The Borgias did not have a monopoly on perfidy, cruelty or violence. You only have to read the chronicles of the time, the annals of Muratori, to see that at Milan, Florence, Sienna, Parma, Genova, Mantua, Venice, Ferrare, the same barbary engenders the same crimes.
In The Prince, Machiavelli resumes the true principles which guide the politics of his time. His hero, a mixture of Caesar Borgia and Laurent Medicis, incarnates more generally the soul and the character of the Renaissance princes.
The prince must conserve the domain which he has acquired or inherited, by whatever means. Morality does not exist in politics. You don’t govern to do good, but to stay in place.
What a strange contrast! Art and poetry shine with a singular eclat, encouraged by cruel, debauched princes, who remain sensitive to beauty. Pagan Antiquity, condemned by austere Christianism because of its agreeable philosophy, comes back into fashion.
Plautus is the favourite author of the Vatican, and poets find their inspiration in the best Latin chefs-d’oeuvre. The artists, painters, sculptors, architects enrich Italy with their most gifted conceptions. It is the time when Michelangelo arrives in Rome, called by Pope Alexander VI.
The Pope is a powerful person but he is not yet placed beyond temporal laws. The idea of a spiritual authority inherent in the Pope, which would therefore place him above everybody, does not yet exist at the Renaissance. The population is not globally more scandalised by the Pope’s misdeeds than by those of the other lords.
So, since the Middle Ages, the Pope is a sovereign like the others, often more occupied in defending his material possessions, continually menaced by his neighbours, than in intervening as God’s representative among kings and emperors. The spiritual value of his charge does not spare him from suffering diverse plots against his person.
The presence in Rome of all of the cardinals of the Sacred College, intriguing, conspiring against their elected sovereign, is for him the occasion for continual hostilities, and anarchy often reigns supreme in the Church States. Alexander VI must combat this anarchy, by uniting Italy to advantage the papacy, according to some, to advantage his son Caesar, according to others.
Therefore, no scrupules hold back the Borgias. In Rome and in the peninsula, they make terror reign, multiplying crimes and cruelties.
A few rare spirits, conscious of the indignity into which the papacy is sinking, let out cries of alarm. Nicolas Clemengis, Savanarola, Pic de la Mirandole, protest loudly against the abuses and excesses of pontifical power.
The innumerable debaucheries of the princes of the Church – the most famous being the banquet of the fifty naked prostitutes – the simoniacal exactions of the Pope and his cardinals making money from everything, selling indulgences and absolutions, the crimes, continual murders and poisonings, all of these turpitudes are described in the famous pamphlet Letter to Sacelli, in The Pope’s Perquisites, in the writings of Savonarola and of de la Mirandole. They find a faithful echo in Burckard.
What exactly, therefore, is the role of poison at the time of the Borgias? It well seems – as far as a precise judgement can be made on such a subject – that legend has exaggerated nothing, and that in fact, poison really is one of the favourite arms of the criminals of the Renaissance. As frequent in political matters as in private life, poisonings are numerous.
The reason is that, at the time, this dangerous arm had never been so well known, and so perfectly able to be hidden. The Borgias even have their own poison of arsenic, combined with the alkaloids of putrefaction.
For the Italian historian Paolo Jovio, “it was a very white powder, of a not disagreeable taste, which did not suddenly smother the vital spirits like today’s poisons, but which slipped little by little into the veins, leading tardily to death”.
According to Garelli, doctor to Emperor Charles VI, the preparation is very simple. You sacrifice a pig, sprinkle its abdominal organs with arsenious acids and wait until the putrefaction, slowed by the arsenic, is complete. There is nothing left to do but dry out the putrid mass and collect the liquids from it.
An excellent poison is obtained in this way. Much more violent than the arsenious acid. In the XVIIth Century, alchemists and matrons would renew this process. It seems that the mixture of the female poisoner Brinvilliers was little different from that of the Borgias.
According to Flandin, a toxicologist, the slow poison of the Borgias is of not very soluble arsenious acid. The most violent poison is one of these soluble preparations of arsenic, whose effects are rapid, almost instantaneous.
What seems certain is that the Borgia poison is a complex mixture, whose exact composition is still unknown today.
The musicographer, Blaze de Bury, recounted somewhere that he almost learned the terrible recipe, and that he deeply regretted having lost this opportunity.
He was once at the Italian Theatre, where Lucretia Borgia, by Donizetti, was playing. His neighbour was a little old man with a Hoffmannesque face who, while dozing in his orchestra seat, seemed to be having a dream which, lulled by the music, made him smile in a rather singular, and rather frightening fashion.
It so happened that he abandoned himself a little too much onto his neighbour’s shoulder, and this brusque movement woke him. With refined politeness, he apologised profusely. He renewed his apology during the entr’acte.
“Ah!” he says to Blaze de Bury. “I was dreaming of a curious thing!… I was dreaming about the Borgia poison, and that I am the only person today who knows its secret…” And he gave a small, silent laugh, a little old wizard’s laugh.
A conversation which starts like that has to excite the curiosity of a writer who has devoted himself to historical studies. Blaze de Bury was all ears.
We shall pursue the conversation tomorrow, in the sixth part.