Blood & Beauty The Borgias - By Sarah Dunant


By the late fifteenth century, the map of Europe would show areas broadly recognisable to a modern eye. France, England, Scotland, Spain and Portugal were on their way to becoming geographical and political entities, run by inherited monarchies. In contrast, Italy was still a set of city-states, making the country vulnerable to invasion from outside. With the exception of the republic of Venice, most of these states were in the hands of family dynasties: in Milan the House of Sforza, in Florence the Medici, in Ferrara the Este and in Naples and the south the Spanish House of Aragon.

In the middle of all of this sat Rome, a bearpit of various established families jockeying for position, but also, more importantly, the seat of the papacy. While the Pope’s earthly territories were modest – and often leased out to papal vicars – his influence was immense. As head of the Church, the man himself, usually Italian, controlled a vast web of patronage throughout Europe; and as God’s representative on earth, he could and did wield spiritual power for strategic and political ends. With Catholicism reigning supreme and corruption in the Church endemic, it was not uncommon to find popes amassing wealth for themselves and favouring the careers and well-being of those in their family. In some cases, even their own illegitimate children.

Such was the situation in the summer of 1492, when the death of Innocent VIII left the papal throne in Rome empty, ready for its new incumbent.


We Have a Pope

He is the age when Aristotle says men are wisest: robust in body, vigorous in mind, perfectly equipped for his new position.



August 11 , 1492

Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath. In the piazza below, the soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace have fallen asleep. But they wake fast enough as the voice rings out:


Inside, the air is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death. For five days, twenty-three men have been incarcerated within a great Vatican chapel that feels more like a barracks. Each is a figure of status and wealth, accustomed to eating off silver plate with a dozen servants to answer his every call. Yet here there are no scribes to write letters and no cooks to prepare banquets. Here, with only a single manservant to dress them, these men eat frugal meals posted through a wooden hatch that snaps shut when the last one is delivered. Daylight slides in from small windows high up in the structure, while at night a host of candles flicker under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a painted sky and stars, as vast, it seems, as the firmament. They live constantly in each other’s company, allowed out only for the formal business of voting or to relieve themselves, and even in the latrines the work continues: negotiation and persuasion over the trickle of ageing men’s urine. Finally, when they are too tired to talk, or need to ask guidance from God, they are free to retire to their cells: a set of makeshift compartments constructed around the edges of the chapel and comprised of a chair, a table and a raised pallet for sleeping; the austerity a reminder, no doubt, of the tribulations of aspiring saints.

Except these days saints are in short supply, particularly inside the Roman conclave of cardinals.

The doors had been bolted on the morning of August 6. Ten days earlier, after years of chronic infirmity, Pope Innocent VIII had finally given in to the exhaustion of trying to stay alive. Inside their rooms in the Vatican palace, his son and daughter had waited patiently to be called to his bedside, but his final moments had been reserved for spatting cardinals and doctors. His body was still warm when the stories started wafting like sewer smells through the streets. The wolf pack of ambassadors and diplomats took in great lungfuls, then dispatched their own versions of events in the saddlebags of fast horses across the land: stories of how His Holiness’s corpse lay shrivelled, despite an empty flagon of blood drained from the veins of Roman street boys on the orders of a Jewish doctor, who had vowed it would save his life; how those same bloodless boys were already feeding the