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.