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AS THE BLACK death swept through Europe, devastating half the population, many citizens in desperation turned their eyes from the Heavens to Earth. There, in order to master the physical world, the more philosophically inclined tried to uncover the secrets of existence and to unravel Life’s great mysteries, while the poor hoped only to overcome their suffering.
And so it was that God fell to Earth as Man, and the rigid religious doctrine of the Middle Ages lost its power and was replaced by the study of the great ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. As the thirst for the Crusades began to fade, Olympian heroes were reborn and Olympian battles were fought anew. Man pitted his mind against the heart of God, and Reason reigned.
This was the time of great accomplishments in philosophy, the arts, medicine, and music. Culture flourished with great pomp and ceremony. But not without cost. Old laws were broken before new ones were created. The shift from the strict adherence to the word of God and the belief in eternal salvation to the honor of Man and reward in the material world called humanism was, in truth, a difficult transition.
Then, Rome was not the Holy City; it was a lawless place. In the streets, citizens were robbed, houses were plundered, prostitution was rampant, and hundreds of people were murdered each week.
Moreover, the country we now know as Italy did not yet exist. Instead, there were five great powers: Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and Rome. Within the boundaries of the there were many independent city-states ruled by old families led by local kings, feudal lords, dukes, or bishops. Inside the country, neighbor fought neighbor for territory. And those who conquered were always on guard—for the next conquest was close at hand.
From outside the country, there came the threat of invasion by foreign powers who wished to expand their empires. The rulers of France and Spain vied for territory, and the Turks, who were not Christians, were moving in on the Papal States.
Church and state wrestled for sovereignty. After the travesty of the Great Schism—when there were two Popes in two cities with divided power and reduced revenue—the formation of the new seat of the throne in Rome, with only one Pope, gave the princes of the church new hope. Emerging even stronger than before, the spiritual leaders of the church had only to fight the temporal power of the kings, queens, and dukes of the small cities and fiefdoms.
Still, the Holy Roman Catholic Church was in turmoil, for the lawless behavior was not limited to citizens only. Cardinals sent their servants armed with stones and crossbows into the streets to fight with Roman youths; men of high position in the church—forbidden to marry—visited courtesans and kept many mistresses; bribes were offered and taken; and official clergy at the highest levels were ready to accept money to deliver dispensations from the laws and write up sacred papal bulls to pardon the most terrible crimes.
It was said by many a disillusioned citizen that everything in Rome was for sale. Enough money could buy churches, priests, pardons, and even the forgiveness of God.
With very few exceptions, men who became priests entered the church because they were second sons—trained from birth for professions in the church. They had no true religious calling, but because the church still held the power to declare a king a king, and to bestow great blessings on earth, every aristocratic Italian family offered gifts and bribes to get its sons named to the college of cardinals.
This was the Renaissance; the time of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his family.
THE GOLDEN RAYS of the summer sun warmed the cobblestone streets of Rome as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia walked briskly from the Vatican to the three-story stucco house on the Piazza de Merlo where he’d come to claim three of his young children: his sons Cesare and Juan and his daughter Lucrezia, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. On this fortuitous day the vice-chancellor to the Pope, the second most powerful man in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, felt especially blessed.
At the house of their mother, Vanozza Cattanei, he found himself whistling happily. As a son of the church he was forbidden to marry, but as a man of God he felt certain that he knew the Good Lord’s plan. For did not the Heavenly Father create Eve to complete Adam, even in Paradise? So did it not follow that on this treacherous earth filled with unhappiness, a man needed the comfort of a woman even more? He’d had three previous children when he was a young bishop, but these last children he had sired, those of Vanozza, held a special place in his heart. They seemed to ignite in him the same high passions that she had. And even now, while they were still so young, he envisioned them standing on his shoulders, forming a great giant, helping him to unite the Papal States and extend the Holy Roman Catholic Church far across the world.
Over the years, whenever he had come to visit, the children always called him seeing no compromise in his devotion to them and his loyalty to the Holy See. They saw nothing strange about the fact he was a cardinal and their father too. For didn’t Pope Innocent’s son and daughter often parade through the streets of Rome for celebrations with great ceremony?
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia had been with his mistress, Vanozza, for more than ten years, and he smiled when he thought how few women had brought him such excitement and kept his interest for so long. Not that Vanozza had been the only woman in his life, for he was a man of large appetites in all worldly pleasures. But she had been by far the most important. She was intelligent, to his eye beautiful—and someone he could talk to about earthly and heavenly matters. She had often given him wise counsel, and in return he had been a generous lover and a doting father to their children.
Vanozza stood in the doorway of her house and smiled bravely as she waved good-bye to her three children.
One of her great strengths now that she had reached her fortieth year was that she understood the man who wore the robes of the cardinal. She knew he had a burning ambition, a fire that flamed in his belly that would not be extinguished. He also had a military strategy for the Holy Catholic Church that would expand its reach, political alliances that would strengthen it, and promises of treaties that would cement his position as well as his power. He had talked to her about all these things. Ideas marched across his mind as relentlessly as his armies would march through new territories. He was destined to become one of the greatest leaders of men, and with his rise would come her children’s. Vanozza tried to comfort herself with the knowledge that one day, as the cardinal’s legitimate heirs, they would have wealth, power, and opportunity. And so she could let them go.
Now she held tight to her infant son, Jofre, her only remaining child—too young to take from her, for he was still at the breast. Yet he too must go before long. Her dark eyes were shiny with tears as she watched her other children walk away. Only once did Lucrezia look back, but the boys never turned around.
Vanozza saw the handsome, imposing figure of the cardinal reach for the small hand of his younger son, Juan, and the tiny hand of his three-year-old daughter, Lucrezia. Their eldest son, Cesare, left out, already looked upset. That meant trouble, she thought, but in time Rodrigo would know them as well as she did. Hesitantly, she closed the heavy wooden front door.
They had taken only a few steps when Cesare, angry now, pushed his brother so hard that Juan, losing his grip on his father’s hand, stumbled and almost fell to the ground. The cardinal stopped the small boy’s fall, then turned and said,
Juan, a year younger but much more slightly built than the seven-year-old Cesare, snickered proudly at his father’s defense. But before he could bask in his satisfaction, Cesare moved closer and stomped hard upon his foot.
Juan cried out in pain.
The cardinal grabbed Cesare by the back of his shirt with one of his large hands—lifting him off the cobblestone street—and shook him so hard that his auburn curls tumbled across his face. Then he stood the child on his feet again. Kneeling in front of the small boy, his brown eyes softened. He asked,
The boy’s eyes, darker and more penetrating, glowed like coals as he stared at his father. he said in an impassioned voice.
the cardinal said, amused. He stood now, towering over them. Then he smiled as he patted his portly belly.
Rodrigo Borgia was a mountainous man, tall enough to carry his weight, handsome in a rugged rather than aristocratic way. His dark eyes often glimmered with amusement; his nose, though large, was not offensive looking; and his full sensual lips, usually smiling, gave him a generous appearance. But it was his personal magnetism, the intangible energy he radiated, that made everyone agree he was one of the most attractive men of his time.
his daughter now said to Cesare, in a voice so clear that the cardinal turned toward her with fascination. Lucrezia, standing with arms folded in front of her, her long blond ringlets hanging down over her shoulders, wore an expression of hard determination on her angelic face.
the cardinal asked, pretending a pout.
Cesare said with real affection, He stared with distaste at his brother, who was quickly drying his tears with the smooth silk of his shirt sleeve.
The cardinal tousled Juan’s dark hair and reassured him. He turned to Cesare and said, Then he looked at Lucrezia and gave her a broad smile.
When the child’s expression remained unchanged and she showed no emotion, the cardinal was enchanted. He smiled with appreciation.
Rodrigo Borgia reached down and quickly lifted the small girl high into the air to place her on his shoulders. And he laughed with pure joy. Now, as he walked with his elegant garments flowing gracefully, his daughter looked like another new and beautiful crown on the head of the cardinal.
That same day, Rodrigo Borgia moved his children into the Orsini Palace, across from his own at the Vatican. His widowed cousin, Adriana Orsini, cared for them and acted as governess, taking charge of their education. When Adriana’s young son, Orso, became engaged at thirteen, his fiancée, Julia Farnese, fifteen, moved into the palace to help Adriana care for the children.
Though the cardinal had the day-to-day responsibility of his children, they still visited their mother, who was now married to her third husband, Carlo Canale. As Rodrigo Borgia had chosen Vanozza’s two former husbands, he had chosen Canale, knowing a widow must have a husband to offer her protection and the reputation of a respectable house. The cardinal had been good to her, and what she hadn’t received from him, she had inherited from her two previous husbands. Unlike the beautiful but empty-headed courtesans of some of the aristocracy, Vanozza was a practical woman, which Rodrigo admired. She owned several well-kept inns and a country estate, which provided her with a significant income—and being a pious woman, she had built a chapel dedicated to the Madonna, in which she said her daily prayers.
Still, after ten years, their passion for each other seemed to cool and they became good friends.
Within weeks, Vanozza was forced to relinquish the baby, Jofre, to join his brothers and sister, for he had become inconsolable without them. And so it was that all of Rodrigo Borgia’s children were together under his cousin’s care.
As befitted the children of a cardinal, over the next few years they were taught by the most talented tutors in Rome. They were schooled in the humanities, astronomy and astrology, ancient history, and several languages including Spanish, French, English, and of course the language of the church, Latin. Cesare excelled because of his intelligence and competitive nature, but it was Lucrezia who showed the most promise, for above everything else, she had character and true virtue.
Though many young girls were sent to convents to be educated and dedicated to the saints, Lucrezia—with the cardinal’s permission, on the advice of Adriana—was dedicated to the Muses and taught by the same talented tutors as her brothers. Because she loved the arts, she learned to play the lute, to dance, and to draw. She excelled in embroidery—on fabrics of silver and gold.
As was her obligation, Lucrezia developed charms and talents that would increase her value in the marital alliances which would serve the Borgia family in the future. One of her favorite pastimes was writing poetry, and she spent long hours on verses of love and rapture for God as well as those of romantic love. She was particularly inspired by the saints, her heart often too full for words.
Julia Farnese indulged Lucrezia as a younger sister; Adriana and the cardinal both lavished Lucrezia with attention, and so she grew into a happy child with a pleasant disposition. Curious and easy to get along with, she disliked disharmony and made every effort to help keep the family peace.
One beautiful Sunday, after he had served High Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica, Cardinal Borgia invited his children to join him at the Vatican. This was a rare and courageous act, for until the time of Pope Innocent all children of the clergy were proclaimed to be their nephews and nieces. To openly acknowledge paternity could endanger an important appointment to any high church office. Of course, the people knew that cardinals and even Popes had children—everyone knew they sinned—but as long as it was hidden beneath the mantle of and the truth of the relationship posted only in secret parchments, the honor of the office was not tarnished. Everyone could believe as they wished, but the cardinal had little patience for hypocrisy. There were times, of course, that he himself was forced to alter or embellish the truth. But that was understandable, for he was after all a diplomat.
Adriana dressed the children in their finest garments for this special occasion: Cesare in black satin and Juan in white silk, and two-year-old Jofre in a blue velvet jumper edged with rich embroidery. Julia dressed Lucrezia in a long peach lace dress, and placed a small jeweled headpiece upon the little girl’s white-blond curls.