|Charles VIII of France|
The Controversy DeepensCharles VIII determined to make good his claim to the throne of Naples and during 1493 summonsed a commission at Tours to validate his intention to storm into Italy. He also intended to call a council calling for the deposition of Alexander VI on the grounds of simony[i]. This idea had been planted in his head by della Rovere, who had come to France deliberately to find allies to destroy Rodrigo.
Della Rovere frequently appears unbalanced in his detestation of the Borgia family. This time he claimed that a pope;
‘So full of vices, so abominable in the eyes of the world’[ii]
must be removed. Della Rovere was not disturbed by the possibility of creating another schism[iii] in the church and his ambitions led to four years of war in Italy[iv]. Charles was impressionable and was subjugated by this forceful prince of the church[v].
|Bianca Maria Sforza|
Charles’ planned invasion was assisted by the uncertainties in the Sforza family where Ludovico had refused to resign his regency when Gian Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, came of age. Gian Galeazzo’s wife Isabella[vi] complained to her grandfather Ferrante of Naples. Ferrante’s violent response convinced Ludovico that safety lay in deposing his opponent.
Ludovico allied himself with Ferrante’s disaffected nobles and invited Charles into Italy[vii]. In October 1494 Ludovico Sforza finally procured the ducal title for himself after providing a dowry for his niece Bianca Maria, who was marrying the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian.
In September 1494 a French army of 60,000 crossed the Alps. A panicking Rodrigo allied the church with Florence and Naples, the alliance quickly fell apart.
Since 1490 Savonarola
had been preaching in Florence protesting corruption in the church and
demanding reform; his calls were ignored by the rulers of the city and by
Rodrigo. On 9th November 1494 the de’ Medicis were expelled from
Florence and a republican government was established. The French were invited
in to the city.
|French troops enter Florence|
Charles’ troops then marched on Rome which fell, unresisting, to the French. Their armed parade took six hours to enter the city, including 36 cannon on wheels. The pressure to maintain the invaders was heavy;
‘Requisitions are fearful, murders innumerable, one hears nothing but moaning and weeping. In all the memory of man the Church has never been in such an evil plight.’[viii]
|French troops enter Naples|
Rodrigo refused to hand over Castel Sant’Angelo or invest Charles with the throne of Naples, although he did give Charles right of passage through Naples territory. Despite attempts by della Rovere to push Charles into deposing Rodrigo, Charles was more focussed on his final objective, Naples.
Alfonso abdicated and entered a monastery; his son Ferrante scarpered whilst the French sacked Naples and ravaged her territories. It was Spain which organised resistance; worried about the French military presence in Italy; Ferdinand of Aragon offered his daughter Johanna[ix] as a bride for Maximilian’s son Philip.
The following year saw Spain and the Holy Roman Empire joined in alliance with the papacy and Milan and later Venice[x]. Savonarola’s enemies were manifest and included Ludovico Sforza who wanted Florence to join the Holy League, a move opposed by Savonarola.
In Florence, Savonarola’s teachings inspired bonfires on which the Florentines would burn paintings, valuables, clothes and jewellery. Bands of children scoured Florence for vanities to burn. Like Zamometic before him, Savonarola’s call for reformation of the manifold iniquities of the church fell on deaf ears.
‘Popes and prelates speak against pride and ambition and they are plunged in it up to their ears. They preach chastity and keep mistresses…..They think only of the world and worldly things; they care nothing for souls.’[xi]
It was when Savonarola hailed Charles VIII as an instrument of reform sent by God that he was seen as really dangerous by the authorities. Rodrigo did nothing to silence the friar’s writings, although he was forbidden to preach.
|Battle of Fornova|
The French meanwhile had made themselves hated in Naples and marched homewards. They fought the league, under the command of Francesco II Gonzaga of Mantua; at Fornovo[xii]. The battle on 6th July 1495 was indecisive and the French continued their retreat. Alfonso and Ferrante popped back into Naples and resumed their rule.
End of a Worthy Opponent
Rodrigo was finally moved to excommunicate Savonarola in June 1497. The friar had ignored the ban on his preaching and he ignored the excommunication likewise, celebrating the Missa Solemnis on Christmas Day. Rodrigo demanded that the rulers of Florence either lock Savonarola up, or send him to Rome; if not he would lay Florence under an interdict.
In response Savonarola wrote to Rodrigo;
‘I can no longer place any faith in Your Holiness, but must trust myself wholly to Him who chooses the weak things of this world to confound the strong. Your Holiness is well advised to make immediate provisions for your own salvation.’[xiii]
|Death of Savonarola|
He also turned on the Florentine Signoria; but Savonarola’s supporters were wearying, worn down by bad harvests and broken promises. Charles VIII promised to return Pisa to Florence but had then reneged and the Florentines were now caught up in a war against their former satellite.
In May 1498 Savonarola was arrested and tortured and then hung in chains and burned.
‘Part of their bodies remained hanging to the chains, a quantity of stones were thrown to make them fall, as there was the fear of the people getting hold of them; and then the hangman….hacked down the post and burned it on the ground…..stirring the fire up over the dead bodies so that the very last bits were burned.’[xiv]
Savonarola was freed from the fear of purgatory as Rodrigo had shown mercy to his adversary and granted Savonarola a plenary indulgence.
Death of a Son
|Painting believed to be of Juan Borgia|
On 14th June1497 Rodrigo’s favourite son Juan was murdered after dining with Cesare at his mother’s house. Juan’s dead body was found in the Tiber[xv];
‘On learning that the duke was dead and had been thrown like dung into the river, the pope was deeply moved and shut himself away in a room in grief and anguish of the heart, weeping most bitterly.’[xvi]
And the rumour mill cited a jealous Cesare as being involved in his brother’s death[xvii].
Juan’s brother Joffré had reason to wish Juan dead, as Juan had bedded his wife Sancha. There was no shortage of suspects which included the Sforzas, Giovanni, Ascanio and Gian Galeazzo, not to mention the Duke of Urbino[xviii] and the Orsini. No-one was ever convicted of the murder of the pope’s beloved son.
Following Juan’s death and a period of introspection, Rodrigo announced the setting up of a commission to reform the church claiming, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity at the time;
‘We will begin the reform with ourselves and so proceed through all levels of the church till the whole work is accomplished.’[xix]
The commission produced little of any lasting value; cardinals were to have their income of 6,000 ducats per annum[xx] reduced along with their households which should number no more than 80 persons, of which at least 12 should be in holy orders. Mounted escorts were to be reduced to 30, cardinals were to eat more abstemiously, cease attending theatricals, tournaments and were no longer to employ youths as body servants.
In addition all concubines were to be dismissed immediately; here Rodrigo lost interest. The proposed bull In apostolicae sedis specular was never published and the question of reform was dropped. A chance to alter some of the abuses at the pinnacle of the church was lost and the path to the reformation continued apace.
A Second Marriage
|Coin showing head of Giovanni Sforza|
Cesare seems to have been prime mover in persuading his father to annul his sister’s marriage to a scion of the Sforza family on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage; a charge that Giovanni Sforza denied vehemently, writing to his cousin Ascanio;
‘I do not want to agree to this dissolution for no man under God could do so, and even were I to give my consent it would be invalid owing to things that have passed between me and Madonna Lucrezia as I explained……[to] the most illustrious Lord Duke [of Milan].’[xxi]
There was also of course the question of returning Lucrezia’s dowry of 30,000 florins[xxii]. Giovanni put out the rumour that the pope was demanding the return of his daughter to bed her himself. The rumour was given credence by the vices of his sons and soon the wags in Rome added to the tale; the late Juan de Borgia and his brother Cesare were also indicted with the crime of incest. Nevertheless Giovanni’s wishes were ignored, the annulment proceeded and the dowry was returned.
The biddable Lucrezia was secretly married on the 21st July 1498 to Alfonso of Aragon, the illegitimate son of Alfonso of Naples. Alfonso was Duke of Bisceglie and Prince of Salerno.
At the Court of the Borgia – Johan Burchard, Folio Society 1990
Italian Dynasties – Edward Burman, Equation 1989
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
Scourge and Fire – Lauro Martines, Jonathan Cape 2006
The Borgias – GJ Meyer, Bantam 2013
A History of Venice – John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books 1982
Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011
A Renaissance Tapestry – Kate Simon, Harrap 1988
The March of Folly – Barbara Tuchman, Cardinal 1990
[i] Trading in sacred objects
[ii] The March of Folly - Tuchman
[iv] As pope the rigours of war on his subjects did not worry della Rovere; the most war-like of popes
[vi] Alfonso of Naples’ daughter
[viii] The March of Folly - Tuchman
[ix] Known as Johanna the Mad; Johanna was Katherine of Aragon’s sister
[xi] The March of Folly - Tuchman
[xii] In Lombardy
[xiii] The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici - Hibbert
[xv] The title was inherited by his son Juan de Borja y Enriquez,
[xvi] At the Court of the Borgia - Burchard
[xvii] Although he has been absolved of the crime by historians
[xviii] One of the della Rovere family
[xix] The March of Folly - Tuchman
[xxi] Lucrezia Borgia - Erlanger