Borgia: The Election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)
Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

A week or so later, a group of cardinals will enter a secret conclave to elect the next head of the Catholic church. TV cameras will be focused on a chimney in the Vatican and the world will be forced to watch the color of smoke that appears. This time, the election is interesting because of the way Pope Benedict departed from the office and also due to the controversies such as the child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents. As the cardinals are Googling each other and meeting in private apartments and restaurant backrooms,  while scandals and intrigue heat up, people are petitioning for the removal of certain cardinals from the conclave.

In 1492 CE, there was an interesting papal election; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia and it was during this newly elected pope’s time that Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. The French-German TV series Borgia had two episodes devoted to what exactly happened inside the Sistine Chapel and the fictional depiction showed that the whole process had no sanctity and simply was a medieval version of The House of Cards played in the name of a religion. Deals were made, money was transferred, forged documents were presented and even army was summoned, all while the cardinals were holed up in a chapel after taking an oath not to communicate with the external world.

The person who desperately wanted to become the pope was Roberto Borgia (pronounced Borja), the same person who sent  Madonna Damiata to investigate a murder in The Malice of Fortune. Though he was not a favorite, he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.

As Borgia enters the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he he sure of six votes, but needs fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Since the church is rotten to the core  and members could buy positions in the Curia, they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want  the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.

After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just the six votes he expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this had to be a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.

The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.

Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position he currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.

One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that  force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee to Spain.

In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”

The politics of 2013 is definitely not going to involve calling armies or passing silver coins, but the Vatican thinks the leaks of certain reports have been done to influence the election of the pope. In 1492 election, theological views were never discussed, but for the coming election, it is expected that a conservative pope will be elected because Benedict has filled the positions with people who align with his conservatism. This means that the Church’s position on homosexuality and birth control will not change. What is same from 1492 is this:  even though the growth of the church has been outside Europe in the past century, the electoral college is Eurocentric. We will not know what exactly happens inside the conclave, but one can follow certain blogs and get a sense of the events.