Borgias Never Forgive

I have been neglectful of my Borgia history this year, but The Borgia Chronicles by Mary Hollingsworth has rekindled my interest.  Her book covers the years 1414-1572, and the pages are loaded with art that goes beyond the usual Google search of images.

The Borgia Chronicles, by Mary Hollingsworth

Juan (Giovanni de Candia) Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandia, (1474-June 14, 1497); born in Rome to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and Vannozza dei Cattanei of the House of Candia; and the brother of the famous Cesare.  According to several sources and opinions, Giovanni may be the second son from Pope Alexander VI’s relationship with Vannozza, Cesare being the first born.  These doubts arise from contradictory evidence in Papal Bulls and letters about Cesare’s birth.  Record keeping was a variable practice in the early Renaissance, not being consistent, and subject to the emotional whims of those involved.

Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia, Pinturicchio, from the Secret Borgia Apartments in the Vatican

Juan married Maria Enriquez de Luna in September 1493, the Spanish betrothed of his deceased half-brother, Pedro Luis.  Titles he acquired were Duke of Gandia, Duke of Sessa, Grand Constable of Naples, the Papal Gonfalonier and General Captain and Governor of St. Peters.

The night of June 14, 1497, Cesare and his younger brother dined at their mother’s house.  Leaving as night fell, Juan told his brother that he wanted to go in pursuit of further pleasure before going back to the Vatican palace. He dismissed his servants, except for a footman and a mysterious man in a mask who had been his companion over the past month.  (Johannes Burchard, 1497)

Street Scene in Rome

Riding off towards the Piazza degli Ebrei, Juan told his footman to wait an hour, and if he did not return, to continue on to the Vatican.  Soon after the footman was attacked and badly wounded.  Discovered in a pool of blood, the footman died before the morning and could not report any particulars of the incident.

Juan’s body was recovered from the Tiber River, still fully dressed, with 30 gold ducats untouched in the purse on his belt.  He had been stabbed repeatedly in the body, legs and head.  To the immense grief of the Pope, this act occasioned the heartless epigram by Sannazzaro describing Alexander as a ‘fisher of men’.

Evidence on the death of Juan Borgia

“Amongst others they interrogated a certain Giorgio Schiavo who regularly unloaded his cargos of wood on the banks of the Tiber and, in order to protect his merchandise from thieves, regularly spent the night on his barge in the Tiber.  When he was asked if he had seen anything being thrown into the Tiber on Wednesday night, he replied, so it is said, that he was on his barge that night guarding his wood and, after midnight, had seen two men on foot come down the alley to the left of the Ospedale degli Schiavoni at San Girolamo.  They had walked along the road by the river, looking carefully to the right and left to see if anyone was about but, finding no one, they had returned to the alley.  Shortly afterwards, two other men came out of the same alley and made the same inspection.  Not seeing anything, they signaled to their companions.  A rider on a white horse appeared with a corpse slung over behind him, heads and arms on one side, feet on the other.  The first two men were walking beside the rider in order to keep the corpse from slipping.  The horse was ridden further along to the place where the sewer emptied into the river… the two men on foot then lifted the body, one taking the arms and the other the legs and threw it into the Tiber with as much force as they were capable.  The man on the horse asked if the operation had worked and they answered, “Yes, Lord.”  Then, watching the river intently, and seeing something on the surface, the man on the horse asked the others what was the black thing floating in the river, they replied that it was the coat, so one of them had thrown stones to make it sink.  Once that was done all five men left.

Johannes Burchard, Liber notarum, pg 234-5

Anonymous engraving at the height of Cesare’s power

Who Killed the Duke of Gandia?

Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia, was not much liked either in Spain – where he struck one contemporary as ‘an avaricious youth, self-important, proud, vicious and irrational’ –  or in Rome, where he had made many enemies, not least among the husbands of his many mistresses.

One of his conquests was reputed to be his sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  A letter was found in his apartments warning him that a Roman friend was actually his enemy.  One of the most obvious suspects in his murder was Giovanni Sforza, whose fury at the pope’s decision to annul his marriage to Lucrezia Borgia was widely known; but he was fortunately in Milan at the time, and his brother, Galeazzo – another suspect – could prove he had never left Pesaro.  Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who had had a violent argument with the Duke a few days before his death, was also suspected, but Alexander VI insisted ‘God forbid that I should have such terrible suspicions of someone I have always loved as a brother’ and continued to behave in a friendly manner towards his old ally.  Another man with a grudge against the Duke was Guidobaldo della Rovere, whom the pope had refused to ransom after the Battle of Soriano.

Two days later, it was being openly said that the brother of the Lord of Pesar/Galeazzo Sforza was guilty of the murder, but nobody now believes that.  There are so many different rumors but as every conversation about this matter is dangerous, I would leave it to those to whom it concerns.  The pope understandably is most distressed and plans to change his life and become quite a different man… yesterday in consistory he said he intended to reform the Church and has appointed cardinals to oversee this…  Moreover he also announced at the said consistory that he wanted to equip 40 squadrons of soldiers and won’t include a single Roman baron.  It is thought he wants Gonsalvo de Cordoba as Captain-General of the Church who is a brave and noble man, and he promises to do other praiseworthy and virtuous things; we shall see whether he is lying or really inspired.

An anonymous correspondent to Giovanni Bentivoglio, 20 June 1497 (L. von Pastor, History of the Popes, Vol. V, p. 554, Doc. 38).

Miramare Museum, presumed to be Cesare Borgia, unknown artist

Although not proven, there is the possibility that Juan died at the hands of one Antonio Pico della Mirandola whose “house was near the Tiber” and “who also had a young daughter”-which could explain Juan’s remark that he was going to “amuse himself” on his mysterious ride.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, popular history has ascribed the murder to Cesare, the duke’s brother, though he was not among the immediate suspects.  The rumor seems to have emerged somewhat later in the circle around Giovanni Sforza, after he had been forced by Alexander VI to state  publicly that he was impotent – a patent falsehood in order to enable the dissolution of the marriage with Lucrezia.  The Duke of Gandia’s widow, Maria, certainly thought Cesare guilty, and she even commissioned an altarpiece to record this terrible fratricide.

Virgin de los Caballeros Pablo de San Leocadio

Detail of Virgin de los CaballerosCesare Borgia shown stabbing Juan Borgia

Juan’s legacy

Juan and Maria had two children:  Juan Borja y Enriquez (also known as Juan Borgia), who became the 3rd Duke of Gandia, and Francisca de Jesus Borja, who became a nun at a convent in Valladolid.  This Juan was the father of Saint Francis Borgia.

Study of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo da Vinci

An earlier post discussing the Secret Borgia Apartments at the Vatican is available here. Further reading on The Borgias can be found at Three Pipe Problem, with great comparisons of the show against the historical record.  The Showtime link to The Borgias has lots of great items on the history and life of the times with a social media game connected to Facebook.

Thank you for joining me for this post on the death of Juan Borgia.  A review of this season’s show and some minor characters,  Botticelli and Machiavelli, will be forthcoming.



Filed under June

2 responses to “Borgias Never Forgive

  1. Thanks for the fascinating account Mary-Jo! I’ve always been curious whether we actually know for certain that Juan’s masked friend was a man?!

    Interesting volumes always come up – some of them in the public domain – Gregorovius’ book on Lucrezia is quite good an includes archival sources, and Dall’Onda’s biography of Caterina Sforza proved invaluable when trying to get to the bottom of the historical truth of the flashing incident! All the links are at the respective Borgias reviews at 3PP, which your readers can access at the link you provided above.


  2. Thanks for all the info and the links! I love a good read about a subject that isn’t as well known as it should be and has suffered years of bad publicity. Lucrezia needs some good PR!

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