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Alexander VI - Felled By Malaria

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Alexander VIBorgia poison is almost certain to figure largely in any Renaissance novel. It does not figure in history. Yet, though hostile exaggeration and downright lies did much to create it, there was unfortunately, some basis in fact for the miasma of scandal which surrounds the name of Alexander VI.

Rodrigo Borgia Lanzol was born at Xativa in Spain on January 1, 1431. His mother was the sister of Pope Calixtus III. A cardinal at twenty-five, Rodrigo reached eagerly for the ecclesiastical plums his uncle shook down for him. His eagerness did not extend to ecclesiastical morals. Though rebuked by Pius II, young Rodrigo continued to live evilly.

Such was the man the cardinals elected in answer to poor Innocent's plea that they elect a better pope. Yet Rodrigo's election was hailed by the Romans with enthusiasm. Alexander VI, as Rodrigo chose to be called, was still a fine figure of a man when elected at the age of sixty-one. He was talented, generous, a wise patron of art. He performed the exterior ceremonies of his office with decorum and dispatched the routine business of the papacy with ability. He promoted peace between Spain and Portugal, putting a rein on their fierce competition for empire by his line of demarcation. He treated Jewish refugees from Spain with kindness. In Rome he made considerable improvements and did much for the university.

Alexander had to face a difficult problem when the French king, Charles VIII, came storming down into Italy to make good his claim to Naples. It was a touchy moment for Alexander when the French approached Rome. His enemies--Giuliano della Revere, the Orsini, Savonarola--clamored for his deposition as a simoniacal prelate. But Alexander, no fool when it came to diplomacy, outmaneuvered them all and escaped scot-free from the French menace. He was not done with Savonarola. The friar of San Marco continued to denounce Alexander, but in 1498 the people of Florence turned against him and put the bold preacher to death.

There was a moment when it looked as if Alexander might turn over a new leaf. One night his favorite son, Juan, disappeared after a party. After days of anxious search, his body, pierced with wounds, was fished from the Tiber. The grief-stricken old Pope was crushed and gave much thought to reform. A commission drew up a plan full of promise. But the mood passed, and soon Alexander was deep in plans to push his son Caesar's career.

Caesar abandoned the ecclesiastical state (though a cardinal, he was not a priest) and to him Alexander allotted the turbulent semi-independent northern section of the Papal States known as Romagna. Caesar smashed his way into his duchy and held it with a mixture of skill, energy, and ruthlessness which made him Machiavelli's idol. But his activity was in vain. His sickness and the Pope's death were to rob him of a principality.

After dining at a cardinal's villa the Pope and Caesar defied the treacherous night air of a Roman August. Soon both were down with malaria. Caesar managed to pull through, but Alexander, now seventy-three, succumbed. It was six o'clock on August 13 that Alexander VI went to meet Him as his judge Whose vicar on earth he had been.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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