Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Borgias and Their Enemies, by Christopher Hibbert

The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519, by Christopher Hibbert

The Borgia family name today is largely synonymous with immorality and nepotism. The rise to power of Rodrigo Borgia culminating in his being elected Pope in 1492 is when this definition was earned and the topic of this book. Rodrigo was described as having "the most obscene manners, hypocrisy, immodesty, mendacity, infidelity, profanity, insatiable greed, unrestrained ambition, a predilection for viciousness that was worse than barbaric, and a fervent hunger to exalt his many children, among whom there were several no less repellent than the father." And this is all after he became Pope Alexander VI. All his children were obviously illegitimate (as apparently marriage is the one rule the Church can't ignore), but two in particular became powerful in their own right: his son Cesare was a general and a ruler and the subject of Machiavelli's The Prince, and his daughter Lucrezia became the Duchess of Ferrara.

I'm not a fan of organized religion, and Catholicism in particular I find morally bankrupt, but I was surprised to learn in the 15th century the Church was even more venal than today. Men weren't made cardinals because of their devotion to God or their piety, but how much money they could pay. One of Lucrezia's sons was named the arch-bishop of Milan when he was nine-years-old. Celebrations at the Vatican were excessive, often including courtesans and even devolving into orgies. Interestingly, in some ways this immoral Church was more progressive than the holier-than-thou organization of today. When traveling, Alexander VI would put his daughter Lucrezia in charge of the Vatican, to the point where she actually moved into the papal apartments. I can't imagine the modern Church—against both contraception and abortion and not allowing women to be ordained—permitting a female to effectively control the Catholic hierarchy.

The writing is a bit dry making it difficult to stay engaged at times, but the topic is entertaining enough to keep going. Not the best book I've ever read, but it covers an interesting period in history.

First Sentence:
"You must have heard of this city from others," wrote a visitor to Rome in the middle of the fifteenth century.

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