Piers Compton: The Broken Cross Part 12 – The Borgia Poison

No Roman was ever able to say: ‘I dined last night with the Borgias.’
Max Beerbohm.

A disillusioned priest who, nonetheless, still says Mass daily and fulfils all the duties demanded by a parish, merely shrugged his shoulders when I mentioned the possibility of crimes being perpetrated in the Vatican today.

‘Well’, he said, ‘such things have always happened there. Why shouldn’t they still be going on?’

He was not in the least troubled by my suggestion. An enemy of Rome could not have been more casual, more resigned to the use of poison and the strangler’s cord, and the acceptance of adultery, in high places.

The two complaints of malaria and gout figure among the causes of death of quite a few Popes. But sometimes they could be contracted into a single word, poison, as in the case of Gregory V who reigned from 996 to 999. The same could be said regarding the death of Damasus II who, after being elected on July 17, 1048, lived for only three weeks.

Celestine II, a one-time disciple of Abelard, was made Pope on September 26, 1143, and died in the second week of the following March. There were those about him who more than suspected poison. In June 1517 the Medici Pope Leo X narrowly escaped a plot led by Cardinal Petrucci, and four other Princes of the Church, to poison him. Leo XI died on April 27, 1605, after a reign of only twenty-seven days. His death, according to official biographers, was caused by a sudden chill aggravated by the cares of office. But there were those on hand who had seen him droop over a poison cup.

Between those two short-lived pontificates, the Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Church, Rodrigo de Borgia, who was to stamp the period and his family with an infamy that was rare at any time, took his seat on the Papal throne in 1492 as Alexander VI.

As well as several secondary ones, he had already taken as his principal mistress a married Roman lady, Vanozza de Cataneis, who presented him with three sons and a daughter, all of whom lived under their father’s wing as favoured members of the Court; and from the first, apart from the gestures and protestations that were inescapable parts of his office, the mainspring of Alexander’s life became the advancement and political security of his family.

The oldest son, Juan, Duke of Gandia, rivalled his father in the number of illicit relationships in which he figured. His brother, Caesar, not a whit behind him in this, was to add his own distinctive brand of crime to the Borgia annals. When he was only seventeen Alexander created him Cardinal, though Caesar was never more than a sub-deacon, certainly not a priest. His papa was equally obliging when Caesar, although a Prince of the Church (he soon dropped the sham), wanted to marry. The necessary dispensation was soon forthcoming.

The youngest of Alexander’s sons, Jofre, married an illegitimate daughter of Alonso II of Naples. Then came Lucrezia who, because of her sex and the manifestly pious strain she exhibited in such surroundings, has been badly treated by novelists and historians of the Hollywood type. She was, according to the time, sufficiently ungirlish to deal with her father’s official correspondence when he was out of Rome, and we know nothing definite to her discredit.

Her first marriage, to a prince of the Sforza house, was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Her second was to another of the illegitimate brood produced by the Neapolitan king, while her third was to Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara.

Lucrezia died young, but not before she had passed through the strange experience of knowing that her second husband had been strangled by her brother Caesar. But that was not the highlight of Caesar’s career, for he also dealt, in similar fashion, with his own brother Juan. He then turned his attention to Cardinals, those with money, and used his ready hands, or the always convenient poison, to account for several, including Cardinal Michele, who was a nephew of Pope Paul II, and Cardinal Orsini.

But that by no means depleted the College of Cardinals, for apart from Caesar four other members of the Borgia clan sported the red hat. Alexander turned a blind eye on Caesar’s exploits, though he was genuinely grieved by the loss of his first-born, Juan.

During this time the Devil made his presence felt, sometimes visibly, in Rome, and the populace had no doubt but that the dregs of wickedness were being stirred by doings at the Vatican. For instance, a ballet was performed there on the Eve of All Saints, 1501, at which every one of the fifty dancers was a whore picked from the streets of Rome.

One of those who came to decide that the Borgias had been in the saddle all too long was Cardinal Castellisi of Corneto. So he invited father and son to a banquet, and prepared a dose of his own mixing that was guaranteed to rid Rome of them both.

They accepted the invitation, but it so happened that Alexander had made up his mind that Castellisi was a nuisance, and he came provided with some wine that had proved so efficacious in the past.

Those were not the days of mixed drinks, but the wines were somehow mixed up as they sat at table, with the result that Alexander and Caesar got a draught of their own preparation. Amid their groaning and twisting the party hurriedly broke up. Caesar recovered, but Alexander died, duly fortified by the Sacraments of the Church.

Cause of death – malaria.

His Eminence of Corneto probably enjoyed a quiet laugh. Caesar made some amends for his evil life by dying in battle. Lucrezia was caricatured in a novel by Victor Hugo, and her name was given to the title role in an opera by Donizetti. An apologist for Alexander could say no more than that during his reign Greenland accepted the Gospel.
2.

According to a recipe that was handed down and came into the hands of Garelli, who was physician to the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740), the Borgias obtained their poison by first killing a pig, sprinkling its abdominal organs with arsenious acid, and waiting until putrefaction set in. This contaminated matter, when introduced into liquids, became an active, deadly, and, in the majority of cases, almost instantaneous poison.

Great precautions were taken at the Court of Alexander VI to prevent this being written down; and some of the other methods employed to administer the poison were nothing short of ingenious. A person cutting fruit could die through touching the edge of a knife that had been brushed by the preparation; while the effect of turning a key to open a door or a box might cause a minute graze of the skin through which a fatal drop imperceptibly entered the bloodstream.

Other toxicologists affirm that there was another Borgia poison, a complex mixture consisting of a gritty and whitish powder that resembled sugar. It was known as canterella or cantoreli.

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