The Borgia Dynasty, Part 1: Church and Power in the Renaissance

Program: #11-11   Air Date: Mar 07, 2011

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Last spring, we looked at the large book/recording packages by Jordi Savall dealing with Jerusalem and the Cathar Heresy; this year we will catch up first with his Grammy-award winning disc dedicated to the rise of the Borgia family.

NOTE: All of the music on these three programs came from the Grammy-award winning boxed set featuring:

Montserrat Figueras soprano
Lior Elmaleh cantor
Driss El Maloumi canto e oud

Pascal Bertin contratenore, Lluís Vilamajó tenore
Marc Mauillon, Furio Zanasi baritoni
Daniele Carnovich basso

La Capella Reial de Catalunya

Hespèrion XXI

Once again, Jordi Savall has created and directed an extraordinary musical and historical tour elucidating an aspect of cultural history. We have included his introductory notes, and each of the three programs looked at one of the three discs in the set.

The recording is on Alia Vox and is AVSA98745; the U.S. distributor is Harmonia Mundi USA:

The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Francis Borgia (Gandia 1510 - Rome 1572), the last of the illustrious members of the “Borgia Dynasty,” prompted us to embark on the present historical and musical project, recalling the most significant events of the age in which the chief protagonists of this extraordinary and fascinating family lived: Alfonso de Borja (Callistus III), Rodrigo de Borja (Alexander VI), Giovanni Borgia, Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia and St Francis Borgia.

Fr Batllori, the outstanding scholar, humanist and indisputable expert in the history of the Borgias, remarked that the Borgias should not be made the subjects of crime fiction or romance. Instead, what is needed is simply an objective account of who they were and what they did.

Informed by the latest findings of the leading specialists in the field, in our new CD-book devoted to the Borgia “Dynasty” we present some of the essential aspects of  ”who they were and what they did” without glossing over the ups and downs of their chequered careers. In doing so, we are aware of the great difficulty of evoking the lives and exploits of these historical figures who were indelibly marked by a terrible and persistent “black legend.” They lived complex and turbulent lives that were deeply enmeshed in a vast web of historical facts and events which we place within their specific historical and musical context: one of the most intense cultural and political periods of European civilization, on the threshold of modern times, distinguished above all by the transition from the medieval world to the cultural and humanistic flowering of the Renaissance. A time of great cultural and geographical discoveries, from Greek civilization to the New World, and also of major conflicts, from the final stages of the Reconquest and the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to the beginning of the Protestant schism and inevitable war with the Turks.

The story of the chief protagonists of this Valencian family, surnamed Borja, whose origins can be traced to Játiva (a town in the kingdom of Valencia, one of the territories of the Catalano-Aragonese Crown), spans the period from 1400, just before the end of the Western Schism (1417) and the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), to the victory of the Christian armies against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1570), followed two years later, in 1572, by the terrible St Bartholemew’s Day massacre and the death in Rome of St Francis Borgia, the last great member of the dynasty.

The Borgias lived in an age rocked by a fierce and unremitting struggle for the spiritual and worldly power of Rome, the core of all Christendom and centre of the Vatican state. From medieval times the power of the Papacy had taken precedence over all secular powers. If a king was excommunicated by the Pope, he lost his divine right to rule; and only the Pope, as head of the Christian Church, had the authority to crown a Christian king as Emperor, as Pope Clement VII crowned Charles V in 1530. It should also be borne in mind that the political methods and social customs of ecclesiastical life in Rome at that time were very different from those of today. In those days the contradictory human and religious double life led by much of the clergy was common knowledge – a far cry from our own times, in which those double standards have long been denied and even silenced. The two Borgia Popes, therefore, merely continued to act and behave according to customs based on nepotism and paternalism, particularly in the case of Alexander VI, who is known to have fathered more than nine children: Girolama, Isabella and Pier Luigi by an unknown mother, Giovanni, Lucrezia, Cesare, and Goffredo by his first mistress, Vannozza Cattanei, and another two children by his third “long-term” mistress, Giulia Farnese. The dangerous conditions of life in the Vatican at that time meant that the Pope needed to surround himself with as many members of his own family as possible, since eating a dish prepared and served by a trusted kinsman, for example, could be the indispensable key to survival.

These towering figures, with their massive contradictions and many human weaknesses, led exuberant lives obscured by violence and Machiavellian intrigues (in writing The Prince Niccolò Machiavelli took his inspiration from the conduct of Alexander VI and, above all, Cesare Borgia); but they were also great champions of the supreme power of the Church and the political and territorial independence of the Vatican, as well as skilled negotiators in all political and military matters. As well as offering their protection to humanists and the Sephardic Jews (who had found refuge in Rome, despite the protests of the ambassador of the Catholic Monarchs), Callistus III and, above all, Alexander VI were also great patrons of music and the arts, although this latter activity has been inevitably been tainted by the memory of their questionable mores, violent methods and extreme weakness of the flesh, which gave rise to a terrible Black legend which continued unabated until the death of Alexander VI and has echoed through the centuries, thus distorting our objective view of the true history of the Borgias. Let us not forget that this Black Legend was gradually forged and developed out of lives that were hardly compatible with the principles and exemplary behaviour desirable in the spiritual head of Christianity on earth. Lives that were too often stained with blood and numerous acts of violence (murders and vendettas), depraved (orgies and drunken revelries) and even sacrilegious (sexual skirmishes in the Pope’s private quarters during All Souls’ Day festivities). Despite such excesses, the Borgias’ behaviour was not so different from that of other Italian nobles. Apart from these actual events, the lives and reputation of the Borgias were further blighted by false or exaggerated accusations, often spread by the dominant clans in Italy at that time to whip up public opinion as a means of self-defence or revenge for political acts and decisions which had damaged their interests.

Few historical figures have suffered such a systematic and enduring deformation of objective reality as the Borja/Borgia family, and particularly Alexander VI and his two most famous offspring - Cesare and Lucrezia. And few provide such a stark and extreme illustration of the fraught relationship between the Church, as an institution, and the spheres of secular and spiritual power, especially at a time when European society was witnessing an explosion of artistic activity and a spectacular new spiritual and intellectual debate inspired by the discovery of Greek civilization, which was to crystallize in humanist thought and a creative development which shaped the emergence from the medieval world to a true cultural and social Renaissance.

The first illustrious Borgia was Alfonso de Borja, who accompanied Alfonso the Magnanimous in the conquest of Naples and later took up residence in Rome, where he was crowned Pope Callistus III in 1445. His papacy was distinguished by his determination to win back Constantinople (which became Istanbul in 1453), as well as the humanist nature of his policies. He was described by Eneas Silvio Piccolomini as “a most excellent gentleman of letters”, and he is known to have maintained a close friendship with the distinguished Latin scholar Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457).

The case of Rodrigo de Borja is different in almost every respect from that of his uncle Alfonso. His terrible reputation, however, should not blind us to the fact that he was one of the foremost patrons of the Italian Renaissance. Although he was neither a great intellectual nor a particularly outstanding humanist, he numbered humanists among his friends and he did a great deal to foster the development of the arts, letters and sciences. In the words of Gregorovius (1877) “Alexander VI was nothing if not cultured.” Among the great geniuses of the age who collaborated or were in some way connected with Alexander VI, we should mention Josquin des Prez (the most outstanding of his favourite musicians, who composed the sombre, dramatic 4-part motet “Absalon Filii mi” as a tribute to the Pope’s eldest son Giovanni Borgia, Second Duke of Gandia, who had been brutally murdered in 1497), Nicolaus Copernicus (1500), Leonardo da Vinci (1502-1503) and Michelangelo (1500).

Among Alexander VI’s numerous children, we shall focus especially on those who were closest to their father: Giovanni, Cesare and Lucrezia. The firstborn, Giovanni di Gandia, was murdered in 1497, one year after returning to Rome. Cesare, who in spite of being devoid of any inclination for the ecclesiastical life, had been appointed archbishop of Valencia at the age of seventeen and cardinal at eighteen, became heir and head of the Borgia family in Italy when his brother Giovanni died in 1497. Subsequently appointed captain general of the papal army and the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince, in his thirty-two years of life Cesare Borgia was the living expression of the turbulence of a period scarred by conflict and bitter struggle for the control of secular and spiritual power. Cesare’s sister Lucrezia is surrounded by a sulphurous halo. For centuries the calumnies spread by the enemies of her father Alexander VI – she was accused of double incest – have captured the popular imagination. Admired by the greatest geniuses of her day, including Bembo, Titian and Ariosto, Lucrezia symbolizes the power of Renaissance woman, with her beauty, her intelligence, her shrewd political sense, her talent and generosity as a patron, and her social awareness (in Ferrara her subjects called her “the mother of the people”). Far from being the romantic heroine that we had been led to believe, she was the true antagonist of the tragedies that framed her life.

On his father’s side the great-grandson of a Pope of Rome, and on his mother’s side the great-grandson of the King of Aragon, Francis Borgia was a protégé of Emperor Charles V, whom he served faithfully at court. The death of Empress Isabella of Portugal in 1539 marked a profound turning point for Francis and, following a brief period as viceroy of Catalonia, he devoted the rest of his life to the austere and militant practice of his faith as a member of the Society of Jesus, becoming a great benefactor and instigator of numerous educational and spiritual projects. In 1565 his religious career culminated in his being appointed the third Vicar General of the Society of Jesus. Sent by Pope Pious V on an important diplomatic mission to the royal houses of Madrid and Lisbon, his final mission took him to Blois, where he was granted a royal audience with Catherine de’ Medici. Had it been successful, it would probably have prevented the St Bartholemew’s Day massacre in August 1572. As those terrible events unfolded, Francis Borgia rested in Ferrara at the court of his uncle Ercole d’Este, the son of Lucrezia Borgia. On 30th September of that same year, Francis Borgia died in Rome. In 1624 he was beatified by Urban VII and, in 1671, just one year before the centenary of his death, he was canonized by Pope Clement X.

Except for specialist studies such as Studien zur Geschichte der Papstlichen Kapelle by Bernhard Janz, the huge number of historical and literary works devoted to the Borjas/Borgias contain very few references to their musical context. Among the few exceptions which deserve special mention because of the wealth of detail that they provide on musical practice, are Maria Bellonci’s writings on Lucrezia Borgia, Vicent Ros’s interesting study entitled La Música i els Borja, published together with an interesting selection of articles on the age of the Borgia, entitled Els Temps dels Borja, published in 1996 by Játiva City Hall and the Generalitat of Valencia, and Josep Piera’s fascinating new historical biography entitled San Francesc de Borja, sant i duc de Gandia. We would also like to draw the reader’s attention to the importance of a number of studies, some classic and others more recent, which have helped to restore the balance and offer a more objective view of the Borgias, such as those written by Fr Miquel Batllori and, more recently, Joan Francesc Mira, Óscar Villarroel González and Santiago La Parra López.

As in our previous CD-book projects, we have divided the various stages of the “Borgia Dynasty” into seven chapters, from 13th Century Muslim Valencia to the death and canonization of Francis Borgia in 1671.


Part I deals with
(CD 1) Paths to power: the origins and expansion of a dynasty. 1238 – 1492
I. The origins and rise of the Borgia family
II. The demise of the Spain of the Three Cultures and the conquest of power: the Vatican

This broad historical sweep allows us to demonstrate the musical richness surrounding the Borgias and their period through a selection of the most representative works from the Cancionero de Montecassino, Cancionero de Palacio, Cancionero del Duque de Calabria and Cancionero de Gandía. Written by the greatest Hispanic composers of the age (Johannes Cornago, Cristóbal de Morales, Lluís del Milà, Bartomeu Cárceres, Mateo Flecha and Joan Cabanilles, including the Credo from the Mass attributed to St Francis Borgia himself, as an example of a more popular musical style), as well as those written by their European contemporaries (Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Heinrich Isaac, Claude Goudimel), in many cases to mark a specific occasion, such as the celebration of a military victory, a battle or a truce, or the coronation of Pope Alexander VI, or to lament the death of outstanding figures such as Johannes Ockeghem, Lorenzo the Magnificent and Emperor Maximilian, etc. The musical programme is complemented by the recitation of a number of poetic testimonies, eulogies and critical accounts, including the terrible decree of the expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609.

The beauty and the emotion of this music brings some key moments of that convulsed and extraordinary period back to life, offering us a thrilling and, at the same time, a more objective view of the social and cultural context of the age of the Borgia Dynasty.


CD 1

Paths to power: the origins and expansion of a dynasty
ca. 1238 – 1492

I        The origins and rise of the Borgia family

1063        Muslim Valencia
    1    Mowachah Billadi Askara Min adbi Llama   

1238        Conquest of Valencia by James I
    2    Ductia (CSM 123) instr.

1378        Birth of Alfonso de Borja, the future Pope Callistus III
    3     Saltarello - Guillaume Dufay / Jordi Savall

1417        End of the Western Schism
    4    Da Pacem - Gilles Binchois

1423         Alfonso the Magnanimous’s military expeditions to Naples
    5    Deserts d’amichs, de béns e de senyor (rec.)

1431         Birth of Rodrigo de Borja
    6    Rondeau (instrumental) “Ce jour” - Guillaume Dufay / Jordi Savall

1438/42        King Alfonso V to Italy: To the conquest of Naples
    7    Strambotto-caccia: Correno multi cani - Anonymous (Montecassino Songbook)

1442        Naples, capital of the Crown of Aragon
    8    Zappay lo campo (instr.) - Anonymous (Montecassino Songbook)

1444        Alfonso de Borja is appointed cardinal
    9    Ave Maris Stella - Guillaume Dufay

1453        Fall of Constantinople
    10    Makam Muhayyer “Küme” u??le? Düyek - Acemler
        (War turkish march)

II    The demise of the Three Cultures and the conquest of power: the Vatican

1455        Alfonso de Borja is Pope Callistus III. He proclaims the Crusade against the Turks
    11    Exultet caelum cum laudibus - Anonymous (Montecassino Songbook)

1456        Callistus III revokes the sentence of the trial of 1431 condemning Joan of Arc
    12    Adoramus te - Anonymous (Montecassino Songbook)

1455-58         Ferrante I, King of Naples
    13    Viva, viva Rey Fernando - Anonymous (Montecassino Songbook)

1458        King Alfonso V dies on 27th June and Callistus III dies on 6th August
    14    Miserere nostri / Vexilla regis - Anonymous (Montecassino Songbook)

1459        Death of Ausias March
    15    La gran dolor (rec.) - Ausiàs March

1474        Birth of Cesare Borgia
    16    El cervel mi fa (instr.) - Anonymous

1478        Sixtus VI excommunicates Lorenzo “the Magnificent”
    17    Patres nostris peccaverunt - Johannes Cornago

1480        Birth of Lucrezia Borgia   
    18    De Tous biens plaine - Haine van Guizeghem / Josquin Des Prez

1489        Prince Djem, the brother and rival of Bayazid II, a hostage in the Vatican   
    19    Anonymous Ottoman - Taksim & Dance

January 1492        The end of the Kingdom of Granada
    20    Viva el Gran Rey Don Fernando - Carlo Verardi

April 1492         Death of Lorenzo de’ Medici “the Magnificent”
    21    Lamento per la morte di Lorenzo Il Magnifico - Heinrich Isaac

July 1492        The Jews are expelled from Spain   
    22    Romance: La rosa enflorece - Anonymous Sefardí

Composer Info

Johannes Cornago, Cristóbal de Morales, Lluís del Milà, Bartomeu Cárceres, Mateo Flecha, Joan Cabanilles, Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Heinrich Isaac, Claude Goudimel

CD Info