Poisoning might be a sure and fast way of getting money, but it also allows Pope Alexander VI many political manoeuvres, such as getting rid of a dangerous hostage, like Djem, brother to the Sultan.
Djem, son of Mahomet II and former governor of Karamania, was captured by the Knights of Rhodes, who gave him to the Holy Father. The Pope kept him hostage, in guarantee of the Sultan’s neutrality.
Djem, half-free and half-prisoner, leads an agreeable life in Rome, punctuated by feasts and pleasures in all of the city’s palaces. One day, he even rides on horseback, wearing a turban and dressed in a tunic, at the head of a solemn procession, on its way to Saint-Jean of Latran.
This must have been a curious sight. A religious procession led by Sultan Djem and the Supreme Commander of the Armies, Caesar Borgia, piously followed by the entire Vatican court, including Alexander VI.
Once at the church, Djem alights from his horse and penetrates the temple with the procession. The people of Rome, although accustomed to mad extravangances, are highly indignant about such a profanation. However, they quieten down fairly quickly, in fear of Caesar Borgia’s henchmen.
Meanwhile, the unlucky Djem – like a precious object to be exchanged – is given by the Pope to Charles VIII, some time later. Charles hopes to use Djem to influence Turkey.
Upon the entrance of the French king into Capua, Djem comes down with a headache and a sore throat. Over the following days, he feels violent pains in his chest. Incapable of remaining on his horse, he is carried on a litter to Naples. The doctors, unable to do anything for this mysterious illness, cannot heal him.
In such a strained political context between France and the Vatican – Charles VIII has pretensions on Naples and has launched his “expedition” on Italy – Djem’s death is immediately perceived as a poisoning organized by the Pope. In any case, public opinion believes it to be a crime.
But, if Djem really was poisoned by Alexander VI, why did he do it? This is where the political machiavellianism, which flourished just as well at the Vatican court as at the Sublime Porte, made an appearance.
Charles VIII, continuing his triumphal march towards Italy, becomes a dangerous enemy for the mediterranean nations. Once in possession of Djem, why wouldn’t he try to put him on the Turkish throne?
The Pope shares his apprehensions with the Sultan, and asks for the support of his army. Bajazet II agrees to help the Pope and, to remove the idea of using Djem from Charles VIII’s head, he advises Alexander to get rid of the prisoner.
“For the repose and honour of the Holy Father and his own tranquillity, it was good to make Djem die, who is after all mortal and prisoner of His Holiness, and the sooner the better and in whatever way which would please His Holiness: Djem would thereby leave the worries of this life and his soul would pass from this world into a happier world.”
At first glance, this crime does not appear to be profitable for the Pope. Djem dead, he loses the annual income of 400,000 ducats that Bajazet II has to pay him. But, in his letters addressed to the Pope, the Sultan offers him 300,000 ducats to have Djem assassinated.
No trace of such a money transfer exists, but the fact that the Pope tried to negotiate the sale of Djem’s body is troubling, and might confirm the poisoning thesis. Djem’s death – bronchitis transformed into pneumonia, or poisoned food – marks the beginning of the Borgias’ relationship with poison, in people’s minds.
Supreme arbiter of the old rivalries between the Orsinis and the Colonnas, the Pope gets them to agree with each other, by attacking them alternatively.
Cardinal Giambattista Orsini conspired with other lords to debarrass Italy, not of the Holy Father, but of his son. Very active, these lords tried to mount an army of seven hundred armed men and nine thousand foot soldiers. They also undertook negotiations with Florence and Venice to get these two cities to oppose Caesar Borgia.
The Pope hears of the plot but remains affable toward Orsini. He invites him to the end-of-year entertainments.
Reassured about his fate, the Cardinal goes to pay homage to the Pope, a few days later. He is arrested and locked up in the Saint-Ange Castle. Forseeing his destiny, he patiently awaits his death, but Alexander does not order it immediately.
It is a good occasion to fill his treasury, for the prelate is rich. The Pope therefore has all of the riches contained in the Orsini Palace seized. The family and the domestics are thrown out into the street, with no protection, no-one wanting to take the risk of lodging them.
To take care of her son’s food, Orsini’s mother offers a large sum of money and a pearl to Alexander. This is personally carried to the Pope by the Cardinal’s mistress, disguised as a man. Faithful to his word, the Pope gives the prisoner’s mother free access to him, but several days later, on 22 February 1503, the Cardinal dies.
Third part, including more on the Cardinal’s death, tomorrow.