Rumour has it that Cardinal Giambattista Orsini had drunk poison. To stop the rumour, Pope Alexander VI exhibits the body, so that everyone can see the absence of marks on the skin, the irrefutable proof of non-poisoning.
The Pope also convokes certain doctors to examine the body. The doctors have no difficulty in recognizing that the Cardinal’s death was the consequence of a long and painful illness.
But public opinion is not fooled, and sees only that Cardinal Orsini was the pillar of the plot against Caesar Borgia. His death is therefore an indispensable political act.
Under the Renaissance, doctors have a very particular conception of the exercise of their art. If paid well, they have no scrupules in sending their patients into the other world, with the same zeal that they put into saving them, if that is their families’ wish.
There is the case of a doctor from the Latran Hospital who, in ambush on a street corner, kills morning worshippers with arrows, then steals their purses. He also poisons his patients, after having dictated to them, a Will in his favour.
Using the pretext of the plot, the Orsini family is stripped of all its possessions. Other great names fall, in turn, prey to the Borgias.
Alexander poisons the richest princes of the Church, one after the other. He doesn’t even wait for Cardinal de Modena’s death, before making an inventory of his succession. This time, the Pope finds an accomplice in the victim’s man of confidence: his secretary.
Then, its the turn of Cardinal Mechiel, poisoned by his cook, and whose inheritance, which goes to the Pope, is over 100,000 ducats.
Alexander VI’s own nephew, Cardinal de Monreale, “was removed by the same method as the others, after having been particularly well-fattened.”
Poison became the most common arm. It made so many victims at this time.
A Malatesta poisons his wife, the daughter of Nicolas d’Este, Duke of Ferrare, because he is convinced of her infidelity. Laura Malatesta, known as Parasma, the mother of the husband, suffered the same end, and for the same reason.
Another time, a peasant, Marini, brought a phial of poison from Constantinople, to throw it into the fountain at the Viridaris Gate, near the Vatican. It is there that the servants come to draw water for the services of the Pope, the court, and all the pontifical palace personnel.
The poison was supposed to work five days later, not before. But, as it was always feared that this water might be contaminated, the fountain was surrounded by high walls. A small, wooden window, locked, is the only possible opening.
How was the plot discovered? The accounts are mute on this point, but we know how the guilty man died. He was paraded on a cart, in the city, naked and covered in chains, From time to time, he was hit with red hot irons, tongs, pincers. He was led like this to the Capitol where, in front of the cross, he was knocked out with a club, then finished off with a knife. The body was cut into four pieces which were hung on the Saint-Paul, Saint-John, the Castle and del Popolo Gates.
This wasn’t the only attempt against the life of Alexander VI. Multiple plots were hatched against the tyranny of the Borgias. They were always discovered by Caesar’s police or by the betrayal of a participant.
One time, among others, a musician was arrested. He had come from Forli to hand poisoned letters to the Pope, enclosed in a reed flute. The poison is so violent, according to Burckard, that no remedy is able to combat it.
The Pope learns of this assassination attempt. The arrested musician has no illusions about his future. He perishes bravely under torture.
All of these assassination attempts and the punishments which they provoke, as well as the murders for adultery, theft, vengeance, terrorise the Roman population. The latest assassinations, Orsini’s in particular, have horrified the Sacred College. Each cardinal is feeling menaced by the Borgias’ criminality when, suddenly, the Pope dies.
One week after a banquet in the vineyards of Adrien Castellesi de Corneto, Alexander and Caesar Borgia are taken with violent fevers and vomitting. Caesar’s state seems to improve while that of the Pope becomes worse. He dies on 18 August 1503.
Inevitably, rumours of poisoning spread. It is said that Alexander VI had been victim of his own wheelings and dealings. The English historian Gordon repeats this popular version, already accredited by Paolo Jovio, Guiccardini, Platina and Bembo.
On this evening, the Pope invites nine cardinals to supper on the Corneto estate. A faithful servant receives the order to pour the poison, mixed with the wine, for all of the guests, during the course of the meal. The Pope would therefore get rid of all of these annoying people in one go, and would be able to recuperate their fortunes.
Arriving at the vineyard shortly before the other guests, Alexander and Caesar, exhausted by the heat, – we are in the middle of a heatwave – ask for a drink. A servant, who has no knowledge of the plot, serves them the poisoned wine.
Suspecting the terrible mistake, Caesar rushes to use a counter-poison. He has the abdomen of a live mule opened and plunges into it as if it were a bath. This singular antidote heats the person victim of a cold poison. The animal’s heat is transmitted to the other’s body and efficiently combats the toxic effects.
That is basically the dramatic and romantic story from Gordon. The historians of the time, all of them more or less hostile toward the Borgias, believe this version.
There is great morality in the death of Alexander VI, caught in his own trap, victim of the poison which he had prepared for others. It seems a merited punishment for his monstrous crimes.
Fourth part, including more on the Pope’s death, tomorrow.