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Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Pope and the Friar

One of the best gifts I’ve received from my husband is a Kindle, that amazing contraption that allows you to pretty much bring a whole library with you wherever you go. This is a real blessing for “nomadic” people like us, if only because it limits the number of boxes that need to be packed and shipped homeward or onward. Even before coming to Rome, I already had a lot of books in my kindle that were written about Rome or were set in Rome. The last e-book I downloaded was The Borgias by Alexander Dumas (yes, the author of Three Musketeers).  The Borgias have always fascinated me, the notoriety, the arrogance and the belief that the world was theirs for the taking, gave this highly amoral family a reputation that piqued my curiosity.

I downloaded this book after we returned from a long weekend in Florence where the 15th century conflict that Dumas wrote about, between then Pope Alexander VI Borgia and Savonarola, a Dominican friar was dramatically played out in full public view ending in the execution by fire of Savonarola, condemned for heresy. A small plaque marks the exact spot in the Piazza Signoria (Florence’s most elegant Piazza) where the execution took place.

hardly noticed by people walking all over it

Pope Alexander was born Roderic Lancol i Borja in Jan. 1, 1431. He was born in Xativa, Valencia, which at that time was part of Aragon in present day Spain. He adopted his mother’s family name after his uncle; Alonso de Borja was elected pope and became known as Calixtus III. Roderico studied Law in Bologna, but with the ascent of his uncle to the papacy, he was ordained deacon and made Cardinal Deacon at the age of twenty five. Nepotistic appointments saw him ordained a priest in 1468, consecrated a bishop in 1471 and appointed Cardinal as the Bishop of Albano.

from wikipedia

On the death of Pope Innocent VIII, Borja was one of three candidates for the papacy and eventually secured it by engaging in widespread simony. It was rumored that cartloads of gold and precious objects were seen being driven to some cardinal's palaces prior to the election.

When he was elected pope he already had children with his long time mistress; Vanozza dei Catani. He not only acknowledged them but was inordinately fond of them and used the resources of the papacy to advance and enrich all of them. They were Giovanni, made Duke of Gandia (reportedly murdered by Cesare), Cesare, Machiavelli’s Prince, the most infamous of his children and the strong arm and ruthless implementer of Alexander's political machinations, Lucrezia, whom he married off three times using her to secure alliances and who as the Duchess of Farrarra became known for her patronage of the arts as well as her piety. He reputedly had other children, but the parentage of these is uncertain. When he was elected pope, his ardor for Vanozza had waned and he had taken on a new mistress, Guilia Farnese who lived with his daughter, Lucrezia in one of the papal households. Alexander ruled like a secular prince of the time, notwithstanding his position as head of the Catholic Church.

from Wikipedia

On the other hand, Giralamo Francesco Savonarola was of noble birth, his family being one of the more illustrious families in Padua. He was born in Ferrara but at the age of twenty three fled from his father’s home and took the vows in the cloisters of the Dominican monks. The Dominicans, one of two mendicant orders at the time (the other being the Franciscans), were founded primarily to teach the gospel and combat heresy and were called Friar Preachers. The members were encouraged to develop “mixed” spirituality, being active in both preaching and contemplative study, prayer and meditation. Members of this order were urbane and learned men and Savonarola was to become one of its more passionate members. He became very influential and well respected in Florence early in his ministry and was reputedly feared even by the great Lorenzo D’Medici.

Florence at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent was at the height of its economic and political power. Political and economic wealth led to the pursuit of, and appreciation of more secular concerns. Art and literature flourished and interest in the pursuit of beauty and worldly pleasures did not appear incongruous with the ascetic requirements of Christian doctrine. Into this environment came Savonarola in 1489. Everything going on in Florence (and in Rome) was in complete disagreement with Savonarola’s concept of spirituality and morality.

Savonarola, was a demagogue par excellance, and his sermons started to take effect, leading up to the point where he was beginning to acquire political power. He and his followers with the participation of some of the leading  citizens held Bonfires of the Vanities, where books, immoral art, mirrors, and other material considered decadent were burned in the Piazza della Signoria.

Savonarola preached vehemently against the moral corruption of the clergy at the time, inevitably bringing him into direct conflict with Pope Alexander. Savonarola's fanaticism inevitably led to a defection of many of his followers and in 1497 he was excommunicated by Pope Alexander and then arrested and charged with heresy, sedition and other offences. Under torture, he confessed (but recanted these confessions) to the "crimes" and was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake in 1498 at the exact same spot where he used to conduct his Bonfires of the Vanities. It was said that his ashes were then thrown into the River Arno.

Piazza della Signoria where Savonarola was burned at the stake
  As for Pope Alexander, after an 11 year reign characterized by corruption, family aggrandizement, selling of church positions and rumors of poisoning and murder carried on by his son Casare with or without his knowledge, he passed away from either malaria or unintentional poisoning (by Cesare) on Aug. 18, 1503. Stories abound that the state of corruption of the body was so bad, leading to speculation that he was poisoned. But it was more likely malaria that killed him as it was prevalent in Rome at the time. As for the state of corruption of the body, this may be attributed to the delay of burial until after the election of a successor at the height of the sweltering heat of the Roman summer. At the time of his death, Alexnder VI was so unpopular that the priests of St. Peter's refused to accept the body until ordered to by the papal staff. It is said that only four prelates attended his funeral and his successor Pius III forbade the saying of prayers for him. His remains were removed from St. Peters and interred in the Church of Sta. Maria in Monserrato, the Spanish national church in Rome.

Borgia's Tomb

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