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The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519

The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519

3.7 27
by Christopher Hibbert

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The first major biography of the Borgias in thirty years, Christopher Hibbert's latest history brings the family and the world they lived in—the glittering Rome of the Italian Renaissance—to life.

The name Borgia is synonymous with the corruption, nepotism, and greed that were rife in Renaissance Italy. The powerful, voracious Rodrigo Borgia,


The first major biography of the Borgias in thirty years, Christopher Hibbert's latest history brings the family and the world they lived in—the glittering Rome of the Italian Renaissance—to life.

The name Borgia is synonymous with the corruption, nepotism, and greed that were rife in Renaissance Italy. The powerful, voracious Rodrigo Borgia, better known to history as Pope Alexander VI, was the central figure of the dynasty. Two of his seven papal offspring also rose to power and fame—Lucrezia Borgia, his daughter, whose husband was famously murdered by her brother, and that brother, Cesare, who served as the model for Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Notorious for seizing power, wealth, land, and titles through bribery, marriage, and murder, the dynasty's dramatic rise from its Spanish roots to its occupation of the highest position in Renaissance society forms a gripping tale.

Erudite, witty, and always insightful, Hibbert removes the layers of myth around the Borgia family and creates a portrait alive with his superb sense of character and place.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Acclaimed British historian Hibbert's latest work focuses on three members of the notorious Borgia family of Spain, who came to power in Rome with the election of Alfonso de Borgia (1378-1458), the scholarly bishop of Valencia, to the papacy as Calixtus III. Calixtus's nephew Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) was known for decadence as well as keen administrative skills. Cardinal Rodrigo played a key role in electing Pope Sixtus IV, had a lucrative career as vice chancellor under five popes, fathered several children and bribed his way to becoming pope himself, as Alexander VI, in 1492. His children were infamous, including the unscrupulous military leader and politician Cesare (1475-1507), who inspired Machiavelli's The Prince and murdered his own brother and brother-in-law to achieve his goals, while his daughter Lucrezia (1480-1519) overcame an incestuous reputation to become a respected patron of the arts as duchess of Ferrara. The book is a heavily researched and generally engrossing account of a famous dynasty, but readers may wish Hibbert (The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici) had used a more assertive and analytical voice to accompany the detailed descriptions of Renaissance life. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

In three generations, the Borgia family earned a notoriety that shows no sign of waning after 500 years. Popular and prolific historian Hibbert (The Days of the French Revolution) follows Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) who, starting as vice chancellor of the Holy See to his uncle, Pope Calixtus III, rose through the ranks of papal offices to become the nepotistic Pope Alexander VI, who legitimized his mistress's children to share with them his papal power, most prominently the promiscuous Lucrezia and her syphilitic brother Cesare, the model for Machiavelli's The Prince. For the Borgias, family loyalty outweighed allegiance to church or state. Hibbert's Borgias live up to their reputation for murder, rape, adultery, and greed. At the death of Alexander, the Borgias ceased to play a role of significance; Italy was glad to be rid of them. Readers expecting a larger discussion of Renaissance morality or the Borgia's impact on the Reformation will not find it in this straightforward, carefully researched narrative. But Hibbert's unsensationalized account of sensational material makes a fascinating read. Recommended for all public and college libraries.
—Stewart Desmond

Kirkus Reviews
Ill-focused, overstuffed portrait of the powerful Pope Alexander VI and his ambitious children, by prolific British historian Hibbert (Napoleon, His Wives and Women, 2002, etc.). Born Rodrigo Borgia in 1431, the ruthless, dissolute but rigorously competent family patriarch received the papal tiara in 1492, probably because of the ample bribes he bestowed. As Alexander VI, he worked to consolidate his position amid Rome's violence and squalor. He used his children by courtesan Vannozza de' Catanei to great political advantage, and Hibbert's spotlight flickers intermittently on them. Beautiful, accomplished daughter Lucrezia was married off several times, first into the illustrious Sforza family and later to the Duke of Este. Eldest son Cesare, made a cardinal at age 18, showed his prowess best in seducing women and in the field of battle. Alexander VI sided with Naples against the avaricious advances of France and Milan, and in gratitude Alfonso II of Naples in 1494 gave his daughter Sancia in marriage to the pope's 12-year-old son Jofre. However, when King Louis XII offered Cesare a French duchy and a French bride in 1498, the ever-opportunistic young man cast off his cardinal's hat and headed up France's invading forces. Cesare made glorious conquests in Romagna, hiring Leonardo da Vinci as his architect and general engineer and becoming the "splendid and magnificent" prince described by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1502. Nonetheless, the secretive, unscrupulous Borgias had many enemies, and Cesare's position was drastically weakened by his father's death in 1503. His lands were confiscated, and he was twice imprisoned before his death during a siege in 1507. Lucrezia managed to outlive herfamily's infamy and died an estimable lady of Ferrara in 1519. Hibbert is so preoccupied with the admittedly juicy ins and outs of the Borgias' political maneuvers that he neglects to offer much in the way of human interest. Knowledgable but not particularly compelling.
From the Publisher


"[A] superbly scrupulous and sympathetic interpreter."—The Boston Globe

"Simply unputdown-able."—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

— Chapter 1 —

The Crumbling City

"Oh God, how pitiable is Rome"

"YOU MUST HAVE heard of this city from others," wrote a visitor to Rome in the middle of the fifteenth century.

There are many splendid palaces, houses, tombs and temples here, and infinite numbers of other edifices, but they are all in ruins. There is much porphyry and marble from ancient buildings but every day these marbles are destroyed in a scandalous fashion by being burned to make lime. And what is modern is poor stuff. . . . The men of today, who call themselves Romans, are very different in bearing and conduct from the ancient inhabitants. . . . They all look like cowherds.

Other visitors wrote of moss-covered statues, of defaced and indecipherable inscriptions, of "parts within the walls that look like thick woods or caves where forest animals were wont to breed, of deer and hares being caught in the streets . . . of the daily sight of heads and limbs of men who had been executed and quartered being nailed to doors, placed in cages or impaled on spears."

This was the state of the city that had once been the capital of a mighty empire; now two-thirds of the area inside the walls, which had been built to protect a population of 800,000, was uninhabited, acres of open countryside used for orchards, pasture, and vineyards, and dotted with ancient ruins, which provided safe hiding places for thieves and bandits. And this was the state of the true home of the pope, the leader of the church who could trace his predecessors back in an unbroken line to St. Peter, the apostle entrusted by Christ himself with the care of his flock.

For most of the fourteenth century, even the papacy had abandoned Rome. In 1305, distressed by the unrest and bloody disturbances in the city, the French Pope Clement V (1305–14) had set up his court in Avignon, in the rambling palace on the east bank of the Rhône, which is known as the Palais des Papes. In Rome there had been constant calls for the papacy to return from its French exile. Most recently these calls had come from an elderly woman, who could be seen almost every day in the crumbling city, sitting by the door of the convent of San Lorenzo, begging for alms for the poor.

She was Birgitta Gudmarsson, the daughter of a rich Swedish judge and widow of a Swedish nobleman, to whom she had been married at the age of thirteen and for whom she had borne eight children. Founder of the Brigittines, she had left Sweden after experiencing a vision in which Christ had appeared before her, commanding her to leave immediately for Rome and to remain there until she had witnessed the pope’s return. As she went about Rome, from church to crumbling church, house to ruinous house, she claimed to have had further visions; both Jesus and his mother Mary, she said, had spoken to her, and they had strengthened her faith in the restoration of the pope and in the eventual salvation of the city.

Around the house where she lived stretched the charred shells of burned-out buildings, piles of rotting refuse, deserted palaces, derelict churches, stagnant swamps, fortresses abandoned by their rich owners, who had gone to live on their estates in the Campagna, hovels occupied by families on the verge of starvation. Pilgrims took home with them stories of a gloomy city, whose silence was broken only by the howling of dogs and wolves, and the shouts of rampaging mobs.

In Avignon the popes remained deaf to the calls for their return, heedless of the prayers that the saintly Birgitta Gudmarsson uttered so fervently and of the letters that the poet Francesco Petrarch wrote, describing the "rubbish heap of history" that Rome had become. This once-superb imperial capital was now a lawless ruin, a city torn by violence in which belligerent factions paraded through the streets with daggers and swords, where houses were invaded and looted by armed bands, pilgrims and travellers were robbed, nuns violated in their convents, and long lines of flagellants filed through the gates, barefoot, their heads covered in cowls, claiming board and lodging but offering no money, scourging their naked bloody backs, chanting frightening hymns outside churches, throwing themselves weeping, moaning, bleeding before the altars.

Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Hibbert and Mary Hollingsworth

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Christopher Hibbert has written more than fifty acclaimed books, including The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici and Rome: The Biography of a City. A leading popular historian whose works reflect meticulous scholarship, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is married with three children and lives in Oxfordshire.

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Borgias and Their Enemies 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
GriffsPal More than 1 year ago
Hibbert's familial biography of the Borgias was surprisingly interesting; but I've realized, thinking back to past books of history I've relished, that I love the breezy style with which British authors often approach such large subjects: you are swept away by the force of the writing; and, if you are like me, are willing to let go the notion you would remember the name of every personage mentioned, let alone know who they were. I was captivated by page fifteen, if I recall. What Hibbert subtly manages to bring into focus is the pageantry of the times, and how it clashed with the ugly actions (see below) of Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia, in particular. Hibbert refuses to let the reader believe that anything written during Lucrezia's youth was indeed true of her. Again, he does this with delicacy, pointing to the difference in propaganda and sensationalism (yes, they existed in the 15th century) and the actual record. In fact, the book's main "characters," so to speak, are the Borgia pere and fils, Cesare and Juan, those men who wielded power and misused it. We are left with no doubt as to how they achieved their status and rank (in the sons' case, by the mandates or bullying of the father.) Much of what they did is reprehensible and vile. My only connection to this time period is reading about the authors of the period, in light connection to studies of 16th century English and French literature. That was a long time ago, but I did summon it up, as I did about 5 months ago when, stuck home with a stomach bug, I watched the first season of a European television series entitled simply "Borgia." The first season covers the first year or two of Rodrigo Borgia (the father of Cesare and Lucrezia)'s accession to the papacy. (He became pope Alexander VI, known for dividing the Western world between Portugal and Spain, and for continuing to allow the selling of indulgences, cardinalships, etc., that led to the Reformation.) I don't recommend the television show to anyone put off by violence, nudity, lewd sexual conduct or references to and scenes of homicide, incest, torture, and rape. But the creators sum up the spirit of the times quite well. One truth that the television show does convey, that Hibbert only has time to hint, is that the Borgias simply were perhaps more openly ruthless than their ruthless contemporaries, not more so, and never sui generis. Hibbert has quotes some contemporaries who mention the fearlessness with which they acted, and their willingness to barter and bribe at will, for what they desired. I'm sure, friends, that you will see me occasionally read books about this period; and for any history, you bet that I will know be looking for the shorter books by English authors who write as if they have been doing it since they were old enough to pick up a pen.
sunnhauntr More than 1 year ago
An engrossing tale of Roderigo Borgia paying his way to the head of the papacy as Alexander VI, arranging political marriages for his children (then annuling them when it suits his aspirations), and backing his murderous son as a holy terror for anyone who tries to stand in their way of power. Hibbert engages his readers in such a way that they almost feel sorry for the bad guys.
ArAndrews More than 1 year ago
wonderfully written book
anonymously More than 1 year ago
retellling the Borgis story better than many have done
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a provocative read about the Borgia family and their powerful connections to the papacy in the 1500 - 1600s. Political and religious rulers of the former Roman empire set the stage for this family of merciless, power hungry individuals and gives the reader a glimpse of life in Italy from the perspective of the ruling class. If one thinks the Church elders of today are bereft of morals and compassion, have a look at what their predecessors took part in from centuries ago and wonder if much has changed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He walks in, holding his bag
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I walk up next to Blythe. "So whats wrong with Micheal?" I say worried.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
* drops off his things and sits in a bed*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More fun than showtimes the borgias
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Thank you!" She yells sacrastically. "Hades...childeren....pact...thinking......Percy..." She mutters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He almost laughs but he keeps his face emotionless "why are you still in here though" he asks her
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sits on his bed