Despite his eventual recovery, the sickness that struck Cesare Borgia on that fateful August 12 was to destroy his life. The disappearance of Alexander from the scene created a vacuum which brought chaos in its train; several cities rose in open revolt. A French army under Francesco Gonzaga had already reached Viterbo, only forty miles from Rome; meanwhile, a Spanish army under its brilliant young general Gonsalvo de Córdoba was hurrying northward from Naples. In normal times Cesare might have been able to deal with the situation; but now, desperately ill in the Vatican, he was powerless to take the swift military action necessary to save his career. Political action was his only hope; and that meant ensuring from his father’s successor the support he needed. He managed to secure some 100,000 ducats from his family’s private treasury, and with this, from his sickbed, he hoped to bribe the coming conclave. At all costs he must prevent the election of his most dangerous enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, who had been living in exile in France during the greater part of Alexander’s pontificate. The surest way of achieving this was, he knew, to block the cardinal’s return to Rome.
He failed. Della Rovere arrived unscathed, together with Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, Louis XII’s chief counselor, who was as ambitious for the tiara as he was. A third determined candidate was Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who had broken with Alexander over his pro-French policies; now released from prison by d’Amboise in order to cast his vote for the Frenchman, he found himself unexpectedly popular and began lobbying on his own account. In fact, d’Amboise was soon effectively eliminated: a French pope at such a moment seemed almost as bad an idea as another Spanish one, particularly after della Rovere had spread the word that it would mean the second removal of the Papacy to France. The struggle seemed to be between della Rovere and Sforza; neither, however, could accumulate the votes necessary to carry the day, and the choice of the cardinals finally fell on a compromise candidate, Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena, who took the name of Pius III as a tribute to his uncle Pius II. He was already sixty-four but looked and acted a good deal older and was crippled by gout. There was a general feeling that he would not last long.
In fact, he lasted twenty-six days, one of the shortest pontificates in history. He had been a fine, upstanding churchman of unquestioned integrity and had been the only cardinal brave enough to protest when Alexander had transferred papal territories to his son the Duke of Gandia. There were strong indications that, had he lived, he would have summoned a General Council and driven through the reforms that were so desperately needed. With his death on October 18, 1503, the opportunity was lost—and it was the Church that paid the price.
One of the shortest pontificates was followed by the shortest conclave. It lasted for a few hours on November 1. Giuliano della Rovere had done his work well and had spread his money astutely; he had even managed to secure the vote of Ascanio Sforza, the only other serious potential contender. And it was plain to all that he was born to command. In the words of the Venetian envoy:
No one has any influence over him, and he consults few or none. It is almost impossible to describe how strong and violent and difficult he is to manage. In body and soul, he has the nature of a giant. Everything about him is on a magnified scale, both his undertakings and his passions. He inspires fear rather than hatred, for there is nothing in him that is small or meanly selfish.
It might have been thought that the election of this terrifying figure as Pope Julius II—he had scarcely bothered to change his name—would spell the end for Cesare Borgia. It did not. Just two weeks before, the Orsini had stormed Cesare’s palace in the Borgo, and he, by now fully restored to health, had taken refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo. He was still there when messengers arrived from della Rovere assuring him of his protection in the event of their master’s being elected. Accordingly, the moment he heard of the election, Cesare had returned to his old quarters in the Vatican. But, as he well knew, he was there only on sufferance. It was in Julius’s interest to string him along, simply because his power base was the Romagna, where Venice was helping herself to more and more cities; Julius for the moment had no army and consequently needed Cesare’s. When he had no more use for the Duke of Valentinois, he would unquestionably ditch him.
As of course he did. Cesare Borgia still retained much of his old fire, but without his father’s protection and support the days of power and glory were gone and he fades out of our story. Exiled to Spain in 1504, he died in 1507, fighting for his brother-in-law King John of Navarre at the siege of Viana. He was thirty-one years old.
There is a story that when Michelangelo was working on his fourteen-foot bronze statue of Pope Julius II and suggested putting a book in the pope’s left hand, Julius replied, “Nay, give me a sword, for I am no scholar!” He spoke no more than the truth; he was indeed a soldier, through and through. Not since Leo IX—at Civitate in 1053—had a pope led his army personally in battle; Julius did so on several occasions, notably when, in January 1511, aged sixty-eight and wearing full armor, he personally trudged with his army through deep snowdrifts to capture Mirandola from the French. His world, like that of his enemy Alexander VI, was exclusively temporal; for the spiritual he had no time or inclination, and to establish the Papacy firmly as a temporal power was the primary task to which he devoted his pontificate. This involved, inevitably, a good deal of fighting. Already by the autumn of 1504 he had succeeded in bringing both France and the empire into an alliance against Venice—another instance of foreign armies being invited into Italy to settle what were essentially domestic differences—and in April 1506, immediately after laying the cornerstone of the new St. Peter’s, he led his entire Curia on an expedition to regain Perugia and Bologna from the local families who saw themselves as independent despots and ruled accordingly. The Baglioni in Perugia surrendered—one suspects rather to the pope’s disappointment—without a fight; the Bentivoglio in Bologna put up rather more resistance, but eventually the paterfamilias, Giovanni—who had ruled there for over forty years—fled to France and the pope made his triumphal entry into the city.
Venice, however, remained his archenemy. Five years before, he had been her most trusted friend in the whole of the Sacred College; but she had recently seized several cities in the Romagna that had previously fallen to Cesare Borgia. Those cities, which had traditionally belonged to the Holy See, she had refused to surrender; so now Julius was determined on her destruction. Italy, as he saw it, was divided into three. In the North was French Milan, in the South Spanish Naples. Between the two there was room for one—but only one—powerful and prosperous state; and that state, Julius was determined, must be the Papacy. A new stream of emissaries was dispatched from Rome—to France and Spain, to the Emperor Maximilian, to Milan, Hungary, and the Netherlands. All bore the same proposal, for a joint expedition by Western Christendom against the Venetian Republic and the consequent dismemberment of its empire.
The states of Europe could not be expected to feel much sympathy for such a policy. Their motive for joining the proposed league was neither to support the Papacy nor to destroy Venice but to help themselves. However much they might try to present their action as a blow struck for righteousness against iniquity, they knew perfectly well that their own conduct was more blameworthy than ever Venice’s had been. But the temptation was too great, and the territories promised them were irresistible. They accepted. So it was that what appeared to be the death warrant of the Venetian Empire was signed at Cambrai on December 10, 1508, by Margaret of Austria on behalf of her father, Maximilian, and by Cardinal d’Amboise for the King of France. Julius himself, though his legate was present at Cambrai, did not formally join the League until the following spring; he seems to have been uncertain whether the other signatories were in earnest. But when in March 1509 King Ferdinand II of Aragon announced his formal adherence, he hesitated no longer. On April 5 he openly associated himself with the rest and placed Venice under an interdict, and on the fifteenth the first French soldiers marched into Venetian territory. A month later, on May 14, the French met the Venetians just outside the village of Agnadello. For Venice, it was catastrophe. Her casualties were about 4,000, and her entire mainland empire was as good as lost. Before the end of the month the pope’s official legate received back the fateful lands in the Romagna with which the whole tragedy had begun.
But very soon the pendulum began to swing. Less than two months after Agnadello came the first reports of spontaneous uprisings on the mainland in favor of Venice, and on July 17, after just forty-two days as an imperial city, Padua returned beneath the sheltering wing of the Lion of St. Mark. There had as yet been no sign of Maximilian in Italy, but the news of Padua’s defection brought him down from Trento with an army. His siege began on September 15, and for a fortnight the German and French heavy artillery pounded away at the walls, reducing them to rubble; yet somehow every assault was beaten back. On the thirtieth the emperor gave up.
When Pope Julius was told of the reconquest of Padua, he flew into a towering rage, and when, after Maximilian’s failure to recover it, he heard that Verona too was likely to declare for Venice, he is said to have hurled his cap to the ground and blasphemed St. Peter. His hatred of Venice was as vindictive as ever, and although he had agreed to accept a six-man Venetian embassy in Rome, it was soon clear that he had done so only in order to inflict still more humilation on the republic. On their arrival in early July, the envoys had been forbidden, as excommunicates, to enter the city until after dark, to lodge in the same house, and even to go out together on official business. One only was granted an audience, which rapidly deteriorated into a furious diatribe by Julius himself. Not, he maintained, until the provisions of the League of Cambrai had been carried out to the letter and the Venetians had knelt before him with halters around their necks would he consider giving them absolution.
At first Venice rejected the pope’s terms outright; she even appealed to the Turkish sultan for support, requesting as many troops as he could spare and a loan of not less than 100,000 ducats. But the sultan remained silent, and by the end of the year the Venetians saw that they must capitulate. And so, on February 24, 1510, Pope Julius II took his seat on a specially constructed throne outside the central doors of St. Peter’s, twelve of his cardinals around him. The five Venetian envoys, dressed in scarlet—the sixth had died a few days before—advanced toward him and kissed his foot, then knelt on the steps while their spokesman made a formal request on behalf of the republic for absolution and the Bishop of Ancona read out the full text of the agreement. This must have made painful listening for the envoys—not least because it lasted for a full hour, during which time they were forced to remain on their knees. Rising with difficulty, they received twelve scourging rods from the twelve cardinals—the actual scourging was mercifully omitted—swore to observe the terms of the agreement, kissed the pope’s feet again, and were at last granted absolution. Only then were the doors of the basilica opened, and the assembled company proceeded in state for prayers at the high altar before going on to Mass in the Sistine Chapel—all except the pope, who, as one of the Venetians explained in his report, “never attended these long services.”
The pendulum, it seemed, was swinging again. The news of the pope’s reconciliation with Venice had not been well received by his fellow members of the League; at the absolution ceremony the French, imperial, and Spanish ambassadors to the Holy See, all of whom were in Rome at the time, were conspicuous by their absence. Although Julius made no effort to dissociate himself formally from the alliance, he was soon afterward heard to boast that by granting Venice absolution he had plunged a dagger into the heart of the King of France—proof enough that he now saw the French, rather than the Venetians, as the principal obstacle to his Italian policy and that he had effectively changed sides. By the high summer of 1510 his volte-face was complete, his new dispositions made. His scores with Venice had been settled; now it was the turn of France.
By all objective standards, Pope Julius’s action was contemptible. Having encouraged the French to take up arms against Venice, he now refused to allow them the rewards which he himself had promised, turning against them with all the violence and venom that he had previously displayed toward the Venetians. He also opened new negotiations with the emperor in an attempt to turn him, too, against his former ally. His claim, regularly resurrected in his defense by later apologists, that his ultimate objective was to free Italy from foreign invaders, would have been more convincing if he had not invited those particular invaders in in the first place.
There was, in any case, another motive for the pope’s sudden change of policy. Having for the first time properly consolidated the Papal States, he was now bent on increasing them by the annexation of the Duchy of Ferrara. Duke Alfonso II, during the past year, had become little more than an agent of the French king; his saltworks at Comaccio were in direct competition with the papal ones at Cervia; finally, as husband of Lucrezia Borgia, he was the son-in-law of Alexander VI—a fact which, in the pope’s eyes, was alone more than enough to condemn him. In a bull circulated throughout Christendom, couched in language that St. Peter Martyr said made his hair stand on end, the luckless duke was anathematized and excommunicated.
In the early autumn of 1510 Pope Julius had high hopes for the future. A joint papal and Venetian force had effortlessly taken Modena in mid-August, and although Ferrara was strongly fortified there was good reason to believe that it would not be able to withstand a well-conducted siege. The pope, determined to be in at the kill, traveled north by easy stages and reached Bologna in late September. The Bolognesi gave him a frosty welcome. Since the expulsion of the Bentivoglio in 1506 they had been shamefully misgoverned and exploited by papal representatives and were on the verge of open revolt. The governor, Cardinal Francesco Alidosi, had already once been summoned to Rome to answer charges of peculation and had been acquitted only after the intervention of the pope himself, whose continued fondness for a man so patently corrupt could be explained, it was darkly whispered in Rome, only in homosexual terms. But the tension inside the city was soon overshadowed by a yet graver anxiety. Early in October a French army under the Seigneur de Chaumont and Viceroy of Milan marched south from Lombardy and advanced at full speed on Bologna. By the eighteenth it was three miles from the gates.
Pope Julius, confined to bed with a high fever in a fundamentally hostile city and knowing that he had less than a thousand of his own men on whom he could rely, gave himself up for lost. “O, che ruina è la nostra!” he is reported to have groaned. His promises to the Bolognesi that they would be exempted from taxation in return for firm support were received without enthusiasm, and he had already opened peace negotiations with the French when, at the eleventh hour, reinforcements arrived from two quarters simultaneously—a Venetian force of light cavalry and a contingent from Naples, sent by King Ferdinand as a tribute after his recent papal recognition. The pope’s courage flooded back at once. There was no more talk of a negotiated peace. Chaumont, who seems to have felt some last-minute qualms about laying hands on the papal person, was persuaded to withdraw, a decision which did not prevent Julius from hurling excommunications after him as he rode away.
It is hard not to feel a little sorry for the Seigneur de Chaumont. He was dogged by ill luck. Again and again we find him on the point of a major victory, only to have it plucked from his grasp. Often, too, there is about him more than a touch of the ridiculous. When Julius was besieging Mirandola, Chaumont’s relief expedition was twice delayed: the first time when he was hit on the nose by an accurately aimed snowball which happened to have a stone lodged in it, and then again on the following day when he fell off his horse into a river and was nearly drowned by the weight of his armor. He was three days recovering, only sixteen miles from the beleaguered castle; as a result, Mirandola fell. A month later, his attempt to regain Modena failed hopelessly, and on February 11, 1511, aged thirty-eight, he died of a sudden sickness which he—though no one else—ascribed to poison, just seven hours before the arrival of a papal letter lifting his sentence of excommunication.
But by this time the Duke of Ferrara, on whom the ban of the Church weighed rather less heavily, had scored a brilliant victory over a papal army which was advancing toward his city along the lower reaches of the Po, and Julius was once again on the defensive. In mid-May Chaumont’s successor, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, led a second march on Bologna, and on his approach the inhabitants, seeing their chance of ridding themselves once and for all of the detested Cardinal Alidosi, rose in rebellion. The cardinal panicked and fled for his life without even troubling to warn either the Duke of Urbino, who was encamped with the papal troops in the western approaches, or the Venetians, a mile or two away to the south; and on May 23 Trivulzio entered Bologna at the head of his army and restored the Bentivoglio to their old authority.
Cardinal Alidosi, who in default of other virtues seems at least to have possessed a decent sense of shame, barricaded himself in his hometown, Castel del Rio, to escape the papal wrath, but he need not have bothered. Julius, who had prudently retired a few days earlier to Ravenna, bore him no grudge. Even now, in his eyes, his beloved friend could do no wrong: he unhesitatingly laid the entire blame for the disaster on the Duke of Urbino, whom he summoned at once to his presence. The interview that followed is unlikely to have diminished the duke’s long-standing contempt for Alidosi, for whose cowardice he was now being made the scapegoat. When, therefore, on emerging into the street he found himself face to face with his old enemy, who had just reached Ravenna to give the pope his own version of recent events, his pent-up anger became too much for him. Dragging the cardinal from his mule, he attacked him with his sword; Alidosi’s retinue, believing that he might be acting under papal orders, hesitated to intervene and moved forward only when the duke remounted his horse and rode off to Urbino, leaving their master dead in the dust.
The grief of Pope Julius at the murder of his favorite was, we read, terrible to behold. Weeping uncontrollably and waving aside all sustenance, he refused to stay any longer in Ravenna and had himself carried off at once to Rimini in a closed litter, through whose drawn curtains his sobs could be plainly heard. But there were more blows in store. Mirandola, for whose capture he had always felt himself personally responsible, was within a week or two to be lost to Trivulzio. The papal army, confused, demoralized, and now without a general, had disintegrated. With the recapture of Bologna, the way was open to the French to seize all the Church lands in the Romagna for which he had fought so hard and so long. All the work of the last eight years had gone for nothing. And now, at Rimini, the pope found a proclamation nailed to the door of the cathedral, signed by no fewer than nine of his own cardinals with the support of Maximilian and Louis of France, announcing that a General Council of the Church would be held at Pisa on September 1 to investigate and reform the abuses of his pontificate.