Borgia History Written in Blood

Alexander VI by Pinturicchio, fresco from the Borgia apartment

Alexander VI

Cesare Borgia, Melone

Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia 1431-1503) manipulated events and people like pawns on a chessboard while advancing his fortune, writing in blood the place his family holds in history.  Unchecked in their greed for power, lands and other wealth, his sons Cesare and Juan, carried out the business of the church in a famously ruthless manner meant to instill fear, ensuring their rivals would consider carefully before challenging such authority.

But on occasion, miscalculation would unravel the elaborate schemes, the end result often times costing more than a marriage of alliances or a cardinal’s elevation to higher office.  Case-in-point, the King of France mounting an invasion disguised as a crusade, and the prisoner/prince, Sultan Cem of the Ottoman Empire.

Charles VIII of France

Prince Cem, Bellini











Rodrigo’s alliances with the many principalities of Italy were constantly at risk.  Charles VIII, King of France, received a request from the Pope to assist his army during an uprising in Milan waged by different claimants to the throne.  All too willing to invade Italy under the guise of a crusade against the Turks, the King accepted the pretext to advance his own agenda.  Before Alexander could realize Charles’ duality, French armies were pouring over the Alps, aligning with cardinals against the Vatican, and positioning to overtake Rome in order to depose the Pope for his many real and imagined transgressions.

Charles VIII in Rome

Pope Alexander did have a bargaining chip, the displaced Prince Cem of the Ottoman Empire.  The Sultan Bayezid willingly paid the papacy 120,000 crowns annually, equal to all the sources of papal revenue, to keep his brother as a perpetual guest, anywhere except his homeland.

Sultan Mehmed II, Cem's father, Bellini

At the death of their father, Mehmed II the Conqueror, the brothers fought for control of the Turkish Empire.  Prince Cem proposed dividing the territory between them, but Islamic law allows for only one supreme ruler, and Prince Bayezid furiously rejected the proposal by marching on Bursa where Cem had established the capital of his kingdom.  The decisive battle took place outside of Yenisehir, but Cem did not prevail and fled with his family to Egypt, finding protection with the ruling family.

While in Cairo, Cem received a letter from his brother offering him one million Akces (the Ottoman currency) to dissuade him from competing for the throne.  Rejecting this offer, the following year another campaign was mounted, but again defeated.  Unable to return to Egypt, the surrounding territories now controlled by Bayezid, the Prince and a few followers eventually made their way to the Island of Rhodes.

Pierre d’Aubusson, grandmaster of the Knights of St. John, welcomed him to the island, seeing this as a way to thwart the advance of the Ottoman Empire.  In return for this hospitality, Cem offered perpetual peace between the Ottomans and Christendom in support for his cause.  The Knights eventually turned against him when Sultan Bayezid paid them large amounts to keep his brother captive. He was sent to the castle of  d’Aubusson in France, where Sultan Bayezid sent a message requesting his brother be kept there and offering as compensation 40,000 in gold annually for his brother’s expenses.

Prince Cem, Ancona, Blessing the Fleet, 1464, Pinturicchio fresco

Custody of the prisoner soon changed to Pope Innocent VIII in 1489, whose wish was to attempt a new crusade with the Prince.  The Pope tried to convert him to Christianity, but both machinations proved fruitless.  The Sultan was not without his uses; whenever Bayezid threatened to launch a military campaign in the region, the Pope in-turn threatened to release the Pretender.  In exchange for maintaining the custody of Cem, the Sultan paid the papacy (Innocent VIII and Alexander VI) 120,000 crowns, equal to all annual sources of papal revenue combined, and returned the relic of the Holy Lance (aka the Spear of Destiny), allegedly the instrument used to pierce the side of Christ.

While in Italy, the Prince befriended the children of Pope Alexander, Cesare and Juan, who were fond of imitating Cem by dressing in a similarly exotic Turkish costume, consequently scandalizing the Roman church.

Disputation, St. Catherine, Pinturicchio, Borgia Apartments

Frescos in the Borgia apartment at the Vatican executed by the deaf painter, Pinturicchio, portray many members of the Vatican court in classic storylines.   A depiction of St. Catherine of Alexandria holding a theological discussion with fifty philosophers at council, convoked by the Emperor Maximian, contains the images of Lucrezia Borgia and her brothers Cesare and Juan. On the far left is the stately Sultan Cem on horseback, his countenance reflecting his regal pedigree.   We have plenty of evidence of how “el Gran Turco” struck the fancy of the Romans.  Chronicles of the time, letters and diaries of Ambassadors, are full of descriptions of his dress and person, and of the gay hunting parties the Pope used to give in his honor.  Mantegna has left a graphic description of his appearance in a letter written from Rome in 1485, in which he speaks of his fierce aspect, his wonderful seat on a horse, and his turban made of “thirty thousand ells of fine linen.”

French Troops entering Naples, 1495

Pope Alexander reached an agreement with France in 1495, sending Cesare as legate to Naples to deliver the Sultan and the principality of Civitavecchia.

Prince Cem died in Capua less than a month after the exchange with King Charles VIII, rumor was poison brought his demise.  Sultan Bayezid declared national mourning for three days, requesting Cem’s body for a Muslim funeral.  Not until four years after the Prince’s death was his body brought to the Ottoman lands.  He was eventually buried in Bursa.

Watch a preview of the Borgias and see history that was written in blood.

For more posts on the Borgias.

Many thanks to Three Pipe Problem for his invaluable and accurate information.



Filed under April

5 responses to “Borgia History Written in Blood

  1. Nice summary of the history surrounding this infamous family! You’ve likely seen my post that looked at art historical aspects of the new show 🙂

    Just one clarification – that Bellini image is his famous portrait of Sultan Mehmet II – made in 1480 – the NGL listing states it is believed to be a badly preserved original, or early copy – but not Cem(correct Turkish spelling)

    Kind Regards

  2. Thank you for your information! Sometimes it is difficult to verify attributions and I appreciate your accuracy. Always enjoy your blog and the experience you share.
    Best Wishes to you-

  3. Pingback: Museum Monday | This write life

  4. Otto Zutz Gente - Isaac

    Generally I do not read post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very great article.

  5. Why thank you Otto. I appreciate the history of the Borgias and their influence on the arts. Do you watch the show?

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