Sep 132015


Today might be the birthday (1475) of Cesare Borgia April 1476), Duke of Valentinois, an Italian condottiero (mercenary leader), nobleman, politician, and cardinal, whose fight for power was a major inspiration for The Prince by Machiavelli. He was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503) (Rodrigo Borgia) and his long-term mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. He was the brother of Lucrezia Borgia; Giovanni Borgia (Juan), Duke of Gandia; and Gioffre Borgia, Prince of Squillace. He was half-brother to Don Pedro Luis de Borja and Girolama de Borja, children of unknown mothers.

Like nearly all aspects of Cesare Borgia’s life, the date of his birth is a subject of dispute. He was born in Rome—in either 1475 or 1476—the illegitimate son of Cardinal Roderic Llançol i de Borja, (usually known as Rodrigo Borgia), later Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei, about whom information is sparse. The Borgia family originally came from the Kingdom of Valencia, and rose to prominence during the mid-15th century; Cesare’s grand-uncle Alphonso Borgia (1378–1458), bishop of Valencia, was elected Pope Callixtus III in 1455. Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, was the first pope who openly recognized his children born out of wedlock.

Cesare was initially groomed for a career in the Church. He was made Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15. Following school in Perugia and Pisa, Cesare studied at the Studium Urbis (nowadays Sapienza University of Rome), along with his father’s elevation to the papacy, Cesare was made Cardinal at the age of 18.

Giovanni Borgia

Giovanni Borgia

Alexander VI staked the hopes of the Borgia family in Cesare’s brother, Giovanni, who was made captain general of the military forces of the papacy. Giovanni was assassinated in 1497 in mysterious circumstances. Several contemporaries suggested that Cesare might have been his killer, since Giovanni’s disappearance could finally open to him a long-awaited military career and also solve the jealousy over Sancha of Aragon, wife of Cesare’s younger brother, Gioffre, and mistress to both Cesare and Giovanni. Cesare’s role in the act has never been clear. However, he had no definitive motive, as he was likely to be given a powerful secular position, whether or not his brother lived. It is more likely that Giovanni was killed over a private matter with a rival.


On 17 August 1498, Cesare became the first person in history to resign the cardinalate. On the same day, Louis XII of France named Cesare Duke of Valentinois, and this title, along with his former position as Cardinal of Valencia, explains the nickname “Valentino.” Cesare’s career was founded upon his father’s ability to distribute patronage, along with his alliance with France (reinforced by his marriage with Charlotte d’Albret, sister of John III of Navarre), in the course of the Italian Wars. Louis XII invaded Italy in 1499: after Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had ousted its duke Ludovico Sforza, Cesare accompanied the king in his entrance into Milan.


At this point Alexander decided to profit from the favorable situation and carve out for Cesare a state of his own in northern Italy. To this end, he declared that all his vicars in Romagna and Marche were deposed. Though in theory subject directly to the pope, these rulers had been practically independent or dependent on other states for generations. In the view of the citizens, these vicars were cruel and petty. When Cesare eventually took power, he was viewed by the citizens as a great improvement.

Cesare was appointed commander of the papal armies with a number of Italian mercenaries, supported by 300 cavalry and 4,000 Swiss infantry sent by the king of France. Alexander sent him to capture Imola and Forlì, ruled by Caterina Sforza (mother of the Medici condottiero Giovanni dalle Bande Nere). Despite being deprived of his French troops after the conquest of those two cities, Cesare returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph and to receive the title of Papal Gonfalonier, a high office, from his father. In 1500 the creation of twelve new cardinals granted Alexander enough money for Cesare to hire the condottieri, Vitellozzo Vitelli, Gian Paolo Baglioni, Giulio and Paolo Orsini, and Oliverotto da Fermo, who resumed his campaign in Romagna.


Giovanni Sforza, first husband of Cesare’s sister Lucrezia, was soon ousted from Pesaro; Pandolfo Malatesta lost Rimini; Faenza surrendered, its young lord Astorre III Manfredi who was later drowned in the Tiber river by Cesare’s order. In May 1501 Cesare was created duke of Romagna, then subsequently hired by Florence, he added the lordship of Piombino to his new lands.

While his condottieri took over the siege of Piombino (which ended in 1502), Cesare commanded the French troops in the sieges of Naples and Capua, defended by Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna. On 24 June 1501 his troops stormed the latter, causing the collapse of Aragonese power in southern Italy.

In June 1502 he set out for Marche, where he was able to capture Urbino and Camerino by treason. He planned to conquer Bologna next. However, his condottieri, most notably Vitellozzo Vitelli and the Orsini brothers (Guilio, Paolo and Francesco), feared Cesare’s cruelty and set up a plot against him. Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and Giovanni Maria da Varano returned to Urbino and Camerino, and Fossombrone revolted. The fact that his subjects had enjoyed his rule thus far meant that his opponents had to work much harder than they would have liked. He eventually recalled his loyal generals to Imola, where he waited for his opponents’ loose alliance to collapse. Cesare called for a reconciliation, but imprisoned his condottieri in Senigallia, then called Sinigaglia, a feat described as a “wonderful deceiving” by Paolo Giovio, and had them executed.

Although he was an immensely capable general and statesman, Cesare had trouble maintaining his domain without continued Papal patronage. Niccolò Machiavelli cites Cesare’s dependence on the good will of the papacy, under the control of his father, to be the principal disadvantage of his rule. Machiavelli argued that, had Cesare been able to win the favor of the new pope, he would have been a very successful ruler. The news of his father’s death (1503) arrived when Cesare was planning the conquest of Tuscany. While he was convalescing in Castel Sant’Angelo, his troops controlled the conclave.

Julius II

Julius II

The new pope, Pius III, supported Cesare and reconfirmed him as Gonfalonier; but after a brief pontificate of twenty-six days he died. The Borgias’ deadly enemy, Giuliano Della Rovere, then succeeded by dexterous diplomacy in tricking the weakened Cesare into supporting him by offering him money and continued papal backing for Borgia policies in the Romagna; promises which he disregarded upon election. He was elected as Pope Julius II to the papacy by the near-unanimous vote of the cardinals. Realizing his mistake by then, Cesare tried to correct the situation to his favor, but Julius made sure of his failure at every turn.

Cesare, who was facing the hostility of Ferdinand II of Aragon, was betrayed while in Naples by Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, a man he had considered his ally, and imprisoned there, while his lands were retaken by the papacy. In 1504 he was transferred to Spain and imprisoned first in the Castle of Chinchilla de Montearagón, but after an attempted escape he was moved to the Castle of La Mota, Medina del Campo. He did manage to escape from the Castle of La Mota with assistance, and after running across Santander, Durango and Gipuzkoa, he made it to Pamplona on 3 December 1506, and was much welcomed by King John III of Navarre, who was missing an experienced military commander, ahead of the feared Castilian invasion (1512).

Cesare recaptured Viana, Navarre, then in the hands of forces loyal to the count of Lerín, Ferdinand II of Aragon’s conspiratorial ally in Navarre, but not the castle, which he then besieged. In the early morning of 11 March 1507, an enemy party of knights fled from the castle during a heavy storm. Outraged at the ineffectiveness of the siege, Cesare chased them only to find himself on his own. The party of knights discovered he was alone, and trapped him in an ambush receiving a fatal injury from a spear. He was then stripped of all his luxurious garments, valuables and a leather mask covering half his face (disfigured possibly by syphilis during his late years). He was left lying naked, with just a red tile covering his genitals.

If you have made it this far without confusion you understand the term “Machiavellian.”

Cesare was originally buried in a marbled mausoleum John III had ordered built at the altar of the Church of Santa Maria in Viana, set on one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago. While the circumstances are not well known, the tomb was destroyed some time between 1523 and 1608, during which time Santa María was undergoing renovation and expansion.

Since the Borgias came from Valencia with strong Valencian roots, a classic dish from that region is in order. Paella as we know it today was created in the 19th century, but it is based on centuries old Valencian recipes. Nowadays classic Valencian paella consists of white rice, green beans (bajoqueta and tavella), meat (chicken and rabbit), white beans (garrofón), snails, and seasonings including saffron and rosemary. Seasonal ingredients, such as artichoke hearts, might also be added. The “original” recipe is impossible to know, if there ever was one. Rice plus something or other is a pretty well universal idea. The key component of a paella is that it is made in a large, round, flat, heavy paella pan, and all the ingredients are cooked together in it. I prefer cast iron. The quantities in my recipe are approximate.


Paella Valenciana

Chop 4 chicken drumsticks and 4 thighs into bite-sized pieces (bone in). Chop a small rabbit into bite sized pieces.

Preheat a paella pan over medium-high heat, and then add a small amount of extra virgin olive oil. Add the meat and brown it on all sides. Then lower the heat, cover the pan, and let the meat cook through for about 15 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon once in a while to avoid sticking.

Add a can of white beans with their liquid (or cooked dried beans) and a handful of green beans that have been topped and tailed, but not chopped.

Add 2 cups of water or chicken broth, a handful of small snails in their shells, a sprig of rosemary (or 2), and several strands of saffron (enough to color the liquid). Bring to a strong simmer. Sprinkle in 2 cups of long-grain white rice and maintain the simmer until the rice is cooked. This is a delicate balancing act. You want the liquid to be absorbed by the rice with none left over. But you also do not want the pan to dry out before the rice is cooked. This requires careful attention, adding more liquid if necessary and turning the rice with a wooden spoon so that it cooks evenly and does not stick. Keep testing the rice for doneness. With practice the rice should be cooked just as the last of the liquid is absorbed. A little charring on the bottom is considered a good thing, much favored.

Let the paella rest for about 10 minutes, and then serve it in the pan at table, with a salad of lettuce and tomatoes dressed with olive oil.

May 032014


Today is the birthday of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, Florentine historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer during the Italian Renaissance, which had its birth and flourished in the Florence of Machiavelli’s day. He was an official for many years in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He was a founder of modern political science, and, more specifically, political ethics. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned in the Italian language. He was Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, after the Medici had recovered power and when he no longer held a position of responsibility in government.

“Machiavellian” is now a widely used negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described in The Prince. The book itself gained enormous notoriety and wide readership because the author seemed to be endorsing behavior deemed, even then, as immoral. Sadly, like so many other great thinkers, Machiavelli is often misread and misunderstood. I am not going to try to excuse the fact that he condoned the notion that the ends justify the means. He did say that if you have to murder a few people – or a lot – it was worth it if it produced peace and stability (although you might argue that murder is not the road to a peaceful and stable nation – I do!). The fact is, though, that Machiavelli lived in a time when murdering enemies was the norm among the rich and powerful of Florence. You could think of him, therefore, as a man of his times – making an argument that the political realities of his day were necessary evils. But it is also true that when you read more than just The Prince you can see that Machiavelli was a complex and profound thinker. The irony is that the man himself was far from Machiavellian.

Machiavelli was born in Florence, the third child and first son of a lawyer, Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family are believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice, one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months and who formed the government, or Signoria. However, Machiavelli was never a full citizen of Florence, due to the nature of Florentine citizenship in that time, even under the republican regime.

Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era—popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities often fell from power. Along with the pope and the major cities like Venice and Florence, foreign powers such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Switzerland battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri (mercenary leaders), who changed sides without warning, and the rise and fall of many short-lived governments.

Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric, and Latin. It is thought that he did not learn Greek, even though Florence was at the time one of the centers of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494, Florence restored the republic—expelling the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for sixty years. Shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli was appointed to an office of the second chancery, a medieval writing office which put Machiavelli in charge of the production of official Florentine government documents. Shortly thereafter, he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, he carried out several diplomatic missions: most notably to the papacy in Rome, in the Italian states. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503 he witnessed the brutal reality of the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) and his father, Pope Alexander VI, who were then engaged in the process of trying to bring a large part of central Italy under their possession. The pretext of defending Church interests was used as a partial justification by the Borgias. Other excursions to the court of Louis XII and the Spanish court influenced his writings and appear in The Prince and several other of his non-fiction works.


Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia. He distrusted mercenaries. He explained his distrust in his official reports, and then later in his theoretical works, as being grounded in the fact that mercenaries fought for money and not for any belief in the cause they were fighting for, making their allegiance fickle, and often unreliable when most needed. Instead, he staffed his army with citizens, a policy which proved to be successful many times. Under his command, for example, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509. But his success did not last. In August 1512, the Medici, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato, although many historians have argued that this was due to Piero Soderini’s unwillingness to compromise with the Medici who were holding Prato under siege. In the wake of the siege, Piero Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state and left in exile. This experience would, like Machiavelli’s time in foreign courts and with the Borgias, heavily influence his political writings.

The Florentine city-state and the republic were dissolved, and Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512 by the Medici. In 1513, the Medici accused him of conspiracy against the Medici family and had him imprisoned. Despite having been subjected to torture (“with the rope,” where the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body’s weight, thus dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released after three weeks.

Machiavelli then retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea in Percussina (near San Casciano in Val di Pesa) and devoted himself to study and to the writing of the political treatises that earned his intellectual place in the development of political philosophy and political conduct. Lacking the opportunity to remain directly involved in political matters, Machiavelli began to participate in intellectual groups in Florence and wrote several plays that (unlike most of his works on political theory) were both popular and widely known in his lifetime. Still, politics remained his main passion and, to satisfy this interest, he maintained a well-known correspondence with better politically connected friends, attempting to become involved once again in political life.

In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.


Machiavelli died in 1527 at the age of 58, after receiving his last rites. He is buried at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. An epitaph honoring him is inscribed on his monument. The Latin legend reads: TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM (loosely: “there is no eulogy suitable for so great a name”).

Machiavelli’s best-known book, The Prince (Il Principe), contains several maxims concerning politics, but instead of the more traditional subject of a hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince.” To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully maintain the sociopolitical institutions to which the people are accustomed, whereas a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling – he must first stabilize his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. He asserted that the social benefits of stability and security could be achieved in various ways, including moral corruption. Aside from that, Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. What works for the new prince in the pursuit of peace and prosperity for the state will not work on a personal level. A ruler must be concerned with his public reputation, of course, but also must be willing to act immorally at the right times. Thus, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force and deceit.

Scholars often note that Machiavelli glorifies ruthless practicality in state building—an approach embodied by the saying that “the ends justify the means.” Violence may be necessary for the successful stabilization of power and introduction of new legal institutions. Force may be used to eliminate political rivals, to coerce resistant populations, and to purge the community of other men strong enough of character to rule, who will inevitably attempt to replace the ruler. Hence the term “Machiavellian.”

The Catholic Church banned The Prince, registering it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books), and humanists also viewed the book negatively. Among them was Erasmus of Rotterdam, arguably the greatest humanist of his day. As a treatise, the book’s primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is its fundamental break with political idealism in favor of political realism. The Prince is a manual about acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society, as in Plato’s Republic, is not a model by which a prince can or should be guided.

I find Machiavelli’s philosophy in The Prince and other works perfectly repugnant, but I will say a couple of things in mitigation. First, he was working with the political tools at his disposal. Go back to my post on Lucrezia Borgia (18 April 2014), and you’ll get the point. Second, we have to understand that the acts he described as necessary to secure peace and stability really were immoral in his eyes. But they were in service of the big picture. The goal of the new prince was not self promotion and self enrichment. The new prince was servant to the best interests of the people. In this context Machiavelli posed the ethical dilemma that we still argue about to this day: is it justifiable to torture and kill one person if it will save the lives of thousands? My answer is a firm and unequivocal no. You cannot build a moral state on immorality. Corrupt political methods breed nothing but corruption. If we have learnt nothing else from history we ought to have learnt that one by now.

To commemorate Machiavelli and his home city, I present you with my version of eggs Florentine. “Florentine” in a culinary context means “using spinach.” So, technically, any dish featuring eggs and spinach can be termed “eggs Florentine.” I’ve seen recipes for the dish, for example, that are basically scrambled eggs and spinach. But the classic version is essentially eggs Benedict with the ham replaced with spinach. That is a toasted muffin topped with steamed spinach with a poached egg on top bathed in hollandaise sauce. I prefer to put the muffin (or toast) on the side, because no matter how gently you steam the spinach it always leaks juice which makes anything under it soggy.

I’m not going to give you a formal recipe. If you are an experienced cook you can figure it out from my description and from this picture (I made this for breakfast this morning).


The only tricky part is the hollandaise, which I will be precise about. It’s not complicated to make but you have to know what you are doing. You’ll need a whisk, a double boiler of some sort, egg yolks and butter. A hollandaise is a semi-cooked emulsion of egg and butter, and all emulsions are tricky. You are trying to combine two things that don’t want to mix.

The proportions for hollandaise are ¼ cup of softened or melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a splash of water for each egg yolk. Place the egg yolks in the top of a double boiler on your counter top while heating water in the bottom to a simmer. If you do not have a double boiler suspend a stainless steel or heatproof glass bowl over simmering water so that the bowl does not come in direct contact with the water (otherwise the yolks will scramble). Whisk the yolks, water, and lemon juice together so that you have a smooth mix. Add a small amount of butter, place them over the steaming water and whisk vigorously. As the butter melts and begins to emulsify with the yolks add more butter, a little at a time at first, then increasing the amount as the emulsion forms and the sauce thickens. You should end up with a sauce slightly thicker than heavy cream. Keep it warm whilst you poach the eggs and steam the spinach.

To make the dish, spoon a portion of spinach on a serving plate (I use a lot). Top with a poached egg and pour over it the hollandaise. I get very generous with the sauce too because it goes well with the spinach. Serve with buttered toast.