The Scandalous Reputation of Pope Alexander VI

Melissa Walton, Lake Ginninderra College 2007

Many medieval and renaissance Popes have been charged with criminal and immoral profiles throughout the ages, and none more so than Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borjia. He is often said to be the outstanding symbol of Papal corruption during renaissance times. The symbolism of duplicity that surrounded the name of Pope Alexander VI is, however,one of the most debatable of this innovating age. It could be argued that a distinction ought to be made between the deeds of Pope Alexander VI as Pope, and those deeds committed by him prior to his election. Alexander VI was already sixty one years of age when he was elected to the Papacy. He was Pontiff for a mere eleven years.

The beginning of Pope Alexander’s career was instigated by his uncle, Pope Callixtus III, in 1455, when the future Pope Alexander was twenty years old. Callixtus III, previously Alfonso Borjia, adopted his nephew, Rodrigo Lancol, into the Borgia family. This was an unquestionable act of nepotism. Rodrigo had no prior qualifications and certainly no demonstrated clerical vocation. Nepotism was, however, common enough. It could be argued that this was no more than the age-old Roman custom of patronage, though by modern standards it is unacceptable.

After this, Rodrigo was quickly elevated through different ranks. In 1456 he was named Cardinal Deacon of St. Nicolo in Carcere and, in 1457, rose to Vice-Chancellor of the Roman church (Pastor, p 533). However, after the death of Pope Callixtus III, Rodrigo had no more promotions for nearly 20 years. This illustrates how his family connections were his only tie to power.

When Rodrigo was appointed Vice-Chancellor his greed and lust began to emerge. In 1460, at the age of 29, Rodrigo was heavily criticised by Pope Pius II in a scathing letter of accusation over a very public incident in Sienna; allegedly involved numerous men and women at a brothel. This event is the first of Alexander VI’s scandalous actions to be documented, (Raynaldus Ann. eccl. ad. ann. 1460, n. 31) and is often claimed to show the hypocrisy that Alexander VI came to represent. Pius’ rebuke is curious, however, since it was said that Pius was indebted to Rodrigo for his part in Pius’s election. This would seem to suggest that the rebuke contained some substance, if Rodrigo was in fact counted among Pius’ political supporters.

In 1471, with the death of Pope Paul II and the election of Granesco della Rovere as Pope Sixtus IV, Rodrigo once again began rising in status. Having voted for Sixtus, Rodrigo was quickly rewarded with the title of Cardinal Bishop of Albano and within the next few years Cardinal Bishop of Porto as well as Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. (Pirie)During the pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV, Rodrigo took his most recognized mistress, Vanozza Catanei in an open relationship. Although it was not desirable for clerics to have relationships it was more common and acceptable than would be in present times. Rodrigo had four illegitimate children with Vanozza, including Juan, Caesar, Lucrezia and Jofre. These births however were respectable enough in the eyes of the public, according to Gregorovius Borjia (Lucrezia Borgia 13).

Apart from the letter of Pius II, discussed earlier, and Rodrigo’s four illegitimate children, all of whom resulted from a long-term relationship with Vanozza Catanei, there is no other record of scandalous behaviour during the thirty seven years of Rodrigo’s early career.

However, rumours of corruption and scandal become frequent after Rodrigo’s election as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. The election itself was rumoured to have been won out of Rodroigo’s accumulated wealth. It was said that 17 out of 22 votes were purchased with bribes. However, the only proof of this ever being so was provided in the diary of Johann Burchard, which stated merely that Alexander VI spent a huge amount of money at the time of the election. (Burchard). Although there was never any hard evidence to say that Alexander VI bought his was into the papacy the manner in which individuals were rewarded in prior elections for no reasons indicates some form of bribery. It should be noted that Alexander was not therefore any different than his predecessors. Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici expressed his opinion of the election of Alexander VI with the words: “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all” This statement is from one of the most influential families in Italy and would be likely backed by all supporters of the Medici family, thus showing what a majority of society believed about the newly instated Pope. (Reston, p. 287)

Even so, during at least the first few months of Alexander’s reign he was considered just and competent. This however did not last long. He quickly elevated his son to Cardinal, as well as the brother of Giulia Farnese, a young woman with whom it is said he lived openly. This act of nepotism was closely followed by the politically suitable marriages of his other children. Pope Alexander VI, like many previous political leaders, knew that the marriage and correct placement of family members was the key to maintaining power.

Alexander allegedly had up to twelve children with different women, most of these supposedly when he held the pontificate. However he only ever recognised those conceived with Vanozza (before his election to the Papacy.) Juan, Caesar, Lucrezia and Jofre were lavished with riches and titles. Following his election as Pope, he is said to have taken Giulia Farnese as a mistress within his first year of Pope. Guila was his daughter, Lucrezia’s, close friend, making her exceptionally young in comparison to the now 61-year-old Pope Alexander VI; Together, it was said, they had one daughter, Laura. Within the next years Pope Alexander VI was said to have had another three illegitimate children, Girolamo, Isabella and Pier Luigi, though curiously no mention was made of their maternal heritage.

The death of Pope Alexander VI is supposed to be further evidence of his corruption, since he was clearly hated by his murderers. In 1503, after dining with colleagues and family members, Pope Alexander VI became seriously ill and soon after died. Many people, including his son, also became ill at the time, starting rumours of a poisoned meal. However, there were no other deaths from people who attended the banquet and, considering the Pope’s age of seventy three, the claims were never investigated further. Small factors such as this combined, with numerous other incidents do nevertheless fuel the idea that the Pope was associated with dealings that both the Catholic public and other clergy did not agree with. (John Burchard, Diaries 1483–1492 translation: A.H. Matthew, London, 1910)

It is certainly difficult to uncover any real evidence that would condemn Pope Alexander VI as scandalous and corrupt, even though his reputation was continually battered by years of rumours and gossip. It should be remembered that corruption, in the modern meaning of the word, was something that could be identified in many areas of life in Italy of the Renaissance. Alexander VI may have been no worse then any other religious man at the time. He did, however, suffer under accusations of corruption and immorality. Although overshadowed by his colourful reputation, Pope Alexander was ambitious for the restoration of Papal authority in the Papal States. This, in itself, was a certain guarantee for the creation of political enemies and scandalous gossip.


Burchard, John, 1910 Diaries 1483–1492 translation: A.H. Matthew, London..

Pastor, History of the Popes, pg. 533, English Translation.

Pirie, Valerie , The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

Reston, James, 2005, Dogs of God, New York, Anchor Books, NY,