If Jeremy Irons can't redeem a character, no one can. The English actor played Pope Alexander VI on Showtime's The Borgias from 2011 to 2013. But the actor's majestic charms weren't able to save the show—or detract from the Renaissance bad boy's messy life. From his unscrupulous practices as a cleric to his alleged acts of incest, Alexander's 99 papal problems never seemed to end.
Jacopo Pesaro being presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter, painting by Titian
Alexander was born Rodrigo de Borja ("Borgia" in Italian) in 1431 near Valencia, Spain. He was the nephew of the future Pope Callixtus III. Nepotism reigned supreme in the Church at this time; the so-called "cardinal nephews" describes a series of close relatives of various popes that the Holy Fathers appointed to the cardinalate, often disregarding whether or not they were qualified. Borgia was one such; his Uncle Calixtus appointed him to higher and higher positions in the church, eventually making him vice-chancellor of the Church (basically second-in-command to the Pope). He held that position for decades, allowing him to rake in money.
Borgia seems to have really loved his sexy time. In 1460, the then-pope got angry at him after Borgia attended an orgy. While a cardinal, Borgia, like many other clerics, had a mistress: Vanozza Catanei. Despite some modern doubt about whether or not they were actually his, opinion has usually held that several of Vanozza's kids were Borgias; the surviving children included the scandalous duo of Cesare and Lucrezia, as well as two others: Giovanni (or Juan) and Gioffre.
Pope Alexander VI
A Pope as Parent: The Story of Alexander's Bad Seeds
Borgia became pope in August of 1492. Probably by bribery. Rumor has it that he sent Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, one of his chief rivals, four mules laden down with riches in exchange for giving Borgia his vote in conclave. In exchange for his vote, Sforza was named the new vice-chancellor. He appointed many of his relatives to high office: simony incarnate! Also, once in office, he took another mistress: the renowned beauty Giulia Farnese, who was actually already married to his distant cousin.
Once he occupied the Throne of St. Peter, Borgia made Cesare a cardinal and made Juan a papal soldier and a duke in his native Spain. He didn't bother to hide his kids; as contemporary chronicler Johann Burchard wrote in his diary, one night, "Cesare Borgia and Juan Borgia ... the Captain General of the guards, the favorite sons of the Pope, dined at the house of Donna Vanozza, their mother."
Cesare (left) and Lucrezia Borgia, Rodrigo's most famous children.
Cesare was the biggest problem child of the bunch. Once a cardinal, he wasn't cut out for the cloth; he eventually convinced his father, after Giovanni's death, to let him enter the secular world. Cesare, who contracted syphilis and wore a mask to conceal his sores, kept a master assassin named Michelotto on retainer, and it's rumored he also had his brother-in-law, Lucrezia's second husband, killed.
As commander-general of the papal armies, Cesare was a brutal, if effective, leader, crushing many city-states of Italy under his boot heel. It's thus no surprise that Machiavelli seemed to have modeled his ideal statesman in The Prince after Cesare. Burchard - admittedly a gossipmonger himself - claims that Cesare's ultimate goal was to make himself the king of Italy. Perhaps in that vein, Cesare wound up allying himself with the king of France; amazingly for the son of a commoner-turned-Pope, he married a member of the Navarrese royal family and was appointed Duke of Valentinois.
Possible portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, Bartolomeo Veneziano (c. 1510)
As for Lucrezia, she got some pretty bad press, too. Dubbed a poisoner and whore, she probably wasn't either of those things, but rumor had it she had sex with Cesare and her dad, which likely was false, as well. But she did have an eventful life, especially when it came to marriages her family arranged. Her first husband was a minor nobleman, Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, who was related to the powerful Sforza clan of the aforementioned vice-chancellor and the dukes of Milan; their marriage later ended, according to Burchard, after “the house of Sforza was fast losing its former prestige. Giovanni's life was threatened if he did not give up the Pope's daughter.”
Next up was Alfonso, the illegitimate son of the King of Naples; that union ended when he was murdered, perhaps by a jealous Cesare. Finally, she became a "respectable" noblewoman and patroness of the arts by marrying Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Let's not forget baby Gioffre, the youngest of the bunch: he was married to Sancia, sister of Lucrezia's second husband. She was rumored to have had affairs with multiple Borgias. Ironically, it was through Giovanni that a Borgia (his descendant, Francis) transcended even the papacy to become a saint.