Voltaire was the first to cast serious doubt on the “biter bit” version of the death of Pope Alexander VI. The drama appeared to be too romanesque to be true, and he takes delight in pointing out its contradictions.
After having reminded everyone that Alexander was too clever a politician to kill nine cardinals in one go, when he could space his crimes, and open these premature successions one after the other, he questions how Caesar managed to pillage the Pope’s palace, the day following the Pope’s death. “Was he enclosed in his mule when he carried away the treasure?”
In fact, we know that he asked Michelotto Corella to go and recuperate the pontifical treasure, consisting of 200,000 ducats in gold and jewels.
Burckard, Alexander VI’s master of ceremonies, does not mention any poison in his diary. We know that we are able to believe the authority of this German bishop who reports, without any commentary, neither praising nor blaming anyone, all of the most atrocious crimes which he had witnessed.
Michelet says: “Burckard’s accounts have this grandiose character of truthful simplicity, which completely reassures. I have read and seen a lot of liars. Lying is not done like this.” It is therefore reasonable to believe Burckard’s story. Here is my English translation of the literal French translation of Burckard’s account. I hope that we don’t lose too much of it in this multi-lingual process.
“On Saturday 12 August in the morning, the Pope felt ill; the twenty-first or the twenty-second hour, the fever came and remained steady. The 15 August, roughly thirteen ounces of blood were drawn from him, and the tertian fever came. On Thursday 17, at midday, he took medicine.
“On Friday 18, around midday or one o’clock in the afternoon, he confessed to Peter, Bishop of Calmense, who then said Mass, and after having, himself, taken Communion, carried the sacrement of the Eucharist to the Pope, seated in his bed. That done, he finished his Mass, in the presence also of five cardinals, … the Pope told them that he felt very ill. At the hour of Vespers, after he had received Extreme Unction from the Bishop of Calmense, he expired in the presence of the President of the pontifical tribunal, the abovementioned bishop, etc.”
A letter from Ambassador de Ferrare to the husband of Lucretia also confirms the thesis of a natural death.
What could have credited the poisoning version, is the appearance of Alexander VI’s body. It “was so black, so deformed, so prodigiously swollen that it was almost unrecognizable; a completely putrefied matter was running from his nose; his mouth was open in such a frightful manner, that one was unable to look at it without horror, nor suffer the stink without being in danger of being infected”.
Philippe de Commines confirms the fact by saying that the body was “all blackened and fetid”.
Does this precocious putrefaction mean poison? Popular opinion believes that the bodies of poisoned people decompose very rapidly, which is not confirmed by medical observation. On the contrary, the bodies of those who have succumbed to arsenical intoxication decompose very slowly.
This rapid decomposition is therefore not an argument in favour of poisoning. In addition, the death of the Pope took place on 18 August, but the first funeral Mass is said on 4 September. In the middle of Summer, when the heat is extreme, it is not surprising that the body decomposed so rapidly.
A malaria epidemic, and several other guests also ill, credit the thesis that Alexander VI died of illness and not by poisoning.
Pontifical families usually die out through lack of descendants. Apparently, the last Borgia died in London, at the beginning of the XXth Century. He was a photographer. Here is what Paul Ginisty says about it:
“Yes, the last descendant of this family, the man who still carried this redoubtable name, which remains the symbol of tyranny, of sacrilege, of murder, with demoniacal refinements, was a poor creature, who had washed up in London, where he lived with difficulty from his profession of photographer. How very distant we are from the legend of his frightening ancestor, the atheist Pope Alexander VI, dying himself from the poison which he had so often used. How very distant we are from these grandiose horrors, from these furious turmoils of ambition, from these fierce passions which stop at nothing, which nothing can control.
“The last of the Borgias took photos of sentimental servant girls wanting to send these images to their boyfriends, and the only order given by this fallen heir of a legion of tyrants was: “Don’t move.”. In the end, he whose ancestors had unscrupulously manipulated abominable philtres, was poisoned in vulgar fashion, the unfortunate bohemian, by the none-too-fresh and sophisticated food which the restaurants of big cities reserve for their modest customers. This poison of the doubtful mixtures of cheap restaurants is perhaps slower in its action, but it is no less sure than the famous poison of the Borgia family.”
No history has provoked more polemics that that of the XVIth Century papacy, particularly at the time of the Borgias. The most violent pamphlets, the most severe condemnations, the most unbelievable panegyrics, have in turn stirred public opinion and deeply led it astray.
The Borgias are usually presented as monsters of cruelty and perfidy. The innumerable crimes of Alexander VI caused him to be seen as an Antichrist. There was no form of killing which they didn’t abuse. Among the lot, poison was the most common and the most used. But this way of sending undesirable people to another world is current in the Italian society of the XVIth Century.
Fifth part tomorrow.