdered men are discovered, bishops, prelates and others, so that all Rome trembles for fear of being murdered by the Duke’[xiv]
wrote the Venetian ambassador. Although skilled in martial arts and strong enough to behead a bull with one blow, Cesare never left his palace unless he wore a mask. This may have been meant as a disguise or to hide the blemishes left on his face by the syphilis.
Around this time Cesare was informed by Charlotte d’Albret that she was pregnant with his child. Charlotte had remained in France, possibly held hostage for Cesare’s good behaviour. On 17th May 1500 Charlotte d’Albret gave birth to a girl who was named Louise.
Cesare was not worried by his wife’s absence; his latest mistress was a Florentine courtesan named Fiametta, but he never remained faithful to any one woman. His proclivities were well-known in Roma and it was rumoured that he had raped Caterina Sforza on numerous occasions since she had been taken captive.
On 24th June Cesare took part in the Vatican’s celebration of the Feast of St John the Baptist. He displayed his bullfighting skills, killing five bulls from horseback and the sixth on foot with a single blow of his sword.
At the Court of the Borgia – Johan Burchard, Folio Society 1990
Lucrezia Borgia – Rachel Erlanger, Michael Joseph 1979
Florence and the Medici – JR Hale, Phoenix Press 2001
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – Christopher Hibbert, Folio Society 2001
The Borgias – Mary Hollingsworth, Quercus Editions 2014
The Borgias – GJ Meyer, Bantam 2013
A History of Venice – John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books 1982
Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011
The March of Folly – Barbara Tuchman, Cardinal 1990
Niccolo’s Smile – Maurizio Viroli, IB Tauris & Company Ltd 2001
[ii] Former Captain-General of the Church and a nephew of Sixtus IV
[iii] A witness to the murder of Giulano de’ Medici; Riario’s uncle was one of the leaders in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Riario was also a relative of Rodrigo’s opponent Cardinal della Rovere
[iv] At the Court of the Borgia - Burchard
[vi] It was brought into Italy in 1494 in the wake of the invading French army
[viii] At the Court of the Borgia - Burchard
[ix] Caterina was released on 30th June 1501 by the French, having been held prisoner on the grounds that she had instigated Tomasino of Forli’s attempt to poison Rodrigo. It is still uncertain whether she was involved in the attempt.
[xii] At the Court of the Borgia – Burchard
[xiv] The March of Folly - Tuchman